A riverboat cruises down the Mississippi River near Wyalusing State Park on Saturday. All photos by Kevin Lynch, unless otherwise indicated.
For decades I’ve aimed to pursue and embrace the golden and crimson passages of autumn in my native state of Wisconsin. This year, my gal pal Ann Peterson and I recollected rich experiences we’ve each had at Wyalusing State Park in the too-distant past. So we were determined to get there again. The nature preserve hugs the curves of The Mississippi River in the Southwestern corner of the state. The park grounds are largely perched high atop bluffs overlooking the mighty river, affording some spectacular views, camp sites and bracing hiking paths winding along the sides of hills and bluffs.
We made the town of Viroqua our base of operation this last weekend. This park and town dwell about an hour apart by car, in the depths of the Heartland, or the so-called Driftless region.
Viroqua also attracted us because it seem to have a strong cultural identity. We wanted to visit Driftless Books and Music, which claims to have the “possibly” the largest collection of used books in the state and a fairly steady roster of live performance events. Viroqua also has an apparently vibrant downtown performing arts venue, The Temple Theater.
Driftless Books appeared to live up to its claims. I’ve visited most used booksellers in Madison and Milwaukee and, in my estimation, Driftless Books is somewhat comparable in size to the largest state bookstore I’ve encountered, Renaissance Books in downtown Milwaukee — which closed down some years ago.
The Viroqua store describes its history briefly on its website, which helps explains its prodigious size:
“Driftless Books & Music began in 2004 with the purchase of Connecticut bookseller Robert Shui’s Torrington CT warehouse. That was our first 100,000 books — since then we have purchased 7 used bookstores in 5 states. The building hosts half a million books and pieces of related media.
“In 2009 we moved into the Viroqua Tobacco Warehouse in Viroqua WI, where we’ve lived ever since. We have had hundreds of events in the 7 years we have been here — and we look forward to more great future events.”
Your blogger begins his visit to Driftless Books and Music in Viroqua.
This mural outside Driftless Books expresses the store’s sense of the “nutritional value” of books. This photo and the above photo by Ann Peterson
The store has two floors of books and, besides the live performance space, there’s a recording studio on the second floor. Driftless Books and Music produces and sells music by local and regional artists. Sure enough, I found recent recordings by two of my favorite regional performing artists: Fort Atkinson singer-songwriter Bill Camplin, and Milwaukee folk-jazz singer-songwriter-pianist Anthony Deutsch, who performs and records original songs under the guise of Father Sky. Paintings and sculpture by regional artists colorfully populate the store as well.
Above are two sculptures, by regional artists, that inhabit and enliven Driftless Books and Music in Viroqua, along with an ancient printing press (above, left) from the 19th century.
The range of book subject categories represented also impressed me. I found several books in an area of my interest, American studies. One was The Early Lives of Herman Melville by Merton Sealts Jr., signed by the author, a noted scholar of Melville who worked at University of Wisconsin-Madison for many years. I also found paperback copies of James Baldwin’s acclaimed novel Another Country, and Walt Whitman’s Specimen Days, a rare collection of the celebrated poet’s prose from the Civil War period and his latter years. Ann found used copies of novels by noted authors Barbara Kingsolver, Joyce Carol Oates, and Jane Smiley.
In other words, we recommend Driftless Books for a vast treasure trove of reasonably priced and rare volumes and collectibles. Here’s a link to the store’s website:
We also shopped in the Viroqua Food Co-op. which proved to be one of the largest and most impressively stocked grocery stores of natural and organic foods that I know of in the state, another reason to visit this area. We also enjoyed coffee and latte at the Kickapoo Coffeemakers on Main Street.
But Saturday morning we were off to Wyalusing State Park, due south of Viroqua. It was an uncommonly chilly and overcast morning starting in the upper 30s. But by the time we entered the park the sun had emerged and, within the forest, we felt sheltered from the wind.
The Mississippi River was extremely high, so that many of the shoreline trees below had partially immersed trunks, which made for a striking visual effect, as the photos included here suggest. The ecologically rich upper Mississippi region of undeveloped forest and waterways is home to the largest array of migratory and settling birds in the United States. A hike down and back up one of the park’s steep trails got our hearts pumping a-plenty.
We also encountered a small stone monument commemorating that what is now Wyalusing was the location where the famous Jesuit priest and explorer Jacques Marquette reached and entered the Mississippi River, in his historic exploration of America in 1673. The French missionary was the first European to discover and map the Mississippi River. Marquette and his party returned to the Illinois Territory in late 1674, becoming the first Europeans to winter in what would become the city of Chicago. Marquette also founded Michigan’s first European settlement.
Our road back home took us along Highway 60, which runs along the Wisconsin River for quite a long distance. That highway intersects at Boscobel with north-south Hwy. 61, which runs all the way down to New Orleans, and was immortalized by Bob Dylan in his iconic album Highway 61 Revisited.
But Highway 60 in Wisconsin is a waterway habitation setting that led us to a felicitous encounter when we noticed a rare sight: a bald eagle sitting on the ground, not far from the highway. The raptor was feasting on a squirrel, it appeared, which kept the bird at the location long enough for me to take a photo of this majestic creature. It was a fine image and memory for us to cap off our trip into the magnificent driftless region of Wisconsin.
I recommend you take your own adventure into southwestern Wisconsin, and right now is still a prime time of the year to enjoy this special realm of nature’s splendor.