Friday, March 4, 2016

A Well-Worn Trail

This essay first appeared under my byline in the June 2005 issue of Wisconsin Trails Magazine.



In my youth I was drawn westward by the lure of wanderlust. After crossing the Mississippi River I trekked over prairie, badlands, and high plains. Still, my earliest recollection of place are painted with the vivid colors of Wisconsin: steamy green forests and grasses between a Kodachrome blue sky and waters of equal hue.  Fall cornfields the color of a gravel road, and the final thrust of golden sunlight that ignites the maple flames of October. Bare trees on distant wintry bluffs look like the whiskery stubble on an old man's face.

These images are indelible. A primal force looms therein. Although that force remains inexplicable, it was strong enough to eventually bring me back home--home to Wisconsin.

I found that the idyllic rural neighborhood of my boyhood had given way to a shopping mall and a cloverleaf interchange for the new interstate freeway (that I still call Ike's Folly). To escape the sprawl I went a few miles north and settled on the shore of the Mississippi in the village of Trempealeau. Now I've been here longer than I've been anywhere. At 52, I am just old enough to realize what a short span a half century is.

A daily walk along the river and over the top of Brady's Bluff Trail at Perrot State Park provides the solitude for peeking through the open crack that memory leaves in the door of time. Rosy, my Chocolate Lab, isn't the least bit nostalgic. We cut through a gnarly growth of sumac, hackberry, hickory, and poison ivy at the end of the back yard to make our way to the river road below. The wake of a northbound towboat breaks against the river's shore and I think back to the first time I stood on this spot.

I was among a group of eight or nine towheaded boys clambering from the back of a 1958 Plymouth station wagon. At the foot of Main Street an arrow-shape sign pointed upriver: Entrance to Perrot State Park--1 Mile. Before the car had sputtered out of sight an argument began over the correct pronunciation of Perrot. The debate was settled by vote; the boys of Fauver Hill Boy Scout Troop 48 elected to pronounce the French fur trader's name the same as the talking bird. We weren't the last to make this mistake.

Dating back to 1858, the remains of the Melchoir Brewery still capture the imagination of all who walk this road as we did on that summer day in 1964. Legend has it that Jacob Melchoir tipped the scales at 400 pounds. During the twenty years that Melchoir and his family brewed beer here, it is said that an occasional raftsman, determined to establish his reputation in the brotherhood of blowhards who navigated huge lumber rafts downriver, would invite Melchoir to a duel of fisticuffs. Such challenges were often offered up long after the Melchoirs had turned in for the night. Unamused, the giant would lumber onto the street, rubbing the sleep from his eyes. The confrontation never consisted of more than the young rooster being hoisted with one hand by the seat of the pants and another massive paw at the scruff of the neck. Once in the brewer's ineluctable grip, the hooligan was dispatched into the Mississippi River and drowsy Jacob returned to his slumbers.

How I wish I could remember what I saw that day! What the little house on the hillside above the old brewery--a house that would someday be home to my own family--might have looked like then, I've no idea.

But looking south from that place now, the same river and sky are still bisected by the Minnesota bluffs. I love to watch the Amtrak train cross the tiny bridge at the base of the three bluffs where Big Trout Creek joins the Father of Waters on the Minnesota side of the channel. Now I find comfort in standing still while others race by.

Rosy has little patience with my daydreaming. She tugs at the leash. Heading west, I read the names on mailboxes. Only one or two are of families who have been here for generations. Most, like me, stumbled onto this place by the twists of fate that make up their own stories. I wonder if they know about the days when this quiet road was a bustling business district. When a mill was built in 1856, the village enjoyed a period of rapid growth and inflated land values. As many as fifteen steamboats landed here every day. When their cargo was unloaded they took on bushels of wheat bound for bigger markets.

In 1888 a fire broke out in the butcher shop that destroyed most of the district. By then railroads had ended the halcyon days of steamboats. In rebuilding, Trempealeau turned its back to the river and moved up the hill, never living up to the expectations of early land speculators.

Now the excursion steamer Julia Belle Swain makes her way upriver from La Crosse to Winona. I give the riverman's two-handed wave. The pilot rewards me with a long, mournful moan of the steam whistle and a bit of the past echoes once again.

Just before the entrance to Perrot State Park the trail is separated from the raised roadbed of the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway tracks by the mingling of the backwaters of the Mississippi and Trempealeau rivers. Walk quietly and you'll glimpse a world you thought existed only in a Mark Twain story: barefoot kids fishing with cane poles, turtles lined up to sun on the limbs of trees fallen across the water.

I leave the river trail at the historical marker designating the site where Nicholas Perrot was believed to have camped during the winter of 1685-86; archaeologists now tell us they have no solid evidence to support the claim. One local gent, clearly upset by the prospect of having his history revised, argues that Perrot was simply a very tidy fellow who "wouldn't go leaving a bunch of archaeological trash lying about." The site was, in fact, occupied by the French at the end of the Fox Wars under the command of Rene Godefroy sieur de Linctot. It appears our Tricentennial Celebration of 1985 may have taken place about 46 years ahead of time.

Across the road from the market commemorating Perrot's post is on less conspicuous but more accurate, on the spot where the boys of CCC Camp 2606 (Civilian Conservation Corps) set out on their own trail to adulthood. I feel a powerful bond with the spirits of those young men of the New Deal agency. A single generation separated the beginning of their journey from my own, yet their path was fraught with perils I can only imagine. On my desk there is a photograph, a winter scene of six of those fellows outfitted in wool, canvas, denim, flannel, and leather. Pausing from their work, hammers dangling from the loosened grips of their toughened hands, they balance on the timbers that make up the roof trusses of the small shelter they are building at the top of Brady's Bluff. They seem oblivious to the fact that they are standing within spitting distance of a 1,600 year-old Hopewell burial mound. Instead, each young man peers directly into the camera's lens, directly into the future.

Now Rosy shuffles, panting, into the cool shade of that shelter and plops down beneath the wooden bench that runs along its three walls. Like thousands of travelers before us I am awed by the sight of the sacred mountain that rises from the water to the west, Hay-nee-ah-chah to the Ho-Chunk. The French, who fared well in these environs by assimilating the ways of the woodland people, called it la montagne qui tremp a l'eau, "the mountain steeped in water." There are a few old trappers around who still call it Rattlesnake Mountain, a name early settlers used on account of the abundance of timber rattlers that discouraged intruders. They are all good names.

My eyes sting from salty sweat as I wipe my forehead on the sleeves of my T-shirt. When my breathing comes easier it occurs to me that to walk this steep trail through the woods and traverse this high goat prairie awash in June wildflowers will always connect me to my Boy Scout youth. To stand next to this river is to bear witness to the physical incarnation of time itself, to recognize, if only for a moment, my place in its flowing.

"C'mon, Rosy," I say. "Let's go home. It's all downhill from here."