Since before I can remember, and even before that, our family has visited Pembine, Wisconsin to visit relatives on my mom's side of the family. They are a fun, down-to-earth, rowdy bunch of folks, and usually a good time is had by all. Pembine is a "don't blink or you'll miss the town" place north of Green Bay on Highway 141, almost to Iron Mountain, Michigan. Three families (my mom's mom's mom's siblings, if you can follow that) moved to northeastern Wisconsin in the 1930s and 1940s when times were hard everywhere. Some of them went to Minnesota as well, but three siblings moved to the Pembine-Dunbar-Beecher Wisconsin area.
Since I was a little girl, I've always wanted to walk from highway 141 out the long and twisty road to my cousin's home. I didn't act on it until 2003 when I traveled to Wisconsin with my parents. We stayed at a motel that sits at the corner of Highways US 8 and US 141, and the first morning I started out bright and early for my long walk to their house. I guess it's about 6 miles or so. It was a crappy morning, not sunny, not warm, spitting rain. I had walked almost half way when my parents drove up on their way there. It was yucky out so I jumped in the back seat and decided I'd try again the next morning.
The next morning I got up even earlier and started on my way. I had taken along my dad's red hooded sweatshirt since it was a little chilly in the morning, and I jokingly called it my bear-attracting sweatshirt. So I was on my way out Cemetery Road on a bright and sunshiny day, and even had to tie the sweatshirt around my waist because I was a little too warm. I was over half way when Mom and Dad drove by me, and I said I was going to do it that day but did toss my sweatshirt in their back seat. I just knew I would make my goal that day!
I was between 2/3 and 3/4 of the way there, and had been looking down on the side of the road for interesting rocks to take home to the girls when I heard some rustling in front of me. I looked up and there, about 50 yards in front of me walked a black bear, from one side of the road into the timber on the other side. It wasn't a small bear, not a cub or anything, but a full-grown adult. It was a black bear, but to me it looked as big as a grizzly.
I wasn't sure what to do. I was afraid that maybe it was a mama bear and her cubs were on the side of the road she had just come from, and I knew you didn't get between a mama bear and her cubs. So I stood there. Panicking, not knowing what to do.
Well I decided the first thing I'd do is say every swear word I know (later I said it was because I wasn't sure if I'd ever get the chance to say them again) and that didn't help. (at this point in the telling of the story, my brother Tom says that me saying every swear word I know took about 20 minutes) That was plan A.
Plan B then went into action. I tried calling up to my cousin's house, but I was standing in an area with very tall trees, so I didn't get very good reception. I could hear them, but they could not hear me.
Well, (expletive)! What now? If I only had a ride! Well despite having just taken the Lord's name in vain several time (and in three languages), the Almighty answered my prayers in the form of a very, very small car with a boat strapped to the top and four fishermen inside. I flagged them down (I'm sure I looked like a crazy woman, and I don't think they would have stopped had I not jumped out in front of them, and they probably thought I'd dent their car too much) and they stopped and rolled down the window. I told them that I was only going a little farther down the road to my cousin's but there was a bear up ahead and I didn't want to cross her path.
They kindly opened the back door for me (or maybe they didn't? maybe I just opened the door and got in, I'm not sure. there was a bear involved in this!) and I got in. There were four guys, all in their late 20s or early 30s. Fishing poles were inside the little car from the back of the hatch up through to the windshield. Needless to say the poor sap who had to move over for me and sit in the middle had his neck all twisted because of said fishing poles. To be honest, I really didn't care about his comfort, only my safety.
In the meantime, my parents had arrived safely and bear-free at our cousin's house, and Mom, Dad and Betty were settled in on the front porch with cups of coffee. My mother had just commented to Betty about a car that was coming down the road with a boat on top, "Look, there are some fishermen, heading down to the river! Oh, wait. They are stopping! Do you know them, Betty?" To which a bewildered Betty started to answer "No," but was interrupted when the back door opened up and out I jumped! My mother said, "Well! That's Barbara! I taught her better than to take rides with strangers! What does she think she's doing?"
Well out I popped and ran into the house, first to the bathroom (because I was never at the point that I wet my pants, thank goodness!) and then out onto the porch with Mom, Dad and Betty. Betty was still laughing at this point, and my dad was chuckling, and my mother was demanding to know why I would ride with strangers and asking what happened. Don't get me wrong, she was laughing at the situation as well.
I explained the entire situation to them all and Betty told me that bear was more scared of me than I was of it. That may have been true, but sometimes when I am scared I lash out, and what's to say the bear didn't react the same way? When Betty's son, Ken heard the story he told me I was in more danger from those four strange men than I was from the bear. Everyone had a wonderful laugh at my expense.
That night I called home to talk to my husband and daughters and experienced the same laughter from my husband, but when I told the girls, the conversation took a little different turn. When I finished the story, I experienced dead silence on the other end of the line. Then someone spoke. One of the girls.
"Mom! You HITCHHIKED?"
Me: "Yes, there was a bear!"
"Mom! You HITCHHIKED?"
Me: "Only because there was a bear."
"Mom! You HITCHHIKED?"
Me: "Did you miss the part of this story that involved a BEAR?"
"Officer Friendly tells us to NEVER take rides with strangers!"
We DROVE back to our motel room that night, but the next day Betty informed us that late that night, after dark, a little car zoomed down the road with a boat on the top of it, and honked on the way by. See? Friendly guys.
I am sure it won't surprise you to hear that every time I told the story it got better. The bear was closer and closer and bigger and bigger. Eventually it got to the point where the bear did charge me and I had to play dead and it knocked me around a bit. Probably at some point in telling the story, I was actually mauled or something. Anyway.
So the next March my husband and I took the girls to see the movie "Big Fish" with Ewan MacGregor and Albert Finney. On the way home, my youngest said "I still don't understand why the movie was called Big Fish." So my husband told her that the man was trying to sort out the stories his dad told him over the years and separate the truth from the exaggeration. Kind of like when a fisherman tells about the fish that got away, and it gets bigger and bigger each time he tells it.
That explained it for her. She piped up and said, "Kinda like Mom and the bear story?"
To which my loving husband answered, "EXACTLY like Mom and the bear story!"
And THAT, my friends, was when I first realized that Wisconsin hated me.