LYRICAL EXAGGERATION & DONUT INDULGENCE
I’d gone to bed a bundle of nerves from pushing too far the day before, but woke feeling refreshed and excited. As an added bonus, I was surprised to discover by daylight that Red Wing was a lovely red brick town filled with towering churches, historically preserved storefronts, and converted warehouses, all nestled beneath a scenic bluff with a park on top providing a panoramic view of it all. I’d visited Allentown once expecting industrial ruin per the Billy Joel song and was shocked to find a bustling, refurbished downtown district. Similarly, the Dylan song had prepared me for Dickensian bleakness, yet Red Wing turned out to be one of the most charming small towns I visited.
I wandered the streets soaking in the sunshine and hometown vibe for a while—my favorite pastime when visiting a new place—before being lured into a bakery and coffee shop prominently featuring a banner proclaiming it had been voted Minnesota’s best. It had a comfy, rustic vibe and the long display case was packed so full of delectable confections that I instantly knew the low carb diet I’d clung to so stubbornly was about to take the morning off.
As I stared lustily at the menagerie of decadence, I asked the girl behind the counter to steer me to the best option, desperate to get the most bang for my buck with my nutritional sin, but she assured me everything was good. Well, that really narrowed things down!
Normally I steer clear of donuts, considering them the cotton candy of pastry. Krispy Kremes in particular dissolve on the tongue before I’m fully aware of what I’m tasting, yet shortly after that millisecond of indulgence my blood sugar spikes and I ache for bed like suffering a bad flu. These hearty round pastries, however, held a greater promise, and I asked about the day’s special—Whole Wheat & Honey—thinking it may be a good compromise. Still, I didn’t want to waste my indulgence on something that didn’t taste like a treat but was still horrible for you, but the girl assured me they had sold fast and furious all morning.
Accepting my selection with the reverence of communion, I retreated with a steaming cup of raspberry mocha coffee to the back room where locals sat reading papers and catching up on local gossip. As I savored the first bite, I was shocked at how delicate and flavorful it was. I would have never guessed ‘whole wheat’ in a million years. Though it was had more body than your average donut, it was not grainy or harsh. In fact, it was perhaps the best donut I’ve ever had. I wanted to make it last forever!
I (ACCIDENTALLY) SPY–SOMEONE NOTIFY THE CHAMBER OF COMMERCE!
Buzzing from my morning treat, I wandered back into the sunlight and down the hill to the visitor’s center in a renovated train depot by the river. A small display inside informed me of how this spot was first settled by missionaries hoping to convert local Native Americans, but grew into a prosperous river port with the explosion of wheat farming in the surrounding countryside. When the wheat trade diminished, Red Wing began shipping other goods before becoming famous for its boots and pottery. No mention of it’s juvenile detention facility.
A friendly and obviously bored lady was manning a desk in the other room and was eager to answer questions. When I brought up the song, she laughed and said Red Wing actually ran a well-maintained and progressive rehabilitation program, and that Dylan had apparently never even visited. Still, I didn’t blame him for his embellishment. I’d never visited Prunytown back in West Virginia, but his vision of Red Wing matched the horrors in my imagination—visions intentionally cultivated to scare wayward boys straight. Dylan merely gave voice to the thoughts of ten thousand young Minnesota boys hoping never to visit.
Laughing, I admitted that Dylan had done them no favors, for I had a completely distorted vision of their lovely town. Then again, any publicity is good publicity and I likely would never have discovered its charms if not for my morbid curiosity.
After assuring me that it was okay to stop by and see the facility as I headed south on Highway 61 (also made famous by Dylan), but she also encouraged me to visit the park atop the bluff.
Despite wanting to gain ground I was enjoying the morning and was amiable to stretching out my visit; the view was worth the detour. As I pulled back onto the highway, though, I nearly passed by Red Wing, for I wasn’t expecting the stately administration building that looked more like a historic courthouse. I pulled up the drive and snapped a few pictures without leaving the truck, but was spotted by a member of the ground crew who gesticulated suspiciously in my direction before rushing inside. I drove to the opposite end of the parking lot to shoot from a different angle, but when three men rushed out the door and headed my way I turned around and spun out of the parking lot. I guess no one told them about the Dylan song. Or that the campus is included on the self-guided history and architecture tour brochure available at the old train depot where attendants assured you it was kosher to swing by!
TAKING FLIGHT IN WABASHA
As I cruised south of Red Wing I was blessed with another sunny day and gorgeous views of the water. Southern Minnesota is the one stretch where the highway hugs the Mississippi for long stretches, though the large swaths of trees amidst the flow indicated that the high waters were following me south.
Only fifteen miles into this pleasant drive I passed a tiny sliver of a resort town clinging to the hills opposite the highway. Lake City looked like a relaxing spot to spend an afternoon, but I was already a day behind and couldn’t seem to get out of Minnesota, so I pressed on. In another fifteen miles, though, I succumbed to the Great River Road brochure and stopped for a glimpse of the ‘charming’ town of Wabasha, home of the National Eagle Center.
Wabasha did indeed turn out to be another lovely Minnesota gem, though this one so small that it stretched barely beyond its beckoning Main Street across from a particularly lovely waterfront park featuring a stone fountain guarded by a statue of a Native American. The National Eagle Center lay at the northern edge of the park, and though I’d stumbled upon it multiple times in the literature I had no intention of visiting until I walked through the door and pulled out my debit card. Despite my skepticism, the displays were interesting and educational, tricking me into caring more than I normally would about endangered raptors (for I learned a raptor is any predatory bird with talons).
The side of the building facing the river featured large glass windows with stellar views of the river. In winter this spot is often thick with eagles, which is why Wabasha was selected for the center. The Chippewa River empties into the Mississippi here and this, along with a few geographic peculiarities, keeps this section of the river from freezing so eagles gather here in winter to hunt. The steep bluffs on either side also create upward air currents where eagles can hitch a ride while conserving energy during the lean months.
WINGING INTO AN OLD JACKSONVILLE FRIEND
The central attraction, though, is the full-time residents. Injured eagles from around the country are sent here to rehabilitate and a few—there are currently about a half dozen—are too injured to be reintroduced to the wild so are kept in residence.
You can visit them in a large open room where they perch for most of the day, but every couple of hours a professional handler brings a bird into a classroom and feeds it while lecturing visitors and fielding questions. Our handler was particularly full of knowledge and loved to share it–I thought I was never going to get to meet Was’aka (Dakota for ‘strength’). This bald eagle was discovered as a hatchling abandoned on the ground in my once and future stomping ground, Jacksonville, FL. He had a cancerous growth on his eye that prevented him from hunting so he was starving. The growth was removed but his vision irreparable, and since eagles need binocular vision to hunt, he took up residence.
Finally a trainee brought in Was’aka and began feeding him as the handler cued her and told stories. I particular enjoyed learning how they keep hunting instincts sharp by hiding dead mice in seasonally appropriate props—a pumpkin for Halloween; a snowman for Christmas—as the handler passed photographs of the eagles at destroying these seasonal symbols. She then admitted that some visitors express concern that the birds are tethered and unable to soar as nature intended, but assured us that in fact most of an eagle’s day is spent at rest. Nevertheless, she continued, the birds are taken outside daily for exercise and a change of scenery. They even got to play in the river on occasion and local fishermen donate different species of fish to vary their diets.
It all seemed like a moot point to me, though, making me shake my head at how irrational some zealots can be. I’m glad they’re treated well, but complaining about the natural environment is silly. The whole point is that these animals can’t survive flapping around in the wild. They’re not captives, they’re refugees! Yeesh!
UNEXPECTED GEM IN AN UNLIKELY HAMLET
I could have spent a whole afternoon in Wabasha sipping coffee, reading book, and watching the river flow, but after burning the entire morning in Red Wing I’d now lost two hours at the Eagle Center. It was after 2:00 and I’d made it only thirty miles, so I pushed on, making it only thirty miles further before reaching Winona.
When I crossed into Minnesota a week prior I’d stopped at the Welcome Center and stumbled on a brochure advertising Winona’s riverfront Shakespeare Festival. Try as I might I couldn’t work out the timing to spend a night here during a performance, yet a romantic vision of this river town had taken root in my imagination. Besides the festival, Winona houses the Minnesota Marine Art Museum—an attraction that rang several of my bells. I can spend all day wandering art galleries like The Met in New York and the Chicago Institute of Art, and I have always been fascinated with all things nautical, from maritime artifacts to novels set on the high seas to Jimmy Buffett songs. I couldn’t imagine there would be that much to see in this tiny river hamlet (no pun intended), but it was too potent a combination to ignore.
Located in a lovely building along an otherwise industrial stretch of waterfront, the MMAM housed five major galleries which shocked me in both quantity and quality. The first was dedicated to a local artist Nick Wroblewski who carves painting out of wood, rolling ink over each layer as its excavated to provide shading. The results are stunning, though I couldn’t wrap my mind around the technique even after watching an instructional video.
The next gallery contained pieces from American William Bradford’s Antarctic expedition. The chop of the water and refraction of light off icebergs were so vivid that the air temperature seemed to drop thirty degrees. The canvasses exploded with movement and detail. I’m not knowledgeable enough to articulate what make an artist or painting great, but I can sense when I’m in the presence of greatness. Being a writer, I’m drawn to paintings with a narrative that transport me to another time and place, seducing me to weave a story as I stand and gaze. Throughout the museum the nautical paintings satiated this desire, bobbing and swaying with adventure and the power of nature.
The next two galleries housed American and European greats, primarily of the Impressionist and the Hudson River Schools. The collection included pieces by such masters as Renoir, Matisse, Monet, Cezanne, and Seurat (great name!), to name a few. It was a stunningly magnificent collection to find in a tiny river town in southern Minnesota that I’d never even heard of a week prior.
My favorite piece by Edward William Cooke portrayed a ‘poon’ (a sort of cutter) racing to reach the safety of the jetty during a sudden storm. The picture bristled with movement and the swirling violence of nature offset by seaman frantically springing to action. As I snapped a photograph, though, the proctor came over and shut me down. Most major art museums allow flashless photography, but I’d missed the signs forbidding it here. Still, there were no hard feelings and the man stood with me for a while musing over what a magnificent piece it was, rippling with life and motion. I returned to view it twice more before skipping the final gallery (x-rays of fish) to peruse the gift shop—I’m a sucker for art gallery coffee mugs bearing famous paintings.
It was after 5 o’clock when I departed through the handsome brick and stone downtown, wishing I had time to spend the night and see a play; but I’d left the hotel over eight hours ago and had only managed to progress two town and sixty miles.
Damn you, Minnesota!
As I reluctantly continued south, Highway 61 continued to hug the river. After an hour I crossed back into Wisconsin through the quaint college town of La Crosse. The landscape immediately grows more rugged in Wisconsin, so I rolled down the windows and enjoyed meandering the jagged bluffs as Minnesota gave way to Iowa on the opposite shore. (Finally!)
The river had grown quite wide by now and largely uninhabited. The steep bluffs across the river in Iowa were equally deserted. In Minnesota I couldn’t drive twenty miles without being lured to stop by something culturally significant, but now the serene and isolated road allowed me to make up needed miles.
After an hour, I decided to cross into Iowa at Prairie du Chien to explore the opposite shore for a while. It was a regrettable mistake.
Although largely unpopulated, the Wisconsin river route was dotted with campgrounds and fishing resorts. I planned on stopping before dark to pitch a tent and relax after the stress of the previous day’s drive, but once in Iowa I quickly passed the southern apex of the bluffs into rolling farm country. There wouldn’t be a place to stop—or a site worth seeing—for over a hundred rural miles, and no chance to pass back into Wisconsin. After my long and taxing drive the night before I swore I wasn’t going to repeat my mistake—this was supposed to be fun!—yet it would be many more hours before I finally found a spot to pull over and pitch my tent by the final traces of daylight on one of the longest days of the year.