Full Circle

At this moment I find myself sitting propped up in bed, bathed in the cold blue-white glow of my laptop in the darkness of Lindsay and Bob’s guest room in Atascadero, California.  Five months ago we embarked on day one of the Walkabout and made our first stop here. It simply blows my mind that we started our trip here on May 21st, and have since then lived a thousand lifetimes over 14,000 miles and 15 weeks. Over summer we explored the far reaches of the United States, delving into some of the most remote and the most populous locations it has to offer. Readers of this blog will note that I have not posted since August 21. At that point it became too much of a challenge to take in everything I was experiencing, process it, distill it down to words and then pump the text out into digital form while still living in the moment. Instead, I continued to only keep a written journal. By Montana I had filled one small leather-bound volume and started another. These books hold irreplaceable memories of a transcendent journey. It is from these pages that I intend to tell the tale of the rest of the Walkabout, from Michigan to New York City and all the way back to the Pacific Northwest.

We’ve been back in California for a month, today, and I’m still processing all that transpired. So much has happened since returning, mostly in the last week. Over the course of four days I celebrated my 28th birthday, got engaged to Tim, signed the lease on our new place in Oakland and ran my first 5K (for which I had been training all summer long). Our new life is beginning, and the Walkabout’s success had a direct role in crafting it. As we settle down, I shall begin transcribing.

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The Accidental Incidental Great Lakes Walkabout, Part 1: Da Porkies

“I’ve always wanted to drive across the Mackinac Bridge,” said Tim, ever so innocently, once upon a time in Wisconsin. 
So it was that two hours north of Eagle River we found ourselves at a three-way intersection in Michigan confronted by the enormity of Lake Superior. We had entered Yooper Territory. See, Michigan consists of two halves, the Upper Peninsula and the Lower Peninsula, connected by the Mackinaw Bridge. Residents of the UP refer to themselves as da Yoopers and have a very distinct dialect. See here.
There’s no wonder less than five percent of Michigan’s total population resides in the UP. It’s a beautiful but harsh environment. Here, mosquitoes laugh in the face of DEET and coordinate relentless aerial assaults against humans at all hours of the day. Carnivorous flies penetrate multiple layers of clothing to rip away tiny chunks of flesh for breakfast, lunch and dinner. The weather is also much harsher in the UP. Our first night at the Porcupine Mountains State Park we experienced a thrilling thunderstorm. For hours, sheets of rain buffeted our tent, threatening to rip through its seams. Indeed, there was a fair bit of duct tape maintenance to be done the next morning. 
The Porkies are a small group of mountains at the far western edge of the UP, once the site of copper mining. In the heart of the mountains lay the Lake of the Clouds. This is the park’s most popular site, so we went there first for a relaxing little nature walk. 

After admiring the scenic vista for a while we headed over to the Union Mine Trail, a one-mile jaunt through the forest promising views of sparkling waterfalls, old growth forest, and the remains of the Nonesuch Mine. The previous night’s rain made for a distressingly humid day. As it heated up past 90 degrees, I entered the forest thinking, “It’s only a mile.”

One mile my ass.
It felt more like three or four miles through the Amazon rainforest. If my life was a movie, Credence Clearwater Revival’s “Run Through the Jungle” would have been playing in the background. Clawing through that hot soupy air, swatting away clouds of biting flies at every turn, wiping sheets of perspiration from my brow, I felt like a National Geographic photojournalist on the hunt to get shots of a rare species of tropical bird.  A dense canopy did provide shady relief in several spots, including those along rust-colored babbling brooks and waterfalls. By the time we emerged from the trail, I felt a great sense of accomplishment from just making it out alive.

Our plan to cool down at the beach was thwarted by reports from our neighbors back at camp, who’d tried to do the same and were driven away by droves of biting flies (again with the flies!). A short time later we found ourselves walking through the doors of Porky’s Pub ‘n’ Grub down the road.
“Hey dere, what can a get fer you guys?”
“What do you have on tap?”
[laughs] “Oh nothin’…I just got what ya see dere.” 
At first I thought, “Oh, great. This is going to be the lamest bar.” I was wrong; that was merely an introduction to the Yooper way: straightforward and not without a sense of humor. Tim and I spent a good three hours in conversation with Dennis the Bartender and other Yoopers who told us all about life in Ontonagon, Michigan. They regaled us with tales of driving through multiple feet of snow in the winter and joked about plans to lure tourists into the trees across the street in their quest for cell phone service.  
We learned a lot over the course of five beers, a basket of fries and two pan-fried Walleye filets. The most memorable part of the evening came when we overheard Dennis in a dark corner of the bar speaking in hushed tones to a new arrival. Words like “pounds,” “ounces” and “I got it” floated over. Glancing over at them, I saw a mysterious object pass between the two and examined under the bar. Drugs?
No…copper! Eventually Dennis came over to us with a huge smile on his face and excitedly plunked down a huge piece of copper on the bar. Michigan has one of the largest concentrations of copper in the world, he told us. After the copper boom dwindled, mining operations folded and left remnants strewn about. Now copper hunting is a local hobby.

That evening a violent thunderstorm drove us into our tent before the sun even went down. The bugs, the heat, the humidity, the sudden weather changes – it can all be summed up by something one of the guys at the bar told us. “Welcome to da UP. Everything here bites.”

Close Encounters of the Natural Kind

Wisconsin is a state of unrivaled dairy, verdant farmland and friendly neighbors. It’s also a singular font of natural wonders. For three days we camped at Franklin Lake in the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest. Imagine our surprise upon arriving to campsite with a moving carpet — dozens of miniscule frogs, each no larger than a nickel. Their hippity-hoppity welcome wagon was but the first of our Northwoods fauna encounters.

The forest surrounding our camp possessed a canopy so thick that sunlight merely trickled in in patches. Loons filled the air at all times of the day with their signature call. Unseen animals scurried about in the undergrowth. Clusters of skinny white-barked birch trees held leaves that rustled  gently in the occasional breeze, shimmering in the light. Franklin Lake itself is a hidden gem of pristine water, its tranquility preserved by an undeveloped shoreline. Hardly any boats disturb its placid waters which offer respite from the oppressive afternoon heat and ravenous insects.

One day we had to go into town for provisions. Zoned out in the passenger’s seat on the way back, I suddenly noticed an irregularity in the greenery outside. Before my brain had a chance to register what the dark form was, Tim exclaimed, “Did you see that?! Was that a bear?” Before I could answer, I felt the car moving in reverse. Outside of the rear window a black bear lumbered along the shoulder of the road. We had come within ten feet of it just seconds before.

The next day we embarked on a fishing expedition through the Eagle River Chain o’ Lakes. (Not kidding – it’s officially spelled “Chain o’ Lakes.”) This vacation community is highly developed, its shores crowded with summer homes, lodges, private piers and dockside restaurants. It is not the kind of place I would expect to have any Steve Irwin adventures. A couple of hours into the trip found us quietly casting our lines into the depths of Eagle Lake. Suddenly, out of nowhere, a bald eagle appeared in the sky! My jaw literally dropped as it soared overhead. Up until that point, the bald eagle had been a mythical creature to me, a fabled endangered species of grade school text books and American coinage. In the flesh this eagle was far greater than any photograph. After it flew away a hungry osprey grabbed our attention. It dove into the water in front of us and shot back up with a fish in its mouth, just like a scene out of Nature. Nearby, common loons likewise dove into the water, then skimmed the surface wailing and elaborately displaying themselves for any loon ladies in the area.

We lazily explored six or seven lakes that day and caught no fish. On the way back to the marina we sped through the waters where we could. Lucky for us we entered a “Slow No Wake” zone at just the right place. Perched upon an old tree stump at the edge of the shoreline  sat a humungous golden eagle. It was about two feet tall with nutty brown plumage, sharp golden talons and blazing yellow eyes. It rotated its head around nearly 360 degrees, scanning for prey. As we crept around the corner, coming within 15 feet or so of this imposing raptor, it did not flinch or otherwise indicate that it considered us to be any higher on the food chain than it.

That night we may have settled for a weenie roast instead of fresh fish for dinner, but we did not go back to camp disappointed. Nature had provided such an excitingly singular experience for us that day that it was hard to complain. She did, however, tax us in the form of overly-aggressive mosquitos, tent-loving spiders and huge black beetles that randomly rained down from the trees. Still, I’ll never forget my exotic Northwoods safari. The morning we left Eagle River to head north, Nature threw in one last freebie: a second bald eagle perched atop a telephone pole bid us farewell.

Madison…It’s Like Davis in the Midwest

I’d heard Madison called the “Berkeley of the Midwest” before, but I think it’s more like Davis. It’s a slow-paced, bicycle friendly, culturally diverse university town. But it gets bonus points for being an attractive state capitol, having a supremely vast arboretum and for being situated across four lakes. Downtown Madison itself is an isthmus, laying between Lake Menona and Lake Mendota.

This morning we rambled around downtown, the hub of activity every Saturday morning when the Dane County Farmers’ Market takes place. Today it was extra crowded with a huge art fair taking place concurrently on the Capitol Square. The variety of beautiful produce was familiar, and I found it interesting that Californian spring crops like peas seem to be summer crops in Wisconsin. Booths hawking cheese curds (“They’re squeak-a-licious!”) and local brews gave the market an unmistakable Wisconsin flavor. Lunch consisted of New Glarus Spotted Pig ale and savory stuffed pastries called kolaches.

After lunching we explored the State Capitol building. This elaborate beaux arts building puts Sacramento’s Capitol to shame with its lavish interior. Vibrant glass mosaics, rococo sculptural elements and gold leaf ornamentation abound. I was particularly amused by the four badger sculptures guarding each compass point of the building.

Badgers and Wisconsin – they go together like Nilla wafers and banana puddin’.

Tomorrow we continue north to Eagle River, Wisconsin to make good use of our fishing licenses. If all goes according to plan, we’ll be frying up a couple of fresh fish fillets for dinner at least once this week. If not, we’ll have an opportunity to hone our sandwich-making skills. It’s a win-win situation, really.

CUBS WON!(?)

Yes. Yes they did. I saw it with my own eyes.

Today we topped off the trip with a much-anticipated architecture tour down the Chicago River. Ever since reading The Devil in the White City, I’ve been eager to learn more about this city’s architectural history. The Chicago Architecture Foundation’s river cruise did not disappoint. Our delightfully snarky docent exuded true Chicagoanness, and his passion for the city provided an engaging and entertaining history lesson aboard Chicago’s Leading Lady. I do wish we had time to take a walking tour of the Loop’s architecture. It is the birthplace of the skyscraper, the area in which many of Burnham and Root’s buildings, including the Rookery, are located. Next time I’m making it a priority.

Tonight’s our last night in Chicago. For the tail end of our trip we’re staying downtown at the Allerton Hotel. It’s a lovely place right on the Magnificent Mile. Last night we walked up to Tim’s parents’ old neighborhood, the Gold Coast, and had ourselves the ultimate deep dish pizza at Lou Malnati’s Pizzeria. I’d had deep dish in Chicago before, and it was nothing to write home about. In fact, the stuff they served up at Uno’s was pretty terrible. But if you’re looking for that perfect pie – thick buttery crust that  holds up honorably to layers of fresh mozzarella, peppery homemade sausage and tangy-not-sweet sauce thick with tomato chunks – Lou Malnati’s is your place.

Tonight we realized that our destination for tomorrow still had a question mark next to it. We’d entered the unplanned chapter of the Walkabout. It felt kind of odd, but liberating. This is the freedom of the Great American Roadtrip! The plan now is to drive back up north through Wisconsin (apparently we can’t get enough of America’s Dairyland) and explore Kettle Moraine State Forest. Totally new and mysterious territory for both of us. Glacier land here we come!

Chicago and the 3rd of July

View from the John Hancock building

There’s something in the air here. Something that makes Chicago feel like home. Indeed, after spending the better part of a week riding the “L” and walking miles and miles of its perfect grid, I feel as though I’ve reacquainted myself with an old friend. We’re staying in the cutest little apartment too in the neighborhood of Norwood, northwest of downtown along the Blue Line.

Home Away from Home
Wednesday was by far the highlight of the week, it being the day we chose to celebrate the holiday. I spent the morning gallivanting around the Loop, watching the Grant Park Orchestra rehearse in Millennium Park and spending a good three hours at the Art Institute of Chicago (not nearly enough time). I’ve got to hand it to the city when it comes to accesible arts and culture events. All summer long, the Grant Park Music Festival showcases a variety of artists in concerts that are free and open to the public. Even the venue’s architecture is a spectacular experience, with its beautiful thick ribbons of brushed steel.
Concert Hall Quality in a Public Park
With a wee bit of symphony as the soundtrack for my morning, I caught the Impressionism, Fashion & Modernity exhibit at the Art Institute. It was a trifecta of Drea-tuned interests, impossible to resist! I could have spent the entire three hours just on this exhibit alone, but was surprised and delighted by every other turn I took through the seemingly endless galleries. Perhaps the biggest highlights for me – in addition to 19th century fashion plates and garments – were Van Gogh’s The Old Guitarist and The Bedroom. Seeing such monumental, iconic works in person was pretty jaw-dropping.
On the deck of the Odyssey
That same evening Tim took me on a fancy pants dinner cruise aboard The Odyssey on Lake Michigan.  It was incredible! Leaving from Navy Pier, the ship slowly wound its way up and down the Chicago shoreline, providing enchanting views of the city skyline. Cloudy as it was when we embarked, the skies cleared up well in time for the holiday fireworks show. Surrounded by a motley crue of sailboats, yachts and other vessels, multicolored lights shining all around, countless faces aimed in the direction of the fireworks barge, dance music blaring in the distance, and the air thick with anticipation, it felt kind of like Burning Man. Imagine my disappointment when no 40-foot-tall effigy was burned to a fine crisp for the finale! Still, a very special time.
As for the actual Fourth of July, Tim and I celebrated with one of the finest of American traditions: lazing about. Yes! We stayed in, had ourselves a lazy day, watched Django Unchained and made Filipino food. We even enjoyed hours of fireworks, as viewed from our cozy little apartment in Norwood. Being in a place with far fewer fire concerns than California is pretty damn exciting on Independence Day.