Madison & Points North

This past week, I’ve ended up in Wisconsin and Minnesota.  It turns out that heading north was a good call.  There were 21 tornados, “larger than softball sized hail”, and 80 mph wind gusts in the states to the west.  Beyond safety, though, I’ve had a great time!  Also, given the unpredictable nature of my trip, I wasn’t sure when I’d get back this way.  What made this week so wonderful was the people.  Everything I did was fun, but it was all about the people.

Madison, WI (Andi, Dan, and brewing)

A dear friend of mine back home, Veronica, has a sister who lives in Madison.  I’ve met Andi before a couple of times and thought it might be fun to visit her and to meet her husband, Dan.  We hung out on my second and third days in Madison.  On the first day, we went to a local brew pub and sampled many delicious beers.  Being a home brewer, I appreciate complexity, variety, and nuance in craft beers.  It’s one of the things I hope to continue sampling as I travel.  Before I left Boston, I even considered working at and someday perhaps starting a brewery.  We all had a fun night, and Dan and I got along well.  He sells food grade pumps to breweries and invited me to come visit the Wisconsin Brewery after his business meeting the next day.  At the brewery, we met with 2 of his colleagues, a brewer, the master brewer, and a PR person.  I didn’t really interact with them, but the CFO and other execs were there.  First off, everyone was super friendly and welcoming.  Feeling right at home, I settled into comfortable conversation with everyone.  Delicious and interesting beers began appearing in front of me.  The group continued to discuss a variety of topics, and without dominating too much of the conversation, I was able to ask a bunch of questions about this specific brewery, a career in brewing, and starting a brewery in general.  I learned a ton.  Not surprisingly, it’s not just a career you easily jump into.  You don’t go from even somewhat advanced home brewing right into being a brew master.  These guys were all a in their 50s and 60s.  They all had decades of related experience.  They brought together many partners, most of whom are silent to start the brewery.  This was a thriving 3 year old business.  Having visited many craft breweries in the past, I’ve seen all manner of them.  There are little garage operations with 2 people barely hanging on by a thread and doing it as a labor of love, sure, and plenty of them.  However, these guys have done it right.  They’ve got business men, investors, and talented and highly experienced brew staff.  They have an impressive array of equipment.  Even their pilot batch rig is a dream machine.  It is everything I’d want for my home brewing set up … if I had $85,000 for it.

You can do it in a much more “fly by the seat of your pants” manner, but your risk goes way up, starting from a baseline of already pretty high all the way up to playing with fire.  Profitability goes down as well.  Brewing is a lot of fun.  It’s technical, creative, collaborative, and communal.  However, I’ve since moved away from the idea of pursuing this as a career even before meeting these guys.  I was thrilled to get the inside scoop on it, but it has already occurred to me that this might take me in a direction I don’t want to go.  The job satisfaction is there, but really, I think I’m prioritizing other career parameters.  My next gig would have to be deeply rewarding in order to give up so much of my time and potential income.

John

Almost as a cautionary tale, I met John right before meeting Dan at the brewery.  The night before, Andi and Dan had recommended walking down Williamson Street (Willy St.).  I’m glad I did for many reasons that I’ll get to shortly, but one of them was that I wandered into Brew and Grow, or maybe it was Grow and Brew, whatever.  It’s a brew and garden supply shop.  They’ve got some great gear in there, and John is extremely knowledgeable and helpful.  He went to school for brewing as well as psychology.  He’s a smart dude.  We talked about brewing for some time while I was in there, both specific brewing techniques and career path.  He described how hard it is to get into professionally.  There are loads of people willing to do the grunt work for free through volunteering or internships, and breweries don’t need that many master brewers.  The best way to get in is to start your own or know someone well who wants to.  Conversations with friends in the industry back home have also discussed how saturated the market is in certain cities and states.  There’s still room for growth in some areas, but that number is dwindling.  John shared tastes of a few brews he had on tap in the store.  As you might expect, they were delicious.  I’m really glad I popped in there.

After visiting the brewery with Dan, he invited me over to hang out with the family for the evening.  We cooked a stir fry and talked some more, continuing conversations from the previous night and solving the problems of the world.  I very much enjoyed hanging out with them both nights.  Andi has the distinction of being the first person I knew before the trip that I’ve now seen twice on the trip.  She was in Chicago.  Although, I guess you could count my mom and her husband John since I saw them on my way into and out of Florida, but that feels more like one protracted encounter than two separate ones.

Phili

Willy Street had other charms as well.  It is clearly a street I’d like to live on.  There are cool shops, a food co-op with tons of tasty vegan goodness, and a pub called the Weary Traveler.  Out front, there are flyers for all sorts of recent and upcoming shows, some for bands I’d be excited to see.  The menu out front includes vegan chili so I poked my head in and was immediately lured further by the sounds of Belle and Sebastian, a band I’ve never seen and like very much.  I grabbed a seat at the bar where I met Phili, short for Philippa.  She has great taste in music and was playing a lot of “chick rock” as she put it.  I guess I got kind of a Carrie Brownstein vibe from her.  As I ate, we talked about music, my trip, and her life and friends.  She’s getting into selling crafts on Etsy and has a friend who just started tattooing.  She’s lived in Madison for many years.  The music scene used to be better, but seems to be improving again after a lull.  She invited me to a fundraiser on Saturday night.  There would be food, music, and vendors raising money for Spay Panama and for Moto Filly, her and her friends’ all girl motorcycle club.  They’re having a sightseeing scavenger hunt of sorts this summer.  Phili and her friends sound like interesting and exciting people.  It made me sad to leave Madison.  If I were moving here, I would definitely want to get to know this group better.  I even considered staying in Madison for the 3 extra days just go meet go to the event and meet them.  I decided to move on though.  I had seen a lot of the city already, and while I’m sure there was much more to do, it felt like I had gotten the gist of it.  Phili did recommend volunteering at the local animal sanctuary, but here again, I found that they don’t take drop in volunteers.  Honestly, I had some social anxiety about it too.  I’d be finding things to do to keep me busy for the extra days leading up to this event that may or may not work out as I hoped and maybe built up in my head.  Then I’d go and be all awkward.  I mean, I do want to stay places long enough to get to know them well, but I also feel compelled to keep moving.  It’s really what’s driving this trip.  The area is spectacular.  I could live here, but it’s still a little cold out, a little similar to New England, and I was feeling antsy.  Hopefully I will find myself back here and able to reconnect with Phili and her group in the future.  Making new friends is one of the great joys of this trip, but moving on from them is awful and has its own costs.

Professors

Here are a few quick other things I enjoyed about Madison.  Trendy coffee shops, the UW campus, the State House, and really all of State St.  Check out the pictures on Facebook.  The street feels a lot like Davis Square just outside of Boston to me.  It’s similar in that it is near a campus, Tufts, with similar business, buildings, and young people.  There’s a terrace on the UW campus overlooking the lake where you can relax, take in the scene, and have a local beer.  The conversation there is fantastic.  At first, I tried not to eavesdrop, but once I realized how funny this one particular group of professors was, I couldn’t help but listen in.  The trick was trying not to laugh!  I’m pretty sure they saw me, and when I finished my beer, I went over and introduced myself.  I didn’t get their names, but I mentioned the blog.  I’d love it if they found me and we connected.  They were mostly young and discussing politics and day to day life as a professor.  It was clearly exam time.  I had heard two engineers walking down the street debating the total power dissipated.  One of the professors had offered his class an option for a take home final.  The vote was 49 to 1 for take home, but there was one kid who didn’t want it and now the professor felt stuck having to give an in class final.  Honestly, I can relate to the one kid.  Take home finals suck.  The dumb kids want to slow you down and copy your work.  The professors feel like the test can be longer and harder since you have “unlimited” time, resources, and teamwork.  An in class final is clean and neat.  It’s over in one shot and the scope is limited.  I would have been that one annoying kid.  Anyway, the professors all laughed when I told them how funny I found them.  We spoke only briefly, and then I went on my way.

The Lion King

The last noteworthy thing that happened in Madison is that I saw The Lion King for free, the musical with full Broadway production value.  I think you say Off-Broadway when its in NYC but not on Broadway.  Do you still say off-broadway when its in another city?  Maybe I’ve got that all wrong.  Anyway, the venue was large and modern.  I had wandered in just to see the building having no idea that the dress rehearsal was starting.  The show opened that night.  The ticket booth was closed and there were clearly workers all over doing their prep work.  Merch table workers were being trained.  A bar was being set up.  A worker held a door open for me to enter so I figured I may as well go in.  That’s when I heard the music.  There were other spectators, mothers with children who were clearly not working.  They were in the hallway with more of them in the theater.  I walked in to the song “Be Prepared” which is relatively early in the show.  I’ve never seen it, but I remember the movie.  Being the second oldest of 5, I bet I can sing along to an embarrassing number of Disney movie songs.  I figured I’d just grab a seat.  The stress of it was annoying though.  I hated worrying that I’d get kicked out or asked for ticket or made to feel like I was trespassing.  Still, I’m glad I stayed.  It was a top notch performance essentially a private showing!  I gather that some of the other spectators were invited guests and others appeared to be general public who were in the know enough to come.  In the end, I don’t think I was trespassing at all.  I think I was welcome to attend.  Still, I mention it because this type of thing has come up a lot.

Oddly, the show made me think a little of my relationship history in its entirety.  I saw the Lion King at a drive in movie theater with my first girlfriend, Amy.  I felt like I had travelled through time, like I could connect to my younger self in that moment and see at a glance all that has happened between then and now.  Amy, Allison, Jen, Monique, Sarah, and Kate were all long term girlfriends or more of varying durations.  I didn’t feel badly, more contemplative.  By definition, these were all mixed experiences with times I’ll cherish and scars I’ll carry forever.  This flood of memories was powerful, and yet neither good nor bad.  Although, I think it did add to my enjoyment of the show overall.

Best Self and Pragmatism

Recently, I’ve found myself with opportunities to take things without paying.  There are always reasonable circumstances.  I would never steal something.  I’m still on that kick of trying to be my best self and put that positive work out into the world.  All the same, I’ve begun to think about the limits on kindness, compassion, and empathy.  Too much generosity towards one group can actually harm another, or you.  There are indeed times where it’s fair or even important to look out for your own needs or to balance the conflicting needs of different groups.  In this particular case, I’m talking about being sure to pay a fair price for things without giving money away.  How much should you donate if you go to a free museum?  Should you pay if it’s off season and a campground isn’t enforcing fees?  Things like this have been coming up a lot.  Sometimes and answer is clear, sometimes less so.  I could just give away the maximum amount of money everywhere I go, but is that the right thing to do?  What would a man being his best self do?

A brief philosophical aside:  Other topics like this have come up a lot recently as well, or maybe I’m just paying more attention to them.  How far should we go to protect animals.  We could all just kill ourselves.  That would probably have significant positive effects on animals and the environment, but what good is that?  If we all went vegan tomorrow, there would be catastrophic financial devastation, and yet we cannot continue being so cruel to animals.  If we leveled income and wealth inequality all at once, there would also be serious negative financial consequences, but we cannot continue allowing the working poor to struggle against such impossible circumstances, so poor that they need to work full time and still require government assistance to get by.  Being your best self is not just difficult, its complex.  Even “doing unto others as you would have them do unto you” gets muddy real quick if you start picking at it.  I’ve begun to realize that I’m a compassionate pragmatist.  I want the world to be a much better place than it is, but I recognize that change is hard and needs to happen at a controlled pace, and also that balancing conflicting needs is important.

Door County

Andi and Veronica’s mom is from Door County, Wisconsin.  It’s on the peninsula northeast of Green Bay.  It separates the bay from Lake Michigan.  It’s apparently referred to as the Cape Cod of the Midwest.  I can definitely see that.  It’s got a lot fishing and maritime themed activities and museums and similar kinds of shops.  It is a little different though.  The beaches aren’t as good and the atmosphere seems a little more hippie if I got the right impression.  I came up here on Andi and Dan’s recommendation.  Also, it made sense weather wise.  I wanted to see the upper peninsula of Michigan, and this was substantially similar with slightly warmer weather.  This mattered because a cold front had come down from the north bringing temperatures about 20 degrees below normal.  I had avoided tornados by returning to winter apparently.  Overnight lows in Door County were slightly above freezing while on the UP they were slightly below freezing.  Not wanting to winterize and dewinterize for a second time on this trip, I followed the recommendation.  It is definitely beautiful up there.  Also, you ride around on Wisconsin’s ridiculous lettered highway system.  Why don’t you take Road Q, or X, or OO?  That was entertaining.  All sorts of random associations came to mind like a quote from Seinfeld.  “It’s not 00.  It’s OO, as in oo oo ah ah!”

I stayed at Peninsula State Park.  It’s a great place with 4 or so disconnected camping areas.  I got there late and self registered.  Here’s one of those examples of confusion and money.  When I arrived, another camper was at the pay station.  He was confused and angry about it.  He was so negative and unpleasant that I left, set up camp, and came back.  I did see his confusion.  They had left out information on which sites were available, but only for one of the many camping areas.  Even at that there were ambiguous fees and regulations.  I stuffed money in an envelope and called it a day.  The next day I took the ferry over to Washington Island.  The nice thing about coming in the off season is that I could drive right up and get on.  That would be impossible, I’m told, in July.  I met multiple people on the ferry who had deliberately come in the off season because it is apparently more beautiful and peaceful now.  Sure, you can’t swim or do some of the water sports.  Lots of things aren’t open yet, but if you’re looking for peaceful natural beauty, as I was, it was perfect.  I drove around the island and found many interesting things.  I put my feet in the icy water at a smooth pebble and rock beach.  It hurt.  I tried repeatedly and it just kept hurting.  I’ve been swimming in extremely cold water, but this I couldn’t even stand ankle deep in for more than a minute.  I climbed a look out tower for breathtaking views.  I stopped in a no frills bar and had a local beer with local people who were talking about an upcoming bass fishing tournament with a $100k prize.  I had many questions about that.  They were super nice and friendly.  I covered pretty much the whole island.  One area felt like a ghost town.  I took pictures in the windows of the museums.  One part wasn’t locked so I went right in.  The whole thing was quiet, eerie, and wonderful.  It’s a large island with farmland and sparse residential neighborhoods.  I bet it’s packed in the summer.  Don’t take your AT&T cell phone there, though.  It won’t work except at the ferry terminal itself.  There, you might get a voicemail you don’t want, like an urgent request for you to come move your trailer because you parked in a reserved spot.  What happened to your ESP you might ask?  Well, no worries, if that happens to you, the people at the state park will take good care of you.  They were super nice.  When they found out I was hours away from being able to move the trailer, they rearranged some reservations to make it work, and this did so with an audible smile.  Later, I got another voicemail asking me to come into the office but not stating why.  I figured it was for something annoying like showing them Peggy’s paperwork, so I ignored the request.  Later that night, I was looking on the state park website for maps and general info and I stumbled across their fee schedule, much more complex than I had thought.  It looked like they charged for everything.  Camping, owning a car, owning a bicycle, and a variety of other things all appeared to be separate fees.  I now worried that I owed them lots of money and wondered if it mattered if I paid it.  What if I just left tomorrow?  I had already paid what I understood to be the publicized rate which seemed fair market value to me at the time.  Just like the show, this only served to cause me anxiety.  They called the next morning saying that I owed them $10 per night for electricity.  I was happy to have that cleared up even though it cost more money.  They even did that with a sincere smile.  These might be the happiest people in the world.

I spent a little more time in Door County driving around and taking pictures.  I visited Stone’s Throw Winery for a tasting and a local restaurant with vegan food.  Once again I found myself enjoying a meal chatting with the wait staff and two locals.  The locals were an older couple who loved the area and new the guy I had the wine tasting with.  They discussed how much they loved the area, but also relayed some of the trials and tribulations of small town life like businesses not being allowed to expand for silly reasons and generally everyone knowing everyone else’s business.  The woman worked in banking so she knew many people and stories.  How to make a murderer or whatever that Netflix show is called came up as a topic.  It’s about a murder in Wisconsin.  It was interesting to hear their opinion.  They were shocked that someone had taken this up.  I guess regionally, they all felt like this guy was clearly guilty and were surprised that someone would make a show out of it, especially one that they felt misrepresented their local legal competency.  My waitress talked about very interesting travels to Central America, also a fascinating topic.  I had yet another local brew.  Wisconsin is big on that.  I’m ready to take a break from beers for a bit though.  I don’t like having them constantly.

Shawna, Fred, and Derek

On my way out of DC, I decided to stop for coffee at a trendy little coffee shop.  This proved to be perhaps the best decision I made there.  Derek, a customer, is a hard worker who is feeling burned out and considering options to change his life.  I am in the midst of changing my life.  Shawna, the owner, has completed a major life change.  What was intended as a 3 minute stop for coffee for the road turned into a lengthy exchange of ideas and stories.  Shawna had led the typical corporate life just as I had.  She managed people, had a home, and an entire former life.  Now things are entirely different and she is happier.  She bought a failing coffee shop and turned it around, got remarried, and changed other things about her life and is now thriving.  Sure, this new life comes with its own stresses.  No life is perfect, but this is a good fit for her.  She and Derek apparently have discussions like this from time to time, and I was a welcome addition to it.  We all got along well and could have hung out for hours, I think.  Then Fred came in, Shawna’s husband.  He owns a local auto shop and is also a fascinating individual.  He is an award winning competitive off road cycling enthusiast.  It turns out that he helped make the mountain biking trails in Peninsula State Park, the ones I had ridden that morning.  He asked what kind of bike I had and I told him that I ride a 15 year old red led weight from Walmart.  He invited me back to his house to give me his old mountain bike, an expensive assembly of custom components that is in great shape, but that he doesn’t need anymore.  I followed him back and we talked more about his races and experience.  I wanted to take him and Shawna out for dinner, but they already had special dinner plans and I was already on my way out of town.  I love traveling, but I hate leaving!  THERE ARE SO MANY AMAZING PEOPLE IN THIS COUNTRY!!!!  I forced him to take some money for the bike, basically what I had in my wallet.  Far far less than it was worth new, and still very much less than it is worth now, but what I had.  Fred reluctantly accepted.  We exchanged information and parted ways.  I hope they had a fantastic night out.

Defeating the Mississippi River

I decided that it was time to head west.  The area was still experiencing lows in the 30s and I was longing for something that looked nothing like New England.  I decided to head towards Fargo where I would watch the movie Fargo.  This would also check North Dakota off the list of states I’ve never visited.  Neither of these are terribly important goals, but I’ve decided its what I want to do anyway.  To get there, I’d be travelling through Minneapolis, a city I’ve visited twice before on business.  I wouldn’t way I’ve seen it thoroughly, but enough not to stop.  After driving over 300 miles, I came across the MN welcome center rest stop and decided to sleep there for the night.

The next morning, I felt like I might be making a mistake by totally blowing off a state, so I wandered in to ask for recommendations.  I didn’t want more of the same.  For me to detour from Fargo, I’d need something uniquely MN, not just another cool museum, historic site, or hike.  Lisa and Jen were inside.  They were very helpful.  We talked for quite a while.  I enjoyed meeting them very much.  It seems many people I meet on the road have similar goals of changing their lives, and many are about my age.  I’m coming to the conclusion that it’s not so much that people are unhappy.  It’s more that you start off adult life heading in one direction, and then later realize you’d be better off changing direction, perhaps many times.  Lisa would love to save up and become an expat in a less expensive country.  It was interesting getting to know both of them, however briefly.  Lisa had a boyfriend who sounds similar to my ex-girlfriend and other similar life experiences as well.  Here again, people I would like to get to know better.  As I mentioned at the top of this post, it’s the people that make the trip, and life in general, worth it.  I’m not ready to settle down yet.  I still need more travel, but leaving cool people behind is torture.

Lisa and Jen had two recommendations of uniquely MN things that might be worth considering.  The headwaters of the Mississippi River, and Prince’s funeral services which happened to be that day.  Well, it turned out that Prince’s thing was only an unofficial memorial service at his church.  It was invite only, mostly for the congregation.  His family would not be there.  Neither would his remains.  Other typical funeral elements would be missing as well.  I think generally speaking I’d have had mixed feelings about it.  He was an icon, but still, it felt maybe a little irreverent to show up to such a thing as a spectator.  I respect fans who feel a sense of loss doing it, but that doesn’t describe me.  I’d just be a voyeur.

I did decide to head toward Itaska Lake and Itaska State Park, the source of the Mississippi river.  It’s not a significant detour, sounds beautiful, and has some meaning for me anyway.  On this trip, I have attempted to cross the Mississippi and head west only to be turned back by ferocious weather more than once.  It now seems I’m ready to put that and the entire Eastern U.S. behind me for quite some time and head properly west.  Seeing the source and crossing it on foot seemed fitting.  I’ve bumped along it in many states, and now I’d literally step over it.  It would be like concurring it.  Heading there involved driving on local state roads.  I prefer that for the most part.  You get a much more intimate view of the state than from the freeway.  There are typically more headaches, but it’s worth it.  It was a bright, warm, sunny day, and the park was beautiful.  I decided to stay for just one night.  What I came to see is small and the park has a late check out, 4 PM.  I’d be able to see what I came for that day, and then relax the following morning.  That’s where I’ve written this entire post from all in one shot.  The lake is straight out of a postcard.  There are biking and hiking trails, a rental shop with boats, paddle boards, and bicycles, and multiple visitor centers.  Sure enough, there is a clear and well delineated start to the Mississippi river.  Someone described it as a trickle, but in my view, it’s a pretty strong stream even here.  It varies from perhaps 10 to 20 feet wide, more like 20 right at the exit from the lake.  There’s a line of rocks you can walk across right at the boundary of the lake.  You literally walk across the mighty Mississippi.  There’s also a small wooden foot bridge a few feet downstream.  The river actually heads north to other lakes briefly before turning south.  There is a strong current and a substantial flow rate for what some described as a trickle.  You could easily wade across it.  It’s perhaps knee deep there, but still seems to carry meaningful force.  The park is serene.  Even now I’m considering just lingering for another day.  We’ll see how I feel at 4 PM.  I may or may not turn into a pumpkin.

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