Delight in the Driftless

December 23, 2020

My wife often reminds me that we aim to lead our lives as Helen Keller proclaimed: “Life is either a daring adventure or nothing.”  That inspiration rang in my ears during the grueling two-day 1,100 mile drive from Raleigh to Decorah, Iowa to see our son perform his senior piano recital at Luther College, where he triple-majors in music, computer science, and data science. 

Our life certainly is sometimes a daring adventure, I thought, as we passed one of hundreds of tractor-trailer rigs plying the Interstates, that particular truck outfitted with a left mud flap that read PASSING SIDE and a right mud flap that read SUICIDE.  More adventure as night fell on I-74 in central Illinois south of the Quad Cities, agog at the many big rigs festooned with lights from front grill to trailer doors, like this one:

Not every mile was an easy journey.  The first night we ran into unrelenting spitting snow and icy-wet roads after dark on the serpentine, undulating Appalachian two-lane blacktops with faded markings between Abingdon at the far western tip of Virginia and Harlan, Kentucky.  Snow lasted for hours as I squinted to make out the dark road ahead, petering out just before reaching our Lexington area Hampton Inn.  Definitely an adventure, if sometimes stressful. 

Truth is, I realized, that I deeply miss road trips, and I had forgotten how much I love to drive. Flying is so removed and sterile from the real America I cherish, even with its many flaws.  Oh, I love to fly, too, and I can hardly wait to get back on a plane when this damnable plague abates.  But I know now that I’ll punctuate my future travels with road trips like this one.

When we’d washed off the road grime and settled into our comfortable Airbnb apartment in Decorah, we were able to fully focus on and relish our son’s spectacular piano recital the next day, which was recorded (starts about 15 minutes into the video).

The morning after his impressive piano performance, we took advantage of the day’s sunny, if frigid, weather to do some exploring in the pretty NE corner of Iowa.  It was the day before the winter solstice, the second shortest of the year, but we made the most of the fleeting light to roam through one of the most unusual geological regions of the country, called the driftless area, so named because it was untouched by the last North American glaciation

From Decorah we first made the short drive to Spillville, settled by Bohemians in 1860.  Unfortunately, the famous Bily Clocks house in Spillville was closed for the season. It was the residence of composer Antonin Dvorak when he visited there in the summer of 1893. The house is also full of elaborately carved wooden clocks.

Not far away we explored Calmar (founded 1850 and named for a place in Sweden), once a busy rail center and still with active freight train service.

The tiny town boasts a huge mural of the steam rail era adjacent to the tracks:

Leaving Calmar, we headed due east over the rolling hills of the driftless on some of Iowa’s many well-maintained gravel roads. Many of the inclines are remarkably steep, and I wondered how our AWD car would have handled in heavy snow, common in winter there.  More power to the hearty farming families whose places dot the area.

We stopped on the banks of the Mississippi to hike trails to the top of the bluff by impressive animal effigy mounds and Native American burial mounds in the National Monument, as these pictures demonstrate.

Note Native American burial mounds to the left of the path.
Looking south along the Mississippi from the effigy mounds bluff, Iowa on the near bank and Wisconsin on the east bank.

Views of the river from that vantage are gorgeous looking east to Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin on the other side, as in this picture:

The day was altogether a serene joy, one that could only be experienced in a remote corner of what some people call “fly-over country.” Truth be told, despite several past visits to Decorah, I’d never heard of the driftless until this trip and was delighted in its unique beauty and history.  I’m always humbled to discover a fascinating phenomenon like the driftless hiding in plain sight, more proof of life’s adventure when I pay attention.

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