By Andy Tarnoff Publisher Published May 29, 2008 at 11:19 AM Photography: Zach Karpinski

Last weekend, we drove up to our cabin in Wausaukee for Memorial Day -- just like we do every year. We bought the place in 2005, and every Memorial and Labor Day weekend, the three-hour drive usually takes at least four. The traffic typically starts around Green Bay and slows to a crawl by Crivitz.

But this year, both on the way there and on the way back, the roads were clear. On the way back, we actually made it home in less than three hours.

For a village of fewer than 600, Wausaukee and its neighbors have a love / hate relationship with tourists and "shackers" (those of us who own cabins, pay taxes, but only come up on weekends). They need our business and the revenue we bring to the table, but they look at us as privileged outsiders who come in and take advantage of the area's natural beauty. By and large, however, people have been very nice and gracious to us.

But still, we aren't locals. Even my Up North neighbors who have been coming to the area for 20 years and are in the process of moving there full-time, are still treated differently. 

That's just part of the deal, but I suspect it's about to change.

Downtown Wausaukee is turning into a ghost town, and most of the commercial buildings are vacant. Save a few bars, a supper club, grocery store, a bowling alley and a hardware store, it's pretty empty.

But the one thing you could always count on is a jam-packed holiday weekend, full of Milwaukeeans and Chicagoans, eating, drinking and playing in the area's beautiful lakes and wilderness.

Friday night, the nightlife scene was completely dead. On Sunday, when stores are typically closed but stayed open for the Memorial Day boost in business, it was equally quiet. One of the storekeepers said to me, "I wonder if the high gas prices are keeping people away."

You think?

When we left Milwaukee, gas was hovering around $4 a gallon. I've seen exactly one Prius, other than ours, up there, so I know that most people aren't fortunate enough to be getting 50 miles per gallon. So for a car that gets 30 miles per gallon, that's about $50 in gas, round trip from Milwaukee. For an SUV or truck -- which is about all you see Up North -- that's easily $80, round trip. And from Chicago, that SUV is costing $120 to take the three-day vacation. That's a lot of money.

I've heard some people in the tourist industry say that high gas prices are definitely hurting the hospitality industry, especially when the tourists are expected to come from out of state. At least empirically, that appears to be the case.

But I wonder about in-state tourists and "shackers," like myself. Those tourism experts say that people will continue to travel but will perhaps spend less when they get to the destination. That can't bode well for the locals, either.

I'm concerned about the spill-over effect of insane gas prices on the area, both for these hard-working locals and for us shackers. Winter is always dead up there, but if summer is too slow, can these destinations survive? And for the shackers, real estate is moving very slowly. I'm always eying better waterfront property (and just about every property is better than ours), and I'm seeing the same cabins for sale that have been on the market for one or two years.

Bottom line: I expect Milwaukee to start feeling the pain at the pump soon, but we'll find a way to adjust. But for these distant in-state tourist destinations, I fear they might not be so lucky. Their infrastructure, like it or not, depends heavily on us. And based on what was supposed to be the biggest weekend of the year, people like us are staying home. 

Andy is the president, publisher and founder of OnMilwaukee. He returned to Milwaukee in 1996 after living on the East Coast for nine years, where he wrote for The Dallas Morning News Washington Bureau and worked in the White House Office of Communications. He was also Associate Editor of The GW Hatchet, his college newspaper at The George Washington University.

Before launching in 1998 at age 23, he worked in public relations for two Milwaukee firms, most of the time daydreaming about starting his own publication.

Hobbies include running when he finds the time, fixing the rust on his '75 MGB, mowing the lawn at his cottage in the Northwoods, and making an annual pilgrimage to Phoenix for Brewers Spring Training.