Monday, August 15, 2011

The Wisconsin Files

(Note: This post has been placed on both The Little Magpie and The Food Adventuress blogs, because hey - sometimes things overlap.)
So, true confessions: prior to 2010, I had never set foot in or even passed through the state of Wisconsin.  I stand (rather, sit) before you chastened and convinced that Wisconsin is absolutely a must-visit state, and I've even harbored dreams of a vacation home there.  However, my husband rightly reminds me that we already know someone with a getaway in Wisconsin, so we'll select elsewhere when we start entering and subsequently win the lottery.
Also, I should offer the disclaimer (see my rants on the subject over at The Little Magpie) that I'm an enormous fan of everywhere and abhor place-bashing.  Every state is pretty amazing, and making fun of where others are from is really just bad form.  We should all visit for ourselves and still withhold judgment if we don't have anything nice to say, but I digress...
My sister is fortunate on a number of levels to date a truly and exceptionally nice guy whose family happens to have several houses on the Chain O' Lakes (yeah, that's O' Lakes, not of) clustered in and around Waupaca, Wisconsin.  For two years in a row we've ventured up on a family vacation with them in August which has numerous food and non-food related merits, not the least of which is the fact that temperatures range from the upper 60s to low 80s throughout our sojourn, while hovering in the triple digits back home in Arkansas.
I love crossing from Minnesota into Wisconsin near La Crosse over the Mississippi River - it seems like a different world after traveling all the way through Missouri and Iowa's fields of corn and wind farms.

Hello, Wisconsin! Mississippi River near La Crosse - high noon. 86 degrees.
We also stopped at Ship Rock in Adams County, a staggering remnant of retreating glacial lakes during the last stages of the Ice Age nearly 12,000 years ago.

Throughout the week, we saw Sandhill Cranes in fields around the area.  They are intriguing to me every time, both due to their size and their demeanor.  There's a neat overview of sandhills on the state of Wisconsin's environmental education website for kids.
Other advantages include access to Long Lake via a short stroll on a fern and mossy rock-lined path, leaving windows and doors open throughout our visit, complete lack of cell service and email access and just a general feeling of true escape.  The scenery is stunning: just off two of Wisconsin's scenic Rustic Roads (a cool program in and of itself; we were near Rustic Roads 23 and 24) near the intriguing 1850s Yankee township of Rural on the Crystal River, and less than a mile from Hartman State Park, home to a portion of the 1,000 mile Ice Age National Scenic Trail.  We spend the week biking, swimming, hiking, kayaking and reading.   It's heaven.

Incidentally, nearby King is the site of the Grand Army Home and Wisconsin Veterans Home.  We biked through and had a picnic on the grounds, which are really interesting.  I suspect a lot of people overlook this as a fantastic historical site on the National Register of Historic Places.  According to the Wisconsin Veterans Home at King book by Kim J. Heltemes: "The Wisconsin Veterans Home at King, Wisconsin, was incorporated in 1887 by the Wisconsin Department of the Grand Army of the Republic. Initially a retirement home for Civil War veterans and their spouses, the Home slowly evolved into a health care facility as the original members aged and new veterans arrived from World War I.  Some original buildings still exist today, and the Home currently cares for approximately 800 veterans and spouses."  I was particularly intrigued by the Veterans Cottages Historic District.  We explored the entire area, and were rewarded as usual for straying off the beaten path - there is something of interest just about everywhere, including this town of approximately 835 residents.
On the foodie front, there are also a number of advantages.  We enjoyed the nearly-legendary Spotted Cow (read the grassroots story behind this nearly-legendary beer) from New Glarus Brewing Company, which is an interesting story itself - one of two craft brewing companies led by women.  We also sample a variety of selections from Central Waters Brewing Company (which makes a Glacial Trail IPA and a Mud Puppy Porter, although my favorite was the Ouisconsing Red, named for the Algonquin word for the Wisconsin River) as well as Stevens Point Brewery, established in 1857 (I liked the Belgian White).

Label from the Central Waters Brewing Company website (
We take turns preparing meals on the grill and otherwise, with the carnivores enjoying burgers and ribs and the vegetarians (ok, me) enjoying portabellas and shrimp.  We've indulged in fried cheese curds of unspeakable loveliness at Clear Water Harbor, pizza and garlic bread at the Wheelhouse, fresh Cedar Crest ice cream from Oskkosh and (I assure you) plenty more.  We have handy access to some of the best farm stands I've visited, corn fresh from the fields surrounding us, berries for snacking (and tart-making) and a great farmer's market in downtown Waupaca.

At the Wheelhouse
But oh, the cheese.  In nearby King amidst an array of cute little shops is a place called Cheesie Bob's Bleu Cheese House.  It's fairly nondescript but not to be missed.  Wisconsin is obviously known for cheese and produces nearly 600 varieties (read more about Wisconsin's cheese history), and most folks are familiar with fresh cheese curds (freshest when they are squeaky and delivered on Friday).  However, the selection at Cheesie Bob's will blow the cheese-lover's mind.  This year we were brought in by the enticing promise of morel and leek cheese (the base was jack), and we were not disappointed.  We've grabbed fresh muenster and drunken cheddar and every variety in between.  Honestly, thank goodness for the athletic endeavors of the week to offset the staggering amounts of cheese consumed.

Photo from the Wisconsin Cheese website
It's always a treat to escape to a place you're completely unfamiliar with and to explore it on your own agenda.  Here's to the not-lost art of the road trip and the family vacation!