A Wisconsin story of warm welcomes and new beginnings
[Editor’s Note: We asked the UpNorthNews team to send a valentine to Wisconsin, telling us something you really like about living here. For Julian Emerson, it’s our welcoming nature. You may be new, but you’re home now.]
The sedan sped along the highway, past cows grazing in pastures, past cornfields and barns flanked by towering silos, past old homes big enough to house the large families that worked those farms.
The car slowed, turned, then snaked its way along a narrow, winding road, passing more farms and fields of tall grass. Territorial red-winged blackbirds dived menacingly, squawking, reminding us outsiders inside the vehicle that this was their land, their home, not ours.
Another turn, and then, to our left, a densely-packed woods comprised of oak, maple, cherry, birch and too many other trees to count. From my backseat perch I gazed at the summertime sea of trunks and green, wondering what my life in this new world so vastly different from my previous one would be like.
On that sunny June day in 1977, when I was 7 years old, my family relocated from the busy streets and bright lights of Minneapolis to a location — 36 wooded acres in Trempealeau County in west-central Wisconsin — that was nearly its polar opposite. Gone were the densely-packed buildings, the skyscrapers that reached toward the clouds, the ever-present noise. Those staples of big-city life were replaced by bird calls, crickets’ chorus, and the periodic far-off mooing of cows. At times the newfound silence was unnerving.
In time I got used to my calmer surroundings. I even grew to enjoy them. I learned to appreciate the quiet of early morning, when the world transforms from dark to light, when the eastern horizon is painted with a mosaic of colors announcing the sun’s ascension to illuminate another day. I reveled at the majesty of a ceiling of nighttime stars — stars not visible in the big city — that dotted the blue-black ceiling overhead like a million points of light, prompting me to wonder just how big the universe really is. I noticed the joyful sound of a flowing stream and the music of bullfrogs and other creatures that created an evening symphony of croaks, chirps and howls.
My new life wasn’t all about enjoying nature. It involved work too, lots of work. We lived a Spartan lifestyle, in a small log cabin without electricity my dad and a friend of his built during our first summer in Wisconsin while my mom, brother, sister and I lived in tents. It was a hard life. We hauled water from a pump at the bottom of a hill to the cabin, at the top. We cut and split the firewood we used to heat our home, to cook our food. An outhouse was our bathroom.
During our three years in the woods we befriended numerous people, many of them farm families. Looking back, those friendships seem unlikely. Why would tradition-bound Norwegians who had worked the land for generations, proud of their hardy lifestyle, have an affinity for hippy-esque, back-to-the-landers from the big city? Somehow they did, and we formed tight bonds that continue today.
We also developed an affinity for the small communities in our new home, places with names like Strum, Eleva, Cleghorn, Mondovi, and Gilmanton. They were places far from bright lights and opportunities, but places where neighbors help neighbors, places where I found a new home.
Eventually I grew up, went away to college, then returned to the Chippewa Valley to finish school. I met my wife, got married, and settled in Eau Claire, where we raised our two daughters. I became a print journalist, working at two small weekly newspapers in western Wisconsin before taking a job at the Leader-Telegram, where I was employed for more than two decades. Sometimes I yearned for the big city again, for a newspaper job with a major media outlet, for the energizing buzz and hubbub and diversity of a metropolitan location.
But my family and I feel at home here, in Wisconsin, a place where we generally treat each other with civility, where children can attend safe, quality schools, where we still hold doors for others, and say “Hi” as we pass each other on the sidewalk. These days my wife and I spend much of our time at jobs in Madison, and we typically find those same qualities exhibited in our state’s capital city.
I still return when I can to those Wisconsin woods where my family settled more than four decades ago, to the site where I learned not only an appreciation for the calm, peaceful quiet of my scenic surroundings but the value of hard work and friendships, values I now understand have shaped me into who I have become. I still journey to the top of the big hill to gaze up at a star-filled sky above, or to watch contentedly as the horizon turns from dark to multi-hued before the sun peeks above the world’s edge. I appreciate the view and the moment, grateful to call Wisconsin home.