Adventuring at Home

One of the many things that brought the world back into focus in August was a visit with my friend, Ahna Skop. Ahna was my house sitting client in Wisconsin and we hit it off right away. She invited me to stay with her in Blue Hill with old friends and in Bar Harbor at the MDI Biological Laboratory, where she was giving a talk. 

The trip was a tiny, much-needed adventure to my former stomping ground. I graduated from College of the Atlantic in 1996, and like many things in my life, I moved on without much looking back after I left. I returned about a year before my trip to meet with my advisor, the inestimable Karen Waldron. That visit to campus gave me a case of emotional vertigo, but it was fruitful.

This visit with Ahna was quite different; it allowed me to introduce my old world to someone who had never seen it before. I showed her my favorite parts of the place, introduced her to just one of the people I was longing to see, and we experienced the park in an easy way, meandering, luxuriating in the sun, in good company, time well spent.

On the first night, I met Ahna's friends, sitting around the kitchen table drinking tea and chatting about my trip, showing them some of my photos, and watching the happy jumble of family, friends, and pets swirl in and out of the room, tasting cheeses that Ahna and her friend Christina brought back from Islesboro, an island off the coast. I felt grounded there, slowing the invisible and untethered roller coaster of my return.

At dinner that evening, I discovered that Andrea, a designer (the brains and talent behind Shop & Apparel) and coincidentally the wife of the scientist hosting Ahna at the Bio Lab, was none other than a woman I've been friends with on Facebook for several months, but had never had a chance to meet, despite the fact that we both attended Alt Summit in California. The world continues to be a small place. We talked about photography, color, clothing design, and business. I felt my mind open up to a whole new world as we sat and watched the river wind its way by.

The next morning, Ahna and I met Karen for breakfast at Cafe This Way (I love a place that has real hollandaise) and then went to tour some of the college grounds. Sitting and listening to two smart, engaging women discuss everything under the sun made me glad yet again that I have a habit of collecting interesting people.

After basking in the sun for an hour or so and watching kayakers navigate the bay from the college's pier, Ahna and I embarked upon a full-bore tourist highlights tour of Acadia. We managed the whole park loop road, stopping frequently to breathe in the salt air and admire the rocky, red coastline and determined, craggy pines clinging to the edge of the world.

We stopped at Jordan Pond House for popovers and tea on the lawn, where dozens of bees rolled around in the tiny pots of strawberry jam on every table. I managed to down an entire bowl of blueberry ice cream that was nearly as big as my head; it was really quite amazingly beautiful and delicious. We wound our way to the top of Cadillac and took in the view, then went back down and past Jackson Lab so that Ahna could take a photo of the sign (major science nerd bucket list item) before heading out to Schoodic Point for a last look around.

As the sun started to sink we made our way toward MDI Bio Lab, where Ahna had a small cabin for a couple of nights. It turned out to be a quintessential Maine camp, perched high above the gravel beach, nestled among pines and hardwoods, and a stone's throw from the labs where Ahna was speaking the following day.

We walked down to the pier, stopping to peer into windows of tiny clapboard-clad labs that ringed the small rocky pathway, the perfect place to study sea creatures both large and small. Ahna exclaimed with pure delight over and over, overwhelmed at being near the workspaces of some of her scientific heroes. Her enthusiasm was infectious and I found myself getting excited at rubbing shoulders with the ghosts and discoveries of the past. 

After watching the sun go down over the cove we made our way to a late dinner down the road, snuggling under blankets at an outdoor table. The food was fresh and delicious, and the perfect end to a long day. 

In the morning I made coffee and watched it steam the picture window as the sun came up, sending fingers of pink and pale yellow out onto the quiet water. Ahna saw me off with a hug and a smile. My heart was significantly lighter, equilibrium restored.

As I made my way home, the huge bag of peaches from Christina's garden nearly glowed from the backseat of my car. I reflected on how lucky I am to have so many good friends in my life. I seem to have the right person for every conceivable situation and they appear when I need them most. Ahna's visit reminded me of so many of the things I love about my home state and allowed me to see it with a traveler's eye, a good reminder as I settle back into the rhythms of daily life.

Recovering

Recovering from the crash of homecoming was like a big, deep breath taken over a few weeks, then slowly exhaled over a few more. Writing about that time now is hard because it has become hazy in my mind, but here are the things I remember for sure and know to be true.

When you're sad, say yes to an adventure. If possible, spend the time with people who have known you for a long, long time and love you as though they saw you last week, even though it's been 5+ years and you've all been too wrapped up in your own lives to make plans that stick. Never mind that part, just meet them at the beachfront fried fish restaurant and wait for things to unfold. The food will be forgettable, but the friends will lift you up with their happy chatter and warm hugs. There will be no pressure, no hard questions, just an easy conversation.

After lunch, hop back in the car and caravan to a place you've always meant to visit, but never made the time for. Stick your feet in a saltwater pool, relax on a bench and indulge in idle conversation, paddle around a small pond full of lilies with someone you haven't seen in forever. Accept every hug, every smile, every expression of joy as the gift it is meant to be. This is the best part of your life: friends and adventures and home, all rolled into one beautiful afternoon.

Breathe this in, and out, and in, and out. Feel warmth return to your body, feel some semblance of wholeness come back to you. Understand that this is both a beginning and an end, taken in the best possible company, on the coast of Maine, which is once again home.

Hitting the Ground

Recently, someone said to me that it seemed as though I came back from my trip and hit the ground running, to which I replied that it was a lot more like I came back and just hit the ground. If you've ever been in a car accident, then you have some sense of how it felt over the first 2 weeks of my homecoming.

There was the first rush of friends, the giddy excitement of catching up in person for the first time in a year, drinks under umbrellas on outdoor patios, lunch out at my favorite place overlooking the river. Then there was a sickening thud somewhere in my middle. I walked outside whenever I could, visiting trails I'd never been to before, accepting invitations to parties and outings, making multiple plans for each day to ensure that there was no break.

There was a screeching noise, like metal being wrenched apart, and then the shattering of glass, shards spreading out in a dizzying whirlwind around me. I walked more, now taking my dogs along, organizing and reorganizing the boxes of things I had yet to truly sort, frantic to escape. There was a final shuddering thud, and the world stopped spinning. I started to cry and didn't stop for 2 days. 

One thing is for sure, I'm more in touch with the process of grief than at any other time in my life. I didn't exactly see it that way at the time but in retrospect, I went through a profound sadness, unexpectedly quickly.

This episode found me in a physician's office, barely able to speak for crying so hard, asking for medication to get me back on track. I saw a new doctor since my regular one was on vacation, and it reminded me again of just how awful it is to have to self-advocate at a time when the very best thing would be to not have to do that at all.

I took medicine for 2 weeks and recovered. I hibernated in my room until I could be better company, then slowly made my way back out into the world, slowly finding a rhythm to my days, the small, secret things that bring me happiness, like water drops on a blade of grass or a hidden bird's nest. 

The world was still there, going about its business, waiting for me to find this new pace of life. I found the energy to start looking for a job, reached out to a couple of close friends for daily support to keep me propped up, and waded in.

The Last Stop

For a long time after my family moved away, I had zero desire to visit my hometown. I felt disconnected from it and like an outsider when I was there. Many of my childhood friends have returned there to raise their families and it has once again become I place I love to go. I stay in town with Andrew and Cat or across the river in Vermont with Adam and Lyn, depending on what's going on and how I'm feeling. This time I stayed for 3 nights, visiting with many friends, swimming in ice cold lakes, wandering out to a stunning view somewhere in Jefferson with the usual suspects, and eating my weight in vegetables. On the way out I drove my usual route past the house in which I grew up, then out Pleasant Valley, a beautiful, quiet space with a dirt road winding between homes, past Mount Cabot, and on into Jefferson and the paved road home.

By the Seat of My Pants

Fully relaxed, I left for Montpelier and my friend Merin's house, only to realize that in the scramble of texting multiple people to make plans, I'd miscommunicated dates and suddenly needed a place to stay. Rather than turn back to Hanover, I found a campground at Limehurst Lake and settled in for one last night with Yoda.

The pause turned out to be magical, and funny, and exactly what I needed. I was forced to pause, which gave me a chance to consider just how huge this adventure was, and how lucky I felt to have been smart enough to follow my heart. 

The next morning I woke to pouring rain, so I responded in the only sane way one can, which meant finding Wayside Restaurant and eating an obscene amount of omelet, bacon, and toast while slowly drying out. I landed in the library for a while and worked for a few hours after perusing the book sale, where I scored a copy of Kate Christensen's Blue Plate Special for $2.

Merin finished up her morning and took me for a walk with her sweet pup in the woods, then we headed home for a simple dinner, a little TV, and an early night. I slept like a rock. After hugs in the morning, I hit the road for my hometown, the last stop on my adventure.

Down Time

After I left southern Vermont, I headed to the North Conway area to stay with my friend, Ben, for the night. We met old friends of mine for dinner and sat talking under the darkening sky until the mosquitoes drove us out. Ben and I went out to a spot on a road high above his house and let the darkness envelop us as the stars sank down to meet the fireflies in the field below. There's no other place like New Hampshire where the darkness is so velvety and complete, and the stars are so in reach.

The next morning I was up super early, making my way to Hanover to see my family. I traveled back roads the whole way, winding through woods and fields, navigating washouts, and eventually getting pulled over by a patient cop who let me know that the speed limit was not what I thought it was, then sent me on my merry way.

Eventually, I landed at my family's house, grateful for a giant hug from my cousin Nick, a room looking out over the river, and plenty of quiet time to read. My friend Georgia visited for a night, a luxury we don't often get to indulge in since she lives in NYC with her family.

My old high school friend, Kate, came for lunch and brought her kids, so we went off to Queechee Gorge to look over the edge of the bridge and then back to the river to dip our toes in.

There was plenty of time for my favorite beagle, Otis, making a fiddly but delicious cheesecake from my grandmother's recipe, sifting through family photos, checking out student artwork with my cousin Allegra, talking with my cousin Nick in the kitchen as he came and went between his various jobs, and spending time with my aunt and uncle in the woods.

This place and these people are some of my favorite on earth. A balm for my soul, every time.

Green Mountains

Vermont, with its soft, rolling mountains, deep blue lakes, and laid-back vibe, is one of my favorite places. I grew up on the Connecticut River, the border between Vermont, and my home state, New Hampshire. I remember being very small and thinking about how you could always tell when you crossed the border. Sure, you cross a river, but the mountains are softer and the people are somehow gentler in a way I can't put my finger on. There are no billboards. Crossing into Vermont from New York was no different. I looked ahead and thought "That looks like Vermont". Sure enough, I crested a hill and watched Vermont unfurl below, the state line passing in a blur as I increased my speed, happy to see those hills again.

I headed for Brattleboro, where I would spend a couple of nights with my college friends, Suzie and Isaac. I mucked around in my car for a little bit, consolidating things and tidying up, then Isaac and I headed off to pick up his son at a local wilderness camp. It was the final day, so the kids made milkweed fritters and cooked fish they'd caught in a nearby stream. After chatting with some parents and listening to all of the kids describe their favorite part of the week-long experience, we made our way home.

We went to dinner at a place overlooking the river, finding a quiet spot upstairs after navigating through a Margaritaville themed party outside. The food was good, and it was easy to pick up where we all left off 20+ years ago. 

We went for an early morning walk in Madame Sherri Forest, wandering through the ruins of the old house before heading up an easy trail to a deserted pond where we threw sticks for Goose. Bright orange and yellow mushrooms dotted the dripping woods and the scent of a recent bear was strong.

I wandered into town, poking into shops but feeling too hot and tired to try things on or spend money. I headed back to the house and went out with Isaac to see some of his recent development projects, watching the fields and woods stream by, happy with the luxury of keeping my eyes off the road. We stopped in at a small general store for some carrot cake jam and checked on the progress of a bridge. We made it home in time for dinner, and then some time in front of the fire pit under the setting sun.

On my last day, we headed to a lake that shall not be named, put in the boat, and putted off to find a rocky outcropping on which to spend most of the day. The place was packed, but we managed to find a good spot and spent a few hours lazing around, swimming, and eating lunch. It was time for me to leave too quickly, so my friends brought me back to my car, where we watched a bald eagle feeding her chicks for a bit before I left.

Going Modern in Albany

In Albany, I stayed with my friends Skye and Victoria and their kids, snuggling into their daughter Elke's tiny bed at night, watching the light from the streetlights pour across the beautiful apple quilt made by Victoria. We devoured modern art in the days I spent there, visiting Art OMI to see sculptures stashed in woods and fields, and the Egg and the bizarre warren of office space below it, which featured several large pieces by different artists. Elke belted out songs from Frozen in any place there was an echo. Victoria sewed my backpack patches on with her sewing machine, small potatoes next to the precise and stunning artwork that she creates for her online shop, The Binderie. We wandered their neighborhood, had cider donuts and checked on the old apartment in which their son Lyric was born. Someone had been using it as a clubhouse; they stole cabinets and appliances but apparently repaired the clogged roof drain that had caused the roof to cave in a bit. I left with a lighter heart, headed for Vermont, and so close to home.

Faltering

My week in Rochester was a tough one. Closer to home, and finally beginning to fully understand how very much I did not want this adventure to end, I faltered. It was hot and muggy, and I was staying in a student apartment that lacked any sense of home but had a great goofy Husky named Milo, who distracted me from feeling too morose. I wrote the rest of this post while I was in Rochester, in between wandering through Mount Hope Cemetery, visiting the Parks-Lamberton Conservatory, waiting patiently for Milo to recover from his sudden need for a power nap in the middle of any sidewalk at any time as we made our way through the nearby historic district. I also made time to visit the George Eastman Museum, which was one of the highlights of my stay there.

I'm sitting in a small apartment in Rochester, NY, listening to the rain pour down as I follow, online, my friends in their painful traverse of the final hours of the life of Clancy, their beloved father's dog. The upstairs neighbors are throwing a party, laughing and stomping their feet. I want to yell at them to stop, but instead, I am watching a lady make risotto on TV, still checking my phone every few minutes.

Clancy was a pup when my friends' father passed away, a living legacy for these many years. Clancy is dying now, and they have made the impossibly difficult choice to let him go. This dog is more widely loved than any dog I know, because of the ferocious love of his four human sisters. They have made him the center of their world. Clancy has helped them to heal; now that he is going, it is brutally hard.

In the midst of this, I learn that my dear friend's husband has died after a sudden, unexpected illness. I was lucky to spend time with this gentle, gracious, intelligent, humorous, absolute gentleman early in my trip and I simply cannot fathom the world without him. If you multiply the effect he had on me by thousands of light years, you will still never get close to how important he is to his family.

I am in tears over the loss of two souls who are deeply loved by those I deeply love, and who I had the good fortune to know also. This is the flip side of being connected, that there is always a loss, eventually. I'm grappling with what to say and how to say it. I'm not ready, nor prepared to face any of it, but that's not how any of this works anyway, in my experience.

I keep coming back to my own father's death nearly 30 years ago, remembering some of his writing, which my uncle later had printed and sent on to people he was grateful to as a sort of benediction for many years. They are the same words I read at my high school baccalaureate, and for some strange reason, left safe at home on this adventure; I have always had them with me until now. When I need them more than ever, I am on my own.

When I left on this trip, I experienced an excruciating sense of loss over several weeks, not just after I left, but for days and days before. My completely rote, safe life, my small group of treasured friends, my family, my beloved dogs - I was leaving everything behind for some barely articulated need to just get the hell out of where I was. I searched for help all over the internet and tried to express what I was going through, but there is no help for "loss caused by a positive choice." 

I have weathered losses quietly over these long months, relying on quiet conversations with close friends, reading and listening to books, spending hours and thousands of miles driving toward the horizon with only my thoughts spinning around. I have made very little art outside of photographs, shared less of what has hurt, and more of what has been the adventure that so many people are longing for. But, and there is always a but, there has been sadness, loss, and now, profound grief.

Some things are coming full circle here. The girls upstairs whoop and stomp on the floor, laughing through a chorus of some pop song. I watch a giant catfish swim across the TV. I think about daybreak and those moments that become defining before-and-after's. I met two beautiful souls, a man and a dog, who changed me for the better. I will honor their memories by always stopping to smell the roses, and by living my life with integrity. It's what they taught me, each in their own way, and I'm deeply grateful for the lessons.

Kidnapped in PA

This is my friend Elizabeth. She kidnapped me pretty much as soon as I arrived at her home. I decided that the best course of action was to develop an immediate, advanced case of Stockholm Syndrome and enjoy myself. I'd had a rough few days, so being taken off to a location I couldn't possibly ever find again - the sort of old family summer home that has a massive fireplace, a deep front porch, and a moose on the wall, and smells like old books, where everything is comfortable, fixable, and has a story - to eat sausages and corn on the cob, dig for fossils, drink wine, sleep in a twin bed next to a giant window fan, pick blueberries for a pie, scratch dogs behind their ears, and get to know some new and interesting people was pretty much the bees knees.

I visited Gettysburg when I was finally released back into civilization, wandering among the graves and statues, trying hard to imagine the battles that had taken place on what was now peaceful fields full of chicory. We went to a movie and had dinner at a great place, then took a quick tour of Carlisle, one of the many towns in which Elizabeth grew up. Her dad taught at the US Army War College, so she moved around a lot, and has an interesting perspective on home and place.

Pennsylvania was a relief. I felt light, refreshed, and able to move forward.

Digging In

He knew that under the tall grass of an apparently untamed future the steel rails of fear and habit were already laid. What he suddenly couldn’t bear, with every cell in his body, was to act out the destiny prepared for him by his past, and slide obediently along those rails, contemplating bitterly all the routes he would rather have taken.
— Edward St. Aubyn, Some Hope

It was in traffic in Chicago that my happy forward trajectory started to falter. The weather turned sour as I sat in the midst of a sea of cars, and I drove through torrential downpours for hours, hydroplaning my way across Indiana and much of Ohio before landing at Findley State Park for two nights, very much worse for the wear after a near collision with a big truck, and dreading setting my tent up in the rain. I sat in the car for 45 minutes, trying to decide whether or not it was even worth it, hungry, frustrated, and done with every little part of the journey. Eventually, I dragged myself out of the car and hopped around, muttering curses as I struggled to set up the tent just as the skies opened up again. There was a puddle in the tent when I was done and I was angry enough to wrestle a bear.

The next morning I ventured into town, walking around Oberlin in the rain, trying to jumpstart the warm fuzzy feeling that had so abruptly left me as I headed away from Milwaukee. I rallied a little bit, and the sun helped by coming out, but by mid-afternoon, I'd smashed my Kindle's screen enough to make it unusable, and my phone started acting funny. I went for a walk in the woods, which helped a little bit. As I moved through the trees, I tried to put my finger on what was bothering me so much. I was starting a long, slow slide into a depression. I didn't want to go home. I wanted to stay in this floating sort of incognito, pushing onto a new place. I wasn't sure I would fit at home. I couldn't tell how much I had changed, but I knew I didn't feel like the same person. I was afraid to look at my new self against the backdrop of my old self, and to then have to sit with all of it. Most of all, I didn't want to lose all I had gained: this new lightness, a readier smile, the drive to connect.

I left for Pennsylvania's Ohiopyle State Park in the morning, resolved to make the best of the next few days. I visited Cucumber Falls, and Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater and Kentuck Knob. I squeezed into an Andy Goldsworthy installation at Kentuck Knob, gazing up at the trees that grew out of its center, puzzling over how I would ever remain the new me when I returned home. I watched clouds scudding across the sky above bright green hills outside the house and found a little bit of grace inside myself. 

I woke the next morning with renewed hope, basking in the sun and looking forward to seeing my friend Elizabeth and her family. Along the way, I stopped at the Flight 93 National Memorial, which caused a gut punch of complicated, agonizing emotion. I'm not sure why I thought I could make a quick stop at such a powerful, somber memorial. The building sits in stark contrast to the meadows in which it is placed. The tall walls feel like a downed plane. The glass wall at the end of a long walkway allows the viewer to see the crash site and the long memorial wall in the lower field. Everyone spoke in a low voice, visibly moved by the immense tragedy that took place here. I went inside and quickly moved through the exhibit, overwhelmed by the sounds of the final calls made to loved ones, footage of the two towers, and the sight of so many people with tears in their eyes. I walked the lower memorial wall, running my hands along the stone, thinking about the people who died in that amazingly beautiful spot. After, I sat in my car and cried.

After gathering myself together, I moved on toward Elizabeth's house, unsettled, upset, and very much looking forward to something lighter for a couple of days.

The Milwaukee Domes

The Milwaukee Domes are totally rad. We went on an overcast, rain off-and-on sort of day. Christa and I were trying to get through my list of things to see and do, so we crisscrossed town, popping into one place after another. We took a breather at the Domes (the formal name is Mitchell Park Conservatory) and got a personal tour from our friend, Paula. She loves the Domes, the plants, and the birds that live there (they all have names, which I've unfortunately forgotten by now). It was a pleasure to spend an afternoon with a person who is excited about teaching you what they know. Plus, I'm a sucker for a good cactus garden any day of the week.

Is there anything more sinister looking than the tail of a bunch of bananas? I first noticed one at the Atlanta Botanical Garden and it freaked me out. There was one at the Domes too, but this time I was brave enough to take a photo of it. Sssssnakey. By this point in the trip, my camera was about as filthy as it's possibly for one to get without dropping it straight into a puddle, so the focus is oddly dappled. The whole enterprise felt more like using a film camera; I could see the shot when I took it, but no detail until I had a bigger screen. Sometimes the effect was good, sometimes not, but I decided to just go with it and hope for the best. 

The Circus and the Silence

While I was staying in Madison, I took a day to visit Baraboo, a small town within an hour's drive. I took back roads as usual, soaking in the rolling green fields, passing tiny farms nestled against tall trees. The sun was bright and hot, and the sky was very blue. I drove up an actual hill, which is a significant enough event in that part of the world that I proudly reported it to Christa a couple of days later. It was, in short, a perfect day for a visit to Circus World.

After my health insurance freakout, money was feeling a little dear, so I balked internally at the ticket price, but handed over my $19.95 with a smile. Tickets are less expensive in the Spring and Fall, so I'd recommend those times if you're thinking of visiting.

Circus World is a museum built in the former summer home of Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus. The first room is full of beautifully done exhibits that detail the lives of each of the Ringling brothers and their contribution to the circus they ran for many, many years. My favorite part was the poster exhibit, which showcased some of the beautiful, clever, and over-the-top illustrations in the museum's collection.

I wandered through several old barns, peering into circus wagons, marveling at a purple-carpeted clown car (smaller than a VW bug and they got 20+ clowns in it if I recall correctly), laughing at myself in a funhouse mirror, and checking out the big top, where there are daily shows.

After a couple of hours of rambling around, I went into town and checked out the Al. Ringling Theatre before beating a retreat to the cool shade of the woods at Parfrey's Glen.

A wide gravel trail pushes into the woods, slowly becoming narrower as tree roots and rocks become more prevalent. The trail makes no apology for going right through the middle of a rocky creek for about 25 feet, but the scramble is well worth the effort. Huge walls of black rock and soft, pebble-filled sediment tower above, seemingly held in place by moss and gnarled tree roots alone. Ferns are jammed into every conceivable nook and cranny, waving gently in the humid, cool air. There's a small waterfall at the end and there were several loud, shouty types, so I took a few photos and turned around after a short while. 

It was a day with the best of both worlds: the dusty, colorful, endless optimism of the circus, and the cool, green, mossy quiet of the woods. I was lucky to visit.

Madtown

I went to Madison to house sit for a very cool woman who is a scientist, and an artist, and a food blogger. Check out her miotic cell division cake, you won't be sorry. We spent a few hours talking about everything under the sun and connecting really easily, so I was sad that she was leaving, but happy to spend a few days with her sweet cats, Bonzai and Charlie.

On the first day I sat in a complete stupor, recovering from our whirlwind trip to the Apostle Islands. I headed up to Baraboo and went for a long walk in the woods (more on that later), spent a day working on this space, and then discovered that my health insurance premiums hadn't been paid for months.

I had a tantrum, but then Christa came to stay for a night, and we did all of the things in Madtown in 24 hours: hoofed it to the top of the capitol building to see the view and then took the fossil tour inside (there were later comments by locals on Facebook regarding the human fossils and invertebrates that currently inhabit the building, but that's another story), antiques shopping, the weird and wonderful Ella's Deli, the massive farmer's market, the Wisconsin Union for waterfront music on the terrace and a picnic dinner, the free and amazing Chazen Museum, and Colectivo Coffee (pretty much every time we walked by).

I spent one more day on my own and then joined Christa and Ted back in Milwaukee for a few days, soaking up all Milwaukee had to offer. 

I Will Never Recover from the Apostle Islands

The Apostle Islands National Lakeshore was by far one of my favorite places on this trip. Top 3, for sure. I'd go back in a heartbeat, and I would even live there, despite knowing that the winters are at least as tough as home. Maybe it's because it was so much like Maine with its ferries, big water, small cottages, lupines, and quiet, small towns, but I just fell right over in a faceplant of complete love, pretty much immediately. Add to that the apparent hall pass I got for dairy while in Wisconsin (I have celiac and, related, I'm not supposed to have dairy either, blah, blah, blah, boring, boring, boring, because it makes me feel terrible) and you have a cheese-fog-filled dream of a great trip to northern Wisconsin.

Christa came back from a long, hot trip to Washington, D.C. with her students early in the morning. The plan was to get some sleep, but instead we ended up grocery shopping, going to Chill on the Hill, and then getting up early the next morning and starting in on the long drive to Bayfield. Thankfully, there are cheese stores all along the way, so we had plentiful, fresh cheese curds available at all times, because we have our priorities in order.

It's possible to camp in many places in the islands; some sites are accessible by car ferry, while others are primitive and involve paddling a boat. We opted for Little Sand Bay campground on the mainland, where we set up for 2 nights on a large lawn overlooking the water and right in the perfect spot for sunset views.

Outside of that one time in Texas, I haven't bothered to build campfires during this trip, partly because I am too lazy, and partly because it seems like so much for just one person, never mind the price gouging for firewood bundles in most places. Traveling with Christa made the effort worth it, so we built a fire, got it roaring, let it go out, got it going again, and then Christa made dinner: 2 coal-roasted potatoes and a can of coal-roasted vegetarian chili, with slow melted s'mores for dessert. It was pretty spectacular. Also, my campfire skills have really taken a beating with lack of use. Time to get back to it!

The next morning we discovered Big Water Coffee Roasters in Bayfield and took advantage their electrical sockets while mowing through gluten free pumpkin chocolate chip muffins and coffee. We basked in the sun for a bit, then took a leisurely stroll around town, poking into a bookshop and some galleries before eventually heading over to Trek & Trail to get fitted for wetsuits.

After the fitting we made our way to Meyers Beach, ate some lunch, and met our group for a 3-hour sea kayak tour of the cliffs and sandstone caves along Lake Superior. We had a tandem kayak, so Christa steered while I took a photos. Our guides were really well-informed about the area, very enthusiastic about kayaking, and provided us with a quick geology lesson as we bobbed around in the lake. We got to go into several caves, one of which was more like a canyon; it got so skinny at the end that we were pushing forward with our hands on the cold walls. The range of color was staggering - some of the cliffs looked like rainbows, set in stark contrast to the aqua blue and bright green of the lake. We popped through several tiny tunnels by bending over the deck of the kayak and pushing through. The beauty of this place cannot be understated.

The next day we took the ferry out to Madeline Island, arriving late enough that  a startlingly large inline skate marathon was just finishing up. We walked down a long road before cutting into the woods, and snaked our way back to town on a winding, wooded trail. We stopped for a cool drink at Farmhouse, a lovely little house that serves things like foraged mushroom grilled cheese. I had kombucha with Tulsi (Holy Basil) in it, which I was fully prepared to dislike, but ended up loving, especially because it was unexpectedly sweet. We visited several shops in town, waited out a crazy rainstorm, and searched for agate in the freezing cold lake before catching the ferry back. 

We left early the next morning, just barely ahead of a huge rainstorm, and headed for Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest for one last night of camping. The women in the spot across from us were headed to a hotel after dire warnings from the camp host, but we opted to brave the weather, which turned out to be pretty tame. The next morning we hit Angie's for breakfast on the way to Green Bay, where I had my first ever photo in front of a stadium (sportsing not being my thing).

More coffee was procured, and then we headed for Cedar Creek to taste moonshine before heading back to Milwaukee and a very long nap before heading out to see Wilco that night.

MKE is the Place to Be

Wisconsin was home for something like 3 weeks. I stayed with my friends Christa and Ted (you may remember Christa from my Atlanta adventures last Fall) off and on as I completed a house sit in Madison, explored the Apostle Islands with Christa, and did a lot of sleeping.

Christa is the sort of person who is never fazed by even the most ambitious list of things to see and do. She has the most insane schedule, but seems to have time for it all. She's really good at saying yes and knowing that she actually has bandwidth, not just saying yes to be nice and then regretting it. She's always up for trying something new and asks a ton of questions because she's insatiably curious and completely unafraid to ask for directions or clarification. She says hello to almost everyone she passes on the street, no matter what. She is always trying to make a connection with another person, however brief. She's a great role model for me in all of those respects, and it makes her a very good travel partner.

Here's a partial list of the fun stuff we did in Milwaukee:

  • Walked over 8 bridges on the Seven Bridges Trail in Grant Park on Lake Michigan
  • Cleared 4 schools of old science curriculum and scored a giant collection of chemistry glassware. Christa's a science teacher and picked up some extra work this summer, which turned out to be a little bit of a bear, so I helped
  • Visited Foundation Tiki Bar for some excellent fruity drinks
  • Listened to a new friend, Caitlin Scarano, recite her excellent poetry and won a chapbook of hers because I was the only person in the room willing to yell to get it for free; the polite Midwesterners all shuffled their feet and looked at the floor
  • Finished the whole shebang off with an Old Fashioned at Boone & Crockett because we never made it to a supper club, which is now on my list for a future trip.

I freaking love Milwaukee. I'm sure that Christa and Ted's enthusiasm for the place, the people, and the nightlife there had a lot to do with it, but I also liked the Bay View neighborhood vibe, the huge number of parks, how very nice everyone was, and the close proximity to the lake and the city. I'll be back here for sure.

It's been awhile since I cried my way onto the highway, but I did after a very long hug goodbye. Thank goodness I suffered through that first year of college in the wrong place; I couldn't imagine my life without the friends I made there.

Silence Cure

Silence was the cure, if only temporarily, silence and geography. But of what was I being cured? I do not know, have never known. I only know the cure. Silence, and no connections except to landscape.
— Mary Cantwell, Manhattan, When I Was Young

Camping in Chicago

I never expected to camp in Chicago, but I'm so glad I had the chance. I met my friend Jess at Alt Summit in January, and gratefully accepted an invitation to stay when other plans in the area fell through. The only catch? Camping in the park. The parks system offers a couple of camp outs for families during the year, hosted by the local nature center. Families show up with a tent and help with food prep. There was fishing, a movie, cooking over a fire, and games. It was so fun and such a good way to get to know a new place in a completely different way. Definitely not something I would have managed on my own.

The next morning we hung around for a touch-the-big-trucks event for kids that was set up right down the street, then headed home for a bit before going downtown to an annual art festival and drinks on a friend's porch. 

All in all, it was a whirlwind visit and a whole lot of fun.