Midwestern Autumnal Realness

Autumn is my favorite season. Much of the reason for this is my undying love of Halloween, but I also embrace the crisp weather and watching the leaves change color. This time of year makes me crave walks in the woods, campfires, and red wine. At home, I light candles on the window sills and curl up under wool blankets and watch movies all day. I am ready to hunker down and enjoy the harvest season. Pretty much since early October and on, I’ve been crafting costumes, listening to Bon Iver, burning forest-scented candles, and rewatching that one Harry Potter movie that’s two hours of our heroes camping while being tortured by existential dread. I’ve been compiling slow cooker recipes and even signed up for a weaving class so I could learn how to use a loom for maximum hygge skills. Autumn is basically prep time for hibernation season a.k.a. winter and I am 1000% here for it.

I do well in the cold. Maybe it’s my quarter-Swedish blood, or my Midwestern roots, but I like to think I approach winter with the stoic attitude of a Viking warrior. Like Lyra Belacqua or Jon Snow, I’m drawn to the North. I prefer camping in the crisp, quiet serenity of fall over the sweaty, sunburnt heat of summer. As the temperature drops, I simply add more layers–wool socks, wool leggings, stocking cap. Wool is magical, and I like anything that allows me to keep staying outside, watching the moon disappear and reappear from behind wispy November clouds. I love the smells of autumn–pine needles, fresh snowfall, campfire, whisky–all enjoyed while wallowing in cozy knit sweaters like I’m damn Felicity. Currently, I’m reading a book set in Kamchatka and reveling in the descriptions of desolate, icy tundra. Earlier today,  I shoveled snow from our sidewalk and wore my favorite winter boots that make me look like a 70’s-era Star Wars extra.

I think what it all boils down to is my love of the changing seasons. I can’t imagine living in a place where the weather doesn’t drastically change every several months. Seasons create rituals, and I fully lean into them. I make playlists for every time of year (currently queueing up “Cozy Winter Cabin” on Spotify to accompany Chicago’s current snowfall). For the next several months, I’ll embrace my favorite knit caps, pumpkin bourbon-scented candles, fluffy slippers, and Pendleton blanket. I’ll enjoy the sound of ice crunching beneath my boots and watching my dog frolic in powdery snow. I’ll go to hot yoga class for that Swedish sauna moment. I’ll spend decadent Saturdays watching an entire season of a television show while drinking a lot of pinot noir.

But most of all, cold weather gives me the gift of time to work on projects. It’s usually when I do the most writing, and when I most enjoy losing myself in an engrossing novel. I’ve said before that winter pushes hibernation upon me and forces me to give up the non-stop social and travel schedule I keep during the spring and summer. I’ve got my cozy home office prepped and ready to go, with plenty of candles waiting for me on the window sill.

 

Midwestern Summer Nostalgia

I’ve spent 5 out of the last 6 weekends away from the city–on the shore of Lake Michigan, in a small lakeside town in central Wisconsin, and camping along the banks of the Wisconsin River. I return to these same places every summer, spending a good chunk of my July and August floating in freshwater and soaking in midwestern sunsets. Even though I have an impossibly long travel wish list and try to go to new destinations as often as possible, I look forward to my midwestern summertime every year.

This year, I took along a waterproof speaker and attached it the front of my kayak with bungee cords so I could listen to a mix of pop, indie rock, and 70’s AM Gold while paddling. I’d tuck a New Glarus Spotted Cow in a coozie into the drink holder, then leisurely cruise around the lake, sipping my beer and humming along to “Waterloo Sunset”, “Summer Breeze,” and “Night Moves.” As the sun set further into the sky, the surface of the lake turned glassy and still, reflecting the dark silhouettes of tall pine, the sky above a melted popsicle orangey pink. I spend a week with my family on this lake every year. We take rides on the pontoon boat and drop anchor in different parts of the chain, cannonballing into deep water. There’s home movies of me at 5 years old, playing in these same waters, the same orangey sunset in the background, overlaid with the staticky fuzz of VHS.

Every August, a group of our friends do a float trip on the Wisconsin River. For 16 years now, we return to the same campsite along the river bank. In this timeframe, people have come and gone, gotten married and had kids, and moved out of state. But every year, we keep going back, reliving the same carefree day spent floating down the same 6 miles of river, drinking local beers on sandbars and laughing over memories from years ago. We retell our favorite stories while living out new ones that will be told over the same fire pit in future years.

I’m a notorious winter apologist, but there’s nothing like summer days and nights that bring out my love for the Midwest. Give me three months of campfires, golden afternoons spent kayaking to the lakeside bar,  hiding out from hot days while sipping Bloodys and Old Fashioneds in a dive with flannel curtains on the windows, and dipping my bare feet into silky blue water as it runs along the sides of a canoe. I fantasize about leaving the city for longer stretches of time to live on the water, somewhere quiet and wooded, where fog lingers in the mornings and burns off as the sun rises, and the surface turns to glass as night falls.

This Winter

I’ve spent most of my life in Chicago, through countless blizzards, several polar vortexes, early October frosts, surprise late April flurries, and as of this past week, the second coldest day in recorded local history. On Wednesday morning, the thermometer on our back porch registered -22 degrees (the record stands at -27 in January 1985, when I was 5 years old).

River pees on the porch in -22 degrees

While these extreme polar vortexes are more the exception than the rule, even an ordinary Chicago winter is typically brutal. It can be festive and pretty up to and through the holidays, but the dreary gray skies and frigid winds that batter us through January, February, and early March can really drain your spirits. And that’s not to mention the endless shoveling of sidewalks, the chipping of ice from windshields, salt stains on your heavy winter boots, and short days with long nights spent cooped up inside.

And yet, I love winter. I love CHICAGO winters. As a Midwesterner, I crave the rhythm of seasons. Winter is a time of resting under warm blankets, watching movies and drinking wine while the dog curls up on our feet. As soon as spring breaks, we tend to run  headlong into sunny summer days when we barely spend a weekend at home, taking in every opportunity to drink in the sun, jump into a lake, and sit around a campfire. Summer is a period of nonstop activity, and winter is, for me, is the perfect period of forced rest spent reading, writing, cuddling and catching up on TV shows. (Just like the pioneers but replace needlepoint with Netflix).

The temperatures on Wednesday were low enough to give you frostbite in less than 5 minutes. But inside our toasty warm house, in my Jon Snow t-shirt and Swedish winter cap, a steaming mug of coffee in my hands, I was living my Laura Ingalls’ “The Long Winter” best life. Candles and a salt lamp made my home office light and cozy.  I was all set for a peaceful day  bathing in the light of my laptop while frosty patterns swirled across our windowpanes. Then, Kurt realized his van got towed (someone  got home late the night before and forgot about snow routes). A few minutes of cursing went down, then I posted a quick “out of office, brb” message before layering up in all of my winter gear to drive Kurt to the city impound lot.

Outside, the winter sun seemed brighter as it reflected off the heaping snowbanks (we had gotten about 6 inches of fresh snowfall two days earlier). As we walked to the garage, the frigid air hit my face like a slap.

Traffic was light, but it wasn’t quite the ice-covered ghost town I had expected. A few brave souls were out and about, running their cars to keep their batteries from dying in the extreme cold. As soon as we got to the impound lot, I understood why–after paying for the van’s release, Kurt couldn’t get the engine started. Our poor van had given up on this batshit weather and died on city property. In my car with the heat running, we called multiple towing companies, but they were all either too busy to assist or gave an estimated wait time of 4-5 hours. With no other options, we left the van at the lot and went back home so we could finish our afternoon workloads.

Later that same night, the sun long gone, we went back to the impound lot to meet a tow truck, which showed up roughly two hours later. Sitting in the car with the engine and heat running, I read Twitter all the way to the end. My feet froze in the passenger side while my entire face dried out from the heat blasting from the vents. Finally, our tow truck savior pulled up. I would have cried tears of joy but they would for sure freeze on my face. Kurt rode in the truck with the driver while I took our other vehicle home. Back at our house, I threw a frozen pizza into the oven and poured a glass of wine before I even took my coat off. We slept soundly that night, the dog and cat huddled on of the blankets in the concave of our bodies. The house creaked, the winds howled, frost quakes erupted.

In Chicago, we don’t have to worry about things like hurricanes, earthquakes, forest fires, mudslides, and droughts. Our landlocked flatness makes our region geographically boring AF but relatively safe from natural disasters. In the event of a dystopian apocalypse, we’re situated near the country’s largest source of fresh water. But we get winters. And I think because of our notoriously shitty, 15-month long, arctic blast winters, we’re tougher than the average bear. We’re resilient, and usually good-natured about it (drinking helps). We help our neighbors dig out their cars. Just this week, a Chicago woman named Candice Payne took action and rented 30 hotel rooms on her personal credit card to get homeless people out of the life-threatening weather. I love the way this city bands together in the worst of times.

And today, 4 days after the worst of the winter storm, it’s nearly 50 degrees, I’m wearing a light sweatshirt and nano-puff jacket, and I just stepped in thawed dog poop. Ah, Chicago.

 

 

Lake Michigan Circle Tour

How amazing is it, to leave work on a Wednesday night in a van full of your stuff and your dog, and live on the road for a week? I love our van-centric vacations because everything is simple and flexible. We explore all day, finding a new spot to sleep each night.

On our trip to upper peninsula Michigan, we were joined by some friends and their dogs, creating a van/camper caravan. The first night, we camped out on the banks of Green Bay at Wells State Park in Cedar River. It was warm enough outside that I didn’t need more than a hoodie while sitting by the campfire. From there, we drove through Escanaba (stopping for a pasty breakfast) and then wove along the scenic roads of Hiawatha National Forest.

a white chevy astrovan with its sliding door open to reveal a large stack of firewood inside

For the next few nights, we holed up on Indian Lake in Manistique. Parked next to the lake, we could see the stretch of bordering forest. In Fayette Historic State Park, we walked through the abandoned and preserved buildings of an 1800’s industrial town, then hiked through a forest bursting with fall colors.

partial brick wall of an abandoned building, with three open windows facing Big Bay De Noc

The weather turned on us on Saturday night, freezing winds blowing over the lake pummeling us at our campsite. The first snow flurries of the season blew in sideways. Using one of the vans behind our backs as a windbreak, we made dinner–camping stew, smoked salmon, chicken wings. The dogs alternated between begging to stay in the vehicles, then wanting to come back outside as their FOMO kicked in. We layered up in our warmest clothes, drank hot toddies, and had a fantastic night.

On Sunday morning, we said goodbye to our friends who were headed back home or further south. Kurt and I had additional days off, and we decided to turn our trip into a Circle Tour of Lake Michigan. Over the next few days, we visited Tahquamenon Falls, Hiawatha, Mackinaw City, Traverse City, and Manistee National Forest. We drove over the (5-mile long!!) Mackinac Bridge, visited microbreweries, hiked by waterfalls, and drank wine by campfires. But there’s one moment in particular that really stands out for me.

a white dog wearing a red coat stands among trees whose leaves have turned gold

We were searching for a camping spot in the northern part of Manistee after the sun had gone down. As Kurt drove down a secluded road in the darkness, I watched the yellow stripes race by in our headlights, like the credits to a David Lynch film. Following a downloaded forestry service map, Kurt turned onto a dirt road into the thick of the forest. We found a driveway that traveled into the woods another 20 yards or so into a designated rustic camping spot. The site sat atop a semi-steep bank, and the Upper Manistee River gleamed in the moonlight, just beyond the treeline. After turning off the engine, the night fell silent around us–at least until coyotes began howling in the distance.

While I set up the sleeping bags in the van, Kurt explored the site. I could hear him and River’s footsteps crunching in the leaves along the river bank. “You’ve gotta check this out!” he called me, then told me there was a trail down the river bank, straight to the water’s edge.

“I’m not walking down a steep dirt trail above a river in the dark!” I told him. Using his headlight, he showed me where I could find footing, and promised that after the initial steep part, the path began to level out. Hesitantly, I followed Kurt down the path using his voice and our headlamps as my only guide. River moved ahead confidently, sniffing her way down. Just before reaching the water level, the trail opened up into a small sandy beach. We sat on the beach and turned off our headlamps.

The wide river stretched beyond in both directions, its surface velvety midnight blue, reflecting the sky. Wispy white clouds drifted around the waxing Gibbous moon. We sat in silence, in the moment. River settled quietly in the sand, her ears pricked as the sounds of coyote song traveled across the water. I didn’t feel cold, or nervous. Instead, a sense of serenity around us like a warm blanket, three little mammals in a big forest, simply being. I wanted to stay there forever.

I was so grateful for our trip, during a time when I very much needed to get away and escape stress and anxiety. In these recent months, whenever I look into the eyes of my friends, all of the other women in my life, I see exhaustion, fear, and uncertainty reflected back at me. What a time to exist in this world, when it feels like an arduous task to get through every day with what feels like a non-stop assault of horrific news stories and events.  I’m beyond lucky to have the life that I have, which allows me a week here and there when I can escape to the woods, to get away and move freely through wild spaces, where the only thing I fear is losing my footing and falling into a river. I am grateful to have had that moment, and to now have that memory to retreat to whenever I need to find some semblance of serenity.

Get out there and vote. And do something good to help other people, no matter how big or small. This world is too damn beautiful to give up the fight.

Waupaca, Wisconsin

I arrive at the lakehouse on a Sunday, where the rest of my family has already checked in and spent a night. The rental house sits on the easternmost part of a chain of lakes, with calm blue water. Each inlet is lined with lakeside cottages nestled amongst tall, lush trees. I look forward to this week all through the harsh Chicago winter, waiting for these blissful mornings on the back deck overlooking the lake with a fresh mug of coffee in hand, listening to birdsong and the soft breeze rustling the treetops.

woman kayak on a lake during sunset

On Sunday afternoon, my sister and I kayak across the lake to the local bar where people tie up their pontoon boats along the dock and a server brings drinks and fish baskets straight to your boat. We order a few New Glarus Moon Mans (Moon Men?) and watch a cover band perform from a boat while people dance in knee-deep water, living that #lakelife.

My sister brought along her 7-week old baby on the trip, and we take countless photos of him–wearing tiny baby sun hats, smiling in front of the lake, sleeping peacefully in his mother’s arms in front of a Wisconsin sunset. Through him, I see the beginnings of another childhood of summers spent in canoes, catching frogs, learning to fish off a pier, and splashing in midwestern lakes.

I brought my laptop to the lakehouse to work remotely, logging on right after my alarm clock wakes me at 7 a.m. so I can finish my days early and jump directly into the water the second I shut my Macbook Air.  The dining room table serves as my makeshift desk for the week, giving me a view of the water and a wooded island just above my monitor crammed with spreadsheets and emails. I could easily live this life forever, beginning my day with sun salutations on the back deck looking out on lake still thick with morning fog, then changing into a swimsuit the moment I finish my final afternoon conference call. One morning, the local camp holds a canoeing relay race past our house, and we hear the sound of kids’ voices bouncing off the water as they chase each other. In the evenings, live music from the bar across the lake drifts to our back lawn where we crack open bottles of Spotted Cow by the fire pit.

We take the pontoon boat out into various lakes, waving hello to the various kayakers, speedboats, water skiers, and stand up paddle boarders that we pass. In true Midwestern Nice form, one girl even waves to us while tubing. Once we find a quiet spot, we throw in the anchors and do cannonballs into the blue water. The lakes are pleasantly cool, their depths warmed from a summer’s worth of sunshine. I have a high tolerance for cold water and no one trusts my opinion as the first one jumping in. But after a few minutes of watching me swim and float, one or two of my siblings usually end up joining me in the water. When the sun is out, it feels like pure heaven to view the sky and the treetops from the water’s surface.

woman floating on pizza-shaped floatie on a lake

One day mid-week, it rains, so my siblings and I go to the local bowling alley. It’s still happy hour and it’s $3 per game. When we walk inside, the TVs are blaring Fox News so we load up the jukebox with Childish Gambino, Lady Gaga, and RuPaul, and dance around our score counsel. There’s a few other local stops in town that have become tradition over the years–plates of biscuits and gravy from Little Fat Gretchen’s Restaurant, beers and pull tabs at Paca Pub, family dinners at the Wheelhouse, late night stumbles to and from the Harbor Bar.

Near the end of the week, Kurt drives up and brings our dog River. We spend a day on the water with her, getting her to brave the kayak and learn how to balance on the stand up paddle board. From the shore, we can hear squeals of delight as people spot a cute little dog on the board. Kurt plays fetch with her off the dock, and when she catches the ball, a passing boat gives a celebratory honk and the passengers cheer for her.

man petting a dog while they both stand on a paddleboard

At the end of the week, I take a full day off of work. Before coffee, I sit on the edge of the dock to meditate. I wish I could somehow capture and save these sounds and take them home with me, to begin every day listening to the lake breeze ripple through the trees, the geese calling to each other, the water lapping against the rocks. And once again feel the sun warming my skin, the fresh air in my lungs, the scent of water and pine.

end of a dock facing a lake and a wooded island

Summer Updates

It’s been a minute since I’ve updated this blog. This summer has been a whirlwind of activity and I’m working on a couple of different things, so I’m playing catch-up with this post.

What I’ve been doing lately:

Every summer, I try to jump into as many natural bodies of water as possible. Pools are fine, but give me a Midwestern lake or river over a water-filled concrete hole any day. I spent a weekend with my family in Long Beach, Indiana, where I whiled away an afternoon bobbing along the surface of Lake Michigan, letting my toes drag over the sand. On another trip to the Chain O’Lakes in north-central Wisconsin, storms threatened to cut down on my swimming time and lent to a lazy day of pub-hopping and indoor board games. But one afternoon, the sky cleared up and the sun came out so we hopped aboard the pontoon boat, and even though it was only in the mid-60’s, I jumped in the lake. There’s something about swimming in a deep body of water where you can’t see your hand in front of your face, and you float along thinking of what kind of primal creatures might be swirling in the depths beneath your feet. My brother and I were the only ones in the water while the rest of my family stayed on the boat, and I paddled along as sunlight glinted off the surface of the lake and through the thick green trees, and it was heaven. These are the kind of days I dream about in late January when the icy winds howl around our cozy little house.

In the spring, I decided to give up on a novel that I had been working on. I was about 45 pages in, and the idea of my premise was no longer drawing me to the page. At the same time, I realized that a short story I recently started had enough teeth to sustain the length of a novel. Wah-wah-waahhhh. I abandoned my earlier project to a Google Drive folder of cast-off ideas, and now I’m humming along on my new premise, starting from scratch. I still have my first novel-length manuscript from 2014 sitting in a file, and the process of working on it taught me so much about my own creative process. I don’t look at bulk amounts of cast-off pages as a waste of time at all; they’re practice towards what will someday be a complete piece that I’ll be (hopefully) proud to share. Some projects tell you when they’re ready.

On the interwebs, I’ve been writing some other fun things:

  • Game of Thrones recaps for Heauxs, a pop culture site. Seriously, check them out–there’s tons of reviews and think pieces and travelogues written by some hilarious, intelligent, and incredibly talented people. Writing these weekly recaps is fulfilling all of my 2007-era Television-without-Pity dreams.
  • I performed a piece about ancestry and identity at Miss Spoken in July, and shared it over at Drinkers with Writing Problems.

Let’s see, what else… In pop culture, besides Game of Thrones, I’ve been obsessing over Twin Peaks: the Return, and catching up on Outlander. The former makes me want to revisit the Pacific Northwest, and the latter has me researching camping in Scotland. And speaking of camping, Kurt and I are going on a fall road trip to Acadia National Park, so I’ll be posting some new travel blogs in the near future. Send any Maine recommendations my way. We also have a canoeing trip coming up as well as a visit to the Ozarks, so I have a few more chances to jump into a lake before the end of the summer. I suggest you do the same.

Winter Adventurers

“You know what’s happening this weekend, right? You’ve seen the weather forecast?” the park ranger asked the first of our friends to arrive at the campgrounds early on Friday afternoon.

“We know,” they replied.

“Are you here for the start of hunting season?”

“No, just here to camp.”

The ranger shook his head in disbelief. A winter storm was rolling into the area, expected to drop up to 10 inches on much of the Midwest. And we were driving up north, headed the opposite direction of the geese flying south for the winter overhead, to spend the weekend outdoors.
IMG_6684Winter camping is one of my favorites. Though the days are short and our beer freezes overnight, there’s something about the quiet stillness that makes the forest otherworldly. The world hibernates around us, but in our small circle around the campfire, we stay warm and pass the whiskey. Overhead, stark branches criss-cross against the silver sky. The snow falls steadily, piling up on our tents, our boxes of beer (no need for a cooler), our fur-trimmed hoods pulled up over our heads. Beyond the circle, whiteness obliterates the landscape; we could be in Wisconsin or Westeros. Coyotes yip in the night. Or direwolves.

We’ve camped in snow before. We’ve camped in 1-degree temperatures before. But this was our first time camping in a legitimate winter storm, one big enough to get a name: Bella. We were undaunted by this news; we are not the type to be scared off, especially by a storm named after a damn Twilight character. We may be crazy, but we’re tough, and this wasn’t our first rodeo. There’s a Norwegian saying that goes “There’s no bad weather, only bad clothes.” We were prepared with insulated sleeping pads, bags rated for 15 degrees, waterproof layers, a coat and Musher’s Secret for our dog.

IMG_6714We arrived, car by car, at our large group site. As Friday slipped into Saturday, the snow fell. It melted onto our coats, warmed by the fire. It piled onto our tents, causing rainflies to droop under its wintry weight. It buried bottles left out on picnic tables, turning them into ambiguous white blobs. It blanketed us from the rest of the world, silencing the sounds of civilization, leaving only our laughter, our breath as we blew into our mittens, the crackle of the fire.

On Saturday morning, the snow still fell. We stayed in our warm sleeping bags, our tents transformed into igloos. Finally lured out by the promises of coffee, campfire, and Bloody Marys, we emerged from our brief hibernation. Before we could eat or drink, we had to shovel inches of snow off the tables. The dogs frolicked in the fresh powder, losing tennis balls and frisbees. We posted photos to social media with Winter Storm Bella hashtags, declaring ourselves Team Jacob. Our friends back home called us crazy.

The snow eventually stopped; blue sky peeked out through the bare tree branches. We began to cook our Thanksgiving meal. Potatoes boiled over the campfire. Vegetarian curry stewed on a camp stove. A turducken dripped savory juices in the smoker. Just before sunset, we set up our spread over the picnic table, salivating before our feast.

“I wish the ranger would come by and see this,” my friend said. We ate our meal together, friends bonded by our breaking of bread under the most snowy extreme circumstances. Call us crazy; we don’t mind. We’re adventurers.

IMG_6723