Saturday, September 22, 2012

midwest cultural tours - driftless

Bridge 18 on the Kickapoo River.

Deeper in the Driftless - Our road trip through America's Dairyland continues.

A few years ago, I was made aware of a used book store in the town of Viroqua. I’d never been there, but I was intrigued by their name. Driftless Books* and the Driftless Centre for Slow Media is located in the Forgotten Works Warehouse. The warehouse is across the street from an old railroad spur and originally housed the Viroqua Leaf Tobacco Co. We don’t often think tobacco growing when we think of Wisconsin, but in the mid- to late-1800s and into the early 1900s, tobacco was grown in Vernon County. (This would have been a big cash crop during the Civil War, I imagine.) I even remember a family who grew and dried it in one of the hard-to-get-to valleys outside Elroy in the late 1970s and early 80s.

My brother, Mike, joined Jon and me on a tour that took us from Hillsboro, through LaFarge, and, finally, to Viroqua (pop. 5,079) on Highway 82. As we drove the long ridges, Mike shared stories of people he knew: the people who moved to the area years ago to get away from big city living. People who raised sheep; people who managed to go back to the land.

Though he knows the area well, Mike had never been to the bookstore. I’d written down the directions in my pocket-sized notebook, so I knew how to find it. On a sunny day, we stepped into the dark building, walked down a hall and into an expansive room with wood floors and high ceilings. Most of the limited light came in through the tall windows. As I was squinting my way through the poetry shelves, the owner came over and turned on a light for me; I hadn't even noticed it was there. I scanned the selections, which included some classics and contemporary poets. Eventually, I found a gem: a hardbound Portable Walt Whitman dated 1973 that had been withdrawn from the Madison public library. Not a collector's item, but a handy size, and I need more Whitman in my life.

Later, I picked up a book from a table; I’d remembered hearing about it: Salt. I put it back down. I saw Jon carrying it around later and was glad he'd found it. After strolling the voluminous collection, I found a copy Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums and decided to get it. After over an hour browsing through the shop, we were ready to check out. That’s when we learned there was also an upstairs and a basement!

Turns out, many of the books upstairs weren’t cataloged - the owner had just returned from a buying trip in Texas where Larry McMurtry (yes, that Larry McMurtry) was selling the inventory of his bookstore. Who knows what finds the owner had brought back in his truck? It made me wonder, how does a bookstore situated in a small town in a rural part of the state make it? While we were the only customers in the store that late morning, Driftless Books does much of its business online. It’s a new model where a business can be located far from population centers where expenses are low and quality of life, high. After the woman at the counter rang up our purchases, we were ready for lunch.

Our destination: Driftless Cafe. We placed our orders at the counter, chose a table and started looking around. I’m sorry now that I didn’t do the tourist thing of returning to the car for my camera. There was a fiber-art exhibit decorating the walls; the artist used lots of natural materials. One that stood out was a wool piece that incorporated old washers and bolts. The fabric was dyed with rusty water. Some works included branches or other found items from nature. I had time to take it all in as I waited for my panini and contemplated the slice of pie that was already on the table. Over by the coffee station, I ran into the owner of the bookstore who was finishing his lunch. We chatted briefly and he seemed pleased with his recent acquisitions, though he acknowledged he had a lot of work to do. Years ago, I worked in a book store in Milwaukee. A part of me still loves the simple act of arranging books. I know. It never leaves!

After lunch, we strolled around the town, checking out shops. I wandered through a spacious yarn shop and imagined it would be a great place to gather with friends to knit. We stopped briefly in a fishing store and, of course, the bike shop, Blue Dog Cycles. There, we found out about singletrack trails that have been built in the area and about trails to ride just outside LaFarge (pop. 746) in the Kickapoo Valley Reserve. Another reason to bring bikes next time.

We left Viroqua and finally paid a visit to the Reserve. Mike knows one of the people who works there, so we chatted for a bit, then picked up a trail map and headed out for a hike. Down the hill, across a creek, then across the Kickapoo River on Bridge 18. The bridges are numbered for a canoe route that flows between Ontario (pop. 554) and LaFarge. We hiked over to the East Ridge Trail, then realized we wouldn’t have enough time to finish a loop hike in time to meet a dinner commitment. We backtracked, then took a side route on the Dam Trail where we encountered the Dam Tower (which was mentioned in a previous post).

In the Kickapoo Valley Reserve: the Dam Tower, with the
abandoned earthen dam forming the slope to the left.

The reserve was established after a decades long fight to dam the valley was won by environmental concerns. Though the dam was to be built to fight flooding on the Kickapoo and establish lake-based tourism, it is instead a beautiful place to enjoy the scenery and history of the region. Visiting the area gives me reason to contemplate all the people who had been removed. When settlers arrived, the Ho-Chunk peoples were removed to the west. When the dam was to be built, over 100 families were bought out and removed. Years later, the area is rich in cultural history, much of which would have been lost under water, as has happened in other places in the United States and around the world.
Next time I visit, I'd like to explore the high bluffs and maybe paddle part of the river. And I'd like to get a look at some areas that had been the homes to the Ho-Chunk people. And, if it’s summer, maybe I’d even bring the tent.

During the course of the trip, I was surprised at how many "new" places we visited. I left Central Wisconsin for Madison, then Milwaukee, just after high school and didn't spend much time there after that. Now that I live much farther away, and with the benefit of years of separation from the area, I see it with an appreciation I didn't have before. Plus, allowing the time to explore and having a partner willing to go along makes all the difference.

*I would have used their website, but it has not been responsive.


Katey Schultz said...

Another great post. Was the book Salt by Isabel Zuber? If so, I know her. She's from these mountains and we've spent some time together. I hope you consider a series of longer place-based essays about the Driftless--maybe with a memoir twist. It's really quite enjoyable to read by you.

bikegirl said...

Thanks, Katey. I'll consider your suggestion. Part of this is research for the novel...

Re: the book: I should have used the full title: Salt: A World History, by Mark Kurlansky. Jon loves reading about food. And I love salt. Sounds intriguing.

Culture tours in Pakistan said...

Another informative post. May be there will be bike tours or culture tours to promote beauty of land.

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