Devil's Lake is quite heavenly. Credit: Tom Kelly

The appeal of a summer road trip, at least if you are a laissez-faire sort of person, is that you don’t have to make any definite plans the way you do when you buy a plane ticket. You can keep revising and postponing indefinitely, until it’s nearly August and you’ve finally decided to request time off from work, and then you realize that not everyone sees the potential of an open-ended vacation and that the world is actually full of planners who have booked up every available campsite within a 200-mile radius.

At least that’s what happened to my boyfriend, Jeff, and me one night last July as we sat on the couch with our laptops frantically clicking through the websites of every nearby state park and snapping at each other for being so lazy. Finally, after a couple of hours, we discovered there was an open campsite at Devil’s Lake State Park in Baraboo, Wisconsin, which we had previously scorned because of its proximity to the Dells and its tacky wax museums and hordes of screaming children (not to mention the camp where I spent four soul-scarring weeks the summer I was ten). I was examining the map to see if the Dells actually were avoidable when Jeff said, “There’s a circus museum in Baraboo.”

“Sold!” I said, and hit “book” on the Devil’s Lake reservation page.

The presence of the Circus World Museum in Baraboo is not, surprisingly, the result of some Dells-like gimmickry. Baraboo was the actual hometown of the Ringling brothers, who founded their first circus there back in 1884 and for many years used it as a winter headquarters, until it occurred to them that the weather was probably better in Florida. It is both bizarre and enchanting to look at old pictures of elephants and lions gazing out at the midwestern snow, probably wondering what the hell they were doing there. There are still a couple of elephants lackadaisically pacing the grounds, giving rides to visitors, and kneeling under the big top during the twice-daily circus. The smell of generations of their predecessors, not to mention lions, tigers, camels, et cetera, also lingers in the various outbuildings (now housing museum exhibits) which just contributes to the overall charm of the place.

While there are occasional mentions of Cirque de Soleil and other modern circuses, the museum’s heart is in the past, before movies and TV, when the circus really was the greatest show on earth. The antique wagons and posters give a sense of what a grand spectacle a circus must have been to watch roll into town, and the displays devoted to legendary performers—acrobats, daredevils, clowns, and animals ranging in size from Jumbo the elephant to literal fleas—make their feats still look pretty thrilling. (Well, OK, maybe not the clowns.)

Quartzite bluffs overlooking Devil’s LakeCredit: Courtesy Travel Wisconsin (Bluffs)

Devil’s Lake is on the other side of town from the museum and in a completely different world: nature! Like the rest of the Dells, it’s full of gorges and rock formations carved by retreating glaciers at the end of the Ice Age. Unlike the rest of the Dells, here there isn’t much human interference besides hiking trails and campsites. The park has 29 miles of trails, but the best mile and a half or so is Parfrey’s Glen, a particularly deep and picturesque gorge with high cliffs, mossy rocks, and a rushing stream. There used to be a boardwalk, but it was destroyed in a storm a few years ago, which means the deeper you go, the more you get to scramble over boulders and hop from rock to rock and feel like you are having a real adventure, even though in reality you’re never more than half an hour from the parking lot.

Devil’s Lake itself did not look particularly devilish to me, but I was only there for two days, so what do I know? Anyway, you can use it for sailing, kayaking, swimming, or fishing, though we did none of those things, only sat and admired how calm and peaceful it looked at sunset. Then we went back to our campsite and had a glorious meal courtesy of the Meat Market, a butcher shop just outside of town that boasts a 40-foot meat case packed with organic chicken, beef, and pork, all freshly cut on the premises. They will season the meat for you too, and advise you how to cook it. It was the best steak I’ve ever had.

Of all the wondrous things in Baraboo, though, the most wondrous of all is the Forevertron. Located a 15-minute drive south down Highway 12, it’s the world’s largest junk sculpture, but that description hardly does it justice.

The story goes that the Forevertron is the work of Dr. Evermor, a Victorian-era inventor and professor from Eggington, England. As a child, Evermor had been trapped in an electrical storm, which his father, a Presbyterian minister, told him came directly from the hand of God. This event so traumatized him that he decided he needed to move to Wisconsin and build a gigantic spaceship out of used industrial parts, provided by his alter ego, Tom Every, who worked in industrial wreckage prior to his retirement in 1983 and who knew just where to find the necessary wheels and gears and carburetors and early X-ray machines. (Read more about the Forevertron and other roadside art attractions.)

The Forevertron weighs 300 tons, but when the time is right, Dr. Evermor will launch it into space with a magnetic lightning force field. In the meantime, he has spent his time building several more steampunk machines, a marching band composed of birds, a brigade of gigantic bugs, and a lot of cannons and other weaponry to protect it all. We spent hours there, taking pictures until the batteries on our phones started to die. It was even better—and more delightfully unexpected—than elephants. We couldn’t have been more pleased if we’d actually planned it.  v

Ian Gardner Jr. puts the camels through their paces under the big top at Circus World.Credit: Courtesy Circus World

Getting there:

Baraboo’s about a three-hour drive from Chicago. And yes, you will need a car.

Where to eat:

Grab something to grill at the Meat Market. Little Village Cafe: pasta, burritos, and pie in an old-school diner with Chaplin films on the TV.

Where to sleep:

Devil’s Lake State Park: an abundance of campsites and hiking trails around a quite heavenly lake. $10 vehicle admission sticker, $15 campsite reservation fee, Pinehaven Bed and Breakfast: inn just outside of town with spacious rooms and abundant hot breakfast.

What to do:

Spend a day at the Circus World Museum. Then check out the Dr. Evermor’s Forevertron.