Outdoor Adventures: Relief from the heat
Halfway down the road to Madison we saw the roadside grass go to brown. We both noticed it, both commented on it. The grass, lush and green and full north of Stevens Point looked baked out, brittle and harsh, like the bristles on a stiff broom. Farther from the roads, in the fields, we could see the same. Halfway down from northern Wisconsin to southern Wisconsin we could see the impact of drought and heat, of long days under a high sun and rain scarce as jewels in the days of July.
We’d heard about that; you can’t much pick up a paper or click on online news source or anything else these days without hearing of dry times, of no rain, of drought spreading across the mid-section of the nation like a cancer. Maps show the drought, a splotchy nebula of orange or red with the look of a thunderstorm on a weather map but these maps show the lack of rain not abundance. It looks just as malevolent no matter.
We drove past farm fields where corn stood dwarfed and wilted, mixed with patches of bare ground, fields that in a normal year would have had stalks head-high and deep green. Not this year. This year corn up north looks better than corn in the south. The corn up here is rich green, growing high, the picture of health. That is not bad news for area farmers, but it is not normal, not typical for corn up here to tower over southern Wisconsin corn.
Madison baked under stifling heat. Lakes we passed showed dirt flats where water should be. Pure white lilies lay ingloriously on cracked mud, the white contrasting with the dark gray mud. People talked of not seeing rain for “…four weeks at least, maybe six…” and everywhere we turned the heat of an uncommon summer lay heavy on the capital city.
We dealt with it best we could, stayed inside working a buying show for the day, walked under the heat to the car, found dinner and breakfast and enjoyed the big town as we do. The next day we pointed the car north. We drove across the Wisconsin River, saw sand bars spreading near side-to-side, stopped in Portage for corn and found lean ears. Back on the road, past corn fields blasted by the drought, heard on public radio of farmers looking at a total loss for the year, of financial stress for them, of rising food prices to come.
At a certain point we were north of it all. We did not mark the spot, did not realize we’d crossed that divide, only at some point came to see the green dominate the land again, and only then did we acknowledge that we’d passed from the drought area. We were heading north, away from the dry southland, but it was sobering, all that we’d seen.
It’s not as if we don’t know drought up here. We went six, maybe eight years, depending on who you listen to, with below average precipitation, and during that run we were over 40 inches under average. Lakes got walloped, and I wonder if some of them ever will come back. We’ve had good rain this season, but it’s going to take a lot of rain and snow to get back to average. We know drought.
And we know heat. By my count June had 20 days with temperatures over the average; July has had 15 so far. That’s a big swing in high temps. It has been a hot summer already, and the real heat is usually in August..
But we have had enough rain to balance the heat, and the woods look lush, green and healthy. I bicycled last week and smelled the oh-so-sweet scent of fresh cut hay, that special aroma of summer as unique and precious as the scent of any flower. I biked past fields of corn, down shaded roads under an umbrella of leaf and tree and in those shadows found relief, if only briefly, from the heat of the day.
I watched the Tour de France on TV on a day this week when riders raced up long mountain passes under a merciless heat and temperatures bumped past 90, and in watching them knew that I would not trade my ride, so short and so slow and so plodding in comparison, for theirs, for in my ride I had the shade of Wisconsin trees for comfort.
I emailed my sister in Boston, the great city that has so much to offer, and she wrote back at her longing for the cooling waters of Buck Lake. Boston has a lot, but it does not have Buck Lake. A friend stopped in the store the other day having driven up from Iowa, and stopped at Buck Lake before he went on to visit his mother. The path to true comfort on a hot summer day leads to a cool lake.
When I was a kid I hated the heat. It was not a familial tradition, for my dad loved heat, he being a former baseball pitcher whose arm never stiffened up on a hot day. Me, I had no use for it. But over the years I adapted. I rode my bike and I ran and I roller skied and I learned to tolerate the heat, to deal with it by drinking copious amounts of water and seeking shade when I could and measuring out my effort as a miser would his coins. I can deal with it today, but I still don’t love it.
This afternoon I’ll be on my roller skis, a strange pursuit on a hot summer afternoon, a bridge to winter skiing done in the heat of summer. I’ll do it because I want my legs in some semblance of fitness come the time of snow, and no matter how many months away that may be, now is the time to start the process. So I’ll be on the hot blacktop plodding along and feeling a bit of a fool for doing it, but knowing it has to be done. It’ll be hot; I can live with it.
It’s summer, 2012 edition. It’s hot and it’s going to stay hot. But it’s what we’ve got. We’re lucky; we have had enough rain, and the world is green and fresh. We’re fortunate for that. But most of all we’re fortunate for this: We can be outside in the heat of the day, slam down a bottle or two of cold water, do what it is that we want to do and if we wish, find a lake, any lake, lay our hot self down in the water and feel the coolness come over us, get out and sit in the shade of a tree and relax.
And tomorrow, should we care to, we can do it all over again.
An assortment of outdoor products is available at Mel’s Trading Post in downtown Rhinelander; call (715) 362-5800. To comment on this story, visit StarJournalNOW.com.