My Back Pages: The Guy Who Came Into the Cold

(I wrote this for The National in Abu Dhabi in February, 2009. It is no longer extant on their site, so I am posting it here)

Just over a hundred years ago my father’s family settled in the town of Luck in northern Wisconsin.  Winter descends there in October or November and lingers until April or even later. This January the average low temperature was -20 C.  

When Big Butternut Lake freezes over, a hamlet of fishing shacks sprouts up on the ice, with fleets of pickup trucks ferrying men and supplies between the huts and the shore. Inside the average shack, one or two men – or, more rarely, women – huddle around propane heaters and brandy, dropping lines into holes drilled in the ice and extracting the occasional lethargic fish. For one week in late November, the surrounding rural areas are filled with hunters in bright orange suits, thinning out the deer population with their rifles. Snowmobile tracks crisscross the lakes, rivers, fallow cornfields and stands of trees. Restaurants and taverns keep their back doors open for people who pull up on their motorized sleds.  

If you travel to Luck during the winter, chances are good that you are either ice-fishing, hunting, or snowmobiling, and chances are excellent that you will stay at the Luck Country Inn while doing it. The square, two-storey establishment was opened by a local entrepreneur in the late 1980s, filling a hole in the town’s economy; there had been no hotel in Luck for years. Then in 2003 a man named Shahid Mian and his family purchased the inn. With that, they became the sole Muslims in this town of 1,000.  

Shahid, a warm and dignified man in late middle age, retired from the Pakistani Air Force as a major in 1992 and then moved with his wife Najma and three children to Bahrain to work as a military contractor. When his son Salman reached college age, they decided to emigrate again so he could attend an English-language university.  Shahid found work with a software company in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and the family moved to the nearby suburb of New Hope where, Shahid says, he found just that.  Several years and one layoff later, the Mians took the advice of Pakistani friends and got into the hotel business. (South Asian immigrants own a large share of America’s lodging industry.) When the Luck Country Inn came on the market, Shahid’s new career led him to another northern town with a fortuitous-sounding name.   

“It was soon after 9/11,” he says, “and we were scared about being isolated here.”  Shahid talked to the local police, however, and the family’s doubts were assuaged.  His daughter Iqra entered Luck High School and graduated in 2007 in a class of 39.  “We think we made the right choice,” Shahid says.  In almost six years, they’ve only had two bad experiences with bigoted “comments,” both of them from out-of-towners.

My father left Luck after graduating from high school, raising us in a small city 100 km to the south, but I’ve visited at least once a year for my whole life.  My Danish ancestors settled in a rural district eight miles to the east of the town.  Eight consequential miles, at one time; my grandfather was so often stranded by weather in Luck that he was forced to drop out of high school and stay on the farm (though his indifference to his studies is sometimes given as the reason). I grew up rambling through the woods behind my grandmother’s house, building fires with my cousin directly on the thick-frozen river fronting my uncle’s land, and puzzling over old photographs of long-dead relatives.  Some of the Danish immigrants to the area founded a seminary for Lutheran pastors; others, like my great-grandfather, associated the language and church of the old country with hunger and frustration.  

Even after I learned that winter wasn’t bone-jarringly cold everywhere, for some reason I never wondered why my ancestors decided to settle down in Luck. The first winter must have been alarming; Denmark’s chilliness is of the milder, maritime variety. But they stayed, hunted, worshipped, and left behind a few relics of home – fine blue porcelain plates, whitewashed clapboard churches, dimpled pans that fry spherical pancakes. 

That was then. For many of the years since my great-great-grandfather settled his family there, Luck has seen more people come to visit than come to stay. The wave of immigration from northern Europe that started in 1848 left small but persistent tide pools around northern Wisconsin. The wave of immigration from the rest of the world that began in 1965 has hardly touched these areas. Of my grandparents’ twenty-two descendants, only five live in the area.  All of us come back, however, in the coldest, darkest time of the year.

Over the years I’ve probably slept in each of the Luck Country Inn’s thirty-seven rooms. A black bear, a mountain lion, and otter, a bobcat, and two birds, shot and stuffed many years ago, adorn the lobby.  Luck Country Inn shot-glasses are $5. But now they are joined by a huge samovar and a sprinkling of consumer goods from Pakistan. Sequined scarves, pillowcases, jewelry, and shoes are all on offer.  “This is not our main business,” Shahid says of the items.  “We want to introduce our country. We want people to know where we come from.” Evangelical Christian tracts, which have sat unmolested for years in a table display, are now balanced with “Discovering Islam” pamphlets, stressing the common origins of the monotheistic faiths.  Their purpose is explanation, not conversion. Once, in thanking Shahid for a gracious act, my father told the hotelier that his God would reward him. Shahid replied, “Your God and my God are the same.”  When my grandmother died, he sat in the congregation for her funeral at Bone Lake Lutheran Church.

Every Friday Shahid and his family drive over 100 km to the nearest mosque. They do all their shopping at halal groceries in the same area. They visit Pakistan once a year. During my last visit, Dueholms descended on Luck from as far away as Brazil.  My brother and I discovered the joys of the recently added deer-hunting video game at the Inn, and we sang karaoke with our cousins late into the night at a restaurant on the town’s otherwise quiet Main Street.  We enjoyed Danish pancakes and sausages, an annual tradition. And, like the out-of-towners that we are, we groused and joked about the cold.

Shahid and his family do miss Pakistan’s fruit – mangoes especially – but they feel pretty settled in Luck. “For now, this is our home,” Shahid says.  “Our daughter graduated from high school here. Even if we moved, she’d want to come back once in a while.”       
The cold doesn’t bother them anymore. “It was too hot in Bahrain,” Shahid says. “I think I should try ice fishing some day.” Those of us who leave Luck learn to complain about winter. Those who come to stay learn that there’s no point.  


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