Driftless By Design

When John gave her the ring he hoped that marriage would follow soon after. It did. Mary said yes. His unspoken question was answered with her unspoken assent on the same day. She simply nestled her head against his neck in silent agreement. They were married in June of that year, 1957.

The couple spent much of their time together in nature. There were yearly camping trips to lakes, mountains and forests. Twilight and sunrise often shared the light of their campfires. By way of nature’s vast expanse, the couple became closer. For them, there was never a thought of sitting in front of the television set night after night, pining for something more. They chose what they wanted: the panoply of the natural world; the broad-shouldered earth.

Wisconsin’s Governor Dodge State Park became the site of an annual destination for the couple. The state park, located only three and a half hours from their home, is demarcated in southwestern Wisconsin. It lies within driftless area of the Upper Mississippi River Basin. The Mississippi, Chippewa, Kickapoo and Black rivers flow through this area, dissecting the uneven landscape and forcing the weaving of man-made roads.

The park offers two lakes: Cox Hollow and Twin Valley Lakes. The couple’s favorite campsite, near Cox Hollow Lake, is nestled among oaks, white pines and hickory trees. Through a clearing at the edge of their campsite the couple viewed a gently sloping field blanketed with goldenrod and sunflowers. At one time Mary told John that the Monarch butterflies that silently fluttered among this dappled setting were faeries. John told Mary that the Hummingbirds that hovered in their camp sought only the sweetest of nectars – his Mary.

The road trip to Governor Dodge was easy. The ride became a time to talk about nothing and about everything, a means to embrace the other. As was their way, they would pack on Thursday evening. Then, On Friday morning they would drive up in hopes of getting their favored spot before the weekend campers arrived.

When they arrived at Governor Dodge they paid their campsite fee, found their site and unpacked the car. Everything would be in its place within an hour. They prepared well.

Their first afternoon was usually spent sitting on the grassy hillside looking down on the sandy beach of Cox Hollow Lake. The scattered oak trees blocked the high afternoon sun, while a cool lake breeze ascended up the hill. These surroundings made it easy for John and Mary to nap, even though children whooped and wailed when splashed with lake water. Later in the afternoon the air would become filled with the cacophony of weekend visitors greeting each other.

When dinner time came around John and Mary had cooking down pat: Coleman stove, cast iron skillet, freshly caught walleye fried in butter with tear-prompting onions and brought-from-home herbs sizzling alongside. Dessert was an ice cream bar bought at the camp store just up the hill from the lake. And, a cup of Thermos coffee.

The undiluted sprawling sky above Governor Dodge State Park provided the couple with an open air observatory. At night they would drive out to an isolated ridge road that passed through an open field. They would park in the grass, get out and sit on the hood of their car. It seemed to them that the darkened heavens published dot-to-dot pictures: Ursa Major with its asterism The Big Dipper affixing north.

John and Mary would trace the points of light with their fingers. Occasionally, the celestial array of distant lights became cloaked by screeching bat swarms flying in high speed pursuit of blood thirsty mosquitoes. Mary liked the bats, but only for this reason.

After midnight, the couple would return to their campsite. They would make one final inspection of their food storage. They knew that robbing raccoons were on the prowl. When they were both ready, they quickly entered their tent hoping to keep the uneaten mosquitoes on the outside with the bats. Once inside, they replayed their favorite memory.

© Sally Paradise, 2011, All Rights Reserved




It was a dream that possessed him until he flashed his eyes open at 5:58 am. Will lay in bed recalling the improbable nightmarish image: a smoldering giant throwing a commuter train onto a tree, a limb breaking off, people were falling out of the train, there was the sound of a buzz saw somewhere, then an endless open road lay before him, a magnet pulling him down into the . . . the startling beeps of the alarm clock ended his surrealistic sleep. It was 6:00 am on Sunday morning. Will jumped up and quickly shut off the clock so as to not wake up his wife Jenny. He ran downstairs. He made some coffee, he let the dog out and then he came back upstairs to wake his kids and then his wife. They were leaving town for a few days of fun and rest.

The spontaneous family get away had come up the night before. Without a word to the contrary, Will consented and loaded the Suburban that night. At 6:30 the next morning they were on the road. Grade school had already started at the end of August; Labor Day had just past. Will and Jenny wanted to stretch out the vanishing summer days within their familiar stomping ground of Monroe County Wisconsin. It was the start of the second week in September and in Spring Green, Wisconsin fall had already made inroads into the forested landscape, withholding the chlorophyll from the veins of the idle leaves. The trees would soon stipple themselves with their own red, purple, orange-red and saffron yellow

Will’s thoughts converged onto Wisconsin Highway 151 and the never gathering horizon. He was anxious to get to Dodgeville. The kids were anxious, too. Food and bathrooms were required after the 3 hour drive from their home in Illinois. Highway 151 and blue sky lay open before them as they headed west toward the Mississippi river valley. On each side of the road, the land began to unfurl as a lumpy black and green carpet speckled by miniature fawn and white Guernsey cows. The field air held a pungent mixture of ammonia and loam. Intervallic road signs gauged their highway passage: DODGEVILLE 60 MILES. DODGEVILLE 46 MILES; DODGEVILLE 20 MILES; DODGEVILLE NEXT RIGHT; COURTHOUSE INN TURN LEFT ON 23 THEN TWO MILES; COURTHOUSE INN SUNDAY ALL-YOU-CAN-EAT BUFFET 11:00 AM to 2:00 PM.

The Courthouse Inn had their usual Sunday fixings. Will loved their fried chicken, the cornbread, the collard greens and the sweet tea. The kids picked from the salad bar and more so from the dessert bar. Jenny, his wife, ate two big bowls of chicken tortilla soup. The restaurant stop filled some things and emptied others. The net effect, Will hoped, would keep everyone quiet in the car until they reached Spring Green. After lunch, Will turned the car north on Wisconsin State Road 23 passing the brick store fronts lining the streets of Dodgeville. They all settled in for the ride to Spring Valley Inn, their final destination.

Will turned the radio on and set the tuner to a local weather forecast: “Par clou and war…” He kept adjusting the tuner buttons trying to hone in on the station. As he did he drove past a caravan of homemade signs parked along Wisconsin 23: Taxidermy, Fire wood, Ice, Live bait, Worms, Fireworks, Horse Rides, Mini Golf, Cold beer, Cheese, Wisconsin Cheese, Craft Shop, Antiques, Butter Burgers, Rafting, Canoeing, Camping, Tomatoes, Farmer’s Market, Sweet Corn. The AM radio never settled in on a clear signal. It continued to speak in raspy unintelligible tongues. The kids were getting fidgety in the back seat. Jenny reached over and shut off the garbled noise with an “Ah.”

Will turned to Jenny and queried “Do they have food at Spring Valley?” Jenny reached through her bag to find the internet page she had printed for the trip. “It says that they have some kind of restaurant, some Italian food and some fine wine.” Jenny told him. “That’ll be good for dinner. Italian food is comfort food to me. And, some red wine doesn’t hurt either.” Will responded. “Yeah, let’s get there. I’m ready to relax.” Jenny said as she laid her head back on the headrest.

Will leaned forward letting his forearms rest on the steering wheel as he pushed his foot forward on the accelerator. He listened to the kids reciting the road signs: “SPRING GREEN 60 MILES”; “How much more, dad?”; “GOVENOR DODGE STATE PARK NEXT RIGHT”, “Can we go camping there again dad? I want to go swimming in the lake.” “SPRING VALLEY INN THIS WAY”; “Are we almost there dad?” “FRANK LLOYD WRIGHT’S TAL..I.E.SIN, INTERSECTION OF HWY 23 AND COUNTY C”; “What’s that dad? Dad? Dad? Dad!!”; HOUSE ON THE ROCK RESORT, 20 MILES; “Is there a pool at the motel, dad?”, “Dad, I’m thirsty again.”; “Gotta go dad!” Will pushed down on the accelerator.

There were more signs: SPRING GREEN’S FARMERS MARKET AND CRAFT SHOW along State road 60 and HILLSIDE HOME SCHOOL BY FRANK LLOYD WRIGHT AT TALIESIN INTERSECTION OF HIGHWAY 23 AND COUNTY C. Will decided that Taliesin was in the wrong direction and he pointed the Suburban north and east onto County Road C. He drove past the House on the Rock Resort entrance. He drove along the southern edge of Tower Hill State Park. He followed the signs (“If you like Frank Lloyd Wright you’ll love Spring Valley Inn.”) towards Highway 14 and found Spring Valley Inn. It was 5:30 in the afternoon.

From the back seat Rachel and Ryan tumbled out and hit the parking lot running. Will headed for the check-in counter while Jenny surveyed the small lobby and the restaurant named Pat’s Place. Off in the hallway the kids found the vending machines. They came to Will at the check-in counter and tugged on his shirt, asking for some change. Found changed some money with the owner of the inn and then gave the kids a handful of nickels, dimes and quarters.

“They are not gonna eat dinner if you do that.” Jenny scolded Will. “Ah, it’s a vacation trip. They can have some fun. I’ll make sure they eat something good tonight.” Will assured Jenny as he grabbed the room pass keys from the counter. Jenny rolled her eyes in disapproval. On the way to the room they found the kids in the hallway, their mouths full of something chewy and purple. They were all happy to be out of the car walking around and the kids were especially happy to be in the proximity of some candy. “Before we go to the room let’s go look at the pool.” With dad’s invitation the kids twirled around and ran down the hall to the pool area.

The pool, located at the end of a long hallway in a spacious room, had large picture windows on three sides. The windows afforded a view of a dense 100 year old towering pine forest. Inside the pool area was a hot tub, a sauna, a steam room and plenty of lounge chairs. Will liked what he saw. The kids were ecstatic and Jenny was pleased with the chairs. There was no one in the pool or in the hallway. It looked like they had the place to themselves. “Let’s go back to our room and get ready to go swimming.” Will proposed. “We’ll eat supper later.” They found their room, unpacked their swimming trunks and headed back to the pool. After an hour and a half of swimming and the hot tub they went back to their room and dressed for supper. It was now 8:00 and they would have to hurry. The restaurant closed at 9:00.

Through a screened window near their seats in the small restaurant, the family could hear the lisping call of Cicada. They ordered Italian food. Will and Jenny drank some Italian Chianti. The meal did its magic and it settled their day into quiet reflections, some smiles and a lot of yawning. They went to their room and put the kids into their shared bed. Will and Jenny watched a movie, Die Hard With a Vengeance. Will fell asleep before Bruce Willis’s McClane could save anything.

Monday was spent swimming, eating and touring the surrounding area. They drove to the state park where there was sign posted: Canoeing, Tubing, Kayaking or Camping – Tower Hill State Park along the Wisconsin River area was MADE FOR YOU. They spent the afternoon at the Spring Green Craft Show and Farmer’s Market. They ate more Italian food before bed and settled in for a second night. The movie that night was a recent release of Pearl Harbor.

In the morning, Will pulled the drapes open. Tuesday morning looked wet and dismal. The kids slowly got out of bed and began eating from their little boxes of cereal. Will went down the hall to Pat’s Place and bought some blueberry muffins and some coffee. He brought them back to their room. After breakfast they all decided to head down to the pool. They would swim until the sun came out later in the day, as forecast.

Will played with Rachel and Ryan, chasing them through the pool and making them squeal. After some time, Will told Jenny that he would check out the steam room. They had the pool area to themselves that Tuesday morning. Will went to the steam room and started the steamer. He waited in the hot tub until he could see the steam completely fogging the window of the little glass room. He got out of the hot tub and went through the tiled room entrance to the steam room. As he did, he stepped on a slippery spot near the floor drain. His right leg went straight sideways to the right and his left leg went the other direction. He landed on the floor, wrenching in pain. He had pulled a groin muscle down his right leg. The pain was tremendous. He gathered himself up by holding to a railing nearby. He could barely walk. He rubbed his leg and hobbled over to the door. He called to Jenny. “I just slipped on this floor and really pulled my leg muscle. It really, really hurts.” “Ouch. Are you gonna be OK? Jenny yelled. “I think I need to wait and see. It hurts like crazy. I’m gonna sit in the steam room and rub the muscle and see if that helps.” He turned as he was speaking and, holding the hand rail slowly, walked to the steam room and went in. The intense steam made the air sweltering hot. Sweat dripped down from Will’s head; rivulets of moisture moved down his frame toward the floor. After fifteen minutes he left the room carefully, limping as he went. He made his way over to the pool, sat down and slowly eased into the cool water. His right leg hurt more than wanted to admit. They were there to have fun and he didn’t want to spoil that time for his family.

After an hour, Will and Jenny and the kids returned to their room. Will switched on the TV set while he helped the kids with their wet swimsuits. Onto the screen in the dark room came a stark outline of New York City: the Statue of Liberty holding its torch above two smoking towers. A tremulous voice, full of shock, spoke uneasy words. The reporter scrambled for phrases to describe the horrors he did not understand. With the announcement of the deaths of hundreds of people, the word terrorist had become alive.

Will kept watching the TV in shock. President Bush was about to speak to an elementary school in Florida – someone’s whispering to the President. Unflagging, the president now heard what no American had ever wanted to hear. Will looked for a tell-tale sign of terror in the etched lines of the President’s subdued and controlled face. He saw the piercing of the American armor – her good nature. The disposition of America changed from confident and trusting to one of grief and fear and of a newly found anger.

Terrorism. A word that seemed so foreign to Will’s midwestern mindset was now close to home. Why here in the U.S.? He wondered why anyone would hate so much so as to kill innocent people. What were they thinking? What can you gain by shedding innocent blood? Did the terrorists really think that they could frighten us with their acts of mindless valor? Box cutters? Innocent people: Twin towers of innocent people; four airplanes of innocent people. Two-thousand nine hundred seventy-four innocent people. It was a mass murder Crusade, a death wish without liberty and justice for all who were murdered. Did they think that we, the American people, could be brought to our knees with their cowardly acts of terror in our own homeland?

“Dad, what’s happening?” “Why, dad?” Will didn’t answer. His blank stare revealed his unspeakable response:

America does not beget terrorists. America begets free people, people who freely give to other nations of their money, their time, their trade and their friendship. America is not a perfect nation with perfect people. It is a nation of free will, free choice, free speech and, at one time, of personal responsibility. A nation where people like American film director Robert Altman can say without fear of reprisals “When I see an American flag flying, it’s a joke.” It is also a nation of patriots that says, “Give me liberty or give me death.” To which these terrorists respond “we give them death”. By any measure, America did not deserve this Kamikaze death wish by ‘wannabe’ martyrs who knew nothing of the lives of the blameless people they would destroy. What kind of mad-hoc country or religion is it that begets citizens and then hijacks their souls causing them to eagerly say, “I wish to die and embrace martyrdom”? Then, they kill themselves along with hundreds of innocent people: “Don’t you know, you citizens of America that we terrorists kill only infidels and not infants, freedoms and not families, persons and not people? Thank Allah for being so kind-hearted.” Did Allah bring these terrorists to their knees for this? Maybe Allah knows that the dead no longer have a free will. The dead no longer struggle in the ways of God.

The television reports continued. Will listened clenching his right leg which was throbbing with pain. He couldn’t believe the devastation to the World Trade Twin Towers. He couldn’t understand our own country’s exposure to these terrorists. He had no words other than, “My God.” After getting dressed and packing up their stuff, Will went to the front desk to check out while his family loaded the Suburban. The sky had cleared but Will was downcast and driven. He had never imagined anything, anything like this. He just wanted to get his family safely home before something else happened.

Will drove them home. He drove past Taliesin. He drove past the House On the Rock. He drove past Governor Dodge State Park, past Dodgeville, past the Hill of the Mounds, past Madison, past Janesville. He drove through the fertile dairy lands of Wisconsin into the astringent, business-like land of Lincoln, through the bunched car reservoirs of toll gates and onto Route 59 straight south and home. He drove on, his pained right leg pressing his right foot which was pressing the accelerator, not saying a word until he reached their street: “We’re home.”

He pulled into the driveway and stopped short at the edge of the sidewalk. Before him lay a wind snapped maple tree. It was wedged across the driveway, its top branches having struck a shard path into the house through the dining room window. Jenny said, “Oh, my god!” She jumped out of the car, grabbed the mail and the plastic bog of newspapers and headed inside to call her family. Rachel and Ryan scooted out the car’s back door and went down the street looking for their friends. Will, now alone, looked out the windshield at the fallen tree and then looked into the rear view mirror at the car load of clothes, toys, books and stuff. He got out of the driver’s side and looked at the sun descending behind the garage. It would be dark soon.

That night Will finished clearing the tree and the car after midnight. Jenny and the kids were already tucked in and sleeping soundly. He stood on the back porch, looking out through the black screen. He listened to the sound of night in his neighborhood: the distant come-and-go commuter; the dog, Oliver, being let out next door; the cricket’s see-saw chirps; the garish sound of a carnival somewhere in town and the gush of a prayer he heard himself mutter. He was exhausted. He locked the doors, shut off the lights and headed upstairs. He lay down on his familiar bed and turned his head into the pillow. His mind accelerated through the rolling pastureland and up to the tree-blocked driveway, he saw again the smoking towers and the black and blue swath left on his leg by the pulled groin muscle. He heard again the unsure voices of stunned reporters describing the “Attack” and the “terrorists” and the simple voices of his children still asking “How much longer, daddy?” He fell into a fitful sleep, into a deciduous dream: he saw the east coast and the Statue of Liberty; he saw the west coast and a house built on a cliff. The house fell onto the sand and was swept into the ocean; he knew the name of the house: “Responsibility”; a verdigris arm holding a torch above two smoking steel matches, a shiny nickel rolling out from between two narrow buildings; words, “In God We Trust” embossing a black and blue sky, a news reporter announcing that cows have died on hills, the land under them ebbing from spilled acid, an edge of a puzzle missing; a die cut shape. A great vacuous silence awoke him at 5:01. He opened his eyes. The dream vanished in a second. He slowly pulled himself out of bed, carefully moving his right leg out of the bed covers. He gradually stood up. He went to the kitchen and made some coffee. He took a shower, got dressed and then left for work. He didn’t know what the day had in store for him. He only knew that in the land of the free and the home of the brave he would raise his two children to love what is good and to stand firm against the crushing blows of evil.

© Sally Paradise, 2010, All Rights Reserved