I have long been a fan of Minnesota landscapes, which range from dramatic cliffs and bluffs to aspen parklands and wooded moraines. (If you don’t believe me, take a look at my book, Seven States of Minnesota.) But every time we venture east along I-94 into Wisconsin, I am struck by the fact that they have some gorgeous landscapes, too, against which Minnesota can set no real equivalent.
The Driftless Zone straddles the Mississippi, extending a good ways into both states, but Wisconsin has far more of it than Minnesota, and as you move away from the river, its hills offer more radical contours and striking vistas. There is something pleasingly sculptural about the way the fields follow the lay of the land as they rise to meet the heavily wooded hilltops.
We headed that way not long ago to bike the Red Cedar Trail with friends. Though the day was mild and clear and the leaves were beginning to turn, there were few cyclists out. We followed the river south from Menomonie, hugging the shore for a few miles, passing wooded embankments and sheer cliffs of unquarried sandstone (Dunnville sandstone from the Wonewoc formation, deposited 510 million years ago?) The river was green, then blue, then green, swirling in the morning sun, and we could see long gobs of seaweed fluttering from submerged rocks in the swift current.
The trail crosses the river north of Dunnville and the second half is slightly more open and agricultural. The last few miles pass through the Dunnville Wildlife Area, and there are likely to be hunters out at this time of the year, but no one took a potshot at us. The only sounds we heard were the squeaking of cedar waxwings, the sharp “pip” of cardinals, and the blustery wind in the cottonwood trees.
The bridge over the Chippewa River makes a fitting turnaround point. It’s about thirty miles there and back from the trailhead in Menomonie. In the summertime the broad, sandy beach just downstream from the bridge can be full of picnickers, most of whom come by boat, but the only people near the river when we arrived were standing on the bridge. They looked to be a pack of college students from nearby Eau Claire, most of whom were deeply engaged in texting on their smart phones. (Maybe it was part of an assignment?)
We’ve biked the Red Cedar Trail many times. What struck me with greater force on this occasion were the natural and cultural accoutrements to be found in the vicinity. We are dinner at Jake’s Supper Club on Tainter Lake, and it met every expectation: outdoor seating on a deck with a fine view of the lake, a decent and affordable house wine, a varied menu. I should have ordered a manhattan followed by prime rib (the Sunday special) but was content to have the lemon-artichoke chicken with a huge mound of lukewarm but obviously hand-mashed potatoes on the side.
Our drive out to the supper club took us north on Highway 25, and the broad fingers of wooded hillside extending down from the northwest into the river valley were ablaze in the setting sun. Spectacular.
The next morning we drove to Durand and biked the tail end of the Pepin Trail east, arriving at the same bridge across the Chippewa we’d visited the previous day from the opposite direction, passing snakes of three different species along the way.
We gave the Old Pepin Courthouse (the last remaining wood frame courthouse in Wisconsin) only a passing glance. Old, but ugly. I was more impressed with the Eau Galle Cheese factory a few miles north of town—once again on Highway 25. It takes some doing to fight your way past all the scarves, jewelry, and hand-made soap on display in the entryway, but the cheese is worth pursuing. Their Parmesan took first place in the United States Championship Cheese Contest a few weeks ago, and at $7.99/lb it’s a real bargain.
True to the character of the region, the locals pronounce Eau Galle as “Oh Golly,” just as we in Minnesota pronounce Milan “my-lan.” No one seems to know where the name Milan came from, but the probable origins of Eau Galle lend credence to the local pronunciation. In early documents the river was referred to as Augalett, Augallett, and Au Galet. Galet is French for coarse pebble—what in Britain they might call “shingle.” In early times there was a heavy gravel sandbar at the mouth of the Eau Galle River. (I’m not sure if it’s still there today.) French traders probably referred to it, as they passed it going upstream on the much larger Chippewa River, as the “river of the gravel sandbar.” That would be the river “au galet,” the French pronunciation of which would be o galay.
Our final stop before heading back toward the freeway was the childhood home of Caddie Woodlawn. It stands in a beautiful park-like setting just off the highway. There’s a historic monument describing how the book of that name got written, and there’s a one-room log cabin fifty yards off to the south. A much larger, white frame house stands fifty yards to the north, and I’m sorry to report that from the text on the monument’s brass plate, it’s impossible to tell which structure was the one Caddy grew up in.
In the introduction to the book itself, Caddie’s granddaughter remarks that you can go to a park south of Menomonie and “enter a small gray house and see exactly where Caddie” once lived. Now, the house to the south is small and gray. The one to the north is white and somewhat larger. All the same, it’s clear enough from the book that the Woodlawn family lived in a multi-room house. So someone must have painted the “small gray house” at some time in the past. And in fact, in 2005 the Menomonie Sunrise Rotary Club took it upon themselves to “restore” the previously gray and unpainted structure where Caddie was raised. Mystery solved.
What that little log cabin is doing there is anybody’s guess.