Good, bad, and the ugly of family vacation

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Every family vacation wraps up with experiences sorted into categories – the good, the bad, and the ugly. Our crew ended the summer break with a trip to a gorgeous lake in Wisconsin, only about an hour southeast of Duluth, Minnesota – birthplace of Tom Rockwood – who’d been planning this trip for months.

Let’s start with the good. Wisconsin and neighboring Minnesota are incredibly good. Beautiful, in fact. And when it comes to August weather, no one does it better than these northern states. Temperatures stayed in the 70s and mid-80s, with sunny skies, a gentle breeze and almost no humidity.

The people of Wisconsin and Minnesota also fall squarely in the good category. While we were there, we visited with two of Tom’s sisters and their husbands – one of whom happens to be a fabulous cook who made several meals for us. When he wasn’t cooking, he and my sister-in-law sent restaurant recommendations so we could sample the best local food. We had delicious barbecue, burgers, French toast with bananas, and so many Wisconsin deep-fried cheese curds that I fear my digestive system may have shut down completely. Only time will tell.

The yard and beach outside our rented lakeside cabin also deserve a good rating. Nestled along the lake, the property has a dock stretching out over water so clear you can see your toes wiggle in the sand as fish swim nearby. Some of my favorite moments were the quiet ones spent reading a book by the sandy shore. The only interruptions came from Mac, our daughter’s service dog, who dropped a floating toy at my feet, prompting me to throw it out into the water again and again. He’d bail off the dock with an ungraceful splash, swim out to his toy, then turn and haul it back to shore. Then he’d bury it in the sand, dig it up, and then start the process over. No one reveled in that lakeshore more than the always wet, continually sand-covered Mac.

Unfortunately, the little cabin just steps away from that glorious lake fell hard into the “bad” category. Even though its location and lakefront beach were ideal, the cabin itself had some… issues. (That’s a nice way of saying it smelled like 1962 had been left out in the rain to get moldy.) Its furnishings were considered old before Nixon was president. Its newest appliance was the wooden butter churn in the corner of the kitchen. An eerie figurine of Hank Williams, Sr. hovered over us atop a curio cabinet. I can’t prove it but I’m pretty sure he was watching me.

All of this might be considered charming if it’s your grandmother’s house that you’ve loved since you were a child. But when you’re paying well over one thousand dollars to stay at a place murder tubadvertised as a “paradise,” you don’t expect the bathtub to look like a goat was slaughtered there. (Tom assured us the huge crimson splotch in the shower we nicknamed “the murder tub” was a result of hard water stains. But let the record show he never once showered in there, opting instead to take a bar of soap out to the lake and bathe in the great outdoors.)

Last and definitely least, the “ugly” category, which I must award to the brown bathmats outside the crimson-stained tub. Here’s a new rule I created during this trip: It may be okay if the brown bathmat is yours and you’ve had it since it was new. Because sure, brown hides dirt, and your own dirt is usually somewhat acceptable and not as gross as other people’s dirt. But a rented brown bathmat that has seen countless feet and dirt (and possible goat murders) is NOT okay. What a paying guest wants is a bright white bathmat that’s either new or has been bleached to within an inch of its life.

Regardless of the scary tub, bathmats, ceramic figurines, brick-hard beds, and the butter churn, we did see real potential in that time warp cabin. When you watch too much HGTV like Tom and I do, your brain automatically remodels a place that needs it. For days, we kept mentally knocking down walls, ripping out musty carpet, installing new windows, scraping off popcorn ceilings, and stripping terrible wallpaper. With a lot of work, that place could truly be the lakeside “paradise” it was advertised to be.

Thank you, Wisconsin, for the lovely weather, people and food. We had a wonderful time and are also happy to be home, where the tubs and bathmats are white, and the beds are just right.

Gwen Rockwood is a mom to three great kids, wife to one cool guy, a newspaper columnist and co-owner of Her book is available on Amazon. 

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