Meandering Rivers and Roads

I went home to visit my family in south central Wisconsin last week, but this time it was a bit different because I was coming from Minneapolis. Despite growing up just four hours from the city, and it being one of the closest cities to my current home in the U.P., I’d only been to Downtown Minneapolis once before: for a National Honor Society field trip in high school.

When my work in the city was done, I started to head home. The original plan was to go home directly via the freeways and arrive in about 4 hours. But I thought that it would be a good idea to find a spring and load up on artesian water before heading to the sandy farmlands of central Wisconsin. Instead of staying on the freeway, I headed south along the Mississippi River.

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In the small town of Prescott, Wisconsin, I stopped at a park that overlooked the merging of the substantial St. Croix River into the even bigger Mississippi. A train traveled north on the tracks located at the bottom of the bluff, and I talked with two nice old men who were out watching birds at a small nature center.

I continued my trip along the river. The spring didn’t pan out; it was on heavily-signed private property and inaccessible. But by that point I was captivated by the oak bluffs and river views along the road. I continued south along the Mississippi on the Minnesota side until I was close to the crossing in La Crosse, Wisconsin, adding at least one hour onto my trip by taking slow roads and making a few stops.

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When it was about time to turn east into Wisconsin and leave the Mississippi River, I turned west and drove a few extra miles to Great River Bluffs State Park. Unfortunately, I didn’t have much time left to reach my parents’ house before dark and so I couldn’t linger as much as I wanted to.

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I wished that I’d planned my day better so that I’d been able to spend more time along the Mississippi, and in Wisconsin too. I finally headed east to Wisconsin, driving down from the river bluff forests into rolling farmlands. I also wished that I’d read the appropriate sections of Wisconsin’s Ecological Landscapes so that I’d had a better sense of what I was driving through and could appreciate it more. Regardless, I enjoyed seeing new places and extending my mental map of the landscape a little farther westward.

That wasn’t my only meandering trip. After spending a few days in my hometown, I had to drive south to Madison. Again, my original plan to take the most efficient highways and freeways was tossed aside when I realized that I could wander through some new places. I took the county roads south, winding through the Amish country that I had visited the previous day with my brother.

I stopped at a bridge that crossed the Fox River. I grew up on the Fox River, but much father downstream where the river is 100 yards wide and an eerie opaque green color from flowing through miles of farmland. Here near the head waters it was just a small creek, flowing through mostly woods and marsh. I had not thought much about the Fox River upstream of where I lived, only it’s northeasterly path downstream to the paper mills and factories stretching from Appleton to Green Bay.

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Not far down the road, I was given another reminder of the Fox River, as I passed the location where Marquette, the Jesuit priest, portaged the short distance from the Fox to the Wisconsin River, before continuing on to the Mississippi. I’d been to this spot and to the nearby historical buildings during a field trip in fourth grade, but I don’t remember much from that. If we were taught the river’s looping upstream course in school, I remember none of it. From this point, I passed into the Wisconsin River watershed and into a different landscape of large, flat farm fields on soils more suited to agricultural production. And then into Madison.

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I’m always struck by how much I love the landscape where I grew up. I don’t think I could live there ever again; I feel too crowded by people and roads and private land when I visit. But I love to visit, and see the place where I grew up with fresh eyes. I love the small, rolling hills and the marshes and the oak forests (although not the buckthorn that has taken over the understory). I picked a part of the U.P. that has some of these characteristics to be my home now; I just hope that I can learn the characteristics of this place without having to move away.

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