The first rule of the World Dairy Expo is to not talk about the World Dairy Expo.
Wait, no -- it's do not touch the cows.
And when you're facing thousands of swollen cows within ass-smacking arm's reach, that rule is downright draconian.
Pretty little maids....
The World Dairy Expo is to Wisconsin as Fashion Week is to Manhattan: it's a parade and literal shitshow of long-lashed heifers megawatt-lit and excessively groomed to best present protruding hipbones despite -- or because of -- questionable feeding practices.
Standing in line for the Coffee Wagon outside of the hangar-sized buildings, I knew I was making a mistake: I was already too keyed up and the extra dose of espresso wasn't going to help keep me in line -- especially with the International Brown Swiss show coming up in the arena.
The winning International Brown Swiss, honored with alphorns at the closing ceremony. Scout's honor.
The International Brown Swiss is the Weimaraner of cows. Elegant, doe-eyed, and available in an array of West Elm-friendly taupe shades, it is the cow for the millennial dairy farmer-cum-connoisseur. I sat on the sidelines like Anna Wintour, admiring and assessing their sleek coats and impassive faces.
A brisk walk through monstrous farm equipment displays and horrific machinery like the Udder Gun brought me to my mecca: warehouse upon warehouse, each the size of many football fields, crammed with rows of freestanding dairy cows presented for public consumption. (Interpret that how you will.)
What caught their attention? Another cow. That's the only possible answer.
I walked through miles of half-ton mamas and their fawn-like calves standing still as monks or draped serenely about one another in the hay -- sometimes with their tenders and vendors napping next to them.
These peaceful scenes were intermittently disrupted by farmers blaring heavy metal or pop country from speakers placed a few feet from their animals' ears. Here there appeared many layers of animal abuse, but I didn't know where to begin in my reprimanding. So I kept my city slicker mouth shut and watched in a perturbed reverie as a cow's shanks were shaved to Shania Twain's "Man! I Feel Like a Woman."
Wonderfully awkward to observe...for minutes on end. What?
Hours had gone by before I realized that I would have to, at some point, leave the Dairy Expo. A wistful despair set in: I'd be leaving the Expo empty-handed, sans farm or cow in tow. This was the pig farm incident in Washington state all over again: a city girl wants some livestock to call her own. Is that too much to ask?
The guidebook specified spray-painting cow hooves on the concrete was against the rules. If they'd read every page like I had, they'd know that.
On the way home, I hit up The Old Fashioned in Downtown Madison to get what were purportedly the city's best cheese curds. I did so knowing full well I could go literally anywhere in Wisconsin and get the area's best cheese curds. But at the end of the day, when someone's handing me fried cheese, I ain't looking at 'em sideways.
I returned to my host Sharon's charming apartment by the Arboretum, abuzz with the a-lowing of the cows.
My palette on her living room floor sobered me up: the air mattress she had graciously supplied for me upon arrival had sprung a leak by my second or third night, leaving me crucified by the morning light on its collapsing metal frame. Oh. Right, I thought.
I didn't care, though. Sharon was a superb host and I learned much from her in ways of generosity and hospitality toward complete strangers. We met the night of the lunar eclipse and watched it from the shore of Lake Wingra until we were too sleepy and cold to care anymore.
I was getting used to meeting people and places in the dark.
I arranged my bedding on the hardwood floor and silently thanked already-sleeping Sharon for yet another night of hosting. She would go on to put me in touch with her friends around the west, connecting us hopefully for my future travels. She gave me food, a roof, maps, towels, extra and unplanned days of staying still, and an all-around sense of ease and well-being.
And I got her a fucking mug.
In Wisconsin, I saw Frank Lloyd Wright's drafting tables at Taliesin and the haunting broken glass and bird wings of Natasha Nicholson's working studio at Madison's Museum of Contemporary Art. I saw tapirs and giraffes for free and drank good Riesling for a pretty penny.
Yet nothing rivaled the awe I had for Sharon's endless giving. Though those Brown Swiss came pretty close. I mean, they really are stunning creatures.