I don’t know exactly when in our lifetimes we develop a sense of place. Maybe some people are born with it; others live their lives battling a wanderlust that can never be satisfied, always looking for the next “new” place, never finding “their place”.
I grew up in three very unique parts of Wisconsin. My childhood was spent in a small town just north of the state capitol, Madison. We grew up surrounded by the lush rolling farmlands of south central Wisconsin; our house was on a dead end street surrounded by tobacco and corn fields, with large islands of oak forest rising up among the crops. We spent a lot of time near Lake Wisconsin, Baraboo, Sauk City, Devil’s Lake. We were outside more than we were inside. I grew up with the sound of crickets, the sight of ever changing seasons, and the sensory variety of crisp winter air that made your snot freeze, and warm summer days that made you relish naps. We were only a fifteen minute drive from a metropolitan city center, and a funky and fun one at that, with Madison being a very liberal college town. The city of Madison was surrounded by the waters of Lakes Monona and Mendota; born a water baby, this would become a constant in my life, the need to be near water.
For reasons I still am unclear of, one year my parents just up and moved us four hour’s north of our home – to a tiny town an hour south of Lake Superior. As a pre-teen, I initially hated my parents for removing me from my hometown, the only place I had never known, and replanting us in such a different environment. It was a a shock to our senses. The nearest city, and a conservative one at that, was an hour’s drive away. There were no rolling hills, no farmland, no seas of green crops. (Not to mention, no movie theaters, shopping malls, or Taco Bells). My new place came with towering red pines, curving skies, and a thousand puddles of freshwater lakes. There were more stars here than anywhere else in the world it seemed, and the eternal scent of fresh pine and cool winds brought down from Canada.
I had to leave this place before I could fully appreciate it. I went back to college in Madison, and for many years when I would head up north for weekends, I couldn’t wait to get back to the city after a weekend in the boondocks. Yet one year, the tables turned; and I would get a sense of a dread overcoming me as I began to pack my car for the return trip to the city. I had grown roots; I didn’t want to leave; this had become my place.
Post-college, some questionable choices made out of love led me to move to another large metropolis in Wisconsin, where I’ve now been for almost 18 years. I was on my way to Denver after college, and let myself latch my destiny to that of a man-child. That destiny of course ended not long after I moved to my new home, but other factors intervened, such as family relocating near me, and before you know it, eighteen years pass, and you wonder how you came to be rooted in this place. Oftentimes our roots grow due to marriages, children, a good job, good schools. Or we become rooted out of complacency, laziness, fear, money, job security, a 401k.
I daydream a lot about leaving my current place. The fact that I’ve been in the same city for 18 years, the same job just as long, the same house for 12, and the same relationship for 15 years, well…. it’s an assault on my Sagittarian values. For many years I kept the notion of moving to Denver in my head, and even went on many extended fact-finding trips to the Denver area to contemplate my move and get a sense of place in the West. I love the West, I truly do, but more specifically the Southwest. Mountains make me feel claustrophobic; my sense of place growing up meant that I had grown acclimated to those rolling green hills of South Central and South West Wisconsin, the lakes and rivers of Northern Wisconsin, and the culture and activity of the southeast region. There are just as many, if not more, natural resources and variety in Wisconsin, and so I learned to ignore the pull of the West and keep myself rooted.
About eight years ago my father passed away. My father was the Chicago-born Illinois native who fled his state (like so many others) to find solitude in the middle of the farm fields of Wisconsin. And when he felt encroached upon, he fled further to the forests of the great Northwoods. I still travel there often, and in fact am looking to buy a vacation home in that area.
As I travel through highways of central Wisconsin, watching the landscape change by the hour, I feel an immense sense of calm; this state is part of me, as if my blood was a mixture of its life giving soil and clear, cool waters. I drive through miles and miles of patchwork farm fields and gaze upon the white farmhouses nestled up against groves of twisted old oak trees, with lush green hills rising beyond the scene. I often daydream about pulling my car over, and walking up to one of these houses; I knock on the door, and enter into a new sense of place, a new life. I want to lay down in the lush green arms of Wisconsin, and forget about my past mistakes, my questionable choices that have led me to a life of juxtaposition and clashing values; I want to fall asleep on a porch swing with a warm summer breeze lulling me to sleep, and wake up in a new life, and a new sense of place.
This is my new pull. This my new “West”.