Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Midwestern Moments

The Midwest is beautiful.  My home state of Michigan was a wonderful place to grow up, and I'm glad when I get to go back and visit my parents in Detroit or spend time at the cottage we have there on the western side of the state.  People wax poetic about the grandeur of the West and lushness of the South, the colors of the desert and the interweaving of loveliness and history that runs along the East Coast, but I seldom read about the Midwest.  That's too bad, because there is much to love here.

Calder in the Art Museum, evening event
It's like a secret.  No one visits Milwaukee just to see it the way they would places like New York or San Francisco.  People visit Milwaukee because they have a specific reason to go, usually because they know someone here.  And when they come they are stunned by how pretty and vibrant it is.  There is an abundance of talent and activity and things to do and see, and it's for the people who live here rather than for tourists.  People who live elsewhere are surprised that my family seldom gets down to Chicago since it's so close, but the truth is we never run out of things to do in Milwaukee.  Often there is too much to choose from any given weekend.  It's an endlessly interesting place and I feel fortunate to be raising my kids in such a nice city.

Deer outside my window at the cottage
In the area north of Grand Rapids where we spent our vacation this year we had time to really appreciate the beauty Michigan has to offer.  There is something about the woods and the scale of things that feels knowable.  I'm lucky enough to have traveled a little bit in my lifetime, and I have been thrilled by many amazing sights.  There is beauty and wonder everywhere, but for me only the Midwest feels like home.  I find mountains somewhat intimidating, the desert alien, and the tropics overwhelming.  But when I'm in the woods in Michigan I always have the sense that with the right guidebooks or some walks with an informed friend or relative I would be able to name all the trees and the birds and the tracks on the ground.

When we visit the cottage we usually take the kids up the road to a ranch where for $5 they can be led around in circles a few times on a horse.  This year Aden was finally old enough that we had the option to go out on a real trail.  My sister-in-law kindly treated my daughter and me to a two hour trail ride and it was lovely.  My thighs are still a little sore, but it was a wonderful experience.  Aden loved it.  She rode a horse named Comet who was trained as a therapy horse for people with physical disabilities, so she was a nice, calm, starter horse for Aden.
Aden on Comet
View of Aden on the trail from my horse

Being on a horse was interesting.  The last time I was on a horse was over 20 years ago and I got thrown off and passed out.  Before that all of my experience was at day camps or birthday parties, and whatever horse I was on usually took advantage of my lack of confidence and ignored me to eat flowers or leaves.  I always feel awkward trying to order a horse around since it seems only a matter of time before the animal realizes the power imbalance and decides it doesn't want me on its back.  Watching people who know what to do with horses always impresses me.  One of the guides on our trail ride was only eleven!  She had perfect control of her horse, and her horse adored her.

In any case, seeing the woods from horseback was wonderful.  I had no interest in moving any faster than a walk, but the trail guides would split up the group periodically and let me go off ahead with one of them, and then the rest would catch up at a trot.  The look of delight on Aden's face as her horse picked up speed is one I hope to never forget.

Leaves illuminated from behind by sunshine is one of the most beautiful things I know of. 
The woods in that area are mostly quaking aspens and spindly looking oaks that never seem to get beyond a certain size.  Then interspersed here and there are patches of neatly planted pine forests with the trees all in rows and I'm reminded that the area was not always wild.  The landscape of the community where the cottage was built was artificially constructed in I believe the 1960s and 70s, and the look of it has weathered and changed in a good way from when I was a kid.  Nature has had time to fill in the spaces with ferns and sumac and Queen Anne's lace.  I love how it's grown. 

One of the best people to take a nature walk with is my brother, Barrett.  Nothing like being with an entomologist to make everything in a ten foot radius seem like a wild adventure kingdom.  When you remember to include incredibly tiny animals in your searches you see animals everywhere, and Barrett's enthusiasm for the insect world is inspiring (no matter how squeamish about bugs you may think yourself to be initially).  My kids cannot wait until we get to go to the cottage and have him along.  (They asked his identical twin what every insect was as they came across it on our walks, but Arno just kept tossing up his hands and saying, "Ask them yourself!  I don't know!"  As a neuroscientist he could have helped identify brains if there had been any on the trail, but thankfully there were none.)

It's also fun to walk with my mom, because as both a lover of nature and an artist she notices things the rest of us would overlook.  She's spent most of her life in Michigan and incorporates many local elements into her work, and has never thought the Midwest lacked for interesting subject matter.

There are many places in the world I hope to see before I die.  I've never been to South America or Africa or Australia.  I'd like to take my kids to see India and Europe.  If I get to visit even half the landmarks on the flashcards my kids like to flip through when I'm teaching them about the world I would be happy.  But I'm also happy to call the Midwest my home base.  I'm glad it's the place I get to return to, wherever I choose to go. 


  1. This is all a plot between you and my mother to get me to move back to the Midwest, isn't it? I can't read this for choking up, much as I love where I do live too.

    1. I don't know your mom, but yes, it is totally a plot.

      Actually, I'm always grateful to know people in wildly different places so we have somewhere to stay when we travel!

  2. I am excited to move back to Milwaukee after being gone for 18 years. One week to go! Thank you for your help in choosing an area. We're moving to Tosa!

    1. How exciting! I can recommend a violin shop if you need one....

    2. You better believe it. My great grandfather was a luthier (in Wisconsin), and Charlie is super musical.

  3. Thank you for the kind thoughts, Kory. I look forward to our next nature adventure walk. Maybe @rno and I can team up and give a tour of insects and brains along the trail!