WELCOME OFF THE MAP
Technically, the Driftless is a geographical area spanning Southeastern Minnesota, Southwestern Wisconsin, Northeastern Iowa and a small portion of Northwestern Illinois. It's a reference to the fact that during the last Ice Age, as the massive glaciers that created the Great Lakes shifted southward, they broke apart and drifted around, rather than over this region. They spared the land here, and more importantly the layers of rock beneath, their devastating compression and lasting reconfiguration — leaving behind a fragile, unspoiled expanse of spring-fed rivers, streams and lakes filtering up from the ancient limestone bedrock.
But for those who know the rhythm of the heart of this place, there is a soul-filling feeling it imbues that we itch for and seek out in every corner of forest, mile of stream, ribbon of highway or roll of farmland; in every shimmer of light, darting of shadow, falling of foliage or spinning of stars; in every doe's twitch, moaning moo, flutter of feathered wings or hatch of blue; and in every welcoming smile, What can we get ya, gently sizing-up sideways glance or finger lifted off the wheel. This feeling is particular here, but not singular to here. This is my humble attempt to chronicle this Driftlessness within and beyond its technical boundaries.
There are a lot of lines on any map, be it a DeLorme Atlas or the scribblings of a fellow mad fisher on the back of a stained envelope. There are the thin lines, the blue lines — the ones that mark water. There are dotted lines that mark bridges or access points. And there are the thicker, intersecting lines that get you between all other demarkations — interstates, highways, main streets and county roads. And these lines, inevitably, bear their own Xs, asterisks, arrows or circles. The motels, cabins, campgrounds, diners, dive bars, supper clubs, fly shops, meat and cheese shops, antique shops, and anything else that you have to know the area to know. Welcome to The Road.
01: THE CHOICE
Sundown was always somewhere near Janesville. After a full day’s work at the fly shop, closing things up and packing gear, the sky was already embers by the time Chicago was in the rearview. Another three-plus hours ahead, the first half of it spent releasing the anxiousness of traffic, crowded trains, hard ground and concrete surround sound, tight schedules, junk mail, bills, bank statements, TV, doing the dishes, then doing it all over again. The second half spent building anxiousness for trout streams, county roads, earth beneath your feet and birds calling all around, tight lines, junk food, beer, undercut banks, FM radio, making fires as the moon rolls over, and days that never end. The neons turn to wood, as the song goes, and for a while even those are few and far between. Tiny red points of lights twinkling among the stars mark the tops of windmills in a farm virtually invisible in the darkness. Welcome to Montfort. Blink and you miss it. But it’s a sign. The destination is close now. Pass the Sport & Liquor, and just a couple blocks further is one of the first spots to become a regular spot, its sign offering part invitation, part wisdom — “Stay by choice, not by chance” — and a welcoming lamplight by the front desk. Pull into the lot, step out of the truck into the crispness of the night, and savor it. Even if it’s late, which it inevitably was in the early years (and often still is), the chance to stretch the sticks and flush the bloodstream with north country air is not to be taken for granted. The walk from the truck to lobby door is always a slow one. Step through the door into the warm light of the front room and you can hear the muffled shuffle through the door behind the desk. Behind that door is the proprietor’s living room. So...arrive late, they have to pause the movie they’re watching and shake off the popcorn crumbs before they come to greet you. (The current proprietors, that is, the former would have to be roused from the slumber the movie they were watching had slumped them into, and put on a robe.) It’s a modest motel. About 20 rooms, each with a queen bed or two, a shower bathroom, coffee maker and a small TV. The air conditioner-heaters used to sound like an idling eighteen-wheeler. But the rooms have gotten upgrades that have brought this back to solid motel status. The rooms are clean and comfortable, especially after a long day of tooling around rivers, trails, antique stores and what have you...ya know, sporting life stuff. There’s an old bowling alley bar a couple more blocks up the road, at the corner of town. Not the kinda place you brag about, but bankable if you get off the stream late and want to hole up for a cold brew or two. Or, there’s a Casey’s on the opposite side of the street, where several times we’ve been known to grab a pizza and a 12-pack to go. Kicked back outside our rooms, listening to a symphony of bugs, with the rolling hum of a truck creeping through town now and then. On a clear night, the moon and stars make the pavement glisten almost like the water you just came off of. And always, there was that feeling of humility from the scale and depth of the blackness surrounding us, that made us feel just as big as we ever ought to. Slice of pizza, bottle of Schlitz, waders laid over a chair to dry, we’d tell stories, play music, make grand proclamations, or talk about how the hell to make sense of the world. For me, it has been in this place, at these moments, that that sense has been made. The Napps Motel.