Raised by the Northwoods
the path between childhood and adulthood passes through the family cabin
Last September, as the sunset washed over me on a weathered dock whose cracks and folds I know like those on the bottom of my heels, I considered the notion that the Northwoods helped raise me. Similarly to my parents and grandparents, “Up North” has been privy to many “firsts”: my first time swimming on my own, my first time being away from my parents for more than a few days, my first time pitching a tent, my first time tipping a canoe – the list goes on. “Up North” has also remained a pillar in my young life, steadfast throughout my adolescence and early adulthood. “Up North” is what most Wisconsinites deem the places we dream of during summer workdays, anticipating long weekends spent in dive bars chatting over cards with locals, fishing and swimming off the dock, or lounging with a book under the blazing sun tamed by a breeze off the lake. My particular haven is The Homestead, a cabin deep in the woods built and designed by my Papa and his sons in the ’70s. The Homestead bursts with charm and character, from the antique jars brimming with confections gathered at the old timey candy shop two towns away to the stacks of playing cards in every room and the long branches sticking out of a plastic bucket on the end of the dock meant for catching crawdads with pieces of bacon leftover from breakfast. It is idyllic in many ways, like something out of a children’s book, but mostly it feels like home.
I spent the first few years of my life in Arizona, but in the summertime my Dad would whisk my brother and me away from the blistering heat to the company of the tall pines and chain of lakes that buoyed the Homestead. Our days consisted of splashing and floating in the “drink,” as my Papa lovingly deemed the lake, napping in the alcove on the back of the pontoon, or solving simple puzzles with my grandparents before lunch breaks spent on the porch or at the local diner. After our family moved to Wisconsin in 2000, we started spending more time in my Northwoods wonderland, the now four-hour trek more justifiable than a three-day trip. Over the years, the splashing turned into riding waves on the tube, the napping turned into hours with my nose in a book, and the puzzles turned into intense games of Sequence. I started spending a week each July across the chain of lakes at a summer camp straight out of The Parent Trap. I credit much of my spunk, independence, and outdoorsiness to being a “camp kid,” and I dream of someday getting married there, nestled in the pines in the amphitheater where I put on plays and sang songs at sunset. Now, I count Mint Juleps and catfish bites at The Blue Bayou, jaunts through the hiking trails my Dad forged with his friends, and late afternoon skinny dipping as standby activities.
As I grow older, what “Up North” means to me is changing shape as well. While it remains as cozy as cuddles with my cat or car rides with my Papa, The Homestead also symbolizes a sort of movement in my life. I am no longer a dirt-stained, freckle-faced child, so eager to grow up I barely saw what I was missing. I willingly witness those things now, and those images make up much of the mosaic of my life. Like recalling a relationship with a family member, or reminiscing about a story that’s been told countless times, it is easy to believe the story of a perfect life lived in a perfect place like the Northwoods, but what I have in reality is better. I have the story of a place that saw all of the triumphs as well as the sorrows, and I feel lucky to know it will always feel like a homecoming, no matter who or where home actually is.