A Love Letter to the Up North State of Mind

Let’s all slip into the Up North mindset.

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Up North. It sounds maybe like a place, but definitely like a direction. A way to get to a place. 

And that’s appropriate, because the conveyance between wherever you are and wherever you’re going is important to the concept of Up North. The time it takes to get to your little slice of the woods or the lake allows you to decompress from what you’re leaving behind. As cornfields give way to forests, as you pass those familiar waypoints – the road with the funny name, the barn flattened by the tornado two decades ago, the custard stand by the river – everything just changes. That time matters. It gets your head right, and that’s really what being Up North is all about.

Of course, it is about a place, too. And it’s a Badger State pastime to argue the merits of the possible dividing lines – always highways, never just lines on a map. 

Highway 29, arcing from Green Bay to Wausau to River Falls, is a common demarcation. Folks with lots of driving time will claim Up North begins above Highway 8, which enters Wisconsin near Niagara and cuts through Rhinelander and Ladysmith en route to St. Croix Falls. 

That seems a bit stringent to me, especially since much of who I am came to be as I explored woods, chopped trees, swam in lakes and caught grasshoppers in and around a log cabin in Marinette County – well south of Highway 8. My folks raised my sister and me in Green Bay, and my dad’s steadfast take on Up North was anything north of Highway 64, which runs from Marinette pretty much straight west through Antigo and Merrill before stopping just short of the St. Croix River near Somerset. If you’re driving around the eastern half of Up North, it holds up pretty well, with mostly farms south and woods and lakes north.

 

 

And even folks who live Up North go Up North, because there’s work and school and laundry to get away from no matter where you live. My cousin and her husband live not far from Highway 8 near Dunbar. You probably don’t know where that is, but it’s unquestionably Up North. Their Up North place, though, is in Price County, two-plus hours’ drive away, a little north but mostly west. 

This points up the inherent matter of perspective in the concept of Up North. If you’re coming from Beloit, the woodsy rural areas around the Wisconsin Dells and the beautiful lake country of Waupaca County are north of you. Heck, if you’re from Illinois, you might even think of Lake Geneva as Up North. But are you really Up North? You’ll get funny looks from most Wisconsinites if you claim you are, but who is anyone to to yuck your Up North yum? You’ve got that mind-altering separation, so go for it.

Don’t Sound Like You’re From Illinois 

ANTIGO: AN-ti-go 

MINOCQUA: Min-OCK-wah 

WABENO: Wa-BEAN-oh 

MANITOWISH: MAN-it-oh-wish 

KESHENA: Ka-SHEEN-ah 

LAONA: Lay-OH-na

This theory of Up North relativity is also the official stance of no less an authority than the Wisconsin Department of Tourism. Spokesman Craig Trost chuckled at “the age-old question” and declined to draw any bright lines on the map.   

“Personally, I know I’m Up North when I can feel stress melt off my body,” he says. “I’m Up North when I am surrounded by lakes and trees, when playing board games and having campfires overtakes technology, when stargazing replaces the hustle and bustle of the city.” 

That escape, and the personal and cultural importance of the places where it happens, is a shared experience for legions of the state’s residents. It’s tradition that bridges generations. In a 2014 Wisconsin State Journal story seeking to define Up North, Eric Raimy, a UW-Madison professor who has studied the quirks and forms of the English language in Wisconsin and the Upper Midwest, said it’s not clear when the term was first used, but it has grown to become exceptionally well understood today. “North itself is a geographical term,” Raimy told the State Journal. “But the fact that the term is Up North, that changes it from a purely geographical term to more of a social-cultural term. It can bond us.”

A Word About Door County

Photo courtesy of the Door County Visitor Bureau

DOOR COUNTY, YOU ARE GREAT. You are filled with bluffs and big water and state parks and mini golf courses and custard shoppes and other shoppes, and all of those things are great.
But you are definitely not Up North.

Your brand of leisure and natural beauty just doesn’t fit with what’s going on on the other side of Green Bay, where it’s more about a slab of prime rib and a Leinie’s than scallops and a glass of wine. There are shops there, not shoppes.

We will still come see you, and do many of the same things we do when we go Up North. But we will know that we are not Up North.

 


 

This story is part of Milwaukee Magazine‘s May issue.

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Executive editor, Milwaukee Magazine. Aficionado of news, sports and beer. Dog and cat guy. (Yes, both.)