This past weekend I made that road trip again, this time only as far as an idyllic little town west of Madison. It is a lush, green country draped about the steady marches of sandstone hills, untouched by the glaciers that leveled the rest of the upper Midwest. It feels old; it is old, and though change does come, it comes at its own pace. In a few places the virgin oak savanna endures, though nowadays it is mostly a relic of the past, still tucked away off a winding ribbon of road. The farms hidden away in the valleys carry on in a peaceful slumber, and the Main Streets are more than some talking point repeated by a politician in desperate search of folksy cred.
Of course, I can’t help but see it through colored glasses. So much of my story starts in and around Madison. That story isn’t always a happy one, and it feels incomplete in several ways as well, a sense recently reinforced by a second rejection of Badger red and white. I probably won’t ever share my parents’ alma mater, with money and friends winning out over nostalgia. And yet somehow my Wisconsin roots still somehow tie me to the land there in a way no other place can. One side of my family comes from a farm I was never a part of and can’t really go back to; the other owes its considerable strength to its people, not to any real place. I may seem a Duluthian to the core now, but until fairly recently I was torn, never quite sure where I was from. (More on that in a couple of days.) Memory here runs deep, even as new developments go up and the people move on. It is still that enchanted garden of childhood, where all of nature has a soul and wonder still seems commonplace, distant enough that each visit is a novelty, yet close enough that it isn’t too hard to remember the details.
There are plenty of tangible ties that bind. There’s the quintessential Madison: Farmer’s Market on Capitol Square, or a walk up State Street for a bit of summer bliss on Memorial Union Terrace. The thunderclouds roll in and out on humid summer days, but somehow, the weather is always perfect in the center of the city, and the lakes offer some respite from the sweltering heat. A bratwurst off the grill, a bag of cheese curds, a beer, fruits and vegetables reminding that their ilk are not all created equal: some taste so much crisper, so much more real. A curious little observation from the latest trip: even the parking ramps have their own smell. And, of course, the endless people-watching in this city full of curiosities.
Too much of that? Head west. The place I know best is Mount Horeb, a quaint town of Norwegian and troll kitsch that somehow still manages to welcome in a world-weary cynic, both in its small-town feel and its easy access to Madison. A town where one can wander up from a worn but cozy motel to a coffee shop or a bar named The Grumpy Troll. But there is so much more out here. Glacial Devil’s lake, otherworldly Parfrey’s Glen, parks atop the highest bluffs and caves beneath them, the Wisconsin River. New Glarus; Mineral Point. A hill or a stream or a stand of trees tucked away in some recess of childhood memory, a back corner that barely seems like the same life. Bob Uecker on the radio, the bugs splattering all over the windshield, and a few miles stuck behind a tractor or some other slow-moving piece of farm machinery. American Pastorale.
This time around, it’s a high school graduation, yet another event that pulls me back into youth. The moment comes. A moment where the mind, perhaps aided by the sticky heat and a bit of beer, imagines a world that could have been. In the past it’s been a source of anguish, but no more: now it simply is. Reality blurs into something that defies everything we’ve come to know, and even if it is only a fleeting instant, it endures, lingering without overstaying its welcome. An anchor, a reminder that we humans, for all our dreams and aspirations, are always part of a story whose authorship we can’t quite control. Roots may bind, but they nourish in a way nothing else can. We may be stuck with them, but we do have some measure of control over how we interpret that list of facts of who we are and where we come from. Finally, I’ve managed it, even as it all fades further into the summer haze.
The world of enchantment may be gone now; it may never even have been. Just something that only exists in a nostalgic corner of the mind. Chasing those waves for their own sake will only bring about frustration. But they are no lie, and when they do come along, spontaneously, they are to be cherished; affirmations that, whatever it is we’re doing here, it’s a delight. And then, recharged, we can cycle back out for a night of revelry, too deep in to even be conscious of that reverie, the disparate strands of our complicated selves becoming one. As it should be.