When I’m driving along the road, I usually try to stop for the historical markers, informational waysides, and other signs that were erected for my education. Sometimes I learn something that I never knew, and might never have had another opportunity to find out. Sometimes I discover that an important event occurred not far from where I’m standing, which makes me feel part of “something bigger.” Sometimes a famous person turns out to have passed through the area, and to have done something not-so-famous in the process; it helps me see that even the tiny things we do may have great significance.
Sometimes the sign points out something that sets me to thinking. This sign, on the Nicolet National Forest in northern Wisconsin, is one of them. Located near the border of Forest and Vilas Counties, on the eastern edge of Wisconsin’s “Northern Highlands,” it marks the continental divide of the eastern United States. While all water east of the spine of the Rockies ends up in the Atlantic Ocean, there are two routes to get there. Groundwater east of this sign eventually makes its way to the Great Lakes and thence to the St. Lawrence Seaway, where it flows out the north Atlantic and mingles with the frigid waters there. To the west of this divide, waters flow to the Mississippi River and out to the balmy Gulf of Mexico.
Reading that this morning, I pondered how curious it was that, here in the sparsely-inhabited Northwoods, we have a connection to those far-away, almost mythical-sounding locations. I would bet that most people in Forest County have never even considered going to either of those places, yet the actions we take here have a far-reaching effect. We are used to thinking about the watersheds affecting our local lakes and streams, but we rarely consider that we all live in the watershed of an ocean.
Beyond the ecological implications, this sign reminds me of the historical forces that shaped our northern states. The St. Lawrence Seaway and the Mississippi were the two main routes of exploration in the early history of the United States, and both led to Wisconsin. It is fascinating to consider what those two waterways have meant for the development of our state as it is today.
I didn’t expect to have this much to say when I pulled over on a whim today. I encourage you, too, to stop at your local wayside markers sometime soon, and rediscover something that you thought you already knew!