Travel Journal // Good Winter: A Weekend in Milwaukee
Though the forecast had predicted otherwise, the snow started falling as we stepped out of the restaurant, full from a Saturday brunch in this new-to-me city. I was in Milwaukee in the dead of winter, drowning inside a coat just a little too big for my small frame, bought specifically for this midwest winter weekend.
We walked down to the lake as wide as an ocean, passing by groups of fisherman waiting unmoving beside holes in the ice, their faces barely visible beneath their caps and coat hoods pulled low over their foreheads. A distant factory poured out grey into the grey, while chunks of ice floated by in the water.
We were in Milwaukee to see Bon Iver’s show for the 10th anniversary of the album, For Emma, Forever Ago—an appropriate time and place for a band whose name is based on the French “bon hiver”—good winter.
But good is hardly how I would describe winter. I am the scrooge of winter. I can appreciate the season for exactly 25 days in the month of December; once we pass Christmas, I am decidedly over winter, ready to trash it with the torn wrapping paper and leftover cookie crumbs. Most nights are spent hiding under a blanket and watching reruns of New Girl and The Office and longing for the days when the sun stays up past 4:30pm. Outside my apartment windows, tree branches that once carried armfuls of green life now look more like gnarled hands reaching up from the grave. Give me literally any season over winter, please.
Because in the cold of winter, I’m usually confronted with questions that are much easier to ignore in the welcome warmth of spring and the long light of summer and the scarf and plaid days of fall—questions like, “What in the world am I doing with my life?” and “Is this all there is?”
That’s perhaps the coldest question of them all, and I think every human being asks that question at least once: “Is this all there is to life?” Will life always be this cold, dead thing? Will life always mean this routine of work, home, work, home, every. single. day? Will life always be a desk job that deadens your soul? Will life always feel like falling behind your peers? Will life always feel like being a stranger in a new city? Will life always be this way?
There’s a line in Bon Iver’s aptly-titled song, “Wisconsin”: “Winter is coming and you’re stuck here.” That’s how winter often makes you feel: stuck in a place of always.
Winter, though, passes. Even the cold mountaintops of Canada that are covered with snow for eight months out of the year experience a season of warmth and blossom—tiny purple and yellow flowers dotting the montane meadows. The rhythms of nature continually point to our own rhythms in life and say, “Just wait. It won’t always be this way.”
But winter—that waiting, that long, cold questioning if life will always be this way—can it be good while it is happening?
From January to March, my friends and I have a standing date on Monday nights with whatever absurd drama the Bachelor producers have scripted for us. With candles burning and lights twinkling and wine pouring, we spend a few hours each week in the warmth of one another’s company. February brought a plane ticket to Milwaukee and an evening listening to the melancholy magic of Bon Iver with friends, new and old. Winter nights home in Louisiana (hardly an example of winter, but still, it dips below 50 degrees occasionally) consist of sitting in front of the fireplace together until the flames are just embers.
When I have been in a place of metaphorical winter in my own life, it has been the people around me who have sat with me, hot coffee cupped between hands, in the cold waiting and questioning. Because that’s what winter does for us: it draws us closer to each other, reminding us of our deep need for relationship with one another.
And that? That’s good.
We arrived late on a Friday night and just went straight to the Airbnb, so Saturday morning was our first real view of the city. We began with coffee at Valentine Coffee, which truly could go head-to-head with even the dreamiest of Nashville coffee shops.
Then it was off to explore Milwaukee a bit, stopping in for brunch at Swig, where I enjoyed just about the only gluten-free brunch option of bacon, eggs, and breakfast potatoes.
After brunch, it started snowing as walked to Lakeshore State Park, and it made all my snowy, dreary dreams come true.
For dinner, we first attempted Pub Club near the arena, but alas the service was exceedingly poor and so, running out of time before the show, we weren’t able to eat. We tried another nearby bar, but hello hi bar food is extraordinarily gluten heavy, so I was out of luck.
The show was at BMO Harris Bradley Center, an arena in downtown Milwaukee. I heard my favorite song, "Blood Bank", live, so the show was an emotional rollercoaster of MAGIC.
After the show, it was my friend’s birthday, so we went to a nearby bar, Who’s On Third, which to my it’s-midnight-and-I’m-SO-DADGUM-hungry delight had g-free menu options.
Sunday morning we returned to Valentine Coffee (because it’s so good!!!!) before venturing over to browse some old vinyl at Starship Records. Then it was a brunch of Mexican—always my food genre of choice—at Vagabond downtown before we were dropped off at the airport, where we just so happened to run into Justin Vernon & co. also catching flights out of Milwaukee.
If it hadn’t been for Bon Iver’s show, I likely would not have made a visit to Milwaukee, and I likely won’t return until Bon Iver holds his 10th anniversary show for the album Bon Iver. Still, though, a good, full weekend was had.
NEW TO AIRBNB?
Airbnb is my go-to when it comes to accommodation in the places I visit. In Milwaukee we stayed in a delightful (and delightfully affordable) Airbnb in a neighborhood close to downtown, complete with plentiful Santa decor despite it being well into February. New to Airbnb? Use my referral code to get $40 off your first stay!
Blood Bank // Bon Iver
I feel like I'm forever groping in the darkness for words that accurately describe my deep affection for this song. Basically, this song reaches into my chest cavity and rips out my heart and holds it in its musical hands for the entirety of its 4:45 minute play. There's three subtle notes played on an electric guitar twice in the second chorus that are musical gold to my Bon Iver-loving ears. Needless to say (but I'll say it anyways!!!!!), my heart pretty much lost it when Bon Iver played "Blood Bank" at the Milwaukee show.