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My Midwestern childhood was defined by the kind of boredom that, in retrospect, we say teaches us to “make our own fun.” Frankly, it’s the boring part of the country, which I am allowed to say because I am from there and, therefore, I am boring. But when an early-March visit to my snowbird father in Florida coincided with New York City’s COVID-19 shutdown, I unexpectedly found myself making my way back to the Midwest. The drive to Milwaukee took 24 hours, and my dad drove the entire time, straight through, still unconvinced in 2020 that women know how to operate vehicles.
When I got there, I discovered something my younger, license-less self never knew: The trick to enjoying the Midwest is having a car. A car opened up the whole state of Wisconsin. We hiked constantly. Had I known I would be spending a month hiking, I would have packed more than three shirts but, really, I didn’t care if my hair was greasy and my shirt smelled bad—no one should be getting close enough to smell me anyway! We hiked on a friend’s family farm and in state parks that I had appreciated less as a kid because I couldn’t post about them on Instagram. I took countless photos of snakes and bunnies and frogs in every scenario: frogs swimming, frogs being held by my friend Emmy, frogs peeing on my friend Emmy because they didn’t want to be held. All these animals were an unexpected blessing of quarantine. We have animals in New York, of course, but mostly pigeons (the rats of the skies) and rats (the pigeons of the streets). Even within Milwaukee’s city limits we were constantly outside because we weren’t allowed to be anywhere else. On Friday nights we’d have a bonfire, and on Saturday nights we’d say, “Better have another bonfire.” Back in New York, my version of fun was going to Broadway shows or trying to get into James Murphy’s wine bar. In Milwaukee, we’d eat corn straight off the grill, smothered with butter and salt. Technically you can do this in places that aren’t the Midwest, but somehow it doesn’t taste the same. In New York, I planned my days around “working” and “bagels”; in Milwaukee, I was content—thrilled even—to sit around the fire looking at a Tupperware bowl in which we had accidentally caught a million baby spiders.
While many of my friends have semi-permanently decamped to the suburbs, I returned to New York the moment I could. My priorities went back to bagels and working (mostly bagels), but I have a new appreciation for the Midwest and the plants and animals that grow in the place that grew me. I can’t wait to go back. But next time, I’ll pack more shirts.