Man In A Suitcase

The Great River Road, Wisconsin

Blame Mark Twain. If he hadn't written about his time as a riverboat pilot or created Tom Sawyer or put Huck and Jim on that raft, perhaps my generation and the four or five before it wouldn't think high adventure whenever we hear a mention of the Mississippi River. So it shouldn't come as a surprise that when I found myself with a free afternoon in St. Paul and a rental car, I decided to take a little drive along the mighty Mississip'. My destination was the Wisconsin side of the river. I figured it was about time I learned something about the state that didn't involve cheese. Or cheeseheads for that matter.

Although the river flows right through the Twin Cities, my trip didn't officially begin until the town of Prescott, Wisconsin. It's here that the Mississippi first becomes the dividing line between Minnesota and Wisconsin; further north it's the Saint Croix that has that honor. Prescott has a pretty little downtown, with some well preserved old buildings and some newer structures in a hodgepodge of styles that would turn out to be the model for other little towns along the river. Highway 35, the Great River Road, does more than run through town. It's the main street, another detail that would be repeated by town after hamlet after... what do you call something too small to be a hamlet? A hamletlet?

A very few minutes later I'd left Prescott behind and was tooling down the road. To the left was a ridgeline covered in trees. To the right more trees, with gaps showing the blue of the river. And regular stops for scenic overlooks and historic markers. Many of the latter provided better scenic overlooks than the former. So I stopped at them all, just to be on the safe side.

(This was my first trip since acquiring my latest camera, a Nikon D70 digital SLR. But for various reasons I decided to rely instead on my older Olympus rangefinder. This turned out to be a lucky decision, as the display on the Olympus let me frame and take pictures from behind the wheel of my not-quite-speeding vehicle. With an SLR I'd have to hold the camera up to my eye, something I can't recommend when driving. Guess there really are limits to the kinds of stupidity in which I will engage.)

I was surprised by the low population density along the river; I'd have expected people to see this as prime real estate. Instead, it's woods, some farms and some really tiny towns, noticeable mostly because of the reduced speed limit. The towns mostly follow a pattern, with a handful of shops along the highway and a couple of streets heading away from and, if there's room, toward the river. Stockholm is a good example, a town founded 150 years ago by immigrants from Karlskoga (not Stockholm) in Sweden. The few buildings along or near the main road are bright, cheerful and welcoming, even on a day like this when there aren't many tourists to welcome. It's another world, with not a franchise restaurant or business for miles and miles. Heck, even the gas station sign at left is an empty promise. Good think my tank wasn't equally empty.

Pepin, Wisconsin was rather a surprise after all the one horse towns. (I mean that in the nicest possible way. Remember that I'm a New Yorker. To me, Boston is kind of small and provincial and quaint.) Here the road had to widen to handle all the in-town traffic. At least I assume there's traffic. Must happen on a different day. (Okay, enough with the snarkiness.) But I was intrigued by the town and especially by the tiniest museum I think I've ever seen. Housed in the former railroad depot building, it's just the right scale for a little town in the big woods.

The main reason for my stop in Pepin was a sign I encountered on the way in, announcing it as the birthplace of Laura Ingalls Wilder of Little House fame. Never read the books myself; even as a munchkin I was far more interested in aliens and flashing ray guns than in real people living in the middle of nowhere. But to quote George Carlin, "you know, you grow." At least enough to take a ten mile detour off the highway through rolling farmland to find the promised memorial to Pepin's most famous resident. Who never actually lived in town. And who left when she was a year and a half and had little to say about the place. But never mind; the Little House of the memorial was pleasantly situated and, on a Thursday afternoon after Labor Day, a restful place for contemplation of history. And the little people who make it. And the fact that Mrs. Wilder's own fame began with her first publication at the advanced age of 65. Kind of gives me hope, y'know?

Being of an oblivious nature, it never occurred to me to look at a man-made construct and consider how it was of necessity shaped by geography. Like now; seeing a narrow band of land between the waters of the Mississippi and a high ridgeline covered in trees, a more insightful individual might have predicted the path of the highway and the rail line that parallels it. Me, I just look for good places to photograph it. Like the high and rather shaky pedestrian bridge in the town of Alma that provides access to a lock facility run by the Army Corps of Engineers. And how convenient for a train to be heading toward said bridge just as I was on it and looking for something interesting to capture for this very page. (Which didn't exist yet. But I digress.) And then how nervous-making to stand over an open grate, clutching the camera with one and and the rail with the other, reminding myself that I really don't like heights. I hope you appreciate the things I do for you, I really do.

Eventually, I had to turn for home, or in this case my hotel back in the Twin Cities. I left the Great River Road at a place called Bluff Siding, where a bridge crosses the river into the city of Winona, Minnesota. But I kept my eye out for one last photo stop before the bridge. And found it at a sign for a boat landing at a large pond or small lake on the Wisconsin side. I tried not to get spooked by all the warning signs about horrible creatures in the water. (If they'll stay in the water, I'll happliy stay out.) And not to disturb the fisherman at the end of the dock, doing whatever it is he was doing with whatever gear he was doing it with. Just a nice unspoiled bit of countryside before rejoining civilization.

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