Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Getting to Know the Neighbors Pt 2

By the time we arrived at the Frank Lloyd Wright center in Spring Green, all the tour buses had left, which allowed us to save a hundred dollars or so in entry fees. We examined the Frank Lloyd Wright coffee mugs and the Frank Lloyd Wright silk ties in the gift shop and then continued down the banks of the beautiful Wisconsin River, which had been so important to the early exploration of the interior of the continent. I my youth I read Francis Parkman’s LaSalle and the Discovery of the Great West cover to cover, and the experience took on new shades of meaning as we zoomed through the woods alongside the river.

Wisconsin is older than Minnesota. The towns are older, the buildings are older, and everything is slightly different. We stopped at a café in the village of Boscobel, where the Gideon’s Society of Christian Travelers was founded in 1898. Since that day 1.3 billion Bibles have been placed in motel rooms throughout the world. (That’s a lot of Bibles.)

It was approaching evening by the time we arrived at the Super 8 in Prairie du Chien, a town who's chief claims to fame is that it is the only town in the world named Prairie du Chien. Peat’s Hamburger Shack downtown was having its hundredth-birthday celebration (When was the hamburger invented, anyway?) but as we stood in line in the parking lot I could see the burgers through the window, swimming in grease, and I convinced Hilary we would have better luck, and a shorter wait, at the deli of the Piggly Wiggly down the street.

The next morning we drove up to the cliffs at Wyalusing State Park, on the south side of the Wisconsin River where it enters into the Mississippi. There are effigy mounds all along the cliff-tops, many of them dating back more than three thousand years. It was a foggy gray morning, the views were majestic but less expansive that normal because of the fog, and what appealed to me more than anything was the extraordinary array of summer weeds and grasses lining the path. I don’t the names of more than a few, but the soft light and the moisture from the fog gave each individual frond and seed and stem a sharply-edged and dramatic presence.

Later we crossed the river to Effigy Mound National Monument, which had a well-fitted and informative visitor center. But the center was down in the valley in the shadow of the bluffs, and I was sure that the last time I was there (which was thirty years ago) you could drive up to see the mounds. Nowadays the only way to see them is to hike up the hill. And that’s fine with me. I was curious to know if my memory of having driven up was correct, but I was reluctant to ask. I didn’t want to be taken for one of those red-necked rubes who say, “You mean we have to walk up?” Ah, vanity!

The walk to the top was extraordinary, switchbacks up the steep wooded hillsides, tall trees, very little underbrush, everything wet from the mist, glistening. No one there but us—for the time being. The mounds rise perhaps five feet above the surrounding landscape in long chains, and an individual mound might extend for fifty or a hundred feet or more. Some of them were shaped like bears but most were merely cones or elongated geometric shapes. Once again I was taken more by the solitude, the moisture, and the vegetation than by the mounds themselves. And our visit was elevated another notch or two when we spotted two red-headed woodpeckers chasing one another through the trees.

The final stop on our weekend road trip was Cedar Rapids where our friends Mary Beth and Glenn Freeman live. We proceeded south on Highway 13, and the stretch between Farmersburg and Strawberry Point was awesome, putting to rest any notion that Iowa is flat and featureless. The highway cuts across the valleys of the Turkey and the Volga rivers (A sort of geographic Cold War in miniature, I guess) and the distant layering of hills and valleys, fields and woodlots, is simply lovely. I have driven most of the valleys of the Root, Zumbro, and Whitewater rivers in Southeast Minnesota, but this expanse really takes the cake.

We stopped at the Burger Barn just outside Elkader and ate lunch at a picnic table in the parking lot. Four white-haired ladies—I’d put them at 75 at least—were enjoying ice cream cones in the shadow of the awning, and there was a good deal of commotion when one of them was struck by the sudden fear that she’d eaten the white paper wrapper of her cone.

“I don’t see it. If I didn’t eat it, then where is it?” And they all began searching through the gravel under the table, laughing good-naturedly.

Cedar Rapids isn’t a BIG city, but it’s a lot bigger than a small city, and Glenn and Mary Beth gave us a tour of both the flooded areas and the cultural hotspots (often one in the same, alas!) as we listened to Amy Klobuchar tell jokes on the Prairie Home Show being broadcast live from Avon, Minnesota. Glenn is a professor of creative writing at nearby Cornell College and Mary Beth buys a good share of the textbooks for Kirkwood Community College. (Kirkwood was recently cited by a local business publication as the “Best Place to Work in Eastern Iowa.” I don’t think Mary Beth would agree.)

They live in a hilly neighborhood east of downtown, and it was a pleasure to sit on their deck at the top of the hill watching the fireworks (and also the fireflies) as darkness fell and the strains of Cannonball and Coltrane, Brazilian Forró, and Eddie Harris wafted out through the window from the rec room. The next morning Glenn (who used to be a chef at Café Brenda) made us some huevos rancheros with beans, we took a walk along their favorite creek, and then reluctantly turned our noses toward home.

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