by Jessie Lynn McMains
State Trunk Highway 32, also known as the 32nd Division Memorial Highway, the Red Arrow Highway, or just Highway 32, runs from the Illinois border north to the Michigan border. It isn’t a straight north/south road, no, it meanders. If you were to travel its whole length, headed north from the Illinois/Wisconsin border, so close to the Land of Lincoln that the bars have neon Cubs and Old Style signs in their windows, your route would start out fairly straightforward, with only a few minor detours. Then, just north of Milwaukee, at Brown Deer Road, your path would grow stranger. You would find yourself going west, then northeast, then east, north, west. Occasionally joining up with other highways, breaking away from them again while passing through a town, only to rejoin them on the outskirts. Eventually, you’d reach the Upper Peninsula of the Great Lakes State.
Roads are stories. Much of my story has occurred on this road, or just off of it. Mostly, the stretch between Milwaukee and the state line of Illinois.
Like all good road stories, it is also something of a ghost story, because it is a ghost road—haunted by its own history, and mine.
Hop in, let’s take a drive.
We start, heading north from the Prairie State into the Dairy State. As we cross the border, Illinois State Route 137 becomes Wisconsin State Highway 32. We drive, past bars and auto mechanics, parks and cemeteries, family restaurants that no longer exist, parking lots where I once loitered. Between 58th and 50th streets lies what is, for me, the nexus of the Kenosha stretch; one of my homes, though I’ve never lived there. To the east, my best friend’s apartment, as well as the diners I wasted so many nights at in my teens and early twenties, and the bars I wasted my nights at after turning 21 (before heading back to the diners to sober up over fries and coffee). There’s Lou Perrine’s, where I’ve stopped a hundred, a thousand times to buy snacks and water, to gas up on my way north. And to the west, the Metra Union Pacific North Line station, that train I so often rode to and from Chicago.
Just past the city, right next to Carthage College, there’s a beach along Lake Michigan. One night, long ago, leaving a lover’s house too late, I parked my car there. I sat gazing at the moon reflected on the ink-dark water, and then saw these shapes—a scattering of Great Blue herons. Most of them rested atop the gentle waves near the shore, their heads tucked beneath their wings. One stood guard in the shallows, and when I got out of my car to get a closer look, he flapped his wings at me, a strange angel in the dark.
Highway 32 was a main thoroughfare, before the advent of the freeways and interstates, and in many places along it you can still see the remnants of that past. On the stretch between Kenosha and Racine there are several lakeside motels. Their names read like a poem: Beach Aire, Red Oaks, White Bricks, Bluebird. Their signs still boast of weekly rates, color TV, A/C. Some of them even have individual cottage-style rooms to let, and for years I have longed to stay in one of those rooms and write for a night or two, just me and my typewriter and a view of the lake.
As we reach the southernmost city limits of Racine, Highway 32 separates from Sheridan Road. First it follows Racine Street, then Main Street as it passes through downtown. Then it follows Douglas Avenue for a while, a strip of fast food establishments, car dealerships, and hardware stores. I live, now, not too far off the Douglas Avenue stretch of Highway 32.
And north. Just as you cross from Racine County into Milwaukee County, from Caledonia into Oak Creek, there’s the power plant, hulking monstrosity spewing coal-smoke into the sky. I hate it, yet—when I was young, my friends and I would get muddy in the woods and the wild, weedy places nearby.
The towns and rural areas south of Milwaukee are a time warp. Tiny, moldering cemeteries tucked among corn and cabbage fields. Neighborhoods of abandoned factories with smashed-in windows, For Rent signs, the flickering neon of bars advertising Blatz—Milwaukee’s Finest.
In St. Francis, 32 breaks away from Howard Avenue and joins up with Kinnickinnic Avenue, which takes you into Bayview, the neighborhood in the southeastern corner of Milwaukee. I spent most of my Milwaukee years in Bayview, living in an apartment just a couple blocks west of KK/Highway 32. And I spent much of my time back then walking or riding my cherry-red bicycle down that road, as it veers northwest, occasionally stopping along the way. I’d play Tom Waits and Pogues songs on the jukebox at Lee’s Luxury Lounge, or write poetry and sip a glass of good whiskey at The Palm Tavern (RIP). I’d watch the boys playing baseball in Kinnickinnic Park, get a tattoo at Solid State. And nearly every day, I’d end up at Ye Olde Hi-Fi Cafe, the place I spent so many hours drinking coffee and writing that I referred to it as my office.
Further up, at the edge of Bayview, Highway 32 passes over the Kinnickinnic River. It is here that we will end our journey, as this bend in the river is often where I ended my days’ walks or bike rides. I’d pull trash from the weeds, bag it up to properly dispose of it later, then sit on the riverbank and watch the half-sunken tugboat slowly decaying back into the water.
I have lived and wandered near Highway 32 for most of my life. I have driven these stretches of road so many times. I have driven them to get home—as in where a friend or lover lived—and to get home, as in where I hung my hat. I have driven this road in the humid summer evenings with the hazy-ringed moon looking down, in the fogs of March and November. I have driven it in the rainy twilights of September and April, in deepest winter early morns with the sea-smoke rising off Lake Michigan when the only other things awake were the just-before-sunrise stars and the salt trucks. I have driven it in all kinds of weather, at all times of day, with the trains to the west of me and the lake to the east. I have watched hawks and owls swoop overhead. I have seen coyotes cross it; stopped for deer who suddenly appeared from the fog.
And the ghosts—I did tell you this was a ghost story—the roadside shrines of faded synthetic flowers, photographs, candles, all laid out in tribute to those who died along this highway. The shadows hopping from freight cars, or setting fires on the median strips. The small-town stores and old motels. And I swear, sometimes I see the ghost of the girl I used to be. She’s a hitchhiking ghost, standing alongside Highway 32, thumb out, ready to hop in and go wherever this road will take her.
Stories are like roads, and like roads, they don’t always follow a straight, linear course. Sometimes they double back on themselves, veer east, then north, then west. Sometimes they hew close to lakeshores or wind alongside rivers.
Highway 32 is my story. A silver vision stitched with gold, a ghost road littered with neon memories and red arrows on the route signs. Wherever I may roam, this road will always carry me home, and home, and home. I dream a highway back to you.
- My poem Highway 32 deals with the ghostly element in more detail. (Content warning: the poem mentions death and suicide, as well as uses some NSFW/not family-friendly language.)
- If you’d like a less personal, and much more in-depth, tour of Highway 32, this is a great one.
- More information about the 32nd Division can be found here.