Updated: Jun 9, 2022
Hayward, Wisconsin finds a place in everyone’s scrapbook. A small town that is tucked away in the north woods of Wisconsin, Hayward is known as being the “Musky Capital of the World”. What was once a vibrant logging community named after logger Anthony Judson Hayward is now a vacation destination circled in Sharpie on various family maps. Throughout the year, many world-class events are held there and of the most notable being the Lumberjack World Championships and the American Birkebeiner (the largest ski race in North America). Although some of the people that live here claim to resent the place that molded them, they never seem to leave.
Some may stay far away from their hometown known as the place where the mid 80s horror film Bloodhook was filmed and never return again like a teenager killed in the movie. They pack up their things and go like the film crew who shot the movie here, but didn’t really get to know the place. The shops have the same things on their racks year after year. The local gossip pierces your ears and there is no way to escape it. The people you once knew, you find yourself hiding from at the grocery store. At the same time, it is things like bumping into an old friend while filling up your gas tank that make the town special.
It seemed like I never could get away with anything because everyone seems to know everyone’s car and life story. I once rented a war video game from a local video rental store and the person working called my mother first to see if it was okay with her. (I didn’t even have to give her my mom’s number.) My mom would probably find out about me getting a speeding ticket before the cop even got out of his car.
“So, what were you doing last night in town around 11pm?” Mom asked.
“What? Who told you that?” I replied.
Mom continued to sweep the kitchen as I put on my shoes.
“I’ve got eyes everywhere,” she chuckled.
She did have eyes everywhere. Born and raised in Hayward, my mother practically knew everyone. God help you if you were with her and she ran into somebody at the grocery store that she hadn’t “seen in ages” (last week). The West’s Dairy ice cream would be melted by the time you finally made it to the car! I ‘d be lying if I said that I wasn’t happy when I finally got my driver’s license.
The freedom that a driver’s license gave me in Hayward was like handing me a winning lottery ticket with the back roads being my prize. When traffic got heavy in the summer months due to tourism, I would turn to the winding back roads to answer my prayers. Small lakes were scattered along the roadside while the towering pines and oaks would look down upon my 1999 Ford Ranger. The trees and lakes were welcoming in the summer, but would meet you with a frigid heart during the winter if you weren’t paying attention. Luckily for me, most of my friends had trucks and I would give them a call if I ever needed to get out of the clutches of the snow bank. Winter seemed to last forever in Hayward and you had to enjoy the two and a half months of warm weather while you could.
People’s definition of hell may differ from mine, but to me, hell is Hayward in the summer. Although our town is home to only 2,318 people, that number grows exponentially during the summer months. Cars flood the once quiet streets because everyone would be in town to fish, drink, eat, and repeat. Friday Night fish fry’s were basically a religious practice. When everybody wasn’t on Round Lake, Smith Lake, Nelson Lake, Stone Lake, etc. They were downtown on Main Street enjoying the various shops and restaurants or at the go-kart track.
As a kid, my dad would always take us to the go-kart track when we had a little free time in the summer. I lived for the thrill of racing around the track with the sun-faded centerlines. I used to sit in the tiny passenger seat with the fake steering wheel next to my dad and we always seemed to be the first ones to go. We were locals after all, so after a few visits; we quickly formed an alliance with the teenagers that worked there. I looked up to those sun burnt superheroes in cut off t-shirts and if given the chance I would take the job in a heartbeat.
I got a job working at the go-kart track when I was fourteen. I quit my job at the local Dairy Queen after one of my stepbrother’s friends told me they wanted me to work there. I didn’t even have an interview. I just showed up to work on the day they told me to and I was given a “crash course” on how to work the job. Now, a lot of people will say that the go-kart track is one of the easiest jobs known to man, which it is, but there’s a lot of stuff that we have to put up with like those crazy bastards known as tourists.
Don’t get me wrong; tourists are great for the local economy. With every purchase the tourists make, it helps one small business owner keep the lights on in their home and food in their bellies. On the flip side of things, tourists can make small business owners lives a living hell.
Trying to explain how our twelve ticket punch card works at the go-kart track is a lot like trying to explain the concept of nuclear physics to a toddler. I typically get a lot of, “can you explain that again?” and “I don’t understand”. I once had a guy ask me where the “big fish” was. The big fish was literally right behind him. It had gotten to the point when people asked me for directions I just handed them a map and a phone book and told them to let me know if they had any questions. I don’t do it to be mean; I do it so I stay mentally stable during the busy season. Not all out-of-towners are bad, but the bad outweigh the good. Either way, I have to put on an Oscar winning performance with some of these people in order to keep them coming back again and again.
On most nights, out-of-towners and the locals belly up to the town favorite, Angler’s Bar and Grill. The tourists go there to swap stories and clink drinks.
“No, really! The fish I caught was this big!” And each time, the fish would grow bigger and bigger.
The locals go there to do the same thing, but all while trying to avoid their exes.
If the tourists happen to come up with their families, they’ll usually stop at Tremblay’s Sweet Shop and come out with enough candy that would give a dentist a heart attack. Willy Wonka would have been jealous of some of the candy that was coming out of Tremblay’s. People young and old would press their faces up to the windows and watch as the fresh fudge was being forged. While the people are downtown, they’d take a left by Hi-Ho Silver Jewelry and be hypnotized by the waffle cone musk flowing through the air at West’s Dairy.
“I’ll have a waffle cone with Almost Sinful ice cream, please,” I told the ice cream scooper at West’s Dairy. She scooped the heavenly mixture of creamy vanilla ice cream tag teamed with walnuts, chocolate covered peanuts, and Hershey’s fudge swirls.
“There you go,” she said as she handed me the cone.
“Well, how much do I owe ya?” I reached for my wallet.
“Nothing. You’re good,” she said. “Just keep this in mind the next time my boyfriend and I stop by the go kart track,” I smiled and stuffed a couple of dollars in her tip jar.
I liked this barter system that we had going. It made me feel like I was a French fur tradesmen like Jean Nicolet. I would trade them free rides at the go-kart track for free food! Mind you, it wasn’t all of the time that I would get these deals. We kept it to about once a month, but I did have connections at the bakery, the ice cream store, the candy shop, and the pie shop. I was going to miss these types of deals that we had going once all of my friends stopped working at their respective locations. Everything began to change once we graduated high school.
It’s funny how those pacts made with friends while sitting in an empty parking lot after your last football game seem to fade away so quickly. We were once little kids eating our popcorn and looking forward to the days when we would play football on Rod Lundberg Field under the lights. After we played our last high school football game ever, we begged and pleaded to be given just one more night on that field. I’ve never seen my friends cry before until that night. We were seniors, but it felt like we were just kids drawing plays in the sand during recess. All that we have now are yearbooks collecting dust in our closets and letterman jackets to show our children someday.
People stop calling each other to hang out and everyone seems to drift apart. You’ll see each other at random social gatherings throughout the year and say, “we need to catch up sometime,” but you never do. Hayward was the thing that kept my friends and I together while growing up. It was stitched on the front of the uniforms of the sports teams that we gave up our lives to play. Painted on the sides of the school buses that we rode in.
As the years went by, the grip that Hayward held on us began to loosen. After graduation, it could no longer keep us together. We had to venture out and see what the rest of the world had in store for us. Some stayed behind and felt the safety that Hayward’s blue-collar jobs created. Others pursued a higher education or moved to work somewhere else. As for me, I continued on my education in hopes that one-day I would be able to return to that water tower town and become a teacher. I know that it won’t be the same when I come back. People change, new buildings go up and old fishing stores get torn down, but I know that the LP smoke stacks will always be there to give me a heroes welcome back into town whether I deserve it or not.