Photo by Jerry Quebe
Wisconsin's Driftless Area
Farms give way to rugged river valleys in Wisconsin’s Driftless Area.
On a map, the Driftless Area—a 24,000-square-mile geologic zone contained mostly in Wisconsin—looks like Cyrano de Bergerac in profile. The patch east of Highway 39 and the Dells stands in for his epic schnoz, while a curved stretch of Highway 12 suggests one of those poofy hats worn during the Renaissance. Of course, this rugged land with the cryptic-sounding name predates the French writer and U.S. maps by eons. The name refers to the lack of “drift”—silt, rock, and other detritus—left behind by glaciers during the Ice Age.
Somehow, this expanse managed to avoid the great frozen slabs that flattened much of the Midwest. David Rhodes described it in his 2008 novel Driftless: “Singularly unrefined, it endured in its hilly, primitive form, untouched by the shaping hands of those cold giants.”
Rhodes isn’t the first to find poetry in the Driftless Area’s river valleys and limestone outcroppings. Its most famous fan was, and remains, Frank Lloyd Wright. Born in the small southern Wisconsin town of Richland Center, Wright returned to the area after conquering the world to build the first of three iconic “Taliesin” homes in Spring Green, 37 miles west of Madison. Today, architecture and geology buffs flock to the town—the former to pay respects to the master, the latter to bow before a place out of place, an exotic oddity bounded by flat farmland and other typical Midwestern backdrops. I’d like to say I ended up in Spring Green for either of the above reasons, but I wound up there on a whim.
I initially headed to Wisconsin to buy a Honda Odyssey from my aunt in Madison. I’m in the minivan phase of parenting—I have a 6-year-old daughter and a 2-year-old frat boy disguised as a toddler—and I couldn’t be happier. Really. Contrary to popular belief, minivans are cool. They’re basically small, luxurious buses that can hold half your personal possessions, plus a few dirty kids and stressed-out adults. Who wouldn’t want that? So I hitched a ride to Madison with my nice-guy brother-in-law, procured the Odyssey, and was ready to turn around and head home in my new dream machine.
But as I talked to my aunt—a former University of Wisconsin-Madison drama prof whose persuasiveness borders on theatrical—I became convinced I should stop in Spring Green. She extolled the town’s charms: Arcadia bookstore, a theater company that performs in an outdoor amphitheater. . . . Before long, I was sold.
You want local flavor? Uplands Cheese Company has lots of it.
Photo Courtesy of Uplands Cheese Company
The Odyssey and I headed west on Highway 14, and the rolling bluffs of the Driftless Area appeared, looking unnaturally green in the summer sun, almost like a junior version of Michigan’s Porcupine Mountains. The Honda, by the way, ran great—purring like a very large, very practical cat, and its factory stereo system did a nice job picking up Steely Dan’s studio wonkery.
I pulled into Spring Green in midafternoon, with Donald Fagen singing cheerfully about a pervert—good old Steely Dan. It looked like a typical small American town, with modest bungalows lining residential streets and old brick buildings in the business district. But I discovered a funky, soulful burg that thrives due to its proximity to Madison and deep history with art and architecture.
I parked downtown with no particular plan in mind, and walked along tumbleweed-quiet Jefferson Street. I ducked into a place called Freddy Valentine’s Public House, a gastropub located in an old bank (dig the original safe in back), and ordered a “Proper” ale made by local outfit Furthermore Beer, along with the smoked trout spread, another local specialty. It was World Cup time; the Netherlands were playing Argentina on the flat-screen above the bar. To my left, two guys in Netherlands orange yelled at the TV. I asked them about their team choice and the younger, pimply one turned to me and said, somewhat defensively, “My grandpa was Dutch.” So serious, those bandwagon soccer fans.
Sufficiently stuffed, I headed across the way to Arcadia Books, an airy, light-filled shop with a solid selection and equally good cold press. I bought a Paul Auster book because I’m a pretentious jerk and asked the guy who rang me up where I should stay. He recommended the Spring Valley Inn just up the highway. “Clean,” he said. “Free breakfast and Wi-Fi.” Perfect.
Like many local structures, the hotel is a Frank Lloyd Wright knockoff. The Prairie-style main building, which houses a store and a restaurant, was actually designed by a Wright apprentice, as were the chamber of commerce in downtown and the Usonian-style inn along the highway. Wright’s ghost, it seems, is everywhere.
After checking into my room, I made my way to the hotel restaurant, where I met the owner’s affable, 20-something sons—the caretakers of the operation. While plying me with beer and pizza, they talked about the changing face of tourism in the area, which was once a big draw for deer hunters and snowmobilers. The lack of snow in recent years has driven that crowd north, and today folks mostly visit in the fall for the colors and in the summer for the theater, architecture, and, increasingly, the artisanal food scene. The brothers praised the local creameries, especially Uplands Cheese Company.
I had such a good time hanging with those laid-back dudes that I forgot to go to the American Players Theatre—though everyone who showed up at the restaurant for dessert after the show assured me that I missed a cathartic version of Much Ado About Nothing.
The next day, things got touristy fast. First, I wandered Taliesin, now in its third iteration. T1 was set ablaze by a disgruntled servant, who then murdered Wright’s mistress Mamah Borthwick and six others, including Borthwick’s two children. Wright, the poor bastard, was a tragedy magnet, and T2 fell to yet another fire, albeit an accidental one. T3 was constructed in the late 1920s and still stands today—a gorgeous bit of modern origami, all horizontal lines and overhangs that fold together perfectly. I did have to laugh, however, upon noticing the home’s slightly tarnished veneer.
The bits of stained stucco and chipped stone reminded me of a story my aunt had told the day before about my uncle who succumbed to Parkinson’s last spring. He had been a renowned glacial geologist. “The Taliesin preservation group called him out there years ago to consult on the site of the home,” she had said, clearly proud of her late husband. “He told them it was poorly sited and that the roof leaked.” Score one for nature.
My next stop was another notable dwelling, though one respected as high kitsch rather than high art. If you’ve never visited the House on the Rock, perched on a monolith overlooking the sweeping Wyoming Valley, you haven’t lived. Built by weirdo millionaire Alex Jordan Jr., and opened as an attraction in 1959, it’s your basic Japanese-style home filled with hidden nooks, doll collections, antique firearms, the world’s largest carousel, a fake town, a life-size whale statue, and so many other stripes of crazy you can’t even imagine.
It was early afternoon when I arrived at the complex, which was added on to multiple times during Jordan Jr.’s life to accommodate his growing collection of pretty much everything. Walking through the home’s dark tunnels and giant warehouse-like spaces is kind of eerie. The place is basically a funhouse designed by a hoarder. It’s no wonder fantasy master Neil Gaiman used it as a setting in his book American Gods.
I was relieved when I reached the “Infinity Room,” one of the few places at the House on the Rock illuminated by natural light. The indoor platform contains 3,000 windows and sticks out 218 feet over the valley, offering stunning views of the Driftless Area in all its Land Before Time-like glory.
From this vantage, I’m hit with a realization that my uncle knew all along: Nature is a better architect than any human could hope to be.