Winding road home inspiration for Wisconsin travel column

Adam Ruka, Staff Writer

road trip

The desire to travel seems common among college students. Whether it’s some tropic party town for spring break or a relaxing getaway tucked somewhere in the wilderness, escaping our daily routine is almost necessary for maintaining good mental health. But it’s not just the destination that matters, it’s the journey: the “I know I forgot something” feeling, the willpower to endure cramped, uncomfortable positions in an over packed car, the struggle of choosing whose music gets played. What the destination does offer is purpose, a reason to travel. When I recently went on a cross country road trip to Portland, OR, I discovered a new purpose to travel our home state. After staggering back through the great plains, I had a realization about Wisconsin. This is an account of that realization.

The steering wheel was grimy and greasy from gripping it all night. I stared at the road even though it hadn’t changed since the sun went down eight hours ago. Like a treadmill, the pavement fed itself to the silver Subaru, effortlessly thrusting on its wearing tires and young steel frame. The South Dakota sunset hadn’t been memorable. After a week of dramatic sunsets, they all seemed to blend together and the earth’s spinning had become a reliable cycle, filling the sky with our lone star once again.

The night wore on as I entered Minnesota and its vast flatness. Countless sunflower shells littered my lap after the repetitive split-lick-spit prevented my eyelids from sinking too low. To my right and both backseats slept my companions and although it wasn’t much, that moment, that lethargic, somewhat incoherent experience, had been my own. From the majestic beauty of the Grand Teton mountain range to the frenzy of an uncontained wildfire, we had shared all of our moments. But that eventless moment of fighting off sleep just before dawn was mine.

As the horizon began tinting gray, my drowsiness evaporated with the low lying clouds. My body awoke with fresh vigor. I exited the freeway and barreled down a gravel road, passing a county park fee station with no intention of paying. The abruptness from the usual smooth highway woke the passengers. Through the trees, a gentle pink had arrived, biding its time until we could see.

The road opened up into a typical clearing utilized for parking with signs directing towards hiking trails. I parked the car and jumped out, grabbing my blanket and camera, and headed towards the hiking trail. The path was smooth but eventually forked, forcing me to decide between an eastern and western trail. I chose east, hoping it would hurry my beginning of yet another day. The deciduous forest of the Midwest welcomed me. I relished every familiar plant from the Oak tree to the Wild Violet but soon it wouldn’t wait any longer. I galloped down the path cloaked in my blanket. My friends followed but at a much slower pace. I needed that split second to witness it exploding into view alone.

The forest parted suddenly and offered its best view of the Mississippi Valley below. I stood on a bluff, more than a hundred feet above the river, overlooking the various tributaries. On the other side lay Wisconsin, with an orange crest blossoming over a few clouds, greeting me like a celestial being, allowing me reentry. With each breath the rich Midwest air filled my lungs, building the desire for my return home. I pondered about Lewis and Clark on their cross-country and the many breathtaking views they stumbled upon. When I looked down upon Wisconsin I was sure I felt the same -maybe a bit watered down- elation that they felt when pouring into the Pacific from the Columbia River. I wanted to know about the native inhabitation of Wisconsin, to visit where Nicolet came ashore, to learn about the state’s gentle progression into the Cheese, Beer, Brat, Green Bay Packer loving state we know today.

We marveled for a few more minutes until the sun fully exposed itself, ending the start of another day. I drove us across the Mississippi and about another hour into Wisconsin when my body crashed from sleep deprivation. The next rest stop allowed us to switch drivers and let me rest in the passenger seat. As I slowly drifted off, I promised myself I would unravel the history of this state and share it here.