Last weekend, my housemates, our significant others, and I all packed up and went on an overnight triple date to Wisconsin, aka “America’s Dairyland.”
Our original intent was to go and take pictures in downtown Madison, the capital, during the day on Saturday, but we learned that neither our hotel nor the evening lantern festival we were planning to attend was a convenient distance from Madison. So that idea was scrapped.
Instead, we decided to stop for brunch in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, which is located a little under two hours from Minneapolis and another two or so hours from our destination of Portage in the Wisconsin Dells area.
Our brunch place was called, bizarrely, The Nucleus, and it was excellent.
The Nucleus was situated along a quaint, quiet street across the river from the University of Wisconson–Eau Claire and a mile and a half from downtown Eau Claire—as much of a downtown as you get in a little town, anyway. Having grown up in the suburbs of a big city, Eau Claire felt very small-town to me. It reminded me a little of Mankato, Minnesota, though the population of Eau Claire is a bit higher.
Since we all drove separately, one of the couples in our party got a little lost on their way to the cafe. After a flurry of Facebook messages, we realized that they had entered from the opposite end of the building, and we followed a maze-like system of hallways that passed the kitchen and other storage spaces to a coffee shop facing the street on the other side. It was dark and atmospheric; we returned to the table we had claimed inside the sunny, more brightly lit Nucleus, which turned out to be one of four “rooms” connected by the maze.
The Nucleus was full of hip college students. Retro posters lined the tall exposed brick walls. Our waitress had a pixie cut and a nose ring and was wearing a colorful button-up. We surreptitiously admired the curated throwback fashion of the cafe staff from our table, which sat near a fish tank that bubbled cheerfully in the back of the room.
I ordered a sunrise-colored mimosa to accompany my lemon ricotta crepes. I have a habit of finishing drinks a little too fast, which in this case ended up being a problem, since the mimosa was mostly champagne. My fluffy, whipped-cream-filled crepes were heavenly but not really substantial enough to counteract an entire glass of champagne.
After some hash browns stolen from the plate next to mine, three glasses of water, and twenty minutes of mostly keeping my eyes closed, I was able to stand up and look directly at the windows that the sun was pouring into again without my eyes screaming. I was still laughing a little too hard at my travel companions’ jokes, but at least I could make it out of the restaurant. The word “lightweight” was thrown around, which: accurate.
We crossed the street to an antique shop, where we browsed for a few minutes before wandering down to the Chippewa River to find a few spots to take pictures. As we walked, I commented that the street reminded me of Europe: the colorful buildings, the dilapidated storefronts.
At the river, my adventurous boyfriend helped me to tipsily mount the trunk of a tree that was growing out of the side of the bank and was splayed out over the water. The branches were thick with big white flowers. We balanced on the tree so my photographer housemate could take pictures.
Eau Claire is a pretty town that I would love to explore more. I suggested it as a stop in the first place because my aunt went to school there after it was ranked the most beautiful college campus in Wisconsin. While Eau Claire wasn’t what I expected—it wasn’t grand or flowery or luxurious—its beauty was a softer, quieter kind that I enjoyed.
All of Wisconsin is beautiful. I spent some time there as a kid, playing at our family friend’s farm for a weekend or two every summer, but I had never seen it as green as it was on this trip. The hills were different from the ones in Minnesota in a way that’s hard to explain. I could just tell by the landscape that we were somewhere different.
By three o’clock we returned to our cars to complete the drive to our hotel. A short detour through Wisconsin Dells on our way to Portage revealed a campy, dusty vacation town with ample fake waterfalls, candy and ice cream and souvenir t-shirt shops, and tired hotels. Portage was a regular town, not a tourist town, and we checked in at Best Western only to turn around and get back in the car for the forty-five minute trip to Beaver Dam, Wisconsin.
Beaver Dam, from what I could tell, is the type of tiny town that has cows roaming in fields nearby and where you might get stuck without a gas station in sight. It was also surrounded by miles of perfectly beautiful green hills. When we arrived, the sun was setting in shades of yellow and pink over the field opposite the parking lot.
After collecting our wristbands and lanterns, we brought picnic blankets and laid them out amidst the rest of the crowd that was there for the festival. A band played as the sun set; tiki torches were lit at intervals throughout the crowd. When it was good and dark and we were full of fairground food like cheese curds and corn on the cob, we were instructed by a person on the stage up front on how to light our lanterns.
It looked a lot easier than it actually was. One by one, we lit our paper lanterns by catching the square at the base on fire with the tiki torches. It took three people: one to hold the rim (growing ever hotter) at the bottom, and two to hold up the dome at the top so it could fill with hot air. When it was ready, the lantern would begin to pull upward into the sky, and everyone could let go.
Sometimes, a lantern’s ascent would fail, and a row of people yelling “Look out!” would erupt as the lantern drifted back towards the ground.
But most of them lifted off successfully. If you’ve ever watched in the lantern scene in Tangled, that’s exactly what the night sky above us looked like. When we set off our lanterns and they disappeared as glowing specks into the sea of other lights, we cheered and hugged in triumph.
All in all, a beautiful day in a beautiful place. Though I’m back home now, I’m eager to return and explore more of the Wisconsin wilderness sometime soon.