The lights are dim, my beer is full, and the Woody Harrelson look-alike to my left is boasting about his flowers. All those holiday branches bedecking the boulevards in Chicago? Right there on Michigan Avenue? That’s us, Phil Mueller tells me: Star Valley Flowers. Pussy willow. Decorative dogwood twigs in nearly every color. Tulips. Tumbleweeds. You name it.
He’d be happy to send me information. I should watch the YouTube video, his friend says.
It’s a Wednesday night at the Driftless Café in downtown Viroqua, Wis. After a year confined to my apartment, I feel like an astronaut at reentry. The conversation. The food. The glow of dusk pressed blue against the windows. It’s almost – almost – too much.
“This area has more organic farmers in one area than anywhere else,” says co-owner Ruthie Zahm, eyes scanning the room behind me. “So our menu does change every day. Everything we can get in the back door by 4 p.m. is what we do, and you’re coming in at a great time, because this is the start of the crazy.”
It’s my first night in the Driftless Area, a 24,000-square-mile topographical novelty in the Upper Midwest, most of which lies in southwestern Wisconsin. The glaciers of the last ice age spared this region, and thus spared it the drift – the silt, the boulders, the assorted debris – common throughout much of the northern hemisphere.
“Singularly unrefined,” wrote author David Rhodes in his 2008 novel “Driftless,” “it endured in its hilly, primitive form, untouched by the shaping hands of those cold giants.”
Though I have spent most of my life in the Midwest, I had never heard of this geographical quirk until after the pandemic struck, at which point I found myself habitually researching weekend getaways within a day’s drive. Slowly the Driftless Area came into focus, and when the opportunity finally presented itself, I hit the road.
Roughly four hours after leaving Chicago, I landed in Soldiers Grove, a village that is halved by the dizzying Kickapoo River and where I had booked a room at the Tobacco Warehouse Inn. Built in 1923 to buy, cure and ship tobacco, the massive building today – though still under renovation – boasts five tasteful suites on the lower level, the old wooden beams still exposed overhead.
But with just two days to spend in the Driftless, I no more than tossed my bags inside before driving another 20 miles north to the 8,600-acre Kickapoo Valley Reserve to steep myself in this ancient terrain.
I parked on a quiet gravel road in a place called Daines Valley. The sun filtered through a parade of maple and ash beyond the trailhead, stippling the wildflowers below. The path rose quickly, and just a half-mile later, I caught my breath at the summit, a soaring sandstone outcrop called Black Hawk Rock. A sliver of the Kickapoo shimmered in the valley below, surrounded by the still-budding hills of the Driftless, a billowing plaid of yellow and green. A certain deja vu washed over me.
“It’s like a mini-Appalachia,” Carol Roth, the director of the Crawford County Economic Development Corporation, later told me. “The hills aren’t quite as big, but it feels exactly the same.”
I closed a roughly 31/2-mile loop before leaving the reserve, cutting first through a prairie still black with soot from a prescribed burn, and later beneath two covered bridges. Despite the revelatory scenery, my mind soon began drifting toward the meal to come – the organic delights of the Driftless Café.
The menu is small, and after a long hike, every item sounds heavenly. I order a little bit of everything.
First comes the cheese, the house sourdough, the rhubarb compote. I’m full before I finish, and the entree is still several courses away. Between each plate, Zahm buries me in story: how she and Chef Luke, her James Beard Award-nominated husband, landed back in the Driftless Area after starting a family in Madison; how she fired him to save their marriage – “you can totally write that,” she says – and how he now hosts the popular PBS Wisconsin television show “Wisconsin Foodie.”
Now comes the asparagus, grown by a local farmer sitting behind me; five crispy spears crowned with a fried egg, drizzled in balsamic and garnished with a grated Wisconsin Parmesan. Next, the salad, fresh and full of color, the vegetables sourced, Zahm says, from a nearby Amish family that sell their harvest once a week using a cellphone “they plug into a light pole that’s like a mile from their farm.”
Now I am sipping a brandy Old Fashioned the size of my fist. And finally, Zahm returns with a full serving of beef tenderloin from Organic Valley, acooperative based in nearby La Farge. She nods toward the entrance, where a group of Organic Valley employees happens to be sharing a table with the asparagus farmer.
“At any time, when you look in this restaurant, at least four or five farmers are here eating,” she says. “Of course we’re not the first farm-to-table restaurant, but I do believe that within this small community, we’re the first farm-to-table all the way through.”
After a few bites of rhubarb galette, I finally head back to Soldiers Grove. I fall asleep convinced that every small town deserves a Driftless Café, a showcase for the local harvest and a gathering place for townies and tourists alike.
The next morning, I return to Viroqua for a stroll through the town’s vaunted bookstore, Driftless Books, housed in another massive tobacco warehouse. The walls are covered floor to ceiling in secondhand books. Framed custom portraits hang from the rafters. A moose head. A rusting sousaphone.
“So yeah, one thing led to another, and a guy gave me this building,” says owner Eddy Nix, a community fixture in Viroqua. He is wearing a loose sweater and patched denim, and he wraps used books in donated paper bags as I pepper him with questions about the store.
“Literally just gave it to you?” I ask.
“He was like some guerrilla philanthropist,” he says.
They met when Nix was running the first iteration of his shop in nearby Viola. A stranger walked in one day looking for Richard Brautigan’s “Trout Fishing in America.” Nix sold him a copy, along with a preorder for “Wake Up,” Jack Kerouac’s posthumously published biography of the Buddha. And that was that – until a year later, when Nix grew obsessed with this empty old warehouse in Viroqua and finally contacted the owner, who asked whether the Kerouac book had arrived yet.
“It was the same dude!” he says. “And then like five months later, after forcing me to read the complete commentaries of Gurdjieff and all this metaphysical hoodoo, he gives me the building, like out of the blue.”
I could scan these shelves all day, but the hills are calling me again. From Viroqua, I head west another 20 miles to Genoa, where I cut north on the Great River Road, a national scenic byway skirting the Mississippi River. Roughly an hour later, I hit Perrot State Park, where I follow the signs for Brady’s Bluff. The farther I climb, the more horizon I can see beyond the trees, until suddenly I’m burped into a sunny south-facing meadow darned with yellow wildflowers. Minutes later, when I finally reach the old Civilian Conservation Corps. shelter at the summit, I turn back to find another Driftless doozy.
Trempealeau Mountain rises 425 feet above the confluence of the Mississippi and Trempealeau rivers. Though it’s now owned by the state, the solid rock island is still considered sacred ground by the Ho-Chunk and Dakota people who once lived here. The bay swirls around the mountain in muddy braids, the trees blur to form a knotty hide over the rocks, and the dimpled bluffs of the Mississippi in the distance haze a little further with every wrinkle and fold.
I’m loath to move on, but I’m due in West Salem, 30 miles southeast. Before I left Chicago, I persuaded the West Salem Historical Society to open the Hamlin Garland Homestead for a quick tour, hopeful the life of this Driftless native and Pulitzer Prize-winning author might reveal some deeper truths about the region. Garland was born in a squatter’s cabin on the outskirts of town but spent most of his childhood on farms in Iowa and South Dakota, where he’s perhaps more recognized today. In 1893, he purchased this small acreage right back where he started in West Salem, to rescue his mother “from a premature grave on the barren Dakota plain.” He spent his summers at the homestead.
“It was only an old frame cottage, such as a rural carpenter might build when left to his own devices,” he wrote in “A Daughter of the Middle Border,” the second book of his autobiography. “Sheltered by noble elms and stately maples, its windows fronted on a low range of wooded hills, whose skyline (deeply woven into my childish memories) had for me the charm of things remembered, and for my mother a placid beauty which (after her long stay on the treeless levels of Dakota) was almost miraculous in effect.”
The homestead was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1973 after a heroic local effort to revive the author’s memory. Pam Stetzer and Pat Hofer, both enthusiastic members of the historical society, guide me through the home one room at a time. This was his buffalo robe, they tell me. This was his typewriter. The bronze statue of the author was sculpted by his friend and brother-in-law, Loredo Taft, a major American artist. And finally we reach Garland’s office, overlooking a street since renamed in his honor. It’s perhaps the most spacious room in the house, flooded with eastern light and chock-full of books, everything revolving around his broad walnut writing desk.
“In some ways, it was a little sad, because he was always talking about how he didn’t know if he would be remembered,” Stetzer says. “But I like to think that every time we come here and see where he lived and see where he worked that we are remembering him – that he doesn’t have to worry about that. Because we are keeping his memory alive.”
Garland ultimately grew weary of his hometown. Unlike in his cosmopolitan life in Chicago, he felt surrounded here by “an almost universal senility and decay.” The author’s gloomy conclusion hangs over me the next morning as I head begrudgingly back to Chicago.
In my all-too-brief visit to the Driftless Area, I’ve encountered something closer to its antithesis: a viral creativity that has both visitors and veterans investing in what makes this region unique. Organic farms. Outdoor recreation. Local beer. Local cheese. Used books. It all makes me wonder what Garland would make of the Driftless today; if perhaps he might see it the way Nix does.
“It’s this weird pocket of creative weirdness,” he told me. “But it’s not definable. That’s the cool thing.”
IF YOU GO
Where to stay
Tobacco Warehouse Inn
201 Manning Ave., Soldiers Grove
Housed on the bottom floor of a former tobacco warehouse, this boutique hotel offers five luxury suites in a quiet small-town setting in the heart of the Driftless Area. Rooms from $119 per night.
Where to eat
118 W. Court St., Viroqua
The menu at the cafe, established by a James Beard-nominated chef, changes daily based on the availability of locally sourced produce. Entrees from $21.
What to do
Kickapoo Valley Reserve
S3661 Highway 131, La Farge
This 8,600-acre nature reserve features an extensive network of rustic trails for hiking, biking, horseback riding and more. Entry fees from $5 per day.
Perrot State Park
W26247 Sullivan Rd., Trempealeau
At the confluence of the Mississippi and Trempealeau rivers, this 1,200-acre state park boasts 121/2 miles of hiking trails and several phenomenal views of the Upper Mississippi River Valley. Park permit required. Fees from $8 per day.
Hamlin Garland Homestead
357 Garland St. W, West Salem
The summer residence of Pulitzer Prize-winning author Hamlin Garland, this unique property is on the National Register of Historic Places. Open for tours Memorial Day through Labor Day. Free.
518 Walnut St., Viroqua
One of the largest used bookstores in the Midwest, Driftless Books fills a three-story brick tobacco warehouse in Viroqua’s Historic Warehouse District.
Our special thanks to:detroitnews.com