Door County is odd. It’s the “thumb” of Wisconsin, for the unfamiliar, and it is basically the Sweden Pavilion at Epcot Center crossed with modern rural Wisconsin crossed with any other place white people choose to retire.
It’s a much longer drive than you’d think from the mileage, first of all. I don’t know why, but it’s 250 miles, nearly all on major highways, and yet it takes about six hours to get there. This is an improvement over my childhood, though, when it was 250 miles away but took four days to get there, all spent in the back seat of a Buick LeSabre, wishing I had more books and fewer bored siblings.
Once you enter Door County, you’re still not there. It’s the same phenomenon as entering Chicago from the south, wherein you drive under a big sign welcoming you to your destination but still have an hour to go to get anywhere interesting. If you need a break from the fields you’re passing, you can buy food everywhere. I have never been anywhere that sells snacks like Wisconsin or has as broad and generous a definition of “snack.” You know the impulse rack at the gas station, the one they place in the hopes you will be inspired to buy gum and mints and maybe a Snickers while you wait in line to pay? I stopped for gas near Manitowoc and waited to pay next to a warming oven full of pizzas — whole pizzas — and two long tables covered with boxes of donuts. This was a gas station in a teeming metro area, mind you, not the only game in town.
In Door County there are lots of things to do, especially if you like vaguely Scandinavian antiques and/or standing in line for breakfast. The blonde-farmhouse-harmlessness of antique Scandinavian furniture is a recurring motif across the entire peninsula to the point that I was surprised to discover that the Chamber of Commerce’s official motto does not mention “looms” explicitly. (“Door County: Loom City, USA”, “Weave Your Troubles Behind In Door County!” etc.)
I had lots of time to think about looms (and hygge candles, and blonde wood paneling) because everywhere we went to eat had a wait. Usually this is a good sign, but it was so prominent a feature of the landscape that something is afoot. It can’t be a shortage of places to eat because if you just want food, you can go to the smorgasbord at any local gas station, and it can’t be that Door County is overcrowded because we weren’t there anywhere near peak season. Maybe no one there cooks.
Speaking of restaurants: In childhood, my favorite thing about DC was the roof at Al Johnson’s restaurant, and it remains so to this day. Al Johnson’s is a magnificent wooded building serving wonderful Swedish food and, in a nod to the best architectural ethnic tradition of any kind anywhere, has a neatly-manicured grass-covered roof. It is kept neatly manicured by — get this — a small herd of goats. I would support a federal law mandating all roofs be optimized for and maintained by goats. Made the time spent waiting in line for a table go much faster.
The other wonderful things we saw were shows. There was a Tom Lehrer tribute show — the Weird Al Yankovic of the ’60s, look him up and thank me later — and a summer-stock musical called Dad’s Season Tickets, which was amazing. The plot: Aging single dad is deciding which of his three daughters will inherit his most valued possession. The two eldest daughters do not get along and compete in manipulative ways for the prize to such an extent that Dad’s big solo lament is called something like “Why Did I Ever Have Daughters?” The show also features two sons-in-law, one of whom is (spoiler alert) a traitor to the Packers and the other of whom is funny but has not much beyond foolishness to recommend him. In case the other similarities weren’t enough to clue you in, the youngest daughter is actually named “Cordelia.” I want to write them a musical for next season.
All in all we had a very nice time.
In contrast, the following week I had to go to the other D.C., where their looming difficulties are much, much more unpleasant than a little wait for breakfast.
Alan Brouilette is a columnist for our sister publication, the Forest Park Review.