Editors Note: This column is republished from the December 2004 issue of Tapestry Magazine
Whoever said the shortest distance between two points is a straight line never lived in the Driftless area. Steep-faced bluffs and winding river valleys simply do not permit direct routes to wherever you are going.
As adults, we make accommodations to slopes of more than thirty degrees, surrendering to logging roads and more circuitous routes. We drive two miles around a ravine to get to the neighbor whose house – perched on the adjacent hill – is clearly visible out the front window.
To children however, straight lines are more achievable. As a child, I would hike straight up the steep bluff towards the Brisbois graves overlooking Prairie du Chien. Of course, I made concessions to the limestone cliffs, choosing to circumvent the forty-foot walls through the narrow stepped passageways leading between them. Then it was straight up the hill, past Sandstone Rock – where childhood sweethearts were etched deeply into the soft rock’s surface – and on to the Brisbois graves.
According to legend, the gravesite offered Michael Brisbois a place to “look down upon his intense rival, Joseph Rolette, in death as he did in life.” Without judging Brisbois’ worldly dealings, perhaps there is some truth to that otherworldly claim. Standing, as I did, atop the highest point of the bluff, with the entire Mississippi Valley unfolding before me, the command over the valley from that lofty place seemed undeniable.
There was a brashness to my outlook, a feeling that the world stretched before me could be grasped as easily as it was from atop that hill. I remember looking down on my house and neighborhood, able to place it all upon my outstretched hand. Yet I was also aware, if not fully respectful, as I navigated the sometimes precarious footholds leading back down the hill, that I was one slip from eternity.
Herein lies the contradiction of the Driftless area, a land rich with topographical variation. One moment you’re scraping the bottom of the ravine, unable to see around the next bend, the next you’re hurtling over the ridge top overlooking cornrows marching toward eternity. Perspective.
Ridges offer the best perspective, holding sway over lesser elevations. Ridge dwellers may complain about the relentless wind and drifting snow, but they are the envy of all, waking each morning to a view that unfolds on an endless stage. A view punctuated by ball-top silos that erupt from the soil like corn stalks, populating every ridge top within sight. A view that drapes into ravines and valleys, disappearing into our imaginations.
On occasion, the curtain parts to reveal the distant Mississippi Valley, glimmering like quicksilver in the cupped hands of the ravine. Travelers on highway 27 along the ridge are thus offered tantalizing peeks of the great river, sight lines that stitch river and ridge into a continuous landscape.
Revelations are hidden in the landscape, revealed with each new crest of hill, each new bend of road, every turn of head, rippling over your senses and pooling in the spirit. You are never so low that the next ridge will not elevate your spirits, never so high that the next ravine won’t humble them. The human condition made manifest in the shape of the land: up and down.
It’s no wonder that people are drawn to the ridge, planting houses on summits that face squarely into the wind, all for a little perspective. The ridge offers it in plenty, in the same way that tree houses rule over backyards and mountains preside over plains. Yet elevation shapes humility in the same way it compresses length and width, bringing the realization that we are part of that diminished whole.
Standing on the ridge, as I did 40 years ago, overlooking the great valley, the straight lines of my youth now bend to the whims of the land. In the process, new paths open before me.