We made every mistake a city person could make. Plants we cultivated with great care died like flies, while those we loathed grew lush and tall. One experiment after another – a prairie, a pond, new trees, a garden – ended in failure, some with dizzying speed. Despite our best intentions, every fiasco seemed to confirm the inborn ignorance of the average urbanite. Wisconsin may be celebrated for its abundance of green thumbs, but ours were the color of coal.
Although our attempts at farming were eminently forgettable, their setting was, in a word, gorgeous: a 30-acre valley in the heart of southwestern Wisconsin’s Driftless Area, not far from Gays Mills. Draped across 15,000 scenic square miles, the Driftless was an ice-free island during the advance of the last glacier, preserving an ancient landscape that has more in common with Kentucky or Arkansas than the rest of Wisconsin. Here are the Badger State’s Ozarks, a land of steep valleys (coulees, in the local parlance), dense hardwood forests, and world-class trout streams.
The Driftless Area was a magnet for young people in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Burned out by the tumult of the Vietnam era and turned off by the polluted air and seething unrest of America’s cities, they flocked to the countryside by the thousands, hoping to find peace – and a refuge from authority – that eluded them in larger population centers. The Driftless, with its dramatic hills and thousands of small, affordable farms, was a natural destination. The coulee two creeks south of our eventual property featured a cluster of rough-hewn homes and teepees known locally as Hippie Hollow.
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I was bitten by the same back-to-the-land bug as many of my peers, but my longing rose from much deeper roots. My mother was born Clare Johnson on a Driftless farm high above Coon Valley, a small Norwegian enclave that has since become an exurb of La Crosse. Like all but one of her six siblings, Mom left the farm in her late teens, but her view of rural life grew more romantic as she aged, and her pride in her Norwegian heritage bordered on chauvinism. To the end of her days, even after living in Milwaukee for a half-century, “home” was rural, Norwegian Coon Valley.
I was raised in Milwaukee, but we made annual summer excursions to La Crosse, where most of the Johnsons eventually settled. Every trip included a visit to the only farm still in my family at the time, a small dairy operation just south of Coon Valley run by my Uncle Laurence and his wife Julia, an ample woman of excellent humor known universally as Jake. At family reunions, my cousins and I would climb high up into the haymow and swing from a rope onto the loose alfalfa below – a thrill I paid for with allergic welts on my bare arms and legs. We ate watermelon and drank soda cooled in the same spring-fed tank as Laurence’s milk cans, and he always took us on a hayride to his ridge field and back. I envied the cousins who got to stay with Laurence and Jake for weeks every summer, but they were grandchildren and I was only a nephew.
Even as a young child, I developed a deep affection for my hardy, handsome Norwegian relatives, especially those who were still on the farm. Because my mother was one of the youngest in her family and Laurence was one of the oldest, his five sons were more like uncles to me than first cousins. They farmed, fished, hunted and were at ease driving both tractors and grain trucks.
What a contrast with my soft-handed Milwaukee brood! My Polish relatives exuded an earthiness of their own, but their ties to the actual land were limited to backyard tomato gardens. My father, a self-employed sales engineer, dug up a can of worms every summer in preparation for fishing trips. He always found something else to do, and the worms ended up rotting after the first rain. That was the malodorous extent of his outdoor activities.
Milwaukee was my hometown and would become the focus of my career, but a few years out of college, I decided to reclaim my rural heritage. I have always thought of myself as a bicoastal Wisconsinite, raised on the shores of Lake Michigan but born with an affinity for the coulee country along the Mississippi River. So I went looking for land in the Driftless – ready, I thought, to close the gap between my coasts and renew an old family tradition.
On more than one of my land-looking trips, I stayed with Laurence and Jake, sleeping in an unused upstairs bedroom and showering in the basement, where the thick limestone walls breathed a permanent coolness. When I went up for the night, I could hear my aunt and uncle speaking softly in Norwegian through the open door of the bedroom they shared at the foot of the stairs.
I considered several properties over the course of a year or two. One near Readstown was all slope, with a narrow terrace at its base and a cave entrance at the very top. Another outside Viola was a mature woods without a single place flat enough to pitch a tent. There was a flood-prone 40 near Soldiers Grove and a perfectly level parcel on the Wisconsin River west of Avoca, but all of the prospects proved resistible.
Then I saw it.
A Gays Mills real estate agent, himself a refugee from Milwaukee, took me three miles up Sand Creek Road from the tiny hamlet of Bell Center to a tributary valley just wide enough to support a few tillable acres and steep enough to embody the essence of the Driftless. A small, ice-cold stream gurgled through, and there were even two springs on the property. My girlfriend, Sonja, who would later sign onto the deed as my wife, saw it with me, and we were both smitten. When we first visited the land early in the summer of 1975, it was a perfect park, covered with thousands of daisies swaying gently in the Crawford County breeze.
It was love at first sight, but I couldn’t begin to afford the place. The seller was a local farmer’s widow, Ruth McDonald, who was asking $16,000 for a 30-acre cross-section of the valley – about $90,000 in today’s dollars. Old McDonald’s farm was well beyond my reach. Fortunately, a high school friend, Mike Grimmer, was looking for land at the same time, and he agreed to join me. Even after pooling all our cash, it took us four years to pay off the remaining $4,000 on a land contract with the McDonald family.
The papers were signed on Sept. 22, 1975, beginning a tenure that would last for more than 30 years. We called our new place simply “the land,” not in some shaggy-
haired attempt to channel Aldo Leopold but because we didn’t know what else to name it. “The farm” would have been a wild exaggeration and “the cabin” just as big a stretch. My fellow regulars at Big John’s Tap on South 12th Street insisted that our place was “up north,” even though it was nearly due west of Milwaukee. “Sand Creek” might have served, but we settled almost unconsciously on “the land.”
We drove out to the land every two or three weeks at first: Sonja and I together, or with Mike Grimmer, or with a shifting constellation of family and friends. We relished the irony of traveling from a 30-foot lot in the crowded city to 30 acres in the thinly settled countryside, where the nearest neighbor was a quarter-mile away. The three-and-a-half-hour trip itself became a repeatable pleasure, especially its latter half. Somewhere on the far side of Madison, we turned our backs on the predictable highway network of eastern Wisconsin, a grid as rigidly geometric as a chessboard, and eased into the sinuous curves of the Driftless Area, swinging back and forth across one valley after another and climbing ridges between the streambeds. The towns on our route were cartographic poetry, a hundred-mile haiku: Cross Plains, Black Earth, Spring Green, Lone Rock, Richland Center, Boaz, Soldiers Grove and, near the end of our journey, Rolling Ground. Each name told a story, and together they evoked a sense of place as rich as anything you’d find in New England.
From Rolling Ground, we slalomed between the apple orchards on Highway 171 and dropped down Sand Creek Road to our 30 acres of prospective paradise. There was always something to do once we arrived.
A house had been the last thing on our minds – our dreams extended no farther than tents – but we had inherited the ruins of a small farmhouse perched above the creek. The original structure was beyond repair, its floor rotted and its roof collapsed, but a little two-story addition was more or less salvageable. The McDonalds pastured beef cattle on the land, and one or more calves had found their way into the addition; there were cowpies on the floor and generous smears of manure on the walls.
We tore down the original house, burned the remains and cleaned up the annex as best we could, furnishing it with castoffs from local rummage sales: old rugs, an old fold-out couch, and a couple of old spring beds that we hauled upstairs. The resident mice couldn’t have been happier with their new supply of nesting material.
Having a roof over our heads seemed the height of luxury, even if it leaked, but our higher priority was the land itself. The first task was to evict the McDonalds’ cows, a job we volunteered to do ourselves. There were no more than 15 or 20 in the herd, but they trampled the streambanks, left their deposits everywhere, and threatened our long list of planned improvements. With the help of a generous neighbor, Bill Hutchison, we strung a barbed-wire fence across our western boundary and left one section down while we herded these alarmingly large animals across to the McDonalds’ side of the line.
I remember the exhilarating feeling of freedom after we had chased out the last cow and closed the fence. Now, at last, we’d have this perfect park to ourselves, without erosion, manure or unsightly paths carved into the hillsides. The land, we thought, was ours to mold at will. Well, think again. The cows, it turned out, had been the bovine equivalent of fire. With a few exceptions, notably thistle, prickly ash and daisies, they ate anything green, keeping the brush at bay. Our “park’” existed only because it was a pasture. When the cows left, it was party time for all manner of plants – native and alien.
We didn’t realize that at first. With heroic effort, we removed a thick layer of tenacious sod from a 30-by-30-foot plot near the house, exposing a sandy loam that seemed perfect for gardening. It was soon sprouting orderly rows of annual vegetables, with plenty of room for perennials like asparagus and strawberries. Then we planted trees at strategic points all over the land, both larger specimens scavenged from the pastures of friendly neighbors and more than a thousand seedlings – sugar maple, white cedar, white pine – purchased from the state nursery in nearby Boscobel. We didn’t stop at trees. Mike and I decided that the flattest part of our valley – two or three acres along the creek – would be a perfect place for a prairie. Using a tractor borrowed from a back-to-the-lander up the road, we inexpertly plowed the bottomland and hand-sowed bags of prairie grasses – big bluestem, Indian grass, switchgrass – intermixed with flower seeds supplied by our friend and co-conspirator, naturalist Richard Barloga.
This was all hard labor accomplished over a span of three or four years with the naive confidence of the typical neophyte. Eagerly, expectantly, we waited to see the fruits of all that work, but our only harvest was disappointment.
What we hadn’t reckoned with was the awful fecundity of nature. Our valley had been a forest for thousands of years before the advent of white settlement, and it was trying with all its might to become a forest again. There was nothing explosive about the transformation, but season by season, seed by seed, a tide of green edged inward from the surrounding woods to engulf our 30 acres. The garden was the first to go. Removing the sod was like opening a wound that quickly became infected; weeds and weed trees poured in like germs with leaves. Next went the native trees we’d so painstakingly planted. With few exceptions, they succumbed to the green tide before they’d grown tall enough to resist the advancing shade.
Our prairie’s demise was the most spectacular. The bottomland was flat because it flooded; we experienced periodic deluges heavy enough to fill the valley and powerful enough to carry away downed trees. High water was always frightening, but it was hardly unnatural. The Driftless Area was born as a geological parfait of ancient seafloors, hardened to layers of limestone and sandstone that lay obligingly flat for eons, allowing streams to carve the landscape, flood after flood, into the dendritic pattern so boldly visible from the air today: a topographic still life resembling fallen oak leaves, with prominent veins in the valleys and deep, regular lobes in the ridges above. However normal it may have been, the periodic excess of water drowned our more tender prairie plants and deposited seeds that outcompeted the grasses.
Hoping to regain a semblance of control, we introduced fire, a standard prairie maintenance tool. Our first prescribed burn proceeded without incident, but the second attempt, during a dry spell in the spring of 1980, was a disaster that earned prominent notice in the weekly Crawford County Independent. The fire quickly burned out of control, resulting in 130 charred acres, a hefty fine and the end of our prairie experiment.
The green tide continued to rise despite flood and fire. We were stunned witnesses to the remarkable spectacle of plant succession. Sun-loving, short-lived pioneer species cascaded down the hillsides on the first wave, plants like box elder, staghorn sumac, black raspberry and prickly ash. The raspberries formed thickets big enough to snare a Holstein, and prickly ash regularly drew our blood and ripped our clothes, but box elder was our greatest nemesis. As we tried to control this poor cousin of the maple family, we felt like Mickey Mouse as the Sorcerer’s Apprentice. For every sapling we cut down, five more would sprout. Only poison, used with reluctance, could slow the infestation. But we also glimpsed the end of the process. Within the expanding shade came violets, meadow rue, hepatica, maidenhair fern and dozens of other forest plants, interspersed with seedlings of the maples and basswoods that represented the climax stage of this particular ecosystem.
Like settlers besieged and outnumbered on a hostile frontier, we fought a holding action. My first task whenever we visited the land during the warmer months was to laboriously cut the grass and seedlings around the house, using a gas-powered push mower. (We couldn’t afford the riding variety.) In the end, it was all we could do to hold the forest at bay and keep even a single acre open.
We had plenty of other sobering encounters with reality at the land. Summers can be punishingly hot in Driftless valleys. As pretty as it was, our creek was too cold and too shallow to offer much relief, and so we hired a low-bid excavator to dig a pond in our former prairie. The result was a shallow depression with muddy banks, scum-covered water and approximately a thousand toads.
The house, too, had its shortcomings. Regardless of how many traps we set, there was a fresh supply of mouse droppings every time we came out. Clouds of cluster flies buzzed crazily against the windows each spring, and a sloughed skin gave evidence of a rat snake who apparently lived part-time in our kitchen cupboard. We typically came out on Friday afternoons. By the time we left on Sunday evening, the place was almost habitable.
Mike was the first to bail. The ride from Milwaukee seemed to get longer and the prospects more limited as the years passed. In 1992, our longtime partner let us know that he wanted out. We divided the land equally and amicably, and Mike sold his half to a young family who built a cozy log cabin perhaps a hundred yards upstream from our shack. They proved to be good neighbors, but the valley was so overgrown by then that we barely noticed their presence.
Sonja and I, in the meantime, had been raising kids – three born in less than five years. The land was a magical place for them as children. They dammed the creek with stones, played house in the streamside willows, climbed the larger trees and collected toads from our failed pond. When they were old enough, we let the kids walk on their own to the tumbledown springhouse at the entrance to our valley, stopping to sip nectar from the columbines that bloomed so luxuriantly along the gravel road.
Our children absorbed firsthand the lessons of nature, but they also experienced what life had been like for their Norwegian ancestors just 40 miles away in Coon Valley. We lived like pioneers at the land, or at least like pioneers with a car in the driveway. We heated with wood, read by the light of kerosene lamps, hauled water from a spring, washed up with a basin and pitcher, and used a vintage two-hole outhouse. With the creek burbling below and the hills rising above, we were confident that our outhouse had the best view of any in Wisconsin, or at least Crawford County.
Our young family enjoyed perhaps 10 good years at the land, but all too soon, soccer, swim, dance and the lure of friends tied our kids, and therefore us, more and more tightly to the city. Our visits became less frequent and the workload more daunting every time we went out. The forest advanced, the house decayed, and in the end, we lacked both the will and the cash to deal with either. By the time our kids entered high school, we were going out to the land only once or twice a year. In 2007, after making the most necessary repairs, Sonja and I sold the property to a couple from Springfield, Illinois, to whom Crawford County really was up north.
Underfinanced, underequipped and underexperienced, we were ultimately overwhelmed by the demands of the land. Do I regret buying it? Not for an instant. Despite our many missteps, for decades we had clear title to a prime corner of a uniquely beautiful landscape. With each visit, we were immersed in the fullness of the Driftless Area, feeling in our bones the up and the down of it, the breadth and the depth of it. We grew to appreciate what many consider the region’s spiritual dimension. It’s not a wilderness, but its wooded hillsides preserve a wildness long gone from flatter sections of Wisconsin, and its valleys are intimate by nature; each is a high-walled sanctuary offering refuge from the incursions of the larger world. It’s no wonder that so many seekers have found homes in the Driftless. If you’re looking for life at the small scale, few regions compare. For Sonja and me, there were plenty of nights, with the kids asleep and the day’s work behind us, when we couldn’t imagine being anywhere else.
In the end, we did leave Sand Creek Road, but our desire for a rural retreat persisted. During the years we owned the land, we had been opening a third coast in our lives: Lake Superior. Every August, when Driftless valleys baked in the sun, our family went camping on the shores of the big lake, generally between the Porcupine Mountains of Upper Michigan and the rocky coastline of northern Ontario. We eventually bought five sandy acres east of the Porkies and in 2007, using proceeds from the sale of the land, built a small house artfully designed by my brother Paul.
The contrasts between Sand Creek Road and Bear Creek Drive could hardly be greater. We have hemlocks and pines up north instead of sugar maples and basswoods, bears instead of beef cows, and we have traded the intimacy of the Driftless for the majesty of Lake Superior. There are trade-offs, of course. The journey north takes six hours, and the mosquitoes can be frightful, but there are no box elders, the summers are cool, and our “pond” sprawls all the way to Canada.
The two places are markedly different, and so, in our later years, are we. Sonja and I came north with hard-won knowledge of the limits of human ambition for any piece of land. We had the youthful delusion that we were masters on Sand Creek, but we come to Bear Creek more as guests, aware that our presence is barely momentary in a landscape older than we can imagine. And so we leave the forest to its own ancient devices and plant nothing; wild blueberries, we’ve decided, are enough. What we’ve developed is humility, an especially useful virtue on the shores of an inland sea whose waves can create or erase miles of beach in a single storm.
For all their contrasts, a deep continuity runs between Sand Creek and Bear Creek. They are different chapters in the same story: our family’s story, a chronicle so common in Wisconsin. Whether up north, out west or somewhere in the middle, there are hundreds of thousands of these places apart, outposts of the natural world far removed from the insistent demands of civilization. These privileged properties are where we welcome friends and renew the timeless ties of family – in our case, for nearly 50 years now. When we furnished the house on Bear Creek, we made sure to include two humble reminders of our shack on Sand Creek: an old lamp and a weathered table. They are touchstones of memory that connect, across the years, across the miles, our own green constants in a world of constant change.
John Gurda is the author of 23 books as well as our monthly Historic Milwaukee column.