Tuesday, February 23, 2021

The #Midwessay: Kim Nelson, Driftless

It's possible all the writing I've done over the years has been in some way a response, a pushing back against the isolation and loneliness I felt at sixteen, driving an endless loop between home and school and work, speeding through the rolling country 'burbs of southeastern Wisconsin. There, a farm. There, a subdivision. There, a snowy field. Lots of trees. Another farm. Another subdivision. Endless fields. Growing up in this landscape my edges were smoothed; I was shaped. For me, this landscape was so cold, isolating, lonely. Constantly, I seek warmth, body, connection; I seek community, conversation. 

To some degree, all of us here are shaped by the landscape, by the way the highways bend, by the way one watershed tilts towards the lake, another to the river, and by all the cold and snow this winter. And yet, each of us inhabits a landscape uniquely our own, built of our own experience. We are Wisconsin-born, -bred, -rooted, but we live alone in our own version of wherever we are. And Essay Daily, this Midwessay project, what are these but elaborate feelers, searching, finding, sharing, celebrating a coming-together? I'm not sure I care all that much about what a Wisconsin essay is or isn't. I just want to hear your voice, your thoughts, your stories. The Wisconsin essay is whatever you say. 

                                                                                                                                             Craig Reinbold

We'd love for you to join the conversation. Reach out @craigreinbold // craigreinbold[at]gmail.com                                                          


The Driftless Area feels like a hidden local secret, a region in the corners of 4 neighboring states that survived the Ice Age unglaciated. Limestone bluffs, rolling hills, and deeply carved, snaking rivers characterize the area, left standing as glaciers carved their way through the Midwest while leaving 24,000 square miles untouched. I first fell in love with the Driftless Area while riding on the back of my husband’s motorcycle over a decade ago. I remembered the lean of the bike beneath us as we hugged the curves of meandering country roads, the surprising sights of random bluffs jutting against a vibrant blue summer sky. We spent a 4th of July holiday sitting on pavement in the blazing sun along the Mississippi, drinking domestic beers while watching teenagers put on a water ski show. It was the kind of summer day that beer commercials strive to capture, when everything feels nostalgic in the moment.

Years went by without a return visit, until this past summer. I needed to get out of our house, somewhere close where we could travel safely and feel like our souls could breathe again. We took a few days off work, loaded our tent and sleeping bags into the car, and drove northwest.

On the first night of our trip, we camped on the banks of the Wisconsin River in the kind of summer heat that smothers you like a blanket. After the sun set behind the trees, we spotted the soft glow of the NEOWISE comet’s tail, a glistening brushstroke across the dark sky. I felt my heart unclench, realizing how badly I needed this moment, to get away from the claustrophobic feeling of my house closing in on me.

We set up camp in a thick forest. I laid in the tent, trying to fall asleep while stretched atop my sleeping bag, my skin beaded with sweat. In the morning, we launched our canoe onto the Kickapoo River. We drifted around a curve and a limestone bluff loomed ahead. About 20 yards away, a bald eagle perched on a tree branch just above the water. I considered grabbing my phone from its dry bag to snap a photo, but instead, I sat with the moment.

We returned to the Driftless multiple times, looking for respite in the thick forests and winding rivers. There was something comforting and freeing about taking all of our trips to the same spot. We Midwesterners are attuned to the seasons, but we can also easily forget the pleasure of immersing ourselves in them. As I spent more time outside this year than any other year, I relearned how to lean into the seasonal changes. While the inside of our house had grown to be a frozen snapshot of pandemic life—a rumpled couch, a TV set constantly warm to the touch, a makeshift workspace set up in the dining room—the evolving landscape of nature proved that time was indeed passing.

I’ve spent the past year reveling in this place, returning to the same forests and rivers in different seasons to admire how they’d changed, the slow fadeout of summer’s cicadas, the bloom of color that recedes into winter’s sleep, the way the light hits differently across the treetops as the sun sits lower in the sky, the slow spread of frost across the grass like lace. I crave a certain reliability in a year bursting with change. I have new admiration for the sloping hills that dodged earth-leveling glaciers thousands of years ago.


Kim Nelson is a writer/voracious reader/outdoor cat who lives in Chicago, Illinois. She finds inspiration in music, pop culture, ghost stories, road trips, comic book superheroes, ancient mythology, woodland creatures, and karaoke bars. Her work has been published in Hobart Pulp, WhiskeyPaper, Role Reboot, and 3Elements Review. For more, please visit kimberlymilanelson.com.

What is the #Midwessay? What is the Midwest? What are the characteristics, if any, of the #Midwessay (the Midwest essay)? What gathers us together? What pulls us apart? 

Springing from a twitter conversation, we started asking writers and readers what they imagine (or would like to reimagine) as the Midwest and the Midwessay. The #Midwessay is a series of reports from the Midwest (whatever that is) by and/or about Midwestern essay and essayists (whatever those are). Essay Daily will be publishing these, sorted (loosely) by state, in February 2021 and beyond.  These #Midwessays will be collected here and on a separate site at a later date. If you'd like to submit a report / essay, send it our way. Details and coordinators for each state are listed here. You can also ping Ander (link at the upper right) if we don't list a coordinator yet for your state. —The Editors

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