Winter’s gift

December 21, 2016 by Eric Frydenlund

A small child is looking at me.  I’m at a “Wake up Santa” event with my grandchildren and a small child is looking at me expectantly. She’s perhaps six or seven with eyes as wide as her smile. I think she has confused me with someone else so I look away. But her eyes refuse not to be met. I look back.

She has something in her hand that she wants to give to me.  I take it from her hand and her eyes and smile widen, if that is even possible. The gift is a Santa bingo card.  Children play bingo behind me and perhaps she thinks I might want to play.  I thank her and she turns away, satisfied the gift has been received. A gift of pure generosity, given without the merest expectation of anything in return.

I live in Driftless Wisconsin, a topographical gift of chiseled cliffs and furrowed valleys carved from time itself.  Winter peels away all the ornaments of summer and gives us the unadorned shape of the land. Snowcapped branches offer strong horizontal strokes of white. Honeysuckle defies winter with splatterings of green. Yet the landscape prevails, barren and beautiful; every curve and blemish visible.

If summer brings the party, winter imposes sobriety.  Winter brings clarity to Driftless Wisconsin.  Every ridge line becomes visible, just as the margins of our own life become evident in the bitter cold. All things are known by their true nature, even as we come to know them through three layers of clothing.

What we give each other without expectations, what nature gives us without the asking; remain the most precious gifts of this season.

I’m on a business trip into the back country of Driftless Wisconsin near Cashton, a rippling landscape where the roads don’t quite know what direction to head next. The Driftless topography imposes a new geometry on the senses and straight lines are simply not part of its vocabulary.

Amish children, wrapped in black jackets and capes and topped with bonnets and straw hats – minimal protection against the sub-freezing temperatures – smile and wave as I pass. Two young girls play hopscotch on the road’s graveled shoulder. Two young boys take a shortcut across a corn-stubbled field.

The children wave regardless if I wave back. Gratitude seems to fill their way of life. I feel as the recipient of an uplifting gift, offered as such with their hands raised high in the air.


Farmers in Driftless Wisconsin still wave from the tops of their tractors and smile as if they knew something we don’t.  And of course they do. Getting up before the hint of sunrise to milk the cows and planting fields well past the curtain of dusk gives them a certain understanding of the unbreakable bond we have with the land.

My three-year-old grandson, destined to be a fifth-generation farmer, feels cheated if you don’t exchange fist bumps with him when leaving.

We turn to young eyes and young hands this time of year to understand what is important. Christmas time pulls back the covers and we are left with the unadorned gratitude of life. And of family and friends. Small children can teach us this; in Driftless Wisconsin.

Cruising Driftless Wisconsin

June 25, 2011 by

My wife and I were invited by her sister and brother-in-law to tour the back roads of Vernon County north of Viroqua.   I was riding shotgun, which involves the strenuous duty of returning the waves of admiring spectators.  If there’s a better way to experience the back roads of Driftless Wisconsin, perhaps it comes from the saddle of a motorcycle.  It’s been 40 years since I straddled my Honda 360, but I found myself reaching for the handlebars. 

The open-air scenery flies by uninterrupted; unframed by car windows or your imagination.  The wind blows in your face and the fresh-cut hay finds your nostrils.  The road rises and turns with a landscape that unfurls from every ridge top.

The land east of Westby and Cashton is Amish Country (see my March 25 blog), where life slows to a pace set by one-horse buggies.  I left the navigating to my brother-in-law and was soon lost among hairpin corners and U-turned intersections. We left the modern world back at the highway and didn’t miss it a bit. 

We passed a doe and her two fawns drinking from a brook that feeds the Kickapoo River.  We craned our necks to pick them out amid the underbrush lining the stream.  Mother did not return our attention as she was busy keeping track of her spindle-legged youngsters.

We found ourselves swiveling our heads to admire the Amish backcountry; the pleated rows of Amish crops, the one-room school houses that center every settlement, the friendly waves of Amish farmers.

We stopped for dinner at the Blue Goose, a pizza and ice cream parlor located just the other side of nowhere.  Occupying a renovated barn, it suddenly appeared around a bend in the road like a country oasis.  Not to be confused with the color of the barn, the Blue Goose is named after the goose sculpture sitting in the yard.  The owners are friendly – she refers to herself as the “Blue Goose Lady” – and the pizza is superb.  A 12” pizza heaped high with cheese and fixings easily fed the four of us.

Fully fed, we showed great discipline in avoiding the ice cream counter.  Then we came to our senses and ordered a scoop of cookie dough on a waffle cone.  So much for discipline.

Then we climbed back into the Mustang and made our way back to Viroqua via the back streets of Westby, where we made acquaintance with Mr. “Nice Car.”  He’s a good judge of classic cars.  But nothing compares to the sights we saw on the back roads of Driftless Wisconsin. 


A Road Trip through Amish Country

March 25, 2011 by

A road trip through Driftless Wisconsin represents a casual excursion of discovery.  On this particular day, I set out to see some of the northern stretches of Driftless Wisconsin.  Even for someone who lives here, every day in Driftless Wisconsin is an adventure. 

I turned right off State Highway 27, which dissects Driftless Wisconsin into watersheds, onto County Road P, just north of Westby. County P meanders like an amusement ride through the bluffs of the back country, sandwiched between galloping landscapes and a brook running clear from snowmelt. 

This is the heart of Amish Country.  Handmade signs abound touting blacksmithing, upholstery, horseshoeing, custom-made furniture, hand-woven baskets, and the other hand crafts and trades for which the Amish are famous.  Road signs seem to mark the branches of a family tree, with names like Pa’s Road and Andy Miller Road.  

Attracted by a sign advertising “Mini-Barns, Furniture & Toys,” I turned right onto Pa’s Road, past a one-room school house and an Amish buggy whose driver raised his hand in greeting.  I turned into the crafter’s barnyard, where a shy young boy showed me to the woodworking shop.  There, stylish walnut buckboard benches and sleek cherry wood coffee tables sat like orphans waiting for a new home.  My host was quick to point out the children’s toys arranged neatly on shelves, demonstrating a wood duck that waddled web-footed as he pushed it along the floor. 

The Amish do not sell on Sundays and shun attention – this family did not want their names to appear in my story – but if you’re looking for a collection of Amish Crafts, try “Down a County Road” Amish Shops and Tours in Cashton.  They also offer Amish tours by appointment.  I once heard owner Kathy Kuderer give a talk on Amish culture and she knows her stuff.  

Take a road trip through the Amish Country of Driftless Wisconsin and you’ll soon get to know the Amish landscape as well; in unforgettable, albeit aimless ways.