City living has its benefits, but the drawbacks warrant additional contemplation, in particular: the frenetic pace at which urbanites live their daily lives.
It is often the case that in city centers, inhabitants quite literally live “on top” of each other. For the vast majority of people (myself included) this phenomenon is normalized – we are not trained to view densely-packed city blocks as undesirable living conditions.
But this sort of sardine-style societal framework lends itself to an increased frequency of collisions: people are more likely to encounter someone who is having a bad day, for whatever reason, and inadvertently absorb the associated negative energy. There are obvious examples: being on the wrong side of road rage, witnessing a street fight, or experiencing casual rudeness. Yet a compacted living arrangement's more insidious, slow-burning effect is much more subtle.
All forms of life on this planet express themselves in imperceptible ways – electromagnetic fields, pheromones, auras, gut feelings – subtle energies. Humans are incredibly sensitive to those subtle energies, and the problem is that we were not taught to focus on or value the information available from those sources. If anything, we were taught to ignore them.
I feel the effects – or lack thereof – most noticeably when I am leaving the city; waves of calm and contentment wash over me once rolling pastures are on the horizon, and the city is in the rearview.
This post is essentially some musings on my family’s October 2022 trip to Vernon County, Wisconsin, in the heart of the Driftless, where we were fortunate enough to meet Peter and Maureen Allen of Mastodon Valley Farm and spend our days hiking through the peaks, valleys, and rolling hills of southwestern Wisconsin, with magnificent fall colors exploding all around us.
Off the Beaten-Path
Getting from Chicago to Madison is a relatively straightforward shot north up I-90, but one always feels as though they are not truly seeing the state barreling down an interstate. But once Mazomanie, WI is on the horizon, the drive begins to change.
On WI-14, one cannot help but slow down – the tractors and occasional horse-drawn buggy set the pace, and frankly, there is much to be seen and admired about this part of the state. Instead of the gaudy billboard advertisements, farm stores, and charming small towns make their presence known to westward travelers.
By about the time one would be making their way north through Richland Center, the realization of why there is no interstate in this region becomes clear: the series of high ridge tops and low-lying valleys simply do not lend themselves to three or four-lane roads. Two lanes are a rarity indeed!
After passing through Richland Center and proceeding north on WI state highway 56, the contours of the Driftless’ ancient landscape become more pronounced. While making the final approach to Viola, and Mastodon Valley Farm, one can feel the energy radiating from the magnitude of limestone bluffs and the incredible richness of the landscape.
Source of the Seed
When you arrive at Mastodon Valley Farm, you will likely pass herds of Red Devon cows, grazing deeply green pastures along a lazy creek that winds itself through the length of the valley. At the gate, you will likely be greeted by powerful livestock guardian dogs and a barefooted farmer who’s been up since before dawn working on a dizzying number of projects.
What immediately struck me about the land was the steepness of nearly all of it. The family does have a well-cared-for garden bed near their home, but fundamentally, this is grass-growing country that lends itself to ruminant grazing: cattle in the valleys, goats and sheep on the hills and in the forests.
The Allen Family was warm and welcoming. Peter showed us his hog and duck pens, and introduced us to his lovely wife and infant son. After giving a brief tour of the family’s home – which Peter is currently building himself – we decided to get back on the road and make our way to Coon Valley, where we would be spending the weekend.
As we continued north, the path oscillated between quaint farming villages perched atop limestone hills that plunged into picturesque valleys.
Located in the Southwest corner of the state, about 20 miles from the Mississippi River, Coon Valley exudes the charm of a small agricultural community at one with its surrounding natural bounty. There is, of course, a rather obvious juxtaposition between Chicago and Coon Valley – the pace is relaxed, the people are friendly, and the scenery is breathtaking.
I learned on this trip that the Amish and Mennonite populations in SW Wisconsin are doing quite well for themselves. We stopped into the Country Store in town a few times, and each time, I kicked myself for not bringing a cooler up from Chicago!
Taking it All In
In my opinion, the greatest asset that the United States has is its expansive system of National, State, and County parks all across the country. It has also been my experience that the state of Wisconsin’s DNR does an incredible job of stewarding and maintaining those parks, in many cases, involving local citizens to assist in maintenance efforts.
During our Saturday hiking excursions, we made two trips: the first was to the Norskedalen Nature & Heritage Center – a former Norwegian farmstead turned 440+ acre outdoor laboratory and nature reserve. We arrived with our American Bully, Rufus, in tow and proceeded to explore the surrounding trails.
Almost nothing in the world is as satisfying as enjoying nature’s bounty, the dog frolicking and snorting through piles of leaves, and my beautiful fiancee gracefully walking beside me; love and contentment pouring from us both. With each deep breath of clean air that I took in, the gratitude I felt expanded tenfold: I felt Mother Nature’s tender embrace as we floated through her forests.
Once Rufus had his fill of leaves, sticks, and stream water, we packed up and headed back to town – it was time for Rufus to have a nap and time for us to head to the second hike: Wildcat Mountain State Park.
I was skeptical of “mountains” in Wisconsin; I’ve seen many Midwestern “mountains” which are more appropriately classified as mole-hills, but Wildcat Mountain is no such hill. As one enters the park, the road winds up a rather steep limestone (mountain?) that was clearly missed by rogue glaciers.
The park’s 30 campsites are perched at the very top of the mountain, creating some of the most spectacular campfire locations in the Upper Midwest. Beyond the breathtaking vistas, Wildcat Mountain is situated on 3,603 mostly-wooded acres and boasts 25.8 miles of well-maintained hiking trails.
As we wandered through the park, we were continually beset by the magnificent faces of ancient limestone cliffs that have dutifully stood guard over the surrounding Kickapoo River Valley for thousands of years.
I could wrack my brain and attempt to write many more pages of effusive descriptions of the scenery that blessed our trip, but at a certain point, words fail to capture the beauty that is best experienced. Following our walks in the woods, we again headed back to Coon Valley for a well-earned meal of cheese curds, beers, and burgers – as is customary in the great state of Wisconsin.
I often find that, after spending too many consecutive weeks living at a frenetic pace, sardined on top of, and beside fellow humans, surrounded by all manner of electromagnetic radiation. My perception of reality becomes warped – an “acidic” perspective, if I could typify it.
The best disinfectant is sunshine, and my most trusted antidepressant is an extended period of being outside – these strategies are time-tested, and bring us back to our roots as humans.
Our attention is constantly being pulled in all directions, there are times when I can’t focus on a task for more than a handful of seconds before another nagging anxiety creeps into my mind. It is especially important during those moments, to breathe deeply, and head outside.
As I sit here finishing this piece, the thermometer tells me that it’s below freezing out; but the sun is shining brilliantly, and is calling out to get my daily dose of vitamin D.
Just because something is obvious – e.g. grounding oneself in nature – does not mean it is “easy” to do. Conversely, just because something is uncomfortable – e.g. getting sunlight in the winter – does not mean that we should run from it.
When we push ourselves outside our comfort zones and live in accordance with our ancestral heritage, then do we become fully embodied, self-same elements in the grand tapestry of Nature.