A Sunday Drive in the Country

Monday, October 20, 2008 -- Potosi, WI

Yesterday, Sunday, we drove a loop from Potosi, through Dickeyville, across the river into Dubuque, up the Great River Road on the Iowa side to Balltown, then to a ferry crossing the Mississippi from Turkey River, IA to Cassville, WI, and finally back to Potosi. It was a warm sunny day -- just right for that last autumn drive to see fall colors in their full glory.

The ridges and valleys of the driftless area take some getting used to. Both sides of the river are full of them. As you travel, the car's motor is straining, struggling, shifting gears, and smokin' to climb the steep grades, or it's brakes are white hot and smokin' to keep your speed in check as you're coming down to the 35mph curve at the bottom. Sometimes not the most pleasant drive, like when you've got a loaded dump-truck three feet behind your rear bumper on a steep downgrade. During the last year or more we've driven through much of the western USA and have experienced a lot of different landforms. But these hills are as steep as many we've encountered along the way. They may not be as long, as elevation changes are usually not more than 400 feet or so, but they can be steeper than most in the Rocky Mountains.

In Dubuque we planned to stop for a few hours at the National Mississippi River Museum, right on the riverfront downtown. This location used to be the Dubuque Boat and Boiler Works which, from 1905 to 1972, built dozens and dozens of tenders, excursion boats, and towboats. The museum is a world-class facility with indoor and outdoor exhibits that educate kids and adults about the river, it's history, and it's importance to the people who live along it's banks or work on it or recreate on it. And while we don't think about big rivers as transportation corridors much anymore, there's a steady stream of barge tows that float huge quantities of commodities both up and down the river, and railroads that take advantage of the relatively flat riverbanks for efficient movement of containerized cheap plastic stuff from China.

If we think we've tamed the Mississippi, we do so at our own peril. The river is unpredictable, dangerous at times, to be respected, has a personality, is integral to the lives and livelihoods of many people, and is full of history. People come and go, the river just keeps rollin'.

It's easy to spend a full day at the museum, but once the old Blazer had cooled off enough, we headed north into the hills of Northeast Iowa, following the Great River Road. We traveled through Sageville, Sherrill, Old Balltown, and then Balltown (I assume newer than Old Balltown?), which I guess is where they all went when they got fed up with Old Balltown. Balltown is something to see. It sits on top the highest ridge in the area. There are clear views for as far as the eye can see... all the way to the horizon... in all directions. I hypothesize that the reason it's named Balltown is because of the steady weekly re-supply of balls necessary to keep kids occupied. Baseballs, soccer balls, basketballs, dodge-balls, and yes, even whiffle balls... every ball, sooner rather than later, get away from it's owner and once that happens, down the hill it goes. It's a small town but more balls go rolling 500 feet down the steep ridge-sides each year than there are people in town. It makes Christmas pretty boring as kid's pretty much know what they'll be getting. Balltown... remember it... a cool place.

Once the motor cooled off from the climb up to Balltown, it was time to warm up the brakes as we came down the hill, squealing our way down to the ferry landing at Turkey River. The city of Cassville owns the ferry that runs sometimes between Turkey River and Cassville. The rest of the time it doesn't run at all. This time of the year it runs from Thursday thru Sunday... unless it doesn't. During the winter, it pretty much doesn't run as it's pulled out of the water and sits in a park near the water. It's a small ferry, a barge really, able to hold from 9 to 12 cars in 3 tight lanes. Power is provided by a tug which is attached to the side of the barge at a pivot point at the front of the tug and a large latch on the side. After loading and backing off the sandbar they call a ferry dock, the tug-driver releases the latch holding, say, the right side of the tug to the side of the barge, the captain applies a little power and rudder, and the tug pivots 180 degrees so it's now going in the other direction, finally re-latching the barge to the left side of the tug. Here in Wisconsin, especially along the river, we do things a little different than folks do elsewhere.

Shadows were growing long by the time we got back to Potosi. It was a long day and I was in need of a little electrolyte replacement therapy -- also know as Snake Hollow IPA -- which happened to be on tap in adequate quantities at the Potosi Brewing Company. Then it was back to camp where we told stories and laughed with the neighbors around a warm campfire.

Man, this is the life!

T
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