Cornucopia, Wis. -- In honor of this week's Vikings-Packers game, I thought I'd spin a recent Wisconsin yarn that gets at why we love to travel: those little moments of serendipity.
We'd just spent a lovely weekend kayaking on Lake Superior's South Shore and stopped to buy some smoke fish at Halvorsen's in Cornucopia, up along the Siskiwit Bay near Bayfield. I should mention I collect cribbage boards, an eclectic hobby that has left our house littered with bowling pins, antlers and little toilet seats punctuated with dueling rows of 120 holes on which the ancient game of cribbage can be played.
So I wandered into the little gift shop next to the smoke fish place, nestled along a harbor with bobbing steel-hulled fishing boats. And there I found a hybrid of the Mona Lisa and the Holy Grail, of cribbage boards, that is. On a dusty shelf sat a three-foot long replica of an iron ore boat. The shopkeeper showed me that by removing the chunk of black walnut from the hatch deck and flipping it over -- voila -- a cribbage board complete with two decks of cards lurking in the hull and little metallic pegs.
I forked over the $140 -- most I'd ever paid for a cribbage board -- and asked where I could meet the artist whose detail work included tiny flags and tarps painted on the lifeboats. She said, this being a Sunday, he'd be at the Village Inn watching the Packers game and he drives a small gray pickup.
So off we went to find the Cribbage Board Creator of Cornucopia. Parking next to a gray pickup, we wandered into the bar, which might as well been a morgue. The Packers were losing 13-0 to Carolina and rookie quarterback Cam Newton. Every patron was wearing a green and gold Packers jersey and a long face. The cook in a white smock and his son stood in the kitchen doorway, looking ill.
We took two stools at the edge of the bar and ordered a couple beers. On the TV above, Aaron Rodgers was orchestrating a touchdown drive, culminating with a pass to Jordy Nelson, the ultimate Packer name if ever there was one. Everyone hollered and an old guy in his 80s said: "You guys aren't moving from this bar. You're good luck."
I asked if he knew who might have created my cribbage board and he shrugged. So I wisely waited until the next commercial and asked if anyone knew who might have been the artist of the ore boat cribbage board I'd just purchased. I got a bunch of blank looks that said: Who is this idiot from the Cities and why isn't he wearing a Packers jersey?
Down at the end of the bar, Bill Draeger raised an index finger. I went and shook his hand and learned he was a retired over-the-road 18-wheel truck driver who had spent 70 hours on the cribbage board. It wa the last of its kind, modeled after the 1970s-era Edmund Fitzgerald class of ore boats.
I told Bill he had to make more. There was a void on the shelf of the gift shop. "Don't worry. I have plenty of plans for the winter ahead." Then he autographed the bottom of the boat and the young waitress smiled and said, "Well, Bill, I didn't know you were an artist."
He smiled and puffed out his chest. Just a little.