Black Earth, Wisconsin
It’s a long drive from the airport. In the backseat of the car I take comfort in the low hum of my parents’ voices and look out the window as the highway blends with thoughts of wherever I’m coming back from this time.
And then we’re here: Black Earth. To strangers the name sounds straight out of Lord of the Rings or some other dark fantasy land, but really it’s just what the Native Americans who were here first noticed about the soil: rich and dark.
For a small rural town in America’s Dairyland, Black Earth lives up to all possible preconceived notions. The town itself is surrounded for miles by red-barn farms full with saggy-skinned heifers waiting to give up their labors for cheddar, parmesan, and provolone. Fields sprouting corn and hay and soybeans stretch on for miles; you’ve never seen skies so wide and blue or smelled anything more rancid than the fresh manure continually being spread from acre to acre.
Thanks to the arctic glaciers that carved their way down the state ten thousand years ago, Wisconsin is not as flat as its other Midwest friends. Hills roll on and on, some cut high as mountains, or so I used to think. They are sheltered by quiet miles of forest, visited yearly by groups of neon-clad hunters in the fall.
Lots of kids wake up at dawn or earlier to milk before the bus comes. Every spring my old high school, a one-story brick building shrouded between cornfields, hosts Drive Your Tractor to School Day, and several giant red and green monsters can be seen resting in the parking lot from eight thirty to three. Girls wear cowboy boots under their prom dresses and boys have crew cuts; normalcy works as currency and the social scene is straight out of every American high school movie—someone is always throwing up in the bathroom, we are always reading The Scarlet Letter, we are always losing the big game. America’s heartland is composed mostly of clichés.
We’re turning into town and here it is: THE MIDWEST’S LARGEST SHOE STORE. In a village of few more than a thousand people, the Shoe Box takes up two blocks and employs a significant percentage of the population—a set-up similar to an old mining town, but instead of coal the local currency is Nike’s and bedazzled UGG boots.
The gigantic building glows with neon lighting all hours of the day and night, complete with a ten-foot cowboy boot on the front lawn and other foot-centric décor that comes and goes with the seasons. In front, facing the highway is a patio designated for Brat Frys and Girl Scout cookie displays, where cheerleaders do summersaults for cerebral palsy and the 20-foot welcome sign reads “Shoes 4 U!”
Inside, the walls are plastered inch-to-inch with sports memorabilia: plaques and signed photos, helmets and framed jerseys, ticket stubs and laminated newspaper headlines from the biggest big games. The owner, Steve Schmitt, also owns the local minor league baseball team and can usually be found wandering the store yelling at the staff to hustle. Some believe it a right of passage to be shouted at by him while either working or shopping there, and others make the drive to Famous Footwear to avoid it.
Even so, the most bizarre thing about the Shoe Box are the birdcages that hang throughout the store, in them chirping parakeets, tri-colored finches, and at the back one beautiful crimson macaw. She watches over as customers try on sixes, six-and-a-halves, then sevens, every now and then repeating something she hears, and I can never remember her name.
Coasting down Main Street we pass the bank, the bar, post office, and the library. Two more businesses have closed since I’ve been home—the only little restaurant, the Luckin’ Booth, where my brother served slices of pie to every local over 65, and the Meat Market that smelled (understandably) like a fridge full of dead things, but was worth braving for the gumball machine. My Black Earth has been dying since the day it was founded, but with every new loss I worry more about losing all of her someday, of coming back to suddenly find nothing at all.
We take a right then a left and arrive in a cul-de-sac. At the end of the circle sits a white-paneled house with a drooping oak tree in front, and as it appears a sigh of relief leaves my body. Beyond the house the town ends and the cornfields begin, Black Earth creek coiling through the middle. Whether the stalks are green and high, brown and dying, or the field is flat and snowy, it’s certain that the view is gorgeous and the air smells like shit.