The Driftless

May 1, 2017 by Eric Frydenlund

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.

Late-winter days in Driftless Wisconsin

February 25, 2016 by Eric Frydenlund

“Kitty!,” my two-year-old grandson declares looking out the window.  The excitement rises in his voice.  Closer inspection by my wife reveals a squirrel bounding through the snow, perhaps lured out of its nest by the gathering warmth and light of late winter.

Unlike groundhogs, squirrels are no prognosticators of spring; but a sunny day will find them scampering about looking for food or enjoying whatever squirrels enjoy on spring-like winter days.

Warm, late-winter days bring hope of spring’s arrival. Meltwater trickles down from Driftless Wisconsin’s steep slopes and heads for the river; a sign of winter’s impermanence. Barren patches of hillside appear, pulling back the blanket of snow to reveal a still slumbering land.

Not for long. The brittle ground cover of dead leaves from last fall, which rattled with every step three months ago, has marinated into a soft mulch from which wild flowers will soon sprout.

In Driftless Wisconsin, seasons defer to the land. Winter hides from spring in the shadowed recesses of deep valleys.  Spring pushes back winter on sunbaked ridge tops. Seasons play tricks on this uneven playing field, as if each valley and ridge top was a world and a season onto itself.

We live in the trough of a Driftless Wisconsin coulee; a topographical tributary of the Mississippi River Valley. Our house nestles into the south slope, giving us an eagle’s-eye panorama of the opposing slope, still covered in snow. During the winter, sunlight does not find our windows until late morning.

DSC01502As spring approaches, our “first light” comes earlier.  Like opening the blinds on a sunlit day, the sun peeks over the ridge top around 9 am and washes our home with warmth and optimism. 

People emerge from their winter slumber to enjoy a late-winter reprieve from the cold. The trail parking lot fills with hikers. The street busies with walkers. The post office lobby buzzes with sunny conversation.

Late winter presents a fashion dilemma. Do I wear my ear-warming Wisconsin Badger stocking cap or my head-cooling Field of Dreams baseball cap?  Do I don my winter coat or my spring vest? Do I accessorize with ice cleats or snowshoes? 

On our daily walk in the park, a friend in the parking lot suggests a viable alternative.  “Hip boots” she offers with a smile.

True enough. Low spots along the trail serve up a seasonal snow cone of slush layered on water. Yet the sun-drenched day invites me to unzip my vest, making it all worthwhile. Time for squirrels – masquerading as kittens – and people to emerge from their winter nests and celebrate spring a little early. In Driftless Wisconsin.