LA CROSSE TO LANSING
We started at the Eagle monument on the riverfront in La Crosse with Tom running out of town down Front Street. I had to drive up nearly five miles ahead for the exchange in order to reach a decent road or trail for the bike. I set out on bike and for a few miles had a decent shoulder despite the cars whizzing by on a narrow road, but at a certain point about 8 miles in, the conditions changed. The shoulder became a craggy sliver, full of potholes and paved with old concrete. The roadway itself wasn’t much better, and the cars, trucks, vans, and semi’s on it were flying by at well over the unposted speed limit that I imagine couldn’t have been more than 60 mph but should have been more like 45.
Tom hailed me over to offer some relief, or at least question my feelings on the matter. After some hemming and hawing, I gave in and let him—the more experienced rider—take over. I’d personally rather not lose either of our lives to a pot hole/oversized load disaster, but I know Tom is better equipped to avoid such debacles. He rode on and I checked in with him every couple of miles, eventually meeting him for the bike to run transfer just before the turn toward Iowa. Here was another daunting debut into traffic, as I ran head on over a bridge into oncoming vehicles with no shoulder to shield me. Luckily I made it over that first bridge and several others as I ran through the federally protected wildlife and fisheries refuge of the Upper Mississippi. As I reached the end of my run, Tom shadowed me in the van as I mounted the high truss bridge into Lansing, Iowa. Rising high over the navigational channel of the river, paved not with concrete but with metal gratings, my tennis shoes nearly slipped through the bridge one step after another.
At last I finished my run at the Lansing Library, there finding Tom visiting with part of the welcoming committee. It appears we arrived a couple hours earlier than expected, so we got a few suggestions on lunch spots and headed down Main Street to snag some food and some quality time with our laptops. As we finished up a nice bite at Milty’s, a woman walks over to me in the booth and calls me Barbara. I look back at her questioningly, saying no, I’m Victoria. OH! She exclaims, yes! Victoria Bradford not Barbara Bradford. Later, I discover there’s another writer named Barbara Bradford and thus the confusion. But we soon found out that this woman wielding the name Barbara around Milty’s was inded Derva Burke, the local librarian who has served as our partner in Lansing to organize interactions and well basically everything here.
She is bubbly and bright and full of ideas as she sits down in the booth next to Tom. She has some plans to take us to see several people, but some of those people fell through, but according to Derva it will all work out. She even tries to introduce us to the owner of the restaurant, but he’s not around, so we gather up our things and head down the street to the local gun, bait, and tackle shop, River N Ridge Outdoors. This shop is located right on the river’s edge in a historic building that Derva and her husband Bill actually used to own. When they first moved back to Lansing, they bought the place, restored it, ran an outdoors shop there plus Bill had his consulting practice in the upstairs. Now the Petersons own it, and today we met Mark and McKenna, father and daughter, and we learned about their love of the community, the area, and especially the hunting you can do around here — the smell of the dirt, I believe Mark said, and the cool crisp air, are just a few of the feelings he wishes he could share with those who don’t understand that hunting is about much more than killing an animal. Oftentimes, killing an animal isn’t even necessary, he says.
From River-N-Ridge we walked up the street to Horsefalls Lansing IA, a town celebrity as far as shops and sights go. Horsefalls is a one of a kind, not quite flea market, not quite Wal-Mart, not quite sure you didn’t need that hornets spray and party napkins and poster board and spatula set kind of place. Apparently the man who owns the place can tell you where everything is, but I spent my time talking to to young folks who work the register, are engaged, and live down the road in Harpers Ferry. They love the area and never quite imagined their lives the way they are now, but they are saving up for a boat so they can get out fishing like they did when they were kids, and then they’ll work on buying some land where they can root down and make their home.
After Horsefalls we hurried up to the Library where Derva had already gone ahead. Apparently some folks were gathered and waiting for our arrival, planning to share their stories with us. John and Phyllis shared about their journey away from Lansing and the draw back of the community in their later years. The passion they have for the river, for keeping it clean and preserved, accessible, is so clear by their activities with the Friends of Pool 9 organization amongst other things. Derva and her husband Bill were there too, and they provided context for the entire conversation. We knew we needed to see what they were talking about, so after the talking was over, Derva and Bill took us up the hill to the overlook across the river into Wisconsin and beyond. From here, you could see the islands and the refuge area, and the piles of sand from dredging, and the bridge in its questionable condition, and the whole town, and so much more.
We came down the hill, that felt like a mountain, and Derva, Tom, and I walked into the heart of downtown to the “OP” or The Other Place—the oldest bar in town. Derva wanted to introduce us to the owner Jeff, but since he wasn’t around, we met Ladonna who was tending bar amongst other locals. We tasted elk summer sausage, sipped on a couple MGD’s, and got a more informal lesson on Lansing culture and society.
The last steps of the day led us back up Main Street to the library for a potluck that Derva had organized. She had venison spaghetti, someone else brought fresh green beans from their garden, there was bread, cantaloupe, brownies, cheese and crackers, all kinds of good things to these weary travelers. Even better, there was a large table that everyone gathered around, and as Derva said, the “family” sat down to a meal together. We talked about Lansing, the river, home, their relationships to each other, and much more. We were even joined by another outsider, Margaret Pierce, a geographer working on maps of the Mississippi River region focused on reestablishing native place names. She found out about our project from someone else in the nearby park where she was camping and came to the library to check it out!
We hope to run into Margaret again downriver, when our paths my overlap again in Louisiana. And we hope to run into these great folks in Lansing again as well. Especially, and I cannot fail to mention, our host for the night Ann Langford, who took the time to share her story once we arrived at her house. Her energy and enthusiasm over this place, despite many losses she has experienced here, is something I hope to toke with me as we travel here and beyond.
Iowa State Hwy 26S on the Great River Road