In Wisconsin, the rarest birds in the world live not far from the Dells.
Not just any birds, but cranes the tall, elegant birds of art and myth.
In ancient Japan, cranes could grant wishes. In India, they're omens of good fortune.
In the circus, nothing succeeds like excess. And no one succeeded at that more than the Ringling brothers.
In the last half of the 19th century, Americans clamored to be amazed. Tent shows traversed the countryside; Wisconsin alone had more than 100.
On the Mississippi, showboats brought entertainment to river towns. In 1869, two circuses one was Dan Rices Own Circus, whose proprietors clown character was the inspiration for Uncle Sam put on performances in the Iowa river town of McGregor.
In its marshes and woods, John Muir first discovered the joys of wilderness. On its sandy plains, Aldo Leopold became a pioneer of land stewardship. On its meadows, two young ornithologists created a haven for cranes.
The natural world found some of its greatest allies on a swath of rolling, glaciated land in south-central Wisconsin. Muir went on to found the Sierra Club and is known as a father of Americas national parks.
Leopold inspired legions with such books as A Sand County Almanac. George Archibald and Ron Sauey founded the International Crane Foundation.
Were at the end of the Ice Age, at the edge of an endless mound of blue ice whose vast, super-cold surface has sent 200-mph winds whipping into Wisconsin.
The winds can strip the flesh off a face in 30 seconds, so the local mammoth hunters have gone south for the winter.
Now the hunters are back, standing at the edge of a milky-white, 70-mile-long lake made by melting ice.
H.H. Bennett wanted tourists to come to the Wisconsin Dells, and thanks to him, they came.
Boy, did they come.
In Bennetts day, they stayed for weeks, playing croquet and checkers and going on picnics, boat excursions on the Wisconsin River and perhaps to a magic-lantern show of stereoscope slides from Bennetts studio.
In Wisconsin, a bunch of rocks sets hearts aflutter.
They enchant geologists, of course, but also scuba divers, rock climbers and botanists. The rest of us, too hikers, birders, campers, Boy Scouts.
We all go to give Devil's Lake its due.
In the Dells, when the children go home, the adults come out to play.
Autumn is a quiet time in Wisconsin Dells. The outdoor water parks are closed, many attractions are shuttered and the water-ski show performers are in Florida for the winter.
In the rush of summer, many tourists spend a whole week in Wisconsin Dells and never see the dells that drew tourists in the first place.
See the FUDGE sign in blinking white lights. See the plane tail protruding from the faux-ruin façade of Ripleys Believe It or Not. See the Wax World of the Stars, the Dungeon of Horrors, the Trojan Horse . . .
Yes, its Wisconsin Dells. But its not the only Wisconsin Dells.
Tourists always have been part of the scenery in this picturesque part of Wisconsin. The first settler was a printer and publisher, and one of the first residents was a young carpenter who crippled his right hand in the Civil War and became a photographer.
First, we loved the water slides, geysers and whimsical fiberglass figures at the Polynesians Water Factory.
Then, we loved the bigger slides, chutes, lily-pad walk and tubing river at Great Wolfs Spirit Mountain.
When the Wilderness opened Klondike Kavern, its second park, we loved its indoor-outdoor hot tub and long tube slides.