photographs by Josiah Thorngate
Dedicated to my grandparents, whose love for the Northwoods I share.
Cisco is a small lake deep in the Northwoods of Wisconsin. Its shore is dotted by a handful of homes and summer retreats, including a cabin built in the early 1950s by my great-grandfather and his sons-in-law. That place—building, land, and water—is treasured by generations of my family, and this essay and the accompanying photos are an homage to both its natural beauty and its emotional significance.
Reaching Cisco is a unique experience, a sequence of events freighted with nostalgia that accumulate into the grand arrival. The lull and mundanity of the long drive, of four lanes through farmland and small towns, dissipate with the turn onto Cisco Lake Road. As the car slows to turn onto gravel, the tone within the car shifts dramatically.
The chaos of tires over stones and the din of the stones striking the car transport me to my childhood when, often as not, that transition would wake me, alerting me that the drive was nearly over. Even as the driver of the car I still feel that old excitement infuse me, and for a brief moment I’m that child again—pure innocence, enthusiasm, and potential. The dips and curves of the road, the slowings-down and speedings-up, are a pattern so deeply ingrained within me I’m convinced I would know it with my eyes closed.
The landmarks slide by, counting down to journey’s end: the road to the boat landing, the first glimpse of the lake itself. Then the Back Bay and the traditional sounding of the horn, whether or not anyone is actually at the cabin to hear it. And, finally, the near 180-degree turn onto Summer Home Road, the sign for which hides among the trees. The car slows further, paradoxically intensifying the mood and increasing the anticipation. Cabins 4, 3, and 2 pass the passenger-side windows, their signs declaring the residents: The Heberts, the Spears, the Bejins.
And the last sign, our sign. Timberlane, it says, followed by four names—the surnames of my family, though that list is much longer now. The grassy drive curves ahead and away, its far end lost among the trees; the first proper sight of the cabin is withheld until the last possible moment.
The first mosquito bite, and the first layer of repellent. The first walk down to the lake, taking care on the path so the roots and rocks don’t trip you up.
Every visit to Cisco is full of firsts. The first time you open the door and hear its unique creak and slam.
The first time you plunge your head under the water, and either luxuriate in or lament over its temperature. The first loon’s cry, too mournful for such an idyllic place.
The splendor of the sunset that first evening,
the immensity of the starry sky that night.
Taken separately, these experiences seem ordinary, unremarkable. They are not separate experiences, but rather individual facets of a single, grand experience. And they are important not because they are unique but because they are unvaried, year after year after year.
The car crawls through the tall grass to a sound much like the gentle scraping of reeds and lily pads against the canoe as it crosses the shallows. I slow the car to a stop and cut the engine. I open the door, step out, stretch. I breathe deeply.
This moment—this first—is the one that matters most, this first breath of fresh, crisp Northwoods air. The smell and taste of it, of earth and green and life.
The sounds that accompany it, the whispering of the wind through the trees, the crying of birds, the buzzing of insects. And underneath it all, the incredible silence—as if nothing exists beyond the reach of my senses.
The moment stretches to encompass past, present, and future. It recalls visits in earlier years, earlier decades. It offers promises of that same calm and refreshment in the here and now, and provides assurances that this is and will always be the retreat I remember.
Time runs differently in this place, more slowly, as if to make the sojourn last as long as is needed to restore mind, body, and spirit. And it’s in this moment of arrival that I can feel it in my bones:
I am here.