Category Archives: County project

Sauk County: the Wisconsin river valley

There’s something about driving through the Wisconsin countryside that tugs at my Missouri roots and summer days spent on the family farm.  Between the rolling hills, lush green foliage, water, bluffs, and scenic overlooks this state is beyond picturesque, with the drive from Madison west to Spring Green hovering near the top of my favorite scenic drives list.

I was headed to the lower Wisconsin river valley to camp and visit my friend M who lives in that part of the state. Windows rolled down and wind whipping through my hair, I was belting out the words to TLC’s “don’t go chasing waterfalls” when I realized I’d been here for a year now. A YEAR. It’s strange because that part of my life seems so far out of reach but at the same time like it all happened just yesterday. Time sure does fly. But I digress.

M grew up on a cheese factory farm about 10 minutes outside Spring Green so we took a drive over that way so he could show me where he grew up. Though they weren’t making cheese that day, I at least got my very own personal tour and sampled some of the best sharp cheddar cheese I’ve ever had. Along the inside walls are pictures of the farm dating back to when his grandfather first bought it some 40 years ago. The tanks below were on the farm and they still stand there today so I just had to get a picture with them.

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After the cheese factory we went on a hike to St. Ann’s shrine – a sweet hilltop stone chapel dedicated to the mother of Mary. M and I both grew up Catholic so it had special significance for us. When we got there we took off on foot through the cemetery and past the stations of the cross lining a steep trail that went through the woods. There are only a few pews on the inside but sitting there you could feel a strong sense of spiritual presence in the room.

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Though I love all these hidden gems, there was one super touristy thing I wanted to do in Spring Green, which was visit the House on the Rock. It is just that – a house on a rock. It’s one of the main attractions in Wisconsin and something I wanted to mark off my bucket list for my county-by-county project. Lucky for me, M had left over tickets from last year so while he went to work for a few hours I wandered my way over to the scenic overlook off Hwy 23 and to section III of the site.

From the scenic overlook you can see the Infinity Room of the house (I would totally pee my pants being up there) and you can’t help but marvel at the architectural genius of Alex Jordan. I think maybe because I didn’t go into the house itself I was confused about what section III was actually about but nonetheless seeing the largest indoor carousel and perusing the collection of old, albeit sometimes creepy, artifacts was pretty cool. I only made it through section III but since tickets are good a year from the date of purchase I have plenty of time to head back and check out the other sections.

View of the infinity room from the scenic overlook off Hwy 23.

View of the infinity room from the scenic overlook off Hwy 23.

Nevermind the creepy figurines on the carousel.

Nevermind the creepy figurines on the carousel.

Another hidden gem M took me to is a diner tucked back in the foothills on a small air landing strip. Here you can enjoy breakfast and watch hangar planes fly in and out. It’s the kind of place where no one is in a rush (it took us two hours to even get our food) but with the extra time we could sit back, drink our coffee, and enjoy the conversation and views.

M was a fabulous tour guide!

M was a fabulous tour guide!

A restaurant named restaurant.

A restaurant named restaurant.

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A lot of the activities I got to do were things I would have never even known about if it weren’t for M, which is part of why I love having locals play tour guides wherever I go. One thing I do see as I’m writing this post and looking at the pictures is that I am finally moving forward with my life. It makes my heart full to see happiness in my eyes instead of emptiness and for once in a very long while I know that I’m not pretending to feel that way for the sake of those I am around. Thanks, M, for a great weekend!

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Filed under camping, County project, exploring, friends, happiness, hiking, outdoors, travel

Jackson County: Black River State Forest

Since I’ve been traveling out of state a lot this year, I decided to keep my summer adventures close to home. This past weekend marked the beginning of a summer chock full of camping, hiking, and kayaking adventures, which fits in perfectly with my county by county project. For sure my favorite part of living in Wisconsin is the abundance of outdoor activities available to me in my own backyard. Finally, all that investment in outdoor equipment will pay off!

For the first camping trip of the season, a few friends and I headed 2 1/2 hours north to black bear and timber wolf country, where Black River State Forest offers some of the best hiking, canoeing, and fishing in the state. Our camp site was at East Fork Campground, which is one of the more rustic places to stay as there is no electricity and you have to use vault pumps for fresh water. I prefer rustic sites like these over those close to showers and plumbing, primarily because sites with more amenities mean camp sites are literally sitting on top of one another. Though the sites at East Fork were somewhat spread out, they were still pretty close to one another, which I found to be the only downfall to staying there. Usually I prefer hike-in sites that are off the beaten path (the ones where you carry water in and carry trash out) solely because you’re nestled in the woods and further away from other groups, which means you don’t have to abide by quiet hours or worry about how much noise you’re making. Plus, I appreciate being nestled deep in the woods.

I think back to this trip and I can’t help but laugh at all our misadventures, especially for two of my friends who were camping for the second time ever. I only wish the weather hadn’t taken a turn for the worse – from bright and sunny to a torrential downpour – since I doubt they have any desire to tag along on future trips. Between the abundance of ticks and mosquitoes and the flooding of their tent, I feel bad their introduction into the great outdoors was less than ideal. To quote one of them, “This was the worst night of my life.” Haha.

If anything, I think we all learned the importance of hoping for the best but preparing for the worst, as well as investing in quality equipment (especially tents). My buyer’s remorse over a $200 tent? Completely wiped out! That sucker held up in a massive thunderstorm with no leaking whatsoever.

But my most exciting purchase of the season was my kayak, though I will admit it came with its own frustrations. For one, I’m weak in my upper body strength, which means lifting the kayak on top of my vehicle alone is almost impossible. There was a lot of cursing on my end. Plus, my anxiety level went through the roof since I had to keep stopping on the side of the highway to readjust the kayak as it kept popping out of the rack. I’ve been watching a lot of YouTube videos since then to figure out what I’m doing wrong. Hopefully I get it right the next time around. If anything, I’m determined to do all this without needing the help of someone else.

Also, somewhat disappointing is the fact that Miley absolutely hates being in the kayak (actually, hate is an understatement). And, getting her life vest on is a difficult task in and of itself. Basically, I have to wrestle and hold her between my legs. Once I get it on, she makes every attempt to tear it off. She becomes a wild child. On the bright side, she looks super freaking adorable in it!

Though I thought she would love being in the kayak given her love of water, the further out we got from shore, the more she whined and started shaking. Not to mention the fact she nearly flipped me on several occasions (it will happen eventually, I’m sure of it). Plus, she ignored all my commands. I feel like this photo pretty much sums up life with Miley on a daily basis, especially the bottom right box. 🙂

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Hopefully her comfort level will change the more we take the kayak out. I mean, it has to!

Despite some of the frustrations of this past weekend’s camping trip, I had a pretty good time. Check out some of our photos below.

BeFunky Collage

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Filed under camping, County project, kayaking, outdoors, parks, photos

Five ways to rediscover your city

Over the last week I’ve been talking with a friend about his desire to travel and how between school, homework, working, pets, household chores, and visiting with friends and family, life can easily get away from us. He mentioned how he was envious of my ability to travel somewhere new almost every month, his point being that most people our age live on a fairly tight budget.

I get asked this question all the time: “How are you able to afford to travel?” But what most people don’t realize is that travel is something I am not only extremely passionate about but also something I value above all other material things. Thus, travel is one of my top priorities in my personal life. I don’t spend money on anything else, except those bills I am obligated to pay. That’s how I manage to travel. Plus, the miles I rack up often mean I can get a regular priced plane ticket for a cheaper price.

But what got me thinking about our conversation is that people misconstrue being adventurous with having to travel internationally or to another city. Remember when I talked about my county by county project? I had just moved to Madison and all of my savings went to securing a moving company and first and last month’s rent. My vagabond feet were itching to explore but I couldn’t afford to go anywhere outside the state. So, I decided to get a little personal with the town I now call home. After all, this is where I am and there is a simple, quiet joy in reveling in that.

In light of my conversation with this friend I decided to put together five ways you too can rediscover your city. Hopefully it inspires you to be a little adventurous even while staying put.

  1. Go off the beaten path and try new eateries, bars, and nightclubs.

Most of us have our typical go to spots for where we eat and drink and hang out. It’s easy to get comfortable with the familiar but there are some pretty awesome hole in the wall restaurants, if only you look for them. And, if you live in a small town and have already been everywhere, hop in your car and drive to the next town over. Any place within an hour’s drive is, in my opinion, still exploring locally.

A resource you can look to for guidance is what many city magazines have started doing. For example, where I live, there is a Best of Madison magazine that comes out every year, highlighting the top eateries, bars, and nightclubs broken down by category. This is a good starting place, but you can even check out Yelp for some suggestions.

Since moving to Madison, I’ve been on the hunt for the best burger and cheese shop. My best bet was talking to locals and getting their recommendations of places to check out. I ended up stumbling across two places that weren’t in any guide book. I found the juiciest burger, piled high with bacon and blue cheese crumbles, inside a dive bar that was tucked in the middle of the woods just two miles from my apartment building. None of my friends have heard of it but it’s a spot locals in my neighborhood frequent on the regular. And, as far as finding the best cheese shop, there is a little dairy farm about an hour outside my town that makes their own cheese. Free samples and wine to pair with it – double score!

  1. Pay attention to the details.

Wander a random neighborhood or new part of town and be sure to change it up during the week. Exploring downtown today? Check out an ethnic community tomorrow. Don’t have the kind of diversity? There has to be an Amish community somewhere near you. Don’t forget to take your camera either. It’s amazing how much more you see when you actually take the time to look at your surroundings. You may even find some interesting things – alley ways with bold and colorful murals, a new park with some interesting sculptures, or a view of the sunset or skyline so breathtaking you can’t help but appreciate the peace it brings.

  1. Don’t be afraid to be a tourist.

You spend four years (or a lifetime) in one place and all of a sudden you realize you haven’t seen the main attractions of your town. Visit a local museum (many college campuses have them and are open to the public for free) or a national park nearby. Learn about your area’s history and how the city came to be.

I come from a smaller town so I understand there aren’t always a lot of big attractions in your backyard but there are smaller, even free, attractions nearby. In my hometown, everyone talked about “The Big Tree” – an oak tree that has sat on the outskirts of town for over a 100 years. It sits on the edge of a dirt road and no other vegetation is nearby. I had never been there despite living my entire life in the area so one day I drove out, took some pictures, wrote my name in chalk on the plank wood nearby, and read. It was glorious.

I now live in Madison, WI and everyone talks about Picnic Point – a walking path that leads to a peninsula and gives amazing views of the city skyline. I went there with a friend, we sat in a tree like Forrest and Jenny, then skipped some rocks across the water. It was a chill activity that let us see a new side of our city.

Being adventurous doesn’t mean you have to travel to a new state or even internationally. It just means trying something new that  you’ve never done. It brings an element of freshness and vitality to your life and makes for some beautiful memories.

  1. Revel in nature.

Live near a lake? Go ice skating in the winter or paddle boarding in the summer. Live in a mountainous town or a city with bike trails? Go off the beaten track and head out on your mountain or road bike. You never know, you may even stumble across a creek or river you can dip your feet in. How far are you from the beach? If it’s within a couple hour’s drive, you’re still doing the local thing. Spend the day sunbathing and building sand castles. And, depending on the season, you can get your hands dirty picking pumpkins, apples, cherries, and blueberries from nearby farms. As the poet Matthew Henry said, “When the world burdens you, find peace in nature.”

  1. Volunteer for a day (or two or three).

There are heaps of opportunities to volunteer in your community. Help pick up trash and clear brush off the trail, serve meals at a homeless shelter, run a 5k for a charity or cause, help build a home with Habitat for Humanity, plant a garden for a local children’s school, package food at a local food bank. There is no shortage of opportunities available to you, especially with a week’s time on your hands. Volunteering isn’t just something nice that you do, it actually makes an impact on your community.

One day, a group of friends and I decided to volunteer at the local food bank making Thanksgiving meal packages to be delivered. From our efforts, the Food Bank was able to deliver the boxes earlier than anticipated and we helped provide a Thanksgiving meal to over 900 families.

I can also attest to the fact that volunteering is a way to enrich your spirit. Having bipolar II disorder, it aids in the recovery process, particularly in building self-confidence about having a purpose and giving meaning to my community and to the world. I think that lesson can be applied to anyone.

There are a lot of things you can do in your own backyard that doesn’t break the bank. So if you’re thinking about spending money you don’t have on a trip to the beach or somewhere abroad, think of the endless abilities waiting at your feet, right where you are. A little staycation may even give you a new appreciation for your city and all it has to offer.

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Filed under adventure, County project, exploring, travel

Fond du Lac County: The Little Farmer

Off Hwy 151 just outside of Fond du Lac, WI is a fourth generation family farm called The Little Farmer that grows apples and pumpkins. Here, you can pick the apples/pumpkins yourself or make your way over to the Apple House – a rustic barn which holds a fresh produce farmers market, craft store, and bakery. Make no mistake the aroma inside the barn is heavenly with scents of fresh-baked pies, muffins, caramel sauce, and apple cider lingering in the air. Although I was half-tempted to buy some apple pie right then and there and pass it off as my own, I opted to join in on the fun and go apple picking for the first time ever. In hindsight, I might as well have stuck with my original plan because 10lbs of apples and 5 recipes later I STILL have way more than I know what to do with. Also, I’m getting tired of eating apples.

The day I went apple picking there were two types you could pick: Cortlands or Red Delicious. Rather than get a mixture of both I opted for the Cortlands because they’re perfect for baking and cooking. With the weather turning cooler and my Halloween party coming up, I had a lot of stews and desserts to whip together.

First up were two stews: slow-cooker pork and cider stew and chicken stew with cabbage and apples. I made a few slight modifications to both recipes. For the pork and cider stew I tripled the amount of apple cider the recipe called for and replaced the kidney beans with carrots, celery, and potatoes. I ended up increasing the amount of liquid the recipe called for because I thought the meat might absorb all of it and stick to the slow-cooker. I’m glad I did because even with the added amount of liquid, there was hardly any left when I got home from work. It ended up being the perfect consistency and I served the stew over a bed of pasta. I’m not entirely sure I would make this recipe again (except there is a batch in my freezer guaranteeing I will at least eat it again). It definitely has a strong apple taste and after a few meals it gets to be a bit overpowering.

In this regard, the chicken stew with cabbage and apples fared much better. The only modifications I made to this particular recipe were to reduce the amount of cabbage and increase the amount of liquid so it was more soup-like. I also didn’t use fennel or caraway seeds because I didn’t know what they were or where to find them in the store. That being said, I’d say what brought this recipe together is the apple chicken sausage. It added a nice flavor and extra kick to every bite. In fact, I can’t get enough of it and the leftovers are even better.

Then there were desserts! Luckily for me, I have wonderful coworkers who love to eat. A lot. They’ve been the main beneficiary of my apple cooking adventures over the last week and a half but I also kept some in the freezer for a Halloween party I’m hosting towards the end of the month. So far, I’ve ended up making apple cinnamon muffins, apple coffee cake, and freezer apple-pie filling. When it comes to baking, I’m too scared to modify the recipes so the only thing to report here is that I’m proudly contributing to the growing waistlines of DJC (including my own) and the apple coffee cake was so. damn. good.

Happy Fall!

First apple picked ever!

First apple picked ever!

Pork and cider stew

Pork and cider stew

YUM.

YUM.

This was taken 5 minutes after I arrived to work...

This was taken 5 minutes after I arrived to work…

My neighborhood is beautiful.

My neighborhood is beautiful.

 

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Filed under cooking, County project, fall, recipes

Grant county: camping on the confluence

Along the southwestern border of Wisconsin is Wyalusing State Park, which is where the lower Wisconsin River meets the Mississippi. About 500 feet above where the rivers meet is an abundance of outdoor space and natural beauty just begging to be explored. I first discovered Wyalusing on a travel Wisconsin website and it’s been on my list of parks to explore ever since so when my friend Kelsey invited me to join her and a group of about 15 others to set up camp here for the weekend, I jumped at the opportunity.

Although most people I’ve talked to about Wyalusing have never been there or even heard of it, it definitely didn’t disappoint. I now consider it one of Wisconsin’s hidden gems, offering plenty of scenic views, hiking trails, and canoeing and kayaking opportunities. You can even go birding here if that’s your thing. Although I’m not so much into that, the number of bald eagles I spotted from different vantage points was amazing. Their sheer enormity left me awe-struck and watching them soar among the tree tops in mass made me feel a sort of spiritual connection to the earth.

The fact there were few people in the park definitely added to the overall experience. Typically, group camp sites leave a lot to be desired (overcrowded, no privacy, flat grassy land) but I was impressed with the sites here. Our little camping village was nestled at the end of a long drive and in the shape of a horseshoe, meaning we were secluded from other campers and surrounded by trees. It made the experience more intimate and friendly – a home away from home – and offered more opportunity to get to know some of the other people there. I came away from the trip feeling fortunate to have met Kelsey and her group of friends. They’ve all been so warm and welcoming but Kelsey especially has invited me into her life with open arms. I think what helps is that of everyone, only one is a native Wisconsinite. Everyone else moved here from out-of-state so there’s a sort of kinship and bond in understanding what it’s like to move to a city where you know no one.

Speaking of bonding, by far my favorite part of the weekend (which ironically had nothing to do with being outdoors) was the result of an impulse buy. On the way out of town, Kelsey and I stopped at Woodman’s to pick up a few items and inevitably got sidetracked by the giant pit of piñatas. Even though we were a group of adults, there was no reason not to blindfold people and watch them whack at something with a bat. It was the best $10 I’ve spent in a while. If I had thought about it more, I would have filled it with something other than candy, like baby bottles of booze. Who wouldn’t want that raining from the sky?! We certainly got some strange looks from other campers and I imagine we all looked like total red necks but it was fun. Plus, I love telling the story of Kelsey and me walking out of Woodman’s with a giant piñata, a bag of candy, a case of beer, 5 packets of taco seasoning, and ice.

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Scenic view on a hike through the bluffs.

Scenic view on a hike through the bluffs.

Kelsey and Selina posing with the bird pre destruction.

Kelsey and Selina posing with the bird pre destruction.

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Filed under camping, County project, Joy, parks

Dane County: A Day On Madison’s West Side

One of my favorite things to do in Madison is explore all the unique and distinctive neighborhoods in the area. I’d describe some as quaint and historic, others as beautiful and sleepy, and a few as just plain quirky. But one thing they all have in common is charm. Each neighborhood offers something different and as I find myself strolling along quaint streets taking in the parks, scenic views, stores, and people, I can’t help but feel beckoned to live there. In my mind, I’ve already moved four times since relocating here.

My most recent neighborhood adventure was to Madison’s West Side, although I technically ended up spending the entire time within a 4 block radius of Monroe Street so I use “West Side” loosely. To date, a lot of my explorations in Madison have been alone or with random groups of strangers so having my Mom drive up for the day and share in this particular adventure with me was a real treat.

We started with a stroll along Monroe street, where Victorian-style bungalow homes peek out over locally-owned shops. Interspersed with the shops are some of Madison’s top foodie places, including Pizza Brutta, which received rave reviews from some of my co-workers. Hands down my favorite part of this establishment was the smell – a mixture of basil simmering in sauce and dough rising in a wood-fired oven. It was enough to make my mouth salivate well before we ever even got the pizza. The end product lived up to my expectations as well. A thin, airy crust that struck the perfect balance between crust, sauce, toppings, and cheese.

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My foodie experience in Madison hasn’t let me down yet. There is no shortage of fabulous eateries here (worthy of a post all its own) that I often joke I’m actually eating my way through Madison more so than exploring it’s attractions.

Just around the corner from Monroe street is the Henry Vilas Zoo, which is where we headed after Pizza Brutta, feeling fat and happy. We opted to spend a few hours here listening to the roar of the lions and being entertained by two feisty orangutans before heading over to Memorial Union Terrace, which is just off Lake Mendota. Lovingly referred to as the Terrace, it’s one of Madison’s iconic hang out places characterized by starburst-colored chairs, scenic views, swimming piers, live music, and sailboats. I love it here. Plus, the Wisconsin brats and pitchers of New Glarus Spotted Cow make the downtime worthwhile.

Photo courtesy Natural Landscapes

Photo courtesy Natural Landscapes

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Sauk County: Climbing The Bluffs

Last weekend I made a visit to Devil’s Lake State Park in Baraboo and spent the day rock climbing the bluffs with a group of people I met through meet up. Meet up essentially brings together people who enjoy doing similar activities and are looking to expand their social networks. I had limited experience with the site when I was living in Columbia but I joined the Madison Outdoors group and have been averaging one a week since moving here. I jumped at this particular opportunity because while I’ve bouldered and climbed at indoor gyms before I’ve actually never had the chance to try it on natural rock formations. Plus, it fit in well with my county-by-county project!

A girl with a “say yes to anything’ mentality, I was the first to volunteer to climb. Although I struggled through many of the sections, I managed to hang on through the worst of it. So many times I felt like my grip would fail me and I’d fall. My fingertips were plastered inside tiny crevices and my legs were wide, the weight of my body on the tips of my toes. At times my body would freeze. If I were to release my fingers from those tiny crevices, I wouldn’t have anything to hang on to. But it’s a sport which requires you to give in to yourself and to trust your movements. To lean in to your feet, release the weight in your arms, to reach out and to push up. This was the struggle I faced during the moments I started to climb – learning to let go and give in.

In many ways, I feel like I fought myself on the face of those rocks. I was exploring a new emotional terrain. In some places I felt strong while in others I felt weak and tattered and beat up. I slammed into the side of the rocks when I slipped, bruised and scratched up my legs, and in places where my grip slipped, the skin on my knuckles were rubbed raw. It pissed me off royally and it’s what kept me coming back for more.

When I finally conquered a difficult course and managed to make my way to the top of the bluffs, I felt simultaneously depleted and accomplished. Heart beating fast, hair plastered to my sweaty face, body quivering from pure exhaustion the only words I could muster were, “Fucking shit that was hard”. It was awful and beautiful and fun and hellacious all at the same time.

At the top of the bluffs I took a few moments to catch my breath. I sat there in the harness, limbs hanging loose, looking out over the tree tops and through to the water. It was majestic. The chatter of my thoughts had finally subdued. It was then I realized I made it an entire three hours without thinking of anything but me and that damn rock. It was bliss and a reminder to not be too hard on myself – to trust my heart and focus on the journey.

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Filed under County project, devil's lake, rock climbing, struggle bus