Note: this post is unfinished. I stopped working on it partway through, when I realized it substantially repeated things I’d written about already. But before I set aside the time to get out the redundancy, I accidentally published it… so here it is. The section “The Power” at the end was meant to be about solar electricity. Perhaps I’ll finish this in some form.
I’ve now lived in the same general area of the Chequamegon Bay for almost two years. I intend to live here for many more years: I thought of Minneapolis, by comparison, as an extended stopover, from the beginning of my time there, and I ended up living there only a little under three years before moving on. Here is where I imagine I’ve settled down. But given my vagabond past, and because I haven’t bought land or a house yet but instead keep changing addresses as I find different places around here to rent on my gradual way to a more permanent situation, many people who know me seem to suspect that I’m just stopping through. Maybe it’s also because Minneapolis is a place we’re familiar with, a gravity well, a place people end up. The Chequamegon Bay is an unknown. It sounds like a place to do some WWOOFing for a while.
But it really is the place I intend to end up. It’s the place where I imagine myself becoming an eccentric old local who young people can come to and ask oddball questions about the history and how to grow food. It’s where I have friends I can imagine working with on decades-long projects. It’s not even just a random place equivalent to any other random zone of the northern Midwest. It’s specific. It’s particular. It’s got history; it’s got unusual landforms; it’s even got a culture, or at least the beginnings of one. So even though I’ve mentioned where I am before, I want to write about it again, more fully, in order to put the Chequamegon Bay on the map. It is, in fact, a place people can end up—it’s where I am, and where I plan to stay.
Back in August, with an attempt to live with untested housemates incinerating into a disorderly fireball of what might be courteously called “interpersonal difficulties”, Misty and I moved out of the little log cabin we’d been living in, and moved into a whole different cabin twenty miles to the north.
This is a move that was a long time coming, but I had long dragged my heels on it. The thing was: I had never lived with so few people before. Only one housemate. It didn’t strike me as entirely relevant that the one housemate was the person I had happily decided to spend the rest of my life with not three months prior. There was a natural law that I felt I was violating: conventional people live alone or in single-nuclear-family homes; weirdos and other such people at the forefront of cultural evolution live with unrelated peers in a communal arrangement. By moving to a cabin with just me and Misty, I would become more … normal. I moved out to the country to live alternatively—living in a community house is clearly the baseline of alternative living!
All of which is of course mostly balderdash, although I couldn’t see it until I left. I was confident I had the facts on my side. Fact one: in traditional societies (which I rely on as a benchmark very probably more than is justified), people usually live in multi-family homes, like Haudenosaunee longhouses. Fact two: in the hippie classic A Pattern Language, which explains how to design everything from a continent to a bathroom, in descending order, one finds the assertion that a two-person household is unhealthy because any sore spot between the two can “quickly become critical” with no other people to offload frustrations onto or to interact with for a break from the person one has gone sour on. But of course, this wasn’t a multi-family home, it was a house that contained one nascent family and one short-historied couple actively in the process of catastrophic failure, thus so much for Fact One; and as for Fact Two, in point of fact there was a relationship between two people that did go critical, between Misty and Soren, and having other people around may have been helpful, but as soon as we moved out, Misty’s stress-induced lung malfunction cleared right up and it became clear that no matter the merits of communal households in general, this one needed to end and was not better than the two of us living together as a couple.
Misty, as usual, had a clearer vision of the benefits we could get from living together than I did; they have a knack for understanding how people work together that I’m still developing. This, they pointed out, would be an opportunity for us to really understand who we are as a couple—not really to test out whether we could go the discance once we get married (I believe we were both in agreement that it seems likely but the only true test is in the living it), but just to find out how it works when we share the mundane project of running a household. What latent abilities will that develop in each of us? What will get done without trouble and what will keep getting left undone? What ideas will we have and enact for cool projects to carry into our long-term future?
We’ve been living here five months now. Within the first week or two, I’d already been won over to the benefits. I think I expected to feel lonely, but it’s just the opposite: when we’re together, I feel fully together, the kind of together where your souls touch; and when I’m alone I feel peacefully alone. We’ve come to the conclusion that loneliness equals aloneness plus suffering. As Buddhist philosophy will consistently remind you, suffering is something we always seem to inflict upon ourselves, the “second arrow” of the sutra, but it’s still optional, and if you enjoy youl anole time, you don’t have any loneliness to worry about.
The Bayfield Peninsula is the formal name for the little sticky-outy bit at the tip top of Wisconsin. Most of the action of the peninsula takes place on the shore of the bay that forms it, the Chequamegon Bay, a special sheltered spot that’s one of the warmest parts of the mighty and frigid Lake Superior, and can even, under certain conditions, be swum in comfortably. The shore is the host to three towns that form a fairly smooth gradation in size and quaintitude. Down at the bottom end is Ashland, college town of 8,000 people (only some 600 of whom attend bitty Northland College, which brings hippie-like folks to the area from far and wide). Ashland used to be the next Chicago, and I’m told it was once many times its current size, but its glory days were over by 1967, when the last taconite train offloaded at the goliath oredock across from downtown and steamed away in favor of the snazzier wharves of Duluth and Marquette. Nowadays the train tracks are a nice bike trail, the old warehouses are Superfund sites, and all that’s left of the oredock is an out-of-place concrete footing stretching most of half a mile into the water and the melancholy name of the Ashland High School Oredockers. The cabin Misty and I moved out of was on an old horse farm outside Ashland.
Ten miles up the shore—or a six-mile walk across the ice—is Washburn, a quarter the size and with its heyday even further behind, far enough back that its rust has just about washed off and it’s now just a cute little place where (those who are curious know) things used to happen. There was a lumber mill there, biggest on the Lake, and a TNT factory too, biggest in the world, but the only hint of industry now is the little ironworks there, bigger than a medieval village smithy but not as grand as, say, a Walgreens. Its main street is lined with eternal old brownstone buildingns that house the drugstore, the thrift shop, the hardare store.
And ten miles further north, a quarter that size with a year-round population last ciphered at just 496, is Wisconsin’s smallest incorporated city, Bayfield, gateway to Madeline Island—only inhabited island on the world’s largest lake1—as well as home to a density of tourist kitsch second, on the Upper Great Lakes, only to Mackinac Island. Bayfield is a place where you can choose between two places to get your morning cappuccino, three to get an ice cream cone, three for booze, two different bookstores (both evidently thriving), and at least ten restaurants from dive to country club—but you can’t get a single pound of frozen non-CAFO hamburger, because the people who come through here are in a mood to be catered to, and the single dismal grocery store doesn’t find it pays to stock the decent stuff, even with a farmer-direct distribution company, Bayfield Foods, literally a few blocks away.
Outside Bayfield is where Misty and I live. Coming inland from the shore, the land tips up dizzily, and then plunges into the darkly forested wilds of the interior of the peninsula, where dwell only fruit farmers, bears, and the Northwoods’ own brand of hillbillies—among which last, we hope, we’ll eventually be able to count ourselves.
There’s certainly hill enough to billy on. To get into town is a 3½-mile bike ride. The first mile takes fifteen minutes as I grind up to the ridgeline, and then the other 2½ miles go by in about five minutes and an eyewatering wind tunnel of a descent that seems to leave me only a little shy of making a sonic boom as I blaze into town.
Our cabin was built twenty years ago by a young couple who had never built a house before. It’s built of cordwood, which is a more polite way to say firewood, stacked up and mortared between with some sandy hippie-devised concretion we still haven’t identified. In accordance with the natural building gospel, it’s built with big old windows facing the south, and exposed whole-timber beams inside. Beyond that it begins to make less and less sense, and show that it was built by people who didn’t quite know what they were doing (as they’ve freely admitted to a friend of mine who knew them). The wood stove, sole source of heat in the winter, is right next to the front door, so that all the warmth fets sucked out when the door is opened. The floor plan asks more questions than it anwers, and has led us to get really weird and creative with our furniture placement so as to mitigate the nonsensicality of it. (Currently we have the bottom half of our rolltop desk partially under the counter, and the top half sitting on a bench that gets too cold to be otherwise pleasant to use.) The builders moved elsewhere after three years or so, and sold it to the organic farmer down the road, who rents it to us. Since then, it seems most people I know have lived in it at one point or another. It’s a reliable stopover between blowing in on the wind as a directionless idealist and starting up a homestead of your own. Few have stayed longer than a year and a half, largely because it’s so blessed hard to keep the place warm all winter that not a lot of people try to do it twice. We’re not sure how long we plan to stay: we’re considering trying to prove a point by outlasting the usual upper limit, but we’ll see what happens.
Part of why I moved to the Chequamegon Bay was for all the great people. So it’s ironic that I spent my first year living as something of a hermit, and at the beginning of my second year, just as I was getting ready to break out of my shell, I suddenly had to think about phrases like “shelter in place” and “social distancing”. I’m not sure if “ironic” is the right word for Misty’s situation, which is this: as the pandemic was setting into place, I called them and invited them to live up here with me and get out of the city, a place that we both knew was causing them to spiral deeper and deeper into depressive patterns. Those patterns got simply translated and even accentuated in that first ill-starr’d cabin, but now we’re on our own and Misty has shaken off those cobwebs almost entirely. And we’re here amid lots of cool, interesting people—none of whom we can make friends with. I at least had friends, if not many, before all this started, and can maintain the friendships I have. Misty has gotten to know about six peers in the ten months they’ve lived up here, some of them through what amounts to maybe twenty or thirty total minutes of conversation. It’s a hard time for community-building. This summer we bought a lot of board games, looking forward to finally having people over for big, festive game nights at the end of all this lockdown. So far we’ve played exclusively with each other, except for a single round of Dominion with the folks down the road, and even when that one happened Misty was at work.
Thus Misty has to take my word for it when I tell them about the great people on all sides of us, and even I don’t really know what it’s like to live around them, because for the last year no one’s been allowed to fully live. But there’s at least a little bit that I can tell you.
Most immediately, we’re surrounded by fruit farms. The Bayfield Peninsula, because it’s right on the water, has its hots and colds tempered by the wind coming off the Lake, and that puts it in an agricultural sub-zone one notch warmer than anywhere within a hundred miles or so. Make no mistake: it’s still frigid here in the winter, with temperatures well into the negatives pretty routinely. (The main character in Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, a Hoosier staying briefly in the fictional northern Wisconsin town of Lakeside, gamely tries going out for a short walk downtown one winter day, and before long finds himself in fear for his life. “This isn’t cold,” he thinks, “this is science fiction.”) But to our south a little, the inland towns of Hayward and Mellen get unmitigated arctic winds sweeping across the plains, and up here the blast is somewhat softened. As a result, people have been growing apples here for as long as there have been people here who know about apples. (They come ultimately from Kazakhstan and were a new one on the Ojibwe, who call them mishiimin or “bigberry”.) Over the last few decades some farmers have branched out to berries too. My summer job the last couple years has been at one farm that began thirty years ago with an unkempt old orchard of Cortland apples planted sometime vaguely around the Great depression. The ownes]rs tidied those trees up, added a few hundred of their own, and then planted several blocks of blueberry bushes. Now they have forty acres of blueberries, raspberries, and apples, which are at this point more than they know what to do with as the enthusiasm of youth leaves them, and that’s after they already took out their blackberries and rows of bouquet flowers.
That farm is a couple miles from our cabin. Just outside our door is another blueberry farm; our landlongd grow strawberries, raspberries, and half a dozen others; and all up and down Highway J are apple orchards—Bayfield Apple Co., Betzold’s, Rabidaux’s, Weber, Erickson’s, Blue Vista, North Wind, and others that don’t come to the top of my mind at the moment. Even where there are no farms, there are apples. the old railroad grade to Bayfield, now a snowmobile trail (and bicycle train for those not afraid of bouncing), passes by feral apple trees here and there, still full of delicious apples come fall. Most people who live on some little country plot, especially one with a history, have a few apple trees tucked back in the woods somewhere. Wild plums have been here since the glacierrs departed, and you can find a tree full of those bouncy-ball-sized sweet-and-sours if you know where to look. Not to mention wild blueberries, thimbleberries, raspberries, huckleberries, whortleberries, and saskatoons (a.k.a. serviceberries, juneberries, shadbush, etc.). The fruit situation is so extreme, in fact, that the Chamber of Commerce calls on tourists to help us eat it all. Each year on the first weekend of October they put on the Bayfield Apple Festival, and each year it coincides perfectly with the arrival of the cold drizzles of fall. And yet people come up in their droves every year to huddle under tents, give up a few fillings to caramel apples, and drink cider by the gallon. Shame about the weather this year, runs the refrain, but maybe it’ll be nice next year. Hope springs eternal. Last season the Apple Festival weekend was actually beautiful; of course, last season, Apple Festival was canceled amid rising covid numbers.
So the land is fruitful, and many of our neighbors are fruity. But then there are all the other people around us who, like we have, have come up hre so as to get back to the land. Here’s the thing about the Chequamegon area: a lot of people here are from elsewhere. Moving here isn’t like moving to a little holler in Kentucky where the families have all been there since 1750 and have grudges and judgements just as long, the kind of place where if you move in and never leave, your grandchildren will still be referred to as “new here”. Around here, I do know people from families that have been around so long that there are roads with their names—the Daryl Jolma who sends me insurance junk mail matches Jolma Road—but mostly the people I know have come here within their lifetimes.
Partially this is because of Northland College. Though tiny, it’s also rare, in that it has a strong environmental focus. There are little colleges for idealists all over, but if you know your specific idealism means you want to help the environment, Northland is one of just a few places that will teach you everything you want to know. It has a huge Environmental Studies program, a composting facility, a campus that seems to be half forest, and a bunch of other things I don’t know about because I haven’t read their brochures, all of which draw young hippie types up here. Once they graduate, in turn, many of them stay. Some get jobs with GLIFWC (say “glyphwick”), the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission, helping to keep the wild rice harvest going or to advise the tribes of the Ceded Territory areas on how to conserve their pike, or such things. Some live in town awhile, doing odd jobs in town or on farms and hanging out with their friends. And some scrape together enough to buy a plot of land, and settle down there. I know some of each kind.
But then there are also those who know the place through some other connection—their family always used to vacation here,or they came up to work on an organic farm, or their friend grew up here—and they come up and stay. Misty and I fall into the “random connection” category, having never heard of this place until we came up to visit a permaculture homestead (back then, a prospective permaculture community) that we heard about from someone we knew back in the Twin Cities. My path here, if you remember, was a lot of slowly approaching until I finally jumped in; Misty’s followed mine.
Wherever they come from, there’s a kind of character that people who come up here to live off the land tend to have (and in describing this, I don’t exclude myself). Your typical Chequamegon back-to-the-lander—
- is a big fan of potlucks
- has copies of Sam Thayer’s books on wild edible plants, and regularly harvests food from the forests and roadsides
- would not hesitate to pick up a roadkilled deer
- looks grimy all winter long except for a big smile (which may be related to a recent outing on snowshoes or cross-country skis)
- does not think it’s appalling to have to regularly go to a well with jugs to get water, and has or aspires to have a composting toilet
- grows a tremendous garden every year, and probably has chickens if not goats or pigs
- has never owned a new car or a new couch
- has some obscure interest like blacksmithing, printmaking, or hide-tanning, if not several such.
Among the few dozen people I know here, I can name at least three who’ve hopped freight trains, and several others who’ve said they’d like to try it with me. As far as I know wobody’s come up with a more concise name than “Chequamegon back-to-the-lander”, and eve that name is one I’m using ad hoc here. But there really is a type, and it’s strange to find, after a lifetime of being an odd duck, that I may have found a place where I actually fit in.
On one hand, it’s been really unfair that Misty arrived when they did, just in time to be in a state of extended limbo because they can’t get to know anyone. On the other, Misty has told me they actually appreciate having had this liminal period, so as to get to know the place—the towns, the roads, the forests, the seasons, the businesses—before trying to hold down a conversation with someone whos been here for years.
When the pandemic lifts—if it ever fucking does—there are so many people and places I’m excited to go see with Misty. Down the way a bit are some interesting people from Minneapolis who told me their pipe dream is to buy a place next to the abandoned railroad tracks in Ashland and start up a hobo-themed railbike excursion business. Our neighbors just two doors down, a couple we’ve gotten to spend a little time with, are fellow board game fans on top of being fathomlessly knowledgeable outdoorspeople. There are some great hangoun spots—the coffeehouses, a bar made of a revived burlesque theater, another made of plywood, the little diner out in the middle of the woods—that I’ve been yearning to spend some time at. This is a good place—when it’s allowed to be a place.
We’re not counting the Keweenaw Peninsula, here, on the groundns that it was made an island by canal-building, nor Isle Royale, which is inhabited only by National Park personnel. ↩