I drove my sister Laine’s car the hour from her house in Eagle to Madison to lunch with Brian, a good friend from our Governor’s Office days. He brought me to a city park where they have an annual Native American pow-wow in a sacred circle. We, however, picnicked on fancy sandwiches and pesto.
Leaving Madison, I headed west on Highway 14, off to Steve’s farm in Wisconsin’s Kickapoo Valley. Steve and I were friends in high school and college, where he majored in Physics. Being an egghead didn’t prevent him from tripping with my addle-headed liberal arts crowd. Among his adventures these last few years he had walked from Canada to Mexico and had crewed a sailboat sailing the stormy seas from Hawaii to the mainland. After working for Microsoft in Seattle, his wife Kayla and he bought a farm in Wisconsin’s loveliest area, a county with two functioning stoplights. Now they were raising their two year-old son Raymond under the blue skies of the Kickapoo Valley. Another boy was on the way.
With frequency, my Manhattan therapist made references to the Kickapoo River, whose snaky curves I canoed with friends years before. Therapist Mary said I lit up when describing this bucolic area’s glories. “You’re a man of the country,” she stated, her Welsh accent making this grave pronouncement only slightly more convincing. I fantasized owning a gay bed and breakfast in this economically depressed area halfway between Minneapolis and Chicago, attracting effete birders to its natural wonders. Then again, I was used to having my laundry done just down the block in Manhattan, and didn’t always love guests. Anyway, now Steve and his wife were living my fake dream, owning an entire valley called Harrison Hollow.
Also heading for this reunion was high school buddy Thane and his wife Michelle. Recently, Thane had a tumor the size of a baseball removed from his head. At seventeen, just after high school ended, an xray during a routine physical showed an unusual shadow on my lung. My doctor was concerned it might be cancerous and wanted to see me at the end of that summer to check on it. All summer I quietly thought I was dying. Oh Dana, mourned an adolescent Garbo, we hardly knew ye! I remember taking a late-night walk with Thane on a Lake Michigan beach. I hadn’t told him about my mysterious internal shadow, but we were talking about cancer. I said that cancer wasn’t so deadly these days; statistics showed all sorts of cancers were now curable. “Statistics lie,” Thane declared, to my horror. “People are dying of cancer now more than ever.” Now Thane and I can be glad he was wrong. Thane’s tumor was benign. My shadow was just a shadow.
Like Steve and me, Thane attended University of Wisconsin at Madison. After dropping in and out over the years, he is now nearing a degree. Thane spent a few years working at a fast food restaurant, all the while embezzling cash for some bad habits, which he quit one day when it occurred to him he might get into real trouble. Always smart, with a quirky sense of humor, Thane managed to find a levelheaded woman who appreciated his peculiar charms. They own a house near the Oscar Meyer Plant and he drives a cab. Michelle and he recently returned from a European vacation, specifically planned by Thane with a James Bond theme, including a visit to the Swiss mountaintop where James Bond met nemesis Blowfeld. Also, a pilgrimage to the Jagermeister plant.
About a half an hour west of Madison I entered Mazomanie, the town known among Madison hippies and gays as the site for nude bathing along the Wisconsin River. Some uptight locals and other puritans, unhappy with Mazo’s notoriety, made continual attempts to discourage the practice. Just lately, according to my sister, canoeing nuns had been horrified at the sight of frolicking nudists. The unmarked beach was purposefully difficult to find, and I had heard that bathers now had to park their cars nearly a mile’s walk away. Undeterred, most brought bikes. I had been there just once before, with my friend Chris and his girlfriend. With time on my hands, I thought I would indulge myself with the mighty Wisconsin River’s beauty and natural bathing. Memory served, and I soon located the gravel parking lot. Donning sandals and baggy swimming trunks (for the walk), I grabbed a towel, locked the car and was on my way.
After a sweaty walk, I arrived riverside to the sight of naked flesh and lovely bluffs under a blazing sun. An arduous hike through thick woods and a swampy area brought me to the lonely stretch of sand downriver where I had once spent a tranquil naked afternoon with friends. Now hot and thirsty, I dropped my towel and shorts to the sand and dived into the river’s cooling waters.
The book “Haunts of the Black Masseur” details the mind-altering, erotic delights of swimming, as well as various related movements, including naturalism. I have always loved the water, from frigid Lake Michigan to the rough seas off Montauk. Reveling in the healing waters of the Wisconsin River, I imagined habit-wearing nuns paddling by. I hummed “How do you solve a problem like Maria?”
I didn’t dawdle, wanting to reach Steve’s around four. Reluctantly, I put my shorts back on and made the trek back to the parking lot. There I had an unhappy surprise: the car’s key was no longer in my swimming trunks' pocket.
My angry tromp three-quarters-of-a-mile back to the beach was only vaguely hopeful. What to do when there’s no one to be angry at but one’s self? Now I was truly a man of the country, stripped of possessions. I tried to be zen; no easy task.
At the beach, I didn’t feel like making my previous mucky trek. In a mood elevation attempt, I took off my clothes and drifted downstream to the sandy spot where I had placed my towel and, hopefully, left behind the car key. No such luck. I sifted sand and considered the alternatives, getting paranoid. What if I now returned to the main beach and my swimming trunks were gone? Where does a naked man find solace and shelter? I thought of Steve’s 350 acres and my tiny East Village apartment, lathering myself into an existential crisis—likely a result of too much sun. What did I own? What did I want? Conrad says “We live as we dream alone.” My nudity made me more alone.
I swam upriver and, to my relief, located my shorts. The walk back—my fourth down this rocky stretch—was less hopeful and sweatier. My Italian sandals dug holes into my ankles. At the parking lot, I searched the gravel around Laine’s car, hoping against hope the key was there. Nope. Another guy nearby was packing up his SUV. I hitched a ride with him the four miles back into Mazomanie. He dropped me at the police station.
In small towns, one is less inhibited walking into a police station half naked. The 7th Precinct in my East Village neighborhood is a less friendly place. A woman working on a computer paused, and offered a phone for me to use. I tried calling Laine. No answer. I tried my mom and sister Kathi in order to track down Laine. Same result. Finally, I called Steve, two hours northwest, and he said he would come and get me. “I’ll bring you a shirt,” said Steve. “Need anything else?”
“A hug,” I whimpered.
“Sorry, you’ll have to wait outside. I have to leave,” said the nice computer lady. It was alright: the air conditioning was too cold and there was nothing to read but pamphlets on fire safety and septic tanks. I gulped a supply of water from the fountain (or “bubbler,” as they say in Racine County) and returned to the outside heat, sitting on the uncomfortable bench in front of the police station, trying to be unselfconscious in my shorts. Locking up the police station, the woman told me, “I have to go home and check on my husband. He just had knee surgery. Men are such babies.”
The netting on the inside of my swim trunks was a bit ripped and I had to be careful how I sat so one of my balls wouldn’t hang out. Feeling a bit stiff, it occurred to me that yoga would loosen me up, but it also might raise eyebrows in this nudist-hating community. I tried to remain inconspicuous as townsfolk ambled by on this sun-soaked Monday afternoon. Two hours slowly passed.
Thane and Michelle had just arrived as Steve was leaving the farm to fetch me, so Thane came along to Mazomanie for the ride. Steve had fun putting a scare into Thane by telling him that I was naked and they were picking me up at the police station. They were both laughing at me when they arrived to pick me up. “Some things haven’t changed,” joked Steve. Ha ha. It was good to see them. I got my hug.
We caught up on the ride back. The roads got narrower and more rustic until finally we bumped down a dirt road winding through small, hump-backed hills. There’s a fairyland quality to Kickapoo. It’s easy to imagine trolls lurking under simple wooden bridges and elfin creatures hidden amongst its thick woods. Ahead, a deer scrambled from the road. In Wisconsin, people have been known to engage in the illegal practice of “shining” deer, hypnotizing them in their headlights or flashlights before shootin’ ‘em dead. Here, in impoverished Kickapoo, Steve told us, the locals were reduced to shining raccoons for their hides and meat. Welcome to Hooterville. Hungry?
We snacked in the kitchen (cheese, not raccoon). Outside the window hung a hummingbird feeder. Multicolored swarms of them darted here, there, in the flash of an eye, hungry for sweet sugar water. Like them, I was grateful for the nourishment.
Previously, a group of hippies had lived cooperatively at this farm. While giving Thane and me the grand tour, Steve showed us a shelf in one of the barns where some had slept. Doing work for Microsoft still, Steve was taking his time figuring out what and how to farm. Kayla had already tried a field of sunflowers to the north of the house near a small stream. With a small farm like this, he told us, one needed to target a specific market for the products produced.
Having spent time on my grandparents’ farm, I had little affection for lumbering cows or dull-witted sheep (which we had used as target practice with apples in the orchard). I now made the argument for one of my favorites: the clever goat. Yes, they smelled, but they’d eat anything and you could charge a lot for snootty goat cheese. I got excited. How about “Billy Goat Gruff Goat Cheese?” Irascible but lovable “Billy” would be Harrison Hollow Foods’ corporate symbol. As Harrison Hollow Foods Marketing Director, could I have the shelf in the barn all to myself?
“Sure,” said Steve. “By the way, have you ever tried to milk a goat?”
Night dropped like a rock and the darkness was complete. A cloud cover obscured the area’s usual spectacular show of stars. Steve had wanted to make a nighttime walk up a tractor path to the top field for some time, and we were just the people he’d been waiting for, he told us. We soaked ourselves with napalm-levels of insecticide and walked into the dark. Sensibly, the ladies stayed behind.
In New York, it’s never truly dark and, when there’s a low cloud cover, the city lights turn the night sky orange, highlighting the artificial environment, making it resemble another life on another planet.
“To the left is a little bridge over the stream,” said Steve. We couldn’t see much. As we started to climb, Steve cautioned us to stay to the right, despite the prickly bushes. “To the left is a ravine.” Both sides' dangers were unseen, indistinguishable. Ahead, I saw a wee triangle of light and took the lead towards it. “You’re intrepid,” Steve declared as I marched upwards. He might have meant foolhardy.
“Dana, remember that time we were driving to Milwaukee,” said Thane, “and we came fast around a corner and there was a semi-truck jack-knifed across the road and you had to swerve at about sixty miles an hour around it?” I didn’t remember. “Remember, we laughed so hard afterwards because we were kind of hysterical at the near brush with death?” No recollection. “You don’t even remember a time when we both nearly died?” Thane was incredulous at my dull brain. How many times had I almost died? Was I intrepid or an idiot? After the Mazomanie incident, I didn’t dwell on these questions. My steps grew more cautious.
A meow cut through the darkness and Steve’s white cat Marshmallow glowed from behind, accompanying us on our journey. Marshmallow was a tough cookie, a voracious consumer of small animals. Just recently, Steve, Kayla and little Ray had been sitting on their porch watching a cute little bunny hippity-hop across their yard when Marshmallow swept across the grass for a bone-crunching feast. Such are the lessons of a country boy.
At the top field we stood under the night sky, Marshmallow huddled nearby in a white glow of companionable silence. I thought of that day’s trips back and forth along the nude beach’s gravel road, looking for the key. Tomorrow, I would make a similar journey to Eagle, retrieving a spare, back to Mazo, retrieving the car.
A search for a key sounds metaphorical; our lives a quest to unlock meaning. Under the heavens, we recalled making out with girls in haylofts and trippy Madison parties. Except three friends and Marshmallow, everything seemed far away, yet it wasn’t lonely. No existential crisis now; and with a hearty thank you to the gods for the invention of bug spray, it seemed I had all I needed or wanted.
In the Algonquian language, Kickapoo means “he who goes here, then there.” Below, the Kickapoo River: