It was about a quarter mile into the short hike to the Wisconsin River that I threw off the weight. The weight of sirens, impatient car horns, tourists, shootings, and the helpless feeling of being unable to help homeless people.
I stopped in my tracks, recognizing that the only sound to be heard was the wind in the trees. I did not check my phone or even think about the mountain of email that I’d find when I returned. I just looked up into the canopy of trees and felt the thin length of sunshine that made its way through.
That’s when I remembered that the power of nature is the only thing worthy of the term awesome. And it is. Awesome.
Back in the nineties, I worked for a dot.com that took me on a wonderful and demanding roller coaster ride. I reached a point where I was waking up at 2 a.m. thinking about what I hadn’t gotten done or what I had to do. And I was told by my employer to take a vacation.
Beth, I and Pandora the Seeing Eye Dog rented an oceanfront place in the basement of an old Nags Head style cottage in Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina. We frolicked in the ocean, we ate fresh fish, we befriended our upstairs landlord. And lulled by the sound of the ocean through our bedroom window, I slept. Like a baby.
And so it was this past week in Wisconsin. I was told by my bosses to take a vacation. This time it was a one-room log cabin just about a mile from the Wisconsin Dells. For those of you who don’t know, the Wisconsin Dells is a ticky tack tourist destination where you can eat all the fudge and buy all the moccasins you want and go on amphibious duck rides and slide down enormous water slides and jet ski and well, you know. The Dells are also a real thing—beautiful rock formations carved by the Wisconsin River.
Despite Scott Walker’s best efforts, Wisconsin remains a wonderful place. Full of wonderful people who demonstrate the opposite of the ostentatious. On a walk through town, I passed a pizza joint that had a sign on the door: “Tree fell on our roof at home. We’ll try to be back by 7:00 p.m.”
Wisconsin is also full of natural beauty and fresh water left by glaciers. And a whole lot of trees. I took the hike to the river over and over again just to smell the trees and fresh air. I took a dip in the river while boaters passed by. I went into town to get groceries and drove down the main drag to find that the motel that I’d stayed in with my family decades ago was still there. I missed them. I took a Wisconsin Ducks ride.
My time near the river was too short, but I’d planned my re-entry well. I took a tour of Taliesin, Frank Lloyd Wright’s masterpiece residence, and it was an unexpected delight. I went there feeling like it was something I should do because it would be good for me, and I left feeling like… it was good for me.
I then drove to Madison for a night in the “city.” City is in quotes because Madison isn’t really a city like, say, Chicago. It’s more a state of mind. It’s a great college town like Champaign-Urbana or Ann Arbor or Iowa City–times 10. I went to a place on the Capitol Square called the Old Fashioned and had a proper Wisconsin Fish Fry. The perch was superb. I walked down State Street to the University of Wisconsin Student Union and watched sailboats on the lake.
The next morning I walked the Square and took in what has to be the greatest farmer’s market in the world. Well, I’m saying it is, anyway. Street musicians, cheese, local produce, and food trucks. I had the breakfast empanada, and it was sublime.
It was hard to leave. It was hard to come back.
I picked up Beth on my way home. She was visiting with our great-niece Floey and some other friends in the suburbs. Back at our place, I read the mail, dropped my bag, and we headed out to return the rental car. We walked home downtown and stopped for a drink to debrief one another about the past few days.
I was a little melancholy, as the taste of vacation had just whetted my appetite for a longer one. The remedy: We went to the White Sox game Saturday night, John Danks pitched like he was a young man who’d never suffered a shoulder injury, and the Sox beat the Yankees.
On Sunday, we got a text from some dear friends whom we met a few years ago by some crazy happenstance worthy of its own story, for another time. They invited us to a picnic in the little park just outside our place. We ate cheese and olives and a fresh green bean and tomato salad and drank wine, and were cooled by something stronger than a breeze but not strong enough to blow our goods away.
We sat opposite another group that had gathered for their own picnic, and one of them—a friend who lives in our building—brought us some home-made potato salad to share.
It was good to get away. And it is good to be home.