We left later than expected, but I wasn’t bothered. Recent events had reiterated how little control I have over most things in life, and it couldn’t be helped. I wasn’t ready. After work I still had to grocery shop for the weekend, get the house ready for my Air B and B’s to check in, finish packing and load up the car. So it was no surprise that we left three hours after my initial estimate. Oh well. I’m working on being more “go with the flow.” Because really, where else can you go?
We set out on our four hour drive up to Straight Lake State Park, and Ceeanna and I caught up on life. Just outside of Middleton, I got a full-blown head cold. With no tissues or napkins in the glove compartment, I used the handy survival bandana my sister Marisa had recently given me. It certainly lived up to its name. Around Wisconsin Dells, we decided to stop for dinner. We were drawn to Paul Bunyan’s Cook Shanty, naturally. Who can resist a restaurant with a giant lumberjack front man and a kitschy theme? But then we found out it was an all-you-can-eat buffet costing $15 a person. Neither of us would have eaten $15 worth of prime rib or fish fry, so we got back in the car and headed further into the Dells. It had been awhile since I’d made it past the Culver’s at this exit, and I was pleasantly surprised by the shops and restaurants lining the street. You can tell the caliber of a town by the presence of a Ripley’s Believe it or Not! We turned down a side street to find parking and were perplexed by cars parked on what looked like the sidewalk. Is this how they do things in the Dells? I went further down the block and picked a marked stall with a parking meter, assuming parking after 6pm had to be free. It wasn’t, but my meter was green on one side and malfunctioning on the other. I tried to put a dime in only to realize there were already coins lodged in the slot. My dime ricocheted off the trapped meter money and fell into the grass. I left it as a sign of my attempt to pay, and Ceeanna and I started walking down the street – past the police station – and to the nearest pub.
We grabbed a bar table and ordered beers. My inner control freak was pestering me: “The park closes at 11:00 pm Danielle!” I went to the bathroom and considered calling the park to inquire about a late check in, but I checked myself. I knew this park was as rustic as they get, I doubted there would be a gate someone closed at 11 pm, and worst-case scenario, we slept in the car. Plus, adventures worth telling stories about don’t often begin with, “We arrived on schedule and with plenty of time before the park closed.” I relaxed and let myself enjoy my friend’s company, a beer, and a pimento spread, bacon and tomato grilled cheese. I emptied the napkin dispenser into my bag to give the survival bandana sometime to dry out, and we walked back to the car. I had completely forgotten about the broken meter, and apparently so had the police. Ticket free and full, we jumped back on the highway headed towards Straight Lake State Park.
Eventually, we had to depart the highway and continue north on country roads. It was dark and late, and I knew this park was practically in the middle of nowhere. The weather app on my phone hadn’t even been able to find Luck, Wisconsin, so I had packed based on weather for Clam Falls. My head cold was kicking into high gear; I was starting to feel like I was drowning. Drowning and suffocating – generally not being able to breath –are my biggest fears. And then, like a mirage in a desert, there was a giant KwickTrip. Lucky for me, it wasn’t a mirage, but an actual convenience store with boxes of Kleenex and cold medicine. HALLELUJIA!
The park ended up only being another twenty minutes down the road, and as I had rationalized earlier, there was no gate restricting access to the park after hours. There wasn’t even an office or attendant station. We drove down to the parking lot for the campsites, and thankfully, there was a cart waiting for us. We donned our headlamps, and I piled all of my belongings into the cart. Ceeanna, the experienced backcountry backpacker she is, only brought what she could carry on her back. Straight Lake State Park only has hike in campsites, and though the closest site to the parking lot had been available, I hadn’t selected that site. The one I picked was 1,575 feet from the parking lot, which means absolutely nothing to me. I understand meters and miles, so that translates to about 480 meters or a little over a quarter of a mile. I hadn’t really been anticipating arriving at 11:30 pm when I booked the site. All I had considered was its proximity to a pit toilet and that the site was said to have “views of Straight Lake when there are no leaves on the trees.” Which of course was NA at this time of year as there were still plenty of leaves on the trees. We trudged through the woods in the dark on our way to our site. Ceeanna managed her belongings and Lucky, and I tried to make sure nothing fell out of the cart as I blundered along the trail. I thought the woods looked scary in the light of my headlamp. Recent storms had downed a lot of trees. We both looked forward to seeing our surroundings in the light of day. Once we reached our site, we put together the tent and set up camp swiftly, all things considered. We debated putting the rainfly on then or waiting until the morning; thankfully Ceeanna had better weather data than I had, and we put it on that night. I took some cold medicine, and we passed out. The next morning, we woke up to heavy rain.
I was still full of snot and the rain was still coming down. We stayed in bed late into the morning. Eventually Lucky made me emerge from the tent to get him breakfast back at the car. I fed Lucky, and Ceeanna and I ate some granola bars for breakfast. Then we packed up some snacks and trail beers, and around 11:30 am, set off to hike. There aren’t many miles of hiking at Straight Lake State Park. There is a segment of the Ice Age Trail, which we hiked a portion of, and then there are two other loop trails, which are both around or under a mile long. We did the first loop. It was uneventful. We stopped at the tiny, itty bitty beach on Rainbow Lake and ate cookies, drank our beers, and talked about lake stuff like leeches. Lucky waded in the water, sniffed around the beach, and rooted out a disgusting half decomposed creature. I heard the crunch. And then I yelled. Jess, my dog training friend, would have been disappointed – we just discussed how to effectively handle “drop it!” and I failed miserably. It wasn’t until after I yelled a ton that I remembered I needed to offer something of even higher value in exchange. Lucky swallowed part of the creature before I got around to stretching my arm out to him with the apple I was eating in my hand. He dropped the other half of the creature and came to get the apple. I was mostly done with the apple anyway, so I let him have the rest of it (excluding the seeds of course … though I think it’s silly that I’m like “apple seeds are bad for you” after he just ate half a decaying creature.) Ceeanna went to investigate the creature. From the half that remained, she deduced it was a fish and flicked the remaining bits back into the water.
The weather was still overcast, and as we set out to hike the other loop trail, it started to lightly rain. Once we were in the woods, we could barely tell it was raining, and so we forged on. This loop went around the lake, and we tacked on some of the Ice Age Trail to get a little more mileage in for the day. I was holding up alright considering my cold, and the company and conversation was defeating the dreariness of the day. We finished up the loop, hiked back to our campsite, and went about making dinner.
I recently started ordering from a meal delivery service, and for ease of planning, packing and preparation, I had just thrown one of the meals into the cooler for our Saturday night dinner. Thankfully, Ceeanna brought her pocket rocket because making a fire would have been impossible―all of the naturally occurring fuel around us was water logged, and I hadn’t seen any firewood for sale in the park. So with her pocket rocket and one frying pan, she prepared hot jalapeno jelly-glazed salmon with crispy onion asparagus. As far as camping meals go, it was gourmet, but I ultimately rated it 4 out of 5 stars because the jalapeno jelly was more mild than hot. We sat in camp chairs and ate our gourmet meal off of plastic plates, cleaned up as much as necessary, and then speculated on the time. Based on the amount of light coming through the trees and how exhausted I was feeling, it had to be at least 5:00 pm. Ceeanna checked her phone, and it was only 3:30.
We just sat and relaxed for a bit, and then curiosity got us up out of our chairs and down to the other end of Straight Lake Trail, the trail used to access the hike in campsites. At the end of the trail was a carry-in boat launch and the most stunning view of Straight Lake. The boat launch was a tiny bit of sand, but on either side were two picnic tables and beyond, the crystal-clear waters of the lake surrounded by trees. The sun peaked out from behind the day’s clouds, and the humidity felt less oppressive. Lucky and I waded in the cool and calm waters of the lake, and we relished this little sliver of Wisconsin paradise.
After a while, we made our way back to our campsite. I had been a trooper all day, but now I was ready to be horizontal on my cot, even if it was only 6’oclock. We packed up what needed to be packed up, brushed our teeth, settled into the tent, and tried to get comfortable, but everything was moderately damp from the day’s weather. Despite my pillow feeling like a wrung-out sponge against my face, being off my feet was a relief. I took some more cold medicine, and we queued up some podcasts to listen to before falling asleep. It turns out that wouldn’t be the only thing we’d listen to, and I don’t know that we ever actually fell asleep.
Severe weather alerts started blowing up my phone. From the radar, it looked like the worst of it was going to miss us, but we wrapped up an episode of our podcast as the rain started falling – heavy and intense. I thought for sure we’d wake up and our tent would be underwater. Despite the tree canopy above us, buckets of water pounded on the tent. Even if the rain hadn’t been deafening, I wouldn’t have been able to fall asleep. The cold meds were failing me, and I was back to drowning in snot and blowing my nose every other minute. At one point, I heard a branch, or possibly a whole tree, fall. It sounded so close, but thankfully, our tent didn’t get taken out by it. Later in the night, as the rain was finally starting to dissipate, a trio of owls took up a position above our tent and proceeded to lose their minds. Ceeanna is an owl person. She studies them in the wild and had been hooting at these owls earlier. From how they were carrying on, I suspect they heard her say “Owls can be so dumb sometimes” and were getting their revenge. When they finally decided to move on, a rouge set of cows filled in the silence with a consistent call and response, “MOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO” and then “MOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO.” The cows were probably my fault. Just before the storm, I had recounted my night at Brunet Island State Park, when a cow had kept me up most of the night. I had jinxed us, and now these cows were determined to keep us up the rest of the night.
At some point I must have fallen asleep, but without fail Lucky woke me up for his breakfast. The only way to get him to let me sleep in longer is to let him up on my cot, so I did, and I dozed off for an undetermined amount of time. When I finally got up, I checked to see if Ceeanna was awake or not. She was laying bundled up in her sleeping bag, and when she realized I was awake, she exclaimed, “THOSE COWS! And those owls!! What the hell!?” What the hell indeed.
I hate packing up a wet campsite, but we had no choice and I was ready to get home. We did the best we could and managed to haul everything out in one trip. I thought having checked this park off the list would leave me feeling a sense of accomplishment―it was our final state park after all. But my cold, the weather, and the reality I was going home to all tempered any feelings of triumph. This state park visit had been the final piece of research for the book, but it was also a chance to give Lucky some overdue attention and momentarily escape the stress of caring for my poor Little Man.
Little Man, my chihuahua, had accompanied us on a handful of state park visits. Over the years, his genes hadn’t been good to him. He had several neurological issues including epilepsy, autoimmune encephalitis, and a recent flair up of meningitis had drastically affected his mobility. After doing everything we could, his neurologist and I had decided his quality of life was poor and my quality of life was suffering. This visit to Straight Lake was maybe inopportune timing, but it was a “now or wait until next year” situation. And with dog mortality weighing heavily on my mind and Lucky not getting any younger, we went for it. I had hoped the trip would reinvigorate me in some way. I could come home and face a final week with Little Man, full of snuggles and lavished love, before doing what I knew had to be done. But the trip hadn’t reinvigorated me, and when I got home, Little Man started having another bout of seizures. I knew it was time. That weekend, I visited the final state park on our list and said goodbye to my sweet boy Little Man. I don’t know if that is poetic or tragic. Either way, it’s a weekend I’ll never forget.
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