Both of my grandmothers are now dead. They’ve both been dead for a while. My Grandma May didn’t complain about much, or if she did she didn’t see fit to complain to her grandson. My Grandma Curry on the other hand, she’d complain about anything to anyone. No friend or stranger was safe. She’d complain about her diverticulitis, often. If something served for dinner looked good but she couldn’t eat it, the diverticulitis was to blame. She was feeling fine, except the diverticulitis. She had a swollen arm as a result of a long ago mastectomy, for which she wore a compression sleeve, like Allen Iverson. She would complain about her arm as she swiped at the hanging excess. Her fat arm, she’d say. Everything is fine except for this fat arm and the diverticulitis. And the clouds.
She was also pleasant, happy often, happy for several things but mostly, and most audibly, happy for the sunshine. She loved the sunshine. Her diverticulitis could be acting afoul and her fat arm could be swollen and her compression sleeve pinching, but if the sun were shining then things were just fine. Winter days as cold as they can be were never a concern if the sun was shining. Summer days, no matter how hot, no matter how humid, if sunny they were enthusiastically embraced. On the other hand, if the diverticulitis was in momentary remission and her fat arm wasn’t swollen and her compression sleeve was resting comfortably on the dresser top, and these conditions were accompanied by cloudy skies, then a “how are you, grandma?” was met with a routine and orchestrated, “well, I’m okay, I just wish the sun would come out”. You cannot fault an old woman for liking the sun.
Which means I will give my dead grandmother a pass for hanging her mood on the condition of the sky, but I will not give anyone else a pass. Sunday was a mostly gloomy day at the lake. It was gloomy in the morning and it was misting a bit in the afternoon, and later, after it cracked a tease of sun for a few moments , it was gloomy again. The sun set mostly gloomy, without show or reflection. Night fell and late into the night while we hoped the Cubs would find some conviction, it was gloomy even as our moods lifted. Yes, Sunday was like that, as were days earlier in the week, and days the week before, and this week, though it looks as though it might be sunny more than not, it’ll be gloomy at times and I, for one, love it.
I don’t love the gloom much in July, as July is for sun and for blues and for pastel clothing and deep green trees. But now, at this late date, the fields have gone from green to gold and now to brown and tan, gray and silver. Life is fading from these fields and from these trees, and while the show will go on for several more weeks, I don’t feel the need to cling to the brightness of mid summer or the intrigue of mid fall. Now I only wish for the quiet gloom of November. I recognize I’m relatively alone in this opinion.
But why should I be? Why should we be as my grandmother and live only for the sunny days? What’s so wrong about a gloomy Sunday where the fire is flickering and the curtains are drawn? What’s so difficult about the gray skies and the brown fields and the way an 8 point buck cruises through the tall, dull grass? Why must we complain so much about the transition? After all, it’s the transition that keeps us sharp. It’s the in between days filled with clouds and drizzle that harden us to the coming cold. It’s the gloom of November that makes the light of summer matter. So this week and next month, when the gloom returns, just embrace it and be thankful that your fat arm hasn’t swelled and your diverticulitis isn’t acting up.
The magazines are stacked in my den, stacked in my living room, stacked in my office. Some, still, are pushed under the back seats of my cars, those magazines that never made it from mailbox to the inside stacks. These aren’t just fly fishing magazines. Those are there, of course, the ones that I’ve written for and the ones that I haven’t, but it’s not only sporting magazines. It’s the Atlantic and the New Yorker, it’s home magazines like Dwell and Veranda. It’s any magazine that I thought I might like, because the regular price was $99 but my Preferred Saver’s Rate was just $10.99. $18.99 for two years. And so I fill out the card and the magazines come and then I stack them so that I might read them sometime. I rarely do, but at one point I did, and so now I accumulate for that time the feeling returns.
I bought a white boat with an outboard engine that was never able to shake its drinking and smoking habits. It was a fine boat, it is a fine boat, and for those first few summers I spent so much time on that boat. I would take my son out and we’d fish together, to this day his eyes never shining brighter than when his rod is bent over with a fish tugging at the other end of the line. My daughter and I would go for rides, and she’d hang from the side of the t-top and sign along to the radio, the setting sun reflecting softly off of her smiling face. What a great boat that was, and what great times those were. The boat didn’t make it out of my driveway this year, because my schedule has been too busy, my interests elsewhere. Though today I am filled with regret after thinking of how my children loved those days.
I traded the boat interest for a fly fishing interest, and spent more time wading up skinny Wisconsin creeks than captaining that center console. I fished and I fished, bragging about the catch, the size and the quantity, reliving the way a trout makes you feel when it sips a seam-riding Caddis. This is the hobby that led me to buy land, to build new, to attempt to find a place that would be solely mine. Not somewhere I have to share with work, somewhere I can live uninterrupted by the less important things. This summer, I didn’t fly fish very much. I wanted to, but I didn’t. And when I did, my heart wasn’t in it.
My interests tend to run in this pattern. The introduction is a challenge where adequacy is the only initial goal. Then, proficiency and practice, the latter begetting the former, but the pattern continuing, pacing, moving this hobby along from something new to something familiar. The problem is, once this new thing becomes familiar, I find the challenge of success less motivating, and I find that there must be something else I should try instead. I worry about this pattern in my life. I worry that the things I enjoy now will become the things I put away tomorrow.
But there is, in spite of all of these examples to the contrary, one thing that I continue to look forward to, that continues to delight. It’s a fire on an October night, with the sun lighting up the adjacent corn field and the trees beyond, the first few rolls of smoke from an oak fire. I will never get tired of that, no matter what else I move into and from. I’m careful to not light that fire too early, not on the first cool night of September, and not at the first cool night of October. The first fire is best left for a night that brings with it the chance of frost, because to start a fire too early in the fall is to cheapen it, to steal from it. So the fire is now lit, the ashes this morning smoldering, the first step outside so crisp, so still, with the smell of one of my favorite things still hanging in the air.
I visited Chicago on Sunday to watch the Cubs do what the Cubs have done best for the entirety of my life: lose. But before they lost and before I drove home and before I found my bed at 1 am, I drove down a Lincoln Park street to meet up with the client who witnessed the inept bats with me. The street was unlike other streets, as it was barely fall on the route I took to his house. But when I turned onto his street it was instant fall. Leaves littered the sidewalk and the covered the curb. The storm drains were clogged with yellow and orange leaves. It was fall, immediately and undeniably, fall. This morning, I drove to Stone Manor as I prepare to close on that large sale next month, and I was struck by fall. It’s not becoming fall, it’s not going to be fall, it didn’t used to be fall, it’s just fall, and it’s right now and it’s glorious.
Early fall is easily mistaken for summer. Late fall looks like winter, because winter is just late fall with some snow. But the middle of fall in Wisconsin is something that can’t be missed. It shouldn’t be missed. And it can’t be taken in on one street in Lincoln Park, or by gazing up to three maple trees in Oz Park as they turn brilliant and bright. It isn’t even all of Wisconsin where this spectacle can be measured. I’m building that fishing cabin in the Western part of this state, and while the hills are nice the fall there is no spectacle at all. It’s just a dulling and a browning that follows a brief yellowing. They have lots of trees there, all sorts and sizes and densities, but Maples are not as common there as they are here. It’s the Maple that makes fall in Lake Geneva. That’s because I hate to break it to you, but we have all the Maples.
I write today to pull away the mystery of fall. When should you visit? When is peak fall? Is it coming soon? Is it later, like next Thursday? Or is it right smack exactly tomorrow? Of course it’s tomorrow. Tomorrow is the peak. Not early tomorrow, but late tomorrow, say, 3:30 pm. That’s peak fall at Lake Geneva, and you should be here for it. I generally dislike the tour boats on Geneva. I dislike the Lady of Lake, because that stupid paddle wheel doesn’t turn at the same rate as the boat is traveling. The wheel is paddling at 3 miles per hour while the boat cruises at 10. I’m no engineer, but this strikes me as something amiss. And that boat is only outdone in its foolishness by that Mississippi river boat looking thing that looks as though it might tip over at any time. The wheel on that boat moves even slower, looking even more ridiculous, as that wheel pushes at 1 MPH while that awkward boat shoves through the water at 10 MPH. I dislike those boats immensely. But if there’s a time to jump aboard and play tourist, it’s during peak fall, because your boat might already be put away in its winter home on account of you being a quitter.
If you can’t come up this Thursday at 3:30 pm for the peak of fall, then come up this weekend. It’ll be the next best thing. The winds have calmed, and hopefully they’ll stay calm for a few more days so that we might enjoy this fall spectacle. Don’t bother driving to some other place, like Michigan (Michstakegan), or Galena (absurd), or Door County (they’re closed), just drive here. Because we’re going to peak this weekend and we have all the maples. We also have incredible houses to look at and buy, and we have espresso and pumpkins and apples. Please don’t sit in the city this weekend and pretend everything is okay. It isn’t. It’s never okay. Come to Wisconsin, specifically to Lake Geneva, because the fall we wait all year for is happening this weekend. If you stay home, you’re going to miss it, and that’s unacceptable.
As I understand it, Door County is a place where you go because you want to eat cherries while spending the better part of a full day searching for a place that will serve you a proper espresso. Door County is also a place where lake access doesn’t mean the same thing that it means here. That’s because the lake isn’t really a lake at all, rather it’s an inland ocean, which is beautiful to look at but also mostly unusable for the typical weekend warrior. The lake is different, the market is different, the cherries are good, the espresso absent. This is all you need to know about Door County. You’re welcome.
The market here is very unique, as lake access or lake rights really means something. For years I’ve heard sellers explain to me the reasons that lake rights don’t matter. Coincidentally, the only sellers that undertake this attempted explanation are those that own homes that lack the attribute. They’ll opine how lake access isn’t important because of beaches, and because of launches, and because of parks and restaurants. They’ll work to convince me that they’re right, all the while we both know they’re wrong.
That’s because no amount of dialogue, no matter how impassioned, can change generations of market behavior. The market expects lake access, it wants lake access, and when someone emails me this week and wants to buy a vacation home at Lake Geneva, they’re probably going to ask me about lake access. Once they ask me, I’m going to tell them that they need it. In doing so, I’m furthering the generational standard, leaving very little room for wavering. If you’re looking Lake Geneva, you should be looking lake access.
When the market was hot, buyers moved away from this standard. They’d buy homes on Anystreet, Williams Bay, because of the beach and the launch and the restaurants. They’d buy a home on Oakwood Street because it’s a nice enough street, and they could pay $180k for a house that would have cost $319k in Cedar Point Park. I understand the economics of a non-lake access purchase, I really do, which is why there should be a discount paid for homes that are in otherwise boring locations that lack lake access. If you’re contemplating a vacation home purchase here, your vacation home should be surrounded by other vacation homes. It’s really that simple.
Now that the market is warmer again, buyers are returning to their old discount-seeking ways. The house in Cedar Point is $289k now, and the house on Oakwood is still $180k, so Oakwood wins. If that’s all your budget will allow, I completely and entirely understand the reason you’d entertain Oakwood. I honestly do. But if the budget allows for the $289k, please go that route. Not because I want your Realtor, who should actually be me, to make more money, but because I want your future appreciation tied to the vacation home market, not to the primary market.
There are exceptions to this rule of mine. Unique homes in special locations, those get a pass. Unique lots- oversized or featuring some sort of special view- I’ll let those slide as well. But if we’re buying a normal house on a normal in-town street, let’s first exhaust our lake access options. Because once you buy that non-lake access house in town you’re pretty much going to spend every day from then on wishing you had a private association pier to hang out at. And if you’re not going to have a private association pier to hang out at, you might as well keep driving for another day and end up in Door County. It’s BYOEspresso, just so you know.
PS. I was at the Cub game last night, which means it is likely my fault that they lost.
Anxiety is a common affliction in the real estate world. Those not living in this world cannot fathom what might be so difficult about making buckets full of money while doing very little actual work. Those in the industry, and those who were driven from the industry from the anxiety, know this business to be different. My brother works in a factory of sorts. He sits somewhere and punches in some orders onto a computer screen, and then a robot does those things that he’s told it to do. It’s a nice thing to have the robot do that work, and when he drives home at night be doesn’t wonder about what might happen if the robot doesn’t work tomorrow. He doesn’t worry that the CFO just found out the new orders from that large new company have been canceled. He just gets up early and goes to work the next morning and sits on his chair and punches in the commands that the robot will follow. The anxiety of real estate is different, and it’s more intense and more troubling than anyone who hasn’t sat in my particular chair could understand.
But this particular chair does not own me, and so I sit in it for a while in the morning and then again for a bit in the afternoon. I drive around the lake, I drive down this road and down your road. I look at houses and I look at land and I look at views and I look for what it is that you’re hoping I might find. That traveling seat is far more interesting than this creaky seat that I pull up to this long desk in the morning. That moving seat helps with the stress of a day, and that seat gives me a glimpse of the lake that I’ve seen nearly every day for the entirety of my life.
Admittedly, there are views of this lake that I prefer over others. A fall view from the tip of Cedar Point, where Circle Parkway makes its most pronounced curve, that view to the West through the fall trees as they drop a storm of yellow and orange leaves; now that’s a view. It’s different up there. The lake looks different from that height, like something you can see but can’t touch, like something on a horizon that you’ll never catch. You can chase it from up there, and watch the waves from above, where the rise and fall isn’t visible but for the foamy white of the break.
Downtown Lake Geneva on an October Tuesday must look different in the minds and imaginations of the summer visitors, those who fill up on summer over a few weekends and then look back to their desks and not to the water again until the next June. But I see downtown on a Tuesday in October I know it looks like it should, I know it looks like July with a brighter leaves. I know the breeze blows the same off the lake but it’s cooling now, not warming, and I know the outdoor diners are still dining and they’re still toasting to this place, to this scene, to that view.
In the summer when it storms, I can’t know the severity or the angle of the storm until I see it from the shore, over that lake. I know then where it’s coming from, where the wind is blowing, and how bad it might be. I know the clouds and the way they twist and push and form those summer shelves. I can see rain and clouds from these office windows, and from the windows of my house, but I can’t see the detail until I’m looking over the water. It’s impossible to tell just what’s going on without that view.
Today, I see the leaves on the trees across the street, and I see the leaves yellowing and falling, more and more each day. Because of this I know it’s fall, and I know the colors are starting, but that’s about the extent of my knowledge. I won’t be able to know just how widespread these colors are until I’m driving through Williams Bay, past that launch and I look to the south and the east and the west. Fall can sneak up on you, but not when you’re watching the colors change across the lake. It’s obvious then, and when I saw the Snake Road foliage from Big Foot Beach yesterday I knew that fall was no longer waiting. It’s here, and it’s bright and the colors are orange and yellow and red. I know this now because I saw it across that lake. In a life filled with twists and turns and the anxiety that this morning chair brings, that lake and those views are always there and they’re always steady and they will always catch my eye.
I need a new car. My car is older now, though if you saw it just after a washing and you were standing some slight distance from it you’d be forgiven for thinking that I have a very nice car. It looks nice in photos, that’s for sure. But when I turn the wheel the car clicks, which is a sound that I haven’t had a car make since I was 17 and my car was that gray Saab. That car clicked around corners as well, but things were different then so the clicking didn’t matter because when I turned the radio up the clicking stopped. My car clicks and I could have the click fixed, but it seems like the car is prepared to let something else start clicking or thumping or chirping once I fix the current click. That lake house you looked at has an ugly kitchen and the guest bedrooms are so small.
My car has been my car for several years, for long enough that it seems like I could use a newer one. I can’t buy a new one, because I don’t have that in me. I don’t have the stomach for new car prices, for the stickers in the windows, for the salesmen that think there’s nothing difficult about buying a new car for elevated sums of money. I don’t like the snack bars, the magazines, the modern coffee tables. I don’t like the way the deal doesn’t really start until you sit at the little formica desk and the salesman starts punching in the numbers, picking through the keyboard with his index fingers until he finds the right combination of numbers and letters. I don’t like it when he turns the screen to face me and the numbers look nothing like they did in the window. That lake house is expensive, because taxes and dues and sprinkler systems.
There are lots of cars on that lot, not just the ones in the showroom that look so wonderfully shiny. Years ago, I had a customer drive to a showing in a very white luxury sedan. The car was beautiful, but it was extremely white, and it had rained earlier that day and so his car was white with scatters of road dirt, like an abstract painting that I wouldn’t understand. We talked for a while about his white car, and after some time he admitted that he shouldn’t have bought a white sedan. In fact, he didn’t know why he’d ever buy a white sedan, except that he then resigned himself to the reason. It just looked stunning under those showroom lights. Indeed it must have, but in that driveway on that day that it had rained it just looked like a white car that needed to be washed. The lake house on a sunny summer afternoon when the water shimmered blue and the hydrangeas bloomed white couldn’t have looked more perfect if it tried.
There are cars to buy, but the car must be heavy because I’d like to gain the tax advantage from that heavier car. Needing a heavy car means the choices are limited, because a lighter car might be nice and it will treat tires with more respect but it won’t get me that deduction. Heavy cars are numerous, but I’ve been down the road of a fancy car and I see how the fancy cars wear after some time. That is to say they wear terribly, no matter what engineers we claim to be the best, no matter which country of origin has the finest craftsman, cars are cars and they break. When the expensive ones break because your warranty recently ran out, it no longer matters how nice the car looks after a wash, when the sun is low and the lights are on. So I’m on the hunt for a reasonably nice car that’s heavy, but not one that’s so nice that it’s going to break down and leave me on the side of some country road wishing for a car that favored function over form. You can find a lake house of superior style a long ways from the lake, or you can find one that’s sturdy and near, even if it isn’t all that sexy.
I’m looking for something that will get me from A to B, and won’t break somewhere between the span. But as I look I realize I don’t like cars anymore, or rather I have the same problem that I’ve always had of not liking the cars that I can afford, or liking cars that know I shouldn’t own. I should buy something, and soon, because winter is coming and the clicking won’t stop just because it’s cold. The clicking might even get worse, since it could progress from a click to a dreaded thump. Today I’ll think a bit about this process and about what I should do, and I’ll think about how my car search is like your lake house search, and how we’re both just trying to accomplish something that we’ve been thinking about for a long time.
The Saab 900 was gunmetal gray. The roads were straight, the path clear. North. That’s all I needed to do, bearing East when possible, but mostly just North. The Saab had a top speed that I never discovered. The rattle and wobble at 70 made sure that the higher numbers on the speedometer wouldn’t be touched. The roads were gray, the sky gray, the trees browned and grayed, the clouds gray. The lights dim, everywhere dim. The lake, that big lake to the East was gray, the water and the shore and the clouds and the space between, gray. It was late fall, I was 18 and I drove into the night.
On a typical trip to some other place, the route is dark and confusing and the turns many but the destination, once it comes into view, is clear and bright, welcoming a weary traveler to the place where he intended to be. The traveler finds his destination and the troubles of the trip are forgotten, the wrong turns now merely a laughable memory because the journey is complete and the place he finds himself is perfect. Instead, I drove the tired hatchback down slippery roads, soaked with rain and trampled leaves that had been ground into a paste on these county roads. I drove not knowing where I was going, not knowing what I was searching for. The Pinkerton album my misfitted soundtrack.
A Vacancy sign was all I needed to see, and after some time I had been seeing nothing but. Vacancy, they’d all say, the NO distinctly quiet and dark, like the woods on these roads and the rain that fell and the paste that clung to my balding tires. The I didn’t want to commit to any particular lodging option until I had driven past many of them, each one darker and dimmer and more unwelcoming than the last. After some time of this I decided that one was as good as another, and I pulled in to a small cabin that looked like a house, with a car out front and a lamp lighting the window. The pull chain light flashed Vacancy.
The older woman was kind enough, and I exchanged some money for a key and a map to the cabin that would be home for as long as I decided it should be. If it was dark on the road, and dark in front of the cabin office, then it was positively pitch but the time I found my way down the leaf soaked path to the cabin. I don’t remember if the cabin had a name, like the Chipmunk House, or if it just had a number, like Cabin 3, or a letter, like B. I found the cabin and went inside, the rain intensifying, the darkness finding its way darker still.
It wasn’t scary in the cabin, but it wasn’t not scary, either. It smelled like wet dust, like any cabin would smell after the first rain of spring, after a long time of sitting empty over a long, cold winter. But this was fall, not winter, and so it smelled anyway and I left my bag on the bed and drove towards town to find something to eat. The town greeted me in the same manner as the county did, in the same way as the cabin office did, in the same way that the cabin did. It was dark in town, a few cars offering the only movement, the only thing open a small gas station with two pumps, pay inside, cash only. I bought a cardboard wrapped pizza, first estimating its size to determine if it would fit inside the narrow oven at the cabin. A two liter of pop rounded out the order. The man at the register looked at me like any man at any register has ever looked at a single traveler who appears lost and confused, whose clothes and hair were soaked from the dark rain, who looked as though he didn’t belong there.
I couldn’t just drive back to the cabin at this point, because the TV was small and the pizza would only offer a few minutes of distraction, and so I drove down to the shore to look at the water. That’s why I was there, after all, to fish for the salmon that should have been running in such great numbers that even me, a kid from another place who drove there only on a whim, with some cash and a new CD and a wobbly gunmetal gray car. I pulled up to the harbor, to look out between the swipes of the wipers, to see the water whipped and the waves crashing. There were no fishermen there. Just me, in my car with my pizza and a fishing pole. I wasn’t sure what I had expected, but this wasn’t it. This looked intimidating, unappealing, difficult. I ate the pizza on my bed and tried to ignore the wind that felt like it might knock the cabin down and bury me in a pile of dusty rubble in a county where I shouldn’t have been.
The next day, the water was high, the sky gray, the town as empty as it was the night before. I kicked some leaves down the sidewalk in town, looking like a lost tourist who showed up the day after everyone else left. The restaurants had signs, THANKS FOR ANOTHER GREAT YEAR, even though I knew they didn’t mean it. If the year was so great there would have been some money left over to fix the awning that was tearing at both ends, mildewing so heavily that I wasn’t sure what color, exactly, the fabric was supposed to be. The river that I wanted to fish was wide and muddy. Even if there had been fish in it I wouldn’t have been able to catch them, and since I didn’t see them it didn’t make any sense to me to fish for something I wasn’t sure existed. I had missed the run and I had missed their fall, I figured, and that’s why no one was here. I shuffled through town for the remainder of that day and drove home before the night fell. It was October and I had missed what I had driven so far to find.
Today, it’s bright and the leaves are green, except the few that are yellowing and the others that are turning to red. Mostly, it’s still summer here, even though the temperature disagrees. It’s early enough that you still have time. You won’t miss fall here if you visit this month, but if you show up later in the month I assure you the lights will still be on. We’ll still be here, because it’s Lake Geneva and we don’t look at October as the end of anything. It’s just the start of another season, and like all of the other seasons, it’s one that should find you here.
The thing about September is that it can rain a lot. When it rains in September that’s not welcome, no matter who you are. Had I planted those new trees in my back yard I’d be happy for the rain. But I didn’t plant those new trees because I am waiting for October, for the month when the weather should be changing and with the change, rain. The farmers are happy for rain in June even when the lakeside revelers are unhappy with it. The corn needs rain, beans, too, and so the farmers wish for and the revelers wish against. In September, the farmers crave dry weather so their crops can be harvested, and the revelers crave those last few dry days of summer so that they might swim once more. Today it’s raining and yesterday it rained and this weekend it might rain. No matter, it’s boat show weekend and shows, as we know, must go on.
Here’s the thing about the Geneva Lakes Antique and Classic Boat Show: It’s something you should do, but it’s not something you’ll necessarily love doing. It’s a cool show because it’s here and we’re here and you’ll like the boats and the scene is fun, but it really is a show about old wood boats. I love old wood boats. I always have and I always will. But old wood boats are sort of like shoes. It’s neat to have a few pairs, but if you have 200 pairs and you look at them all at once they just start to look like a bunch of shoes. There are newer shoes that look like old shoes, and there are old shoes, and there will be some shoes that you’ve never seen before. But at the end of that day, and at the end of this weekend, these shoes are our boats, and our boats are your shoes.
That’s not to say this isn’t a good weekend to be at the lake, because every weekend is a good weekend to be at the lake, but it is to say I don’t want you coming to the boat show and expecting to be remarkably entertained. There will be some music, some food, lots of boats, and trinkets of boat-related interest offered for sale. Some old guy will sit by his boat, the one that you don’t care much for, and you’ll feel somewhat obliged to walk down his small pier wing and take a look at his boat. By then you’ll have already seen a hundred or so boats, but you won’t be able to ignore this man’s boat because you know he entered the boat in the show because he loves his boat. You feel like you should too, so walk down the pier and look at his boat and nod like you appreciate what it is that he has there. This is proper boat show etiquette.
I always feel sad for certain boats in the show, those boats that travel from Minnesota or Michigan or Iowa or Ohio to be here. Those boats spend their lives toiling in some dirty-water-lake in some other state and for just one weekend a year they get to ply our waters. They get to see how the other half lives, and for these boats this weekend is everything. They’ll arrive today and some tomorrow and they’ll push into our water and they’ll frolic for a few days. They’ll float and their hull will soak in the goodness that is Geneva Lake and then, without much ado, they’ll be dragged from the lake, kicking and screaming, snorting and huffing, and they’ll be towed, against their will, back to the lake from whence they came. It’s a good weekend for us, but a sad weekend for these out of state boats.
Come up this weekend, indulge the boats and the scene. If the weather cooperates it will be a perfect lakeside weekend. If the weather doesn’t cooperate, as the forecast threatens, it’ll still be a nice weekend. What would you be doing instead, hanging out at a mall or standing in line for brunch? Hopefully I’ll see you at the lake this weekend.
There are very few reasons to ever go to Elkhorn. Even Elkhorn knows this. As a child, I never went to Elkhorn. As an adult, I go even less. It’s a town I usually skirt around, whether it’s when traveling from Williams Bay to the Milwaukee area, or if I’m traveling from Williams Bay to the Kettle Moraine area. No matter the cost, I tend to make a path that avoids Elkhorn. I have nothing against Elkhorn, it’s just that it’s Elkhorn and I’m from Williams Bay and if you grew up in Williams Bay you’d feel the same way. Elkhorn, mostly good for absolutely nothing.
But this is unfair, because there are a few reasons to visit Elkhorn. One of those reasons starts today: The Walworth County Fair. I went to this fair a few times when I was a kid, but a few times might be too generous. Maybe twice. As a full blown adult, I’ve gone approximately the same number of times. The fair smells of farm animals and it’s usually hot and always humid and when farm animals are doused in heat and washed in humidity, things smell less than ideal. They smell like your favorite inland lake, assuming your favorite inland lake is not Geneva Lake, which, if that were the case, it seems odd that you’d be reading this blog, unless you thrive on public scorn.
The fair starts today and it’s a good thing. It might smell a bit, and I might not go, but it’s still fun and it’s still a fair and if you’ve ever felt fondness towards any fair in any town, then this fair in this town will be worth attending. The fair organizers have high hopes that this year will be the first year since 2010 that the effort breaks even, but that’s not going to be the case if you stay at home like I will. So you should go to the fair this weekend, this Labor Day Weekend, and enjoy it. Eat some fried things and enjoy yourself. Let me know how it goes.
Later in September you’ll find another reason to visit Elkhorn, so if you miss this weekend don’t feel too terrible about it. Four times a year the fairgrounds host a massive flea market. It’s not just sort of a huge flea market, it’s the world’s largest flea market (not really). It’s huge and it’s fun and the people from Camp Wandawega will be there before you and they’ll buy all the cool stuffed raccoons and wool blankets, but still, there will be some items for you to buy. Like old water skis made of wood, people love those. Also there will be old brackets from old houses, people also love those. And there will be miscellaneous bits of old fishing equipment, and someone will have a Zebco rod and reel combo, purchased from Prange Way in 1987 and it’ll be in the original packaging.
This flea market is September 25th, and you should seriously go. I might be there, but only if my wife makes me go. If she goes without me, I’ll ask her politely to only spend $100, or maybe I’ll say $60, I can’t be sure. Then she’ll scoff as if you can buy anything at an antique flea market for less than that, even though I’ve been there and I know the Zebco set is only $15, OBO.
I think we know each other well enough that we can cut through all the nuance. It’s time we had an honest discussion about me, about you, and about what it is that we’re doing here. I’m here because I get to be, because I have to be, but because I want to be. I’m here for those reasons, and many more. I’m here because it’s what I know, it’s what I love, and it’s what I prefer. I like this place more than the other places. I’m here because I’ve always been here. But this isn’t about me, so in that, I’ve lied to you. This isn’t the first time I’ve lied to you, I’ve lied before. Like once when I said I was going on vacation for a week but I was really only gone for 48 hours because I’m a slave to this keyboard, to this desk, indeed to this place. I apologize for the lies.
But why should I? Because this isn’t, as I’ve already mentioned, about me, it’s about you. It’s about August 26th and how late this is. It’s about the end of summer, because we all know what I’ve said a trillion times: September is still summer. Ah, but that’s another lie, because it isn’t. September is fall because when kids go back to school and the first fallen leaves get ground into the city sidewalks, that’s fall. It might feel like summer if you let it, but that’s the sensory part of September, not the emotional part. In fact, summer isn’t going to last through September, it isn’t going to appear sometime in October, for some of it or most of it or maybe none of it, because summer is already over. It’s August 26th and it’s not summer anymore. Anything I’ve ever said to the contrary is a lie.
I can tell it isn’t summer because my kids went swimming yesterday and so did my wife, with her ridiculous goggles, and then I played golf and I was sweating because it was still hot. The sun was high, the haze summer-like, and when it was all said and done I thought that it was a nice summer day. But it isn’t summer anymore. The town was busy and the cars were everywhere, but they weren’t everywhere like they were two weeks ago, they were just some of the places that they were before. The lake was busy, but no it wasn’t, not at all. There were some boats, but hardly any. Lots, sure, but few when compared with before. The lake was quiet the town was empty and the sun was high and the water was warm but it was fall and not summer.
The leaves are green, which looks like summer, just like summer. Except now the leaves are dull, they’re dying. They look fine but they’re dying. Like me and like you, we might look fine, but we’re dying. All of us, dying. Just like the leaves and just like the empty stalls in front of the ice cream shops and just like the clothes rack at your local back-to-school-shopping-place, withering and emptying because it’s not at all summer, it’s fall. The dull leaves are dropping, they’re dropping because they’re dying and they’re dying because it’s not the middle of summer, it’s fall. My cone flowers in front of this office window are beautiful, but that’s only if you look quickly. Look more closely and some are already dead, drying and offering up their seeds to the wrens and the other yellow birds that pick and pluck and leave the seed casings on my sidewalk. The squirrels are running across that sidewalk now, cheeks stuffed full to overflowing, because they know it’s fall and winter comes next and if they don’t pack enough nuts into their nests they’ll be like us and our leaves, dying.
So here we are, on this day when I finally admit to you what I know to be true. It’s August and it’s already fall. It feels of summer on my skin, but I’m far past the point in my life where I judge things based solely on how they feel. I imagine a skunk has soft fur. Delightfully soft fur. But I know that I won’t ever pet one, because my brain is smarter than my fingers. It feels like summer and I’m going to sweat today like it’s summer, but my brain knows what my eyes have seen. It’s fall, and it’s too late. If you were planning on doing something meaningful this summer you’ve already blown it. But Labor Day Weekend! Labor Day Weekend is for rookies.
It feels good to admit my lies to you. I no longer feel bound by them, I know longer feel that I need to tell you it’s still summer because we’re already agreed that it isn’t. The kids are in school and the ones that aren’t will soon be. You can swim off a pier this weekend and it’ll feel like summer, but when you dry off and sit on the pier you’ll look around and no longer view summer as something that’s happening around you, you’ll view it as something you were happy to have participated in. Unless you spent the summer in the city or the suburbs, busily tending to a summer of pools and shopping malls, then we all know the biggest lie today is the one you keep telling yourself: You had a great summer. No you didn’t, you blew it, and now it’s too late to fix your mistake.
The vacation is over. It wasn’t all week, it was just two days. Maybe three, if you count the last day. There were fish caught and steaks eaten. Devoured, really. When you fish all day and then you grill steaks at 11 pm over an open flame, there’s little decorum left once the temperature reaches medium. The weekend was for celebrating, 50 years of tolerable marriage between my mother and father, which is nice. And now, Monday morning, the guests have left and life has returned to normal. I love my normal life.
My children are young, but they’re becoming less so. My son is 13 and my daughter is 10, and they are growing and aging, but it’s different from the way that I’m growing and aging. This morning, over the last breakfast, there was mention of my children and how they should be traveling. They should come to Colorado, the guests said, where there are mountains. There is fly fishing in those mountains, rocky creeks with huge trout. My son should experience that, because he needs to. He should travel, see the world, gain experiences. He should go to that place where my daughter can shop with her aunt, and my son can fish with his uncle. If only they’d go there, then they’d know just how great that other place really is.
But now that talk is over, because now they’re gone and we’re still here. We’re here because we love it here, because Wisconsin isn’t a place you end up on accident. It’s a place you get live if you’re lucky.
I have now, rather unfortunately, decided that I don’t know what it would be like to take a vacation. I don’t understand the concept, not in the least. In the other world, the corporate world with secretaries and board rooms and parking garages, I wonder what a vacation from that is like. Is it fun? Does it even exist? Or is it as I suspect, a constant juggle of work obligations and family pressures, even though the email response is set to vacation mode. I’m on vacation, it’ll say, but it won’t mean that. Because people have already sent the email by the time they receive the response, and then you’ve already read the email while pretending to be on vacation. Your response to their inquiry is unavoidable. This is vacation today, and it’s downright terrible.
Vacation from real estate business would be easy if one had no business to worry about. If an agent who seldom sells wishes to go away, that’s no big deal. Go away, and no one will care. But when you’re in the middle of deals at all times of all months, of all years, how does a vacation occur? Is it a vacation if you just take work and do it from another location? If that location has unreliable cell service and only a bit of internet access, is the vacation truly a vacation or is it a place where you have to struggle more even while accomplishing less? Why must we always be accomplishing something? When do we get to go somewhere for a bit and ignore all the rest?
I don’t think there is such a thing as a vacation anymore. I think there are moments, brief windows where we can rest, but in real estate that doesn’t mean a Sunday night and it doesn’t mean a Monday morning and so I’m left wondering what it does mean. Or do we just work and work and then when we’ve decided that we can’t work anymore, either through fatigue of a mental or a physical nature, we then just give up and retire. We don’t have enough money to do that, but do that we must. This is why people move to Alaska and build log cabins with their bare hands and then end up eaten by a hungry grizzly bear. At least they died doing what they loved, not working.
There is no vacation anymore, but a friend of mine was in California last week and he sent photos of hipster coffee shops and of a big red suspension bridge. How was he on this vacation? Does he know something I don’t know? He seemed to be enjoying himself, but if I were driving in that car on that big red bridge I’d be texting and driving and my wife would yell at me for that and then what difference would it make if I were on that bridge or on Highway 50 passing Pesche’s? Another friend is off to another state this week, his whole family in tow. I don’t think he’ll get to ignore his work responsibilities while he’s there, but he has people who work for him so he can tell those people what to do and hopefully they’ll do it. If I’m going away, there’s no one to tell things to. There’s no one who can do these things I do, and it’s not because they’re hard. It’s just because the explanation of the status and of the process is more difficult than taking phone calls all day while in some other place. It’s just easier to keep working.
So this week, I’ll be gone for two days. 48 hours, give or take. It’ll be a vacation, but it won’t be. I’ll just be somewhere else with a phone and a computer and I’ll be trying to do something else but I’ll just be there working. In that, I suppose is the value of a lake house. Grind out the work week and then try to recharge during the weekend. It’s just that in real estate there is no grind during the week and rest on the weekend, there’s mostly grind during the week and grind on the weekend, but sometimes you get to go superjetting at 3 on a Tuesday afternoon because the sun is high and the water 80, and I suppose in that there is a rare reward. Summer is fleeting, take off work. Come up here, do your work from a white pier or a floating boat. Just do something different because we deserve it. We work too much, and it’s only getting worse. I think I deserve it, and so I’ll see you in a few days, after I’m done fishing small streams with a Helios in one hand and a cell phone in the other.
I often wonder what the connection is between the Chicago Tribune and the state of Michigan. Is it simply that the Tribune is a newspaper in Chicago and Michigan is nearby? If so, that’s nice, because it’s good to be neighborly. But what if it’s deeper than that? What if the state of Michigan is in cahoots with the Chicago Tribune, and they conspire to inflate the status of Michigan because the two states are wildly, overwhelmingly, insanely jealous of the greater state that lies to the north of Illinois? What if this whole thing is a ploy to somehow derail the popularity of Wisconsin? What if this whole orchestrated ruse goes to the highest office? What if Rahm meets quarterly with officials in Michigan and they sit around conspiring? This is likely what happens, because there’s no other way to explain the Tribune’s high level of affection for some place as terrible as Michigan.
Today let’s not worry about the conspiracy, let’s just deal with the latest advertisement disguised as a general interest article and consider what falsehoods we must rebut. The glowing piece by Andrea Guthmann graced the Travel section of the last Sunday Tribune. The article included phrases like, “In the heart of what savvy tourism strategists branded “Harbor Country”, New Buffalo lures city dwellers with its casual beach vibe and proximity. Roughly 40 nautical miles from Chicago, it’s reachable by motorboat in an hour or two”. What I know is what you don’t, unless you’ve visited this obscure place. All fawning aside, New Buffalo is so boring it’s almost unbearable. And those short 40 nautical miles are meaningless unless you’re the sort that jumps on a boat in Chicago and motors across the lake. Some people do that, but it’s far from a great idea.
Great Lake Escape. Visiting Michigan’s Harbor Towns? Don’t Miss The Boat.
This is the title of the article. The concept here is that if you’re a city bound Chicagoan and you’d like to find your way to some water, you should go to Michigan. It’s a state full of water, surrounded by water, lots and lots of water. But beyond that, the pitch here is that this is about boats. If you like boating, you’re going to love Michigan. If you like boating, come to Michigan. If you’re an author who was awarded a journalism fellowship from the University of Michigan, write about Michigan! To read this as a boating novice, you’d think Michigan is the place to go. After all, this is a great lake, and who wouldn’t want to boat on a great lake?
But don’t you see? This is the scam. This article tells us to go to Lake Michigan to boat but then it tells us how we might go about actually boating. There are ferries, you can ride one of those. There’s even one that’s hand cranked, which sounds like the worst possible boat ride ever. Then there are the harbors. Lots of harbors! Some harbors have rental boats, and if you’re 21 and love danger you can rent a boat. There are also fishing charters, which are terrific fun if you like sitting in a boat texting your friends while you wait for the rod to bend. Once it bends you should stand up and reel the fish in. Congratulations you’re a fisherman! Or you can rent a pontoon boat and float down the Kalamazoo River. It’s easy to float down the river, because the river is super slick.
Do you see what’s happening here, boating friends from Chicago? What’s really happening is that you’re being told to go somewhere to boat and then when you get there the boats are all rentals. The boats are charters. The boats are there, but they aren’t yours. Lake Michigan might be a great lake for boating your personal Edmund Fitzgerald, but why go to a place where you have to work so terribly hard to boat? Lake Geneva has boats, plenty of boats. We have big boats and small boats. Wood boats and and sailboats. We have all of the boats. And when you come to Lake Geneva we don’t make you drive some remarkable distance and then present your driver’s license and insurance information to go for a drive. We just let you have your boat down at your pier, and we put your pier down at the end of your lawn, and your lawn is the grass that stretches from your home to the water. This is how we boat.
Harbor Country is just that- it’s for harbors. If you want to go to boating country, you want to be at Lake Geneva. Lake Michigan is nice to look at, like when you’re driving north to Lake Geneva on Lakeshore Drive, but it’s a lake best left to the lookers. It’s a lake for the passive people who wish to watch the water and not engage it. Lake Geneva is the lake for watersports, for fishing and sailing and swimming and skiing. It’s a lake that’s terrific to look at, and in that there are similarities to Lake Michigan. But beyond that it’s a lake that wants to be used. It’s a lake for a family that wants to wake up in the morning and walk down their dewy lawn and step onto their private pier where there boat rests in its cradle. It’s a lake for the active user, not for the passive viewer. And best of all, when you go for a boat ride in Lake Geneva it always ends back at your pier.
Last month, I went with my wife and two friends to see Zac Brown. The act is called The Zac Brown Band, but that would have been similar to Elvis Presley calling his act The Elvis Presley Band. We know it’s just about the star, sorry Commodores. We went to see the show at Alpine Valley on an intolerably hot evening, the sort of sultry evening we’ve grown accustomed to during this hot and sunny summer. I was not initially interested in going to this concert, and only brought it up in conversation as a way to brag about the incredible hotel demand during summer months around Lake Geneva. But go I did, and on that evening when we filed into our seats at Alpine I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. Having lived all 38 of my years within 5 miles of Williams Bay I had never been to Alpine for a concert, ever.
When the show began it was obvious this was to be like few other shows. The sound was perfect. The stage close, the singer in tune and his band on point. The venue was beautiful, the evening sky casting pastels, the crowd up beat but not too boisterous. When the show was over there was order as thousands of revelers made their way through the constricted thoroughfares and into their cars. The exit line was smooth, well orchestrated, and within 30 minutes of the last note dying out we had dropped our friends off at their lake house and headed home. It was an accidental concert for me, but one that I thoroughly and utterly enjoyed. Alpine Valley was all class, and as someone who prides himself of not being impressed by much, I was impressed. Alpine Valley the music venue had won a supporter for life.
Last night, on an evening that managed to be hotter and more humid than the Zac Brown evening in June, my wife and I picked up two friends and drove to another concert. Instead of turning north towards East Troy, we turned south towards Twin Lakes. Eric Church was playing at Country Thunder, and we had tickets. Just as I had never been to a concert at Alpine Valley, I had never attended Country Thunder. I had long heard of it, and marveled at the caliber of acts that the venue was able to attract, but I had never even considered going. Last night, as the sun faded and the lightening lit up the southern sky, we drove into the parking lot and nothing seemed amiss. The parking was orderly, and we were able to walk in a path that dodged the muddy ruts that were left after the Saturday rain.
Upon entering, it was obvious that at age 38 I was nearly the oldest person there. Sure, there were some other old people like me, but for ever person over the age of 35 there were 500 people under the age of 25. This was a scene that I had only seen in movies, and as I waded through it to buy some waters, I was pleased to find that I was the only person in the water line. The first encounter with spontaneous puking would not occur until later, as we stood nearish the stage and waited for Eric Church to play.
I was wearing shorts and a shirt. This shouldn’t be a big detail to mention, but I was one of few wearing a shirt. My wife wore a shirt and shorts, which made her one of the few women to be wearing a shirt. We were shirted adults in a sea of shirtless youth. When Eric Church strummed his first chord, it was exciting, but not really. The sound was terrible, not loud enough for a concert, not clear enough to hear the skill. The mass of humanity that gyrated and vomited around us didn’t seem to notice that the songs had started, and they carried on whooping and hollering and vomiting and dancing and trying, desperately, to remain upright. Some people sat on the ground, the ground that on day four of this concert had been defiled by all sorts of horrible things. Girls sat in it as though they had no choice.
After some time, the show ended. We sat in the car for nearly an hour as the parking lot slowly shuffled towards the exit. I valiantly fought off a panic attack, as traffic is far from being my thing. My three hundred dollars would have been better spent if I bought lottery tickets with the money, but we decided that at the end of the night there was some value in this evening. I will, from this time forward and for the remainder of my life, never go to Country Thunder again. Further, and more importantly, my children, and their children, will never go to Country Thunder as long as they live. Am I a square? Absolutely. Do I ever want to stand next to someone while they spontaneously vomit? Don’t be silly.
I remember the days when I would travel to the country to our north and engage my distant relatives-in-law in debate. I argued once against their odd brand of socialism by using the example of a dozen eggs. I was Milton and the eggs were my pencil. Without knowing the exact numbers, let’s say at the time a dozen eggs in the United States cost $1.69. At the same time, a dozen eggs in Canada cost $4.19. The US has 320MM people, give or take, while Canada has 35MM people, give or take. Canada, though it seems larger because of the precarious way it looms above us, is roughly the same size as the US. They have lots of chickens. Loads of chickens. The best chickens! But for all their land, all their chickens, and so few people, their eggs were 250% more expensive than ours. I explained to my young cousins-in-law that they were foolish socialists, and their government is the reason they are both taxed to death (single payer isn’t free, FYI) and also have to overpay for eggs. It’s the government in their way. But that night, no matter how hard I tried, I could not spark a revolution.
That’s because the in-laws were tired. They were weary. It had been a hot day around that backyard deck, and the sun baked and the mosquitos sucked and the teriyaki steak was overcooked. The lethargy from a summer day had dulled the conversation, and so the revolution could not take hold. Looking back, I can’t blame them. A sultry summer day spent without a backyard oasis of fresh, cool water, is a summer day that would leave me unwilling to overthrow my oppressive, sneakily socialist government that forces higher the prices of my eggs, too.
On Wednesday, I took my family to the Cubs game. I’ve mentioned this before, but as a child I was able to attend a game or two, only if my dad had a chance to get tickets (free, likely) from a neighbor up the road. The tickets were treated as gold, but much more rare. We would load into the car, pick up my grandpa in Arlington Heights, and head to the game. I’m not sure, but I’ll bet we packed a brown bag lunch. Because money was tight, except that it wasn’t, and so we attended games perhaps twice, on the barest of budgets. When I now take my family to a game, I feel as though we are no less of a spectacle. We are most obviously a family from Wisconsin driving down to the big city to watch a game. We are tourists in that city. And when I took the waitress’s advice and ordered the macaroni and cheese pizza, I felt as though I had already been exposed. No local would ever consider such ludicrous order. The waitress had obviously been told to up-sell that pizza because the macaroni and cheese had been sitting in the walk-in for a week or longer, and it needed to go. Oh look, a family from Wisconsin!
The game was delightful. Tom Ricketts was all class as he walked the aisles and handed baseballs to the kids, my daughter being one of the lucky ones. The stadium felt better, the grass just as green as it always is, my son curious how they make the lines so straight. Practice, I told him. But the game wore on and the heat suffocated. The breeze was blocked by the grandstands, the smell of spoiled, spilled beer filling the air, the vendors hawking hotdogs and lemon ice. We ordered two of the latter, only to find out we had inadvertently ordered the Extra Tart variety. It was refreshing, nonetheless. Sweat slowly soaked through our clothes. The women next to us drank all of the beer, and by the seventh inning we were ready to stretch. The singer was Some Guy From Espn That No One Watches Anymore, and so after that we left, secure in our 6-0 lead. When we took the photo below the marquee, it was obvious some of my father’s less annoying habits have seeped into my subconscious. I listened to the last two innings of the game I had tickets for on the radio.
The fishing truck, as I’m want to call it, doesn’t have air conditioning. It was built with it, but sometime between 2003 and 2016 the air ceased to blow cold. In that north bound lane, with the sun lowering to the West, I baked in my driver’s seat. The sweat that found me when I left the house at 7:30 was still with me. The humidity unbearable. In traffic we were approached by a man who looked to be high on most of the drugs, and he asked for a ride in our canoe. I explained to him that we hadn’t a canoe, but we had a boat, if only he’d ride with us 80 or so miles and then we’d go for a ride. I joke, because I’m from Wisconsin and so I pulled out in front of a bus and strained all eight cylinders of our fishing canoe.
Even though no one said it, we were all thinking it. We were thinking it from the moment we jumped in the truck that morning. We thought it when we nibbled on the pizza. We thought it again when the snow cones melted into my children’s hands and stained their shorts. We thought it every time the women next to us had to leave the aisle, presumably to grab three more beers ($26.75) and use whatever the women’s version of the trough is. We thought it when we stood under the marquee when that stranger took our photo. We thought it when we were asked for a ride in our canoe. We thought it again on the interstate. We thought it in Skokie. We thought it in Kenosha. We thought it when first saw the lake. We thought it when we felt the temperature drop when that lake breeze blew through our open truck windows. We knew what what we had to do, and so we drove to the lake and we jumped in the water and we found our salvation. We washed the city sins off of us, and with it the stains from our melted snow cones and the stickiness on my arm from when the women sloshed her beer on me.
In the summer, in this intolerable heat, there’s just one thing to do. You must get to the lake. You must. A hot summer day that doesn’t end in a swim in crystal clear water might as well be a summer day that didn’t happen. If you don’t want to curl your toes over the edge of a sturdy white pier, you might as well live in Steinbach, Manitoba and pay $4.19 for a dozen eggs.
The grocery store on a Friday night is busy. It’s always busy then. The parking lot filled to capacity, the shopping carts all in use. The carts with the wobbly wheels, usually tucked into the abandoned corner of the foyer, in the space between the outside door and the inside door, shoppers are filling those with bread and brats and beer and chips and those little cracked wheat crackers that are terrific with cheese but dreadful on their own. The aisles are busy, the stocking boys that want to impress the managers are busily stacking and arranging, refilling and reorganizing. The stocking boys who don’t care are texting their girlfriends, emojis and abbreviations mostly, or entirely. Cardboard boxes, so many of them, piling up in the warehouse space. And the carts are overflowing and the half and half needs replenishing. Chips? Good luck finding the crispy variety made from red beans now.
It’s like this on Saturday, too. The late arrivers, the ones who thought they might be able to make the weekend count if they could get to the lake before Saturday evening. The ones who shopped on Friday and by Saturday needed more. Thursday, now that’s the day the store might be as busy as Friday, but only now. Only in the middle of this summer. The summer we dream about in the winter and we pine for in the spring, that’s the summer that makes us take a Friday off, or all of them off, and we shop on a Thursday night because we made it to the lake and we’re buying the provisions that must last through Sunday.
The morning was rainy on that Sunday. Stormy, even. During a summer with few clouds and fewer rain drops, that morning was unexpected. The forecast called for it, but still, no one believed it. When the storm pushed through and dropped its payload before heading to the east and a ways to the south, the sun peaked out and the wind whipped. By mid-afternon it seemed as though everyone had left for home. The lake was busy with wind but absent the revelers. The roads were clear. The yacht club, nearly empty. The people had gone home to brace for another work week, leaving because they must, only to return when they can.
But by Sunday night the grocery store was busy. The wobbly wheeled carts were in use. The stocking boys were stocking. The checkout girls, by this time this late into the weekend, were weary, smiling weak, forced smiles. The bean chips were running low, the carts burdened with the beer and brats and the buns and the steaks. It was a Sunday night, the Thursday and Friday and Saturday shoppers had gone home. This was the new round of shoppers, the group whose week was just starting at the grocery store and would last through the forecast sunshine. It’s summer after all, mid-summer to be exact, and if there ever was a time to take a break from the work week it’s right now.
It’s a bit embarrassing for me to admit this. I didn’t do it on purpose, nor did I expect such an incredible, showy display. I didn’t mean for this to get so public, so unavoidable. When my wife and I planted so many seeds from a mix that I bought online, this was never the intent. But no matter how hard I tried to keep this just between us, between our family and our lot lines, this just happened. Nature cannot be stopped. This is why I now have a front yard riddled with cone flowers. You say, But David, I also have cone flowers. You may, but if you drove by my house today it’s obvious that I have all of the coneflowers. Every last one of them. In my yard, just blooming and blooming, unaware of the attention they draw even while I hide in the house, embarrassed by this display that puts Holland and their scant tulips to shame.
But it isn’t just my house and my property, as much as I wish it were, it’s everywhere. Drive Wisconsin today. Do it. Just get in your car and drive here. If you’re looking for high quality water in an elite level vacation home market, then, of course, you must come to Lake Geneva. But if you’re just looking to take a drive, drive here, drive anywhere, just come to Wisconsin. In the summer, the margins of Florida roads look like they do in the winter. Alligators, terrible, terrible alligators. And some garbage blown from open car windows, and some swampy water. That’s Florida. Unless you’re inland Florida, which is more like a desert plagued by skinny cows, the sorts that look like we should take up an offering and send our Wisconsin missionaries to offer them some aid. These cows are ridiculous, so if you’re driving through Florida today you’ll see alligators and/or skinny, sickly cows. What’s the fun in that?
That’s why you should be driving here, down these country roads, past fields and forests and lakes and rivers. The flowers in my purposeful patch might be amazing, and you’re welcome to drive by, but the sides of every road in this state are now on display. There are white flowers, someone knows what they’re called. Some blue ones, too. Lots of blue ones. Some are pink and some are orange. The clover is blooming, and it’s pink and sometimes red. Other times it might be mostly pink with some white, delicate little flowers that cows munch on because we love our cows so much that we let them eat our beautiful flowers. We have so many, we can spare a few.
We live here because we work here. We live here because this is our home. But if we live here and don’t appreciate just how beautiful this place is, then that’s sad. In the Midwest, we all possess some variety of shoulder chip. It’s there, sometimes large and sometimes small. The people in the mountains tell us it’s flat here. The people by the sea tell us the lakes are small. The people in New York don’t know where the Midwest is. And the people in Switzerland sometimes email me because they’ve confused my lake for theirs. The apology for bothering me, little insignificant me with my little insignificant lake, is remarkably humble and overwhelmingly condescending at once. But this place isn’t inferior to all of those places. It isn’t something less. It’s something more. It’s seasons and fields and forests and lakes, and in the middle of a Wisconsin summer, it’s the most beautiful flower display blooming profusely on the sides of our roads. We didn’t plan it that way, we’re just lucky like that.
I lived in Geneva National for a while. In a few different places, at a few different times, with a few different goals in mind. I lived in a house, a grand, tall house with three layers of gable fascia that I was rather proud of. I lived in a small condominium while I built that tall house, and the condo received some new countertops and a new fireplace surround and some new paint. I sold both of those, but returned to a condo some time later to rent, a different place. Before that, before the tall house and the small condo I had rented a different condo, this one with a split staircase so that some of the rooms were up and some were down, the only thing in the middle being the landing for the stair. Because I lived in all of these places, I think I know Geneva National better than you do. I think I know it better than most Realtors, because if they’ve never lived there how, then, can they tell you about the experience?
In the same way, I lived on the lake for a while. From the time I was a day or two old to the time I was 18, I lived on that lake. I know what it feels like, what it looks like, the way it is when you walk to the pier in the morning with a fishing pole in your hand and leave footsteps in the dew. I know how the carp swim in the shallows during those early mornings, two at a time, large and purple, menacing looking but not really. I know these things because I lived these things, and the experience helps me every day as I try my best to convince others what it is they’re missing out on.
Currently, I’m building a small cabin on the side of a hill quite a distance from here. The cabin is a few hundred feet from a trout stream, and the views are delightful to the north and to the south, also to the east and to the west. There’s nothing I don’t particularly like about what it is that I’m doing. I’m building this cabin to exercise some of my real estate ADHD, but mostly I’m building it so that I have a place to hang my hat when I’m out fly fishing with my family. It’ll be a nice thing, this little cabin, but I never really wanted to build it. When I started considering the concept of a small cabin from which to fish, I could picture it in my mind. It was small, sure. Basic, with a wood stove and a small kitchen, the pots and pans hanging from hooks. The bedrooms, small, maybe only two, maybe just one. I wasn’t clear on that part. The bathroom, ideally inside, but an outhouse was a possibility. After all, it was just a cabin to hang ones hat while on a 24 hour fishing trip. Luxuries were not necessary, only a dry, warm place to sleep.
After some time of considering this basic idea, I looked around for the cabin that might fit the vision. I’d spend less than $100k and I’d buy this place and it would be next to a trout stream and I’d sit on the porch and watch for trout to rise. Once they did, I’d grab my three weight and I’d walk over to the stream and I’d catch the rising trout. I’d hold them briefly and then release them, content in my skill and pleased with the process. I’d then walk balk to the cabin and sit on the porch, maybe to think about that trout or to watch for the next one, I wasn’t sure. That’s what I wanted to do. And so I kept looking for the cabin that would allow such an evening on that porch, near that stream with the rising trout. And I’d spend less than $100k to do it.
It was soon apparent that $100k wasn’t going to work. Small Amish built cabins on posts could be bought for that price, but if my wife and kids were along for the trip we couldn’t really function out of a space so small, so unstable. The outhouse would have been okay if it were just me in residence, with my son perhaps, but Curry women and Curry girls don’t like outhouses, so that wouldn’t do, not at all. $150k might work. I could set up a gofundme.com on this website and ask for donations, the money would be well spent on my mental health, which would benefit everyone who knows me, personally or just through these pixels. $150k it would be. Local Realtors got to know me. I’d tell them what I wanted, and then I’d go see something that I described. The places were not right, too this or too that, too rustic or two boring, too far from the stream and to close to another house. I didn’t like decorating out there. I didn’t like the bathroom fixtures. I didn’t like the landscaping, which generally consisted of a gravel driveway that was mostly dirt and grass.
My vision, this easy, wide open, simple goal, was proving elusive. The large area of several counties had been narrowed. I decided that I only really liked two different valleys, maybe three, but the one had a farm on the corner with too many cows and too many broken down implements scattered across the fields like some sort of scrappers obstacle course. If I spent $300k, surely that would solve this thing. I can’t really spend that much money, but I’ve done more for less. LendingTree told me I could borrow lots of money, and if some anonymous algorithm confirmed I could spend more, then who am I to argue? Let’s spend more, I figured, and we could rent the house out most of the time. After all, this place is too far away to frequent, and if we had a garage and some other bedrooms I could store things in them that I cannot store here. The basement would be nice. Who ever said a cabin in the woods should be so basic? Hooks for hanging pots and pans seem nice until you realize that I’m of a certain height and I’d most definitely hit my head on them, which seems problematic and very un-relaxing.
The market yielded nothing. For a region settled by Norwegian Immigrants there were no relics of style that I had expected to uncover. The area seemed small to me. Little to buy, little to look at. If I upped my search to one million dollars and pretended that I had infinite funds, no house was appealing. Land, that’s what I needed. Just a couple of acres would do. Nothing big, just easy. Near a stream, so I can build that deck and sit on it and watch for rising trout. Valley land was soft, sandy and silty at once, and certainly there would be some available. And there was. That’s when I learned about hydraulic shadows and flood plains. I could buy land near the stream, but then I’d risk being swept away in the night, my wife and kids swept, after some time of floating, into the Mississippi, never to be seen again. Valleys, perfect for watching trout rise, terrible for living through floods.
Hillsides, that’s where I needed to be. Not bluff tops, but hillsides. Something half way up the hill. All the way up would be too high, too hard to get to, too windy. Half way up, just out of the flood plain so that when the levies break I would have a solid view of the carnage below. 3 acres, that’s all I needed. Until it became apparent that 3 acre lots are next to other three acre lots and my plan here was to escape. To hide. To sit on that porch without asking the neighbor how he’s enjoying his porch. I’d need more land, 10 acres, 20, 30 even. 40! But the folly was that I couldn’t afford 30, not then and not now. And so finally 15 acres hit the market and on a snowy day that felt like a whim, I drove out and I bought it. I paid for the land and I thought that perhaps I had made a big mistake. I had buyer’s remorse last week when I bought the $29.98 package of fireworks instead of the $19.98 package. What was I, a Rockefeller? I had the larger package in my cart for a while before swapping it for the lesser package, and then I thought of my kids and how they’d be so disappointed with me and so I, after some time of staring at my options, grabbed the $29.98 package.
The land was bought for a price that was my original cabin budget. The cabin is being built now, and I’m so far over budget that I’m not quite sure what the total cost will be. I have a good idea. I won’t be able to sit on my deck and watch for rising trout. But I won’t get swept away in floods, and I’m not so high that I’ll be blasted by the unceasing wind. The bedrooms, there are a few. Baths, some of those as well. The space swelled when the plans were drawn, and even though it’s still small compared to what I sell and see here, it’s still bigger than I originally intended. It’s more money than I intended. It’s not exactly what I had intended. But it’s in the valley I like and the trout aren’t far away, and the kitchen will have shelves to put away the pots and pans.
This ongoing experiment has given me terrific insight into what it is you struggle with. I didn’t plan to do any of this, I just wanted something simple and easy, but it’s grown and turned and it’s become something very different. But it’s something that I want, and when I first sit on that deck and watch the stream in the distance dance and twist through the valley floor, none of the other things will matter because it’s the pursuit of a lifestyle that we’re after. We’re all just Mr. Blandings, after all.
If you’ll cast your memory back to 2015, our summer didn’t really begin until Independence Day Weekend. Even then, the temperatures warmed but the sky was pale. It was pale because of those whipped up Canadian wild fires, which were likely deliberately set to cast that hazy high sky over our celebratory weekend. It wasn’t until after that Holiday weekend that the sun broke through and warmed our skin. This year, we’ve already had more nice days in June than we had during the entire summer of 2015, if we can even call it a summer. It was a terrible summer. We can say it now. Now we’re smug. Like when we had a 1992 Cadillac STS and we thought it was super cool at the time, and we worked so hard to convince our friends that it was cool, but now we can just look back and realize what a horrible, embarrassing thing that really was.
This coming weekend, it’s time to make the weekend last a week. July 4th is a Monday, which is ridiculous but necessary. This means Tuesday is a wash. If Tuesday is a wash, why bother start something on a Wednesday? And if we’ve now agreed that our Wednesday is far from an ideal time to start efforting then who could ever suggest Thursday matters? Thursday hardly matters during a normal week in February, let alone a week where we celebrate our delicious Independence in July. Friday, if by now the other days are lost, well Friday is just a throw in for the weekend. This is why next week you are supposed to take the week off. If you have a lake house, I’ll see you at the lake. If you have a lake house on another, lesser, embarrassing lake, then I’ll see you at this lake and we’ll set about remedying your geographic mistake. If you’re thinking about brunch right now and how you hope to get in the line Sunday early, like super early, then just stop it and email me so we can make this, and every weekend that follows actually mean something.
Now that we’ve cleared next week’s schedule, you have some fireworks to watch. Fontana is having their explosive display on Monday night, at dusk. That’s the Fourth of July. The fireworks are launched from barges in front of the Fontana beach, so prime viewing is anywhere on the West end of the lake, ideally from shore. If you’re boating, be careful and drive slow. If you’re driving the boat, don’t be a messy drunk about it. Fontana, with it’s brazen timing of its fireworks, is encouraging you to let Tuesday slide, just as I’m then encouraging you to let the other weekdays that follow slide. Fontana fireworks will be the best display in the area, so it’s worth your attention. But there are others.
The Grand Geneva has their fireworks scheduled for July 3rd, as does Geneva National. This is nice, because they’re being conscientious and assuming you’d like to go to work on Tuesday morning, but we all know you don’t. The Lake Geneva Country Club has their display on Saturday, July 2nd, meaning if you love fireworks you have three days in a row of fireworks. The Geneva National display will be viewable from a boat parked in Williams Bay. The Lake Geneva Country Club fireworks will be visible from much of the North shore on the Eastern side of the lake, or from your boat parked on that end. It’ll be fun.
So that’s your schedule, and as always, if you’re up and you see some real estate you like, just let me know. Here’s a new video of my beautiful lakefront lot in Loramoor listed at $2.34MM. If you want a beautiful, easy lakefront property and you want to build a beautiful home, then what on earth could you be waiting for?
When it rains now it only rains for some of the day. When the clouds come, they never stay. When the sun warms in the morning it stays warm in the afternoon, into the evening, the moon rises without much mystery. It’s just up there, and we can see it. We needn’t wonder where it is because we can see where it is, hung up there around those stars in that dark sky. The lake blows blue most days. The light pours through my morning windows bright, and it’s early, and when I wake up and I think about the day I don’t really wonder what it’s going to be like, I just know it’s sunny and if it isn’t then it will be soon. This is the summer of 2016, and it just might be the summer of our lives.
But then again it might not be. If you’re not here and you don’t see this and feel this then what is it about this summer that can make it any different from the summers that came before? What will make it different from the summers yet to come? When my son fly fishes for bass from the piers once the sun has dipped enough to leave the Western piers shaded, how could this matter to you? Do your kids know about this sort of thing? Do they know that later in the day the sun settles somewhere to the west and once it does the bass decide that they might like something to eat? Do your kids know that when you throw the fly line with your five weight it’s best to double haul with your left hand to speed the line up and soften the delivery? Do they know that a mouse fly is effective even though mice rarely, if ever, fall from piers and into the water? Do they care? Do you care? Does anyone care?
My son cares, and so he fishes and he double hauls and when he doesn’t think I’m around he grabs a spinning rod because he blames the fly rod when the fish won’t bite. He’s officially the worst fisherman in the world, or so he told me last Friday night. He fishes all day and then some of the night, and when I join him I try so very hard to catch a bass or a northern pike for him, so that he can see how it all works. He missed a fish off the municipal pier on that last Friday night, the fish rose to his fly and then missed his fly and he was both angered and invigorated at once, but recharged in his purpose nonetheless. He hurried his line back in and up into the air, false forward and false back, enough to feed the line into the cast, enough to let the momentum push that line and carry that fly away from the pier to the spot where the fish had tried, and failed, to eat. That cast sent his fly into the air, his line unattached. He scoured in disgust, he was the most unlucky fisherman in the world. Tears filled his eyes.
There are certain days when I must leave this town, travel to another town where another pursuit is slowly plodding forward. On those rare days my son rejoices, because without parents near he can fish all day. Last Friday was to be one of those days, but really just the afternoon, and he knew that with his mother and me out of this town that he could fish, uninterrupted, for the entirety of the afternoon. When we turned around a mere 45 minutes into our trip because of a traffic jam straight out of the most fiery hell, he wasn’t happy to see us. In fact, he walked from one pier to the next, putting distance between his pursuit and us, his pursuers. That’s why I took him to the municipal pier later that evening, to make up for the inconvenience of returning home before I was scheduled to.
My son, today, will fish. He’ll go to the piers and he’ll fish. He’ll look for bass and pike, and when they won’t bite he’ll look for bluegills that will gladly and greedily sip a dry fly presented to the shallows. Later today, I’ll fish with him, if only for a bit, trying to catch something to show him that there’s more life under this surface than he could ever imagine. But imagine he does, and he dreams and he fishes and he spends his days under that sun and on those piers. He wouldn’t have it any other way, because he doesn’t know it any other way. It’s the summer of his life, and he wonders how someone could ever spend it doing anything else.
I’m old enough to remember when owning a swimming pool was a bad thing. It was a liability, that pool. If a seller had one, the Realtor would exclaim, what a fantastic pool! Then the Realtor would read the expression of the buyer, and if the expression soured and waxed puzzled, the Realtor would tell the buyer that the pool can easily be filled in stone and then what a fantastic patio you’d have! This is how it all used to be. Pools looked cool in photographs but in person buyers tended to shy from them, worried about the insurance cost and the maintenance cost and the process of it all. This isn’t how it is today.
Today, buyers at Lake Geneva look for pools. They crave pools. They love them dearly. In fact, I would have sold one of my large lakefront listing s several times over had it only possessed a pool. Pools are all the rage now, and if you have one, you’re in luck. Not all pools are created equal, so if you have a liner pool with a wrinkled floor, people won’t love that. If you have a tiny kidney pool like you’re under a lanai in Naples, people won’t love that, either. But if that pool is large enough, without being too large, and the surrounding patio is high quality and your furniture is just so, then your pool is adding value to your home with every underwater sweep of the cleaning robot’s arm.
In this, there is danger. The real danger aside, there is danger in the way this pool can transform your weekend. Pools are great, but they can ruin you and your weekend. They can make your soft children softer, make your weekends less about a lake and more about a pool. They can change everything, and in that there is a warning to heed: Beware the pool, even the lakefront pool, for it can be an instrument for evil.
A dear friend of mine is building a pool at his lakefront home as we speak. This pool is nearly complete, nearly ready to be splashed through and cannonballed into. The anticipation is, at this point, nearly unbearable. The pool will be the focus of much love, of some frustration, of horror when the first dead chipmunk is found cramped into the filter. Nearby frogs will at first rejoice, then regret their decision to jump into that chemically bath. The children will frolic in the way that children can. All of this is fine, but vigilance is required if the pool is going to be merely an auxiliary feature and never take the place of the primary feature that is the 5400 acre pool in front of the new pool.
But how can we make sure this doesn’t happen, that we don’t soften up our soft children so much that they prefer the chlorinated comfort of a synthetic lake over the real thing? Well, I’m glad you asked. The first think we must do is initiate rules. Country clubs have rules, and if we’re making our lakeside lawn into a similar club then we must initiate and abide by our own set of parameters. First up, no swimming in the pool if the lake is reasonably calm, the sun reasonably high, and the water reasonably clear. I will allow pool swimming if the lake is turned up something fierce, like on a holiday weekend afternoon, but that’s it. Otherwise, if it’s sunny and the lake is ready, use the lake. The pool isn’t for those times.
The pool is for the month of May. For some of early June. The pool is for late September and October. The pool is for the time of year when the lake is not warm enough for comfortable swimming. This is why the pool exists. The pool is also for the aforementioned periods during the middle of summer when the lake is acting somewhat unruly. These are the only pool rules you need. Don’t use the pool when the lake is better. Don’t use the pool because it’s convenient. It’s also convenient to eat ice cream for lunch every day but even I don’t do that every day. The pool will be easy, and it’ll be tempting, but why are we at the lake? Are we here to hide in the shade of a large umbrella while our kids tip toe around the shallow side of the pool with Spongebob floaties on? Or are we here to indulge in the lake, to dive from piers, to feel the rush and bask in the nature of it all? I’m not going to answer that question. I shouldn’t have to.
In life, much of our time and energy is spent justifying our established positions. If I’m a Democrat, I spend some energy defending my positions, no matter whether or not they’re exactly correct or incorrect. If I’m a Republican, I do the same. If I love tacos, I’ll explain to you that I love tacos, and I’ll encourage you to eat them, too. If I think the best band in the world is Oasis, I’ll explain that to you as best I can. If you live in the Chicago area and you’re thinking about a lake house, and it hasn’t yet become obvious to you that Lake Geneva is the only place to consider, then I’ll spend most of my time trying to convince you of its merits. And if you write for the Wall Street Journal, you’ll waste a column on something as absurd as the notion of a staycation.
Last summer, Mr. Straus and Ms. Missett paid $1.988 million for a two-bedroom apartment in the Manhattan neighborhood of Tribeca, which they use as their weekend getaway. “What I love is that unlike the Hamptons, it’s a quick subway ride down there, and it totally feels like you’re on vacation,” Mr. Straus, 56, said. In comparison to the hustle and bustle of Midtown, their cobblestoned Tribeca street is “quiet—it feels like a country home.”
No it doesn’t. It can’t. There’s no way a cobblestoned street makes an apartment feel like a country home. There’s nothing that can be argued here if we’re considering the falsity of that statement. An apartment is not a country home, period. That would be like me saying that because I paved the gravel driveway that leads me to my country home, and I threw garbage all around the margins, that my country home feels like a city home. If an apartment feels like a country home to this nice couple, then it’s obvious that they’ve never owned a country home. The fact that the article doesn’t challenge the most absurd claim leaves me somewhat weak and feverish.
Real estate agents, according to the WSJ article, are pointing to proximity as the reason someone would buy a vacation home a handful of blocks from their primary home. In Miami, another silly couple bought a condo 13 miles from their primary home. This is no less absurd than the Tribeca couple, but it does explain something about vacation home buyers: They don’t always understand the purpose of the vacation home. Do we have two homes just so we can sleep in a different bed on the weekends? Do we have this other home so that we can pay twice the mortgage, twice the taxes, and have twice the headache? Do we have this second home just so we can say we do, or so we can put up those drapes we really like that just don’t work well with the color palate of our primary?
The answer to those question is don’t be silly. But the answer is obviously not well understood, otherwise people wouldn’t be buying a vacation home so near their full time home. The reason people do this is apparently born out of convenience, because a couple in Manhattan can jump on a subway and be in Tribeca in some short period of time, or so I presume. A couple in Miami can drive 13 miles to their “vacation” condo in a similarly short time. But what is accomplished by this? Proximity is important, yes, but a vacation home can be too close. If the scenery isn’t different and the activities aren’t different and there’s no time to decompress while driving with a dose of anticipation, then what is the purpose of this nearby home?
Yesterday, I went mountain biking. I should say that I hate mountain biking. It’s just a terrible, terrible thing. If there was a service that would drop me off at the top of a hill somewhere and then pick me up at the bottom, once I coasted my way down, I’d be interested in this. But the pedaling up and down is really quite redundant, and so I hate it. But I did it anyway and after that I went down to fish with my son, who had been fishing off the piers for no less than 7 hours when I picked him up. At home, I pulled some weeds and fired up my tractor to gather the piles of weeds that my wife had pulled earlier in the day. I did these things because I live in the country, at this lake, and those things I did are not the same things you can do in the city. If a cobblestone road makes you feel like you’re living in the country, then you’ve never been to the country. If your son didn’t fly fish off a diving board as a summer storm rumbled in the distance, then you need a lake house.
The man in front of me wore a checked shirt of blue and white. I wore a similar shirt, mine more white than blue, and no fewer than six other men on the small plane wore the same pattern in the same colors. The older men in first class wore solid blue.
The checked shirt man bobbed his head long before the plane launched into the sky. He bobbed his head as we cleared the coastal state and then still he bobbed when we made it over Lake Erie. The bob was the same the whole time, shallow and quick, always the same beat. Whatever he was listening to was consistent, song after song, either that or he was stuck on repeat and he bobbed to the same song in that same shirt in the seat in front of me for the entirety of that westbound flight. I wished I hadn’t been so annoyed by the constant motion. I tried to video the bobbing, but the phone was on 9% and the passengers behind me would have been able to see what I was doing. I preferred to be simply one of the men in the checked shirts on that flight, and not the man who videotaped the other man because of his insistent, steady bob.
Once I flew home from the Cayman Islands, which island I cannot remember. Two days before the return flight that island sun had burned my face so badly that I spent those two days that followed slinking around the shady side of the pool and icing my face down with the bartender’s ice. I went for a walk at night and carried with me a neatly folded paper towel so that I might wipe the clear puss that was weeping from my burnt face. I never said this story was pleasant, but the pre-flight history is important because my mood was sour when I boarded that plane, and increasingly it worsened as the man in the seat in front of me spoke loudly in a heavy foreign tongue. I had no headphones, but had I it wouldn’t have been certain that I dared touch them to my crisped ears. I could do nothing but sit and listen to his heavy exaggerated dialect, and the farther into the flight the more he spoke, the louder, loud enough for everyone to hear, no matter their seat. My face wept, my ears buzzed, my patience was not traveling well.
And so yesterday I sat on that flight home, back to this place, to the place we take for granted. You take it for granted and I take it for granted because we’re told by the world that our place is nice, but it’s not that nice. It’s nice for Wisconsin, those people from other places say. I’m back after a short visit to a bigger city where bigger things exist, but I’m reminded today that these bigger things are not better, that far away city no more important than this small village. It’s Memorial Day Weekend, and while this is typically a warm up for summer, this year it appears as though it really is summer. Enjoy it, bask in it, solemnly remember those who made this safe life possible, and don’t take any of it for granted. Not this place, or this time, or these warm days and this clear water. It’s special, and sometimes you need only sit in coach behind a checked shirt man whose iTunes was stuck on repeat to realize it.
I’ve decided to change the major theme of my magazine. Instead of Summer Homes For City People being a Lake Geneva lifestyle magazine that features writing from yours truly and the finest real estate that this vacation home market has to offer, I’m going to make it more of a game. You see, no matter how hard I try, I make mistakes in the magazine. A period should be followed by a space, I know this, but sometimes in the magazine the errors of cut and paste leave things cramped, like this.And sometimes when a phrase is italicized, the first letter of the following sentence, the letter that isn’t italicized, is. This is terrible, but it happens. Sometimes, the errors are less subtle, sometimes, you miss one digit of a four digit address for one of your favorite listings. Sure, a buyer will find their way to the location and see the sign, but that’s not the point.
Did you know that it’s the year 2016? I know it, too, but there’s one spot in the new issue that would rather you believe it’s 2015. This is the game, find the glaring error and win! What you’ll win I can’t say just yet, because I’ve just now thought of the game, but you’ll definitely win something. This way, when the 2017 magazine is printed, it’ll be exciting, because when you mail in your error submission with a SASE you stand the chance to win something seriously important. In this, the magazine errors won’t look so silly, they’ll just be part of the game, and the game will make the magazine even more important and even more special and then people will say WOW!, this magazine is not only tolerable to read but the game the author created is a hoot. This is what they’ll say.
For now, the magazine is out, and it’s decent. It’s not my best effort I fear, but I’m just one man and sometimes I should have more help. I was delivering magazines on Saturday morning, and then again on Sunday morning, when I noticed that Lake Geneva is in mid-summer form already. It’s May, not even the last of it, and we’re already acting like it’s July. This is important, because a Midwestern summer needs to be stretched to one side or the other, ideally both, otherwise we’re left feeling cheated when the cold October winds blow. If we can get some of May, which we’ve had, and we can get some of October, which we’ve had in prior years, then the summer feels long and it feels important because it is both. Summer in May is a nice phenomenon, which leads us to Dennis Miller’s line on global warming: One man’s global warming is another mans, Hey, it’s nice out!
The market is performing exceptionally well, perhaps as a result of the weather or as a result of interest rates or just as a result of intelligence. The entry level market is on fire, with $250-$550k type homes in Country Club Estates selling with ease. New inventory, aged inventory, it doesn’t seem to matter, it’s selling. The lakefront remains busy, and a new deal on the lakefront at the tippy top of Cedar Point proves buyers don’t mind stairs if they have a view, especially when the price point is in the mid ones. There are other deals, and one that I’ve neglected to mention over recent weeks is a contract on the spec home being built in the Elgin Club. That’s a small lot spec home, but it’s selling for a very nice number, rumored to be in the mid $2s. New homes always sell well when they’re of the right style (paint your trim white, please).
I superjetted yesterday, and I really would like it if you’d wave at me when I’m jetting. I’m the only guy with the black Superjet who wears a hat and sunglasses when I jet. I do that because I don’t like my hair blowing in the wind, because I have so much of it and it looks ridiculous. I wear sunglasses because it’s bright on the water, and that’s that. I boated yesterday as well, and the lake looked to me as it would look during any summer weekend. But it’s May, so it was better than July, because in July we expect it and in May we’re thankful for it. The lakefront is buzzing with construction, and in coming weeks I’ll be outlining the new builds on the lake, with photos to show you what you’re missing.
The bridge in Fontana is open, so the painful 9 month project is finally, mercifully, finished. It was a terrible inconvenience, as you’re likely well aware, and so now it’s open and life is better and everyone is happier. This week brings some big meetings for me, with some exciting new ideas on the horizon. We’ll see how it all plays out, but for now, I’m going to go back to pouring over my magazine to find the errors. There’s no telling what I might win if I find them all.
I was in Chicago Wednesday. It was a crisp spring day, the sky and water in a matching shade. The city, when viewed from the approaching interstate, no matter which one, is not a terrific thing. The city looks too congested, hazy, too city-like. But when viewed from Lakeshore Drive, the city comes alive. It would be hard to view the city from that direction and consider the city a mess. And so I spent time in the city and I visited a few coffee shops and restaurants and marveled at the variety in such tight quarters. In Lincoln Park we walked past three coffee shops to go to the fourth, because that one was better, or just different, it was hard to say. So many people can support so many shops, even when they’re all nearly the same. I enjoyed my visit and my meetings and returned home as I always do, happy to have been and happier to be back.
In Walworth County, we do not have the luxury of superfluous shops and stores, because we don’t have the population to support such variety. I’m happy for this small town setting with small town concerns, but businesses that rely on foot traffic can face an uphill battle because of the demographics. That’s why I root for local businesses that open, even as I know most of them will fail. A new ice cream shop in Williams Bay? Well, we already have two, maybe three, four if you count that one place, so you’ll be the fifth? And you’ll be serving Blue Bunny Ice Cream, the same kind the gas stations sell? I’d rather treat you as farmers treat farm animals, because you never get to know something you know is going to be dead in a few months. But alas, I cheer on businesses that I think the community needs, and businesses that will benefit the community they serve.
I have had a dream for decades that I would someday buy the Geneva Lakes Bait and Tackle store and turn it into a high end outfitter. I’d run guides through the shop, and make it a high end sporting store. That dream is probably no longer viable, but that corner of Williams Bay where Highways 50 and 67 intersect has been the focus of much growth. Mercy Hospital is big and bold on that corner, important for the area and a nice thing to have nearby so many recreating daredevils. The Belfry Theatre, as you read here last year, is being refitted and should be open soon for a summer concert series. Lakeland Church is helping the effort; their church being located just to the north of that intersection. The sore spot has been the site immediately across from the hospital, just north of the Belfry, north of my someday bait and tackle shop.
That corner property was a mix of run down old this and beaten up that, and you’ve likely noticed over recent months a revitalization of sorts occurring on those grounds. A new barn was built, the property cleaned, the old house remade. The style fits my eye, whites and grays and a bit of modern intermixed with a decidedly country vibe. The business is Boxed and Burlap. My friend Jon Neighbors and his lovely wife whom I’ve never met are the owners, and what they’re doing deserves your attention. The property is being turned into a destination with multiple purposes, most notably the tree and plant business that occupies much of the property. But that’s where the similarities to other greenhouses and nursery operations end. The old house is nearly complete in its transformation to coffee house. The tour I went on yesterday revealed a very cool space that will likely become a very popular coffee spot. In Williams Bay, we’re long ice cream but exceptionally light coffee. Boxed and Burlap fixes that.
There will be additional goings on, with one building undergoing a conversion to an artists studio where you can take some art and pottery classes, should that be something you’re interested in. I love art, but I barely have the patience to draw a heart around my name when I sign my wife’s anniversary card, so you won’t find me working on my pastels anytime soon. But the space will be there, so that’s nice if you’re artsy. There will be live bands, seasonal festivals, a farmer’s market, and more. The vision of the owners has proven to me, before they’ve proven to anyone else, that this business will work.
But for it to work, and for the community to benefit from it for years to come, it needs your help. I’m not going to tell you to visit them this weekend, but I am asking that you visit them over Memorial Day Weekend. The coffee shop should be open, so stop for an espresso and take home a lilac bush while you’re at it. Help this business succeed not for the sake of the owner, but for the sake of the community. Failed businesses aren’t a benefit to anyone, and important, high visibility corners are an especially important component to any thriving community. Hopefully this summer I’ll see you at Boxed and Burlap.
I just love it when firetrucks drive down the road in town. They drive slowly, with their lights on and their water canon blasting. What fun it is to see that triumphant arch of water spray from the slowly rolling truck and onto my lawn! Sometimes, the fire truck blares through town because they need to practice what it’s like to blare through town. And then they roll up on a house that isn’t on fire and douse it with pumped water. What a hoot it is when the owner comes out and wonders why his house is covered in water. The firemen just shrug their shoulders and blast away, and the owner smiles and goes back inside. He wouldn’t want to get sprayed!
And sometimes I love it when the policeman races through town and pulls someone over. Was the driver speeding? No. Was the driver texting while driving? No. Did the driver roll through a stop sign without making a complete stop? Of course not. The cop pulled the driver over and then pulled him from his car and read him his rights, then he told him that he was going to jail and so many people driving by laughed. What a terrific example of solid police work! But then the cop told the driver that he was only joking and that he was just practicing and that the driver could go about his business.
Later, the ambulance, sirens roaring, lights flashing, driving with a terrific urgency. The ambulance is in a hurry, on a mission, heading from here to there to pick up someone who is in distress. Stop signs ignored, red lights meaningless. The pace is hurried, there’s not much time. But then the ambulance pulls into Burger King and the EMTs get out and laugh. What a fun training mission that was!
It was obvious to most that these were not literal examples of our rescue and police workers practicing their craft. Yet it seems as though the Linn Township Fire and Rescue Boat doesn’t understand the joke. The cartoonish boat that has been marring my view for the past year is at it again, and it’s getting really, really old. The fireboat takes joy in driving around the lake shooting its water canon. If we were in the Wisconsin Dells, or another similarly cheesy venue, this might be acceptable. But here, on this lake, in this place, the fireboat is not welcome. Might it someday be needed to throw water onto a burning boat- a boat that would burn with or without the water being pumped over it? Sure. And for that the boat should exist. But should it be spinning around the lake each weekend firing water from its canon so that little children and no one else can find amusement in the feat? Absolutely not.
But they’ll say that I’m a killjoy. That they’re just training, or having fun, or delighting kids. They’ll say this is necessary. Really? Does the firetruck troll around town shooting water? Does the police cruiser rip through residential neighborhoods with its siren and lights on, just to show the taxpayers what they bought? Does the EMT walk through a park sparking his defribulator paddles together so that kids can enjoy the show? None of these things would happen, yet the fireboat goes out every weekend, cruising around the lake as though the gas it sucks is free, shooting this absurd spout of water into the air. We get it. It shoots water. Now put it away because it has no place in public view unless its extinguishing a fire.
Yesterday, after a Mother’s Day feast at my house, I took to the lake. I was privileged to catch a ride on the most beautiful boat that this lake has ever seen (with apologies to the steamers of the gilded age). The boat was smooth, sleek, as sexy as a boat has ever been. That’s the aesthetic of this lake. That’s the style that is at home here. That’s what people pay some of the steepest prices in the country to experience. And yet, the day before, there was the cartoon fire boat, spraying water into the air as if anyone cares. To the Town of Linn, I implore you to put your stupid boat away. It’s ridiculous, cartoonish and unnecessary. It’s a sideshow on a lake that doesn’t want it. If you object to that classification, remember my example of the fire truck. Would you applaud a firetruck roaming around downtown on summer weekends with its water cannon firing?
If you’re reading this and you agree with me, please email the Town of Linn – email@example.com and the Linn Chairman – firstname.lastname@example.org. Tell them we get it, the boat has a canon, now put it away until it’s time to be used. We don’t want our weekend views interrupted by their cartoonish water display.
Growing up, I ate some tacos. Not a lot of tacos, just some. They came in one variety. Ortega hard corn shells stuffed with ground beef that had been mixed with some taco seasoning. Then some shredded cheddar cheese and shredded lettuce and maybe, just maybe, some diced tomatoes. I didn’t like tomatoes until adulthood, and I still can’t eat a large raw piece of stand-alone tomato, so it seems to me as though I wouldn’t have added the tomatoes then, either. These were our tacos, and they were pretty good. So good in fact that Taco Bell built an empire around the recipe. Norwegian-German kids from Williams Bay loved their mother’s tacos and they loved their Taco Bell.
But these are not tacos. There is no seasoning called “taco”. Taco is not a flavor, no matter what Dorito’s and Ortega would have you believe. My first real taco showed up sometime about 15 years ago, but I didn’t enjoy them then the way I enjoy them now, which is to say, too much. Tacos now are authentic, made with just corn tortillas and some meat and some scratch-made salsa. Maybe some hot sauce of Mexican origin. Maybe some sour cream. Onions and Cilantro, that’s it. These tacos are real tacos. They’re good tacos, and fortunately for you and for me, they’re everywhere around Lake Geneva.
Mexican Restaurants in Lake Geneva are not like Mexican restaurants in Chicago, at least not like the ones we’ve all heard of. Xoco is fine. Big Star is, too. Antique Taco, good stuff. None of our taco places are like those taco places. Our taco places do not smell the best. They smell like raw meat and the exterior of avocados. There’s an imported smell in these taco stands, and it’s not one you’d bottle if you had a choice. They say food looks and tastes better when served on a white plate, in a green room, with the smell of something neutral in the air and dimmish lights. This is not what you’ll find in our taco establishments. What you will find is authentic Mexican fare, cooked by Mexicans, eaten mostly by Mexicans, and if you’re lucky enough to wander into one, you’ll find simple tacos that stand up to anything Rick Bayless can turn out.
If you drove around Lake Geneva, Walworth, Elkhorn or Delavan, these taco places, excepting one (Los Agaves), wouldn’t stand out. They don’t say TACOS on the sign, with some hipstery font and old timey graphic. They just say something in Spanish, and there’s a store front that’s typically stacked with so many things you can’t see inside. Middle shelf, refried beans by the can. Top shelf, pots and pans, bottom shelf, rendered lard. In between, some swim shorts and maybe a small guitar, the kind tourists strum when vacationing beachside in Cozumel. There is no real effort here to make you want to come inside the shop.
But you must. Because inside is a grocery store and a restaurant, mixed together carelessly, but purposefully. There might be four tables, maybe three, maybe 12. The sound of a griddle griddling will greet you at the door, along with that aroma that you’d rather not meet. But this is just the subterfuge, and this is what keeps vacationers out of these establishments. What out-of-towners don’t know is that if they pass these up in favor of another burger joint, the joke is on them. Just like Pier 290’s scene justifies the visit, the taqueria’s food makes up for the lack of scene.
With that, and in honor of Cinco de Mayo, the Lake Geneva area’s best Mexican restaurants:
UNNAMED MEXICAN GROCER. I don’t know what this place is called. It’s on Broad Street, a few blocks north of downtown, right next to RRB Cycles. Tacos are best, with burritos a close second. The Pastor and Steak, mexican style with avocado is the best call.
Tienda El Racho. This is on Elkhorn Road, north of town, across from Geneva Auto Body. It’s good.
La Mexican, on the square in Walworth. In addition to serving terrific tacos out of their restaurant, this is the best Mexican grocer in the area. Lots of fresh produce, and like all Mexican grocers, somehow they sell limes 10 x $1. They’re lime suppliers are the best, and cheapest. If I’m making Mexican food at home, you can bet I’ll be shopping at La Mexicana first.
Lucke’s is not a Mexican restaurant, no matter the menu. It’s fine, but that’s not the sort of place I’m talking about. Delavan
There are many taquerias here, but only one favorite. The grocery store Supermecado is very good, very complete. I get their Pastor to cook at home sometimes. But the taco place I prefer is Los Agaves. It’s more of a restaurant than the others on this list, and that makes it more approachable. The chicken tacos served Mexican style with their house salsa is the way to go. Don’t do something stupid and order a quesadilla. Both are on the main brick-paved drag downtown Delavan.
Supermercado is at 28 South Washington. It has the same name as the place in Delavan, but I have no idea if it’s the same owner, or just a geographic coincidence. This place has burritos that are my favorite. Opt for the chicken or steak.
Dining out this summer? Don’t be silly and fear the unknown. Hit up Lake Geneva’s authentic taquerias, and you’ll be pleased.
I walk these woods. Those woods. New woods and old woods. Your woods and my woods. I walk them all. I walk them in the rain. My mood on pause. I wish for little but search and search and search. Is it this journey that I find so appealing? Would a walk be a good walk if only for the walk itself? I cannot believe in that futility. Walking is only accomplishment if it takes you from someplace and to another, as if a wanderer lost who after a lifetime of walking has finally found something. I don’t know if I’ll find that something today, but I’ll walk anyway.
From above, or from a distance of any variety, there is no rhythm to my walk. It makes little sense. Has something been lost that absolutely must be found? Is this search one of life or death, or is it a search of whim, meaning nothing outside of the time spent? The walk this week was in the rain. My boots were muddied, and these were new boots. New boots wouldn’t normally be brought along in the rain and the mud, but the walk matters to the boots just as it matters to me. Boots left clean in closets aren’t really boots at all. These new boots carried me, or I carried them, through the brambles and through the mud and around those trees and on that walk. The rain soaked my shoulders and soaked my head and soaked my new boots. After some walking, they were new no longer.
I never know what to wear on this walk. I wear a shroud of mystery if you consider the viewpoint of passing strangers. What would he be doing in there? Why would he find that walk to be so necessary, and why now? Why in this rain and with those boots and under those Lilacs that have just now, in this cloudy damp, bloomed? I wonder, too, why I must do this, when the walk is often fruitless, the thoughts narrow and the mud deep. The boots dirtied and worn and wet. I opt for jeans, a shirt, a jacket, something dull in color like the sky and the ground and everything except those blooms on the Lilacs that are early.
The Lilacs tell us the bass will be in soon. They tell us the bite will be on, though the warden tells us the fish cannot be targeted and they shouldn’t be caught. Catch and release doesn’t matter when it’s a no catch season. Once you’re not allowed to catch, the release is a given, and the latter doesn’t disallow the prior. The Lilacs bloom and the bass bite and I walk these woods. It’s this week, it was last week, it will be next week. I’ll walk this walk alone in the rain, and with my son in the rain. He’s come so far, so fast. He’s become what I wished he would become. He walks the woods, his younger mind sharper, his eyes focused, fresh. Mine are weary and aged, duller than I’d like them to be.
But walk we must. Because we have morels to find. We have ramps to dig. My son has orders to fill. It’s morel season in Wisconsin, and we’ll keep walking until we find them.
As I understand it, when the temperature drops in Florida panic ensues. Someone rushes to the store to buy supplies. Another person hurries out to throw blankets on the orange trees. Some old woman goes to the store to buy plastic so she can cover up her garden flowers that look the same in January as they do in July. Jackets fly off shelves, water bottles are scarce, gas lines wrap around palm-tree lined blocks. Things are not as bad as they could be, like when Atlanta experiences gridlock from 1/2 inch of snow, but things are generally very, very bad. This is what happens when the soft people face weather based adversity.
Compare that with those of us who live in this place. Last fall, it was nearly Thanksgiving. We had set out our finest dried corn arrangements and dusted off our turkey based decor. We were ready to celebrate the fall harvest. Then, just days before the fall event, it snowed. It snowed a lot. It was, as I recall, our largest snowfall of the winter and it happened a month before winter was set to start. Did anything strange happen as a result of this strange event? Did we rush to the stores and leave the shelves bare? Did we hoard gasoline in our red containers, expecting things to go from bad to worse? Or did we all just wake up and go to work, knowing that Thanksgiving would be just fine, if a bit white and a tad wet?
It was pretty nice out last Thursday. Warm, a bit windy, but sunny and pleasant. Friday was more of the same, and while showings homes that afternoon I spied the canopy crews diligently snapping up pier canvas. Lawn crews bustled and hustled, raking and thatching and fertilizing and mowing. The grass has been green for a while now, but it hasn’t been this green since last August. The harbor has been filling with boats since the middle of last month, but now it’s fuller, and the detailers are hard at work shining and washing and buffing those floating fiberglassed houses. On Friday it looked as though things were working out in our favor, but it couldn’t be forgotten that less than one week before I had been skiing on a thick base of white snow in this same state.
Saturday awoke sunny and calm and finished sunny and calm. In between the same pier crews bolted in their piers while the canopy crews snapped on their canvas. The lawn men raked and mowed and trimmed and mulched. The efforts were smooth and rehearsed, never mind that it’s mid April and in any other year we might not see this sort of pier activity until the first week of May. By Saturday afternoon the boats began to appear in greater numbers. Sailing scows slowly cut their zigs and zags from one point to another. The powerboats chugged and others raced, some just spun a slow circle around the lake to see what they had missed over the winter that started on that Sunday before Thanksgiving. New homes have been built, others razed. New pools are going in, patios expanded, landscaping made different, made better.
This exploratory spring ride is necessary for each boat owner, and by Saturday the discovery of spring was well underway. Sunday it continued, more boats, more sun, warmer temps still. Stand Up Paddle boarders plied the water, the women wearing bikinis under that hot April sun. Kayakers paddled their way from one place to another, their peace interrupted only by the slow rolling wake of a Streblow or two. A Lyman heading West, the crew in short sleeves and sunglasses, holding their faces to the sun, reveling in the chance. I sat on those pier chairs above and watched it unfold on that summery afternoon of April. It doesn’t take us long here to ready ourselves for this coming season. In fact, it doesn’t take us anytime at all. There is no panic. We launch the boats and zinc our noses and begin the march towards the season we wish would last longer than any other. Sure it’s only April, but the best way to enjoy summer is to indulge it the moment it teases us with a warm afternoon and a gentle breeze more befitting August than April.
I’ve been sitting at this desk for 20 minutes and I can’t think about anything to write about. Not a single thing. Part of the problem is that I’m tired. I’m tired because I had a lot of appointments yesterday, but those don’t make me that tired. Sure, it’s not great fun to have lots of appointments, but if given the option of having too many appointments or none at all, there’s no Realtor worth his or her salt that would opt for the silence of nothing. It was a good day, if a miserable, cloudy, rainy day. It was a day where people were introduced to the market, people decided to buy here, and others thought about what a life on these shores might be like.
I’m interested to see if this week is indeed the start of some better weather, so that’s preoccupying some of my mind. It’s sunny now, but faded and silvered, and really not entirely bright. But it’s better than yesterday, and that’s probably good enough for now. Will it be 60 soon? Will the forecast hold and will it build and will we someday soon complain that it’s just too hot? Too much, too early, we’ll all say. I would like to say that, because I haven’t said it for a long time and just typing it makes me wish I could say it out loud and mean it. It’s so hot, I’ll say, and sweat will form on my brow and we’ll all have rosy cheeks because it’s too hot, and we haven’t yet adjusted.
But I’m really just thinking about Saturday now. On Saturday I took my family skiing to Granite Peak. It’s a nice hill, this Granite Peak. It’s at Rib Mountain, so sometimes people will call the hill Rib and other times Granite, but when you go there and see all the granite you’re probably going to call it Granite Peak from then on. We drove there Saturday morning, and what a beautiful morning it was. We stopped at Starbucks and ordered three breakfast sandwiches, which were really quite good. The kids said so. My wife didn’t order one, but she ate most of mine, so when it was all said and done and we were many miles up the road I decided that next time I’m just going to order her one whether she says she wants one or not.
The hill was tall, and though there was no snow anywhere in sight, the hill was covered in it. Remnant blown snow from when the winter was young, and late fresh snow, the sort that has fallen here and there over the past weeks. It has fallen and stuck to the mountain, the Wisconsin mountain, which is only a mountain in theory, because we know that out West the mountains are big and they’re incredible and it’s always sunny except when it snows, and the powder is deep and Colorado is nirvana and blah blah blah. The day started well, and the day went well. Until 3 pm.
We had all skied the day away, and by 3 it was nearing the time to leave. My son was off, racing up and down, working on sweet jumps, marveling at the skiers and snowboarders who launch themselves into the air as if they’ll be landing in a pit of soft, squishy foam. My wife and I visited him on the far side of the hill, then returned to the small side where my daughter was happily working on her turns. The bunny hill is a good hill, and though she has ventured to the larger hills she prefers the peace and the quiet and the easy living that happens on the smallest hill.
We saw her skiing, and we finished our last run and retreated to the car to change. It wasn’t but a few minutes after we left the hill that the call came over the loud speakers, “David and Michele Curry please report to the nearest patrol station”. It seemed that the tone wasn’t rushed, it wasn’t worried, so my wife went to find out what they wished to see us for. A few minutes later, it was apparent. Our daughter was injured. How injured, no one at the base of the hill knew. Very injured? I guessed not, because the bunny hill is small and what could really happen there? Could she have slipped and cut her hand on the edge of her ski? Did she fall and decide to get a lift down the small hill on the towable rescue sled just because the ski patrol had to follow some protocol?
No. She had fallen and she had broken her leg when the skis didn’t release from their bindings. The night that ensued was not fun, not for her, not for anyone. My son cried from worry. Wausau is a nice enough place, and the hospital was clean and smelled like carrots, but when the day was over and the night had set in, the drive home was still three hours. My daughter was in terrible pain. Intense, searing pain, each bump in the road making for a squirm and a sigh. The night was long and the cries were frequent and the pain medication no where near potent enough. And so the day that started with really good breakfast sandwiches from Starbucks had ended with two broken bones in a 10 year old’s lower leg. She’ll be dealing with the pain for quite a while during this few month recovery, though the prognosis is good and no surgery is required.
As for me, I’m tired and I really can’t think of anything to write about.
When the Chicago Tribune talks about vacation homes, it likes to talk about South Carolina. And then also about Uruguay. If not those, then Arizona, maybe Florida. Sometimes, Michigan. Other times, Door County. Once in a while Green Lake. Other times strange lakes in strange places that I’ve never been to. If the Chicago Tribune is doing the writing, then the elephant in the room is Lake Geneva. It’s so close and so known, they’d rather just ignore it. For their shame.
Barron’s is headquartered in New York. That’s a far distance from here when measured in miles, but really it’s farther than that. I subscribe to Barron’s for no other reason than I once subscribed and I now subscribe annually when I notice they’ve billed my credit card again. I should probably cancel my subscription, but I can’t now. I can’t because the fine New Yorkers at Barron’s like Lake Geneva. They like like us.
Last week, the Barron’s Top 20 Second-Home Resorts was published. Never mind that the title is clunky and actually makes very little sense, we’ll just accept the accolades and bask in our nationwide importance. In this report, the super-intelligent, savvy folks at Barron’s compiled 20 top vacation home markets, and they ranked them based on something that’s not entirely clear. Some proprietary combination of something with another something, divided by a few, averaged and then stacked in order.
Number 1 on the list, Austin, Texas. Austin sold 568 homes priced over $1MM, which is incredible and should be congratulated. But Austin is also being overrun by Californians, so we know that Austin won’t be weird for long, it’ll just be strange. Next on the list, Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. We’re runner up really, silver medalists on a national stage. Here we were, just minding our own business, when New York decided that this little town in fly-over country is worthy of their list.
The snippet on Lake Geneva explained that our market is hot, up 10% over the past year. They told the country what we already know, that our market is exclusive. That’s it’s rare and it’s hot and it’s only for the discerning. Then they talked about other, lesser markets, like Park City and Vail and Hamptons and Lake Tahoe. But these are all the unimportant places in the country. Perhaps they could all try harder next year to dethrone us from second place.
I wish they would have interviewed me for the article, but they didn’t. They might have called, but if BARRON’S shows up on my caller ID I’m going to assume it’s related to the subscription that I’ve forgotten to cancel for 10 years, and I wouldn’t have answered it anyway. They did mention the $6MM Stone Manor unit, which is my listing, so in a round about way I was mentioned.
The author accurately noted that our sales volume was up 30% from 2014, and that there’s roughly 2 dozen lakefronts for sale is correct (the actual number is just 19 today). But in that there is a common mistake made. Stating that our market appreciated 10% over the past year is simply incorrect. It’s incorrect because in low volume markets there’s nothing accurate about averaging any given year’s worth of sales and assuming that the resulting tally is somehow an indicator of appreciation, or depreciation. That’s because low volume markets offer too many variables to be constrained by the simple math of averages.
Last year, Geneva printed 11 sales over $2.4MM, including five sales over $3.79MM. In 2014, we closed just 3 sales over $2.4MM, and 2 over $3.79MM. That 10% price appreciation you’ve heard about? It didn’t actually happen, we just sold more higher priced homes relative to the year prior. Sure, the market was up, and I’ve guessed it was up around 5%. Why is the number a guess and not an accurate reflection of the data? Because the data is too easily skewed, and my guess is based on the nuance that makes this market what it is. What is it? The #2 resort market in these United States.
Michigan failed to make the list, but if Barron’s would just agree to do the Top 10,000 Second Home Resorts, I’m confident Michigan will make the cut.
I feel at least some relief. On Monday, a Chicago Developer held a meet and greet. It was so very nice of this group to do this. They’d set up shop at a bar, ask that neighbors join, and share the details of their massive suburban style development. Eye witness reports tell us that four people showed up. On Tuesday, a crowd of 100 or more gathered at the Walworth Town Hall to listen to the Developer from Geneva, Illinois once again pitch his suburban proposal for our rural lands. The anticipation was rivaled only by the resignation in the eyes of those present.
Resignation because the crowd was overwhelmingly opposed to this development, excepting the three hands that were raised when the crowd was asked who favored this development, and the expectation was that the board would continue to subscribe to the will of the developer over the will of the people. No matter that those in favor included one who worked for the Chicago Developer, one who has worked for the developer, and one who likes to talk about rural life but apparently doesn’t want it to last. The Developer was so pleased with his Monday meet and greet that he brought it up at the meeting, as if it was a triumphant civic display of warmth.
I spoke, the crowd spoke, but no one knew if the board was listening. The developer spoke of conservation and of Chevy’s, then again of parks and roads and sewers. He pointed to his maps. The board listened. But when it came time to vote the board surprised and one by one they voted no. The crowd erupted in cheers. The developer hung his head.
At approximately the same time, the City of Delavan (apparently) denied this same Developer’s request to extend city water to another large suburban development on the northwest side of Delavan Township. Two weeks ago, the Village of Williams Bay told us that the attempted condominium project on the Keg Room site was dead. The Developer from Kane County is having a very bad month.
As the Walworth Town Board explained to the developer that the lots were just too small, the number too many, it was obvious to me that Walworth County finally found some footing in this battle against development. The Walworth Town Board had, just months prior, ushered this development forward to the plan commission, who approved it unanimously. The change from then until Tuesday was overwhelming community outcry, a rejection of the agenda of a suburban developer at the expense of our rural lifestyle. The board was shown that overdevelopment has become a pandemic in Walworth County, and that the only way to stop it is one development proposal at a time.
Walworth County is a lot of things to a lot of people. The 102,000 people that call this place home love it for various reasons. Some moved here to enjoy life lakeside. Others moved here to have a five acre plot with a barn and some chickens. Others still, like me, grew up here and never felt the allure of big city lights. This county is, at its very core, rural. The county was rural before it was a tourist destination, and it was a tourist destination before it had any industry. Today the county is a healthy mix of those three, but what keeps it bucolic is the rural nature of the lands surrounding the lakes.
Imagine Geneva Lake. Imagine the ring of deciduous green surrounding it, the interwoven nature of large and small lake homes, of old ones and new ones. Rejoice in the magic of that mix. Then, imagine what the area would feel like if not for that ring of agriculture that surrounds the lake. Imagine field after field of ranch homes, from the border to the lake. Imagine how the drive would feel, how the views would hurt our eyes. Imagine how different this place would be.
Proponents of uncontrolled development tell us that development is necessary, that progress is unavoidable. They tell us not to be so sensitive, not to sensationalize the removal of one 110 acre farm field. There are other fields, they say. They tell us that they were here when those fields were as they are now, and they tell us that we cannot stand in the way of development. Development, they say, will happen whether we want it to or not. And everyone supposes they’re right.
But they’re only right if the county no longer cares what it looks like, and no longer cares what made it special in the first place. This week, we successfully delayed a development in the Town of Walworth. This week, I have taken a breather after three months of consistently and aggressively fighting this proposal. But this week is more than that, this week is the week that the residents of Walworth County stood up for the future of this community. This week, a town board listened.
But the battle is far from over. Developers will continue to see the incredible wealth of Walworth County and seek to exploit that with high density housing. The task now is to remain vigilant, because the default position on development is to approve it, not to scrutinize and ultimately reject it. This week, it has never been more clear that Walworth County will no longer bow at the feet of Development which seeks to profit at our expense.
I can’t tell you that I’m a regular at Harpoon Willies. When I walk in, no one winks at me a knowing wink. No one gives me a head nod, the sort you’d give a friend when you saw him. No one really, particularly, especially cares. But alas, Harpoons is down the road from my office, and it’s in my home town, and I am nothing if not someone who likes to eat. And so it has gone, a visit to the restaurant now and then, never consistent, never particularly rejoicing in anything in particular.
I have a friend who likes to go there, and on Fridays he goes to order the fish sandwich. It’s a delightful fish sandwich, he says. It’s fried, like all good fish things, and it’s on a nice bun, with some nice tartar sauce. When I went with him last fall, I didn’t order the fish sandwich. I have never ordered the fish sandwich. I’ve ordered the burger, it’s okay. I’ve ordered the chicken sandwich, it’s not horrible. I ordered pizza there once, and that was pretty good. But never the fish sandwich and never the brisket, until then.
There’s a sign outside of Harpoons. It’s on the West side of the building, sort of accidental. It says SMOKEHOUSE. Or something like that, I can’t really remember. The idea is that there’s a smoker in that side shed, and they smoke meat. And so on that day I ordered the brisket sandwich. I slathered it with their barbecue sauce, sloppy and drippy and sweet. The sandwiches come with a side of chips, but I haven’t like eating lunch with chips since my mom packed my high school lunch, and so I upgrade and order the waffle fries. In case you forgot, I have previously anointed their waffle fries the finest in all the land.
The brisket sandwich was a shocking delight. It was smokey, sweet, remarkable. It was, dare I say, the finest bit of barbecue on a bun that I’ve ever had. I’m not a connoisseur of smoked meats in the way that some of the mouth breathing guys on the food channels might be, but I’ve had more than a few. This sandwich was better than those, better than all of them, the best. I delighted in my new find, and a few weeks later, I went back to order it again.
During that visit, the brisket came out as before, but one bite told me it wasn’t the same. It was tough, rough, difficult. It wasn’t the tender sandwich of earlier that fall, it was the aged version, tough and weathered, ornery. I ate it anyway, but didn’t go back for another sandwich for a more or close to two.
The third visit, the sandwich was as the first. It was divine. It was as good as before, better even. It was perfection. I was now two for three, and the four visit came a few weeks later. That sandwich, too, was delightful. Three for four. Another visit in early January- perfect. Four for five. After that successful run, I saw fit to share my findings with friends and family. The brisket sandwich had proven worthy.
Three weeks ago I went back, and I brought a client. I told him the sandwich was the best in all of the land. In that competition, there wasn’t even a second place. We ordered. We ate. The sandwich was a bit tough, not perfect, somewhere between great and okay, maybe just mediocre. I pleaded with him, this was an anomaly I said. It wasn’t the way it was before. I asked for forgiveness.
Last night, after the Town of Walworth unceremoniously and wonderfully turned away Shodeen (he’ll be back, and we’ll be ready and waiting), a celebration. The war is far from over, but this battle was ours. Brisket sandwiches all around. The sandwich mixed well with the lingering taste of sweet victory. Spicy, tender, perfect. Lake Geneva has a lot of places to buy food. Most places have one thing they do really well. Harpoon Willies has the brisket sandwich and those waffle fries, and that’s enough for me. And yes, I’m getting fat again.
At this age, I have developed many bad habits. I shamefully subscribe to the theory of food discovery that dictates I eat one piece of pizza to find out if it’s good, and then six more pieces to verify. At night, I check my phone before I go to sleep. But I check it all day, too, and then again when I’m thinking about going to sleep, before checking again when I’ve decided that indeed, yes, I will now go to sleep. Then again when I try to go to sleep, and likely again when I’ve gone to bed but can’t fall asleep. My circadian rhythm sounds like third grade band practice.
Last night, when indulging in this last minute phone checking, I saw a little meme on Twitter, perhaps Instagram. These two mediums are useful for different things, but both have become a depository for the sorts of motivational posters that we used to have to visit the mall kiosk to find. Hang In There (kitten with paw outstretched), these sorts of things. Most of these memes are well intentioned. The one I saw last night said, calmly, Collect Memories, Not Things. The message was printed over the calm waters of a lake with a pier stretching out into it. It had a lot of likes, or thumbs up, or smiley faces next to it. The people were encouraged.
Because that’s right, we should collect memories, not things. I have some things in the back seat of my car right now. They’re just things, these new skis of mine that I bought because it was a Tuesday, and they are in my trunk next to the boot things I bought and the pole things, too. I’ve collected these things, a vast array of them in fact, and they are in my car now hoping for the promised Tuesday snow.
I have some things in my other car today. Fishing things. A few fly rods, glittery gold and graphite models, beautiful examples of the artistic expression that is fly fishing. I love them dearly, these things. In fact, in my collection of other things I would place these particular things near the very top. They are among my most important things, and they’re in my fishing truck just waiting for me to use them. Last night when I was cleaning out the back of that truck, I thought to myself, these are some fine things.
One thing I bought last summer is too big to keep in a car, or inside the house. It’s in my garage, and it’s black and shiny and I slapped an UFF DA sticker on it to honor my grandmother. I did that because they didn’t have any stickers that said “sleep with your socks off so your feet can breathe”, and who could fit a sticker of that size on a Kawasaki jet ski? This thing is in my garage, on a nice little rack that I bought for it. It just sits there now, being a thing, looking at me every day while I look at it. It’s there, ready, waiting for the time that’s coming soon when I might drive that thing to the lake, and fire it up.
Collect Memories, Not Things, the image said. The image supposes that the memories we wish to collect are right in front of us, all around us. The memory of a mall visit on a Saturday is indeed something you can collect, but only if you’re strange and something is wrong with you, or if the visit is memorable for some bad reason, like they were out of Cinnabons. That scenery of the pier jutting into the lake, it seems so calm, so normal, so every day. But it’s not, and that’s why it’s a memory. It’s not nothing, it’s something. And someone had to work very hard to buy that pier so that that someone’s family could swim from it, dive from it, lounge on it.
My skis have given me access to memories that I could not have otherwise made. I might have been able to ride the ski lift to the top of the hill with my son, but what would we do when we got there if we hadn’t first collected the things that we strap to our feet? And what of those fishing pictures in my office, the ones with my children grinning ear to ear, holding small trout up for the camera to see? How would we have made that journey if not for the waders and the boots and the packs and the flies and those glistening Orvis rods and reels? How could I remember the nights last summer when I cruised over the waves to meet friends on their piers if I didn’t have that water rocket with the UFF DA sticker?
It’s disingenuous to suggest that things aren’t important. Usually, we must collect the things that get us to the place where we can then collect the memories. A lake house is among the most precious things, and anyone who already owns one will gladly tell you just how easy it is to collect memories once you’ve collected the house.
I placed a renter in a South Shore Club home once. The renter was actually a buyer, but he needed a bit of convincing, and so a house he was looking to buy became a house he decided to rent. A short time later, he bought that house, and owns it to this day. The lakefront rental is an odd creature, but mostly due to the fact that this market isn’t like other vacation home markets. Whenever the Chicago Tribune decides to grace us with their generic commentary on vacation homes, it tends to revolve around rentals. The author admonishes future buyers to be sure they understand the rental rules of the area they’re buying, and to be sure they understand what the rates will be, and how many weeks or days or months they can expect to rent it for. The articles are all like this. Buying a vacation home? Better understand the rental rules! Lake Geneva is different because we don’t really care about rentals, not one bit.
To understand why you must understand that most markets love rentals because they allow the owners financial flexibility. Lake Geneva scoffs at that concept, so much so that our county put in place a 30 day minimum rental ordinance. Whether this ordinance is still in place is something that other people can debate at another time, because all that matters today is the intent. Lake Geneva (and our surrounding municipalities) didn’t want this area to turn into Door County, where the only thing more common than closed antique shops are FOR RENT signs in front yards of in-town cottages. We didn’t want to be that sort of community, and so we made renting somewhat hard. I don’t mind the 30 day rental minimum, because the intent was to preserve the quality of life for all who choose to own vacation homes here.
But still, the lakefront rental is necessary and there are some available. There are brokers with bits of inventory, there are mass portals with inventory, even airbnb has inventory. But inventory in this context means a few homes here and there, and they are difficult to find. It’s for this reason that I would like to skip all of the rental talk and make a guarantee. If you’re thinking about buying a Lake Geneva vacation home and you feel the need to rent one first to see if you like it, I assure you you’ll like it. There. I saved you a considerable sum (generally between $20-50k per month). I saved you that uncomfortable phone call when you tell the homeowner that your son threw a baseball through the front window. Which window? Not one of the little ones. The big one. The giant picture window that so wonderfully frames that view of the front yard and the lake beyond. That’s the window your son plans to break, but not now, because I saved you the rental fee, the window replacement fee, and that inescapable knowledge that you’re sleeping in someone else’s bed. You’re welcome.
Because that’s really all this is: It’s a trial. It’s a test to see if you’ll like this place, this vibe, this scene. This would be like setting your sites on a brand new, luxury sedan. You know you like the BMW, in fact, you might love it. And so you go to the dealership, you trace the curves with your hand, and at one point, you kneel down to look into the wheel, as if you know what it is you’re looking for, and at. You pop the hood, never mind the inside of the engine bay no longer features anything but a large plastic cover, emblazoned with mention of twin turbos and Castrol. You look and you think, and while the price is stiff, who could look at this car under those showroom lights and decides against it? You ask for a test drive, thinking that it’s best you drive this thing before you buy it, but the buying decision has already been made. The test drive just confirms what you already knew. This is the car for you.
To be fair, there are some people who will rent a Lake Geneva lakefront home and decides this isn’t the place for them. They’ll spend some time here and think, nah. These are the sorts of people who dislike large bodies of perfect water, where no matter the tumult of the afternoon before the morning water is clear, pure, filtered and ready to do it all over again. People who hate sunsets and sunrises, these people will hate Lake Geneva. If you hate walking down an ambling path, in front of and next to some of the most beautiful homes ever built, then you, too, will dislike this place. If screened porch book reading is something you abhor, then please save your money and skip Lake Geneva. If the thought of casting a lure from your private pier just as the sun sets that the lake falls flat and everything washes pastel, then you should stay away. If you think any old lake will do, then you’ll be better served finding any old lake to vacation at, because this lake is anything but.
I don’t have any lakefront rentals available this year. I’m sure someone does. If you find yourself looking for a summer rental, my advice to you is sound. Just skip it. No one has ever test driven the new 750 and opted to buy a Chevy. In the same way, no one has ever delighted in this place and then decided in favor of some place else. Save your money, don’t rent. Buy.
The first trout I ever held was a trout that had heeded the call to spawn, and in doing so, swam out of Geneva Lake, up Southwick Creek, just far enough to be stuck in a small rocky where my 12 year old self could grab him with my hands. That was the first trout, and though there have been thousands since, the first trout and that first stream matters more than any of the others. This morning, I have a meeting with several key players who have responded to my efforts to fix Southwick Creek. Currently, this is a ditched creek that runs through Williams Bay, under a series of concrete culverts, where you’re as likely to find a small brown trout as you are an empty bag of Funyuns. This effort is just beginning, but the goal is to take a trout stream that man has abused for 100 or more years and move it back to where it belongs- in Kishwauketoe Nature Conservancy.
This effort won’t be easy. It won’t be cheap. But if we can pull it off it will be the single most rewarding bit of conservation the lake community has ever championed. If I can get this effort off the ground, I’ll need help. Thankfully, the help is easy, because I don’t really want you to come up and operate a backhoe or build trout boxes, I just need your donations to the cause (they will be tax deductible once this is set up, of course). If you’re reading this today and you find the concept of fixing and preserving one of the most important fresh water supplies flowing into Geneva Lake, then please do let me know. I’ll add you to our action list, and when the time comes to put shovels in the ground, you’ll be the first to know. For now, there’s a long uphill battle to get the State of Wisconsin DNR, the US Fish and Wildlife Federation, Trout Unlimited, the Kishwauketoe Board, and the Village of Williams Bay all in agreement. Wish me luck, and let me know if you want to help in any way.
I bought a weight bench last month. It’s a simple bench, the sort you’d find in a corner of almost every basement in America. It has some weights, a bench, some logos that are meant to impress the purchaser, and some attachments that hold weights in various other positions. It’s a fine little bench. I bought it because I am weak, and I don’t like attempting to lift weights in the company of others. I have now lifted very light weights for a few days over the past few weeks, trying to keep with some routine, but finding that I dislike the activity so vehemently, in fact, more so each time I lay on the bench, or sit on it, or just stare at it thinking about how much I hate it all. I will never become a weight lifter.
This is a rare abstention in my pursuit of hobby. Normally, I find a hobby to my liking and I engage it with some consistency. A major flaw in my pursuit is that I rarely l look for perfection. My goal is, instead, adequacy. I will never be a great golfer, though one summer I shot 80 on two different occasions. I will never be a great tennis player, though if I tried hard for a few weeks, I’d be good enough to beat almost every grandparent out there. I play once a week to stay okay at tennis. I golf a few times a summer so I don’t shank the ball when in the company of others. I will lift these weights once in a while in case I ever have to push a heavy fallen tree off of my chest.
I fly fish often, though it’s obvious to me today that I will never be considered among the greats. Lefty Kreh I am not. Though I write for the Drake Magazine from time to time, and I write about fly fishing in those articles, no one will ever confuse me for Gierach. For one, I don’t have that weathered, pickled look, as though I spent time aboard a disabled ship, tossed by the waves and battered by the sun, with alcohol as my only subsistence. But I fish, still, and I write, some. I can catch fish with frequency, and if you hadn’t ever spent time with a more capable fly fisherman you might be fooled into thinking that I am terrific at this sport. In fact, I’m average.
In this pursuit of mediocrity, I have avoided downhill skiing. I needn’t explain that I more easily avoid cross county skiing, because everyone does. Water skiing looks like fun, but it’s not for me. I’m somewhat frightened by ski boats and their aggressive speed when I’m driving one, let alone if I were being towed by one. The last time I skied I’m guessing I was 12. I may have been older, but I cannot remember ever going skiing in high school. If I were forced at gun point to admit to you the last time I skied, I would tell you that I was in the sixth grade, and Mr. Loyd took us with our class, and Mr. Geisel hurt his shoulder and I sprained my thumb. And then I’d sob and ask that you spare me, because I have so much left to do.
But that’s how I would have answered before last week, because last Thursday I took my son skiing. His first time, and my first time since forever ago. We went to the Grand Geneva, because it’s close and it’s approachable and I haven’t skied in 26 years so it didn’t really matter where we went. We walked in to the Mountain Top, as the ski hill is unintentionally ironically labeled, the smell of stale socks and wet wool greeting us before we had a chance to object. We waded through the rental lines, grabbed our skis, and walked outside with a whole new world awaiting us. I put my skis on and stood there. My son put his skis on and fell down. The warning signs were everywhere, as plentiful as the blown snow.
I had never before encountered this Magic Carpet. The first attempt to harness this magic left me posing as Buddy during his first escalator trip, though I was less agile. We road the magic carpet to the top of the bunny hill. Halfway up, my son fell over.
After some time of the riding and falling, we progressed to the ski lift. My son resisted, saying that he couldn’t do it. Tears filled his eyes, streamed down his red cheeks. I insisted. I told him he had to, that indeed, even little girls were riding the lift. He cried, he backed away. He fell over.
We rode the lifts for several hours, my previously torn right calf muscle crying out for help as the boot top dug into the exact seam that had separated last April. My son, once shy and afraid and tearful, was at ease, happy and content, joyous, even. On Sunday, my wife and I drove to Lacrosse for a Valentine’s Day getaway. We stayed at a beautiful hotel, and spent Sunday afternoon skiing the slopes of Mount Lacrosse. It was a good day, some beautiful fresh snow helping us stay upright, my calf not hurting nearly as badly. We drove home on Monday, and yesterday I drove to the Board Shop in Lake Geneva and bought skis. I had skied twice in the last 26 years, so it was obvious to me that I needed some skis. The indignity of the rental line propelled me. Tuesday night, with another fresh snow falling rapidly, my son and I skied again. My new skies looked so sweet, so perfect, though under my direction they were likely disappointed. The boots were shiny and sleek, even if they made me long for the less intense pain of the sloppy rental boot. Earlier, at the Board Shop, I failed to mention that I didn’t want the boots that were made of bent nails and crushed glass. Still, we skied the night away. Well, my son skied the night away, and I retired to the comfort of the chalet where I gave him routine thumb’s ups when he skittered past.
My pursuit of the hobby is enabled by Lake Geneva. Because I live here, I can do things with great ease. If I want to sail, I can sail. Fish? Easy. Mountain bike, should I wish to torture myself? John Muir will provide the trails. If I want to ski, well that’s easy, too. I understand Wisconsin ski hills are not Western ski hills. I you say, pfft, I would never ski in Wisconsin, because I ski Breck, brah! That’s fine, but you can’t drive to Breck in 90 minutes because you feel like it, brah. From downtown Lake Geneva, I can be to Wilmot (now owned by Vail) in just 18 miles, Alpine Valley is only 13 miles north, and the Grand Geneva is just two miles down the road. If you choose to vacation in New Buffalo because you LOVE antique shops that are open 6 weeks a year, then you, too, have skiing options. You can, from the center of New Buffalo, make it to Swiss Valley in 55 miles. It’s just 77 miles to Timber Ridge Ski Area, and a mere 84 miles to Bittersweet Ski Resort. Love to ski? I sort of do, too. Love to drive long distance for mediocrity? New Buffalo is for you. Want some terrific practice within a few miles of the best Lake in the Midwest? My son and I will see you on the slopes. We’ll be the ones falling down.
I haven’t shared this yet, but I nearly won that large lottery back in January. The night before the drawing, my wife and I made no small plans. We would buy a large home on Geneva, which home exactly I cannot tell you out of respect for those homes that we didn’t choose. We would buy a home in the mountains, but not just any mountains, the Canadian Rockies. Why on the Canadian side? Because my wife is Canadian and it’s either I buy a mountain home near trout fishing or I buy a prairie home near Winnipeg. I choose the mountains, if I must choose Canada. Then, a home in warmer climes, but not Florida. I was in Florida last week and while I appreciate what it is and why it exists, I do not plan on owning real estate there for the duration of my life. Turks it would be, where I can fly fish from my own beach, and hunt for spiny lobsters when I tire of casting. I assume they have spiny lobsters there. The house we picked on that island was in the $20MM range, which was reasonable given our certain winnings. We spent an hour that night picking and planning, and what fun it was. The only thing better than a dream house are dream homes.
The picking of these homes was fun, simple, so easy even an Illinoisan who vacations in Michigan could do it. The next day, when we didn’t win, though we did amass a fine collection of at least two matching numbers out of the small pile of numbers we had purchased, we weren’t upset. We knew the exercise was one of intense futility, but we also knew it was fun to dream, if for an evening. We had, after all, effortlessly picked the location of our dream homes and the homes themselves. We envisioned a snippet of life in those homes, of a summer spent here, and a winter spent wading through the flats of a nameless turquoise bay. The entire process, from start to finish was enjoyable and easy. Dream home shopping is like that, but only when it’s pretend.
A real dream home search when playing out over a real life schedule, is anything but fun. For those who have dreamed of the ability to find that ideal house, when money is no object and when time is as plentiful as these Benjamin’s, the process is fun and carefree, a whimsical dream of fancy. When the dream house must fit a budget, no matter how dreamy, and the geographic confines of the house makes the choices rather limited, and the kids have hockey two nights a week and STEM class on Saturday, well, this thing isn’t as easy. Nor is it entirely fun. To those who have never looked, you might not know what I’m talking about. To those who have looked, far and wide, down this little lakeside lane and that one, in the Bay first, and then Fontana, and Linn and Geneva, you know what I’m talking about. In fact, you may know so well what it is that I speak of that you’ve pushed this hunt to the background in favor of those things in the foreground.
This is easy to do, when schedules are tight and vision is limited. It’s easy to do when the vacation home is viewed as an unnecessary luxury, as something that exists in the background as a dream that needn’t be fulfilled because it’s just that, a distant dream and we the serious know that distant dreams shouldn’t interfere with the work that must be done today. But is it this way? Is a vacation home just a dream that might be fulfilled when we have superfluous time and excesses of money? Should a vacation home search be only executed when time permits, when the schedule opens for a day, or a few hours, or a week next August? Is this something meaningless, that looks like fun but has no bearing on real life? Is a Lake Geneva vacation home just another something, rather than nearly everything? Does any of this actually matter?
I’d tell you today that it does, and you won’t be surprised that I think that. But why do I think that? Do I think that solely because unless I do my children will starve and I’ll be forced to pull your next espresso shot at your favorite Lake Geneva area coffee shop? Or do I think that because I’ve seen it, because I see the families that come here and commit to this place and I see the way their lives are changed? I’d be lying if I told you it was all of the latter and none of the former, but it’s more of the latter than you might presume. It’s easy to get to Lake Geneva, to drive on a Friday night that short direction North and some to the West, but it’s not easy to establish that as the routine. It’s easy to wire money when the money is available, it’s easy to receive the keys, and it’s easy to show up on a Fourth of July Weekend whenever everyone with a lake house does the same. But it’s difficult to aggressively pursue the hunt, and it’s difficult to make it to the lake house as often as you know you should, and it’s yes, it’s difficult when you have too much work and not enough time.
In my life, it’s the difficult things that are rewarding. The easy things, the immediate things, the things that have no choice but to be done, those are the things that mean little. It’s easy to forget about Lake Geneva in the dead of a Midwestern winter, even if the winter is as this one, which feels more like mid March than early February, but forgetting about your summer in the middle of winter is the best way to ruin your summer. Dream homes that only occupy our dreams are easy. Dream homes that require effort of us are hard, but the rewards are endless, the satisfaction palpable.
Most things built for some specific purpose look appropriate when doing that purpose, even if they look awkward and unwieldy in another setting. For instance, a big airplane. How sleek it looks when cutting through the sky, how nimble, how purposeful. Or a slalom ski in action, cutting and slicing, tethered to the users’ foot, effortlessly accomplishing whatever a shift in weight commands it to.
But if the plane was on Geneva Street right now, what a mess it would be. How would we turn it into the gas station for fuel, and how would we maneuver it down to Harpoon’s for lunch? It would be a mess of clipped trees and confrontations with cars. People would gather and some would remark, why is this plane here and now what are we to do with it? The ski, so graceful when directed by the skier, so out of place when that skier tries to wear it into Starbucks for his morning coffee.
This morning, I was minding my own business. It’s Monday today, which is meaningful for most people but insignificant for most Realtors. It’s just another day, indistinguishable from the others. I prepared for my day as I have for every day since that day in October when my new espresso machine was delivered by the friendly UPS person. The coffee this morning was good, as is its way, and the kids behaved and my wife wasn’t mad at me anymore and so things were as I wished them to be. My driveway was icy, the humidity from Sunday clinging in its frozen, glittering form to anything that would let it. It was another beautiful winter morning, the sky washed pastel, soft and calm.
The truck rumbled towards me from the East, bouncing down that bumpy rural road with quick intent. It was heading somewhere to the West, but how far to that direction I could not know. The truck was nice, big, shiny, looking as though the owner was concerned about it and washed it with some routine in this winter to rid it of salt and sand. Behind the shine I could see something following, something close, something blue and wrapped tight. But what could it be? A delivery of some sort? Secret and classified maybe, heading somewhere important where people with clearance would unwrap it and stand back and say with satisfaction, that’s it.
But it wasn’t anything important at all, because under the blue plastic wrap protruded three aluminum cylinders, each pounded and smoothed to a rising bow. The blue wrap tattered towards the stern, flapping in the wind, revealing what I already, by then, knew. It was a pontoon boat.
While the plane slices through the air with nearly unbelievable grace yet stumbles on a village road, and the ski carves the water with ease yet scrapes and clacks down a city sidewalk, the pontoon lumbers through the water just as it lumbers down a town road. I was feeling fine this morning, feeling optimistic and fair. Feeling as though winter, in this new month, was nothing to fear, and that its grip was already loosening. I was feeling primed for a new day, a new week, a new month. And then I saw the pontoon boat and thought that maybe February isn’t so great after all. If I can’t avoid a pontoon boat in the country during the dead of a rural winter, how can I expect avoid them on a lakeside summer afternoon?
I have not lived in Williams Bay since 1998. Williams Bay, however, is my home town and it is the town that I will name whenever someone asks me where I’m from, no matter where I am when they ask, or where I live at the time. I am from Williams Bay. Because of this, I’m concerned about Williams Bay, and I wish nothing but the best for it. That’s why I’m once again having to explain what happens when out of town developers invade small communities.
Kane County Shodeen has once again set his sights on development in Walworth County, this time in Williams Bay. It wasn’t enough that he once proposed 4000+ units in Delavan Township, and now has 623 nearly approved near that original proposal site, with 180 more approved in Walworth, and 123 proposed (soon to be denied) near my house in the country. His appetite for development is seemingly insatiable, and now Williams Bay is in the cross hairs. His development proposal, according to a Lake Geneva Regional News article, is for the Keg Room property on the corner of Geneva Street and Walworth Avenue. For those unaware of that location, it is, quite simply put, the most visible corner in the village.
The plan seeks to cram 31 units (28 small condominiums and up to 3 commercial spaces) on a corner that was previously approved to host just 16 units. The small one and two bedroom condominiums will range in size from 900-1100 square feet. The corner is busy now, with traffic pouring down Walworth to Pier 290, and Geneva Street buzzing past on the North. Everyone who knows this vacant corner knows that it needs to be developed. What I know, as a Williams Bay business owner and a Williams Bay native is that this is the wrong development for our marquee corner.
On a corner in Fontana, The Tracy Group is building a six unit townhouse development (pictured above), and they are absolutely beautiful. The land that Tracy is building six units on is roughly one half acre. The land that Shodeen wishes to put 31 units on is roughly one half acre. Am I the only one who sees the problem here? Tracy is putting 6 high end units in Fontana. Shodeen wants to put 31 units in Williams Bay (pictured below, courtesy the Lake Geneva Regional News). Why should Williams Bay deserve anything less than Fontana? Why would Williams Bay seek to approve a development that would render their prime corner a Kane County Special?
Williams Bay has, for quite some time, wished for a revitalization of their downtown. I helped the cause, building a beautiful cottage style building for my real estate office. I built a small, shingle style property that blends with the surroundings and respects the historical aesthetic of Williams Bay. But I did this because I’m from here, and I care what my hometown looks like. I want your view, as you drive through my town, to be pleasant. A Chicago developer comes here and sees only dollar signs, and if a 45′ tall building with underground parking and an apartment appearance is perceived to be the best way to make money, then that’s what will be proposed.
It’s back to the question of density and of style and of our intentions with this lovely county we call home. What are we trying to achieve here? Are we trying to grow and grow and by doing so lose our native appeal? I’m not anti-development on the Keg Room property, I’m anti-this development on the Keg Room property. I love the village of Williams Bay and always will, and it’s for that reason that I’m forced to fight for its future. Some will say that the future is development, and it’s best to let it happen. Those are the people who see development in all shapes and density as a positive, and those are not the discerning people who each community needs in order to protect its identity. The lazy response to development is to sigh and approve it, to say it’s inevitable. The responsible approach is to question every aspect of it and if it doesn’t fit with the community, it should be quickly, and effortlessly denied.
I recognize I’m sounding a bit too Erin Brokovichy lately, but unfortunately I have to be this way. I care too much about this lake, this village, and this county, to idly sit by and watch a developer from Chicago change the nature of this place. I sell real estate here because I love it here. I live here because I love it here. I am raising my children here because I hope that they, one day, will recognize what a special place it is. For those reasons I must fight, and I need your help. I want to keep Walworth rural, and I want to keep Williams Bay’s most important corner free from density.
If the developer wishes to withdraw this plan, I shall wash my eyes with bleach and consider the next plan. If the next plan looks like the Tracy development in Fontana, with 6-10 units in total, I’ll be the biggest proponent of the new plan. Until then, it’s a fight, and I’m far more motivated to defend my community than anyone might have previously guessed. Please reach out to the Village of Williams Bay officials and tell them we don’t want this development front and center in our quiet beach town.
I can see the cold of this winter through the window in my house. All of the windows face this cold, but one window in the living room is the window I’ve chosen to look out of more than the others. This is a very fine window. It’s white and it’s wide, facing the cold and the snow and the pencil drawn tree line in the distance. I looked out this window a few days ago, at the dull of the sky and the honed white ground, and I decided I should go outside.
I knew it was cold out by the way the birds chattered about on the feeder. They weren’t lazily pecking at the suet like they would in the summer months, rather they flew up quickly and pecked quickly and then flew back, quickly. Where they flew to I cannot be certain. I guessed that it would be just as cold where they flew to as it is at the feeder that they nervously and hurriedly pecked at. They like the sunflower seeds more than the other seeds, so much so that they whole field of sunflowers I had planted and left to whither on their stalks have been pecked clean of their seeds. The birds did this, ruthlessly and efficiently, and they’re cold no matter where they fly. They can’t escape it. It’s too late now to try to fly south.
The snow was crunchy under my boots, which wasn’t a surprise. It’s always crunchy. When walking outside in the winter, it’s the crunch that we’ve come to expect, and so I, too, expected to step and crunch, crunch and step. I walked over to the pile of wood. What a magnificent pile of wood it is, oak and walnut and wild cherry. I had expected that I would chop so much wood on that day, that I would take up my axe and swing it until I could swing it no more. I thought I would reduce that messy pile of wood to a neatly stack. At first, I swung with vigor, my hands and face cold, the birds watching from the brush, my boots shifting with each swing, crushing the clean, white snow.
I carried on for some time, but really for no time at all. It was cold. Through that window I could see the warmth of the inside, the glow of the fire reflecting and dancing and teasing me. I steadied my swing, and aimed and swung, the blade wedging through some pieces with ease, while other pieces were more belligerent and refused to yield, no matter how hard I swung, or how true my aim. I was colder, still.
I paused to listen, to hear the sounds of winter, to look towards that window and then away from it, to the sky and to the brush and the brown scrabbled tree line where the birds hid from my view. It was silent. My breath puffed into the air like I was smoking the finest cigar on the warmest island beach. There was no wind in the air that day, no rustling of leaves for they’ve all fallen and been hidden under so much new snow. The trees were still, painted that way, and birds that sing so loudly and happily in the summer made no sound, none at all. I looked back to the house, to that window where the television played and the fire crackled. Where my kids argued and my wife read. I stood still enough and long enough to listen to the sounds of a Wisconsin winter. What did it sound like? It sounded like nothing, like nothing at all.
Some day, I might stay up late enough to greet the new year in the company of family and friends. Some day, I might celebrate the year that just ended by toasting the one just arrived. Some day, I’ll be able to enjoy the wins a bit more. But for now, I’ll keep looking forward to that some day. It’s a new year, and a new chance. Happy New Year from Lake Geneva. 2016 holds much promise, both for the housing markets here and for the community, and for each of us. I’m looking forward to it, and I’ll be here to help if your 2016 needs a hefty dose of Lake Geneva.
I must apologize for being so preoccupied over recent days. It was one week ago today when I glanced at the Lake Geneva Regional News and first learned that the Walworth Town Planning Commission had voted 5-0 to approve a conceptual development plan that would turn the rural town of Walworth into a congested extension Shodeen Development Group’s hometown in Kane County. The vote was taken without a single peep of community involvement, without a single shred of evidence that shows how egregious the initial mistake was, and without a single concern for upholding the zoning laws of this county. I’ve been fighting it ever since, and the portion of my brain that thinks of things to write about has been as clogged as those proposed streets. Please continue to share the Ruining of Walworth post with your friends and family and anyone who is concerned about the future of Walworth County. For now, this:
Geneva Lake isn’t going to freeze this year. Even though it is still meteorological fall and not at all yet real winter, it’s late enough in December that the ruling is in. No ice this winter. Geneva Bay might freeze during some cold snap that will assuredly come in January or February, and Williams Bay may ice up to Gage Marine, but the vast majority of this lake will not see ice over this winter. You can carve that in stone, though it would be easier to carve it in ice, but as I mentioned, there won’t be any of that lying around.
Geneva has gone iceless a few other times. The 2001-2002 winter never brought us ice. 1997-1998 was an El Nino winter, and we didn’t freeze then, either. 1997 wasn’t that long ago, but I can’t remember a bit of it. I sold real estate that winter, and in the years before this blog and before any pattern of sales, I’d sit in my office and wonder what it was I should do. I wore a shirt and tie then, I tried so hard. There was a boutique next to my office then, and I figured that the men would want something to do while their wives and girlfriends shopped for trinkets. So I spray painted a big piece of plywood with: “BEARS GAME ON INSIDE”. No one ever came in to watch, and it’s a good thing they didn’t, because my television was an old tube TV and the reception was scratchy. How embarrassing that entire winter was, both for me, and for ice.
The 2001-2002 winter is one that I can’t remember, either. I was recently married then, and 9-11 had just occurred and left us preoccupied with thoughts of war and revenge, with scenes of burning buildings and horror. I don’t remember doing anything special that winter, though I do know I went on my honeymoon to Hawaii in September and then in December I surprised my new wife with a vacation to Florida. I know now that I completely ruined any positive response from any spontaneous vacation from then until now, and from now until I die. You can’t take your new wife on vacation in September and then take her again in December, because by February she’s disappointed in you because you didn’t take her to Fiji. This was my error that winter, and the lake never froze.
This winter, it’s not going to freeze either. The good that comes from this is tangible. There will be far more fish in the lake next summer. The ice fishermen, if not able to drill holes and sit on upside down buckets, won’t be cleaning out hundreds of thousands of panfish as they would in a normal, frozen winter. They won’t be jigging for lake trout and harvesting 100 or more over a winter season. There will be far more fish next year, because the fish will rest this winter, unmolested and free of the baited hook. As there will be no action on the lake this winter, less trash will end up in the lake. Nothing will get lost in the snow and melt into the lake in early April. The lake will be free of trash and free of fishermen and next summer we’ll be swimming far earlier than normal.
The bad that comes from this is also tangible. Though Geneva doesn’t struggle with weed issues like Delavan and every other lake in the area, it does have seaweed, because it’s a lake. Without ice and snow cover, light reaches those weed beds all winter, and the growth of those weeds never entirely ceases. A thick cover of ice and snow blocks the light, and in a heavy cover winter the seaweed will die, and it will die hard. This year, it won’t, so next summer we’ll be swimming earlier, surrounded by more fish, but also with a few more weeds to contend with.
I’ll look back at this winter in another decade, and I’ll hopefully remember that the ice never came. With any luck, I’ll also remember this winter as the start of when Walworth County took back control of its land, and preserved its farming heritage while beating back the developer’s plow. I hope and pray I can remember this winter fondly.
Sadly, I hear the same things over and over again. This is this life. Why can’t you sell my house, why can’t you find me a house, why can’t you place a full page ad on the back page of the each London newspaper, because that’s where all the buyers are. These are the things I hear, and while the pitch changes and the versus are varied, the chorus is always the same. One of these things that I hear has to do with boredom, voiced often by those who fall easily into its clutches. There’s nothing to do there in the winter. There it is. That’s the sentence. Like small children who must be presented with something immediate and shiny, this is what I hear. There’s. Nothing. To. Do. There. In. The. Winter.
My family hasn’t visited the county where I do most of my fly fishing for many months, and so on Sunday we took the long drive. I am a terrific driver, fast and nimble, route minded. But I do not enjoy the process even when I’m alone, and so how much worse the process is with two children in the back seat. My children I love, but regardless of their individual behavior, their back seat joint road trip behavior is absolutely toxic. No matter, we arrived to this town on schedule and sat down to have lunch at a place where we will often eat dinner when we’re out there. The kids like it, and so we eat there. The pizza was soggy, the salad bar beets tasted as though they had been canned decades ago, according to my beet eating wife. The waitress didn’t refill our water glasses, and when one family walked in they immediately hovered over the salad bar before taking their seats, no doubt coughing and yawning the whole time. Lunch was okay, I suppose.
As a strange point of fact, one thing we do when we visit this town is stop at the grocery store. It’s a fine grocery store, small and clean, expensive. Another unique fact is that I have never left that store within spending at minimum $20. Hungry for a snack and bottle of water? That’ll be $21.45. But the people are different in that store, and so I enjoy the rare anonymity of an oft visit there. The fly shop is a traditional stop, but on a Sunday in this supposed Winter the fly shop is closed, and so if the fly shop is closed then the adjacent yarn shop will not be visited. Who would make a special stop for a yarn shop? Not me, and so we drove. The hardware store was next up, as I needed a small paint brush. The store had pictures on the wall of giant bucks that had been shot or arrowed over the recent season. Giant bucks every one of them, pasted on the entry wall for all to see. I don’t hunt, and I don’t like dead animals unless they’re cooked, but I marveled at the board as if I was searching for someone I knew. I wasn’t.
There’s a creamery in the next small town, cheese curds fresh daily. I’ll stop there once in a while to buy a bag of squeaky cheese, and I’ve been there enough to know that the freshest of the cheese is on the counter, not refrigerated. If you go there and all you can find is the FRESH CURDS in the refrigerator, you’ve been had. I know this, because I’ve been there. We didn’t stop this time, so we pushed north to the next town, to that town where there was some hillside land that needed looking over. Once the land was walked and looked at, we stopped at a Norwegian place that functions as the Old World Wisconsin of this area. There was an Old Timey Christmas thing happening, and so we drove in and paid the parking fee and wandered the old cabins that made up this first Scandinavian settlement in this particular part of the state. The old buildings lacked electricity and they were dark and damp, smelling of woodsmoke and the slow rot that will ultimately do each building in.
In one, a lady weaving some wool into yarn. In another, a blacksmith hamming some metal. It should be noted that upon entering the yarn weaver shop I asked how long I’d need to wait for a sweater, and once in the blacksmith shop I commented that the metal rod he was hamming on was transforming into a fine metal rod with sort of roundish end. Both comments were met with laughter, and so I decided that I liked this place, because they liked me. We walked around the soggy gravel paths, visiting the shops, sampling the lefse. My kids completed the scavenger hunt and were less than enamored with their selection of gifts- the dime gum ball machine variety. We left there shortly after, stopped at a few back road bridges to watch the trout fin in the current, and stopped back at the grocery store for two espresso drinks and a bottle water. $21.80.
We drove home, deep into the night, back to the south and the east, back to this place where we live most of our days. In that county on that day, there was nothing to do. Kids that lived there sat at home, bemoaning the lack of snow, playing video games and fighting with their siblings. The men watched football. The women were annoyed by the kids doing nothing and by the men doing nothing. There was nothing to do that day. But for us, we drove there anyway, and we went to a restaurant that we can’t go to at home. We went to the store that we don’t have here. We looked at some blacksmithing and some yarn weaving, and we walked some hillside land that couldn’t be found in Walworth County. There was nothing to do there, but we gladly went anyway, because it was a different place with different things to see and a different way to be.
This winter, you could sit at home in the city or the suburbs. You could sit there and say there’s nothing to do. Or you could come up to the lake, and wander around our town. Walk our shore path. Eat at our restaurants. When the snow comes, you can ski our hills and skate on our lake. You can do these things, which don’t sound all that exciting, until you realize that they’re infinitely more exciting that sitting at home.
Even when it seems to me that there are lots of cars here, there aren’t really lots of cars. They meander past heading to one direction or from the other, minding their lanes and watching their speed. The men of the morning pull into the gas station to fill up their trucks and their gas tanks, to power their days of digging or plowing or cutting and clearing. They do this every morning while I sit here and watch it unfold. It’s always the same. The seasons change, the white I see now will be greenish and brown by next week, but who knows what the week after that brings. It might be snow or it might be rain, or it might be double nickel and sunny, there’s no way to know. The sky today is soft and blue, the air still. There’s a storm of sorts brewing on some plain somewhere, but it isn’t here today, so the men fill their gas tanks and I sit and type. Every day.
It might be that the world sees this as boring. That my life, here at this keyboard and there in the seat of that car, and later in front of a fire, that this is somehow boring and unexciting. They see this place, this Wisconsin and Midwest, and they wonder what it is that we do here, and why we choose to do it. There is so much more out there, they say, mountains and oceans and different people and different cultures. There is more out there, more than there could ever be here. This is why kids grow up in Williams Bay and then, in large numbers, kids move from Williams Bay. They move to small cities and to large cities, they move to other countries or to other counties, they move places where they can see different things and learn about different ways. They spend time here in this incubator and then, when ready, they catch the first flight to somewhere else. Only later do they wish that their somewhere else would be a little more like this place.
It’s not hard for me to be thankful. It’s hard to act in a way that proves it, but it isn’t hard to think it and to understand it. This life is a privileged life. I do not toil in salt mines, though some days I think it would be better to do so, because at the end of a day I’d have a nice, large pile of salt and someone would come by and commend me for my incredibly large, magnificent mound. I do not travel across the country weekly, missing my family and selling something to someone, sleeping on hotel mattresses and eating continental breakfasts of Fruit Loops and microwaved eggs. I live four miles from this desk, and in the morning I wake and drive with my kids to the East, two miles. I drop them at their small school, they walk down the sidewalk the same way every day, though some days my daughter dresses like an Indian and my son carries the weight of a basketball game loss on his still young shoulders. I drop them and drive out of the lot, passing people I know, heading still to the East, another two miles to my office where this long desk and small keyboard await. If I drove another sixth of a mile to the East, I’d find myself in the lake. My entire life plays out along one four mile stretch of road, and for that, I’m thankful.
The kids who moved far from here a long time ago will be back in town tonight. They’ll drive the routes they know, marvel at what has changed and remark that nothing has. They’ll tell their kids about their old school, about their old hangouts, about the old baseball fields and basketball courts. They’ll tell stories of school operettas and foursquare lunch breaks. They’ll spend some time here and then they’ll leave, and on Monday I’ll drive four miles to this office, which is one half mile from where I grew up, and I’ll be thankful that nothing has changed.
I blame HGTV for most of the design abnormalities that I see on a day to day basis. On television, under the direction of some handsome psuedo-contractor, purple walls and gold faucets might look somewhat acceptable. They might even look nice. But in the real world, in this life we live, purple and gold should be reserved for Minnesota Vikings fans.
If you’re building a new house, or remodeling an old one, and you love purple and gold, this is your right. It is, after all, still a quasi-sort-of-free country. If you wish to live in purple and gold, live that way. But, when you live that way, please don’t wish to sell your house. For the rest of us, those of us who move with some frequency and have concern as to the value of our homes, there are some nice rules to live by. A car dealer once told me there are only three colors of car to buy. White, Black, Red. With that in mind, there are certain things to do to a house that will always work to increase your value.
There’s a caveat to this post, and that is that the homes I’m talking about now are entry level lakefront homes and off water lake access homes. In other words, if a home is $1.5MM or so, do these things and make money. If the home is $4.5MM, you’re going to want to ignore most of this post. As an aside, if you’re building a big fancy home and you’d like my opinion as to whether or not you’re making a catastrophic mistake, I am happy to look at plans and selections and offer up my opinion.
But if you’re not building a palace, and you’re remodeling a lake access house that’s worth $500k or so, there are very simple rules to live by. Those rules will help you make money on your purchase, and any remodel that adheres to this formula will be a success. I’ve sold a lot of houses in my life, but I’ve also remodeled and/or built a lot of homes, and I’ve never sold one that didn’t make me money. With that in mind, this:
Flooring. This should always, every time, be wood. Oak, to be exact. Standard width, regular white or red oak. Stain it dark and it’s done. Random width gets expensive. Other woods get expensive. Go oak, stain dark, be done. Do not, however, install pre-finished wood floors. No laminates, no matter how fancy they are or how long the warranty is. Put down a real wood floor, have it finished like a real wood floor, and you’ll be happy. A real wood floor laid this way makes a home feel substantial, and it strengthens iffy floor joists that are prevelent in old cottages here. No more laminate, no more pre-finished, no more engineered wood. Just don’t do it. When you put down the floor, put it everywhere. Upstairs, main level, everywhere. Small houses need consistent flooring, so put wood on all the floors and you’ll instantly upgrade the way your house looks, feels, lives.
Cabinets. Don’t do expensive cabinets. Woodmode is necessary in expensive lakefront houses, but in regular houses Kraftmaid is just as good. Save money on cabinets, because in the sub $1.5MM price range buyers expect real wood, (no thermofoil) and smooth, self closing doors, but that’s it. Save money here, because $50k in kitchen cabinets in a $500k lake access home spells you losing money, every single time.
Appliances. Go bold here. A Viking stove might be $5k. Someotherbrand Stainless stove might be $2500. Spend the extra money and you’ll be rewarded. My secret to remodeling homes for profit is to give a buyer something they don’t expect. A $500k lake access home buyer doesn’t expect a Viking range, so give them one.
Counters. When it doubt, marble. Yes, they wear horribly. Yes, the ones in my house are stained a bit. Yes, I yell at guests when they set anything on the counters. But, marble looks good, it looks right, and it’s at home in lake houses. Use it, love it, yell at guests when they set a pop can on them.
Tile in bathrooms. Marble, again. But in this there is tact. Marble from a fancy store can be prohibitively expensive. Don’t use that marble. Marble from Home Depot or similar might be five bucks a square foot. A marble shower is a beautiful thing, but in this price range no one cares about your herring bone pattern, or your fancy ceiling pattern. That’s why you put the marble in, lay it straight and simple, and when you’re done it’ll look beautiful, expensive. But it won’t be expensive, because you bought it at a big box store and a guy with a rusty truck installed it.
Trim. Walnut trim is expensive. In a lakefront house, I’d like the office that no one will ever use to be walnut paneled. In your lake access house? White painted everything. Think simple but big. Like an offensive lineman. Large trim with a complicated profile is expensive. Large trim with a simple profile is cheap. Use this. Caulk everything, then spray it white. You don’t be disapointed with the look, assuming you’re trying to actually make money on this remodel.
Fireplaces. If you’re building new, add fireplaces. Multiple fireplaces. Everyone expects a fireplace in the living room, so put one there. But a dining room fireplace, or a master bedroom fireplace, or a den fireplace? Pure luxury. Masonry fireplaces can run $30k each, and if you’re building a giant lakefront house, you better give me many of these masonry units. But sub $1.5MM houses can use radiant units that might run $5k each, so use a few of these. If you’re remodeling a lake house that doesn’t have a fireplace, add one or two and thank me later.
Light fixtures. These can’t be cheap but they can’t be expensive. If you’re buying a $3000 chandelier for a home in this price range, you’d do better to light a pile of $20s on fire in your driveway, because at least then you can roast marshmallows. Light fixtures from Restoration Hardware are always good enough, so use them.
That’s enough detail to form a nice baseline for any build or remodel here. One mistake to avoid is to remodel some things and not the others. There was a lakefront sale recently that featured an old house with three sparkly new bathrooms. The kitchen was old. The flooring was carpet. Had the owner of that home remodeled the kitchen and installed hardwood throughout, it might have sold more quickly and for more money. If you’re remodeling an old condo and you put in new floors and you paint but you leave the cheap hollow core doors and the formica kitchen counters, don’t expect any buyers to care about the floors. Be consistent, be smart, and if you have any particular questions about a remodel you’re thinking about, then ask me.
A recent article told of the plans that developers have for the old HIllmoor Golf Course parcel in Lake Geneva. On this topic there has been much debate. What should come of this run down property that guards the Eastern entrance to our city with so many weeds? Should we develop or shouldn’t we, should it be commercial or shouldn’t it? Thankfully, the developers made a pitch to the city that concluded with, “No lake, no deal”. Good thing, because now we can so no lake, which will force their hand to say no deal.
But it isn’t really a lake they want, it’s a pond. They think this will matter to the vacation home owners that they seek to someday sell to, but it won’t. That’s because I think developing Hillmoor is a bad idea, and it won’t work. There’s another development underway just to the East and South of that Hillmoor property, and it’s another large residential development. Guess what? That probably won’t work, either. There are still rumblings of Hummel’s land and rumblings of rezoning for the Geneva Inn. None of it really matters because none of it will work. They are all different developments, all seeking different zoning classifications, all looking for approvals and handshakes. But the common theme that runs through all of these developments is that they’ll all, in one way or another, fail.
Someone posed an interesting question over the weekend, after the horrible atrocity committed in Paris. The question wondered what good could come of allowing Syrian refugees into these United States. The answer was met with mostly crickets, but some shouts of inclusion! Kindness! Peace!, etc and etc. The point of the question was that the possible downside eliminates and renders meaningless that small chance at an upside. I feel the same way about these developments. What good comes of allowing them?
While Madonna attempts to love terrorism away, I have no interest in loving developments away. I just wish they’d leave us alone. That’s because the last rush of development is still unfinished. There are developments in Williams Bay, Prairie View and Baily Estates, both born of the last housing cycle, both still offering unsold lots, or resold lots, both littered with vacant parcels. Why, if there’s a great demand for new development, would the old developments sit unsold? Shouldn’t there be buyers clamoring at these cheaply erected gates? Shouldn’t prices be soaring if we’re already looking to replace something that hasn’t yet been consumed? If I go to a buffet at an all-inclusive resort and load up my plate with food, this is shamefully acceptable. But if I load up my plate, return to my table, eat one piece of fish, then return to the buffet and load up my plate, this is frowned upon, even in the anything-goes world of low priced all-inclusives.
But, but, the Hillmoor property might have a lake! So what? Who cares? Not potential buyers, that’s for sure. That’s because potential buyers seeking to reside on a small pond can go to Geneva National, where they have ponds aplenty. Or they can go to Lakewood Estates where we have a 75 acre lake- no pond at all. Or they can go to any one of the other small lakes in the area and get their fill of pond life. A large scale Hillmoor development won’t work, pond or not, and it has nothing to do with my feelings about development, it has to do with very simple theories of supply and demand.
We still have ample supply, and it isn’t endangered. If you want to build a vinyl house, you have loads of options here. If you wish to work in town, send your kids to school in town, then we’d love to have you. We have myriad housing options for you, ranging from the basic to the splendid, ranging from vinyl ranches on hills to palatial lakefront estates. We have every segment filled. Yes, to be fair, we are missing the segment of basic house backing up to the highway facing a pond, but I’m betting that segment is awful small.
All of that begs the answer to the original question: What good do these developments bring? What is the point of adding more full-time residents? Is there some great economic benefit, aside from the municipality’s lust for additional tax dollars? Is there some benefit to forcing population expansion of small resort towns? Of course there isn’t. Lake Geneva is an exclusive sort of market. It isn’t for everyone. It is for full time people who want small town living. It is for vacation loving people who want to boat over clean water and walk a deciduous shoreline. It’s for people who want to experience a small town that’s big on personality. That personality changes when mass development comes knocking.
That’s why I don’t really care what the development is, I just care how big it is. If Hillmoor wants to sell off 20 lots, all large and ample, I’m all for it. Commercial properties along the road, residential in back. Perfect. If any one of these other developments, both proposed and approved, wish to provide high caliber housing options that number few, let’s rejoice. But if these developments wish to flood our market with inventory and introduce new, boring, properties to the market, I say no. We don’t need any more boring housing because we haven’t even finished our last round of boring housing and everyone at this table is feeling pretty full.
The flowers are blooming in that big patch of flowers that looks just like a garden of weeds. Most of the flowers are dead now, having long since given their blooms to the bees and their scent to the air and withered. The grass that was so tall, so green, so bushy and strong, now bends brown in the wind, offering little resistance, just waiving in whatever direction it’s told. There’s no strength left to fight. But those flowers are blooming anyway. Not many, but some, the few that don’t give up so easily. The few that see sun and feel warmth and ask, why not?
And so they bloom. You have to walk for a while before you will notice them, but they’re there. Blooming. Surrounded by browns and grays of all shades. There is some green still, the just cut lawn still showing off its stripes that I so intently mowed into it all summer and fall. The trees have long since bailed on the notion of a showy fall display. They turned colors, vibrant reds and oranges and so many yellows. But now they’re mostly just bare, the oaks hanging to some brown leaves, the maples still hanging to a few yellows, the other trees, whatever they all are, stripped of anything they had left by the November winds. Everything is failing now. Not dying, but withering nonetheless, and if you had never known this particular change of season you’d fear that this was indeed the end. That death was coming, nearly complete.
But we know better, because this isn’t our first time. We know the greens are replaced by oranges and reds, and those are replaced by brown and gray. The cycle of this season is nearing its completion, and stores are telling us that it’ll be Christmas soon. It’s always like that. There are strange build ups to Halloween, which is a Holiday in the same sense that I am a skilled and delicate ballerina. Thanksgiving is near, we all know that, because it’s getting brown outside and the mornings are crisp, and that wind is blowing. Thanksgiving is coming, Christmas follows right behind, and everything outside is dying, everyone who fears the cold leaving.
Except those few flowers that are blooming in my garden. They don’t really care that snow will cover them after some many more weeks. And when I walk now, the grass is still green and the lake is still blue and the trees are still standing tall and strong. I don’t mind that the brightness of early fall is now past, I relish the browns of November. In fact, this might be my favorite month of the year. Yes, I said it, November with its sometimes rain and oft wind, with its brown trees and browning grass, with its sparse out of place flowers and its bendy grass. This is a month that I would miss. This is a month here that’s unique and rare. This is the only month where we can celebrate sepia tones and still find an unexpected flower blooming in the midst of it all.
This weekend the smoke will hang low in the November air. It’s been hanging low like that often, except for this week when the wind came and blew it away. The wind is settling now, the temperatures rising, the smoke settling low in these small valleys. The leaves are being rakes, blown, burned. The summer things are being put away, fogged and wrapped tight in covers of plastic and canvas. The winter things are being prepared, but we have no use for them now. This is fall, this is the season of harvest and thanks, because November is so much more fall than October could ever hope to be. Enjoy it while it lasts. Walk the paths. Stroll the sidewalks. Sip strong coffee and take it all in. Soon, it will be winter, and these glorious washed out browns and greens will be blanketed in white.