I spent $31 on ice cream yesterday. Before you accuse me of excess, consider that there is little else to do here in New Buffalo if ice cream eating is not pursued. The town fosters ice cream habits, and much as Door County is home to bike-riding Brewer’s fans it seems Harbor Country is home to ice cream loving antique hunters. I have discovered and momentarily embraced this ice cream/antique trend, and it is now obvious to me and disconcerting. An entire geographic region devoted to ice cream, and nearly all of it lacking the quality of a simple Culver’s custard. Sad, really. A day spent swatting biting flies and guzzling ice cream, but when in Rome.
I could go on and on and bore you to tears with the minor differences that accumulated in my mind to create an opinion of this place. I could tell you about the towns and the roads and the houses, and how all of these things differ so much more than you might initially realize. I could tell you these things, but the simple, stark reality is that Lake Geneva and Harbor Country are near polar opposites. There is little shared between these two regions, and the way vacationers spend their days at each are varied and surprisingly dissimilar. Things that seem to be accepted in Harbor Country as artistic and laid back would be addressed by Lake Geneva as being unkempt and broken down. The screen door to the beach house in New Buffalo has nearly rusted off its hinges, and has been beaten by the winds to such a degree that it has released nearly all of its paint. The screen is dented and ripped, the handle twisted and dangling. The door no longer fits to the jam as it should, instead it rests in a crooked tilt, neither fully closed or opened. Perhaps to this area and its patrons this door is quaint. But when I view it through my Lake Geneva honed eyes it just looks like a broken door that needs to be replaced. Differences of perspective, indeed.
Throughout the varied differences that I feel (know) places Lake Geneva on a pedestal, the single greatest difference is in the seasonal nature of New Buffalo. While on my ice cream/antique binge yesterday, I made it a point to ask shop owners or workers if their store was open in the winter. I asked a dozen or so stores, and nearly every one said that they close in either October or November. They answered that their business is entirely seasonal, and judging by the lack of people walking the streets and the 40 or so people on the beach yesterday, this season has not yet even begun. New Buffalo, in this way, is much more like Door County than Lake Geneva, and I cannot see how the seasonal availability of activities and stores and restaurants is tolerated by those vacation home owners that spend dollars here that look to be on par with the real estate costs of Lake Geneva. The markets are similar, but only one can be effectively used year around.
I argued with one store owner, for a moment at least, when she asked where we were from and my wife told her. I hadn’t rehearsed this, but we were supposed to be from Chicago. When my Lake Geneva-ness was unveiled, I had to dig a bit deeper into what this woman thought was the main difference between the two destinations. She said she didn’t like Lake Geneva. Too busy she said. Not laid back. Too showy. I smoldered with anger towards this woman and her mockery, but I pressed on. She told me she was from Chicago originally, and that she hadn’t been to Lake Geneva in 30 or more years. She was, as I was before Monday, deriding a location that she knew nothing about. We stood on her gravel parking patch, with weeds all around and no other store patrons to be found. She was selling things along side a dusty highway, convinced that Lake Geneva held nothing for her. I wished her good luck, ducked into my car, and drove down the road in search of the next ice cream shop and/or antique barn.
These Harbor Country towns are not set up for standard walking, with shops tucked along roads with much space in between. When we left the hotel yesterday in search of a breakfast option, we drove in circles for more than an hour, searching for restaurants that I felt must exist, but never finding more than the one or two in New Buffalo. Signs directing us to “towns” revealed little more than residential associations with a smattering of stores. As I drove around and around, I thought how easy it would be to find a breakfast option if I were in Lake Geneva. I tried to detach myself from the familiarity, and thought how Lake Geneva would lay out if I didn’t know it. I thought if I were to take a single pass through town I would have recognized four or five breakfast options immediately, and how I wouldn’t be able to miss Daddy Maxwell’s in Williams Bay if I were wandering there. I realized I would recognize these locations by the collection of cars parked in front of them, and the small crowds would give away the location and the contents. I was searching for collections of cars here, assuming that when I found such a display there would be eggs and bacon and jam inside whatever building they were surrounding. But there never was a collection of cars. There were no crowds to point the way. Just me, my family, and my growing disbelief that this town could ever sway a vacation home buyer away from Lake Geneva.
And so today, as I pack up to drive home this morning, I will cease talking about Harbor Country. I will not hold it up as competition any longer, nor will I mock it for the obvious. I will ignore it, as the debate is officially over. There is nothing here for me in this town, a town that reminds me of Elkhorn with a dash of Minocqua and Door County stirred in. I will return to Lake Geneva in a few hours and I will never again take for granted what I see there. When I see flowering baskets overflowing with pink and white flowers hanging from the lamp posts of Lake Geneva, I will appreciate them more than I have before. When I drive into Fontana and see that finely manicured boulevard with each flower and blade of grass in its place, I will celebrate it and thank the Lord for allowing me to win this geographic lottery.