A Californian in the Wisconsin Dells

A business trip to the Kalahari Resorts Dells reveals how small talk has become a big deal

Ron-Donoho-Wisconsin-Dells
California-based J&J editor Ron Donoho assimilates in the Wisconsin Dells.
Ho-Chunk-Casino
Ho-Chunk Casino.

The blackjack dealer asks where I’m from. It’s a friendly ice breaker, with friendly and ice being relative terms to this late-winter trip to the Wisconsin Dells. I’m killing time at the Ho-Chunk Casino; in town for a business meeting at Kalahari Resorts Dells, part of a growing chain of indoor waterparks/convention centers.

“California,” I reply. This causes the dealer, a thirtyish dude with a receding blonde hairline, to pause his elaborate shuffling of the playing cards.

Steve—according to his nametag—is not the first person in a tourist town to inquire as to a traveler’s place of origin. In fact, it’s the third time today I’ve ’fessed up to being from the balmier-than-here Left Coast. “You lost?” my Uber driver had quipped. “Take a wrong turn?” was the zinger from the casino shuttle driver.

Steve takes a totally different tack. He resumes shuffling and asks, “Are you a Trump fan?”

Politics? Really? “Um, are you, Steve?” I ask, stalling.

His eyes widen, and Steve seems to realize he’s committed a modern-day social faux pas. “Well, I guess I’ll just say that Trump has some good qualities as well as some bad qualities,” he offers with newfound diplomacy. 

Don’t get me wrong—I’m always up for road banter. Bartenders, casino employees and ride-share drivers are great for sounding out the local pulse. When I travel, I assimilate. You know, blend in. Not in an obsessive, Zelig sort of way, nor with feigned support of any cause just because it seems to define the local spirit or mood.

My best guess with Steve: The Californian label puts me in his “probably-progressive” bucket. And that may have innocently triggered him to wonder how left I lean.

Listen, I bear Steve no ill will. He’s energetic, charming and quick to smile. He tells me he’s been dealing for about two months. He’s the sort of empathetic casino worker who cheers when you win and seem genuinely chagrined to take your money when he hits a 21 with a 5 on his two-card 16.

There are good folks all over this well-founded country—whether they live on either coast or in the cold parts in the middle. We ought to be able to casually talk politics, because we’re all the same on the inside—we just wear different amounts of layers in the winter.

New friends in The Dells

Drink-Wisconsinbly
On sale at the Madison airport: a “Drink Wisconsinbly” sweatshirt.

Later that night during the shuttle ride back to the Kalahari from the Ho-Chunk, every seat is taken. It’s an older crowd, and the grey-haired couple in front of me is loudly telling stories about, well, being intoxicated. Ain’t that America?

The lady is regaling us about the time she was invited to the house party of a friend she hadn’t seen in a while. “We just walked right into the wrong house,” she exclaims. “The old gal who lived there didn’t know who we were! She’ll never leave her front door unlocked again!”

Her husband’s tale centers on zeroing in on the right hotel room after a night of drinking. One time, he and a buddy couldn’t remember their room number. They tried their keys at every door on the floor before finally unlocking the right one.

Laughter ensues. I tap the man on the shoulder and offer a tip that I employ on the road: When you first check in, take the envelope your key comes in that has your room number on it and shove it in a back pocket.

The man nods. “I like that idea,” he says, turning around in his seat to face me. “So, where ya from?” He’s wearing a red Wisconsin baseball hat. It reminds me of a sweatshirt I’d seen on sale in the Madison airport that read: Drink Wisconsinbly.

This man and his bride are now both staring at me with sincere, bloodshot eyes. It’s warmed up inside the shuttle. Outside, a light snow is gently dusting the road.

“I was born Baltimore,” I reply, truthfully. Snow crunches underneath the wheels of our ride as we pass through the night. We bond. We joke. In a few minutes when I stand up to get off at my hotel stop, my new friend loudly warns all to “watch out for the Baltimore guy—he’s had crabs!”

Kalahari Resort Dells

The lobby at the Kalahari Resorts Dells.

Located in south-central Wisconsin, the Dells are marketed as the Waterpark Capital of the World. The African-themed Kalahari Resort where I’m staying is home to a jaw-droppingly massive, entrepreneurially brilliant, 125,000-square-foot indoor waterpark.

At check in, I’d mentioned never having been to an indoor waterpark before. The desk clerk looked at me as if I’d just stepped off an intergalactic spaceship.

There’s also an onsite convention center, currently under construction to double in size to 212,000 square feet.

The Kalahari has 760 rooms. Mine is a condominium-style suite. I have a bedroom that’s separated from a large area that includes a living room (with pull-out couch), a six-seat dining-room table and a kitchen. This kitchen is set off by a high bar/table and includes a full-sized refrigerator, stove, microwave and cupboards stocked with dishes and cutlery.

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The Kalahari’s 125,000-square-foot indoor waterpark.

If you like anything you see in the room you can purchase order it. A sign in the kitchen says all glassware is $4; the metal cushioned barstools are $238.

The resort is family-oriented. Convention business is big, but so are family vacations and convention trips where you bring the whole family.

Kids and conventioneers of all ages can come and be mesmerized at the adjacent Tomfoolerys Adventure Park. This is 100,000 square feet of phantasmagoric fun in the form of laser tag, arcade games, zip lines, bowling, mini golf, go carts and there’s even a six-story indoor Ferris wheel.

I keep it to myself about never having seeing an indoor Ferris wheel.

Bridging back to Madison

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Wisconsin, clearly stated.

Two days later, it’s 21 degrees outside as I slide into the back of a snow-crusted SUV for the 45-minute drive from The Kalahari back to the Dane County Regional Airport in Madison.

As soon as I shut the door the driver has a question.

“California,” I reply.

I can see him seriously scrutinizing me in the rear-view mirror. He informs me that he was born in Bulgaria. He’s been in Wisconsin for seven years, working for Uber between stints as a cross country trucker. His knowledge of the country comes mostly from atop the rig of an 18-wheeler.

“So,” he hesitates, “Arnold Schwarzenegger is still the governor of California, yes?”

Nope, I say, that was two governors ago.

“But Arnold Schwarzenegger, he was a good governor?” It seems as if his Eastern European pride is on the line regarding the Austrian-born former Governator.

Paraphrasing Steve the blackjack dealer, I offer that Arnold certainly had good qualities as well as bad qualities.

The driver digests this. “Arnold Schwarzenegger was a Republican, but there are a lot of Democrats in California, yes?”

“Yes.”

We travel in silence for a few minutes. Out of the window, I notice a sign on the side of a big rig parked in a snow-covered field advertising for a farm where you can pick your own strawberries.

“Who is now the governor of California?” my Bulgaria driver wonders.

Gavin Newsom, I say. The name doesn’t register.

“This is a Democrat?”

“Yes…but he’s, um, he’s the ex-husband of the woman who is currently dating Donald Trump Jr.”

“This is true?” he asks.

I nod. For most of the rest of the ride to Madison we talk about life in Bulgaria.  J&J