By Jennifer Moore-Kerr
Millennials have a bad reputation. “Lazy, unmotivated, selfish … .” For this month’s column, I had the pleasure of interviewing a young man named Graham Watkins who defies all those stereotypes. Born in the spring of 1997, he grew up on what seemed to him like endless land in the valley north of Arena. For company he had his two older brothers, dogs and the allure of the wide-open spaces of our river valley. That open land gave him an appreciation of quiet, and, he believes, taught his brain a different, more open way of thinking and being.
To hear Graham talk about the River Valley, which he referred to as the “golden nugget that is the Driftless,” is to hear delight. This is a young man who left here to attend college in Miami, Florida, who has traveled extensively, who has family on the East Coast, and who could have chosen nearly anywhere to go upon graduating from college. And yet, he chose to come back here.
When I tried to parse out what drew him back, it seemed equal parts nature, beauty and that “Midwest friendly” he found so elusive in Miami.
As a boy exploring the land around his house, he could spend hours in imaginary play using the natural environment as his stage. While he did not have neighbors per se, and still doesn’t really know how to ride a bike, he knew that what he did have was very special. He learned how to be alone, and his imagination had plenty of room to develop. His imaginary friend, Dane, with whom he apparently had quite the rivalry (!), kept him sharp, and the beauty around him kept him inspired. Memories of those experiences, and the silly memories of family jokes with his brothers still make him smile.
Unlike the millennial stereotype, I was continually amazed at how humble Graham was, and how enthusiastically he embraces learning. Behind him during our Zoom interview, I could see six buck trophies mounted on the wall. To my untrained eye they all looked about the same, but when I asked about them, he pointed to the one over his left shoulder and, with a sense of awe, told me that he was 5 or 6 when his dad got that one, and as he has grown older and more experienced as a bow hunter, he now knows it to be a once-in-a-lifetime deer.
Just this year Graham has discovered fly fishing. He goes up toward Viroqua where, he claims, the views and the streams make that area one of the top five fly fishing spots in the country. What struck me as he described his new activity was not just the joy he expressed, which was profound, but also how he embraced the process. He sees fly fishing, and life in general, as a “non-stop learning opportunity.” It seems to me we could all use some more of that attitude … and it definitely doesn’t fit the stereotype of lazy millennials.
At 18 Graham had a plan — he was going to go to college at UW-Madison. He had chosen his roommate, he would be close to home but on his own, it would be perfect. And then he didn’t get in and had to come up with a different plan. In looking back, he is glad that he was pushed outside of his comfort zone. It forced him to grow as a person. He ended up in Miami where he quickly discovered how special the friendly nature of southwestern Wisconsin is. He was amazed that people didn’t automatically say hi to everyone, and he was quickly branded as “that Midwestern nice guy” (a brand that he was more than glad to take on!). As he walked around campus, he saw so many of his peers locked in their own bubbles, looking at their phones, and missing out on opportunities to talk with one another. It made him sad to see people so isolated by their headphones, with their heads down, not connecting with one another. It also made home seem that much more valuable. To be fair, Graham adjusted while earning his communications degree with a minor in public relations and marketing, and learned to appreciate his school and made friends. But he never stopped missing that Midwest friendly.
A fun story of how Graham’s mind works, and how he is able to turn lemons into lemonade: One summer while at home and looking for some extra income, he and a friend came up with their “Zuckerberg” hour in which they hatched the idea of a cold cereal delivery service for college campuses. They debuted “Capitol Crunch” in Madison, and when Graham returned to Miami, home of the Hurricanes, he continued it under the name “Canes Crunch.” He discovered that delivering cereal bowls to other students seemed to break the ice. So did the memes he created to promote the fledgling business. In Wisconsin, a smile was all you needed to start a conversation. In Florida, a joke or a bowl of cereal seemed to help the process along. I think that maybe Graham’s outgoing nature and enthusiasm may have helped as well.
As we talked about his future, it was clear that this area, where he currently works as a medical sales rep, would always be home. Even if Graham ends up moving to Madison, he will return here for weekends. When I asked what he thought would allow more of his generation to settle here, he spoke of WiFi. He sees good internet service as a utility that is required, much like hot water, or heat for a midwestern winter. I asked how he fit that in with his concern that people are getting lost in their social media feeds. He said, “We need to be connected and look out at the sunrise.” The internet is a tool that young people require. It will allow them to have careers and live here all at the same time. During the pandemic, Graham has spoken with many urban friends and colleagues who feel that cities are becoming too congested and too expensive. They would love to have what he has. What we all have. But they will need to still have the means of connecting.
Graham asked me to close with this statement: “I’m always open to exploring and experiencing new and exciting aspects of the River/Driftless Valley that I have yet to explore. If anyone reading who has lived here their whole life has any suggestions for me based on my interests, I’d love to take them up on it — you can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.”
Jennifer Moore-Kerr is a mom, a free spirit and a barefoot dancer living in Spring Green where she can walk to the river and commune with friends. She can often be found welcoming locals and visitors alike to the Spring Green General Store where she tends the register most days. To suggest ideas for future “Bridges” columns, email email@example.com.