Finding my soul on forgotten roads

June 25, 2010

Over water and under rocks, little paths built for cars years ago remain primitive, isolated, gorgeous and waiting.  Like the glaciers that formed our state the modern road builders missed some spots in southwestern Wisconsin.  I can’t be more appreciative.

Our family loves to take road trips, looking at our gazetteer for the places that have the most squiggles.  We usually venture no more than a county or two away – perhaps into Illinois or Iowa.   We’re definitely a group for whom the journey is as important as the destination, and our family has an affinity for getting lost.

Rural folks aren't delicate about their lawn ornaments

On this trip we headed to the Mississippi River via Grant County and wanted to get there quickly so we took the ridge roads.  We’d poke our way back through the valleys.

Well on our way we pulled over at a small flower stand a family set-up in their yard, west of Fennimore.   I can tell when we’re within a mile or so of these places because my wife starts salivating.  Grandma greeted my wife.  “Thanks for stopping.  Where are you from?”

Soon the busy young mom stopped over.  “We’ve got a great deal on impatiens. Where are you from?”

Within a minute dad putted up on a small motor scooter with his son.  “Where are you from?”

We were about 50 miles from home, but Hollandale could have been Egypt as far as they were concerned.  Their kids sensed this and gave us a wary eye: foreigners are foreigners.  Even when they found out we were bona fide cheeseheads, they still thought we were different – metropolitan or something.  I should have expected this because we’re from a place of over 250 people, kind of like New York City.

Conversations like this occur all the time and it is an important part of our venture, because the uniqueness of local people complements the natural beauty of the trip.  I get philosophical about it all but my wife would suggest it is just an easy way to kill time while she empties my wallet and fills the van – in this case with flowers.

Soon we left the high ridge and started our descent to the Mississippi River valley.  We took a back road through Bloomington and then County Road A toward Bagley.  These are stunning roads, especially neat when I take a motorcycle.  The temperature changes rapidly with elevation and tree cover.  Hot sun to chilly shivers, and then change again.  A roller coaster with temperature control.

Dugway Road

Just south of Bagley we meet Dugway Road, a favorite car path.  It seems like a field road or something that would dead-end at a farm.  But it is a thoroughfare, albeit as primitive as I’ve found.

The road clings to the river bluffs on one side, and drops off precipitously down to the Mississippi River on the other.  It creeps from Bagley to the little village of Glen Haven.  There has been a lot of rain, so the bluff side had scars, reminders of recent wash-outs that covered the road after heavy rains.  It doesn’t take much on a road as narrow as this.

The Mississippi lies 70 feet below just a few yards on the other side.  In some spots it’s a real squeeze.  The road is mostly one lane, so we’re constantly aware of places to pull over so another vehicle can inch by if need be.

It’s good to stop a lot and gather it all in so we do that here.  We crank our heads out the window to gaze almost straight up the bluffs, or catch the eagles feeding over on the river side.  Goodness knows all that slithers or scurries across the road but the movement is constant.  Nobody around and tons of life.

Dugway has two extraordinary features that are reason to pause as well: a large rock that overhangs the road, and in one

This fence keeps your vehicle from a long fall down to the Mississippi and carries phone lines, too. Note the insulators!

particularly tight spot, a mesh fence to keep your car from falling down the bluff into the Mississippi.  The telephone lines are strung on glass insulators right on the fence posts, 4 feet high.  That’s about as low-tech as you can get.

As soon as a building appears we’ve come to Glen Haven, right on the Mississippi. It is a weekend so fisherfolk are all over the place, stopping at the local friendly watering hole when they’re done at the fishing hole.   When we move on we go south out of town on County A, and then right on Squirrel Hollow Road, which cuts through deep, lush woods.

Almost immediately there is a neat little roadside campground, alongside a rushing creek, with an outdoor privy and small shelter with a picnic table.  People camp there for a few bucks a night, I’m told, but in 20 years we’ve never seen anyone.  It is one of those places that makes you wonder who put it there.  Maybe a civic group or 4-H club.  It’s neat.

When we take off again we turn on Duncan Road, which rises gradually over a few miles through woods and beautiful ground cover, past a couple small farms to another ridge.  This spot is close to the old Eagle Valley area and you can probably get a good idea how beautiful it is here just from that name.

In only a few miles it is time for another descent down through the bluffs and another extraordinary car path – Good Nuf Hollow

Mississippi backwater on Dugway Road

Road.  Our turn off the pavement is marked by an old cemetery, with one of the prettiest fences in these parts.  (We probably watch the TV show “American Pickers” too much, and things like this catch our eyes.  In the old days we would remark how nice the fence is, now we wonder “what’s it worth?”)

Once again the road delves under the outstretched arms of stunning old tree growth.  It gets cool and darker and I use second gear to hold us back as the decline gets steeper.  There are no bridges or guard rails here, and you can look right over the drop offs because there is no road shoulder.  I can’t imagine any cell phone would work in a place like this (yay!), so you need to make sure to not do something stupid.  Help is quite a hike.

At the bottom there is a relic of an old farmstead, some stone walls still standing.  It is like the rain forest down here.  For us the big attraction of Good Nuf Hollow Road is the water crossings.  The roadbed is firm, not muddy, and you cross creeks three or four

One of the creek crossings on Good Nuf Hollow Road

times by going through them, not over.

Good Nuf Hollow Road ends at the Mississippi, and allows the option of heading left to Cassville or north down Closing Dam Road, a dead end.  Things are “improved” a bit on that road:  A bridge was recently built over the stream but don’t expect a railing.  The township is probably saving up for that.  But you can park at the end and fish, or walk along the railroad track north just a bit to the Wisconsin side of Mississippi Lock and Dam #10.  Our kids always loved that – dam on one side of them and trains on the other.  They would squash pennies on the railroad tracks, and then throw them in the river for good luck.

If you head south Cassville is only a few miles away.  The view from the top of the bluff at Nelson Dewey State Park is awesome and Stonefield Village is just across the road.  At Cassville you can take the ferry over to Iowa, and there are some dandy back roads and little villages over there, too.  The ferry ride itself is unique.

As we start to wind back home our last planned stop is Pleasant Ridge.  For us this is a most special, forlorn place.  Located between Lancaster and Beetown, it was one of Wisconsin’s first black settlements, and had the first integrated school in the state.  We always feel a presence here, and have researched the names on the gravestones and remember them well.  Once I even met an alderman in Madison whose roots were here.  We’re always a bit sad because the chapel – sentry to the graves and last manifestation of the hands that built a truly remarkable community in the 1800s – was torn from the hallowed ground and hauled away to serve a life sentence at a state tourist attraction.  I think the graves are lonely for the building.

Pleasant Ridge Cemetery

Today’s adventure lasted about seven hours.  We filled the camera with all kinds of stuff that gets better with age.  We found some great buildings; discovered a few really neat road names.  Of course, we met a number of locals and other characters.  Conversations about nothing are everything, and we had a great time talking about topics like the weather, where we’re from and whether the Packers will be worth a darn.  Wallet empty; van crammed; wife satiated.  But that’s OK.

Deeper down there is much to be learned from a trip like this and our life batteries get recharged too.  Even though my day-to-day life is spent in rural beauty, places we visit on these trips really help me find what’s inside.  If I can slow down and let myself listen and feel, I think I find my soul.

We’ll be out visiting and exploring again soon.  Do you know of places like these?

Rick Rolfsmeyer

Hollandale, Wisconsin

A very nice all-day Mississippi trip that includes the neat roads I described can include two great state parks: Wyalusing at the north end and Nelson Dewey/Stonefield Village on the south.

Got kids? The little Village of Wyalusing – just south of the state park – has a great beach and boat launch.

Dugway Road can be reached from the north via County Road A, about 1 ½ miles south of Bagley

Good Nuf Hollow Road is off County Road VV about 4-5 miles south of Glen Haven

Closing Dam Road is accessible from the south end of Good Nuf Hollow Road or by going north from Cassville on County VV until it intersects.

Pleasant Ridge cemetery is on Slab Town Road off Highway 81 between Lancaster and Beetown.

Matte Green

June 24, 2010

A few weeks ago I attended  the monthly meeting of the Wisconsin Pottery Association (WPA). I’ve attended their annual show and sale for the last few years and have become a member, too. What finally got me to a meeting was the allure of matte green glazes. Anyone who has seen my modest collection of art pottery would not be surprised.

Two greenpots

Two pots with matte green finishes from my own collection

Steve Schoneck, Minnesota collector and dealer, went through a long table of ceramics with a variety of matte green finishes. The glaze first emerged at the turn of the (last) century and became very popular with devotees of Arts & Crafts and related movements in design and architecture. Their appeal is the nuanced variations in tone and luster. To my eye, the best examples emphasize form and color and minimize decorative elaborations.

Wisconsin has its own history of pottery by individual ceramists and production companies. The latter category includes Pauline Pottery of Edgerton and the Ceramic Arts Studios of Madison. Both are detailed on the WPA website. But there are still plenty of good Wisconsin ceramics to be found today and my collection has a few examples — mostly in matte green, of course.

–Michael Bridgeman


A blogling is born…

June 16, 2010

This is Al Ross speaking.  Among other things, I’m a producer for Wisconsin Public Radio.  It’s funny, but twenty years ago, I never envisioned that I’d someday be a ‘blogger’; yet, now that I am one, I should get down to blogging….although dyslexia may turn it into ‘globbing’ on occasion.  I find it interesting that someone who doesn’t regularly read blogs would, himself, blog.  You are what you write, I guess.  I find comfort knowing that it’s similar to – and thus as easy as –  writing in a diary or journal – the only difference being entries must be suitable for others to read.  The way I’m going to think of it is that I am a columnist within an electronic newspaper.  With that definition, I can join the ranks of Ed Sullivan, Walter Winchell and Dave Barry.  I’d better toss in Charles Kuralt as well, because he was an idol of mine and I so envied his fortunate assignments.

Now, before you roll your eyes and label me a prima donna – please know that I’m only rambling (which is probably a better word than ‘blog’ to describe my initial participation) – and I believe a person should be allowed to saunter comfortably through his first blog.  None of us rode straight and true the first time we took off the training wheels.  Anyway, I’m very proud to be a part of an impressive entity: Portal Wisconsin.  Just the sound of ‘Portal Wisconsin’ summons pride.  And, yes, I too thought it was ‘Porthole’ Wisconsin when I first heard about it years ago.  Then I realized it was ‘portal’ and the idea of an opening through which to view what’s going on inside Wisconsin sunk in.  I thought it was a great idea.

Now that I’m a small part of it, I think it’s an even greater idea.

My contributions will range from rambles to regional reminders.  I will talk about the people who and places that make Western and Northwestern Wisconsin culturally vital and vibrant.  Since becoming host of Spectrum West on WPR, I’ve met and rubbed elbows with some very impressive folks and functions.

The program is a delight to produce simply because the events, stars and planners are equally delightful.

I’m impressed with the vision shown by so many venues in so many towns – very small to medium/large.

Theaters (if you like to spell yours with an ‘re’ at the end, I apologize) and theater groups; musicians and musical groups; artists and art galleries; publishers, publications, poets and authors – there’s an abundance of these that equals all the other natural abundances we relish and, hopefully, use with respect, here in West Wisconsin.

Suffice it to say I will check in periodically to tell you about some of these things and many of these people – and I will expect to interact along the way with those who read my words.  After all, even though it sounds like the quick, fast end of something (blog!…the ‘g’ landing hard in a messy heap), I don’t believe a blog should be a one-way street.