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?