Writing to Strangers, and Then You Meet Them

In the update a year ago, I wrote this:

You would not be surprised to learn that in addition to Talking to Strangers, I have for many years written to them. On October 30, a reply arrived from Daniel Smith in Arena, Wisconsin. A few weeks earlier, in my hotel room in Madison, I read his essay in the UW alumni magazine about selling their dairy herd, and was reminded of my long relationship with David and Katherine Kelly, dairy farmers and enduring stewards of the land east of Hudson, Wisconsin. When I got home, I wrote Daniel, and was so delighted to get an answer. He opened:

Dear Rob,
Yes, your letter has reached me and I am very glad that it did. Thank you for taking the time to write concerning my essay on selling the dairy herd. It arrived on a cold gray day typical of late fall in southwest Wisconsin – your kind words and the story of your relationship with the Kellys warmed my heart.

I made note to try to meet him next time I visited Madison (Arena is about 25 miles west). Reaching out is such a joy!

And so it was that on the bright blue Sunday morning that was October 18, Jack and I motored west on U.S. 14 toward the Smiths’ house on Knight Hollow Road. The ride was delightful, me recounting stories of riding along this road 50 years ago, to and from Chicago to visit grandparents and other kin.

In the Halloween Spirit, Main Street, Mazomanie

In the Halloween Spirit, Main Street, Mazomanie

We stopped for a coffee in Mazomanie, its center right out of the late 19th century, railroad depot, commercial buildings with brackets on the cornices, solid.

At 11, we pulled into the driveway of the Smiths’ log house in a beautiful southwest Wisconsin glacial valley, autumn color in all directions, a red barn immediately in front of us.


But as lovely as the landscape was, the company was even better. Daniel Smith had been a dairy farmer in northern Illinois for 30 years, following his father into a hard life. His wife Cheryl was a city girl (I think I’m allowed to write it that way) from Cleveland. We told a bit of our stories out on their front deck. Jack and their son Austin, a poet and scholar recently graduated from UC Davis with a Master’s, fell into their own conversation of music and life.

Cheryl had fixed potato soup, creamy and wonderful, and a salad. We yakked over a fine meal. After they sold the farm, they moved up to the hollow, to be close to UW, their alma mater (and that of Austin and his two brothers – proof of the powerful pull of that great state university). Cheryl has been teaching kindergarten in the Madison schools, and Dan does two jobs: some soil and ag consulting, and a far more challenging one: he’s on a team from the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture that helps farmers, mainly dairy producers, who are in financial crisis. City people don’t usually take the time to understand the lives of those whose work sustains them, but your correspondent has understood for 35 years how hard it is to be a farmer, at the mercy of the weather and markets far beyond their control. Unhappily, for a variety of reasons, the milk market is a mess, and many dairy families are struggling. Dan tries to help them.

I’m afraid I did too much talking and not enough listening. I’ll have to remedy that next time I visit their valley. Jack and I have made new friends.


It was also fitting that five hours after visiting the Smiths, I wrote these words in the Wisconsin Union, the student union that is the very heart of UW. It is quite a place!

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