A Thirsting Wild: The Traditional Travel Up North

by Keith Savage · 19 comments


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The journey into the northwoods, “up north” as we like to say in the upper Midwest, has become a ritualized affair. In my earliest memories I’m a toddler stomping through the rough-grained sand of the lake shore and digging channels with a plastic shovel; I’m seven years old and listening to Run-DMC (of all things) on my Walkman while the pouring rain further darkens the brooding forest surrounding our small cabin; I’m running outside to see my grandma shrieking at bats behind the shutters; I’m watching my Dad furiously row across the lake in an aluminum boat trying to beat the oncoming thunderstorm. Those years are washed out, half-faded, precious memories of freedom and floating and dreaming.

Tradition, a long-established or inherited way of acting, is rarely questioned, and so it was for me until recently. I’ve been in the mindset to ferret out motivations, and I began to mull over this cultural exodus to the great tracts of wilderness in northern Wisconsin. Simple answers immediately jumped to mind: it’s fun, it’s a cheap family vacation, it’s nearby. These reasons must be prime motivators (judging by the number of Illinoisans going north I expect Wisconsin to be annexed anytime now), but they don’t explain the deep penetration of this pilgrimage into our cultural identity.

Traveling up north tends to revolve around the activities, and it’s no secret that the northwoods are packed to the gills with them: fishing, swimming, biking, hiking, lake sports, gambling, wildlife watching, snowmobiling, camping, scenery, etc. I could go on almost indefinitely. But I’m a cynic at heart. I spoil my own vacation by wondering how a lake must have been without an endless border of houses peaking through foliage, without scores of motorized vehicles shredding the silent sound of nature and aerating the water into a froth, without the faded beer cans and blasted fireworks casings.

In this scene I saw the classic conflict of man vs. nature. Our escape to the northwoods appeared to be little more than a churlish attempt to exert mastery over a place of powerful wilderness, as man is wont to do. The lake with the houses and boats was a kind of manufactured nature.

I went to sleep with that cheery thought and awoke with a different interpretation altogether: that going up north is man attending to the “wilderness” inside himself. We live our daily lives within man-made systems that in many ways are wholly unnatural, from our homes to our roads to our places of employment. It’s possible to go weeks seeing more concrete and asphalt than flora and fauna. In our phosphorescent offices and calibrated climates, some part of us is wilting and shriveling up. Time often feels more like a shackle than an open, breezy expanse.

In the north we escape. We reconnect with a thirsting wild that still breathes and bucks in our souls. We leave behind the tethers of society and revel in not thinking about tomorrow. Hiking through the forest, grasping the gasping fish: our small souls sidling closer to nourishment.

The purpose of traveling into the northwoods is not to escape from everyday life, though that is a benefit, it is to rejuvenate a more natural, more primitive aspect of our humanity. I have to believe that other cultures and micro-cultures have their equivalent “up north,” that Wisconsinites aren’t from some unique and ancient proto-human lineage.

Just the other night, as my thoughts on this topic came together like a towering thunderhead, I read a passage in Zorba the Greek by Nikos Kazantzakis that blew my mind like a front breaking the rain:

“The higher we went, the more our spirits seemed to become purged and exalted. Once again I felt the influence on the soul of pure air, easy breathing and a vast horizon. Anyone would think the soul, too, was an animal with lungs and nostrils, and that it need oxygen, was stifled in the dust or in the midst of too much stale breath.”

What I had visualized on the lake wasn’t man vs. nature. It was man trying his damnedest, the only way he knew how, to reconnect with a half-remembered nature that had been collectively relegated to the fringes of country and consciousness.

Where is your “up north?” Why do you go there?


GrayNo Gravatar August 25, 2010 at 8:25 AM

How did I miss this article when it came out? It’s lovely, especially “attending to the wilderness inside oneself”. The way you describe “up north” reminds me of rural Vermont. People come here to “get away from it all”. I live “up north”, so for me, my escape is travel to places that are very different from Vermont. Often cities, or pretty much anywhere that has palm trees or a very different culture; it makes my spirit feel lighter, like I can get in touch with my “better self”.

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Keith SavageNo Gravatar September 29, 2010 at 11:44 AM

You put an interesting spin on this – that “up north” is going someplace different than the norm. I think that shares many of the benefits of going up north, though perhaps it’s not focused on getting back to nature as much. Ultimately, the rejuvenation seems to come from being a fish out of water, so to speak.

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Elizabeth JensenNo Gravatar July 14, 2010 at 12:12 PM

Hi Keith!
My “up north” has also always been Northern Wisconsin. The Hayward/Spooner/Trego area. We haven’t been in a long time and I miss it! Hopefully we can go again soon.

Elizabeth Jensen

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Keith SavageNo Gravatar July 14, 2010 at 1:27 PM

That’s northwestern Wisconsin, right? I haven’t been over that direction yet. When I’m up north, it’s typically north-central or northeast Wisconsin. I might see some of that area soon as we head to Bayfield.

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SuzyNo Gravatar July 11, 2010 at 5:47 PM

This reminds me of going up to Estes Park in Colorado as a kid in summertime. We would stay in these cabins titled “Mummy View” etc., cheesy but serene just the same. With jiffy pop and nothing but mountains, you certainly felt disconnected. I however love to be connected so I try not to travel too far “up north”. There are few green spaces here in Florence, but the ones I do find, provide me with that sensation of escapism.

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Keith SavageNo Gravatar July 14, 2010 at 1:28 PM

Hey Suzy, sounds a lot like my experience as a kid in northern Wisconsin. I’ve yet to go way off the grid a la Bear Grylls or Survivorman.

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AndiNo Gravatar July 9, 2010 at 2:32 PM

I’ve never been to keen on wilderness, I’m much more of beachy person. However, when I went to the Amazon last January that really changed my perspective. Beautiful post!

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Keith SavageNo Gravatar July 10, 2010 at 11:02 PM

“Up north” can be anywhere and anything, as Claire mentions above. Sounds like the beach might be that spot for you.

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Raam DevNo Gravatar July 9, 2010 at 1:02 PM

Wow, this really reminded me a lot of those long weekend camping trips I would take to get away from everything. I’d go solo for 2 – 3 days in the Great North Woods of New Hampshire (USA) and have nobody to talk to except my thoughts and the forest. I always returned from those trips with a clarity, peacefulness, and sense of deep inner calm.

Now I’m a nomad traveling the world and although there is definitely more peace than when I had a 9-5 job, I still find myself craving that isolation and disconnectedness. I’m in Nepal at the moment and I’m planning to do some hikes in the foothills of the Himalaya’s, so I will be quenching my thirst soon enough! 🙂

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Keith SavageNo Gravatar July 10, 2010 at 11:05 PM

Hey Raam – I bet the scenery in New Hampshire bears some similarity to Wisconsin’s northwoods. I also find being away in the woods to have a kind of ambient calming effect. Interesting to hear that you still desire it while you’re traveling. I’ll have to keep that in mind as I plan my trip to Argentina.

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ClaireNo Gravatar July 9, 2010 at 11:35 AM

Not as wild or unfettered as the post above, my escape is a book. Yes, I travel and see the world-But when that isn’t possible, I read. I can completely escape for an hour or a day, surfacing only for complete necessity!

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Keith SavageNo Gravatar July 10, 2010 at 11:03 PM

Cool, yes – I agree that books have the power to transport you and feed some part of you in the process.

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Ted NelsonNo Gravatar July 9, 2010 at 12:31 AM

My up north is Quetico Provincial Park in Ontario, Canada. Going up there in early August. Going to bypass Northern Wisconsin for now, but will be back to annex it later (from Chicago). This post reminds me of the book “Call of the Wild,” by Jack London. He talks about the primordial self of men and dogs and how even though we have become tamed through civilization there is still a sense inside us that longs for wilderness.

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Keith SavageNo Gravatar July 9, 2010 at 8:50 AM

Hi Ted – such a classic book and one that I haven’t read in a long time if ever. But it does ring familiar. Another one to add to my list. Thanks!

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