Tag Archives: Wisconsin

The Largest Farmers Market in the USA

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It is the farmers market that ruined me for all other farmers markets. When I lived in Madison, Wisconsin, for several years, I would regularly attend the Dane County Farmer’s Market, the largest producer-only farmer’s market in the country. Every Saturday morning during the warm season, the entire capital square would be filled with vendors, selling fresh produce, flowers, baked goods, and, of course, because this is Wisconsin, cheese and meat.

Each Saturday, between 9 A.M. and noon, crowds of people pack the sidewalks that surround the capitol square, creating a lively scene. It was enough volume, enough activity, that every other farmer’s market I visited after this one has left me asking “Is this it”?

That is partially because the Dane County Farmers Market is a unique experience in a unique place. It was included as a “must see” in the book 1,000 Places to See in the USA & Canada Before You Die.

The book, however, was published in 2007, and a lot has changed since then. One distinct characteristic of the 21st century is the presence of simultaneous contradictory trends. For example, we have a new generation of people emerging who both spend over nine hours per day in front of screens and prefer face-to-face interactions. Likewise, while obesity rates continue to climb, people are also becoming more health conscious and more aware of the food they consume.

Specifically, with detox diets, and awareness of the amount of waste caused by our food distribution system, more and more people are desiring locally sourced food. This can be seen at grocery stores and even some restaurants, where more and more displays indicate that food was produced on a “local” farm. Farmers markets are expanding everywhere to meet this increasing demand to buy locally produced preservative free produce. Some lists of top farmers markets in the USA published more recently do not even include the Dane County Farmers Market.

The Dane County Farmers Market still, certainly, represents a unique experience, as it has always been about more than just the vendors.

As far as I can remember, Madison has always been a very political town. On all four corners of the square, booths promoting political causes and local candidates are an expected presence. Along the roads that radiate outward from the Capitol Square, more interesting activity can be found, including live performances, some additional vendors and demonstrations of activities like wood carving, and even an impromptu children’s play area placed in front of the children’s museum.

I would say that Madison, Wisconsin is certainly more interesting than most towns around this size. The college campus guarantees plenty of interesting cultural activities. The pedestrian mall, State Street, that connects the capitol with campus is always active, even if it does have a speed limit that just begs people to break it… on their bicycles.

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And there are the lakes, four of them to be exact, of pretty good size, one of which is directly adjacent to the University.

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The city has two other characteristics that, having visited a lot of different places, feel quite surprising.

One is how strong drinks are mixed here, particularly on State Street. I ordered a make-your-own-bloody mary at one of the many establishments on State Street. Restaurants that offer this beverage typically provide a glass with vodka to mix with the other ingredients at the bloody mary bar. This is the only place where the glass provided to me was filled halfway up! Mixed drinks at other bars are also quite strong compared to the ones in most other cities.

From a now outsider perspective, it is also surprising to see how politically one-sided Madison is. Signs promoting events and groups, conversations around town and even signs in front of local businesses are quite frequently politically charged, way more so than in most other cities and towns. They are all from one side. It is as if those on the other side had been silenced or run out of town. In a State that is quite close to evenly divided politically, it feels strange to be in a place where one side has near 100% dominance of the discussion.

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Sometimes I find it depressingly easy for people who live in cities to forget what region they are in, on a larger scale. Traveling around the country, it often feels like all cities are tying to build the exact same amenities as each other; luxury apartments, shared workspaces, microbreweries, and art galleries. In my current hometown of Denver there is a constant reminder of where we are, the mountains to the West which tower over the skyscrapers of the city. The Midwest does not have that, however, seeing booth after booth selling cheese curds, other agricultural products, and products like venison jerky is as clear of a reminder to any that Madison is part of Wisconsin, which is part of the Midwest.

 

On Wisconsin

After spending a weekend in the Caribbean, I returned to a completely different world than the one I had left.  Prior to my trip, it had been autumn, with the mix of some relatively warm, but also some chillier days that typically marks the middle part of the fall season.  In fact, much of the Western U.S. experienced a warmer than usual October; a pattern which had extended into early November.  As I returned to the mainland United States, a gigantic push of unseasonably frigid air was rapidly descending upon most of the country from Canada.  Between the warmer than normal fall weather I had been experiencing prior to my trip, and the warmth of the Caribbean, I was certainly unprepared for this sudden weather transition, and far from thrilled to be experiencing weather more typical of mid-winter than mid-November.

This frigid weather pattern had firmly established itself by the day of the big game which I had planned to attend; Wisconsin’s home game against the Nebraska Cornhuskers.  And, while I had known that frigid weather was a distinct possibility for a November 15th football game in Wisconsin, I also knew that this would be a critical game, and probably the most ideal weekend for a trip back to Wisconsin to see the Badgers play.

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While a part of the Midwest, the State of Wisconsin has a culture that is quite unique from all of the states that surround it.

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While much of the Midwest likes to drink, seemingly more than the rest of the country, Wisconsin takes it to a whole different level, often being reported as the #1 state for “binge drinking”.  During my time living in the Midwest, I observed drinking in the state of Wisconsin at a larger subset of all occasions, and in larger quantities than anywhere else.  In fact, recently Wisconsin Public Radio did an entire series addressing the alcohol culture in Wisconsin.

Another tradition in which Wisconsin takes quite seriously is the Friday Fish Fry.  The extent in which this tradition is observed here highlights Wisconsin’s Catholic and Lutheran heritage, as well as the obsession with fishing here.  Like the consumptions of beer, cheese, and encased meats, the Friday Fish Fry is fairly common in other Midwestern states, but taken to a new obsessive level in Wisconsin.

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One other thing Wisconsin knows how to do is tailgate.  In downtown Madison, in the vicinity of Camp Randall Stadium, nearly every parking lot with available space is filled with people drinking, grilling, and playing games in preparation for the game.  The tailgating experience here is somewhat different than in most places.  Tailgating at most stadiums generally involves parking in the stadium’s parking lot a few hours prior to the game; with people bringing their coolers, grills, food, and games out of their vehicles.

This past weekend, although we arrived downtown nearly four hours prior to game time, we were forced to park roughly a mile away from the stadium (as well as the tailgate).  At the tailgates here, there is a much higher ratio of people to cars than is typical.  It seemed like only the organizers of the tailgate, who likely arrived quite early in the morning, had vehicles in the lot, with the rest of the lot’s space available for people, tents, games, and a significant number of port-a-pottys to accommodate the excessive drinking that takes place at these events.

I attended a tailgate that I can only be described as “professional tailgating”.  It included a several table long buffet of food, tables for games, a television showing other games in the Big 10 conference, a sound system with multiple speakers, and even a heated lamp!  The organizers even brought in their own port-a-potty and handed out pieces of orange tape to attendees to ensure that those coming from outside their tent did not use it.  I was quite amazed!

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Despite the chill, it felt good to be back at Camp Randall Stadium, a place where I had watched dozens of Wisconsin football games while attending the University.  Despite many of the changes that have occurred over the years, the stadium itself, and the experience of attending the games, was practically the same as it was back then.  Although, we did not do the crazy set of “waves” (standard, slow, fast, reverse, and then split) that I had recalled.  Well, maybe I just don’t remember it.

The game actually turned out to be a bit of a blowout, with Wisconsin winning 59-24.  Our running back Melvin Gordon set the all-time single game rushing record at 408 yards, and it began to snow halfway through the 3rd Quarter.

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Despite this, we did not leave the game early.  And not too many people did.  Maybe some Nebraska fans did.  But, it is something that Wisconsin fans do not really do.  Surprisingly, my buzz (from the tailgating) did not ware off despite not drinking at all during the game.

Like so many evenings I remember in Madison, the evening involved multiple bars and lasted until bar time … or some time around that.  Just as I remembered, the drinks here are made quite strong!  In fact, even at the places that I had previously thought of as making “weak” drinks, the drinks felt quite strong compared to what I had now become used to.

It was my third consecutive weekend of partying hard.  First, over Halloween, I threw a party at my place.  I was in a setting that consisted of a fairly large number of people, nearly all of whom I was already quite familiar with.  The following weekend, at Saint John Island, I was around almost all people I had not previously met.  This past weekend, I attended the game with a group of six people (including myself), only one of whom I had not met before.  However, out at the bars on State Street, I interacted with a significant number of complete strangers.

The past three weekends I had been in three different settings, both geographically and socially.  I managed to have a great time and be what I consider the best version of me.  It is the version of me that I become when I do not let the anxiety that comes from various life events and situations to get the best of me.  It is the me that is energetic, enthusiastic, confident, and welcoming to all around me.  It is the version of me that seems to make others around me happy, and the way I am when I am having the best times of my life.  It is this version of me that I wish I could be at all times.

Unfortunately, there are times when I do not live up to this standard.  As, sometimes I let some kind of anxiety, frustration, or insecurity prevent me from truly enjoying myself.  Having avoided these pitfalls in three different settings gives me hope that I have overcome some of these anxieties, insecurities, and frustrations.  However, I have no way of being certain of what the future holds.  At this time, all I can do is be happy that I have had the opportunity to have been the places I have been over the past few weeks, and hope for the best for those around me.

Kayaking in the Sea Caves

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The process of erosion is quite an interesting process. Well, it is not interesting to watch, not even on time lapse. But the end process can be quite interesting to see. Different types of dirt, sand and rock, are weathered down in different climates to create some unique natural features. In the case if the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, sandstone, eroded by constant waves from Lake Superior have created a series of “sea caves”. The arrangement of these sea caves is actually constantly changing. New “sea caves” are created and old ones are destroyed periodically throughout the region. The ice that forms on the lake can speed up this process as water expands when it freezes.

I actually own 16 DeLorme state atlases. I pretty much own all of the Midwest states and many of the mountain states. These atlases are a great resource for both outdoor recreation, as well as storm chasing. When I was at the headquarters of the Adventure Cycling Association, I actually saw that they have a whole pile of these atlases as well. They are quite great for everything except urban areas. In each atlas is a listing of places such as campgrounds, lakes and rivers for fishing, ski resorts, etc. Each atlas also has a listing of “unique natural features”. I wonder, not only what constitutes a “unique natural feature”, but also what makes us so drawn to them. Are we bored of the features we encounter on a regular basis? And, how unique are they? Couldn’t sea caves like this form pretty much anywhere along a lake where the soil has primarily been crushed into sandstone by geological processes? Well, maybe that is a rare condition. But, I still wonder what draws us to travel to see them, and any other “unique natural feature”.

Friday’s activity was kayaking in the sea caves, a trip organized by Living Adventure Inc. out of Red Cliff, WI. This trip is quite neat, as they take participants out on kayaks. Tour guides direct the participants to some of the neatest sea caves along the Lake Superior tour. We were even able to kayak through some of them, and into this area known as “the crack”. This agency also offers multi-day tours that travel to the islands. The tour guides were quite knowledgeable too, and described to me the geological process that created these features, which islands had the most interesting sea caves, as well as how many bears each island has! I really did not know anyone tracked bear populations to this level of detail. The only thing I really know about bears is the saying “If it’s black fight back, if it’s brown, lie down”. I guess that is the important part, as to help you not get killed by a bear, but it still surprised me that there were a lot of bears here. I thought they were mainly out west, and remember seeing all of the bear related warnings in and around Yellowstone National Park.

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I went on this kayak trip with a group of 8, all of us attendees of Saturday’s wedding in Bayfield, WI. Up until about a year ago, several of us all lived in Chicago and worked for AonBenfield. We had frequent social events throughout the city, and got to know each other quite well. It was really a fun time of my life, and I miss all of the people I encountered this weekend greatly. But life brings about changes from time to time. No matter how much people would like to think otherwise, we are not in total control of our lives. Some people believe in God, or a system of gods, or some kind of external force that guides our life paths. Others believe in a concept known as “fate”, something best addressed in that Gwyneth Paltrow movie “Sliding Doors”. But even those that don’t believe can still acknowledge that many of the events that have the largest impact on your life are completely out of our control. Sometimes it is a decision made by people that are more important than you in a company you work for, other times it is a natural event, like a gigantic storm. Either way, you can’t control what happens to you in life, you can only control how you respond.

And, if it is your response that builds character, than I am personally doing a terrible job of it. As I sit here in my hotel room, preparing to depart for home, my thoughts keep dwelling on all of the people I was hanging out with over the past few days. I was actually quite sad at the end of last night when I had to say goodbye to everyone. In fact, I do periodically think about my old life back in Chicago. I know some people have moved on, and others are looking to move on. The past cannot be recreated, and change is inevitable. I really need to look more towards the future. But, the way I had my life in a rhythm back in Chicago, especially the summer of 2011, when there was always something going on, and I still managed to train for and complete a century ride. Well, it is something that will definitely be missed. Having lots of people that honestly care about me, and appreciate me for who I am (which can be quite ridiculous sometimes), is something that is definitely appreciated. I don’t know what to say except that one fact of life is that there is a first and last to everything, and I truly hope that there were no “lasts” this weekend.

Sometimes it is the little things that you remember most about an event. Over the course of this past month, I have had plenty of opportunities to sharpen my rock skipping skills. On the kayak trip, we stopped at an island to eat lunch. On the island, we had some extra time, and I started skipping rocks. Others joined in from time to time. At one point in time, I actually skipped a rock that was about the size of my hand. I was even shocked that this rock actually skipped. My friend Liz described it as “the most awesome thing I’ve ever seen in my life”, which was definitely an exaggeration.

I was also proud of myself for helping a couple of others with their rock skipping. This goes back to leadership skills I have been pondering over the past year. If you think about the role of any leader, from someone that organizes trips to upper management/ CEO figures, one important aspect of their job is developing the skills of others. This involves knowing when to step aside and trust someone else to get a job done. A leader of this nature cannot possibly have involvement in all of the details of every project in all that they oversee. They must know when to let go a little and trust others, but also know when to step in and assist. I gave my wife Abby a couple of basic pointers that helped her with rock skipping, and was glad to see her succeed. Also, when handed a rock for skipping by Kristin, my good friend Quaid’s girlfriend and date for the wedding, I handed it back to her and let her skip it herself, and she was also successful. I know it is something stupid like skipping rocks, but I was proud of myself for revisiting the urge to try and do everything. This is a trait that can really limit one’s leadership ability, as well as annoy those that report to them. People who end up working for managers that do not know how to step aside and trust people with tasks also typically end up struggling to develop. Overall, it is a lose-lose, but I know it is hard for some to resist the urge to step into everything. This weekend it is skipping a rock, but maybe later it will be something more substantial. At least I did one thing right!

-Photos Credited to Sneha Soni-

Wisconsin’s Northernmost Region

Yesterday I returned to a place I had been to only once before. The town of Bayfield, WI is along Wisconsin’s Lake Superior shoreline, and despite being a very small town (population less than 500), it is popular in the summer, as it is linked to the Apostle Islands, which is an island chain in Lake Superior with some unique scenery. Due to the geography of Wisconsin, this is the northernmost part of the state. It is the only part of the Lake Superior shoreline in Wisconsin, as farther east, the shoreline hits the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. This part of the state is actually over 300 miles from both Milwaukee and Madison, making it quite different than the part of the state I am most familiar with. In fact, someone once told me that sometime in the 1970s there was talk of this part of Wisconsin joining with the U.P. of Michigan to form a new state, breaking away from their respective states due to serious cultural differences.

The first time I came here, in 2007, I was kind of obsessed with waterfalls. So, I found a place called Copper Falls State Park, which has some pretty nice falls. This particular trip warranted a return trip to Copper Falls, as some of the others on this trip live in Chicago, where there is little opportunity to find good waterfalls.

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The trail system at this state park is actually part of a larger trail system called the North Country National Scenic Trail. This trail system is only partially complete, but they eventually hope to connect central North Dakota all the way to upstate New York via a trail that follows some of the northernmost parts of the country. I am guessing they are hoping for it to be like the Appalachian Trail, but it seems like they are still a long way from completing this trail, and even when it’s completed it will be nowhere near as scenic as the Appalachian Trail, or the Great Divide or Colorado Trail for that matter.

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The hiking here was pretty easy, especially when compared with some of the hikes I have been doing more recently, with the move to Colorado and the trip to South Dakota. However, they did have some decent waterfalls in several different places. They are called the “Copper Falls”, due to their coloring, which actually comes from the type of red clay present in the region. As far as I know, the region has nothing to do with the mineral copper, and nor does the name of this particular waterfall.

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Having lived in Colorado for some time now, a few things about this hike seemed quite different than what I am now used to. First of all, the hike felt to me like a luxury hike compared with what I have been doing more recently. There were some areas where staircases had been built, and there was even a sheltered bench built for resting. This is not something I have come to expect on a hiking trail. I had become accustomed to simply using a good rock or log to rest on if I were to get tired.

It was also way more wooded here than what I had become accustomed to. I guess they call it the “north woods” for a reason. It was so wooded here that I did not suffer any consequence for forgetting to wear sunscreen. At the end of the hike, I was actually way more anxious to put on bug spray. Parts of this hike had an excessively large concentration of mosquitoes. I think I killed like 50 of them and still got a bunch of bites. I cannot even seem to recall the last time I was in such a mosquito infested area.

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After hiking Copper Falls, we drove up to Bayfield, the town most closely associated with the Apostle Islands. This is because the ferries that run to the islands all run out of this town. On the way up there, we hit the Lake Superior shore, and subsequently the Lake Superior circle tour, which is a series of roads that a motorist could follow around the lake. When I lived in Chicago, I recall being along and seeing signs for the Lake Michigan circle tour from time to time. In fact, that tour follows Lake Shore Drive in the city. The signs are neat, but taking the two or so days to drive around the lake seems like a strange idea to me.

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We took a ferry to Madeline Island, which is the largest island in the chain. In fact, it is the only island with roads. The others are largely uninhabited, but people still take boats, kayaks, etc., and camp and hike there. We did not end up spending too much time on Madeline Island. There wasn’t too much to do there, at least not for us. They do have a golf course, some beaches and trails, but it seemed to me that most things available on the island are also available in Bayfield, and in other areas on the mainland. Maybe it is still not quite peak tourist season yet.

I did enjoy the ferry ride. It actually brought back some distant memories for me. When I was a kid, growing up on Long Island, my family would periodically take trips that would involve bringing our car on the Orient Point ferry to Connecticut. This ferry ride was not nearly as long, and on fresh water instead of salt water, but driving onto the ferry and walking up the stairs did bring back those memories a couple of decades later. It is strange how, after all those years, the feelings can still be the same. The people with me probably thought my behavior at this point in time was a bit odd, as I was doing and saying certain things out of some kind of long dormant reflex that likely made little sense in the context of where we were. I even stated to crave seafood. It was somewhat of an odd feeling, but a good one.

A Long Drive Down a Familiar Road

There is no road that I know better than Interstate 90. Before moving to Denver last year, I lived in the Midwest for 19 years. In that time, I attended High School, College, Graduate School, and started my first job. I lived in Illinois, Indiana, and Wisconsin. But, I never lived more than 10 miles from I-90. I drove back and forth on that road so much that I once claimed that I could tell at least one story about every exit on that road from South Bend to the Dells.

Today’s journey began on that all to familiar road. It was surreal to be driving past the same places, looking at the same exits, and reminiscing about the same stories, the same people, but keeping in mind that I no longer live here. It was almost like a journey into another life, but one that I am still living.

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We got an early start on June 1, and raced across Wisconsin. Well, raced is a relative term. Wisconsin remains, along with Illinois, the only states in the Midwest to still have a statewide speed limit of 65. In addition, unlike in Illinois, they are looking to pull you over.

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Regardless, we still go to LaCrosse in 4 hours, with our first stop being in Sparta, WI. Sparta is known as the “bicycle capital of Wisconsin”, which, as a bike enthusiast, makes it near and dear to me. In fact, I had ridden through Sparta in 2006, on a ride across the state. It is where the LaCross River Trail ends and the Elroy-Sparta trail begins. Both are bicycle trails created from abandoned rail beds, and quite fun to ride. Sparta hosts a bicycle museum, and has even placed bicycle images on their road signs!

In LaCrosse, we did something I am not accustomed to on road trips. We actually stopped at a microbrewery to sample some beer. The Pearl Street Brewery would not open for tasting until noon. With a little bit of extra time, we went downtown and checked out some sights, including the grounds of Oktoberst. LaCrosse is said to have one of the best Oktoberfests this side of the Atlantic. I regret never having gone there, but I did live in Madison, and living in Madison is almost like a non-stop Oktoberfest!

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After sampling some good beer, it was time to tackle a new state, Minnesota. When it comes to states to drive across, Minnesota is the ultimate tease. The first ten miles are utterly spectacular! The road follows the bluffs of the Mississippi River, which are almost at their best here. In fact, this is my favorite Mississippi River crossing (with St. Louis being a close second).

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Unfortunately, after those ten miles, the surrounding scenery suddenly goes dull. I mean suddenly! At mile marker 267, you suddenly enter a mainly flat terrain full of corn fields. It stays that way for pretty much the entire rest of the state. So, essentially, Minnesota presents itself to the westbound I-90 traveler as quite exciting, but ends up manifesting as dull and frustrating. It reminds me of our own government, but that is another issue.

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Today’s destination is Spirit Lake, Iowa, for some camping. Spirit Lake, despite being in Iowa is only about 20 minutes off of I-90. The drive is quite easy, and, to be honest, I do not notice the difference in scenery between Iowa and Minnesota. I would say that the part of Minnesota I had been traveling through today is like more like Iowa than the rest of Minnesota.

However, ironically, the part of Iowa I end up camping in may be more like Minnesota than the rest of Iowa. Specifically, I am referring to the size of the lake. Minnesota, of course, is known for its lakes. Every time I visit the state, it feels like half the population owns a boat. In fact, the state motto is the “land of 10,000 lakes”. Iowa may not be lacking in lakes the way many states out west are, but it isn’t known for it’s lakes. But, Spirit Lake is a place where life pretty much revolves around the lake, much the way it does for many places in Minnesota.

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I am very proud of myself on this day. I put up the tent all by myself! Yeah, this is something that many people know how to do, but it is a skill I never developed, and really need to have. Especially, if I really want to dive into the experience of living in Colorado, and, what is the point of moving to a new place if you don’t plan to experience it with all you’ve got.

The evening was all about spending some quality time with good friends, the kind of people you truly feel comfortable around. We goofed off, we grilled, and played frisbee in the park. We had a few drinks, and got a bit loopy. My friend Jason found a way to break a rock trying to break a gigantic tree branch to make more firewood. It was quite hilarious.

More importantly, we talked about some real stuff. The kind of stuff that people don’t seem to talk about anymore. People, society, who we are, where we are going, what we need in life. I have no idea why people don’t talk about all this anymore. Maybe it is the constant distractions. It seems like we are more connected than ever, but also more isolated. I really don’t know what I personally can do about this, but be there for people when they need me, which I plan to do. If I can reduce the amount of loneliness in this world, I could truly be of service to humanity. Maybe this is the kind of realization people tend to have on a quiet (somewhat, as it has been windy) night in a lake in North Central Iowa.