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by Rod Clark

Every year when trees turn red and golden, I contemplate a visit to the Land of the Dead, Wisconsin’s most under-appreciated theme park. At this writing, a day or two before All Hallows Eve in late October, I am sitting in my yard, sipping Oktoberfest beer, and thinking of people I have lost and would like to see again. The harvest is not all grim though. A late Indian summer has enchanted the land, evoking strange fantasies. The air is soft as velvet, and the fantastic old maple arches its bright lemon foliage over the garage like a ripe fruit ready to fall. Suddenly I am deep in what Bradbury called “October Country,” a place where sumac blazes scarlet at the foot of orange hills. Winter lurks just beyond those hills—reminding us that all things end; but here and now at the bright rim of things is a place where present, past, and future flow into a single stream, and spirits mingle, forgetting or not caring whether they are alive or dead. It is time, I tell myself, to be a tourist once again. I pour a little Oktoberfest on the ground, in an ancient Wisconsin ritual. One for the dead. The Land of the Dead is not as well known as many other Wisconsin tourist destinations. Much less famous for example, than the House on the Rock near Spring Green, or the Jellystone Park up near Fremont. The LOTD is a bit off the beaten track, and difficult to locate, unless you are dying to get there. You have to feel as much as find your way. Just take W52 north to P29, skirt the Dells, and head out into that dark alphabet of country roads east of Mortville. Then (and this is the tricky part), look for the turnoff to Sumac County Px29B.The turnoff is easy to miss, elbowing back to the left, about halfway between Bratworld—that’s braht as in “bratwurst”—and the International Horseradish Museum, following the Stick River as it winds its way among the glacial hills like a snake of muddy silver. (If you reach the crossroads at Hootville, where that guy built a palace out of stucco and bottle caps at the edge of the woods, you have gone too far. Turn back and try again!) Once you have made the turn, the rest of the journey has a certain inevitability, like an eight ball bobbling gently in a pocket about to sweetly descend. As I navigate the curves along the Stick River in the old truck, it occurs to me that while the world has many fine landscapes, few are prettier than this. Rounding the final bend, I see the huge sandy spit where the Land of the Dead rises above the river like the towers and tents of an ancient carnival. The day darkens a little as I park at the edge of the lot and walk across the gravel toward the gloomy little gift shop where the tickets are normally sold. There are little tombstones of polished granite and tiny silver shovels you can use as cheese knives displayed in the window along with other cheery trinkets, but the place has a dark and dusty look that gives me creeps. Just as I am thinking of turning back, the sun creeps from beneath a cloud, and I hear the cheerful barking of dogs down by the river.


I wander back across the lot and descend the bank. A tall blond man with his back to me is throwing sticks out into the river, and the dogs are joyfully plunging in and swimming out to retrieve them. All but one small and sturdy specimen, a genetically challenged black lab and Bassett mix with short legs, who races back and forth along the edge of the water, barking furious encouragement. Something catches in my throat. Only one dog in the world ever moved like that, like a small black torpedo through the woods and fields: the amazing Morley Underfoot, whom Melanie and I put to rest just weeks ago at the age of almost seventeen. Ancient and stiff no more! I watch in amazement as he makes one of his legendary leaps, snatching a stick right out of the air on its way to the river. I call his name and he runs to me, planting his paws on my stomach, stick still in his mouth, stub of tail wagging furiously, ears in happy mode, eyes of amber, nose soft as black velvet. He was never much of a water dog, but on grass, leaves or snow, he had no peer. Hell, I think—the trip is worth it just for this! After saying hello, he dashes off again, certain I suppose, that time is nothing now, that I will always be there to come to. Other furry friends dash up to greet me. Nana, Mel’s German shepherd, who has been gone since ’93, is the unquestioned queen of sticks. She is always first to reach the wood in the water and no one challenges the possession. Almost knocking me over at first, she makes a little circle of joy in front of me and shakes vigorously, showering me with doggy wetness. She crouches playfully and dances in a little circle again. “Where is Melanie?” She seems to ask. Before I can answer, she hears a branch splash in the water and races back to plunge once more into the river of sticks. And there are still more: the copper-colored cocker spaniel named Snicker from my childhood in Shorewood Hills who always came to me when I was crying, comes up and licks at my shoe. Morley’s friend Gatsby greets me like an old friend, and Michael and Linda’s dog Holly, gone some years now, races to my feet, and lowers her head guiltily between her paws. And here is my twin brother Steve’s wonderful black Labrador, Jazmine, who—Steve??!! He walks toward me with a stick still in his hand and the sun behind him, making a halo for an instant of his hair. Tall, sturdy, apple-cheeked. Wearing jeans, boots, a heavy shirt of red corduroy. He hugs me like a grizzly and ruffles my hair. “Ho! Ho!” He says. “Put on a bit a weight, I see! Still driving that piece of junk? When are you going to get a real vehicle? Still married to that girl I found for ya?” I cannot slip into the banter easily. In fact I can barely speak. There is too much to say; love to tell, arguments to finish, words crowding my throat. It has been more than eight years since a sudden illness carried him away, and I still reach for the phone at least once a week to ask him how to repair something, tell him about a science fiction book I have just read, or just to hear a voice that sounds more like mine than anyone else’s. Steve whistles to Jazmine, and beckons me imperiously. We climb into an aluminum boat at the edge of the river, and the dog leaps after us. I hear faint shouting behind me. A roly-poly gentleman with thinning hair and glasses has dashed out of the gift shop and is waving his arms at us in frustration.