Last March I was driving back from the high school sectional wrestling tournament in Merrill when I decided to stop at Duke's Lanes in Abbotsford for one of their famous hot beef sandwiches.
After ordering my food and drink, the bartender asked me where I was from and I said River Falls.
"Oh, then you must know Don Page," she said.
"I certainly do," I replied.
That wasn't the first time I was on a road trip somewhere in Wisconsin and a person asked me if I knew Page. And I'm sure it won't be the last.
Legend has it that Don Page and then-governor Tommy Thompson were once in a tavern in western Wisconsin, and when they left, two patrons turned to the bartender and asked, "Who was that with Don Page?"
Don loved road trips. His son David said when he was a small boy every family vacation turned into an adventure with Don at the wheel.
"He was notorious on family vacations for always knowing a short cut," David said. "Even though we were 800 miles from home and somewhere he had never been before he'd take a short cut and it would always turn into a cow path. Every time he said he knew a short cut Mom would just roll her eyes."
The first time I went with Don to the boys' state basketball tournament in Madison we left River Falls and headed south towards Red Wing, Minn.
"Don, where are we going?" I asked him.
"We've got to make a stop in La Crosse," he said. "I've got some people to see."
Until I met Don, I had no idea it took eight hours to drive to Madison.
Another time, Lance Gore and I were driving to Madison to see Don get inducted into the Wisconsin Football Coaches Association Hall of Fame. We knew Don and his wife Jo were on the road somewhere behind us so we pulled over near Osseo and gave him a call to see where he was.
"Just passing through Menomonie," he said. "Should we meet for one?"
Lance and I suggested the German Haus near Camp Douglas.
"Nope, they don't open until noon," he said confidently. "But I know a quaint little place in Mauston."
Don gave us directions and Lance and I pulled into the parking lot and thought, this can't be it. When we walked in I swear I heard the theme song from "Deliverance" playing in my head.
So Lance decided to call Don to make sure we were in the right place.
"Ask them if they sell eggs," he told Lance. Lance asked the bartender if they sold eggs and the bartender asked, "How many you want?"
"You're in the right place," Don said.
Going to Madison with Don was like going to Rome with the Pope. He'd give you a tour of the town, pointing out things like the house where he grew up and the school he went to as a kid.
"That's where our babysitter lived," he'd say with a gleam in his eye. "And the butcher lived over there."
Ultimately we'd end up at the Laurel, the Vatican of Don Page's Madison. They treated him like royalty, and he knew every customer, waitress and cook by name.
I learned a lot of things from Don over the years. Like never farm threes when you're playing dice, and always reinvest if you draw two fives on the Rose Bowl board. He used to say his secret to a successful marriage was that it was OK to be a little late getting home, but not a lot late.
But the biggest thing I learned from Don was that life is one big road trip. Don't be in a hurry. Enjoy yourself. Love your family and friends. Appreciate and respect the people you meet.
I'll miss you, Don. My road trips will never be the same, but I know you'll always be along for the ride.