Josh Mayer likes to walk off the beaten path. “No trails, no signs telling you where you are or this is it, this is not it. Just GPS and away you go.”
Don’t get him wrong, he’ll use a beaten path if it’s where he wants to go, but Mayer is also comfortable walking across a bog that sinks if you stand in one place too long.
“It all started with just getting a camera for a gift for my graduation from my doctoral studies,” says Mayer. He took it with him on a trip to a state park and photographed a flower. “I didn’t know I could take such a pretty picture.”
That drove him to visit more parks and take more photos. “I happened upon Natural Bridge State Park. I learned that it was also a State Natural Area. I found out that it’s this program where they protect important sites around the state either for endangered or threatened plants or animals. Often there are sort of remnant landscapes of what used to be in Wisconsin before all the people came.”
Each State Natural Area has a name and a number. “Now there’s 673,” says Mayer. “And they keep adding them. Faster than I can go see them all.”
Most natural areas are on state property, sometimes within a state park. “I just got hooked. I wanted to see more of these special places around the state. And then it kind of mushroomed from there.”
Mayer decided to visit every one in the state. He’s more than half way there. He started by visiting 3 or 4 in a weekend, hiking and taking pictures. Now he plans longer trips to the north woods. “I pick a cluster that are close together so I’m not zigzagging all across the state.”
Each new visit brought a surprise and made him marvel at Wisconsin’s diversity. “People think you have to go to exotic places to see beautiful things but I mean I think Wisconsin has a lot of offer. I didn’t know Wisconsin had cacti before. We’ve got cacti.”