I decided to take a quick roadtrip through the Midwest this summer – the middle of the Midwest, the part where no one goes for vacation!  I drove across northern Iowa, then down its Western border, and continued following the Missouri River through its namesake state all the way down to its mouth in St. Louis.  I popped in to South Dakota and Nebraska, but Kansas offered too much traffic for me to brave.  You don’t think of traffic when you think of Kansas, do you?  


In case you thought Iowa was nothing but corn, you can rest assured that there are soybeans here, too.


This giant statue of Pocahontas, along with a lot of historic signs about the real “Indian princess,” filled the town of Pocahontas, Iowa. Yes, you are remembering history correctly: Pocahontas was a figure in early Virginia history, at a time when no one even knew Ohio existed, let alone Iowa.


Somewhere around Oelwein, IA, the Driftless Area ends and the land flattens out. I was in foreign territory once I’d crossed the Wapsapinnicon… which became obvious as KwikStars gave way to Kum & Gos.


Onawa, Iowa (that’s 2/3 vowels for those counting) has the widest main street in the world. According to the sign.

This wasn’t just a whim; I had destinations in mind.  When conceiving of the trip, those sites seemed disjunct, just a mix of places and things that I might be interested in.  As I traveled, though, the pattern became obvious.  I drove through cornfields to find prairies, through a modern metropolis to find an ancient civilization.  I was exploring the beginnings of the American West, the conquering of wilderness, the root of our national psyche.  There in the cornbelt, surrounded by the simple life, I found myself feeling that I was on the cusp of great excitement.  In the middle of nowhere, at the edge of everything.  Maybe Iowa should adopt that as its new motto.


It really is corn as far as the eye can see, even in the rolling hills of Western Iowa, where the eye can see much farther…


Somewhere in the western part of Iowa, the towns get farther apart and the road ditches fill with prairie.


In addition to beans and corn, there is wind in


Iowa. These windmill farms use different technology than some of the others I have seen.

Something New and Different in Central Wisconsin… Really?

Every time I drive through central Wisconsin, I try to take a different route. This is because the vast middle of our otherwise fair state is a flat, windy wasteland.  On one such trip I discovered Pittsville. Ever since then, I have tried to cover up the fact that it is the (self-proclaimed) “Geographical Center of the State.”  The town seems to live up to its name, based on my stop at its gas station/social center. I feel that its existence in such a representative location could color outsiders’ opinions of Wisconsin. Luckily, unless you are able to teleport, or for some reason fly into Wausau, you can only get to central WI from the north, south, east, or west – all of which are much more appealing.

However, on a recent trip from southwest to northeast, I found a place that I actually want to go back to. Abbottsford, WI reminds me entirely of Postville, IA – another surprisingly distinctive town on the flatlands, that goes by the moniker “Hometown to the World.”  Eerily, I had thought of Postville earlier the same day, for the first time in years.

You have to get off the highway (WI 29) to see the historic downtown of Abbotsford. I did this because I needed to de-fuel at a pit stop, and while there I thought I’d check the online reviews of local restaurants. Cafe Mexico had several raves, so I drove over to find it… And found myself in a one-block Little Mexico! The restaurant, a Mercado down the street, a shop for quinceanera dresses, a Spanish-


language tax preparation office… Everything from the size of the
street to the architecture seemed to have Latin influences.  Folks, we are in central Wisconsin here.  For all that I love about my state, it is incredibly white, and not very friendly to diverse groups. Even in the agricultural communities where many Spanish-speaking residents live, they are typically not welcome at local establishments, and only show their faces at the nearest Walmart. It’s sad, I know, and something that has bothered me for a while. It is one more reason that Abbotsford was so pleasantly surprising!

I suspect that Abbottsford’s diversity has the same source as Postville’s – a huge meat processing plant outside of town. Unfortunately, the restaurant was closing up just as I arrived. However, the mystery of the town’s history combined with the promise of an authentic dinner will bring me back. And it may be the first time that I will expect to enjoy my trip through central WI!


Day 1          August 30

Mile 80 – 190

Bagley, WI to LaCrosse, WI (the long way)

A lot of folks will have you believe that rural areas and small towns never change – that Joe is always behind the counter of the filling station that bears his name; that Uncle George will always live on the corner of Main and 3rd; that the Smiths graze their cattle right up to the churchyard on the south side.  Today was the first real day of my adventure, and I spent it re-visiting some places that I used to be familiar with but hadn’t seen in a few years.  What I learned was: things change.  Some for the better, some maybe not so much, and some are just plain different.  What hasn’t changed is the beauty of the Mississippi River valley in the Driftless Area of Wisconsin, Iowa, and Minnesota – and as long as that stays constant, I guess the details aren’t all that big of  a deal.

Not a bad view to wake up to!

I started the day in Wyalusing State Park, which used to be practically home for me – but I enjoyed getting a new perspective on things.  I stayed in the Wisconsin Ridge Campground, which offers great views, though there is little privacy from the other campers (I could see at least fifteen other families from my site).  Wyalusing (; is located at the confluence of the Wisconsin and Mississippi Rivers, and the view from my site looked down on the Wisconsin, with the town of Prairie du Chien and its river bluffs rising from the opposite shore.  I took my favorite hike, along the Sentinel Ridge Trail from Lookout Point, through the Green Cloud picnic area, and down to the boat landing.  The top of the ridge is covered with a series of linear and conical mounds built by Woodland Indians up to 1,000 years ago.  A prescribed burn that took place this spring has resulted in a flush of wildflowers and grasses under the open oak canopy, and reduced the heavy brush on the slope down to the river.  The park is currently thinning some damaged oaks on the mounds, and opening the ridge up even more.  These were a few changes that I was really pleased to see – they are helping to restore the habitat at this historic site to something more like what those mound builders saw hundreds of years ago.

After leaving Wyalusing, I travelled through Prairie du Chien and up the Mississippi onHwy 35.  I stopped for a brief hike at Rush Creek State Natural Area, which was beautiful despite the heat and poison ivy (no, I don’t know why I thought 12:30 on an August afternoon was a good time to climb up a goat prairie).  I crossed the Mississippi at Lansing, IA, and continued up through New Albin on Hwy 26 to Minnesota.

Rush Creek State Natural Area

Fish Farm Mounds

I made it up to Brownsville, MN, a small town in far southeastern Minnesota where I have not been for several years.  I was

Brownsville Bluff

particularly excited to stop at their local Kwik Trip – it was a holdover from a previous decade, before the regional gas station chain underwent a modernizing transformation and expansion push.  When I passed all of the new waterfront homes and rounded the corner to the last of the old-school KT’s, though, I found it shuttered and dilapidated, with all identifying signage removed.  Very sad.  I was not so devastated that I couldn’t carry out my other plan, though, which was to hike up on the bluff rising adjacent to the town.

It is common among these bluff country towns, and especially those in Minnesota’s Root River valley, to make a sign of whitewashed rocks, spelling out the town’s name high up on a nearby bluff.

Prairie Blazing Star, Side-Oats Grama Grass, and other native plants.

I always particularly liked Brownsville’s, because it surely has the longest name of all, and the letters were pretty small when all was said and done.  It wasn’t easy to read from a distance, but I was disappointed on my drive in that I couldn’t see it at all.  The reason, it turns out, is that the summer prairie grasses were too tall and dense to allow the letters to show through!  All in all, the prairie looked awesome, with significant tree and brush clearing a few years ago, and a recent prescribed burn to remove

Sunflowers and grasses colonizing the area around stumped cedars.

additional woody material.  Grasses and forbs are colonizing the once bare areas where cedar trees stood, and the diversity of plants was really beautiful.  [I’m not above giving a big pat on the back to myself and everyone else who has worked on the site – way to go, guys!]  I guess I can handle the disappearance of a convenience store and construction of river-bank McMansions in exchange for a refreshed prairie!  If I were going to be around a month from now, this bluff jutting into a wide stretch of the Mississippi would make a great place for watching the migration.

As it is, I continued up the river, picking up Hwy 16 through LaCrescent (the Apple Capital of Minnesota – where I couldn’t resist buying a few pounds of early season fruit), and back across the river to LaCrosse, WI.  There I enjoyed a few of the local brews proliferating in western Wisconsin these days, and the hospitality of a friend for the night.  It was great to wake up to drizzle and later a thunderstorm… and know that I was on a nice, dry couch (thanks Nate)!