I’ve never been anywhere that epitomizes the word “bucolic” like the landscape of rural southwest Wisconsin. I don’t really need to describe it for you. You’ve seen it. Picture every pastoral painting, every wide-angle shot of Middle America: the rolling hills of green grass and amber waves of grain, the fat, doe-eyed cows, red barn complete with silo.
If the outside, big-picture view of this area is bucolic, the insides of all those farmhouses are hygge. There isn’t an English-language equivalent of the Danish concept of hygge (HUE-gah, I’m told), but if you distill it down to its essence, I guess it’s basically coziness. It was almost crucial to maintain some hygge when I lived in Anchorage, where I was first introduced to this idea, and where winters brought some 18-odd hours of darkness.
Our friends Megan and Adam have taken part in some of my most hygge-adjacent memories: in a tiny cabin on the Resurrection Pass Trail, in the loft of a quaint A-frame at the top of Hatcher Pass, watching the Northern Lights from a dry cabin near Denali National Park, a lively game of Settlers of Catan on the evening of the winter solstice. These friends are hygge incarnate, as far as I can tell.
It was with the pursuit of hygge in mind that Bix and I embarked on our most recent visit to the Driftless area of Wisconsin, where Megan and Adam have begun to farmstead in earnest. From their 120-plus-year-old cedar log cabin, perched atop a black walnut-studded knoll, you cannot see or hear their neighbors. They have slowly begun to recede from the world at large—Megan quit her job as a state park ranger; they’ve grown or raised progressively more of their own food each season—and have, as a result, become an integral part of their community.
On the night we visited, Adam met us at the bottom of the twisting driveway, cracked a beer with us on the porch, and promptly left for the nearby folk school, where he’d be playing bass in a barn dance later that evening. We headed over later with Megan and our friend Zach for a potluck (all manner of pickled things and root vegetables), followed by a contra dance-style affair, in which a caller patiently explained the steps of each dance while I tried not to fall down or get in anyone’s way.
I’m not sure what I was expecting, but whatever it was, this was better. Young parents swung their toddlers around in time with the music. Octogenarians who’d danced each number a thousand times greeted their neighbors and made plans. Teenagers had shown up unironically for an incredibly wholesome night of fun. And it was—unabashedly, unequivocally fun.
After a few numbers, I ducked up to the balcony to snap a photo of the festivities. It hit me, then, that this thing I’d started hearing about when I lived in Alaska—this hygge thing—was exactly what I was experiencing now. To clarify:
Things that are not hygge, as far as I can tell: commuting of most kinds (skis excepted), the forced wearing of matching outfits, overpriced foods served in a tower formation, running into an ex when you’re both home for Thanksgiving, the flu.
Things that are hygge: wool sweaters, spiced cider, stew, wood-burning stoves, frosty windows, hearty dinners with friends, preferably around a wooden table. Extra points for all those things if you experience them in a century-old farmhouse in rural Wisconsin.
Megan and Adam’s house fell decidedly on the side of hygge this night. At the conclusion of the dance, we returned to the farmstead, where Megan immediately skittered off to build a raging bonfire. Over plenty of beers and a cheese plate eventually consumed by their very bad dog, Henry, we burned through a fair amount of wood, then retired inside to play music. At some point, even with the convenient falling back of Daylight Savings time, we looked, bleary-eyed, at the clock, and realized that it was five in the morning.
Winters aren’t as dark where I live these days, but I still need all the hygge I can get. This winter, I am grateful for friends who inspire me to shoot a little higher and dream a little bigger, but who also know the value of a good old-fashioned barn dance.
If you’re interested in furthering your admiration of Megan and Adam, check out the Spirit Level Farmstead website.