I rode a snowmobile for the first time in over 30 years on a beautiful March day a few years ago. I was staying with my family in a rental cabin in the woods near Cable, Wisconsin. (By “cabin,” I mean a large home with all of the amenities of civilization—heating, plumbing, electricity, a full kitchen.) I love being in the woods. I love the trees, the sound of birds chirping, the peacefulness—as long as I can stay inside the cabin. Why go outside in the cold if I can read about the glories of nature in a book?
On this particular Saturday morning, I was curled up in front of the fire reading Tolstoy’s War and Peace. This time I was determined to finish it. I was deeply worried about the fate of Russia. Napoleon was invading, and it seemed likely that he would win. He had French military might and superior reasoning on his side, after all.
I was interrupted from my pursuit by the insistent voice of my brother Curt.
“Come on, sis,” he said. “We’re going for a ride.” My brothers had rented snowmobiles for the weekend and were trying to get everyone to ride them. I was not interested.
“No thanks,” I said. “I’ll just go out for a walk later.”
“Oh, come on. We’ll just go out for a few miles, grab a beer and come back. I won’t go too fast. I promise. “
So I reluctantly put down my book and agreed to ride. I wouldn’t be driving; I’d be sitting behind Curt on the sled. I quickly learned that only outsiders like me called them “snowmobiles.” I also learned that only outsiders like me wore pink ski jackets on a sled.
“You’re wearing that?” Curt asked. “Where’s your snowmobile suit?”
“Why would I have a snowmobile suit?” I responded. “This jacket will be fine.”
He sighed in resignation. He’d given up on me having any common sense a long time ago. “You have to wear a helmet, at least,” he said and gave me one to wear.
I tried it on for size. I was tempted to rip it off again. I could barely breathe and felt cut off from the world. “I don’t want to wear this. I can’t breathe.”
“You’ll get used to it. Trust me. You’ll be glad you have it.”
I straddled the back of the sled and settled in for the ride.
Once we got going, I admitted to myself that it was actually kind of fun. The trail took us through a peaceful forest on a sunny day. The snow was thick and moist and sparkled on the cedars and firs as we passed by. Curt had lied when he said he would not go fast, but I secretly liked the thrill I got from the speed. My enjoyment of the quiet woods was marred, however, by the insistent loud buzzing noise the sleds made. We passed many groups of other snowmobilers. They all wore black snowmobile suits and helmets and emitted the same loud buzzing noise. They looked, in fact, like giant mutant snow insects. I wondered if this was what it felt like to be a mosquito. I felt even more like an insect when we hit a bump and flew through the air. I was terrified. I knew that Tolstoy considered death merely an opportunity for spiritual insight, but I wasn’t ready for such wisdom yet.
After buzzing and flying for several miles, we stopped for refreshments at the World’s Longest Weenie Roast at a resort on Lake Namakagon. I prayed that the lake was frozen enough to hold the dozens of sleds, cars, trucks and trailers gathered on it. The hordes of snowmobile suits and helmets gathered around fires drinking beer looked vaguely ominous to me—like a gathering of aliens plotting their takeover of the planet. Is this what Napoleon’s troops looked like to the Russians?
Soon, though, I began to realize that I was the real alien. I grew up in rural Wisconsin in the middle of snowmobile culture, so this scene should have evoked feelings of familiarity, of homecoming. Instead, the longer I stayed at the Lakewoods Resort, the more culture-shocked I became. I found it difficult even to communicate simple concepts with the natives.
Everywhere I looked—on t-shirts, mittens, hats, wall-hangings–“the world’s longest weenie roast” was advertised. I was intrigued with the long weenie and wanted to know exactly how long it was. So I asked the plump, permed woman standing behind the information desk in what I thought was simple English, “How long IS the world’s longest weenie?”
She answered with a friendly smile, “The bands will be playing tonight after 5:00.”
“Thanks,” I replied.
Undeterred in my pursuit of knowledge, I walked over to a woman standing behind a table. She was selling “world’s longest weenie roast” paraphernalia, so I figured she would know the answer. I asked her, “so how long is the world’s longest weenie?”~
She answered, “Oh, you should still be able to get a hot dog. They’re selling them outside.”
I felt totally bewildered. I thought I spoke the same language as the natives, but perhaps I was mistaken. Was I so wrapped up in Tolstoy that I was inadvertently speaking Russian? Disheartened, I gave up on my quest to find out the length of the world’s longest weenie. I went into the bar and sat down in a booth for a drink with my family. A tanned blond bartender with impressive biceps walked over to take my order.
I asked her, “Could I get a pickle with my Virgin Mary?”
“Yes,” she replied. “It comes with olives.”
What? At that point, I accepted my official status as an alien. It was easier for me to understand the characters in a Russian novel than to speak to people from my home state. Surely the local dialect and culture couldn’t be that difficult to comprehend, but somehow I wasn’t able to crack the code. My years of literary study were supposed to result in spiritual insight into the human condition, right, Tolstoy? Instead I had become an alien invader in my own land. Maybe I was the world’s biggest weenie.
After arriving at this profound wisdom, I decided to order a shot of vodka and a plate of herrings.
“I’m sorry,” said the waitress. “We’re all out of cheeseburgers.”