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.
02: THE ONE AND ONLY
A dedication: to the fact that some places don't last forever — cherish and preserve them while they're here.
First saw it late in the season, after the colors had bled from the trees — in that space between the luster of Fall and bluster of Winter, that’s so easy to think of as barren and bleak, because everything bright and lively is gone and not yet blanketed in the clean, shining whiteness of snow. But the reality is that a full spectrum of earth tones flourish here, from bleached-grey bone to soil darker than crude oil. Along this line lies a vast range from copper to clay, rust to cherry, bark to burnt crust. From Chicago, you can choose a haul across northern Illinois that will take you through vast flatland, or a route across southern Wisconsin that will take you through rolling hills. Along either, if you look with trail-blazing eyes rather than road-dogged ones, you’ll see the landscape reveal itself as more painting than snapshot. Choose your own path but I prefer Wisconsin, Hwy 18 out of Madison to Prairie du Chien, the western edge of which banks the Father of Waters. The great river that makes you feel wiser somehow just seeing it. Just for a moment, as you drive across the bridge to Marquette, Iowa, its scale isn’t just about size. Its timelessness hits you just as hard. But it’s not like other things that people say make you feel your own smallness. The Mississippi transfers its bigness and invincibility to you. You feel connected to the whole of a nation, good and bad, by this neutral, natural symbol either of division or confluence — depending on how you look at it. A hard turn south along the river’s edge takes you to McGregor, where you dodge west a degree or two but stay southward. The road climbs and dives through the limestone bluffs of this Driftless terrain until the two-lane flattens out and winds its way into the little town of Garnavillo. Midway through town, there’s a little road you take east to where it breaks into two dirt roads. You stay on the one that breaks gently left, taking you into the woods and dropping down into a valley cut by a beautiful creek that meanders through the woods and farmland between the high hills. The road ends about a hundred feet from water’s edge, at the gravel driveway of an old grain mill and this modest farmhouse that’s been here for generations. Motels aren’t the only way to go. You’ve long been able to find cabins and farmhouses for rent in these parts, which has only been made easier with the advent of rental sites like Airbnb. This old house is mostly original, save a small den that was added off the kitchen years ago. With a large stone fireplace in the center, an oversized recliner, couch and a couple nice end tables, this is a perfect place for late night fly tying and whiskey. The house sorta slides up the side of the slope it’s built on, meaning the den and the kitchen are lower on the hill than the “second floor” bedroom, which has a door that leads out to its own deck and yard access. The third floor is actually the only one off the ground. The only bathroom in the whole place is off the kitchen on the lowest level, which basically means that as the one who normally takes the third floor bedroom, I often just crash on the couch by the fire. In the Summer, it’s easy to fish the stretch down from the house well into dark. In the Fall, you can step out for more firewood and hear coyotes howling from somewhere on the ridge. In Winter, the silt-clay banks get covered with ice that’s pure and clear, making it virtually imperceptible. (I was once planted on a bank, certain I was sure-footed, when the lift of my rod to the take of a 16-inch bow subtly shifted my weight back and lifted my feet fully off the ground as my body was thrown, slamming me flat on my back. My head hit the ground, saved the full blow by the brim of my hat. Yeah, I got it.) And in the Spring, the valley floods green, speckled with wildflowers, and the symphony of insects erupts. Here, year round, it’s all literally off your front porch. Nanna’s Place.