My calendar said spring turned to summer last week. The first day of summer, it said, capitalized with an exclamation point. The hardware stores had an ad in the paper, every paper, telling us that it’s summer time and because of this we need things. Grills! Plants! Bee Killer! I was in a hardware store over the weekend when a man walked in with a bee problem. He told the store worker that his bees were out of control. They were in the rocks and around his waterfall. They were a problem and his children wouldn’t be happy if they were stung, even though no one had been stung just yet. I kept quiet for a while but ultimately decided to ask if he was certain these were not honey bees, because honey bees are valuable and shouldn’t be choked by a foaming pesticide. He didn’t know. They’re all bees he said. And they’re all going to die. Welcome to Summer.
A woman drove a convertible down the road and across the intersection where I was stopped. There was something going on around the corner, a race maybe. Some bikes zipped past. Numbers painted onto the participants’ arms. So much determination, so much haste. The woman in the convertible didn’t care, she had on her big hat, and I wondered how it stayed attached to her head without blowing away in the open-top-breeze. Pins, maybe. I figured there was a trick, something women know that I don’t. She turned the corner too tight and her wheel clipped the curb, causing the car to bounce and her hat to flop and her neck to whip back like something happened that she couldn’t control. Later, when she’s home she’ll tell her husband that she just can’t understand what happened to that wheel. By then the scrape on her shiny rim will be smudged dark by summer dirt that washed from the spring fields during the last storm.
No one knows when it’s summer more than boaters. You can see the boats now, sitting on trailers and in slips, full of gas and ready. There’s no time like now to boat, at least now that it’s summer. If you have a boat and you own it during summer, what a thrill. Boats in the winter aren’t nearly as much fun. That’s when the bills come due. Winter service, winter storage, winter protection from the winter: $2650. Last year it was $2250, but the economy is better and the labor is tighter so the price has to go up. Boats are like that, a good measure of inflation and of the economy. Need your boat waxed? It’ll cost you $550 during a recession and $825 during a boom. It’s booming now, and the bill was $900. The extra is the Geneva fee. It would have still been $825 in the Chain, but no $75 has been better spent.
It’s raining again. It’s not a spring rain, it’s a summer rain. I’m sure because the weatherwoman said it would be a passing shower, like how it rains at Disney every afternoon. It always amazes me how much rain we can get in the summer and yet when I want precipitation in January so my kids can ski, it’s as dry as the driest of deserts. It’s dry in the Southwest, and they have purple mountain sunsets there. Come to the Southwest and see our cacti and our purple mountains and our sunsets! There’s nothing like a sunset over a purple mountain with some cacti in the foreground. That’s what they say, but I don’t believe them. Because it’s summer here and our sunsets are better. Once this rain passes I’m sure there will be a better sunset tonight. A summer sunset. The humidity will make the sky dazzle.
The calendar told people it’s summer, and they’re reacting. Boats are boating, sunsets are filling up Instagram. #summervibes, someone writes. Others Like. It’s that time, when summer comes to those who otherwise wouldn’t know. But I know. You know. We know summer has nothing to do with the calendar. Summer arrives when we first feel it on our skin. When the first pier is in, white and sturdy. The first boat pushes through the water from West to East and back again. When that first sunset is no longer visible through the bare branches of winter, but instead hides behind a deep, dark canopy of Oak and Maple. Summer doesn’t start at the end of June unless you’re not paying attention. Summer for me started sometime in May, whether the calendar watchers knew it or not.
It was good to be a buyer in 2011. And in 2012. 2013, too. We know that now. What a time! We think. If only I could have been a buyer then, say the buyers now. But was it so great back then? Was everything perfect? I remember a buyer from the fall of 2011. He was worried about the 2012 election. Worried about the economy, or the economy as measured by the stock indices. He bought in the fall of 2011, and the lakefront purchase changed his life. But he almost didn’t buy and it almost didn’t change his life. It was good to be a buyer then, but it wasn’t easy.
If you were a buyer then and you didn’t buy, and in the days that have followed from those days to these days, I understand how you must feel. Shame is a powerful thing, but shame with equal parts regret is devastating. I have buyers today that tell me they wish they had bought. They wish they had upgraded. There were so many properties for so few dollars. What an amazing market it was, they say, as if they were non-eligible bystanders during the whole show. I should have bought something. Anything. That’s what a buyer of mine told me in a text last weekend.
Bill Shakespeare once said, “striving to be better, oft we mar what’s well.” It’s no secret that I’ve built myself a small cabin in the middle of nowhere, on the road from Where? , just past Nothing, Unincorporated. I commonly bemoan what it is that I’ve done. I built something too small. I built it a bit too far to this side. I painted that a bit too blue. It was supposed to be gray. The shame is intense. The deck isn’t finished, the patio never will be, and the gravel driveway is nearly impassable several months out of the year. There were some execution issues. It took two years to build a scant few square feet.
But it did get built. And I do get to sleep there. And when I drive down the road and fish the streams, I feel content. I say hello to the cows in the pasture and wish there was something I could do to help them get rid of those flies that pester and bite. I wander the farmer’s market once in a while, and buy something from someone who made it near there. The process was painful, the execution questionable, the outcome reasonably acceptable, if full of concerns. But I’m happy with it. Because it lets me hang my hat when I’m done with a long evening of casting tiny dry flies to wary, wild trout.
In the same way, last Memorial Day I sat lakeside and watched the show. It’s our show, after all. This is our thing. After a dreary winter it’s easy to forget how much passive fun can be had while watching boaters boat. New boats, old boats, new boats made to look old. Shore path walkers, some strolling, aimless in their amusement, others hiking, working, efforting. This place is unique, and it’s ours. On that day, was there any difference between the boater who has a Viking range and the one without? Was there any difference in the way that cool May water felt to the owner who has a small cottage a few doors away from the owner who has the larger home closer to the lake?
The great equalizer in the home search is found when you maintain focus on the true goal. If you want a nice house, just buy one in the city or the suburbs. There are lots of them for sale. Shiny ones with fancy things. But those homes don’t get you any closer to what you want. To indulge in this place. To wake up Saturday morning in a different state with a different state of mind. A different state of being.
The buyers from 2012 who missed out largely did so because they wanted better. They wanted different. Something with a larger living room and another bedroom. A shinier kitchen. One more bathroom. What a tremendous mistake to hold your lifestyle hostage when the demanded ransom is something as trivial as square footage. Or a garage. Today, buyers are doing the same thing. They’re deciding that an extra bedroom is worth another summer in the city. They’re choosing nothing over better, because they really want best. I have buyers tell me they’re being patient. Being patient is easy. It’s finding motivation that’s often far more difficult.
Above, the entry at my Basswood estate listing. Now reduced to $8,950,000
If you think the vacation home market at the lake is active, you should check out the market for sub-$350k single family and condominium residences that lack lake access. That market is absolutely on fire. A recent search I performed showed 23 single family homes in Williams Bay priced between $310k and $400k. Of those 23, 15 were pending sale. That’s a hot market. Similarly so, the vacation home segment under $400k is also active, and that activity isn’t only involving properties with lake access. There’s an entire subset of vacation homes here, those condominiums that lack dedicated water access but still, often, appeal to a vacation home buyer.
Condominiums, wherever they are found, lend themselves to vacation home ownership for pure ease of ownership, and as a result, the off-water, non-access condominium market in Walworth County is a common target for vacation home seekers who find themselves with a fixed budget. Many of these buyers find their way to Abbey Springs, where they receive lake access, or to other condominiums like Willabay Shores in Williams Bay or the Abbey Villas in Fontana. It’s obvious, too, that these buyers end up in Geneva National. But increasingly I’m finding it annoying that Geneva National is overlooked by so many in this sub-$300k price range.
As I don’t often work this market, you’ll know my annoyance is genuine, as I’m not stumbling into this condition simply because it doesn’t serve my purpose. Geneva National might offer solid value and a rare setting, but as budget minded buyers know, it also offers a hefty monthly association fee. Often lakefront condominiums on Geneva will have elevated fees, but that’s an understood situation given the piers and pools and increased amenities. Geneva National has high fees, and while it offers justifiable amenities, many buyers will look directly past GN based solely on those monthlies. I think this is a mistake.
Let’s consider a random Geneva National condominium and contrast it to competing inventory in the broad market. For our purpose today, we’re going to look at a Highlands unit listed around $220k. This unit is a three bedroom, three bath, with a two car attached garage, three levels of finished space and a walkout lower level. The unit is a bit dated at this point, but who isn’t? The tax bill is around $3500 with monthly association fees of $590. That fee covers exterior maintenance, pools, tennis court, gated security, private roads, etc and etc. It’s a nice condo for the money.
If we’re a buyer of a three bedroom condominium in the Lake Geneva area, another reasonable option would be a unit listed for sale on the East end of the City of Lake Geneva listed at $290k. This is a four bedroom unit with slightly more square footage, but a two car garage and a one less full bath. To be certain, this is also a nice unit, and any buyer on a budget would likely find living here to be pleasant. The condo fees are $235, the taxes $4200. The fee covers exterior maintenance. And exterior maintenance. There’s nothing else for it to cover.
The sort of buyer that might be drawn to the city condo would likely find the low monthly fees to be an important data point. Those fees might be the same reason they avoided Geneva National. But let’s really consider those fees. The GN fees allow use of a resort community with pools, tennis, walking trails, gated security, and more. The fees at the other development cover simple exterior maintenance. There’s no resort there. No other value added amenities. Just a condo that lists access to the highway as an amenity. These may seem like similar units, but they are not, as a matter of fact, even remotely the same.
But that’s just the lifestyle difference, and that’s where Geneva National shines, so let’s go back and look at those monthly fees. To own in Geneva National, versus our fill-in-competition, it’ll cost an extra $4260 per year. Ouch, that’s rough. That’s why people avoid GN. But let’s dig a bit more. The taxes at GN are $700 cheaper, owing that to a Town of Geneva tax scale, rather than the City of Lake Geneva. Now our annual premium is down to $3560. The fee in Geneva National covers water and sewer charges, which the other condo adds in separately (according to the MLS listing). It’s fair to assume the annual water/sewer charge for moderate use would be around $800. Now our Geneva National premium is down to $2760.
Now that we’ve figured out the monthly fee difference, consider what that $2760 buys you. Tennis, pools, gated security. Is that worth $230 a month? I think it is, but you might not be so easily convinced. What we’re forgetting here is that the Geneva National condo is a full $70k less in initial purchase price. If we’re financing our transaction with a 20% down payment, that means the non-GN condo cost us $14k more up front, and adds $335 to our monthly liability. If we’re paying cash for the purchase, assuming a similar discount to ask for each unit, we’re forking over an additional $70k for the amenity-void unit. That’ll cover the next 25 years of Geneva National premium.
The exercise today is simple. Let’s stop ruling out condominiums based solely on monthly fees. Let’s consider the real numbers behind that initial number, and let’s buy something that matches our lifestyle and our budget, not just our budget.
Photo Courtesy either Ideal Impressions or Matt Mason Photography. I’m really not sure…
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.
I have a good friend who has found himself in the middle of a housing conundrum. It’s a geographic conundrum, really. It might be a different sort of conundrum, but what is for sure is that it is a conundrum. The appeal of the known has worn off. It no longer feels as useful as it once did. Perhaps it’s time for a change. A drastic, sweeping change. Everything, different. From a city to a small hamlet, from a lake nearby to a mountainside. From the varied experience that has become mundane, to a mundane experience that will, for a while, feel varied. What to do?
When you live in Wisconsin, or Illinois, or Minnesota, or Michigan, there’s a constant tug to explore something new. In winter, this is evidenced most openly on Facebook and other social media. (snows) “Remind me why I live here?” (rains) “I want to be on a beach somewhere!” (hot)“I’m melting, why do we live here?” (cold) “It’s another bitterly cold day in Wisconsin and I can’t feel my fingers!” The seasons change, the complaints adapt to the season, and we roll through the years outwardly wishing for something better. We do this for a while and then we die.
We do this because it’s an easy thing to complain about. It’s the default complaint. It requires no effort. If my problems are here, in this place where I live, then maybe the problems will go away if I move to somewhere else. Another town, that’s the answer. I hate the cold and I hate the wind and I hate the way my car looks when it’s covered in salt. If I move to where it’s warm, and where the wind doesn’t blow, and where they don’t douse the roads in salt, then these problems will disappear and my life will improve. I’ll just move, that’ll solve it.
It’s brown outside. It’s gray outside. It’s ugly. The snow fell and now it’s melting and the sides of the road are littered with winter trash. It’s terrible here, and I want something better. I want sunshine and white snow. I want palm trees and soft beaches. Always wanting something different. It’s what we all do. But what happens when something different isn’t better, it’s just different? What happens when the different that we thought we wanted turns into the known that lacks what we already know?
It’s easy to feel trapped. To feel limited by your surroundings. But it’s only easy to feel that way once you take them for granted. The snow has melted and it’s ugly outside? That’s factually incorrect. The snow has melted but it’s not ugly outside, it’s just different. It’s not bright and blue and green. The lake is locked in a struggle for consistency, some water frozen some not. Is the lake ugly like this? Does it look better when it’s all blowing blue? Of course it looks better then, but does it look terrible now? Only if you want to see it that way. Are 38 degree days useless? Sure they are, but will today be useless because of it? Not at all.
I’d like to suggest something that might seem self serving, but this is my blog and I’m actually only in business for myself, so that shouldn’t seem too out of the ordinary. Perhaps what really bothers those Midwesterners who spend their days pining for something else isn’t the geography of their condition, it’s their housing. If I live in a house that’s dark because it lacks south facing windows, and the winter days feel too dark because of this, what is the root problem here? Is it that some days are cloudy? Or is it that my house doesn’t have the right design?
If I park my car outside at night and wake up in the morning with a coating of ice and snow on the windshield, do I need to be mad at the ice and snow? I’ll take to Facebook to complain about those things, and then wonder aloud why I live here, but wouldn’t it be easier to just try to buy a house with a garage? I know I’ve spent years in houses with and without garages, and I vastly prefer the garage house better. If I dislike the noise of the city I live in, and I hate the cars that park in front of my house and clog my limited view, should I hate the cars and the city and move far away to run from those things? Maybe I should just find a house on a quiet street in a different part of town.
Maybe you really do hate the cold. Maybe you really do hate the clouds. Maybe you really do hate the city. Maybe you really do hate the way the ground looks when winter has ended but spring hasn’t yet begun. But maybe you just need a better house with some woodburning fireplaces, the sort that crackle and hiss when a new log is thrown on it. Maybe you just need a house with southern exposure, so every day feels bright, even when the clouds build. Maybe you don’t hate the city, maybe you just hate the street that you walk every day. Maybe it’s time to find a better street. Maybe it’s just time to find a better house. A different house.
Above, a gray day at the lake.
I kill animals every year. Or at least one animal every year. It’s a right of passage, a tradition, something I do, annually. I’m a killer, I suppose. But I’m not a cold blooded animal killer. This is a title reserved for those who enjoy the event. The killing. But even that isn’t my fault. It’s my dog’s fault. I have two dogs. One small dog who doesn’t like children, and one large dog who likes everyone. The big dog likes people, sure, but he’s a vicious killer of every other creature. He kills for sport. He tortures for fun. He’s an awful, terrible dog, renowned in the animal kingdom as being the worst of the worst. Rabbits have come to know the sound of his footsteps in the grass. Entire families have been destroyed by his jaws.
And this is why I end up having to kill. Each year, perhaps just once but possibly more, this aloof dog will play with a small rabbit until the small rabbit is near death. Crawling on the grass, begging for a reprieve. Bloodied and broken. This is when I get the call from my wife, or my daughter, and I have no choice but to drive home and load a gun. From the moment this painful process starts, I’m sick over it. I don’t want to kill his rabbit. Even if it is already nearly dead, it isn’t totally dead. No, that’s something that I have to do. My daughter looks out the window, tears filling her eyes. Forced into action by something outside of my control, it’s up to me to end the suffering, and with one pull of the trigger, that’s what I’ve done.
I’ve thought about joining the bird hunters. This doesn’t seem that difficult, not does it seem that bloody. Just walk in a field and shoot at a bird. The feathers hide the damage, after all. There wouldn’t be any eye contact with my prey, just a blast from a gun and a dog retrieval. This seems like something I could do. I could buy the best field chaps, if that’s what they wear, and then walk through the tall, tan grass on a still November morning. What a great thing this could be. But then last week I saw a bird in my driveway that appeared to be sick, or injured. My wife and daughter checked on it, and put it into a small shoe box filled with pine shavings. We kept it in the box outside in our shrubs to protect it from the skunks and weasels and coyotes that would have eaten it overnight. The next morning I checked on this bird, a female Cardinal, and it was dead. I felt awful, and quickly realized that bird hunting isn’t for me.
I’d like to start something, someday. A business. A service. A product. Something, anything. And with this I’ve thought about the world of catch and release deer hunting. Why couldn’t this work? The gun would look like a gun, but with a different tip on it so people would know it isn’t lethal. Instead of shooting a bullet it would shoot a tranquilizer dart. The dart would hit the deer, the deer would fall asleep quickly, like in the movies. And then I could pose with the deer, just like a real hunter, only that my magnificent buck would then wake up and return to the rut. I’d experience everything, just like a real hunter. The gear. The face paint. The thrill of the hunt. The squeezing of the trigger. The photo. The admiration of Facebook and Instagram. And then, the peace I’d feel knowing that my deer walked away from the incident with nothing but a small scar where my tranquilizer dart stuck. If catch and release fishing is a thing, why not catch and release hunting, too?
Alas, it isn’t meant to be. I’m too soft. I value life too much. But I don’t begrudge the hunter his season. I wish him well, I wish him safety. For the families that find connection in hunting, I wish them peace. But there is something of which non-hunters like me need to be aware. It’s that this is the time of year for the hunter. Wisconsin’s rifle deer season begins this weekend, running through the Thanksgiving holiday and the following weekend. Today, a simple word of advice. Just stay out of the woods. Don’t walk nature preserves where hunting is allowed. If you’re not sure whether or not hunting is allowed, assume it is. Don’t wander through woods, no matter how lovely a late fall walk might be. Leave the woods to the hunters and the deer these next two weekends, and wish them both well.
It was January. Maybe February. The snow had piled up and the lake had frozen. It was winter, but not like last winter, it was real winter. The sort we had a couple of years ago. The sort we might have this year. The property came to market on a Tuesday. It might have been a Wednesday. I saw the listing and sent it to a customer. I didn’t send it via an automated feed that all of my “competitors” use. Those feeds are insulting to your intelligence. Or at least insulting to mine. I sent him the property, with a note, “Buy this”. Within a few days, he had done just that. The beautiful vacant piece of Fontana lakefront was his. Ours. Today, a new home is being built. It will be a stunning home, designed with summer weekends in mind, perfect in the little ways. Perfect in the big ways. It’ll be done by next summer, hopefully.
The lot was listed in January. My buyer was in Naples. Or Ireland. Or California. It might have been South America, hunting grouse. The sort that live in the rocky crags. They might not even be grouse, but grouse lookalikes. It didn’t matter where he was. He knew what he wanted to buy here, and when it hit the market, it didn’t matter if it was a Saturday in July or a Tuesday in January. It didn’t matter if he “had the time” to make it up for a look. He had me, and my eyes and my advice, and he knew I knew what he’d want. In this, there is no humble brag. There is just the reality of a resort market during the months that the casual lookers perceive to be the off-season. The reality of Lake Geneva? There is no off-season.
Had this buyer not been paying attention, he would have easily let this opportunity pass him by. That’s the easy thing to do, after all, to assume that there’s always something else. There’s another best thing, coming soon. Not today, tomorrow, maybe. If not tomorrow, perhaps seven Wednesdays from now. That’ll be the day. That lot was purchased perhaps three years ago. From that winter day to this autumn day, there has been nothing else come to market that reflects the same sort of attribute. The ideal location. The ideal configuration. The ideal price. If that buyer had decided that, no, he didn’t want to pursue something because his attention was momentarily elsewhere, none of this would be happening. The carpenters wouldn’t be rushing to finish the roof before the snow. The buyer wouldn’t be thinking about summer at his new lake house. He’d just be temporarily distracted by the distraction of the day.
A cold November morning feels about as as distant from summer as possible. Nothing could be farther away at this point. We haven’t even started winter. We haven’t grown tired of winter. We haven’t longed for spring. We haven’t tasted spring. We haven’t put a pier in, because the piers still aren’t out. Next summer is forever away, and it’s easy to live our lives as though we have plenty of time. Summer will come, but it won’t come soon. This is the easy way to live. This is the way most live. But this isn’t the way to get things done. This isn’t the way to accomplish the goal. How do you accomplish the goal? You pay attention in December just like you would in July. When a property lists in January and I tell you it’s something to buy, you drive up in January. The grouse can wait. Summer’s coming.
I have several different sets of rules pertaining to several different disciplines. My real estate rules are well known. Don’t buy a house on any lake that doesn’t start with a G and end with an EVENA. This is the main rule. Other rules involve other things. I’ve been lifting weights for a year or so now. You can’t tell. I’m getting mostly fatter but marginally stronger, so if I ever need to lift a car off of a small child there is now a good chance that the car will at least wiggle when I apply force. My workout rule is simple. Show up late on leg day. Show up early on chest day. Simple, rules.
We have six chickens at our house now. My wife collects an egg or two each day, small oddly shaped eggs of different colors. They’re nice, enough. But the chickens wander all over my yard and scratch through my mulch beds, and use my bluestone patio and sidewalk as their commode. This is unacceptable to me. My wife visits the chickens and returns to the house with chicken crap on her shoes. This is unacceptable to me. At my house, my rules of no chicken crap in the house are viewed as being unnecessarily onerous, for reasons I cannot understand. Still, rules.
I have other rules for other things, but now it’s fall and there are fall rules that are very, very important. I have three fireplaces in my house. They’re nice. I love burning wood, and view an affinity for gas fireplaces as a character flaw. When a real estate description says “gas fireplace”, I generally feel sad and empty inside. Fires are meant to consume, and if I can’t feed the fire wood, what good is the fire? In the fall, the temptation to burn wood comes early. The first crisp night. The first rainy Saturday afternoon. The problem with all of this is the rules are the rules.
No fires until the nighttime temperature is consistently in the 40s. No fire if the daytime high exceeds 62 degrees. In tandem, these two rules work beautifully. A cold night does not allow for a fire if the preceding day was warm. And vice versa. These rules keep the burning of wood as an important and restricted ritual. If I had a fire whenever I felt like it, just because, then the importance of the fall and winter fire would be diminished. Do you eat cake every night? Of course not. That’s why it’s nice to have on birthdays. Fires should be revered in a similar manner. This is the first fall rule.
Apple orchards are wonderful. They really are. Apples are delicious. Anyone who disputes this is an apple bigot and should be silenced. Freedom of speech does not include the right to diss the Wisconsin apple. If you live in Texas, I’ll grant permission. But Wisconsin apples are the best apples, and northern Illinois apples are nearly equal. The Lake Geneva area has several orchards, but there’s really only one that matters. Just south of Walworth a ways you’ll find Royal Oak Farm Orchard. The name is clunky, but the apples are not. It’s fall, and it’s orchard time.
Or is it? I cannot visit the orchard on nice, warm days. Warm days at the orchard are terrible. Bees, apples, and sweat do not mix well. That’s why I abstain from orcharding until such a day that the temperature is not more than 60. An ideal orchard day is in the mid 50s, with some light breeze. And U-Pick must be open on most of the apples. If you go to the orchard on a 70 degree fall day and the only U-Pick is Jonagold, what are you doing? And are your parents aware of how much shame they should feel?
Fall at the lake is perhaps the best time to be here, at least second only to summer. But if you’re going to be here, please follow these rules. They’ll make your experience that much better, and your life that much fuller.
Lake aerial, courtesy Matt Mason Photography.
It was windy. It hadn’t rained yet, but the clouds had overtaken the moon and everyone knew the rain was near. It wasn’t warm anymore, not warm like the day and not warm like the summer. It was cool. Cool like fall, cool like late-fall. The day had given us a taste of summer, whether or not this was the last taste no one could be sure. But the wind blew the trees and a few leaves fell and the rain was coming and the moon had gone dark. It wasn’t late. A month ago it would have been light, or at least glowing, the last bits of the day still visible. It was dark.
But the porch lamps were on and the screens are still free from their winter canvas. A distant whiff of woodsmoke in the air, blown here by that wind that stripped a few leaves with it. The night was damp even before the rain came. Damp like a mountain night, cold like one, too. Cars clogged the driveways. The paved and cobbled drives that lead to the lakefront homes were littered with cars, just as the gravel drives with grass creeping in from the margins that lead to the small wooden cottages were filled as well. A porch table with the mostly eaten dessert still left out, a crisp probably. Peach I’d bet, because the apples are not yet in season even if the cold wind proves their time is very, very near.
A flashlight in the yard. Kids running and playing and hiding behind the trees. The wind masks their steps even as the fallen leaves of late summer give them away. The adults lounge on that summer porch, with their bare feet tucked under blankets. The old wool ones look so nice in that porch stack, but they’re scratchy and uncomfortable and everyone knows it. Laughter leaks from one porch to another. A cruise boat pushes through the darkness, the revelers laughter making it to shore as nothing more than a happy murmur.
Me? I wasn’t on a porch. I was just driving a truck back to my parents’ house. Down the roads I know so well, around this corner and turning at that one. The streets full of those weekend cars. The porches light. The kids playing. The stories being told. The weather, that damp cold night, it wasn’t great. It wasn’t even okay. It was pretty terrible, really. But the weekend went on, and the people gathered at those houses. The porches are all different, some large and fanciful, others small and bare. But the night was all the same, each house happy to be in use. Each group happy to have gathered here, at this lake, during this time. Even on the darkest, dampest of summer nights that feel more October than not, this scene is the same. We come here because we love the lake and the sunshine and the way it makes for a summertime afternoon. We stay here because at night on a cold porch with damp cushions and scratchy wool blankets nothing feels more like home.
In a recent Lake Geneva Regional News article, City of Lake Geneva Alderman John Halverson, when discussing the state of the Lake Geneva Riviera and a desired multi-million dollar referendum for repairs asked, “If we don’t get it passed, what should we do? Sell the building?”
I’m so glad he asked, so that I can answer. Yes. That’s the answer. Sell the building. The question was posed rhetorically, in a way that would suppose a yes answer would be ludicrous, even sacrileges. But the best way for the City of Lake Geneva to deal with the aging Riviera and the several million dollars of repairs it supposedly needs is to sell the building to the highest bidder. To keep the building beyond 2017 would be a significant mistake, and would prove once again that the city has no regard for the tax payers who already pay the highest rates around the lake.
I’m not suggesting the building be sold in a traditional manner, wherein the new owner would have the flexibility to do with it as he or she pleases. I’m suggesting that the city utilize the power of deed restrictions and covenants to clear an aging liability from their books. The Riviera is a most impressive structure, and its unique location and design lends a visual boost to downtown Lake Geneva and that commercialized lakefront scene. The structure has anchored downtown for generations, and should be respected. In the 1930s my grandmother would ride the train up with her sisters to dance at the ballroom on Saturday nights. She met my grandpa there, while he was hawking popcorn or cigarettes or newspapers. The Riviera has a deep and important history, and the building itself should be preserved. That’s why the property should be sold. Here’s how it could work.
The city slaps deed restrictions on the property, dictating the allowable future uses and the exterior design and color palette of the structure. What happens to the interior shouldn’t be any concern of the city, especially once they receive a few million dollars for the building. With the deed restrictions in place, the aesthetics of the Riviera and the setting will be secure, no matter who owns the deed. There are options as to how to sell the space. The city could rezone the building into a condominium, and retain the lower level retail spaces to be operated as they are today. The problem with this model is that the city would then still be on the hook for repairs, that’s why it’s best to sell the entire structure. Separate the park from the building, retain the park (the fountain, etc), and sell just the building. The entire thing.
Who buys it? Well, I don’t know. Maybe one of the nearby local business would like added square footage? Maybe the cruise line operating from the adjacent city pier system? The cruise line could utilize the space for some offices and use the ballroom for a wedding venue, just as it is used today. The difference is that rates could be increased exponentially from those paltry sums the city charges, and the building could be modernized to host more events. Some might suggest the increased usage of the facility would be a negative for the city. I’d argue that the structure is a ballroom. It wasn’t built to sit idle. It was built to host bands and dances and parties of epic proportions. Why not let the private market return the building to its original intent?
The city has estimated the repairs to be in the neighborhood of $5MM. My estimates that I’ve considered now for all of five minutes prove that the cost would be significantly less. The problem is municipalities pay retail plus for everything they do (just check on the cost of school construction for proof). The private market could handle those repairs for less than a million dollars, likely with ease. Yes, a new owner would have to undertake these repairs, which drives up the initial investment. Yes, the fact that the city has broadcast these repairs to the world means a buyer will use the city’s figures against them in a negotiation. Yes, that might mean the building sells for less than it might otherwise sell for. But the alternative is worse. The alternative is the city taxes its vacation home owners to fix up a building that loses money. To repair the Riviera on the taxpayer’s dime is the very definition of throwing good money after bad.
The idea of selling the Riviera hasn’t been discussed much in public, but it’s time the conversation begins. There is no reason for a city to own such a valuable liability. Deed restrict it. Zone it to allow very few select future uses, and sell it to the highest bidder. Since I am nothing if not a fan of Lake Geneva, I’ll even offer to sell the building for the city at a reduced commission rate.
A short video of some summer ski times on Geneva Lake.
The streets are quiet now. The excited conversations of summer are now just a murmur, fading like the green in all of these leaves. There was life back then, so much of it that it needed to be discussed. The green of the trees was bright, full, deep and overwhelming. It’s still very much green, but it’s duller than it was. Our conversations are quieter, the trees are duller, the waves are softer. The streets are quiet. This thing is nearly over.
Oh sure, we’re trying to act like that isn’t true. The gas station is full of boats this morning, their empty tanks being filled again. There’s still time, the boaters say. This day will be the best day. There won’t be many more like it, but this day. This will be the best. The beer will be cold and the fish might bight. When the fish ignore then we’ll tube and we’ll toast our skin and we’ll snack and we’ll drink. Today will be the best day of the summer. These are the lies of late August. We know they’re lies, but we tell them anyway. We have no choice.
We know, deep down inside our summer selves, that the only way to enjoy summer is to engage in it without a clock. The only time that summer is truly bliss is during early summer. The sort of summer that has so much left in the tank that we wouldn’t even think of anything else. An 80 degree in late June will always thoroughly beat an 80 degree day in late August. That’s because in June there are more coming, so many more that who could count? There isn’t anything ahead but more summer, better summer, tons and tons of summer.
It’s not like that now. There is football on my television, no matter if I click past the programming quickly or not, it’s still there. I looked at the stack of wood on my porch and thought that the stack should be taller. The wood is dry now, lighter than it was. It’ll be easier to stack higher and deeper, and I should start doing this soon. It won’t be long before I burn that maple. I cut and split the limbs in late winter, which is to say it was early spring, which feels now like it was forever ago, but not really. It was just a few months ago, before the spring really took hold, before the heat of June and the deluge of July and the niceness of August. It’ll be that way again soon. I should start chopping wood.
Yes, there are a few weeks of this thing left, but are there? If you’re lying in bed dying of something, is it great to be thinking that there might be a couple of weeks left? Is that life? Is that really, truly living? Or can you only really live when you aren’t thinking of dying? I always tell my parents that life doesn’t change when you’re on your deathbed. Life changes when you’re sitting in the doctors office swinging your feet back and forth off the end of that elevated bed when the doctor knocks at the door and enters the room. Life changes when the doctor tells you you’re sick. It doesn’t change when you feel sick, when you grow weak, when you’re nearly done. It changes right then, when she tells you what you have and why that’s bad. In the same way, is summer over when it’s October and the Sunday temperature barely touches 60 and we feel a sudden and overwhelming urge to wear our boots and visit the orchard?
I say no, that’s not at all when summer is over. Summer’s over when we start to think about fall, and I’m starting to think about it already. I don’t want to, I really don’t. I wish I didn’t have to rush through this season to discover the next. I already know what fall is like. But that’s exactly what I have to do, because I have no choice. I’m from Wisconsin, proudly, and we can’t linger in any season for too long. I know there are boat rides still to come, swimming and superjetting and sweetcorn. But there’s also wood to chop and jeans to patch and cider donuts to eat. I don’t want to do those things on purpose, it’s just that I can’t help it. The streets are too quiet for me to pretend any longer.
Photograph “Sweet Wheat” by Kristen Westlake.
There is some thought, rampant among those who cannot yet know, that a night is a night is a night. The night it dark here, just like there, in fact like every night. Night. Those who love the night take great pride in this universal truth, that night is dark and it’s dark everywhere. In the daytime everything can be different. Every place its own, each unique. Some places with high mountains and cold rivers, others with wide plains and low, wet marsh. Some other places teeming with dark leafy trees and little dotted lakes, clear perhaps. Daytime, now that’s different because it looks different. But in the night when there’s nothing to see, each place is the same: dark and quiet.
But that’s not at all true. The night is filled with sounds, each season its own, each place its own. A winter night under a brilliant cold sky is something to behold. The deep, snowy still of a leafless and seemingly lifeless field contrast under the brilliantly bright stars. But it’s not something one can savor. It’s too cold to dwell, and in, and so a winter night is something gulped in deep breaths and left alone. It’s still night outside, but inside with the wood fire and the warm lamp light is much more comforting.
A fall night is a noisy night, a windy night, some rain maybe. But that’s not entirely true. A fall night can be as alive as a summer night, or as still as a winter night, or it might be anything in between. There’s no rule for fall, nothing it must do. What it will do is build to a colorful crescendo just before it ebbs and falls silent. Fall is like winter without snow, unless it isn’t.
But those summer nights. In our memories, they all sound the same. Crickets and hoppers, chirping and singing their redundant tune. Softly fading as the night wears on, only to be replaced by the chirping of song birds once the morning light is near. This is what night at my house sounds like. My house, surrounded by prairie and distant trees, alive with the casual rhythm of so many field bugs. An occasional rustle in the grass, a rabbit hiding from a fox. A coyote clinking through the wooded edges, thinking about which chicken it will steal. There are other characters in this prairie night, but the stars are those bugs that I cannot identify, crudely scratching out the sound that I’ve come to love. Summer days can wear on me, but the sound of a summer night has yet to grow old.
I spent a few hours last week on a lakeside screened porch. The sounds were those of my childhood, a slow churning boat pushing through the night, returning its guests after dinner. Or the other boats, the large boats with parties aboard, spinning around the lake and clearing each point, the dull murmur of the happy crowd reaching across the window and to my childhood bedroom. But what struck me wasn’t the familiar sound of a few slow boats. It was the quiet of it all. It was the distinct sound of a Geneva lakefront porch. The steady but louder pitch of the cicadas, a sound I know well but one that I don’t hear at my prairie house. The quiet hush of leaves flittering in a late night lake breeze. Next time you think a summer night is a summer night, spend one in a screened porch next to Geneva Lake. You’ll soon be like me, well aware of the privilege of a summer night anywhere, but equally aware that there is one place where that night is better. At the lake.
The thing about summer in Wisconsin is that as summer we know it starts on Memorial Day weekend. That’s when we’re first ready to light our grills, gas our boats, and indulge in this thing we call summer. Except that Memorial Day weekend is rarely summer, it’s more like spring with swim shorts, and so we typically wait some amount of time for real summer to begin. Then once real summer begins we swim and we boat and we do the summery things. But this is June and that is July. If we’re waiting for summer to look, feel, and taste like summer, then we have no choice but to wait until August. We’ve waited, and it’s August. It’s time to eat.
Sure, we could have visited farmer’s markets in June. They exist then. The Lake Geneva market, on Broad Street in front of Horticultural Hall is open and ready for business (Thursday Mornings). But what would we buy? Some local honey, that’s nice. Maybe some fish from Rushing Waters. Some relish and jam, made by someone. But the product in Wisconsin then isn’t what we want it to be. If we were in Marco Island at their farmer’s market, we’d just buy produce that came off the Sysco truck (repackaged farm stand style, of course). But we’re not in Marco Island, we’re here, and we’ve waited and now the produce of Wisconsin is ready.
The Farmer’s Market in the Lake Geneva area is a thing of relative consistency. There are several of them (Fontana in front of the Coffee Mill on Saturday mornings), but they’re basically all the same. What can you expect? Jam, honey, eggs, meat, cut flowers, bird feeders (made by Hank, or Hal, or Uncle Joe, or whomever), and other various and assorted things. You’d be wise to buy all of those things at the market, but if you’re looking to entertain for the weekend at the lake, don’t you date buy your produce from Whole Foods and bring it here. Shop here. Buy our things.
Pearce’s Farm Stand (open daily) is outside of Williams Bay, in between here and Fontana on the corner of Highway 67 opposite Inspiration Ministries. It’s large and it’s nice, and while I dislike the carnival style haunted house stuff that’ll come in the fall, the summer stand is near perfection. The sweet corn is the main draw, and while the corn has been available for several weeks, it has only now begun to taste like Wisconsin summer corn should. It’s delicious, and you can’t buy it at Whole Foods. Even if you could, why would you? If you’re here, indulge the markets. Wander around. Find some honey and some eggs. Do these things because you can’t fully enjoy a Lake Geneva summer if you don’t even know what it’s supposed to taste like.
I first saw Matthew McConaughey in line at The Cheese Box. I had seem him before, sure, at the Quik Trip, but this was the first time I really saw him. He asked for American Cheese. Strange, I thought, to ask for such a boring cheese, but still. He asked for it to be wrapped in paper, like at the butcher shop, he said. He glanced my direction after he said that, with a nod to suggest that I knew what he was talking about. I did. Except the butcher paper at Lake Geneva Country Meats is white and this cheese paper was tan. Still, it was a nice interaction and MM swaggered out to his waiting Infiniti.
But you already know this isn’t true. Because why would it be? The rumors this summer, and the last, are swirling. Where is Mathew McConaughey’s house, everyone wants to know. The answer, from what I can glean from the interwebs, is Austin. Maybe Malibu. But Lake Geneva? Well, the source of that rumor rests squarely on the shoulders of one local publication. This publication swears that MM is moving to Lake Geneva. That he’s been seen all over town. Here and there. Everywhere. Driving and walking, talking and eating. He’s been seen. It’s too late. We know he’s here.
The last MM inspired piece declared that the Realtors are lying about this. That we’ve all been sworn to secrecy. The ceremony was indeed strange, with the blood and the capes and the copper bathtub, but there was no swearing. There is no secret. The initial thought was that perhaps, just perhaps, MM had bought a house that sold in Fontana last fall. The house at sold for $3.9MM or so in 2015, then printed for a million and a half dollars more in 2016. The deal was shrouded in secrecy. Was this the McConaughey buy?
It appears as though it wasn’t. The publication from whom the rumors swirl insists that his house is near Stone Manor, just a ways up the road. But this, according to public records, is not the case. Could he have so successfully shielded his identity that he convinced a stranger from Aurora, Illinois to take title in her name, rather than his? I suppose that could be. But then, if the secret was so closely guarded, would he drive around town in his Infiniti with such blatant disregard for his anonymity?
I doubt anyone really knows if McConaughey has a home here. I don’t think he does. Purportedly he’s friends with the owner of Tito’s Vodka, who does have a home here. They’re Austin buddies, or so the story goes. Perhaps his wife is from Brazil, Illinois? Perhaps none of it is true. But why did a builder tell me once that he had plans on his desk to be bid with McConaughey’s name on them? But if that’s the case, where’s the house? There are lots of new houses being built on Geneva right now. Loads of them. It’s just that I know each and every owner of these new homes and none of them are our actor friend.
So, is McConaughey a Lake Geneva guy? I don’t know. I doubt it. I have no reason to believe he is. But maybe you do. Did you see him at Popeye’s? Did you see him on the mailboat tour, with his Groucho glasses and mustache? Or maybe you just happened to be driving, minding your own business, when you saw him driving down the road, heading to Piggly Wiggly because his wife ran out of bratwurst. If you did, please do let me know because I’d really appreciate some insight on this. Personally, I don’t think he has a home in Lake Geneva. But he’d be a whole lot cooler if he did.
I admit I’m a lazy fireworks watcher. I know what happens. The fuse, the ssssssss, the explosion. I’ve watched them before. I know the weeping willow and the star ones. I know about the loud ones that flash. I’ve seen it all. It’s because of this that I find it difficult to be enthused by a new display. Isn’t the new display just the same as the old display? Aren’t the fuses the same? Now, if they could come up with new fireworks that I haven’t even thought of yet, then I’d be interested. Until then, meh.
And this makes me a bad dad, I’m well aware. Our Independence Day celebrations are typically the same. We grill something at the lake. We eat. My mom makes some flag jello, and some blueberry cheesecake with lemon glaze. It’s all quite good. But it’s heavy and I’m heavy and if it’s hot then I’m hot. After some boating, swimming, superjetting, perhaps a showing or two if I must, I’m beat. I retire early on most nights, and the 4th of July is no exception. It’s just that the fireworks, dad. We should go see the fireworks.
Should we? Need we? Aren’t these fireflies in the yard just as good but even more interesting? No fuse, no noise, no hooping and hollering. Besides, the neighbors have fireworks that they’ll light in their driveways until 1 am. Aren’t those fireworks good enough? Sometimes we go. Usually we go. To a boat or a pier or a shore path section. Sometimes we park high above the lake, on a farm field to the West of town, were we see the display underneath us. Yes, we’ll probably go. Probably.
But that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t. The fireworks this weekend are as they are every Independence Day Weekend. Fontana will launch their explosives from the beach barges just after dusk on the 4th. The Grand Geneva and Geneva National will send their wares to the sky on July 3rd, just after dark. I’m sure Delavan will have some fireworks, too, but I’m not concerned. The Lake Geneva Country Club will light their fuses sometime this weekend, but exactly when I’m not sure. I’m guessing Saturday night. Let’s just go with that.
The weather forecast for this weekend is somewhat difficult. There are lightening bolts and rain clouds in my app. But if we’ve learned anything it’s that we cannot count on bad weather just as we cannot count on good weather. Let’s be here. Let’s enjoy this place. Let’s be thankful for our freedom, and let’s celebrate it by not calling the cops on our neighbors when they’re still lighting cherry bombs at 1 am.
It wasn’t so long ago that I remember seeing a rainbow trout. It was swimming from my childhood pier to the next door pier, aloof, brilliant, without purpose or direction. It was electric, shockingly bright like a rainbow without the storm. I cut my teeth on smallmouth and largemouth bass. The former falling between bronze and sage, the latter darker, steely blue, almost. I remember great clouds of bullhead minnows, one or two adults surrounded by so many offspring. The purple of the bullhead was matched only by the purple of the carp that would cruise the shallows two by two, under the early morning sun.
That purple was dark and serious, not at all like this rainbow trout. The trout was shimmery, silver and pink, red and orange. All of the colors, that’s what it was. And it was huge and it was football shaped and my young eyes could hardly believe what they were seeing. It was mysterious, foreign, something out of my most surreal dreams. But it wasn’t a dream at all, it was swimming in this lake from one pier to the next, in the middle of summer under that high yellow sun. I’m quite certain that I will never, ever, forget my first fleeting encounter with that trout.
I have not found my way to the pier this summer as often as in the past. There are conflicting reasons for this absence, each important and meaningful but also useless and mundane. Work, that’s what it is. But it’s also the rainy pattern of the past two weeks. Summer is well underway, but with a cold front slowly meandering through the Midwest it feels less like certain summer and more like an uncertain spring. Still, the pier has called and I have only seldom listened. Perhaps the calling has passed me by in favor of my son, for his ear is always bent toward the lake, always hearing the call of the waves and the fish and the diving board.
Several weeks ago I was delivering magazines and happened upon a scene in the White River Park, in the middle of downtown Lake Geneva. A police officer had his eyes trained on the water, that lake water that rips through the locks and provides life to the White River before joining other rivers and making its way to the ocean. How I feel for that water, once born of this lake and this place, to be forced to travel through so much ugly before ending up overwhelmed in a salty sea. The police officer’s gaze caught my attention. I know better than to walk past a policeman who is investigating something.
It was a musky. Four or five, maybe six. Large dark bullets in that clear swift water. They were holding in the current, like salmon pointed upstream. These fish measured 40 inches, some better, some worse. They were beautiful. In the coming days and weeks anglers would arrive, prompted by ridiculous youtube videos, to try their hand at these few fish that had been swept through the spillway out of Geneva Lake and were now stuck in this skinny water. Lures were presented. Snags were committed. Pictures were taken. No shame appears to have been felt.
A week or two later I was on the pier with my son, casting a small fly hoping that something might bite. While pier fishing, many fishermen find their eyes trained towards bikinis on neighboring piers, but my eyes find their way to the water, under the surface, scanning for movement. Looking for fish, for bass and bluegills, for crappies and gar. Perhaps for an elusive rainbow trout, but not likely. This is when the musky showed up. Rising out of the darker depths, 40 inches, likely more, of musky pushed slowly through the distance off the edge of the pier. My son was frenzied. Excitement filled his eyes.
A few years ago, the DNR stocked Geneva Lake with a large handful of fingerling musky. The DNR undertakes such experiments often, throwing darts at a wall in hopes that something sticks. Fast forward a few years and the musky experiment has worked. The ciscoes and bluegills and perch would argue that the experiment has been a collosal failure, but the muskies disagree. The population has grown to such a degree that the fish being caught this summer are of trophy size. This summer, children will accidentally catch 44″ musky off of the piers.
This, of course, is exciting news. But it’s also delicate news. The fish are not reproducing in this lake, at least not to the knowledge of the DNR. So the experiment will yield only one real benefit: angling pleasure. Still, I have one bit of advice. Treat these fish well. Don’t keep them. Musky doesn’t taste great. Just enjoy the fight and release these monsters to the dark depths. If you see one stuck in a shallow river, just leave it alone. If you see one swimming slowly off the end of your pier, tease it with a lure, but don’t snag it. It’ll be a memorable summer for those who are lucky enough to catch a big Geneva Lake musky, but if you’re one of the lucky ones, just take a picture and let it go.
And away. We. Go. That’s best if read in the Joker’s voice, right before he ignites a bomb that has the power to destroy one thousand Gothams. But alas, we are not igniting a bomb, though we are ready for this slow burning fuse to hurry up and give us a show. It’s Memorial Day Weekend, and with this weekend we commence the first summer of the rest of our lives. What a summer it might be. It could be. It should be, probably. The issue today is that last summer was just so nice. Last Memorial Day weekend was delightful, full summer, instantly. This summer looks to be off to a rockier start, or at least a wetter one. Still, after some driving, it’s time to live it up like it’s the weekend.
I’ve written it before, but it should be mentioned again. This weekend is not a summer weekend. No matter how badly we wish it were, it isn’t. It’s a spring weekend. It’s May, for crying out loud. If the weather waxes summer, terrific. But if it doesn’t, let’s not get all bent out of shape. I can envision the text messages now… “What a crappy weekend”. “Are you building your ark?” Etc and etc. Yes, the weather might let us down this weekend, but that’s okay. This is just a dress rehearsal for summer. It’s the last full pads practice before we take the field. This isn’t the big show, it’s just the dry run. Or wet run, depending.
What does matter this weekend is the intent of the weekend. Yes, we’ll light our grills. Yes, some will go swimming. Yes, I’ll have my Superjet in the water. But this is about remembering those who died in awful places so that we can live here, in this place, where our biggest concern is whether or not it’ll rain on our cookout. What an embarrassing bunch of people we are. My kids can’t swim in the pool this weekend, so everything is ruined! No it isn’t. We’re alive. We’re free. We’re living in this place. We aren’t just existing. We’re living.
And so this weekend here’s what you should do. Pick up my 2017 Summer Homes For City People magazine. It’s out on newsstands now, and it’s not the worst thing I’ve ever done. I don’t think it’s the best, either, but that’s just between us. At least I didn’t put the wrong date on the spine like I did last year. Please grab the magazine and bring it home with you and leave it on the doorstep of your wealthy neighbor who doesn’t understand that weekends are not for the 6000 zip codes. Please do that, I’ll be thankful and my kids will, too. Now that we’ve discussed the things you can do for me, here’s what we can do to show our respects to those who made all of this possible.
There are parades everywhere this weekend, but since you’re reading this on this site we’re going to skip all of the things happening in towns that don’t matter. There are parades on Monday in Lake Geneva, Williams Bay, and Fontana. Men will march. Women, too. Kids, sure. The Lake Geneva parade is downtown at 10 am, the Williams Bay and Fontana parades are in their respective downtowns at 10:30 am. I recognize you cannot attend each parade, but try to attend the one closest to your lake house. If you try, I’ll try. It’s so easy to get caught up in the superficial worries of this weekend. Is the lawn fertilized? Are the annuals planted? Is the mulch done? Why isn’t the irrigation watering in the far west bed?! Who cares. Some famous philosopher once said, “It’s the superfluous things for which men sweat”. Let’s stop sweating and give a salute, and then we can go back to sweating.
Here’s to a most enjoyable Lake Geneva Memorial Day Weekend. And remember, if it rains don’t be sad. It’s not really summer, anyway.
If we were in the deep south, it would be understood that there would be certain words we’d use at certain times. We’d drop the G on many words, like he’d be “fixin” to catch a “beatin”. This is hard for us yankees to understand, but this is the way it is. Why then, should it be any different for us? Why shouldn’t we have our own set of words, meant to describe our own set of things? We aren’t in the northeast where things are strange and er is pronounced uh, but we are unique. At Lake Geneva it’s less about the pronunciation and more about the chosen word.
With Memorial Day on the very near horizon, it’s a good time to take a refresher course in our preferred words. Perhaps you’re new to the lake scene altogether, which means you haven’t yet had a chance to learn these linguistic lessons the hard way, through the embarrassment of the utterance. Or maybe you’ve been here so long you’ve decided that it doesn’t really matter anymore. What matters, you say, is world peace and kindness. You’re being silly, because the words matter far more. Without further ado, the list:
There is a company here called Pier Docktors. This is a company that makes, installs, and removes piers. The name is a pun, a play on the words, which is the only reason we’ll give them a pass for using the root word “dock”. The white thing that juts out from shore in front of your house is called a pier. It’s not called a dock. There is no acceptable substitution for this. A pier is a pier and a dock is a dock, and what we have here are piers. Don’t call them docks. It’s embarrassing to the pier, and to you. There are a couple of piers on the lake that aren’t white. Those piers are not the piers you should emulate if you own your own. Piers are to be white, end of story. Docks can be brown, but we don’t even have those here.
If you’ve worked hard and sacrificed and you’ve made your way to the lakefront, your front lawn is the lakeside lawn. When your friends are coming over to hang out, you tell them you’ll be in the front yard, or front lawn. This is the lake lawn, not the street side lawn. I’m amazed at how many people- seemingly intelligent, good natured, people- get his wrong. Your backyard is the street yard. Your front yard is the lakeside yard. Please don’t confuse the two.
Did you catch a bass off your pier? Really? Was it a largemouth or a smallmouth? If you say, neither, then you didn’t catch a bass. There are only two types of acceptable bass in Geneva Lake. The largemouth and the smallmouth. If you caught a rock bass, then you caught a rock bass. Don’t call it a bass. It’s only a bass of sorts, in the way that a Redfish is really just a freshwater drum which is really just a carp. Don’t church up a rock bass by calling it a bass. It’s a rock bass, nothing more, nothing less.
The little white plastic or wood or foam thing that floats out in front of your house beyond your pier isn’t called a can. It isn’t called a mooring ball. It isn’t called anything except what it is: A buoy. I’ve heard all sorts of other abuses, but this white bobber that you tether a boat to is called buoy. It’s a buoy now and it’s a buoy later. It’ll always be a buoy. Please don’t call it by any other name, and if you have one, don’t you dare tie a pontoon boat to it.
The Shore Path has received much attention this spring, mostly due to the absurd Muck Suck race that was supposed to be held this coming weekend. In the end, cooler heads prevailed and the race was canceled as a result of a significant push back from the lakefront owners. The shore path, as it is, is a lake path, but it should never be called that. Your great Aunt’s name is Edna, but you don’t call her Edna, you call her Auntie Edna. Show a little respect and call the lake path what it is: The Shore Path.
If you invite me over to your house this summer and you send me a text like this, “David, stop on over. I’ll be in the backyard on the lake path trimming some weeds that have grown too close to the dock”, just know that I won’t be coming over.
The Shore Path. It is perhaps the most unique aspect of this Lake Geneva scene. While water flows from one end to the other, from a shore over here to a shore over there, the thing that truly connects this lake is this path. The original iteration of this path is easy to imagine. It was a foot path for the indians who inhabited this land, a worn single track used by these residents and the deer to get from one location to another. Later the path became a means for estate staff and grounds workers to move from one estate to another. The path endured and was protected via a deed restriction that still today runs through every lakefront property on Geneva Lake. The shore path is immensely valuable to this lake, to these owners, to this thing we call Lake Geneva.
The shore path, no matter if it is a recored as a public right, is best viewed as a privilege. The constitution does not protect the shore path. It is simply a privilege, bestowed onto the public by a benevolent group of owners who, 130 years ago, could not have foreseen the path becoming the tourist attraction that it is today. Take away the boats, the fancy piers, the ornate lawns and strip this lake down to its very natural, undisturbed state and the only thing that would remain is that single path. Though there are signs occasionally to remind the path strollers that this path is on private property and should be treated with respect, the path is often the subject of much abuse.
Path walkers are to do one simple thing when they walk the path around Geneva Lake: Stay on the path. This concept is not difficult to understand. The path does not give a walker the right to comb the private beach in front of the path for sea glass or shells. The path does not give the walker the right to snip a flower or two along the way. The path is not intended to encourage loitering. There should be no resting, no matter how weary the walker, on the lawns of those great lakefront properties. The path is for walking and walking only. Leash your dogs or leave them at home.
With that understood, imagine my surprise to hear that the City of Lake Geneva has voted to allow a running race to take place along this venerable path. I have significant issues with the city itself, with the government run by those that seemingly fail to understand why the city is popular. The city exists solely because of the lakefront home owner, as without that high tax paying vacation home owner, there would be no means to carry out whatever it is the city is intent on carrying out. I was in the room yesterday while a local resident argued with a city employee over a parking ticket. The city employee was refuting every argument this resident made as to why he shouldn’t have been given a $20 parking ticket. The city worker staunchly rebuffed the residents claims as though her very life depended on it. This is the city that has forgotten what made it popular in the first place.
The city voted to allow this race, to be run by as many as 150 racers, to occur over Memorial Day Weekend. This old single track around Geneva Lake is ill-suited to host a race of any variety, and the group who should have been defending this historical footpath instead voted to exploit it. For shame, city aldermen, for shame. And shame on Clearwater Outdoor for having any part in this race (according to the Muck-Suck website). As an owner here or an interested party in this lake, you should be motivated to keep the serenity of it all intact. There are few vestiges of history here that can rival that path, and the path should be protected at any cost. The city has approved the race for this year, likely out of the primary governmental motivator greed, but there is time to stop this race from ever occurring again.
Reach out to the City of Lake Geneva and tell them to knock it off. The footpath is meant for leisurely strolls, not organized races. Keep the races to the streets and protect the path. The mayor and city aldermen are listed below. According to what I’ve read, the only alderman who voted against this exploitation was John Halverson. Well done, John.
Shore Path Photo Courtesy Jeff Robichaud
When an acorn falls in the forest a squirrel eats it. The squirrels wait for the acorns, then the acorns drop from the trees, and then the squirrels eat the acorns. It’s really not so difficult. Some of the acorns are washed away in fast fall rains, buried under piles of leaves and silt, hidden away from the gluttonous squirrels. The next spring that acorn shell will crack, and a tiny oak tree will emerge. Over some time, the oak tree will grow tall and thick and we’ll look at it proudly and say, “now that’s a tree”.
In the same way a farmer will soon sow his Wisconsin field. He’ll till the soil and fertilize the soil and my wife will stand on the side of the field and picket his seed provider. He’ll plant corn seeds and after a germination period of a week or so, the baby corn plant will emerge. It’ll grow and it’ll tassel and by early August the corn stalk will have healthy, golden ears of corn. The farmer will wait for the drying of September and the hardening of October and then, or in the month that follows, he’ll harvest.
The farmer doesn’t have days to harvest his field. He has weeks. Sometimes, he’ll leave his field up over the winter, if the cash prices are too low and the granaries are too full, he’ll opt for the cheap storage of an upright field. The corn is already dry, not willing to rot, and the deer can only eat so much of it. The farmer, though he moves in November with urgency, has plenty of time to harvest his corn.
If the acorn is allowed to grow and the oak tree emerges, this is generally accepted as a good thing. Who doesn’t like a sturdy oak tree? It makes for a good leanin’ tree and an outstretched branch of enough heft will make for a wonderful tire swing support. There’s nothing immediate about an oak tree. No window that opens and closest abruptly. And there’s nothing immediate about a corn stalk, about the way it grows and the way it greens and then turns to gold and offers its seeds to anyone.
These things are not true with the mysterious morel. The mushroom sprouts from the earth, pushes, really, emerges, sort of. It grows and then it’s there and the next day it isn’t. Was it picked by a fellow trespasser? A woman with a wagon is pretending to pick up garbage on the side of this road, but is she really harboring a vast bounty of stolen fungus? Or was it kicked off accidentally by a bounding deer. Or pecked at, momentarily, by a strutting turkey. Where did that mushroom go?
No one really knows. It’s here now and it’s gone tomorrow. Maybe it lasts a week. But the wind blows and the tips dry and the bugs eat and the rain swamps. There’s no reasoning to this madness. It’s mushroom madness, really. Which is followed closely by Morel Blindness; a condition that strikes at the most inopportune of times. The season is upon us, and unlike the lazy corn or the sturdy oak, this isn’t a game for the passive. It’s a game for those who have work to do but would rather find their way to the dead trees and the sunny southern slopes. It’s mushroom time, ready or not.
Resort towns in the Midwest tend to follow the same pattern. A downtown, some shops. The outskirts of the downtown, some big box stores. In the downtown you’ll find some stores that sell sunglasses, some that sell ice cream. Some that sell t-shirts. Some of those t-shirts are geography specific, like “I drove all the way to Michigan and all I got was this crappy t-shirt”. That’s one of my favorites. Some of the shirts are specific to nothing, except to whiling away time. A clock with a beer on it and the minute hand pointing to the 6. That’s a staple of resort town wares. There will be some restaurants, some good others bad. Mostly bad. These are the strings that tie a Midwest resort town together.
At Lake Geneva, we have those same strings. We have some t-shirt shops, obnoxious each one. We have some places to buy fudge. We have ice cream shops. How Coldstone Creamery survives in the downtown high rent atmosphere I’ll never understand. Two ice cream concoctions for your two toddlers? That’ll be $14.55. We have restaurants to buy bad food, and some to buy good food. We have old bars, we have some new bars. We have old hotels and new hotels. We have all the trappings of your typical, boring Midwest resort town.
But these are the things we have in common with other towns, the things that exist in each town because some town somewhere decided to try it all first. Increasingly, small resort towns are getting better, they’re getting more interesting stores, more interesting t-shirt designs, better restaurants and better food. For all those food improvements, our local coffee scene is sorely lacking. Fontana has the Coffee Mill, which is nice. Williams Bay has Boxed and Burlap, also nice. But Lake Geneva has a coffee scene that’s been on the decline. Boatyard Bagels brought Intelligentsia to our cups, and it was nice while it lasted. Boatyard has since closed, not due to a failed business idea or lack of market interest, but because the building they leased ended up selling to someone who had a different goal for the space. I miss that space.
Across the street, Caribou Coffee sold to Peet’s Coffee and then Peet’s caved to the heavy burden of downtown Lake Geneva rent. I liked that shop not for their coffee, but for the marble. So much marble. It was good for town and I’m sad that today the landlords of that building are still advertising the space, and the adjacent space as FOR RENT. The rent’s too damn high, but that’s none of my business. Across town we have Starbucks, which remains an anchor. There’s another Starbucks in the Target, but that’s not a place you’d go because of the Starbucks, you’d just stop there if you’re buying whatever it is people go to Target to buy (disclaimer: I hate Target, for no particular reason. It reminds me of Prange Way, so maybe that’s why). There’s a rumored new Starbucks coming to the empty lot to the North and West of the Lake Geneva Walmart, so that’ll make three Starbucks within a mile radius.
Across from Starbucks is Geneva Java, which sounds like it might be okay but I’ve never been in there. Down the road you can go to Simple for breakfast, but you better only feel like drip-coffee, because that’s all they serve. The bakery next door surely has an espresso machine and a capable barista, right? Don’t be silly. You can get drip coffee there, too, and you better like it. A morning danish is wonderful, but if I can’t wash it down with an Americano, is it worth the effort? Simple is the best breakfast in town, and the bakery is the best bakery in town, but would it kill them to invest a few grand in an espresso machine? Apparently.
Perhaps their lack of espresso-ness left an opening in town, considering Boatyard is gone and so is Peet’s, and the Starbucks triangle is farther East. With the newly renovated, super art-deco Geneva Theater now open, the traffic on the West side of Broad Street should be picking up, which should breathe life into the space that has been so many different things over recent years. Good Vibes was some sort of musical, or perhaps a restaurant, I’m not certain. The Creperie resided in this spot for a bit, but I can’t say I ever saw the CLOSED sign flipped to OPEN. Now this space, the space right to the south of the theater, is home to yet another business. I went there yesterday to see what it was all about.
Avant Cycles was previously located in Delavan, behind the giant elephant and next to the karate shop. I never went there. Now Avant Bicycle and Cafe has made the move to Lake Geneva, and they’ve opened in that recently renovated, nicely appointed space at 234 Broad Street. The store has a coffee shop in the front and a bike shop in the back, a combination sure to thrill bearded hipsters and bag clutching tourists alike. My mountain biking career was short lived when I discovered how much I hate mountain biking, but my love of coffee persists. The space here is comfortable, stylish, and I think it’s a tremendous thing for town. It brought something interesting to a revolving door location, and if we’re to make Avant last in this spot we’ll need to buy some coffee from them. And maybe a few bikes, too.
And that’s the thing about Lake Geneva. It has the cheesy trappings of every resort town, but it’s continually improving and that’s all I ask of it.
I haven’t cared about golf for a long time. To be honest, I never particularly cared about golf. I was on the golf team in high school, which, at first blush, might sound like I was a reasonably good golfer then. The truth is the Faith Christian School golf team didn’t have any barrier to admission. If you owned a set of clubs, or felt like using a set borrowed from one of the teachers who liked to golf for free and was, as a result, labeled the golf coach; then you were on the team. At the start of one match, I teed off on the 10th hole of George Williams and ripped the drive straight down the middle. My opponent acknowledged my immense skill, to which I replied in a golfing sort of way, “that’ll probably be the only good one I hit all day”. It was.
Into my twenties I played some golf. At one point in time, I counted myself as a good enough player. The summer I twice shot 80 was the summer I hurt my back, and just like that, my golf career was over. I still play from time to time, and I still think I might have a shot at being decent if I were to practice, but interests have pulled me in different directions now. Those different directions didn’t stop me from flipping to the last few holes of yesterday’s Masters finish, and what a finish it was. I felt genuinely pleased for Sergio. I felt somewhat strange watching the announcers handle him as though he was a washed up old veteran who had finally broken his personal curse. I felt that way because at his old age he’s younger than me.
And that finish got me to thinking about golf again, about the courses and the options and the Lake Geneva golfing scene. There are plenty of reviews of local courses available. I’m sure you can read all about slopes and handicaps and the like, but this isn’t like that. This is the abridged version of local golf as seen through these two eyes, and as experienced by this one-time-marginally-proficient-golfer.
In my mind, the king of the local golf courses is Geneva National. It doesn’t matter which of the three courses it is; this is the best golf in the area. The Player course is the most scenic and involves the fewest number of houses. Trevino is the easiest of the three. I once teed off on a Trevino par three. There was a group just leaving the green who had stopped to watch my shot. There was another group behind my group, watching. The pressure was on. I gripped the eight iron and swung. Clean. Beautiful. High. It looked good, like it might go in. When the ball landed on the green and rolled towards the hole the green-side group through up their arms and hollered in celebration. A hole in one! At least it seemed like that was the case, until I walked up and the ball was three or four feet from the hole. The green-side group must have been more easily triggered to celebrate than most. The Palmer course is nice, but I despise the finishing few holes. Geneva National is the king. If you want high quality golf, play here.
The Grand Geneva would beg to differ with that prior opinion, as their Brute and Highlands courses are indeed very, very nice. But the Brute from the tips is just awful, a terribly difficult endeavor suited for truly great players. The Highlands has some spongey, swampy holes that I don’t like. I played the Grand Geneva often when I had a good friend who was the tennis pro there. We’d play and he’d beat me and I’d realize how much I hate the game of golf. The Grand Geneva is worth playing, and you may like it, but I don’t.
Abbey Springs is a curious little course. I don’t think it gets the respect that it deserves. Yes, it’s short. Yes, the driving range is short. Yes, there are condominiums and houses throughout the course. But it is a beautiful track, capable of flustering the best golfer. There are views of Geneva Lake, wonderfully manicured fairways and greens, and if you own a lake house in the Bay or Fontana, it’s right next door. I dislike the layout of a few holes, but when you’re tucking a golf course into a residential development, creativity can suffer. Still, play Abbey Springs and be happy you did.
In Delavan, you’ll find Delbrook Golf Course. I’ve never played there. But I drive by it sometimes and I think about how some golfer apparently killed a turtle with his club and I cringe. What a terrible thing to do to a turtle. I’ll never play Delbrook, but I’m sure it’s just fine. Evergreen Golf Course in Elkhorn is where we played some high school matches. It has some ponds with bass in them. I’ve fished for the bass before, but I don’t remember the course. It’s green and there are some flags. It’s fine, probably.
Hawk’s View still feels like a new course to me, though it’s been here for nearly two decades. In the 1960s, this was Mount Fuji, a ski hill that really was just a hill. Now the beautiful grounds host an 18 hole par 72 course and an 18 hole par 3 course. The par 3 course is ranked as one of the top ten in America, according to someone. Hawk’s view is well maintained, close to Lake Geneva, and it’s more affordable than the larger courses in the area. A Saturday round in July will run you $85, while the same round will go for $115 at Geneva National. The Par 3 at Hawk’s View is very nice, and comes highly recommended if you’re playing with a kid, or you’re just crunched for time. I haven’t played that course in a few years, but I just talked myself into it.
Obviously we have private courses in the area- The Lake Geneva Country Club, Big Foot Country Club, and Lakewood. But these aren’t the topic for today. I’ve played all three courses, and they each offer something unique, but today isn’t about the country club set. It’s about people like me, people like you, people that like to golf but haven’t made it their obsession. This summer, play a bit of golf. If you’re at all like me, it’ll remind you of the reasons you no longer play.
By now, we all know that things haven’t been going our way. We started out with that winter, so intent on enjoying it and skiing it and sledding it, scraping and shoveling it, too. But what happened wasn’t anything like that. We skied, a bit. Shoveled, a bit. Scraped, some. But the winter had come and the winter has left and nothing really happened. It was a winter without. We knew what would come next, and we waited and we waited and in February it came. Bright spring. Sunny spring. Warm and soft, spring.
That was a few days, maybe four, and it was February and no one thought it was really spring. Winter returned, but it was easy winter, annoying winter, just enough winter to ward off spring. That winter relapse was quickly forgotten and there have been days of spring, days of warm, soft sun, and days of wicked wind, biting cold. Then the rains came, so many rains with so much water, sheets and sheets and buckets and buckets. No one thought it could last, but it did, and it washed our streets and soaked our lawns and filled our lakes. The season isn’t so much spring, it’s just a rainy winter.
There are barns between my house and this desk. Many barns. Most are clad in metal, some form of sheet paneling either vertical or horizontal, typically in fleshy tones of white, gray, or brown. In the winter landscape, these barns blend in, offering no excitement, no allure, just utilitarian usefullness. But there is one barn painted the brightest of reds, and in the winter it is a beacon on my drive, a visual reminder that color exists even in the dullest of dark winters. In the spring, too, when the ground is gray and what isn’t is brown, and the tans of the cut corn stalks and the dull olive of the roadside grass means everything is quiet and stark, that barn shines bright and vivid, a reminder of color in an otherwise colorless world.
But these rains and this sky and this gray and this brown, it’s not all bad. My eyes can rest under this sky. There’s no strain here, no squint to see beyond the glow, because there is no glow. It’s just March in Wisconsin and things are easy on the eyes. The north side of Geneva Street is greening this morning. The grass is greening and the bulbs are shooting and the crocus is blooming. The dull wrens of winter are being crowded out by the orange breasted robins of spring, and soon, the elusive Orioles will coast in on a southerly breeze in search of our fresh cut oranges and our purple grape jelly. The piers are falling into place, now dulled and chipped by the winter but soon scraped and painted and bright again. The water is warming, slowly, but it’s warming and it’s still blue, even in the face of so much gray it is still blue. The grass is greening and the flowers are awakening and the sky is brightening and soon it’ll be the spring we’ve seen in our minds all winter. Prepare your eyes, the color is coming.
Photo courtesy Kirsten Westlake
In the stillness of an anywhere field, there’s a stream that babbles and weaves and spills. The stream is loud. There are birds both quiet and noisy, some fiddling about to themselves and others calling in friends, mates, or warning others to steer well clear. A deer in the distance makes no sound, slowly chewing the most tender blades of fresh spring grass. Two rabbits hop as rabbits do, barely crunching the dried winter leaves they bound over. There’s a soft quiet hum to this distant field, a peaceful way in which every noisemaker plays their part in this unintentional orchestra. The sounds of this field on this day are the sounds that anyone can hear in the background of whatever their noisy present might be.
The lake on that July Sunday is so blue. The waves are pushed by so much wind, starting in the southwest and blowing to the northeast, breaking all the way. These winds are steady, eight or nine knots, the sailors would guess. The steady crash of the waves against the shore provide the unexpected percussion. The trees sway, so many maples and oaks and walnuts rocking back and forth. The white noise of the day, some others would say. Something you can hear but easily ignore. There’s a quiet bass of a distant Streblow, or is it a Shepard? Children splashing at the pier two doors down, the soft squeals of city children as they find confidence in jumping off the outer horse post. Fishermen ply the waters, flipping their silly jigs towards the piers and under the buoy tied boats. Those boats, they click and they clack when their buoy chain bumps the clasp of their bow. A couple walk the shore path, no words are spoken. The day wears on, the boats change, the shore path leads the way, and the wind slowly falls as the sun dips low.
Is one of these two scenes more peaceful than the other? Is the sound of a stream in a wildflower field any more serene than a steady parade of waves marching from one end of this big lake to the other? Does a breeze blown tree in a lakefront lawn make for a different background than a breeze blown tree in the middle of the darkest, loneliest woods? Is a stream-side lunch any different than a lakeside lunch, eaten over wicker table in the cool porch shade? Is there any difference in quality between peaceful solitude and peaceful company? Is the sound of a distant car making its way down a gravel road somehow preferable to the sound of a Cobalt heading West towards the setting sun?
I love Lake Geneva, but good luck finding any peace and quiet. I love Lake Geneva, but there’s no solitude. I love Lake Geneva, but there’s no place to just rest. These are the comments of those who visit our lake but have not yet found the time to understand our lake. The magic of this place is not in its tourist-centric downtown, nor in the way boats can clog the outer ring of the lake on any given weekend. No, the magic of this place is in its ability to make a lakeside porch, pier, or patio, complete with the background noise of lapping waves, rumbling boats, and children splashing in the shallows, one of the most peaceful places to read a book. To nap. To eat a summer lunch. To be still. There’s no trick to making a place void of people peaceful. Even Michigan can do that. The real trick is making a place so full of company a place where solitude is simple to find. Where rest comes easily. Where peace comes not with complete silence, but with the lovely hum of an unmistakable summer soundtrack.
During times of relative boom, mistakes are made. Mistakes are made during times of relative bust as well, but those mistakes can be more easily forgiven because of the toxic guidance from fear and panic. During the good times, which we are certainly experiencing of late, mistakes are made not out of fear, but out of confidence.
Today, we have a number of factors causing increased construction, both of the renovating and of the new build variety. We have extremely limited inventory on the lake and in our lake access markets, and that alone is enough of a condition to cause a building boom. If you own a $500k house with a slip and you like your slip and you like your location, you still might be tempted to find a $1MM house that offers you something that you don’t currently have. But with the $1MM house not available, and you content in your location and amenity package, you could easily decide to tear down your existing house (in this pricing scenario that’s a terrible idea, by the way) and build a new house for $500k. You like your association enough to stay, so you build a new house.
On the lakefront, the same principle applies. Limited inventory means your dream home is likely unavailable. In this case, you should be wise and set out to find the best land you can afford and demolish whatever terrible house is currently squatting where your dream home would be built. This has happened at an alarming rate over the recent market cycle, and today there are no fewer than 15 new lakefront builds either underway or about to commence. The construction business is booming, and the combination of low interest rates, low inventory, and the wealth effect stemming from the stock market indices has created the perfect storm.
With this in mind, there are mistakes being made, and if you ask my wife, I’m nothing if not a capable mistake-pointer-outer-guy. First mistake being made: An abundance of new construction in locations that simply do not warrant the investment. This is the case often with off-water homes being built in associations that lack boatslips. If I’m in Knollwood, in the back, not near the water, should I buy a cottage for $300k and tear it down? If I do this, I build new for $450k, and I’m $750k into an association home with no view, no slip, and no chance at recovering my investment. This is a mistake. Owners make this mistake because they tell themselves it doesn’t matter, that they’ll never sell. Then I’m in the position of playing bad guy when I tell them their $750k house is worth $550k. Don’t make me be the bad guy. Be smart.
The next mistake is made by failing to build to the standard of your market. If you’re off water and you have a slip, let’s say you tear down a $450k home and build a new home for $500k. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this math, but let’s say you’re stubborn. You’re cost conscious as well, so you build your new home for $450k. In meeting that number, you skip on the nice appliances ($10,000 saved), install terrible direct-vent gas fireplaces, the ones with those glass fronts that fog over time ($10,000 saved), you opt for cheap Schlage hardware ($1000 saved), and you dumb down your trim package ($15,000 saved). You’re shrewd, so you just saved $36k on your new build. Look at you!
But what you’ve actually done is cut your own nose off. The house you’re building is already too expensive for the neighborhood, but instead of making it so nice that a buyer might be tempted to make a similar mistake and buy your overpriced house, you’ve dumbed it down to the point where it is now just a new cheap house that’s way too expensive. The same theory applies to the lakefront, and it’s always that lost bit of cost savings that blows the whole idea. You buy an entry level lot for $1.2MM, and you’re not an entry level sort of owner, so you tear the cottage down. You build new, knowing that you need to stay reasonably priced if you’re ever going to recoup your investment. So you build a brand new house for $600k. You cut the things I mentioned above, and you build a house that’s ugly, because architectural style would have cost you $20k in architectural fees and another $30k in framing intricacies. You saved $100k, and delivered an ugly, boring, middle of the road house. When you call me to list it someday, I’m going to pretend to like it but I’m actually going to hate it. Schlage, in your lakefront house? Really?
Beware these simple concepts. Don’t build new if your basis is too high to warrant the project, and if you do, build it right so you might convince a buyer that your house is worthy of a premium. I guess I really wrote this because I don’t want to see any more of those direct vent gas fireplaces. Let’s stop doing that.
I try my best to avoid involving myself with the municipal governments in this area. I care deeply about what happens here, about the future, about the way the whole thing seems to be turning out. That’s why I fight development, because it’s unnecessary and it’s evil and I wish Chicago developers would worry more about Chicago developments than rural ones. I shy away from fighting with the municipalities over things I feel are wrong, because the fight here is skewed and largely unfair. That’s because the tax base is large, owing that entirely to the vacation home set and their weekend homes, and yet the voting and decisions are carried out solely by those who live here full time. The residents vote to spend the tax money of their neighbors who don’t have a say in the matter. That irritates me, and so I generally let sleeping, bloated, tax ladened dogs lie.
But sometimes it’s all too much, and I need to say a few words about the local happenings. And so here it goes. First up, more rumors and innuendo and hushed threats over the Geneva Inn. This is the old hotel on the southeast corner of the lake that used to be known as the Shore Club. This restaurant/hotel is in Linn Township, but the city of Lake Geneva covets it, and the development groups who eye it routinely wish to annex it to the city of Lake Geneva so that they can obtain city water and sewer. There’s much to discuss here, but there’s only one thing that matters. Development in this corner of the lake would be bad for the area. We do not need more development here, no matter what shape it takes, and we certainly don’t need some circus on that end of the lake. If you care about the lake and you like things the way they are, email the City of Lake Geneva and tell them to deny any annexation requests or development requests for the Geneva Inn.
Speaking of the city, there’s a new restaurant being built next to Popeye’s. Oak Fire Pizza, it might be two words not three, bought their building a few years ago. They renovated the building. They opened and they served me pizza that was decent, but soggy in the middle. Then they tore the building down and now they’re erecting a new building, to serve pizza. It’s a big gamble, a huge expense, but this is a good thing for the area. I don’t like development, this is obvious, but re-development of existing things should be encouraged, always. Lake Geneva is at a bit of an intersection these days. On one hand, rents are too high and certain marquee locations are sitting empty, an obvious sign of landlord/tennant disputes over reasonable rental rates. On the other hand, renovation and expansion is occurring, which cannot be anything but good so long as that expansion is simply replacing the tattered with the shiny, and not inventing new locations to cram the shiny.
Williams Bay likes money. They like it a lot. That’s why they several years ago approved an auto repair shop to be built on their main drag, just a few hundred feet from the lake. Any reasonable town with a reasonable eye towards the future would have denied this request, but Williams Bay is eager to play with the big boys like Fontana and Williams Bay and so they approve things that shouldn’t be approved. Like when the Williams Bay School Board pulled a fast one on the town and was allowed to collect tax dollars to fund the demolition of the old school building but then decided, instead, to sell the school building and pocket the dedicated funds. Williams Bay now wants to build a fire house. A new, shiny fire house. The fire house will cost a couple million because why not? We need a new fire house because the old one is too small for $500k fire trucks, and there aren’t even sleeping rooms in the old fire house. I can’t figure out why a volunteer fire department who battles fires on such an infrequent basis would need to sleep at their fire house. Baby, don’t treat me bad, indeed. Tell the Village of Williams Bay to knock it off, fire houses are for cities, silly. On the heels of building a $20MM grade school, it takes a significant amount of gall to expect tax payers to fund a new firehouse of such royal proportions.
Speaking of easy tax dollars, a massive TIF grant was awarded to the new owner of the Geneva Theatre. Geneva 4, it’s called. I watched Hot Shots there from the front row, my neck crooked skyward, because it was 1991 and we rode our bikes there and we were late. The theatre has been in disrepair for ages, and so a new buyer surfaced last year and the city handed out bushels of tax dollars to aid in the renovations. The theatre now looks interesting, art deco ish, but interesting. It was supposed to open on March 1st, but it didn’t. It’s supposed to open today, but who knows if it will. I asked the theatre manager for a tour of the property this week but was ignored, so perhaps they don’t want me to write nice things about their efforts. I can’t tell you if they’re opening or not, but judging by the number of construction trucks outside the theatre yesterday it appears as though they’re giving max effort. The theatre will be open by summer, that we can be sure of, and it would be nice of you to visit it. I’m happy something was done here, and I’m happy the theatre remains a theatre and not a handful of t-shirt shops.
The biggest threat to the Lake Geneva market is not from outside forces. It’s not from greedy developers. The biggest threat is from within. It’s from the boards that run these small towns, the board members who so badly wish to matter. They want to make a splash, for the children they say, for the future. For this and for that, but the efforts are almost always guided by cliche and misunderstood standards that are rarely, if ever, challenged. Development does not make a community better. Fire houses with sleeping quarters are not necessary. Hotels should be hotels, not water parks with carnivals surrounding them. The county and municipalities need to protect this lake, to protect the interests of those who make their living here at the same time as they protect those who fund all of this with their generous tax dollars. The best path forward is always one of caution, and when markets get hot caution is the narrowest of paths.
There’s a thing about March. It is, without any question, the worst month of the year. If you disagree, that’s fine, but I know deep down inside that I’m right. This is the key to winning arguments. It’ll probably snow in March. It might snow today. It’ll probably be 65 in March, maybe 70. There is no ice left, that’s true of this March but not a typical March. What’s typical? March doesn’t know. March has no idea what it is, just that it came in like a lion and so it must go out like a lamb. March has no choice but to be the in between. Not winter, not spring, just something. A month, a space filler, a void. Ugliness, it will be at home here in March.
February, that’s winter all the way. Except this last February, where it was only a bit of winter but really none at all. It was spring. February showers bring May flowers, because in March, what could grow? February showers do nothing but wash some of the grit from the road and leave us wondering if we should rake out the fall leaves that accumulated behind our summer bushes, or if we should just put the rake away and prepare the shovel. It must snow again, right? It has to. It will. March, that’s when it’ll snow.
But this is the commentary of the weather obsessed, a troop I once belonged to, a long, long time ago. I broke free from those chains, from the chains that held my poor grandmother hostage for so long, in fact, right up to the moment of her death. I no longer live and die on weather, and when I see others proclaiming their misery simply based on the color of the sky I have to wonder why they, too, haven’t yet sought the salvation that comes from skyward ambivalence. I won’t care today that it’s gray and raining, and so I won’t care that March will be lots of that, with a bit of snow, or a lot of snow, who could say?
See, I don’t care about the weather anymore, not one bit. And it has led me to a place where things are much better. Wintery weather is just a reason to own skis. Rain is just a reason to own a house with a sturdy roof. And the summer sun is just a reason I must visit the dermatologist with increasing frequency. See, completely and entirely unconcerned about the weather. That’s why I can look to March not as an ugly month of the in-between, but rather as a month to prepare. March isn’t spring, but the month sounds like spring, and when spring comes then summer follows. This is how it all works. March is for preparing.
And what better time to prepare than when the skies are gray and the temperatures not cold enough to snow sport and not warm enough to do anything productive under the sun? There is no better time to prepare, and that’s why those who own lake houses shouldn’t sit around and wait for March to be over. They shouldn’t rest, contented in knowing that summer is still months away. I’m continually amazed by the lack of March motivation amongst the lake set. May, now that’s when they feel the burden of preparedness. But in March they don’t care. Must I remind you that last May we had summer that began as early as the 20th of that month? How on earth can you enjoy instant and immediate summer if you spent March in the malls and on your couch?
If you’re a lake home owner, March is for getting ready. March is for buying a new grill because we all know your old grill is terrible. And why are you buying a Weber when we all know you can do better? March is for cleaning the gear room, where the life vests and the fishing poles and the paddle boards were hastily crammed last October. March is for doing the things that will make May so much better. But what about for those who don’t yet own lake homes? What about those who sit in the city or lounge in the suburbs, wondering what week long road trip they might take to pretend they enjoyed their summer? Well, March is a forgiving month for those people. March is a month for shopping. March is a month for buying. Yes, you should have been thinking about this last October, but you didn’t, because the Cubs were on their way to the World Series and you are forgiven for being obsessed. But now, this March, you’re running out of time but you still have plenty.
March is for getting ready. March is for looking. March is for contract writing, and then April is for closing. Then May is for preparing and June is for enjoying your weekends in an entirely different way. If you haven’t even begun your search, that’s fine. Let’s get together this month. Let’s drive around and find something perfect. Let’s do this now because it’s March and there’s really nothing else to do.
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.