Blog : Driftless

Process

Process

There’s a process to this whole thing.  This is something the buyers who wish to be here on these shores, but lack either the financial ability or the mental focus to actually be here, need to embrace. I sold a particular lakefront house a couple of years ago. A modest house on a beautiful lot, purchased by a young couple with their young children. There’s a sign on the street welcoming guests to their home. It says, “Someday”.  The interpretation of the sign is simple: They dreamt of the day they’d be on this lake, and now they are. It’s Someday, everyday. Passersby see the manifestation of that dream, but not the messy, painful process of making it a reality.

It is no secret that I harbor a fierce addiction to fly fishing. I would argue that the addiction has waned some in recent years, as my work and my love of this lake has a tendency to keep me here, rather than where the fly fishing occurs, there.  Several years ago, when this addiction was new and escalating, I decided that it would be good if I had a small cabin in this hilly part of this great state.  So I did what any Realtor would do, I started looking.

I looked high and low, ideally for something modest, bare, hardly there. Something simple that could hold my hat for a night once in a while, so that I wouldn’t always have to drive home at midnight after a long day hiking these streams.  An Amish cabin, perhaps, with optional plumbing but some built in cots, maybe in a loft. I looked at some of these cabins and quickly decided that composting toilets are of the devil, and wood structures built by the Amish tend to bow out at the heel height, causing some awkward leans that I could not, and would not abide. Maybe not a small cabin, but maybe something a bit better? The budget would need to expand.

An acre, down in the valley, by a trout stream. That’s what I want. To see risers from the deck. A slow stroll with fly rod in hand, a BWO tied to the slight leader. An evening fish or two, before returning to the peaceful still of my little acre and my little deck. But one acre or two, that won’t cut it. There’s no privacy in a place like that if one acre is all you have, so ten or twenty, that would be better. And the house, that should be better, too. The budget would need to expand.

But these houses, for an area settled by Germans and Norwegians, two groups I thought had a proclivity towards quality design and construction, these houses are so terrible. Raised ranches on hillsides with vinyl cladding. Old farmhouses with terrible bones, brittle shacks with a propensity to lean. That valley dream? It’s a floodplain.  The term Hydraulic Shadow means nothing to Lake Geneva, but it means certain someday death to the homes that lie in its path. Valley is out, hillside is in. And these houses? They’re no good.  I’ve built several homes throughout my life, certainly one more wouldn’t hurt. The budget should increase.

But these hillsides, they’re all the same. County after county, hillside after hillside. They’re like lakes in the Midwest, all the same. But lakes aren’t all the same, and I know that here, so I should have known that there. The counties, well, they’re all the same to those who don’t understand or subscribe to nuance. But I am the self proclaimed nuance king, and so I should know which county is best. And I did, so the search had focus, but still not enough. The one valley, one stretch of river and the draws with their own rivers, that one area would be my aim. That area commands a premium to the other areas in this vague, general region of this state? The budget needs attention.

And then one day, after years of on and off searching, one day the right lot appeared. Was it perfect? No. Was it everything I ever wanted? No. Did I let a desire for great get in the way of a hope for good? No, I didn’t. And so I bought that lot, as imperfect or perfect as it may be, and in June of 2016 I started building a little cabin for my family.  The process was as imperfect and blatantly annoying as any process has ever been. I had issues with weather, issues with tradesmen, issues with finding tradesmen whom I had already hired, and issues with finding tradesmen to hire.  The build was a total disaster, the process a painful experience, the result an imperfect realization of a dream I first hatched a decade ago.

That’s the thing about a place like this, whether it’s here or there.  Every once in a while, someone, somewhere, finds the perfect house for the perfect price in the perfect location. Lake Geneva cannot generally accommodate you on those wishes. We might give you the perfect house, but at a price that you don’t believe to be anywhere near perfect. Or we’ll give you the perfect location, with a mightily, aggressively imperfect house. We can’t give you everything you want. But you should be like me. Strive for the best, knowing that all you’re really after is a piece of this place. A place that gives you things other places can’t. Narrow your focus, true your aim, and do your best. It’ll all be worth it in the end, at least that’s what I kept telling myself for the past two years.

12 Most Luxurious Lake Towns

12 Most Luxurious Lake Towns

This article, perhaps originally from Thrillist.com, whatever that might be, has been making the rounds lately.  The piece outlines 12 of the most luxurious lake towns in the world, and by now you’ve already guessed it: Lake Geneva is on the list. Because of course it is. It’s not a surprise that it’s on the list. It would be a surprise if it weren’t. The article is on Facebook and other various bits online, and local resorts and businesses are sending out emails to the tune of “Come Do This With Us Because We’re On A List Compiled By A Website That No One Has Ever Heard Of”. It’s nice of the Thrillist to tell us this, but it’s sort of like telling your favorite kid that they’re the favorite. It’s unnecessary, because their birthday BMW hasn’t even had its first oil change yet.

So thank you, Thrillist, for including our town, as if you ever had a choice. The thing is, this article doesn’t appear to be new. In fact, it looks like it’s almost two years old. Someone just found it and posted it to some social media and then it once again pushed around the circle of Lake Geneva influencers and influenced.  The article doesn’t mention anything important, just that we have some terrific mansions and some terrific water. Again, these are the things we already know. So let’s not take this article for what it says, and let’s not be shocked for our inclusion, rather, let’s use this article as a very important reminder.

There’s a particular agent in the Chicago market who has made a bit of a late career in selling large properties and larger homes in Wisconsin. These homes are usually oversized, like mega-oversized. Like 20,000 square feet, or built as an exact scale of Some Castle in Ireland, or built with 32 bedrooms, one for each of the dreams the owner had the year before he built this towering ode to an overactive dream cycle. The homes are rare. The 12,000 square foot replica of a replica of a Frank Lloyd Wright student’s parents’ home. This is what this Realtor has been tasked with selling. On paper and online, the properties look like a most impressive collection, but they are, as a point of absolute fact, disasters.

The homes might be large, they might be fancy, they might even be nice, but one thing they are not: built in the right place. They are creations that were spawned by ego, where the cry of the building mantra was, “I can do this, and I will do this”. The doing this part doesn’t make sense, even while we can understand the can. These are the homes in Oak Brook, the ones built to 20,000 square feet to resemble something other than a Midwestern house. These are the palaces built in Door County, made to be the biggest and the best. These are the sprawling estates built in Wisconsin’s Driftless region, an 18,000 square foot modern built on 100 acres in a community where 15 acres and a cabin are the desired property. These are the mistakes that plague every region in every state. These are the misfits, born of a desire to put something where it doesn’t belong.

And that brings us back to perhaps the most unique aspect of Lake Geneva. There are buyers who wish to build things, to build rare levels of sophistication, to build and build, up and out, to make something memorable. This has happened at Lake Geneva, and it’s happening more now than it has at any point since the early 1900s when barons and magnates took to these shores to build the testaments to their wealth. The thing is, at Lake Geneva it all makes sense. The market here supports mostly whatever you can build. The market here is strong, capable, and it’s not just because our waters are so clear and our shoreline so dynamic. It’s because there are other homes like those, lots of them, big mansions along every stretch of shore. Old estates giving support to new estates. The lake isn’t just a lake that’s on some website’s best of list, it’s a lake that can play host to whatever fancy you might crave. Lots of lakes can do that, but if you ever tire of our wonderful scene, Lake Geneva can give you something that these other Midwestern locations cannot: liquidity. And that’s the actual rare bit.

Small

Small

When I first drove to the Driftless, I didn’t know what it was, or where it was, or anything else about it. I knew only what I had been told, which was little, except there were streams and in those streams there were trout. I didn’t know how to catch those trout, how to tie tippet to leader, how to swing a streamer or high stick a nymph or splash a hopper. I didn’t know the names of the roads or the names of the streams. I would diligently mark my map to show where I had fished, upstream from X bridge, or downstream “past the pasture fence”. I was so innocent then, so unaware, everything was new. The towns were different; I hadn’t yet figured out they were mostly all the same. The valleys each individual, now one is as the other, except a few, those are still different, somehow.

The region first seemed so large, so present, so varied and so full. There were valleys to explore, hillsides that I hadn’t seen, towns and villages and old tobacco barns that hadn’t yet fallen over, pushed that way by the wind and the rain.  I would follow the map to one stream, fish it, and return home, content but unaware that the next valley over had a stream just like it. I would follow the map to the new spot, fish it, drive home. Each space was new, each valley found me as an explorer, plotting my course, making my notes.  Discovering things that I never knew to look for.

As time passed, the valleys became familiar. The unknown was known. I learned that Jimtown Road was different from Jimtown. I found the streams I like, the ones with rocks and gradient,  as I moved away from the streams filled with sand. I found that 11 inch dark trout with bright orange bellies from the rocky headwaters are superior to their silvery brethren who live downstream, down where the water slows and the sand chokes. I taught myself how to cast the fly, how to slink under barbed wire fences, how to never look a bull in the eye.  I became familiar with those things that were once new. The excitement of the discovery has worn off, and as I drove home the other day I thought of how small the Driftless really is. How each stream is different but the same. How one barn is like another barn, and one small town is the same as all of the others. The region, once a vast wilderness waiting to be explored, has been reduced to a few streams and a few valleys and a few places. The mystery is gone.

My jetski spent September on the shore station and in the water, October on the shore station and only once in the water, and November only on the shore station. The weather has been mild, delicious, yet the jetski sat idle. Winter could be coming soon, but how soon? How can we put away warmer weather things when the weather is still warm? How can we quit when the clock hasn’t even run out? And so the jetski waited, ignored, but with some hope that it might take one last whip. Tuesday was warm,  fifties warm. That’s not warm enough for a wet-suit-less jetski run for most, but for me it was. I had to take the ski out of the water, after all, and if not Tuesday, when?  I hatched a plan to drive the jetski from the shore station to the launch, where a waiting friend would help chauffeur my prized toy to its winter storage spot on the north wall of my attached garage.

The water wasn’t as cold as I expected it to be. My legs tingled only a bit as I stood knee deep and coaxed that two stroke engine to life. The key now was to stay upright, to not fall. This isn’t a waverunner that can be passively captained, this is a Superjet that requires balance and throttle. I set out, satisfied that the engine didn’t stall when I applied the gas, and skittered across the still waters of Williams Bay. The sun was up, the time 3:30 pm, the water cold and calm under my water sled.

A few fishermen were out soaking whatever they had tied to the end of their liens. I rode past them, content in my decision.  I circled to Cedar Point and back to the launch, weaving in and out of the buoys that mark summertime rules.  I zipped over the submerged milk jugs that have been tied to the buoy chains. The signs of winter were everywhere even as I let summer have one last fling. The lake, it seemed to me, is the thing that I have known for the longest. I’ve known it since birth, I’ve been on it and in it and around it nearly every day for my entire life. And yet, on that jetski in the middle of November, I realized I never tire of it. I never find it too familiar. I never think I know it enough to make it feel small. It’s a big lake, after all, bigger than an entire region, bigger than anything else I’ve ever known.