I embody a lot of Colorado stereotypes: I drive a Subaru with a roof rack. I’m rarely caught outside the house without a puffy jacket or Chaco sandals. There are four bikes and five pairs of skis in my living room right now. I work from home, which is a nice way of saying I don’t have a real job.
Also, like most born-and-bred Coloradans I know, I grew up with little interest in anything that happened east of the Mississippi. Out west, where I’ve spent my entire life, I can get to half a dozen climates and ecosystems, all within, like, a six-hour drive. And we’re talking landscapes that have been known to literally make people weep and write “America the Beautiful,” like the Grand Canyon and Pikes Peak, respectively.
When, as a young adult, I first started meeting people who didn’t go to Lakewood High School, I met a lot of Midwesterners who’d moved to Colorado under the guise of school, but who really just wanted to live near the mountains. This made sense to me.
The Midwest, I surmised at this point, was a place you were from. It wasn’t a place I especially wanted to visit. By the time I met the dude I would later marry, I had been to the Midwest exactly one time, and it was Chicago, and it rained the whole time, and a guy on the L stepped on my toe so hard it bled. I was not impressed.
So when Bix announced he was from Milwaukee—at the time, if you’d asked me to locate it on a map, I would have had to make what I’d call an educated guess—I didn’t think much of it. I was like, “Oh, yeah, of course you’d want to spend your summers in Colorado.” Side note: every time I say “Milwaukee,” I have to actively tell myself not to pronounce it like Alice Cooper in Wayne’s World: Mill-eh-wah-que.
Bix was always telling me about the climbs at this crag where he’d cut his teeth, and I’m going to come clean and tell you I pictured it being piddly and unimpressive. What? I grew spoiled by all these big, magnificent landscapes—Maroon Bells, Rocky Mountain National Park, plus, you know, the entire 49th State. I didn’t figure on being impressed with anything you couldn’t describe as “soaring” or “jagged.”
I was, of course, super wrong about this. If you know much about trad climbing, you have heard of Devils Lake, where the routes are so heady it’s considered totally respectable to toprope them. That OG generation of hardmen came up at the Lake—Stettner, Gill. The first time I visited Devils Lake, I was in the best climbing shape of my life and I couldn’t lead a thing.
After being solidly trounced on my first visit to Devils Lake, I was ready to admit I maybe hadn’t given the Midwest a real shot.
The people I met there, friends and strangers, were exactly as nice as I’d been led to believe they’d be: all you betcha, ready to whip up a hot dish or shovel your driveway or give you a lift. But beneath the neighborly exterior, there is a quiet stoicism to many of my Midwestern friends, a still-waters-run-deep kind of thing. Maybe it’s that it takes a certain set of characteristics to do those gloomy winters, not to mention the polar vortex, when the wind blows so hard and so cold off the Great Lakes you almost can’t breathe. A certain hardiness of spirit, I guess. Or maybe growing up Catholic.
That’s how the landscape my friends inhabit—the one I’d spent so much time thinking about, having read Sand County Almanac four or five times, but never bothered to get to know—appeared to me at first. Friendly, predictable, without pretense.
But when you dig into it, there’s so much going on there. I’ll never forget paddling a sea kayak through the heart of Milwaukee, first down its namesake river, past the Port of Milwaukee, where if the wind’s blowing right you can smell the Klements Sausage Factory, and then down the Kinnickinnic, to a bar called Barnacle Bud’s, which is exactly the dive you’re picturing.
It was so not what I knew: this wasn’t paddling up to calving glaciers in pristine Prince William Sound, but there was still a story here, a history worth learning and internalizing, and I found, as I tucked into another Schlitz with my new friends at Bud’s, that I wanted to hear it.
That was years ago, but I’m still caught by surprise, each time I visit Milwaukee and its neighbors, at what there is to do: surfing on Lake Michigan in industrial-strength wetsuits and scuba diving to explore its many shipwrecks and mountain biking and Nordic skiing (everything Nordic) and, of course, the rock climbing.
It occurs to me, each time I visit, how much Fun Potential—and not just, like, this is fine if I can’t be in Colorado, but actual, badass, cutting-edge stuff—is going on in the Heartland. I feel a little sheepish, now, to think of how much I would’ve missed out on if I’d never bothered to visit. Plus, you know, the rumors about beer and sausage are absolutely true.