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Errands and Leisure12 Aug 2008 12:33 pm

This will not be a car-free weekend and with very good reason.

There’s a family party in Janesville, WI that is in the “must attend” category: Uncle George’s 80th birthday party. No, not this Uncle George, another Uncle George. Sheesh. I’m not quite that mature yet.

This promises to be another fun blowout so I made sure to reserve the car last weekend from the same local rental place. I get there earlier so I have more selection unlike last Saturday when only two compacts were left to choose from. Not a huge deal, mind you, but this is like car shopping “lite” when you go out to the lot with the rep. Woo-hoo! I choose the mini-Magnum, a metallic red Caliber. Like someone will notice. Or care.

The car sits in front of the house while we do who knows what this morning. We debate the bike to the farmer’s market routine. Nah, things to do, we can use the car on Sunday to go to Skokie’s farmer’s market if we feel like it, right? Ah, the options a car gives you. It’s so easy.

Come time to leave, we decide to squeeze in the nearby smaller Wilmette farmer’s market by the Metra station. A fine choice, mind you, but it takes longer than we think. One big reason: traffic. As we are leaving, my wife points this out as we sit in a line of cars waiting at Green Bay Road to cross it. “You be halfway home if you were on your bike.” She’s probably right. I’ve walked here with the dog plenty of times, too. Take note, fair readers.

We drop the goods off at home so not to drag them to Janesville and back. Fine idea for the food, bad idea for the departure: we’re a full half hour late for a “quick” stop at the farmer’s market.

We finally hit the road and drive through Skokie, Mt. Prospect, Arlington Heights, and get on the beloved Northwest Tollway. It’s moving so no delays but the dreaded toll plazas are a constant slowdown and expensive: 80 cents muliple times, $1.60 once and the same coming back. I have long refused to buy an I-Pass for my occasional driving but I pay for this refusal in toll-plaza peskiness. These are oppressive roads. I’m so happy that “open road tolling” has sped my less-stubborn fellow drivers on their way. In the meantime, I will do my damndest to not use the damn toll roads.

We make good time despite a few short-lived raindrops, unlike this past Monday. Now the hitch: County A looks like the place to get off from the map sent with the invitation. When we get there, there’s no County A exit. We drive about five miles to the next exit. We have to figure out how to get there through Milton. I’m predictably crabby at this detour but it’s not really my navigator’s fault. A helpful homeowner in Milton points us to the country road M that we need. Her directions include a significant landmark: “When you see the big ethanol plant, you’re on the right road.” We soon find the ethanol plant: three enormous silver tanks with a set of mini-cracking towers nearby and a railyard filled with grain hopper cars to fuel the fermentation. Can’t say I’ve ever seen a separate ethanol plant although my trips to Archer Daniels Midland in Decatur probably included some sightings.

Across from the plant, my wife is taken by a more interesting sight: a property lined with large, hand-painted plywood signs, the first one we read being, “Ethanol Stinks”. According to another sign, something is also rotten in City Hall, I am assuming this to mean Milton’s City Hall. Is this a protest about ethanol as a fuel? Surely, there’s a fair amount to support that given how much fossil fuel it takes to produce ethanol and grow the barely-edible starchy corn used to make it.

Nope, not quite. Our host points out that the smell from the plant is literally what overwhelms this homeowner’s property. I didn’t smell it but understandably it is some very ripe and pervasive odor of fermentation. Judging by the size of those big round silver tanks, this person has something to beef about. Jimmy, our host, is sympathetic.

Looks like there’s another price for freeing us from that damn foreign oil. I’m grateful for the detour after all. I just got a little extra education out of it.

Of course, the party was a total blast. I am grateful to be able to attend, despite whatever exotic blend of ethanol and foreign and domestic oil got me here. I just wish there was another way to get in this mobility. Not for now, though: everybody came here in a car. Not even a Prius in sight, much less a bike or a train or even a bus. Quite a few long-bed pickups, though.

On the way home that night, my wife makes a comment about this relative novelty of having a car. She’s right: it seems more like a luxury than something we take for granted.

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