For pulse of flood’s effects: Roxbury Tavern

Under normal circumstances, you’d count this as an ordinary June day: Kiss of sun and trace of breeze. Downy clouds. Azure sky.

Fewer of us will take uneventful moments for granted this summer, having watched forces of nature confound lives and compound heartache. Midwest flooding has set records, rerouting waterways and leaving behind a torrent of tears.

Those of us who have been left high and dry are fortunate. Owning lakefront property suggests “nightmare” more than “dream,” for a while.

My naïve ideas about reaching what is left of Lake Delton in Wisconsin Dells changed a few miles northwest of Madison, on U.S. 12. I had thought we could be helpful somewhere along the way, maybe Baraboo. I wanted to see whether a couple of architectural treasures – the Aldo Leopold Shack and Frank Lloyd Wright’s Seth Peterson Cottage, both en route – were safe. (They are.)

Just as a radio announcer warned that travel was a mess, backed up for miles because of interstate traffic detours, we topped a hill and joined the tail end of the snarl.

Come and stay, the Wisconsin Dells tourism office has been quick to say, between thunderstorms. More than 90 percent of the businesses remain open and need your patronage.

Stay away, law enforcers and others have admonished. Take your kayaks and picnics home. Gawking is not helpful. Portions of highways are impassable.

Road conditions have improved, but on this day we scooted to the right, into the town of Roxbury, population 1,800 in Dane County. The burg is a couple of miles east of the Wisconsin River and home to the much-loved Roxbury Tavern. It is not your average rural watering hole.

Expect to hear light jazz and classics, not sports (there is no TV). Bar food typically contains local and artisan ingredients. That goes for the burgers, stews and brews (three of four taps hold Lake Louie products; forget Bud Light, in any form). Whole-wheat pasta with shrimp and cheddar beer sauce was the daily special.

Diversity among clientele is welcomed, conversations are civil (if not intelligent), creative endeavors are supported. Example: Irish stew, bodhran drumming and James Joyce readings on the anniversary of “Ulysses” earlier this month.

You can stop with your kids and not fret, be a single woman and not feel vulnerable. Proprietor Tom Gresser since 1989 has coaxed politicians, poets and plumbers into Roxbury, which has little else besides a Catholic church and German restaurant.

On this day, Tom in an hour plotted a back-roads route for a nervous passerby (“We’re almost out of gas,” she confided), flipped burgers for Harley riders, quietly consoled tired friends who have been flooded out of their nearby Fish Lake home.

“Others have it worse,” insisted JoAnne Robarts, one of the displaced locals. She is an artist whose painted rocks are conversation pieces at the tavern. One looks like a burger, to which Tom alluded in an ad: “Featuring the 2½-pound hamburger – bet you can’t eat it.”

Now JoAnne and Jim Robarts are seeking a home elsewhere. They talk of neighbors who can’t afford to leave water-logged property. They resent decisions that they say favor wildlife over people. They are thankful for what they still have and admit the natural world can be formidable.

This is life on one day, for one couple, in an easily overlooked part of Wisconsin. While reflecting on this, an email arrives from a colleague in Iowa City.

“A good share of Coralville and Iowa City is under water,” Lori Erickson writes, before the Iowa River crested. “It’s especially sad to see landmarks on the University of Iowa campus get flooded. … More buildings will certainly be damaged in the next days.”

She and her husband spent much of the week giving away their time. “Despite the circumstances, there’s also a heartening sense of camaraderie about it all … we joined prisoners from the county jail, UI staff members and a large herd of teenagers in sandbagging a building, and then went to the university library to help move books from the basement to the upper levels.”

It is almost three years since Hurricane Katrina forever changed New Orleans, and Good Samaritans still make their way south to lend a hand. They work on behalf of people who long for ordinary days.

Now it is Wisconsin’s turn to claim disaster relief.

A 2008 survey by Conde Nast Traveler and msnbc.com showed that 55 percent of respondents were interested in taking a volunteer vacation. About 95 percent of those who have been on one said they’re likely to take another.

We tend to associate this type of excursion with poverty-stricken destinations in exotic corners of the world. Maybe this is the year to do good closer to home. Opportunities should be plentiful.

The Roxbury Tavern, 8901 Hwy. Y, is near Sauk City. For more: 608-634-8434.

The 50-year-old Seth Peterson Cottage, which overlooks Mirror Lake, is open for tours from 1-4 p.m. on the second Sunday of each month and rented for overnight stays throughout the year. For more: www.sethpeterson.org, 608-254-6051.

The Aldo Leopold Shack, a National Historic Landmark, and the new Aldo Leopold Legacy Center can be toured on designated days. For more about both and the namesake conservationist: www.aldoleopold.org, 608-355-0279.

For more about the status of tourism in the Wisconsin Dells: www.wisdells.com, 800-223-3557.

For more about the status of roads throughout Wisconsin: www.dot.state.wi.us (select “flood & incident alerts”).

For more about American Red Cross disaster services training: www.redcross.org (select “disaster services”).