Redefining the wild in an unlikely urban wilderness
It’s a little hard to imagine a place in the City of
Milwaukee that you might consider remote. I’m not talking about a place you
have to drive a long distance to reach. I mean a natural landscape so secluded
and, yes, wild that you wouldn’t expect to encounter another person
there—unless they were doing something illicit.
There is such a place. It lies at the end of a long hike on
trails next to the Menomonee River from my house to just shy of the Waukesha
County line—or the short hike described here. The story of my first encounter
was moving and memorable enough to include in my 2008 book, Urban Wilderness: Exploring a Metropolitan
I don’t go back often. It’s not that I avoid the
place—although fear did seem an appropriate reaction when I first discovered it
over a decade ago and indeed there has been little enough reason to change my
initial impression in subsequent years. Unlike other secluded spots in
Milwaukee’s parks, I haven’t found it to be a peaceful destination. But a kind
of morbid fascination draws me back now and then.
It’s been quite a while since I’ve last seen it. A cold,
dreary week has given way to sunshine. I decide to see if another visit will
reveal any fresh abomination.
I turn into 119th Street, drive past huge piles
of recycled asphalt and gravel and park between a trucking terminal and a
packaging plant near the dead end. The chain link fence between this industrial
hinterland and the backwoods along the river has long been breached—wide enough
for thrill seekers to ride 4-wheel drive trucks through. Today the mud leaves no
doubt that the practice continues.
Near the bottom of the slope, just before reaching the
river, I come upon the wreckage of some unrecognizable vehicle. An omen,
perhaps, for what lies ahead—or an unwitting monument to the occasionally fatal
consequences of our actions.
The deep truck ruts end abruptly near the river at the verge
of the forest. A dirt road once continued on through the trees. Deeper ruts here
are mossy and overgrown. Timbers have toppled across the still visible passage.
I take the footpath that lies closer to the river.
Animal tracks stipple the soft earth of the trail. But,
surprisingly, there are no human prints. Plenty of people are out taking
advantage, as I am, of a warm, sunny Saturday in Wisconsin’s fickle spring. I saw
them in a constant stream as I drove along Menomonee River Parkway—jogging and
biking; many simply strolling. The playgrounds were packed.
I knew this place was off the beaten path, but I didn’t
expect to be so completely alone. As if to drive home the point, I have to step
over a large trunk that blocks the trail. The colorless forest grows steadily
wilder—the trees more twisted, the underbrush increasingly tangled and
The land rises along a steepening riverside escarpment.
Mountain bikers have altered the trail: banking curves, kicking up gravel, compressing
the earth. But the tread marks are faint, strewn with decaying leaves. No one,
it seems, has cleared branches and other debris that fell over the winter. The
sense of isolation deepens.
Reaching the summit, I see ahead the familiar river bend and
the dell that I know to be the journey’s end—in more ways than one. The barren
trees make it look desolate. For the moment, however, bright, inviting afternoon
sunshine dispels the sense of impending doom.
I gaze down the steep drop into the dell. There in prominent
view lie the hulking remains of an old van, looking more casually forlorn than its
violent end might suggest. I pick my way gingerly down the muddy slope and
slowly circle the van. It is no less obvious an intrusion, and yet somehow less
repugnant than I remember. Fresh graffiti adorns rear and side panels, rust has
etched deeper into unpainted steel, and the whole thing seems to have settled
into the ground. Drab, snow-matted grasses appear to crest like static waves
over the mired vehicle.
I step carefully. Like a maze of booby traps, the matted
grasses hide additional chunks of even more corroded steel; an engine block
here, an axle there, several wheel rims and the skeleton of a chassis. Aside
from the risk of a twisted ankle, it all looks remarkably benign compared to my
memory of the time when I first encountered it. Then this was a veritable
battlefield. The various car parts, hoods, door panels, and odd bits of sheet
metal had been placed deliberately and strategically around what was open,
uneven terrain, scoured by floodwater that had washed over the oxbow in the
All of it—trees and the rock-strewn ground as well as the
makeshift fortifications—had been completely spattered with colorful splotches
of paint. No trace of that remains. I guess no one comes to play war games any
I find the mountain bike trail, which loops around the
circumference of the oxbow, and leads me to the secret of the dell’s
remoteness. I am confronted with a massive expanse of concrete—a railroad
bridge resembling a medieval fortress. A long freight train rests silently on
top. The river emerges through three arched openings. This imposing rampart,
along with the private property of commercial enterprises on the opposite side,
effectively thwarts entry from nearby 124th Street.
A continuous frieze of graffiti decorates the lower sections
of concrete. But this too, like the trail and the “battlefield,” looks tired
and dingy. Even the freshest-looking paint has started to peel. Seams in the
concrete weep and run, staining the tags as well as the walls.
I head back to the dell to look for my favorite car, an
ancient Gremlin I once photographed
when it was iridescent with pink and chartreuse paintball paint. Even knowing
where to look it’s hard to find. The rusted relic nestles among fallen logs,
more akin to the patient earth beneath it than to the automobile-enamored
culture that created it.
Nearby I find a smooth log and sit; close my eyes and turn
my head towards the sun spilling all around, welcoming a solitude from which the
demons have been expelled. Nothing, essentially, has changed. No one has come
to remove wreckage or wash off graffiti. But despite the lingering evidence of
abuse and degradation, it all seems paradoxically more natural than before. Against all odds, it is finally peaceful.
This story was first published by Milwaukee Magazine on April 11, 2017.