Note: I am in Wisconsin, the place of my birth, and shaper of my growing up years. My three weeks here are a deep dive into this place carved by glaciers and filled with notably friendly folk. Thanks to the generosity of friends and former Morning Glory Lane neighbors Tom Jenn and Megan McLachlan, I am staying at their park home at the Hidden Ridge Resort in Sturgeon Bay. If you look at the left ‘thumb’ of Wisconsin, that’s where I am. This blog tells the tale of a visit with cousins Rick and Mary, and my first four days in Sturgeon Bay. Starting tonight, I will stay for four days with a dear woman, and former Whidbey friend, Ann Johnson, who now lives in Sturgeon Bay. —All photos by Kate Poss, unless otherwise noted.
At my cousin Rick and his wife Mary’s Milwaukee -area home, my bedroom has a remarkable airbrush design rising above the corner of the room. Mary once earned a degree in fashion design and pattern making, and her quilts cover the pair of twin beds in my room. She met the airbrush artist years ago, and invited him to create the remarkable image in the room. I marvel at the deep purple walls and doors in the home, along with the couple’s well-tended garden and expansive lawn surrounded by forest. Looking out the windows in the kitchen, or sitting in the dining room, we are treated to the view of a doe and her pair of spotted fawns who visit from the park across the street.
The couple’s daughter is completing a degree in ultrasound, and lives with her parents. Her partner, who is also earning hours toward completion of his social service/counseling degree, lives there, too. They have a pair of dogs, Anubis and Dante. The dogs are fierce protectors of their family, and bark at intruders like me, who must smell terribly of cat. To them I pose a threat to those they hold dear. As you may know, my husband Bill and I have a family member, a big orange tomcat named Ollie. While I stayed with them, Rick and Mary calmed the dogs, holding them, and speaking soothing words, so that I could walk by.
The little canines did get more used to me during my three-day stay. One morning while making breakfast, Anubis sniffed my ankle without resorting to barking. When not in warrior mode, the dogs have a most serene expression. Rick, Mary and I spent heartfelt hours talking, reminiscing, and recalling the last two years of Rick’s mom Lois’s life. Rick and Mary provided round-the-clock care for her and I am agog at their devotion.
Rick gave me a pass to the nearby Wisconsin Athletic Club where I could swim for three days’ straight. My body gets antsy when I don’t swim, and it had been five days since I last swam with my mermaid gals at Goss Lake.
One morning at the club, I chatted with a sight-impaired woman, who had returned ‘home’ from Spokane to care for her aging father. She is a music teacher and found work with online students since moving back. She was surprised at the political climate, and noted an increase in political ‘redness.’ But later in talking with Tom Jenn, a Wisconsin native, about the political persuasions here, Tom and I agreed there have always been opposing forces between Democrat and Republican in this Heartland state.
Rick, Mary and I saw Oppenheimer one afternoon. Wow! It is a must-see in the war times we’re living in now. Back in 1945, though he first believed such a powerful weapon was necessary to end WWII, Robert Oppenheimer had a profound change of conscience after the bombs were dropped on Japan in 1945, and campaigned to limit their proliferation. He was sorely punished for developing a moral compass.
Meanwhile, my heart compass took me to Kenosha Wisconsin, south of Milwaukee, to visit my family’s gravesites at Sunset Ridge Memorial Park.
I arrived with a bouquet of multi-colored roses for seven of the graves, which lie on the outer edge of a circle facing Hwy 38. Taking a moment to speak with each of those who passed, I thought of how these folks are still a part of me.
My older brother Bob Burbey’s body was found in the desert outside of Las Vegas in late December 1981 with a bullet through his heart. His ashes lie beneath a gravestone decorated with mountains and trees. His daughters and their children are still dear to us and we visit them each year on our travels.
“Brother Bob, Pied Piper, magic man and trickster,” I said, placing a rose at the top of his grave. Bob’s sometimes merciless teasing when I was young, magic with young people, and love of his daughters, are what come to mind when thinking of him.
My mom’s brother ‘Sub’—so named for his cartoon drawings while serving on a submarine in WWII— and his wife Bertie—a force of nature, a generous, and bossy lady who insisted we do things the ‘right’ way, are buried nearby.
“Uncle Sub, I loved your fun and good sense of humor,” I told him. “I remember you as an excellent cartoon drawer, a mechanic who could fix anything, and a lover of boating and salmon fishing. Aunt Bertie, thank you for your ferocious, generous caring for family. Your endless stories. I recall your love of State Fair cream puffs.”
Spending time with my mom’s German-born grandparents Hattie and Hans ‘John’ Koerber, while growing up, I realize how much freedom they gave me in my early life.
My grandparents let me run free at Lake Michigan, steps from their backyard, from the time I was five. To this day, I still find looking at stones meditative. My grandpa was an independent, sometimes scary fellow, who spoke whatever was on his mind, always marching to his own drumbeat. He would meanly tease my dad and me at times. He could grow any kind of fruit tree and flower, loved and taught me the names of flowers, and was always chewing on licorice taffy candy.
Cousin Rick mentioned that I may have inherited these qualities from him, for surely, I march to my own beat, but I hope I’m not considered mean. It’s taken me a long time to bloom, I tell you!
Grandma Koerber, 15 years senior to Grandpa Hans, was the calming force of the couple. Her enormous bosoms were pillows to lean on when she held me on her lap. She liked watching Elvis Presley and Lawrence Welk on the TV, and listening to opera on the radio.
“Grandma Koerber, I always felt safe with you, and cozy on your lap,” I told her. “I admired your intelligence and kindness. You were a steadying force for Grandpa. Grandpa, you made me feel bad when you referred to me as the fat sister, and I admired your love of licorice, always-full pockets of candies, and your ease with speaking many languages, your strong personality, fixing things and gardening.”
I never stopped loving or really separated from my parents, even when I was in high school and I got in trouble for skinny-dipping once as a freshman, and hosting an-out-of-control party when I was a senior.
“Dad, I always marveled at your faith and connection to the Man up above,” I said. “How much you provided for the whole family. Your heart was enormous in caring for others. The compassion, which made you a successful salesman. Muttie (German for mama), you were a force of nature who frightened me with your certainty on how things should be. You cared fiercely for your family. I thank you for teaching me to love cooking, being orderly, clean, dressing well, and your love of flowers. Willy (the name my mom nick-named Bill) and I still feel your presence on a near-daily basis, and hear your voice, saying, ‘For God’s sake…’”
As I was leaving the graves, a robin flew to the ground where Mom and Dad‘s flowers were. The air was thick with humidity, cumulous clouds floated in the sky in the 85° temperature.
What I think of as grace visited me afterward. I’d been struggling with getting my iPhone map directions to speak through the car radio. West Wisconsin friend Gretchen loaned me her 2014 Kia Soul to drive across the wide state.
I suffer from understanding higher tech to make the Bluetooth speak to me while driving. On this day, after speaking aloud to my relatives on the other side, I plugged in my phone and Voila! Google map directions and music from my iPhone started playing. Sadly, I am unable to repeat this process. My dad was the one who always guided me while traveling. When he was alive, he would consult his map books to keep me from getting lost. I like to think he still performs that role now.
I bought fresh corn on the cob at Simon’s Gardens nearby Rick and Mary’s. They said it was good, and I agree. It was the best corn I’ve eaten since I left Wisconsin in 1972. So sweet and crisp and crunchy.
I said my goodbyes to Rick and Mary Aug. 3, and drove toward Appleton, where I would pick up Tom and Megan’s cabin keys. Along the way, I noticed signs of ‘red’ influence—billboards promoting life starting at conception. Ironic they were accompanied by numerous adult store billboards like the Lion’s Den. Tailgating monster trucks kept me on my toes. I even saw a field of grazing bison.
Greeting Megan at her Appleton home, I felt like I was seeing a much loved member of the family. She took me to the spacious backyard, a serene sanctuary framed by a creek and woods. Next door, an elderly neighbor’s garden reflects his love for growing flowers. Tom walked out of his office to say hello and returned to his work. The couple’s son Eli, a Zen-like young man stopped by to say hello. What a great presence he has. He told me that Appleton is a great place to live and that “Anyone can get jobs and find housing.” The couple’s older son Colby lives with friends in Rochester NY and visits his family often. Our two kids Gillian and Raymo often babysat for Colby and Eli. The boys all shared a love of Legos.
After saying my goodbyes to Appleton, I drove for 90 minutes holding my iPhone and quickly glancing at the screen for direction. Sadly the Google Maps AI voice we named Helen for my mama, was silent. I arrived at the cabin in early evening. The air was sticky with 80% humidity. I enjoyed looking out the window at the cluster of birch trees. Thankfully, no mosquitoes yet.
Hidden Ridge Resort is a private recreation village located on the boundary of Potawatomi State Park. It’s comprised of a diverse forest of birch, maple, pine and more. Limestone escarpments peak out along the trail. Much of Door County, where Sturgeon Bay is located, is composed of limestone, which is part of the Niagara Escarpment, which stretches all the way to Niagara Falls. Limestone is used as building material here, and it glows golden at sunrise and sunset.
A path to the park is minutes from Megan and Tom’s cabin. One evening I took a 20-minute stroll among diverse flora. It’s an open forest with lots of sight distance among the trees. The forest ground cover is a plant I don’t recognize. Megan told me of an app I can download to identify it. I need to ask her what it is. Poison ivy is here, too, so I will leave its ‘leaves of three’ alone.
Saturday, Aug. 5 Megan and Tom drove up to take me to some of the best places in Door County:
- The Garden Door–UW Madison’s Master Gardner’s program hosts flowers that make me wish I could garden like this.
- Whitefish Dunes State Park—miles of mocha-colored dunes on a curving beach framed by forest. Crowded on summer weekends.
- Cave Point County Park—limestone cliffs, which the brave jump from, turquoise waters. A mile from Whitefish Dunes State Park. We met a lovely party of several families originally from East India. I remarked how wonderful their food smelled as we walked by. Soon paper plates were filled and we were invited to sample their delicous spicy rice/lentil dishes accompanied by cooling rice yogurt. Such a welcoming group of people. I spoke with Dimple Nagarajan, a young mother who told me this was her first time camping, and that all the food was prepared prior to the camping trip. Eashan Kuricheti, 10, was friendly and welcoming as well. Dimple said the families live in Middleton WI, near Madison. I will be staying there this weekend and check out the Indian restaurants they recommended there—Dhaba Bistro and Amber Indian Cuisine. Tom, Megan and I were nourished by and grateful to this generous group.
- Gills Rock—a Dec. 2022 storm which blew freezing lake water over the Simply Scandinavian gift shop encased the entire building in ice. How the metal building survived the weight, is a real mystery! The shop sells puzzle and mouse pad images of the event, which show the building completely iced over. It stocks felted items and handmade woodcrafts, gnome-themed bling, along with the traditional Scandinavian tole artwork.
- We parked at Northport, watching the ferries transport cars and passengers to nearby Washington Island. Sitting on the shell-strewn strawberry-golden-colored sand of a nearby curving beach, we soaked up the Earth’s good juju.
- Sister Bay—Needing coffee and a treat, we stopped in Sister Bay, where folks dress fancy, the town is full of tourists, restaurants, wine tasting places, bachelorette destination parties, superb beaches, a resort where goats eat sod on the roofs, a marina, and gift shops aplenty. Tom suggested I could pretend to be a rich and eccentric matron visiting from Cape Cod. So I did! Wisconsin’s Door County is sometimes called the Cape Cod of the Midwest, a place for the well-to-do, and those who wish to look that way. We enjoyed great ice cream and coffee at Analog Ice Cream and Coffee, where I bought a way cool T-shirt for our daughter Gilli, which claims ‘Girls Rule!’
Armed with at least a dozen places to visit during the remainder of my stay, thanks to Tom and Megan’s suggestions, I will look forward to exploring them in the remaining days staying on the ‘Thumb.’
With a day to myself on Aug. 6, I went walking along 3rd Street in Sturgeon Bay’s Old Town. Stopped in at the New Age crystal/gem store, The Pearl of Door County.
I bought a special card for a woman we love. The night before, I received a FB message from her, Sheila Gibbons-Hiebert. She wrote: “Dearest Kate and Bill: The angels came for Ray today.”
I met Sheila and Ray while cooking onboard for them during a 2011 Alaska eco-cruise on the 65-foot Snowgoose, a sweet and unpretentious adventure yacht. On that trip, Ray, a retired photojournalist professor from Baltimore MD, was joined and honored by his former students. I recall one time where the guests and we crew left to kayak in the early evening. Ray and Sheila sipped cocktails, and danced to Nat King Cole’s love songs played on my iPod. We have been friends of the heart ever since then. We stop by and see them when we pass through Carmel Valley on our road trips. Fare thee well, Ray! And Sheila, we hold you close in our heart.
Until next week, adios from the Heartland.