As you climb the hill behind the Effigy Mounds visitor center near Harpers Ferry, Iowa, you are enveloped in green, hickory and maple trees, bushes, grasses, punctuated with spots of sunlight and pink, purple, white and red wildflowers. When the Woodland people were building mounds 850 to 1,400 years ago, they would regularly burn the slopes by the river, presumably to maintain open meadows and attract large game. In a more open area, you could easily see the beautiful banks of the Mississippi River, and the mounds would be more visible. Today, they are shaded and somewhat obscured by thousands of trees. Still, you can make out the shapes, although they would be more easily seen from the air, an odd fact for builders who had no way to fly. The Native American Woodland people created these mounds, many of them for burials, piling topsoil usually four feet high, some up to 212 feet long. There are birds, turtles, bison, deer, lynx, lizards and bears, lots of bears. Bears are most prevalent here, some marching in a line downriver. Simpler dome shapes sometimes were connected with linear mounds. No one knows the true meaning of the mounds, or why the building stopped. But as you walk past the massive earthworks, you marvel at the collective effort and artistic aesthetic required.
Mineral Point, 50 miles southwest of Madison, Wisconsin, is one of those off-the-beaten-path places worth the drive. It was born in the early 1800s when miners found lead near the surface and started digging. They lived in caves dug out of the hills, called “badger holes,” which gave Wisconsin its nickname as “The Badger State.” When deeper mines were needed and zinc was discovered, experienced miners from Cornwall, England, arrived. By the mid-1800s, the Cornish masons were constructing stone buildings out of the local golden limestone. When the mines went bust, the buildings fell into disrepair and were being demolished. In 1935, two men, Bob Neal and Edgar Hellum, began acquiring and restoring the buildings. Artists flocked to the city in the ‘60s and stayed to open galleries and studios. And in ‘71, the city was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. You can also visit the town’s train depot, one of the few surviving pre-Civil War in the United States and the oldest surviving structure of the Milwaukee Road. Here’s a glimpse.
In the Saint Croix River Valley, we stumbled upon the Franconia Sculpture Park, its colorful sculptures popping up as we drove along the back roads. It is 43 acres of amazing artworks, presented by a nonprofit organization that also sponsors artist residencies and community arts programming. We wandered the grassy preserve in awe. My favorite was a multi-colored play structure by Bridget Beck, whose says her works create play lands she has imagined. “I believe that there are too few interesting, magical and thought-provoking places,” she states. “I see my sculptures as places to escape responsibility and seriousness. … I want drudgery as a prisoner and the swing to reign.” I’m totally with you, Bridget.
The Trail of the Cedars in Glacier National Park, an easy paved and boardwalk trail, takes you through a cool, green, drippy canopy of ancient western hemlocks and red cedars, some more than 500 years old and up to 100 feet high and seven feet in diameter. The forest floor is covered in ferns, mosses climb the rocks, and waterfalls in Avalanche Creek roar in the background.
The bakery at Polebridge Mercantile is legendary. More than one person we met on the road, hearing we were headed to Montana, said with reverence, “You have to go to Polebridge. People wait in line for the bear claws to come out of the oven.” The Mercantile is more than 100 years old, built in 1914, just outside Glacier National Park. It’s a way station for travelers, rafters, and other intelligentsia looking for food, drink, merriment and fresh-baked sweets. The website describes founder William L. “Bill” Adair this way: “He fished, using only one fly (the Coachman), and drank and grew king-sized cabbages while his wife (and later, after she died, a second wife) ran the store and lived in their homestead cabin, which is now the Northern Lights Saloon.” The bakery was started in 1994, and continues to follow the recipes Dan Kaufman, a third-generation baker from Idaho who owned the Merc for 15 years. The afternoon we visited, bear claws were going in and out of the oven, along with gluten-free pineapple-coconut bars. Yum.
Glacier is so vast it’s hard to describe. We traversed the Going to the Sun Road on the free shuttle, rolling past cascading waterfalls, breathtaking vistas, the Weeping Wall, and precipitous drops. Then we stepped aboard an old wooden boat to tour Saint Mary Lake, where pieces of the mountains form tiny islands. We hiked with a ranger to the beautiful Saint Mary Falls, past wildflowers and aquamarine water sparking in the hot sun. The indescribable color is due to light reflecting off sediment in the water.