Continental glaciation. Ten thousand years ago, it was a thing. By the time the last chunk of glacial ice finally melted at the end of the most recent Ice Age, Wisconsin’s landscape was forever changed. With outwash plains, drumlins, pristine lakes and kames and eskers, those famous moraines. Today, they combine to create more than just the state’s geological beauty (most of it, anyway). They form our very impression of this Midwestern state. Which is all well and good, but it begs the question: What do glaciers have to do with this Gift Guide? Which begs the question: What is this Gift Guide? Glad you asked, dear reader. Every year around the holidays, we publish a Gift Guide, or as it’s become known, our “guide to intentional gifting,” which is a collection of cool products from cool brands we believe in. Brands we think more people ought to know about. Brands that, like Manifesto, espouse an experiential ethos and a shared sense of passion, ambition, and purpose. So, now that you understand exactly what it is you hold in your hands, let’s get back to the original question at hand: What do glaciers have to do with anything? The answer: Absolutely nothing. No, literally—nothing whatsoever.
Let us explain. This year, as our backdrop, we focused our attention on Wisconsin’s Driftless Area—the southwestern part of the state left entirely untouched by the glaciers. Because (and we’re being totally honest here) even though it’s essentially in our own backyard, we knew next to nothing about it. Other than that it offers a glimpse of what Wisconsin looked like before those two massive lobes of ice tore through the terrain. We also knew it would provide a perfect opportunity to get the heck out of the office for a few days and explore. So that’s what we did. We went driftless in the Driftless Area. We packed our Jeep full of essentials, which included the dozen items we’re spotlighting this year—obviously, because products fuel experiences, and we were eager to discover how these would shape ours—and
we shoved off on an epic (okay, that’s a slight exaggeration) adventure that would lead us through two states in three days. From city to suburb to the outskirts of society itself, we journeyed hard and learned a lot about our state in the process—and even a little bit about ourselves. Like, for instance, when you confine three opinionated and idiosyncratic coworkers to a Jeep packed to the hilt on a road trip for the sake of an internal project, the road finds a way to get under your skin. (And so do your coworkers.)
There is a moment in every journey when you cross the threshold between two worlds. When you move from the safety of certainty—a world both calming and familiar, like a blind man’s palm upon the face of a lover—and into the disquieted realm of the unknown. A world where every turn threatens the possibility of cataclysm. Here be dragons territory. For us, the event horizon was the mostly vacant parking lot of a small, well-lit bar and grill in the quaint town of Viroqua, Wisconsin. A veiled question mark hung like an imposition over the façade, making us wonder whether we were making the right decision, choosing this establishment over any other. But it was getting late. We were running out of options and well beyond hungry. And at the end of the day, hunger always trumps iffy.
Here be to dragons
From outside, the place was equal parts charm and repulse. It looked sketch, but the cloud of smoke billowing from the upblast roof ventilator carried with it a siren scent of greasy-grill hamburger meat, cajoling us into overcoming whatever implicit miasma of doubt resonated within as we made our way from Jeep to front door. This was Night #2 on our journey, and our gut instinct may have been telling us No, but our guts were shouting Hell yes!, and Feed me!, and Now! (Admittedly, that palatable scent of cooked animal meat could very well have been emanating from the Culver’s franchise just next door, but we were adamant about forgoing any sure thing on this trip in favor of local flavor, creature comforts be damned. This was, after all, an adventure.)
The overhead fluorescents screamed obscenely as we pushed open the door and stepped from the growing mantle of night into a manufactured daylit room. It was crowded with patrons—regulars all—the number of which seemed disproportionate to the scarcity of cars in the lot out front, which only heightened our unease. But it wasn’t quite enough to send us back out into the cold night searching for a would-be alternative. We had made our decision and would have to live with the repercussions, for good or for ill.
A quick survey of the room revealed a single open table at the edge of an oblong dining area, in a spot skirted by a sparse pool hall (if you could call it that), where two small rectangular seas of green felt ran contrast to the drab wash of pine paneling that defined the room’s perimeter. The walls were speckled with rustic automotive décor: a framed sepia-tone image of an early model Harley-Davidson motorcycle, patina’d metal signs reading Route 66 and Valvoline swimming in verdigris, an out-of-place autographed Dierks Bentley tee. Even the white wall outlets bore black frames, as if to advertise a sort of pastoral pride in the ample electricity available throughout the joint. Not a single one of them in use.
We snaked our way through a clutter of occupied tables and reached our own only to realize, by the time we took our seats we’d drawn the conspicuous leer of everyone in our wake. Kill them with kindness was our only option for a response, and we masqueraded three separate smiles in the general direction of everyone who wasn’t us, providing the assurance that, outsiders though we may have been, we were pleased to be in their company—even if those smiles did belie a mix of nervous butterflies and hunger pangs. The waitress dawdled to and from the kitchen with our menus then our meals, and in between, she hurried off text messages to someone, all the while wearing a distressed look on her face. Still, she labored a smile at us whenever she delivered something new to our table. Two Bloody Marys and a Mountain Dew, a bottle of ketchup, a plate of nachos that looked like an apocalypse of canned prepper ingredients. And through it all, we did our best not to cast stares at the man standing before the wall-mounted jukebox.
He was a tall, spectacle of a man, dudded in worker blue jeans and a black windbreaker with colorful elastic cuffs at the end of two sleeves that peaked out from beneath a fluorescent yellow reflective mesh surveyor’s vest. For the better part of an hour, he plugged the juke with crinkled dollar bills and danced to the sounds of Motown, his moves pantomiming a pas de deux, despite the fact he was without companion. Even as he shuffled through selections, he’d dance. The song would bounce through the sound system, and our guy would move to the center of the floor, swaying and twirling, dipping his invisible partner. An ecstasy of abandon. No sooner would a song end than he would engage another regular across the bar in conversation, his voice booming with joviality, shuffling back to the jukebox to select another song.
For 45 minutes, we watched from the corners of our eyes as this man danced with full lack of inhibition. And slowly, what had started as spectacle turned sublime. Where once we wondered at what sort of ardor possessed him, at last we simply admired his ability to be possessed. His demonstration a reminder that, for all the cynicism and incredulity and stressors that followed us into the bar that evening like a triplet of appalling ghosts—for all the burdens we bear—there is an arrant joy that remains perfectly attainable, despite ourselves. A kind of joy that can inspire a man to dance gloriously alone in a crowded room. The kind we found momentarily as we ate that night, surrounded by strangers. And the same joy that was regrettably vanquished from our grasp the moment we stepped back out into the biting cold, stung by bitter wind, our meals lodged like Acme anvils in the pits of our stomachs and lolling about as we climbed into our vehicle to return to our campsite. All warmth and joy behind us in the bar. A night of uncertainty ahead.
We were already 242.8 miles off course, and our trip had only just begun. The thing about doing an internal project of any kind is that sometimes work gets in the way of work. Which is why we found ourselves in Chicago’s Wicker Park neighborhood looking for a parking spot at the outset of our trip, instead of anywhere in the Driftless Area, looking for a campsite. As it turned out, we had a little business to take care of first before we could boogie. Clients do come first. Also: falafel sandwiches. By the time we finally broke city limits, it was well past 8pm, and we had collectively dropped more than $250 on used books, new shoes, dinner, and a malt. Heck of a way to start a camping trip. Still, we were hours away from our first campsite. And nowhere near through spending unnecessary quantities of money.
Finally, after 330-some total cramped miles in the Jeep, a mere 11 hours after we first set out, at just a few ticks past midnight, the wash of our headlights illuminated an open campsite at the end of a narrow, winding road at Rock Cut State Park in Illinois. Our campsite showed promise. It was surrounded by forest, on high land, bordered by a lake. We pulled in and started to unload. It was only then that we noticed, something was missing. “Hey guys?” Jenna called from the back of the Jeep. “We totally forgot to buy firewood.”
Back into town we went.
"Have you ever set up camp just after midnight on a crisp, cloudless 33-degree night? Yeah, we don’t recommend it.”
at the lake
The sun was a dazzling lie in the brilliant blue sky above the lake, the way it asserted itself, feigning heat. But the only actual heat we felt lifted in random tufts from the few remaining logs smoldering in our firepit, the smoke perfuming the air around us. Burn what you bring, read the sign at the permit station. And right below it, another sign that read, Alcohol Prohibited. Of course, we always do our best to follow instruction. So we burned the last of our wood.
On the iron grate just over the flame, a stainless steel pot held water that drew to a boil, intended for our instant coffee. Because here’s the thing about instant coffee: It tastes like a delicacy on mornings such as this, when the memory of sleep still clamps to your face like the twin brother of an uncomfortable numbness born of the mother of all winds. Neither sleep nor cold were any match for a piping mug of coffee though. It was our counterpoint to the morning’s cold, as we rigged the Jeep’s auxiliary power to the Crosley and spun some records, taking our time to break down our tents and continue our journey into the Driftless Area.
Of course, instant coffee is no match for the real thing. And this being planet Earth in the year 2017, there just happened to be a full-service Starbucks conveniently located only miles from the ashen remains of our firepit. A cold-weather oasis. So naturally, Adam plugged it into the Maps app on his phone, and 20 minutes later, we were thawing over two Venti Blonde pour overs and an Americano. This wasn’t just a brief pitstop, though. It was necessity in the name of Wi-Fi. When half your office is out on a camping excursion, the rest of your work doesn’t just magically progress in your absence. It still requires a bit of attention. And all three of us needed to check a few items off on our “to do” list before we could again venture out into purposeful driftlessness.
Mark Twain once said, “Along the upper Mississippi, every hour brings something new.” And indeed, the Great River Road that runs parallel to the Mississippi River is an ideal gateway to the Driftless Area, every turn holding the potential for a peculiar shift in topography—from plateau to deep river gorge, majestic bluff to monadnock. (Okay, we’ll spare you the requisite Google search and just tell you what it is: a monadnock is an isolated knob of rock that rises abruptly out of an unassuming landscape, and the Driftless Area is chock-full of them.) So yeah, the Great River Road is the perfect way to access the Driftless Area’s bountiful beauty. Unfortunately, we didn’t come anywhere near it. Instead, we hauled ass due north on I-90 for wont of getting from Point A to Point B as quickly as we possibly could. We had a lot of ground to cover, and daylight was wasting. Last thing we needed was another moonlit tent-pitching scenario.
It was all worth our while. The endless miles. The pitstops. The leg cramps. The missed turns and GPS dead zones. The spilt coffee. The sleepy small towns, which seemed a million miles away from the big city life we were so accustomed to (and from modern times in general). All the fragrant, sodden cow fields. All the bickering and spats we suffered through, the idiosyncrasies we were forced to put up with. All the strange pink bra-and-panty yard art displays (alright, to our knowledge, there was only one of these, but still). All of it was worth our while for this one fleeting view.
We’d finally reached our destination: Wildcat Mountain State Park. Campsite #2. And just as quickly as we set up camp, we strode a short ways up the path that led from our campsite to an overlook that lived up to the hype. The view—dotted yellow, copper, and rich auburn due to the varied stages of autumnal foliage—granted us a magnificent, and rather transcendent vantage of the sun setting over miles and miles of Driftless terrain. It was the kind of perspective that lent perspective. We weren’t just looking out at the land that sprawled endlessly before us, we were looking at all that dwelled within. Yeah, yeah. It sounds a bit superfluous. And it is. But when you look upon something (and it can be anything, really) and have it stir inside you a sense of awe, it reveals something about you that remained concealed and unaffected until that very moment. A Schrödinger’s Cat of self-realization. We were moved, and we shared the moment without words. Until at last, someone said, “Let’s go get something to eat.” And with that, the spell was broken. The charm lifted. We’d sated our eyes with splendor, and now it was time for us to get some grub, to do something to slake our growing hunger.
Back at camp, the temperature crept down each vertebrae till it hit a low of 28 degrees, nesting itself in the smalls of our backs, not quite ready yet to descend further into full-on leg freeze. We fed the bonfire a steady quotient of timber—a feeble attempt to increase our flame’s negligible radius of heat, but it threatened constantly to degrade into hypothermic nothingness, an entropy of elements. Every beverage we pulled from the cooler grew colder as we drank it. And yet, for as frigid as it was, the marshmallows still melted obediently over the open flame, providing the perfect tableau for our s’mores. The fleece blankets we purchased on our after-dinner run to Wal-Mart (our second in as many nights) worked overtime to keep the impending chill from penetrating our many layers, to no avail. The cold, finally triumphant. (And yes, another Wal-Mart run meant another detour into the toy section for yet more Legos and Star Wars figures. Any excuse to prolong our access to heat.)
Tomorrow, we would wake to Good Coffee in lieu of instant, and watch the sparkling sky turn slate with snow flurries, meandering once more down the serpentine, scenic roadways of the Driftless Area that spanned the distance between here and home. For now, though, there was nothing to do but watch Orion slowly transit the ink-black sky. Nothing to do but constellate our own flurry of light, sparks ascending heavenward to commingle with stars every time we’d drop a fresh log on the fire.
Sometimes we fool ourselves into believing travel is the sole progenitor of seeing something new and brilliant. But here’s the thing about travel: Whenever we return from someplace new, someplace we’ve never before been, our eyes tend to remain open just wide enough—and just long enough—to behold certain details in our daily environs that otherwise remain unnoticed. Our feast until our vision contracts and monotony again settles in, our eyes becoming veiled once more by the familiar, the habitual, the mundane. We grow accustomed to seeing the world around us in a particular way and forget that beauty abounds, regardless of our capacity to see it. Daylight may well obstruct our view of the stars, but they are there nonetheless.
There is indeed beauty in our own backyard. Sometimes we just need to be reminded to look for it, to seek it out, to rub the ordinary from our eyes so that we may let a little of the extraordinary in.
We are the fearless ones. The why-nots in a world of cannots. We believe in lightning strikes. A belief that puts insights and stories above artifice and vanity. We believe in the Tin Man’s heart. Soulless brands are only meaningful when given a fleshy, beating heart. We believe in tilting at windmills. Sometimes the best causes are those only the dreamers, the dare-ers and the blind can see. We believe in care over commerce. That when you give a damn, you’ll inspire others to do the same. We believe in the life lived deliberately. “Most men go to their graves with their song still in them.” We will make our finite lives and work count, each informing the other—and both be better for it. We believe in the immutable power of story and those who propel it. We believe brands were meant to stand for more.