She Goes: Where is “up north” anyway?

Last week, we posed the following question on Instagram: “Where does ‘up north’ or ‘the Northwoods’ begin in Wisconsin?”

We gave a few different notable highways as potential starting points, but our followers came back with much more interesting ways to define this region:

“’Up north’ is north of Hwy 10; Northwoods is north of Hwy 8” - @jrohr6

“Either once I hit Antigo or once I see “The Store” gas stations” - @thwisconsinista

“Definitely north of Hwy 8. Appleton is not north! - @aaeggman

With so many possible ways to answer this question, it got us thinking. What exactly does being “up north” mean and why are people so passionate about it? To figure this out, I dug back into my own experiences with the north.

In my life, I have lived in Antigo, Wisconsin; Eau Claire, Wisconsin; Chicago and now Milwaukee. Despite being from a town that can reasonably be considered “up north”, my idea of the Northwoods subconsciously changed based on where I was located at the time. Growing up in Antigo was probably as close to a Northwoods experience as one could have. Antigo, with a population of about 8,000, was the biggest “city” in our county. I graduated with a reasonable 300-ish classmates, but it was typical for the surrounding towns to have graduating classes of 5-20 people TOTAL. Because I never knew any different, this didn’t seem strange to me. Just like it wasn’t at all strange to accommodate for a snowsuit under my Halloween costume. Or to drive 45 miles to the nearest Target. Or, that the pinnacle of fun in my teenage years was my friends and I driving around the country in beat up old farm trucks and skinny dipping in whatever body of water we stumbled upon. Still, despite this very “country” life, up north to me was still Highway 8 (around Rhinelander) and north. 

As I moved onto college and had to explain to new friends where I was from, my party line became “Antigo, ya know, kind of the gateway to the Northwoods.” And, forget about trying to be specific to native Chicagoans. Basically, anything north of Mars Cheese Castle is “up north”, so unless they knew a specific town, “up north” became the general destination for pretty much anywhere in Wisconsin.

I didn’t realize until recently that my version of “up north” changed based on where my vision of home was. When I moved away from Antigo for the first time, it suddenly became my “up north” because that was still home to me. When I lived in Chicago, I missed a lot of things about Wisconsin, so the whole state became my “up north”. Now, my family owns a bar and restaurant in Three Lakes, Wisconsin which is where I spend the majority of my time outside of Milwaukee, so now that’s my “up north”. My point to all of this is that, while we all find joy in arguing the logistics of where to find “up north”, it really is different for everyone. It’s about the feeling you get when you breathe in that first big breath of pine-scented air. Or when you look up and realize you can’t remember the last time you saw a sky that dark or stars that bright. It’s about forgetting –actually forgetting—to look at your phone, because it just isn’t a priority. There are a thousand ways to describe that “up north” feeling  and that’s why we all feel so passionately about our version of what and where “up north” is.   

Wherever your “up north” is, I hope you enjoy it often. There truly is no experience like it. 

Yours in adventure,