TAKE A MENTAL BREAK

TRAVELS WITH TRANQUILITY
Photography: ©2015 Jamie A. MacDonald

UNPLUGGED UP NORTH: DISPERSE CAMP TO DISCONNECT

By Rachel Werner

When a close friend first asked me to tag along on the Lake Michigan “Circle Tour” last summer, I was stoked. I hadn’t been on a road trip for years (translation: since premotherhood), plus our route would take us to Michigan, a state I’d never been to but longed to see. I was fully on board.

But then reality started to sink in once the “planning” started. And by planning, I mean the lack thereof.

While I am used to having literally almost every minute of the 16 to 20 hours I spend running around each day scripted to the nanosecond, my traveling partner’s plan was to get in the car on the appointed day of departure and just head to Southern Michigan then drive north—until we eventually had to veer west to keep from plunging into the Straits of Mackinac.

Traveling with no set route would also make it difficult to prearrange lodging, so camping, in theory, seemed the natural fallback. Going dispersed camping, meaning pitching our tent anywhere on public land completely away from designated campsites and their services, would steep us in wilderness, off the beaten path. It was going to be a grand adventure!

Truly, though, it was an idealized theory. I became mired in doubt the moment we’d been driving for a day and half and realized that unlike state lines or rest stops, there’s no colorful sign that signals you won’t be within range of a cell tower for another 50 miles.

That’s when the light bulb went off.

We’d been fooling ourselves. Our mobile devices—two phones and a tablet—had been charging in an almost nonstop rotation in the Jeep since we gleefully drove out of Madison. We’d been stealthily relying on technology to steer us along our unmarked course as well as keep us regularly connected to family, friends and the work emails we’d supposedly left behind. My friend began to fret about locating a Wi-Fi hotspot; I figured procuring a map would be faster and a more reasonable place to start.

The beauty is, once the Internet vanished, the real excitement, challenges and deep conversations began. We ended up needing multiple maps, acquired from various ranger stations to decipher where to pitch our tents on our trek. Turns out Hiawatha National Forest in the Upper Peninsula spans more than 800 acres and figuring out where to sleep in extremely dense timberland or along desolate stretches of shoreline was one of the most difficult tasks. We talked to a lot of foresters; hit up the locals for information on where— and where not—to forage for wild blueberries and learned to suss out the traces of those who’d hiked, explored and bunked down in the same stretch of woods before us.

The farther North we went, the more we started to soak in the pleasure of simplicity. Our lone tents perched overlooking the calm veneer of Lake Superior, a remote haven loaded with nature’s comforts like chatting uninterrupted for hours under star-filled skies and waking pre-dawn, hoping to glimpse the haloed flecks of the Northern Lights. The pure bliss of being able to float nude in Superior’s transparent green waves only expanded with the liberty of wet drops evaporating off my skin as I strolled, wearing nothing but a towel, across smooth pebbles and warm sand along vast stretches of deserted shores.

When nearly a week later we began the descent back into Wisconsin from the Upper Peninsula, we hugged the west coast of Lake Michigan as long as the state highways obliged us a view of its glistening surface under the blazing August sun. Though we dashed away at the start of our journey, we slowly crept back to Wisconsin—half-dreading the familiar chimes and vibrations about to erupt from our discarded devices now that we were back on the grid.

Relinquishing the solitude we’d managed to discover over the past days made us both question and reflect on the frantic to-do lists our lives had morphed into. Though neither of us would have said we were unhappy before our camping expedition, we soon realized we weren’t happy with the current status quo either. Embracing the outdoors was a good first step in the right direction.

IN NATURE, PARFREY’S GLEN AND PEWIT’S NEST

By Meg Rothstein

It’s been that kind of week. My inner, balanced country mouse feels more autopilot city hamster stuck on a wheel. I’m overwhelmed and the bigger picture I’m always reminding myself to look for feels completely lost to me. I pick an old Radiohead playlist to match my headspace, climb into my car and hit the road for 40 minutes until I find myself at the base entrance to Pewit’s Nest.

Nestled in the Baraboo Hills, this majestic spot was formed by a retreating glacier eons ago. The property begins with a meadow of native grasses along either side of a trail leading to a deep gorge of pooling creek water and small falls. I walk into the tall grasses at the entrance, sink low and, finally, recline in absolute peace. Eyes closed, just breathing. How is it that the oxygen is better here?

I comb a small patch of meadow with my fingers until I come to just the right stem of grass. Its underside’s mild grain reminds me of the peculiar gentle-roughness of a cat’s tongue. I twist the blade around my knuckles and enjoy its cool traces of dew. I don’t know the name of this plant but for now, it can just be “cat’s tongue grass.” For the next long minute, I let my chosen stem be my only tether to this world. I don’t need to know more. Nothing else is necessary here.

The meadow pillows under me. I notice the tension headache I’ve ignored and grown over the course of the week—a kind of pressure built from daily demands pooling gradually at the base of my skull. It’s a kind of “social hangover” of sorts and one best nursed through nature. Through solitude. Now, I just notice it. I don’t need to do more.

Shading my eyes with the back of my hand, I treat myself to quick blinks of crisp blue sky. My thoughts trip along—and I allow them to meander. I think about how I’m grounded here but also free to safely change shape—to let go, to shed the headache, the hamster, the wheel, the week. Taking a new, tension-free stance, I don’t need to be more. Nothing else is necessary here.

I uncurl myself from the meadow bed and stretch, ready to hike. Along the trail, gentle breezes coax lashes of maple, birch and pine. Soon, I reach Skillet Creek where dappled light dances against canyon walls. The earthy scent of this place transports me while I take in the lush color and listen deeply to the cascades. I rest along the banks, kick off my boots and dip my feet into the water. Just beyond my toes, I spot the last of what was likely a plentiful patch of watercress, peppery and delicious only a few weeks ago.

I spend a few more minutes along the banks of the creek, then find my way back. Down the road, the Devil’s Lake segment of the Ice Age Trail ends at one of Wisconsin’s gorgeous wonders: Parfrey’s Glen. Second stop! From Pewits nest, I take County Road DL, WI-113 for a picturesque 20 minutes.

At Parfrey’s, I first stoop to admire great constellations of wood anemone stars blanketing a deep green forest floor. So delicate. They likely won’t be here when I return in a few weeks. Their ephemerality makes me relish them even more. Just beyond their celestial display, I smile at a smattering of Jack-in-the-pulpit and Dutchman’s breeches— tiny caps and wee pants strung on a line. Ever present in my childhood springtimes spent in the Wisconsin woods, their appearance now awakens that same imagination that once believed in fairy tales.

I continue my walk and indulge in spontaneous fantasy, examining bracket fungi for tiny elven footprints.  The magic continues with the appearance of “plum pudding rock”— layers of quartzite, pebbles and Cambrian sandstone. I imagine a great confectionary wall of a giant’s house fell under the spell of an angry wizard and froze forever in time. It glows while mosses and ferns tumble from crevices along the narrow canyon.

Returning to present reality, I step back to survey the full terrain here, also, from the skyline of canyon walls to nearly 100-foot dive to surging waters below. To try to reach the highest point and a waterfall, I need to use caution and a slow pace. A stream cuts through the tree root-ribbed and rocky path. I reconsider. Today, I let it go. Reaching the top is not necessary for the view I need. The bigger picture? I can see it clearly now.

This vista is sweet, indeed.

Check out the Devil’s Lake State Park’s Visitor’s Guide online for more information about visiting Pewit’s Nest, Parfrey’s Glen and the magical Baraboo Hills. devilslakewisconsin.com.

THE RETREAT FOR UNPLUGGING

By Kristine Hansen

To say I’ve been practicing yoga with nuns for the last five years barely scratches the surface. I haven’t yet told you about the delicious organic, vegetarian farm-to-table meals or the joy of practicing yoga in a sun-lit rotunda constructed by local Amish folks. The Christine Center—staffed and run by nuns—is nothing like a religious retreat. If there’s a Bible or rosary lying around, I haven’t seen it. Instead, talk of female empowerment and tapping into your energy—interwoven with pop-cultural and spiritual discussions with the nuns, such as who’s the best performer on “Dancing with the Stars,” or the state of the world today—drive the center’s roster of coed retreats, from intuitive painting to yoga.

On a visit there I can embark on a self-guided retreat by walking the property’s labyrinth, warm up in the sauna, and partake of a sunrise chapel service with the nuns that’s more about meditating than it is praying. My massages are serviced in a rustic cabin on-property, and I’m intrigued by the library’s shelves, lined with books by everyone from Elizabeth Gilbert to Mahatma Gandhi. Meals are served in the main building, where I can also rent a room or instead choose a rustic cabin (some are dog-friendly) or even pitch my tent.

Five years ago, Google, not God, led me to this wooded retreat center in Willard, near Black River Falls. Bali was too far away and too expensive. Same for Costa Rica and Hawaii. But paying $250 for a yoga retreat (meals included)— that felt more in line with my budget. Now, every November my friend Laura and I head north to the Christine Center, where, on our annual three-day retreat, a yoga instructor teaches us chants, Ayurvedic principles and the wise words of yogis before our time. The nuns practice yoga and share meals with us. We have become friends.

An entire year passes between my visits. As I turn off the interstate and—many miles later—into the town of Willard, I experience that familiar crunch of car tires over gravel and autumn leaves. I open my heart to the prospect of unplugging for three days. A lot has happened in the five years since I began coming. I became a member of a Unitarian church. I married. Friends came and went. But this center, it’s not going anywhere. christinecenter.org.

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