The Great River Road begins in Minnesota, at the headwaters of the Mississippi, and zig-zags slowly south to where the river empties out below New Orleans. It is not one road, but many roads, cobbled together into a route the length of America. It is sometimes called a “National Route,” as if the rest of them aren’t, as if we’re not all irrevocably stuck together.
I am driving the stretch that belongs to Wisconsin, through 33 river towns – some so small they are less towns than forgotten clusters of buildings – and into a region called the Driftless Area.
I start in the north, in Prescott. It’s not the most dramatic of jumping-off points; it could be any small town anywhere in America. But there is a mural of a steamboat, marking this as a river town and serving as the first clue that it is one stop of many along a greater journey. Next to the boat are painted two people, a bearded man in a blue uniform and a woman in a grey dress. She holds a straw hat and looks away from him through a pair of binoculars, searching perhaps for another vessel, for adventure, for escape.
I drive on through farmland, into one of those swaths of America that are so wide open, so hastily and sparsely settled, that the roads have no names, just letters, like placeholders waiting for later populations who never materialized. I pass County Road QQ, followed inexplicably by County Road E. There are numbered roads here too, forming intersections that sound like addresses from some vast, densely packed city. But if you drove to the corner of, say, 620th Avenue and 1090th Street, you would only find more green fields.
Then the succession of river towns begins. In Diamond Bluff, railroad tracks run close beside the road, and I listen for the whistle of one of those trains that seem to last forever, those endless configurations of containers that stay beside you for miles and miles.
In Bay City, I write in my notes:
nothing, wayside, historical marker, speed limit 55
In Maiden Rock, population 119 (do they change the sign when someone has a baby, or just wait, vaguely annoyed by the inaccuracy, until someone dies?) the Driftless begins. Hundreds of thousands of years ago, when massive glaciers shaped the topography as they drifted across the landscape, this region was spared. It’s a striking place, if you’re used to lands that the glaciers have sculpted, with craggy bluffs that tower 500 feet or more above the wide Mississippi.
In Stockholm, population 66, Swedish flags fly outside tiny storefronts. Businesses have names like Stockholm Pie & General Store, and everything is casually adorned with pots of flowers.
In Pepin, boats float in the harbor between a wine bar called the Breakwater and an actual breakwater, which encircles them protectively. Here, the Mississippi River and Lake Pepin are one in the same, a conflation I don’t quite understand. It’s all extremely pleasant, but I feel like I’m struggling for the proper vocabulary to describe it, and thereby understand it – these towns are so different from the small Southern towns on the same river, and more like those on the shores of the Great Lakes or even the New England coast. Yet they’re not exactly like anything, they exist in their own, Wisconsin-y dimension, impenetrable to outsiders passing through.
Further south, the route takes a turn, and the rugged bluffs rise above the road. Towns here are carved into the narrow space between the bluffs and the river, with impossibly long main streets and few parallel roads. In Alma, the few roads that fit alongside Main Street are practically stacked on top of it, accessible on foot via concrete stairways that serve as cross-streets.
You can also drive up, higher than the step-streets go, high above the town, up and up and up through the lingering stench of a dairy farm, to the top of the bluff and a park called Buena Vista. Here, a rocky overlook offers a view of the wild river – tamed, for now, by the Army Corps of Engineers’ Lock and Dam #4. In the months when the river isn’t frozen, visitors can climb to an observation deck above the lock to watch the barges travel though.
I descend again to Main Street, an architectural blend of hardscrabble and adorable, where Swiss flags fly outside the little shops. A sign in front of the American Legion post brags, jokingly: The Best Town By a Dam Site.
Then I drive on to Fountain City, another nearly vertical town, eye-catching not just for its situation on the bluff but for its dainty buildings. The brick post office is tiny, with intricate arches and columns, and a colorful, curious-looking pub in the center of town claims to be the oldest operating tavern in Wisconsin.
I reach the village of Trempealeau, and I text my mom, I’m in Trempealeau, and she texts back, You made that up. I didn’t, but it’s true that this throwback of a town, with a wide main street that slopes down to the riverfront, doesn’t feel entirely real. It is so quiet here that it seems like all the inhabitants have moved on, abandoning the disproportionately grand commercial buildings and the picturesque little law office, leaving the sidewalks clean and the 19th century hotel with 1950s signage empty.
I reenter the modern world on the congested streets at the outskirts of La Crosse, the biggest city on Wisconsin’s stretch of the Great River Road. I don’t expect much from a town named for a sport synonymous with high school, evocative of interchangeable preppy girls who derided me almost as relentlessly as I despised them. But La Crosse is a surprise. The Mississippi here is a placid ribbon of grey-blue beneath a brightly-painted bridge, and I sit beside it on a bench in the sun as riverboats line up for sightseeing tours. Downtown, ghost signs decorate venerable brick walls and quirky Italianate facades hint at a former La Crosse, built on the fur trade and boosted by the railroad, hiding beneath today’s comfortable college town.
La Crosse feels like it should be the end of the road, but it’s only the halfway point, so I keep going. I pass Stoddard, Victory, and Genoa, about which I write nothing, then Ferryville, about which I record:
little strip of a village thrown together with old scraps of wood
and Lynxville, where one of those endless trains appears and stays beside me as I drive.
The river is closer now, and it has turned from blue to an amazing pale silver. Little misty wisps stand on end, rising up from the water, partly obscuring densely wooded islands. The bluffs loom above.
In Prairie du Chien, I wander along a main street lined with businesses – an appliance store, a liquor store, and other small-town essentials – that appear to have been unchanged for 70 years.
In Potosi, I walk around a tiny downtown that seems to have emptied itself of people and get lost driving on roads that cut strange angles through cornfields. With no cell signal and just a water tower for a landmark, I start to wonder if I’ll ever emerge from the maze. When I eventually do, I return to the Great River Road, but all of a sudden it becomes a highway, and all too soon I’m crossing the state line into Iowa.
I leave the road here, but I think of it continuing like this, in stops and starts through tiny specs of towns, all the way to the Gulf of Mexico. I remember standing by the waterfront in New Orleans, not too far from where the river dissolves beyond those last wisps of Louisiana that are already more water than land. Somehow, looking at the Mississippi now as it stretches out below me in Dubuque, that doesn’t seem far away at all.