I am from Wisconsin.
As any Wisconsinite would tell you, that deserves all-caps. I AM FROM WISCONSIN.
After my first high-point climb in Arizona, and the subsequent dare/challenge to climb all of the state summits, it was obvious that my second climb should be Wisconsin. I couldn’t even imagine an alternate path, and besides, I was already planning a weekend trip to the area, to roadtrip around the Great Lakes and walk the neighboring Mackinac Bridge on Labor Day. I consulted a map and figured I could hike the highest points of Wisconsin, Michigan, and maybe even Illinois all in the same weekend.
As always, there was a hitch in this plan.
The Illinois highpoint, literally just a few steps from the Wisconsin border, is one of a handful in the country that is privately-owned. The owners are aware there is a bizarre subset of people who wish to hike their property, but they also understandably don’t want strangers tromping around their farm at odd hours. They’ve permitted “highpointers” access on just four weekends a year… and September 1-2 was the last weekend slot until next June. I needed to be over five hundred miles away in Michigan on the morning of the third, and Wisconsin was smack between the two. A headache-inducing logistical challenge.
Wisconsin, I tried. Throughout the next week I drew little sketches of the Great Lakes states in the margins of notebooks and tried to plot a course that would work in the time I had. It was impossible: Illinois had to be first, or not at all (I considered that, too).
And so (sigh): Illinois.
There is a long history of rivalry/animosity between our two states, and the only family-friendly of the epithets thrown southward is “Flatlander.” While Wisconsin is a varied landscape of forests and lakes amid gently rolling hills, Illinois is singularly and unbearably flat. In the winter it is a neverending sea of frigid snow; in summer it is a series of scarred freeways bisecting cornfields that ripple with a constant and oppressive warm wind. In a fruitful year the corn will tower over the road and curve in towards it like an amber tunnel, with only cracked asphalt below and a sliver of faded denim sky above.
I’ve come to a certain peace with Illinois, though, when one hideous summer many years ago I was driving through this unending tunnel of corn, punctuated only by a rare farmhouse or intersection or maybe a Stuckey’s, and desperate for a novel view I pulled over, climbed onto the roof of my car, and surveyed the land. I was struck by what I saw. For the first time in my life I was in a place so huge and flat that I could see the curvature of the earth, and I fought seasickness as I gazed out over the sun-worn dirty pale green of miles and miles of gently undulating corn. I re-framed Illinois in my mind: this land wasn’t boring, it had been ironed flat by 30-million-ton blocks of ice stretching over 400 miles wide. Back in my car I’d cranked up the Radiohead and imagined racing a glacier from Canada to Missouri, the corner of the ice digging down into the fertile earth and scraping it as clean as my highway, leaving behind a dun featureless landscape in its wake.
Today, though, I’m only a half-mile from the Wisconsin border, and despite the cornfields the land here still buckles with the kettles and moraines of a glaciated terrain. It’s a humid day with less of the wind I’d expected, and in my rental car I bounce across the unpaved roads leading to the Wuebbels’ farm with windows down, my hair streaming out the drivers’ side in a tangled flag.
There’s one other car parked at the gate to 688 Charles Mound Road, and a small sign from the landowners requesting visitors continue up their mile-long driveway on foot. It’s a pleasant walk through trees, pastures, fields, and past a small pond; the only sounds the buzzing of insects and the rhythmic crunch of the gravel under my sandals. The path forks at a postcard-image farmhouse, and I continue up the gentle slope another quarter-mile to the “summit.”
The peak of the aptly-named mound is little more than a clearing between the trees, with a welcome sign placed by the landowners and two lawn chairs overlooking what I’d guess is a soybean field. A tall blond guy in a windbreaker nods hello and goes back to snapping photos of this view while his toddler daughter shyly peeks out at me from behind his shins, then suddenly pounces sideways to chase a grasshopper in the yellow flowers nearby.
I kick off my flip-flops and tilt back in one of the lawn chairs to look around. It’s pleasant and tranquil, and it’s nothing I ever would’ve seen if it weren’t for this silly project. It doesn’t have that same rush of Arizona, of hiking a steep mountain for hours to be the highest person in the state, but it’s nice, and upon reflection I’m not the highest person in the state right now. Besides the towheaded girl currently sitting on her dad’s shoulders to my left, at 1235 feet I’m also lower than anyone starting their day in Chicago’s 1729’ Willis Tower, a three-hour drive that seems a million miles from this peaceful, quiet mound in the glaciated drumlin.
(reflection of my t-shirt only a very subtle dig. Very subtle.)
About the beer:
My previous time in Illinois has been spent either in Chicago or speeding feloniously fast through the flatlands, so after I’ve got the lawn chairs to myself I pop open what I remember as a tasty Chicago brewer, Goose Island. They used to rock an amazing strong stout, but it’s hardly noon on the day after August and so I chose an English Bitter called Honker’s Ale. It smells like breakfast-in-bed: scones and herbal tea and a hint of flowers, and it tastes as crisp and clean as the linen sheets I imagine would accompany such a treat. It’s a bit thin and not something I’d usually seek out, but it’s actually quite perfectly suited to surveying an isolated soybean field from a lawn chair.