DAY 29 – TUESDAY, AUGUST 6

TREMPEALEAU TO LA CROSSE

After getting to know Bud and Dianna, we couldn’t just leave. I mean, we had to leave of course, but making our way out the door, or even down the road in front of their house, took quite a bit of effort. First there was the enormous breakfast, the smell of sautéed onions waking me at 5:30am and finding their way into a fabulous frittata and eventually into my stomach. Then there was the family photo shoot on the balcony, staged with three cameras and two tripods, working very hard to figure out the timer feature so we could all be in the shot. Next, while we escaped in the van for a moment, I still had to drive back by the same route and stopped for a moment to take a photo near their home only to hear Dianna call down to me that Bud wanted a photo of the van! And finally, when Tom ran the path on his leg by their house, Bud and Dianna were waiting for him, waving from the balcony, Bud poised with the camera as well. All photos were subsequently emailed of course, and the friendship furthered as we furthered ourselves down the river.

Tom finished up his 5K and I hopped on the bike, then after a bit of a bumpy road through some construction we swapped roles and Tom took over on bike to finish the journey into town. I ran into Ben Morgan of Explore La Crosse at the Eagle Monument and he took me over to the Oktoberfest Grounds to find Tom and our first voice of the day, Pat Stephens, known as the “godfather of festivals” in La Crosse, Wisconsin. Tom, Pat and I pulled up a picnic table under a tent as the preparations for Irishfest were ongoing all around us. We learned about Pat falling in love with La Crosse after moving here from Milwaukee for college. Not too big and not too small, he said. People know your name when you walk down the street. And of course the river… We left Pat with lots of new knowledge about the culture and community, and questions brewing for follow-up conversations. But we had to get on to our next appointment with Kelly Kreig-Sigman, the just recently retired La Crosse librarian.

We met Kelly at Houghton’s Jackson Street Pub—a pub and restaurant that seems to be a local establishment of sorts. She immediately offered to buy us a drink, and we launched into a dynamic conversation about why she’s making her home in La Crosse. Kelly says, “everybody knows their place. Some people can make their place anywhere. Some of us go to different places, and then we say, you know what, when you’re born here, chances are, if you’re born here along the river in Wisconsin, chances are you’re going to come back. It gets in your blood. Just knowing that it’s there, and that there’s open space, and that you can breathe, and that there’s no place you can’t get to in this town in less than twenty minutes….” 

For the hour and a half that we spent with Kelly, it felt like we went very deep, very fast, and got to know much about her life and stewardship of the community there in La Crosse—as library director (just retired), as someone who sees struggle and poverty and is not afraid to help at the individual level, cultivating a friendship with a black man and his mixed-race four year-old son who had been kicked out of the shelter and came to the library looking for retribution. Kelly feels the best way she can make change is one at a time.

From Houghton’s we went on across the bridge into Minnesota, through Le Claire and downriver a bit to meet Ken Visger on his boathouse. Ken is a longtime resident of these parts, worked for the YMCA for many years, then went into real estate to support his family while also farming on the side. He’s a hunter and fisherman, a true man of the river, and his two British Labrador Retrievers appear to be his best friends, despite the one limping with a bad leg after a rattlesnake bite. We sat out on the boathouse and talked as folks rode by and waved, and this was the first time I’ve used the toilet over a bucket where I could see fish swimming just below my feet and feel a bit of motion sickness from the unsteady footing beneath.

We got back to La Crosse and walked into the downtown. My husband said we were getting dinner at Hardees, but I wanted to be in disbelief. Turns out he took me to Buzzard Billys La Crosse, the only Cajun restaurant this far north on the Mississippi! We had jambalaya and gumbo and it wasn’t half bad! Although their crawfish wasn’t from Louisiana and their alligator was from Georgia so they said when I asked. At least they were honest! Regardless, the margaritas were out of the park!

We made it back to the hotel in one piece, with leftovers for another day, and conked out not long after. Another day done, another wealth of information to process.

Wisconsin State Hwy 35S on the Great River Road