Into the Driftless

Sometimes I wish I were more of a landscape artist. This realization hit home again last week on a whimsical, spur-of-the-moment trip into my distant past to the Mississippi  River town of Dubuque, situated squarely in the midst of the “Driftless,” characterized by vast stretches of the deep valleys and rolling hills offering rather poetic vistas.

Ah, that distant past. Back then, back in the late 1960s, I didn’t realize the beautiful hill country around Dubuque was called the “Driftless.” I had no reason to know of it’s official geologic name, the Paleozoic Plateau. Back then the streams and rivers ran clear, and the hilltops were graced with fenced-in, lazily grazing cattle. The woods, with a smattering of leaves sparkling in autumn sunshine, hadn’t yet been carved into suburbia. Back then the town itself featured a riverscape that was as gray as it was abandoned.


The formation of the Paleozoic Plateau, more commonly known as the “Driftless.”

That riverscape now features river-respected parks and modern architecture. Colorful and artistic murals grace many of the old, repurposed buildings. Even back then there was a staunch civic pride, a pride that seems even more proudly pronounced now. Yet, the geography and natural history surrounding the Mississippi River valley dominates the landscape as it always has.

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Sometimes the colors were more muted, as in this fog-scape along the Mississippi River.

Long since moving from Dubuque, and thanks to the lessons on the natural history of the north since moving to Minnesota and earning the badge of a Minnesota Master Naturalist, I’ve learned more about the effects glaciers have had on the landscape. Both in the Driftless and in the former prairie pothole region of Minnesota.

Ah, but the Driftless. For whatever reason this area of northeastern Iowa, northwestern Illinois, southeastern Minnesota and western Wisconsin … a geographically composed raindrop to a satellite image … escaped the icy blanket. The Des Moines lobe skirted off to the west while the Green Bay lobe deposited its till off to the east, leaving these hills and valleys as graceful as can be found in nature some 12,000 years later.

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For whatever reason I can’t lay aside my lenses, nor ignore the odd imagery that catches my eye

Now those hills, as far as you can see from the many strategic lookouts, are covered with ripened corn. We were told the streams are not quite as clear, and fencing is no more. And, my old apartment building? Eleven oh eight Locust? And, Dubuque itself? Like in the adjacent hills, all has changed as should be expected after some 50 years and counting.

This recognition of this change occurred this past week when my companion, Mary Gafkjen, and I ventured downriver to Dubuque to visit long-lost friends, Michael Muir, John Buckley and Tom Syke. John and I had worked together at the Telegraph Herald in 1968-69 before I moved west to work for the Denver Post. Michael, Tom and John were schoolmates and best friends, and it was through John that I met the others. Our visit included a brief stop at Syke’s Galena area woody valley where we had hoped to see the latest batch of pottery be pulled from his wood-fired kiln. We were a couple of days early, it turned out.

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Yes, there was some color … especially with burr oak.

Our reconnection began after a conversation between this trio of old friends was sparked by the transformation of my first apartment in Dubuque into a boutique burger bar. Michael “googled” my name and asked if I was the writer and photographer they had known back then. We’ve all since gone as gray as those old abandoned buildings of the past. Syke is still quite the character, terminology I suspect that fits each of us. Buckley left his reporting behind to become an attorney, and Michael worked his way up the education and career scale to become an important cog in the Dubuque banking business. In those 50 years we’ve all survived and even thrived in our respective careers.

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The bluffs along the Mississippi offered protection for the colorful autumn leaves.

Fortunately we drove along the river road from Hastings south to Prairie du Chien before cutting across the river to angle through Iowa to Durango outside of Dubuque. Along the river the bluffs had protected the leaves to preserve some color. Out in the open hill country, harsh October winds had blown away most of the colorful leaves as they have here in the former prairie. Even in Michael’s “Muir Woods” the trees were mostly barren. No, his “Muir Woods” are not the gigantic redwoods of his family’s heritage namesake, made up of hickory, maple and cedar instead.

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Even in Michael’s “Muir Woods” the trees were mostly barren.

It was here in Michael’s woods I played with light and leaves, although there was a little of that in our drive south along the river. For whatever reason I can’t lay aside my lenses, nor ignore the odd imagery that catches my eye. Not even in the Muir Woods found deep in the Driftless.

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About John G. White

Somewhat retired after a long award-winning career in newspapers (Wisconsin State Journal, Dubuque Telegraph-Herald, Denver Post and a country weekly, the Clara City Herald). Free lance photographer and writer with credits in more than 70 magazines. Editor with various Webb Publishing magazines in St. Paul, and a five year stint as editorial director at Miller Meester Advertising.

1 thought on “Into the Driftless

  1. Pingback: Into the Driftless | Listening Stones Farm

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