Most of us can all recall a time or two, when we’ve been, if not lost, at least a bit disoriented during a hike in the woods.
Sometimes, I think that’s A-OK.
Like so many situations, you can fret about it, and let it upset you, or just consider it “unstructured playtime” and no worries. I follow the same strategy in writing these meandering posts.
My workdays are organized to a nicety, and scheduled to a fare-thee-well, so every so often, it feels nice to be wayfaring without much of a plan.
Go roaming, off the clock, off the grid. If your mind is already wandering, let your feet join in, too.
When that mood strikes, I’ve got no use for guidebooks, pedometers, compasses, watches, maps, GPS, etc. More fun to just strike out and follow a deer path or old logging road, or go bushwhacking cross-country.
In the Finger Lakes region, not to worry, you can’t get too lost. If you just keep on keeping on, you’re sure to hit a lake, they’re really hard to miss. Just ask one of the guys fishing, which lake it is, and bingo, you’re no longer lost.
If you somehow manage to miss the lakes, and are still lost, you’re sure to stumble across a winery or microbrewery. The kids they hire to pour out Riesling, Gewürztraminer, and Imperial IPA’s usually don’t really know jack about wine or beer, or who won the last presidential election, or which way is North. And mostly cannot give you coherent directions to the parking lot, much less to town, but they’re always friendly, and if you just mention you like their Phish tee-shirt, they’ll lend you a cellphone so you can call somebody for a lift.
Just keep your chin up and keep walking, there’s always locational clues – – worst case, if you really keep wandering, eventually someone will say politely “Eh, pardon me, are you lost, do you require assistance, eh?” Or “Yo, let’s g’down ta tha WaWa and getta pork roll” And then you’ll know where you are – southern Canada or northeast Pennsylvania, respectively. So again, you’re no longer lost.
Anyway, it’s probably time to launch a new series, “Confused Wanderings Around Milwaukee & Wisconsin. And Possibly eastern Minnesota?”
So, some of the forests in Wisconsin are a bit bigger than what I’m used to, and a bit easier to get lost. Traipsing through the Wisconsin woods one day, perhaps slightly unsure of my location, I was pleasantly surprised to encounter the guiding beacon in the photo, a kind of land-locked lighthouse, and find it was a Victorian innovation for lost foot walkers. I read up a bit about the inventor and philanthropist who built it, although I’m unable to pin down exactly where this tower is located. Somewhere north of Milwaukee, but shy of Green Bay, most likely.
Finally home that night after my hike, I looked up this lighthouse off in the woods, a hundred miles from Lake Michigan, and learned a bit about a local hero, “Captain” John Stryker Bevel-Gearing II. (Called “The Second” by his clock-obsessed family.) That’s his statue in my first photo, and he’s become kind of a patron saint for lost hikers.
(Travelers, sailors and mountaineers usually look to Saint Christopher, but there’s a technicality – he’s assigned to help people trying to reach a specific destination, not just gallivanting aimlessly.) (Although I don’t know how the Vatican delegates this stuff, but I’ve always thought Chris seems like the kind of guy who’d help out anyway, even if you’re a wandering heathen.)
Bevel-Gearing was an innovative clockmaker, entrepreneur, and philanthropist – a product of an earlier, more optimistic time. A 19th century immigrant, originally a liveryman of London’s Worshipful Company of Clockmakers, he’d traveled six time zones west to pursue his passion for bird call clocks and time-regulated poultry feeders.
Sometime during 1870 – 1900, when Milwaukee’s population was quadrupling, the Captain opened a small manufactory of clocks and mechanical regulators, in an isolated clearing, deep in a forest, close by the Wisconsin Dells.
This Dells region is nothing like the pleasant dells and dales of England, and really, as I understand it, should’ve been called a dingle – – a forested gorge along the Wisconsin River. It’s already a confusing area, topographically, and this sort of definitional sloppiness doesn’t help matters.
Bevel-Gearing had selected this unlikely spot for his business, because he valued his privacy, and sought seclusion to perfect his timepieces and mechanized poultry-feeders, far from competitor’s eyes.
Unbeknownst to him, the beautiful Dells region was becoming increasingly popular with Victorian-era artists, naturalists, and excursionists. Their volumes of Wordsworth or Whitman in hand, the visitors anticipated uplifting walks in beauty, communing with Nature.
But the forests and glacier-carved hills, ravines, and gullies proved disorienting for many, and their outings turned into a devil of a time.
At his clockworks, day after day, hungry and distressed walkers emerged from the woods to ask for directions, drawn to his little factory by the smoke from his chimney, and the bells, chimes, and mechanical rooster- and crow-calls being tested for his clocks. (He loathed cuckoos, as a silly-sounding, frivolous breed with deplorable parenting skills.)
Oftentimes the clothing of these hillwalkers was a disgrace – disheveled, filthy, stockings and bloomers torn by thorns – and they’d beg a meal, having emptied their haversacks of bully beef, prunes, and hard tack.
The visitors would have to be rested, fed, watered, brushed off and made as presentable as might be. Those who had lost their shoes in the fens and bogs, had to be loaned a pair of clogs or carpet slippers. The whole heedless mob was then set on the right path toward civilization, or at least, Milwaukee.
Only to have some of them return in a couple days, having gotten lost again.
The Captain was a patient and not unkindly man, but very conscious of his time, and eventually he tired of the constant interruptions. As well as the loss of every pair of his carpet slippers.
The confusion and randomness of the visits were disturbing the precise, even-tempered organization of his days, and this also bothered him. A mainspring was far more to him than springtime. He spent his life designing regulators, and all this hullbaloo was highly irregular, and time-consuming.
He came upon a wreck – an iron-hulled ship, driven onto the rocks by a storm.
Like the beam from a lighthouse, piercing the fog, an inspired thought lighted the innermost recesses of his brain. Hitherto unused gears began turning like clockwork.
The vessel’s owner was at hand, surveying the damage and cursing the unlucky vessel in exaggerated terms of opprobrium.
Bevel-Gearing had never commanded a ship (the “Captain” was merely an honorific bestowed by the Independent Protective Order of Agricultural Mechanics & Breeders), but he immediately struck a bargain, and purchased the salvage rights on the spot. The ship’s iron hull and frame were disassembled, and hauled off to his clock factory. There, the iron was cut, bent, and then reassembled on a nearby hillock, into the metal signal tower you see in the photos.
Any lost tourists, watercolorists, butterfly-collectors, and rock-climbers in the area soon learned to head for the tower, which was stocked with soap, towels, ship’s biscuit and mineral water. A teetotaler himself, he’d initially installed a cabinet with a case of medicinal brandy, but this was exhausted the first weekend of operation, when a photographer happened by, and the Captain never repeated that mistake.
A well-blazed trail led from the tower to a stagecoach landing.
With this forest beacon in place, Bevel-Gearing was able to happily return to his experiments in blessed solitude. His crow-call clocks were never commercially successful, although a functioning example is worth a good deal to today’s collectors. But his clockwork poultry feeder was a huge success, enabling him to retire and set out on a ’round the world peregrination.
Sadly, during the first stop of his Grand Tour, he came to an untimely demise. While inspecting, and perhaps attempting to adjust, the double three-legged gravity escapement, on the clock associated with “Big Ben” at Westminster, his cravat became loosened and then entangled, pulling the Captain to a grisly fate amongst the clock’s gearwork.
But perhaps some particle of the Captain still travels through the clock’s mechanism, greasing the grooves, high in the landmark tower. Which he might regard as a not unpleasing fate.
Well, Bevel-Gearing is just imaginary, of course, but I love lighthouses, and wouldn’t it be great to have them in the forests?