No, not really.
I drove the length of Wisconsin, snaking a line from the Illinois border to Lake Superior, and passed through towns I’ve never heard of, rounding past lakes that didn’t have names. Minnesota gets the credit for ten thousand lakes, but smaller neighbor Wisconsin surpasses that with roughly 16,000 bodies of water, spattered haphazardly through the hills and valleys of glaciated woodlands.
I started my day avoiding the freeways and searching for Wisconsin’s famous cheese, taking quick side jaunts to towns like Monroe, the only place in the country that brews up the stinky-feet Limberger cheese, pairing it with braunschweger and the unpronounceable heavy-yet-flaky sweet rolls born of that immigrant Swiss/German/Bavarian mashup. Worth the detour.
(plus, this mural in the ladies’ room of beer flinging cheese at wine. Okay).
Milwaukee may be the city of festivals, but Labor Day weekend here in the sleepy southwest of the state is filled with traffic and revelers headed to the most… midwestern gatherings imaginable. William Tell apple-and-arrow reenactments in New Glarus. A cow-chip-throwing competition in Reedsburg. Tractor pulls, lawnmower races, cheese festivals, 4-H girls being crowned Dairy Princesses. I grew up a hundred miles away and imagined this sort of thing going on in Iowa or on the set of Footloose, not a two-hour drive west.
At an indistinguishable point the farms faded into forests. I almost turned back to see if this had happened gradually or all at once, but one moment I was passing through brown fields of sandy bare soil beaten into straight clean rows, and the next there were trees, quiet sentries standing guard over the road, green branches blushing with the first hints of September’s copper yellow red. In a month these leaves would explode in a fire of color, in two months they’d just be naked cold branches scraping the sky. Today was the only day of the year the trees would look exactly like this.
The trees invited detours. I followed a jigsaw puzzle road through the tiny town of Poniatowski to a pullout near the geographic conversion of 45° N, 90° W, the halfway point of the hemisphere. I visited the ice cream parlor where my family would stop on trips to my grandparents’, and remembered sitting with my waffle cone and Encyclopedia Brown book in the enormous vinyl backseat of our ’76 Dodge Dart. I listened to a stranger in a bait shop describe the monstrous “Hodag” that terrorized Oneida County, then confessed it was all bullshit and offered me a Hamm’s– at seven in the morning.
Eventually I made my way through the copper trees of Timms Hill County Park, wrapped around a portion of the 1200-mile Ice Age Trail of Wisconsin. At an empty parking area I signed in to the register and dropped a couple bucks in an unlocked wooden donation box, then headed up the scant quarter-mile damp path through the soft dappling of morning light.
The highest (natural) point is marked by a small sign, neatly hand-scribed with a woodburning tool, and perched above it is an observation tower. I climbed the steps–either 86 or 88, I lost count on a turn– and gazed out over the tired September treetops. I glimpsed the shimmer of a lake through the canopy of leaves; my map noted over forty lakes or ponds within the square mile around me. Birds chirped as the sun pulled over the edge of the eastern trees, and I leaned on the railing to sip my beer for nearly an hour in uninterrupted contemplation of my home state that no longer felt like home, watching the light paint the trees in the world down below.
About the beer:
Besides the beer that made Milwaukee famous, there are a hundred smaller craft breweries operating in Wisconsin. One of the most popular, and rightfully so, is New Glarus, tucked away in that same southern pasture zone I mentioned as the heart of cheese-land earlier. New Glarus is best known for two brews: a smooth but unremarkable Cream Ale called Spotted Cow that can be found on draught throughout the state, and a surprisingly tasty Belgian Red laden with locally grown sweet/tart cherries. I’d stopped in at the brewery’s shop as soon as it opened to scoop up the latter, but was captured by something new– a brewer’s choice Saison. I love a good spicy Farmhouse in summertime, so I took a chance and I’m so glad I did. The 2012 Thumbprint Saison is a perfect example of the style, smelling yeasty and peppery, with a touch of banana bread and a bit of clove and maybe just the slightest funk of dewy wet hay. It tastes the same way, the spicy/sour fruitiness like licking the juice that runs down your arm from a crisp green apple, plus some indescribable barnyard richness, a freshly-mown clover sort of taste. It’s an ideal end-of-summer flavor, and an ideal late breakfast above the fading treetops in Northern Wisconsin.