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Matt Gross, "Into Middle America but Staying on the Fringe"

Into Middle America but Staying on the Fringe

Matt Gross

From the NY Times

DRIVING the back roads, you sometimes cross state borders unknowingly. Without the enormous “Welcome to ...!” signs you see on the Interstates, all you have to identify your new surroundings are subtle clues in the landscape — knobbier pine trees, say, or highways named for local heroes.

Wisconsin, however, announced itself with no such subtlety. After a weekend in Chicago, I’d driven west across Illinois, finally turning north amid the big estates near Forreston. Once I was over the state line, hills swelled up from the prairie, the sweet smell of manure wafted from dairy farms, and advertisements urged me to indulge in Cheddar cheese and frozen custard, bratwurst and ButterBurgers.

By the time I drove through New Glarus — a surreal town modeled on a Swiss village complete with chalet-style buildings and street signs in German — I knew I hadn’t simply entered a new state, but a new state of mind.

As culturally distinct as Wisconsin is, I was heading for a place that sat at yet another remove from mainstream America: Dreamtime Village, an intentional community of artists situated in the driftless hills of southwest Wisconsin (so called because they escaped the rough, cold touch of ice age glaciers).

Once known as communes, until the word became overly associated with hippies and other cultural relics of the 1960s and ’70s, intentional communities have a long history in this country, going back to the Shakers and even, I suppose, the Pilgrims. I’d long wanted to visit one, to see how utopian ideals were surviving in the more cynical America of today, and so I logged on to www.ic.org and searched for intentional communities in Wisconsin and Iowa. At first, I found what I had expected: devout Christians, pagan farmers and a polyamorous “family” (my wife, Jean, vetoed that one). Almost all, however, wanted serious members, not casual visitors like me.But for $8 a day and the understanding that I would put my meager skills to work in the community, Dreamtime Village (10375 County Highway A, West Lima; 608-625-4619; www.dreamtimevillage.org) was willing to have me. I didn’t know what I would find there: men wearing burlap sacks? an all-groundnut menu? But last Wednesday evening, after following ever-smaller county roads as they arced up, down and around the hills, the Volvo climbed one final ridgetop and arrived in the middle of nowhere — the tiny village of West Lima (population 65, or so).

A century ago, West Lima was thriving. But as the economy changed, its citizens relocated, and by 1990 the public school and the post office lay empty, and the gas station and hat shop were fading memories. Then mIEKAL aND and Elizabeth Was — artists, as you can tell by the wacky names — showed up from Madison and founded a “hypermedia permaculture eco-village,” in other words, a small, sustainable farm where they and other like-minded individuals could create art and music. On 80-odd acres donated by an eccentric benefactor, Dreamtime Village grew to 25 members and became a fixture on the anarchist circuit, attracting visitors like the doctor-clown Patch Adams and the writer Daniel Pinchbeck.

When I got there, mIEKAL was standing in West Lima’s main intersection, and the sun was warming the town’s sole remaining business, a Pepsi machine (50 cents a can). Bright-eyed and sporting a bushy mustache, he greeted me, expressing surprise that I’d actually come. A lot of people, he said, get cold feet, apparently put off by the idea of an intentional community.

But from what I could see, Dreamtime’s residents were pretty normal: mIEKAL’s 19-year-old son, Zon, had just graduated from the Waldorf School in Viroqua, a couple of towns west; Camille, whom mIEKAL had married after he and Elizabeth divorced, was a cheerful, inquisitive filmmaker who had moved there from Romania only a few years earlier (Elizabeth, who had renamed herself Lyx Ish, died in 2004); and Ken, a handyman who’d been in West Lima longer than anyone, was quieter than the others but so what.

At first, I couldn’t quite see how they constituted a community. Camille and mIEKAL lived in the P.O., the town’s former post office, while Zon, Ken and I had bedrooms in the rickety wood-frame hotel (it had been the teachers’ hotel back when the public school was open). Apparently, another person, Kirk, lived on a far-flung piece of property, but he and I never even met.

All seemed to be on their own trajectories. Zon slept till noon, and mIEKAL worked days as the Web master for the food distributor Organic Valley, based nearby in La Farge. Camille tended to her pet parrots and film projects. Ken was often parked in front of his computer (we had dial-up Internet at the hotel, wireless DSL at the P.O.). No one seemed to share meals. It hardly felt communal.

Nor was the community particularly isolated. To the west is a big park, the Kickapoo Valley Reserve, and to the south is Taliesin, Frank Lloyd Wright’s home and school (www.taliesinpreservation.org). Between West Lima and these obvious tourist destinations were dozens of the swooping, swerving roads that I longed to cruise. (“Nothing picks you up in its arms and so gently, almost lovingly, cradles you as do these southwestern Wisconsin hills,” Wright had written.)

The Volvo, however, had been leaking coolant badly, and I was afraid to take it out for long. At a reader’s suggestion, I’d mentioned the issue on www.brickboard.com, but still didn’t know where to take the car for service.

Instead, I quashed my restlessness and tried to adapt to Dreamtime’s rhythms. The heat meant no gardening until late afternoon, so I spent the day reading a Chinese mystery novel, picnicking among the 19th-century tombstones of the West Lima cemetery — I’d spent almost $20 on rye bread, aged Cheddar and weiss beer in New Glarus — and chatting with whoever happened to pass by. Camille showed me the visual poetry zine she and mIEKAL had just published, I shared my beers with the quiet Ken, and Zon told me about a run-in with neighbor kids when he was 9.

“ ‘Hey,’ he said they’d asked him, not realizing he was a Dreamtimer, ‘so have you met the Satan-worshipers who live over there? They sacrifice virgin animals to Satan!’ ”

“ ‘Oh, really,’ Zon said he’d responded with a smile, ‘how does that work?’ ”

And around 7 o’clock, we would all migrate toward the gardens. I’d rake grass clipping to use as mulch or spray garlic water on eggplant leaves to keep bugs away, and mIEKAL would tend baby plants in the greenhouse. Margarita, the pet goose, would nip at Camille’s leg, and the whine of the lathe would echo from Ken’s woodshop. We were each in our own orbit — I was still preparing my own dinner, penne in a tomato sauce made with ingredients from the garden — but I was starting to sense the gravitational forces that drew us individuals together.

On Friday morning, mIEKAL took me to Organic Valley (www.organicvalley.coop) for a tour of the offices. The building was impressively green (for insulation, it used old jeans), but more astounding was the size of the operation: more than 300 employees and a network of organic growers stretching from southwestern Wisconsin to Maine, Florida and California. Suddenly, mIEKAL’s devotion to permaculture and organic living didn’t seem so oddball, but more like the crest of a rising wave.

After the tour, we ate lunch in the cafeteria (organic meals for $5 a pound) with Daisy, a young woman who’d once hitchhiked across the country. As we chatted about travel, I mentioned my car troubles, and she asked, “Why don’t you take it to Paul, the guy who fixes Volvos?”

Why not indeed? With mIEKAL kindly escorting me, I took the car to Paul Schlicht of Schlicht Automotive (741 South Main Street, Viroqua; 608-637-6766), who quickly diagnosed the problem. The heater core hoses had ruptured from rubbing the dipstick. Because he knew I was in a hurry, Paul agreed to fix it by Saturday morning.

As Paul tinkered, his friends sat around drinking beer while heavy metal played on the radio. “This is your truest Wisconsin experience,” mIEKAL said, “hanging out in an auto garage in the middle of nowhere.”

Back in West Lima, mIEKAL, Camille and I spent the afternoon drinking homemade plum wine and talking about an odd cemetery in Romania, Zon’s future and how the once-reclusive Ken had slowly opened up. Occasionally, a horse and buggy would clip-clop down the road, a reminder that Amish farmers, too, had found the driftless hills a perfect fit for their own intentional communities. Then, at last, we ate dinner together — a weirdly good stir-fry of organic hot dogs and mushrooms over saffron rice, with a fresh spinach salad from the garden — and I returned to my breezy corner bedroom.

The next morning, I knew, I would be leaving West Lima to visit Taliesin, itself an experiment in living closer to nature, then drive west to Decorah, the reader-recommended heart of Norwegian-American Iowa. And for a moment, I felt terrible. In these few days, I’d just begun to find my place in Dreamtime Village, and now I was abandoning it. But community, I’d learned, exists independent of geography, and the bonds that linked me to these not-so-isolated dreamers would stretch across the hills of Wisconsin and beyond. Margarita the goose clucked out in the yard; my cellphone, with no signal, lay dormant on the nightstand; and I fell soundly asleep.