Sometimes we all just need a break.
This world is cold, hard and mean like a little metal ball sometimes, ready to ping you wherever it hurts most. In fact, sometimes you feel like that especially vulnerable bumper in the pinball machine, hit repeatedly by the ball (ding-ding-ding-ding-ding...!) as the toll rises against you until you are ready to topple over with just one more hit. This early summer, I kind of felt like every time I left the house I had to look over my shoulder for that mean metal ball, ready to roll me over at any moment.
Still some of us are so hardwired to believe we can affect positive change that the prospect of the absence of this ability would make it very challenging to get out of bed in the morning. So we put on our happy faces, frown a little at our newspapers, pull ourselves out of it somehow (Coffee? A hug? Whatever it takes...) and go on about the business of trying to make the best of this very flawed place. Some of us are activists, busying ourselves with meetings and petitions and protests. Others are artists, using the creative process to give voice to our discontent. And then there are the community builders, helping this world we are trying to will into existence take form in the shape of relationships and personal connections. Whatever it is that we do, we do it because we have to to respect ourselves and to feel some measure of effectiveness. This all works, often magnificently well, but sometimes we just need to chuck it all for a day or two or three and let ourselves get silly. We need to grin, laugh, giggle, chuckle, let go, and relax. We need to eat calorically dense, nutritionally modest food, entertain ourselves in ways that amuse but do not challenge, find peace with allowing our inner-simpleton to take over the driving for a bit.
At times like these, there is the Wisconsin Dells or the equivalent near you.
My husband and I started going to the Dells every year on our annual voyage to Minnesota, otherwise known as when the Jewess observes the happy Viking family in the dead of winter. The Dells is approximately the mid-point between Chicago and his tiny hometown in Minnesota, a three-and-a-half hour drive, a reasonable distance in which to have earned a lunch or dinner break.
I had heard of the Dells all my life but only went there for the first time as an adult. The first time I went, it was a revelation, though I scarcely remember the specifics. I was simply too overtaken by sensory overload, even in the snowy quiet of December. I have come to learn that driving into town in the winter, the Dells takes on a radically different quality than in the summer: the nearly deserted downtown, spookily empty roller coasters, the billboards that must look so enticing under the punishing July sun - water-drenched thrill-seekers; big, icy drinks in sweat-beaded glasses - chill to the bone in late December. It is a distinctly sad time of year, the death cycle for pretty much everything but polar creatures, but for those of us who cherish the bittersweet, the Dells in winter is also exquisitely plaintive. It seems as if you can hear last summer's voices shouting, thrilled at the whatever adventure awaits in front of them, in the distance. In the very far distance.
In the summer, this is a very different town, every chock-a-block inch of it alive and fully awake. We had been to the Dells several times in the winter before we went in the summer, when the beast is really alert. Every time that we've returned, my initial assessment has barely diminished: this is a staggering town, deeply impressive in its audacious embrace of the tacky.
It can be described as Las Vegas for kids. Or the sort of town a consortium of seven-year-olds would create if they ran the town council. Everything is loud, obnoxious and created for maximum fun, at least what your typical seven-to-ten year-old tends to find fun. Much of it is also under gallons and gallons of chlorinated water. Subtlety is not a prized quality in the Dells, in fact, I would say that it is scorned; the Lutheran reserve and stoicism that pervades through much of the Dairyland politely inspects its nails and whistles to itself when it comes to city planning here. As long as it's family-friendly, there is seemingly nothing that is beyond the pale, pushing the envelope of frivolity too far. Even the pictures of those dressed up as bordello barmaids in the "old time" black-and-white portraits at the novelty photo studios in the downtown area are stripped of any prurience.
There are two distinct parts of the Dells that interact together chaotically but still agreeably. There is the more contemporary side, the one with the big water park hotels and
expensive theme parks with "Extreme Rides" (anything where a human form and bungee cords interact reboundingly) and then there is the Old Wisconsin Dells. This the part that was created from the 1950s through the 1970s, seemingly influenced by the blocky aesthetics of The Flintstones meets the groovy, faux-natural style of The Brady Bunch with a nice blast of futurism (Robots! Space exploration! Mind-blowing science!) inserted throughout. It is all done seemingly without tongue-in-cheek (tongues are too busy lapping up syrup-and-crushed-ice-based beverages here) or an ironic sensibility. This is the Dells I love. It is the anti-slick, the anti-Disney. Throughout the town, there is no single unifying corporate iconography or overarching theme other than the pursuit of fun for its own sake, and whether that takes shape in the form of a Wisconsin Duck (a vehicle that drives on land or water) or an afternoon visit to a haunted house teeming with animatronics, it is up to you.
One memorable visit to the Dells pre-parenthood was with Lisa, my best friend from college and onetime partner in crime, who was visiting from California and is constitutionally unable to refuse the promise of a silly good time. We went there with a little bag of, um, dried mushrooms that we had to consume so they didn't go to waste and then hit the water slides for a madcap twenty-four hour adventure that included the largest water park in the US (key memory: riding down the lazy river in an inner-tube and the girl who slowly drifted past, inquiring, "Is that an earring in your nose?," [I had a nose ring at the time] me answering in the affirmative and then her saying, "Cool..." as she languidly floated away), a visit to Biblical Gardens (now closed, sadly), which Lisa, a former Catholic schoolgirl, giddily defiled at every little statue station depicting Jesus' life by placing her breast in his outstretched hand. We also tried to figure out what was exactly behind the sunny smiles and overwhelmingly energetic mien of the largely European workforce at The Cheese Factory, a vegetarian restaurant in nearby Lake Delton, by climbing the fire escape on the side of the building, like that would reveal something. (We learned later that The Cheese Factory is somehow affiliated with A Course In Miracles, which leads me to a funny aside: when I told a friend that a new vegetarian restaurant that was opening in Chicago had a meditation studio operating from it, he said, "Can't a vegetarian restaurant ever open here that's not affiliated with a cult?" which cracked me up, both because of the preponderance of the sort of thing he referred to and because of the notion that meditation practitioners are cultists.) We drove home the evening after we arrived, sunburned and sleep-deprived and happy to have been there.
Last weekend, we took my son to the Dells for the first time in the summer. We also took my mother along. This would be a very different trip, double-entendre fully intentional. When you first drive toward the downtown area, officially called the Wisconsin Dells Parkway but we like to maintain the Vegas parallels by referring to it as the Strip, you are immediately greeted by big wooden roller coasters up against the road, just feet away, sending screaming riders slowly up and then plummeting down. My son gasped. His eyes, already enormous, rapidly drank in everything as he whipped his head from side to side, not wanting to miss a thing. He is right square in the middle of the demographic target: a seven-year-old boy. He was visibly shaken at reaching his mecca, pointing, gasping, finally insisting that we stop the car. Now! We happily obliged.
So there is a miniature golf course that is truly immense on the left as you enter the Strip. And there is a haunted house with an animatronic creature that throws up water and a Ripley's Believe It Or Not Museum, something called The Torture Museum and lots of candy shops selling grotesquely pumped up caramel apples and dozens of varieties of fudge. The sickly-sweet smell of melted sugar is everywhere. Needless to say, it is not a vegan paradise in the Dells, aside from The Cheese Factory and its sister bed-and-breakfast restaurant, and at one point, my family had three varieties of fried potatoes for two meals. I prayed for our arteries, vowed to eat as much green stuff as possible as soon as I could and moved on. That's what the late Tommy Bartlett, the entertainment mogul with the eponymous water ski show in the Dells, would have wanted me to do.
In the Dells, concrete volcanoes emerge from miniature golf lands, timed to erupt every fifteen minutes. Adults clutch three-foot-long strawberry-flavored Puffy Rope Marshmallow Candy as though that's a perfectly acceptable choice. Novelty t-shirts announce to the world that the wearer feels cuckolded by his wife. Most apparently never got the memo that fanny packs are not stylish. Either that or they just don't care.
So we had fun. My son proclaimed that the Dells is "the weirdest place he's ever been" and that he would like to move there, two seemingly incongruous thoughts that make perfect sense to young people. No doubt this desire to be a permanent Wisconsin Dells resident is fueled by his fanciful and still naive grasp of "the real world" and how it functions. I'm sure that he thinks that residing in the Dells would be nonstop revelry as we would go from water park to Duck ride to Ripley's Museum to dinner out and back again in the morning. And, really, why would I want to try to puncture this impression? The real world of rushing out the door and deadlines and appointments and passive-aggressive coworkers awaits.
The strongest visual memory that remains the one that sums up our trip to me is this: John and I were in this positively insane pool at Mt. Olympus that shoots - seriously! - nine-foot-tall waves over the assembled every ninety seconds. At the first wave, I instinctively grabbed onto my husband, apparently the wrong thing to do, as it pulled both of us to the bottom of the pool. By the time we emerged back into daylight, a person in a bungee swing thing was catapulting way above our heads from a nearby ride. Seeing that person swinging up against the bright blue, cloudless sky as I wiped my eyes and gasped for air will probably stick with me for a very long time. That was the Dells experience in a nutshell.
What won't stick around for a long time? This vegan fudge, perfect to bring along to the Wisconsin Dells or the equivalent near you. This is not health food by any means but it is cholesterol-free and delicious, and sometimes, you just have to enjoy yourself.
12 oz. dairy-free chocolate chips
6 Tablespoons melted Earth Balance or coconut oil
3 1/2 cups powdered sugar
1/3 cup baking cocoa powder, sifted
2 tsps. vanilla
1/4 cup rice, soy or coconut milk
Optional: 1 cup vegan mini-marshmallows (like Dandie's by Chicago Soy Dairy's) and/or toasted, chopped nuts, especially nice are pecans.
Lightly grease an eight-inch square baking pan.
Place everything but the optional ingredients in a double-boiler and stir until all is combined and the chips are melted. Add any optional items and stir together. Pour into the prepared pan and chill completely. Also, swirling creamy peanut butter or vegan cream cheese through might be a nice addition if that's how you roll.