A few years ago, a friend and I drove from Minneapolis to LaCrosse to attend a wedding. I don’t remember much about the trip: the drive south on Interstate 35, then east on 90, was unremarkable. The weather was sticky. And the ceremony was traditional and drama-free (I confess I always look around eagerly when the minister gets to the “speak now or forever hold your peace” part of the proceedings).
But if most of the details seem foggy, the image of our hotel, a Holiday Inn, remains indelibly etched in my mind. The halls of the inn were filled with the most incredible pictures of the Mississippi River valley. Sketched by some early European explorer, the drawings made the limestone bluffs that lined the river look like the Himalayas. It was scenery on steroids—and I was pretty sure the landscape never had and never would look so breathtaking. The artist had conjured magnificent vistas that, to the best of my knowledge, simply couldn’t exist.
I recalled these images a few weeks ago when a friend invited me to visit him in Winona. The fastest route, of course, would’ve been to retrace the interstate path to LaCrosse, hooking north again at the last minute. (Winona lies on the Minnesota side of the Mississippi, a few miles upstream from LaCrosse.) But the skies were blue and I had a few extra hours to spare, so I opted instead to follow the river. At Hastings, I crossed the Mississippi into Prescott and turned south on Wisconsin State Highway 35, which clings to the river as it meanders southeast. If the kind of amazing scenery that appeared in those old sketches did indeed exist along this, the upper portion of the American Nile, perhaps I would encounter it.
The road jogged and bobbed, passing through leafy valleys and climbing into treeless fields before descending again to the river’s edge. In Maiden Rock, I stopped to buy some bread and chat up a shopkeeper who was selling fair-trade wovens made by women in Africa, Asia, and South America. A few miles later, I paused in Stockholm for a cup of coffee and a piece of cherry pie as big as my hand. Along the road were dozens of signs protesting the rapid expansion of frac-sand mining in the area. (The sand is used to extract oil from shale in North Dakota.) “It’s making a mess of things,” a woman told me. She didn’t begrudge the property owners who were selling land to the mining companies (“For some folks, it’s the retirement they couldn’t afford before!”), but she worried about the future. The scenery was the region’s heritage, drawing visitors from all over the world. If the towering bluffs were reduced to quarry pits, who would come then?
I was mulling her comments a few minutes later when I rounded a bend and came across a panorama so astonishing I had no choice but to pull over and stare. Below me lay a widening in the river, Lake Pepin, glinting in the sun; above me rose a golden limestone precipice crowned with trees. In fact, looking downstream, I could see a dozen such cliffs, like ancient castles crumbling along the Rhine. It wasn’t the Swiss Alps, but it was every bit as unbelievable.