Did we mention Sparky?

He barely let us leave Dubuque on Tuesday morning—the little mutt owned by Susan and Scott that seemed to have adopted me for the night, sleeping cozily by my side, following me every step I took to the bathroom in the middle of the night, back into bed, back to sleep, back up again, back to sleep, waking and possibly as excited for coffee as I was! As Tom and I packed up our things and made ready to head out, Sparky knew what was going on, it was clear his nerves were on end, so Susan prepped him for a short walk—or waddle in Sparky’s case—and they accompanied us out to the van to say farewell. But Sparky wasn’t having it, as he snuck under the car door, barking at me, leash just holding him back from jumping into my lap in the passenger seat. It was nice to feel so welcome by all the living beings at Smokehouse and its adjoining properties.

Onward we went, though, to meet state legislator and community do-gooder Chuck Isenhart for breakfast at Sunshine. We consumed copious amounts of pancakes, eggs, biscuits, gravy, and bacon, and then walked outside in search of a photo opp with Chuck. He pointed in the direction of an old building and said the Rescue Mission for men was housed there and they have a garden project out front—we should check it out and get a picture there. We wandered over, discovering a gorgeous garden as well as a greenhouse with an elaborate hydroponic operation. The garden manager was there and showed us around and finally we got a photo all together before heading on our way.

Tom and I drove back over to the National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium where I ended my circuitous run the day before, and he promptly set out over a bridge and into the streets of Dubuque, working his way out of town. Not long into the run, a big climb awaited him—Mt. Carmel, followed by a detour onto Julian Dubuque Dr (don’t say Google Maps never lies), then to be waylaid by a stalled out train at the north entrance to the Mines of Spain State Recreation Area and E. B. Lyons Nature Center. Of course, this impediment did not phase Tom. He waltzed over to the Canadian National truck pulled up to the tracks and sparked up a conversation with the engineer, as only an engineer could do, got the details of the situation, and came back over my way to tell me it wouldn’t be long now. And truly, not much later, the train began to move, and Tom crossed over the tracks on foot, I in the van, and we made our way ever closer to Bellevue. 

Just inside the recreation area, we traded places. I hopped on the bike, hoping to make up some lost time—but of course, I was much disappointed with my pace slowed by the uphill battle I had ahead of me. Not only through Mines of Spain, but especially just after, the hills kept coming and coming, to the point where about 7 or 8 miles in, halfway up a hill that I had told myself I would DEFINITELY conquer, I just stalled out. I started to walk my bike back down the hill to find Tom somewhere behind me in the van, and then he found me and pulled off to the side knowing it was his turn to get in gear and climb.

Later he testified that he was standing in his pedals, but as he reached the top of the hill he looked like he was coasting. Then came the downhill coast that I never got the chance to enjoy. He conquered one more hill before we met at the top to make the exchange, and finally I ran the last 5K into Bellevue along Hwy 52. I landed right at the in downtown only to find not only Tom, but Laura McCool and Dave Eischeid, two of our hosts and organizers in this river town.

Dave immediately understood that we might need some refreshment and some freshening up, and offered to take us back to his place where we’d be staying before getting on with our itinerary.

The layover was very brief, though, surprising Dave that all we really needed was to chug a gatorade and a water and put on some dry clothes (which could even be done in the back of the van). So we headed on to our first engagement, a meeting at the home and workshop of Dennis Weis—retired DNR fisheries researcher, active commercial fisherman and trapper, and expert at a fish fry we would find out later that evening.

As we drove up to Dennis perhaps typical, suburban house, his driveway and garage presented something of an atypical display. Stretched out from trailer hitch to end of driveway was a brand new hoop net, not yet tarred, handmade by Dennis. Also just a step away inside the garage was a trammel net in production, all outstretched. He demonstrated for us how a fish, or even sometimes his wife, gets easily caught inside this trammel net!

Dennis also showed us his extensive collection of trapping equipment as well as his collection of pelts, furs, and mounts. He seems to understand the balance and roles of wildlife versus the trapper or hunter. He is an educator, giving talks in schools and across the state. Dennis is one of many people we’ve met who know the river and the landscape around it, how to truly be a part of it and respect it in ways that are being undervalued. There are plenty of fish, he says, but no one is paying enough for anyone to catch them. Protections for wild caught fish are not in place in the same way that they are for farm raised fish, or farming the land, or other industries. Because of this, things like commercial fishing, as well as trapping, are dying arts.

We had a 3pm appointment to meet Dave back at the Art Gallery, so we ended what could have been a much longer conversation with Dennis. At the gallery, Barry and Dave were waiting, and this time Barry was tasked with escorting us down to the Lock and Dam as well as the local historical museum. First we met up with Jim Roling, Assistant Lockmaster at Lock & Dam #12. Turns out Jim is also a farmer, recently moving back to his 3rd generation family farm of about 240 acres here in Bellevue, taking on the land and the water simultaneously in order to keep the family afloat. “It makes for an interesting family life,” he says, as we talk about the shift schedule kept by the Corps of Engineers, “but it’s good for farming.” Jim said there are a couple other small farms like his nearby, but most of them are being bought up and consolidated.

Despite that, he sees opportunity for investment in small towns with acreage being cheaper, work ethic possibly being higher, and the sheer fact of being right on the Mississippi. Together with his wife and his jobs on the farm and the river, Jim sees raising his eleven and seventeen year old daughters there in Iowa as near perfect.

Honestly, I would like to spend a week living at Jim’s house, feeling the rhythms of their work on the farm and the additional full time labor, the kids, the small town life—I hope to get back there and learn more. But for now, Tom, Barry and I had to get on to the Historical Museum where we met up with Susan Lucke. She is protector of the Young House, a house museum that contains a collection of antiques with story after story attached. But more important, she tells us, is that the history, actually the beginning, of  The Great River Road itself, lives in Bellevue and is being sorted through in this small museum. Susan claims that she holds the documents telling “the prequel to the story you see on the internet”—the story of a man named Joe Young who had a vision involving the future of the automobile coming together with our Great River. Since she’s still working her way through all the papers, photos, maps, and other documents, Susan is not quite ready to share all the story or images yet, but she feels this is the legacy that Bellevue has to offer.

Talking with Susan definitely built up an appetite in this beleaguered runner, so I was glad at 5pm we had a date back at the gallery for a potluck dinner with several members of the Bellevue Iowa ARTS Council. Dennis was back, frying up some amazing flat head catfish that he caught, using a unique four burner frying system. The hot and cold dishes were overflowing, and we even had some adult beverages—thank you Iowa. In the end, I shared stories as I do, and thankfully there was laughter and sighs, and all the right responses, opening people up to share of their own stories afterward.

Dave wouldn’t be a great host if he let us go to bed right after eating, though, so we added one more stop to our evening. He said he was taking us to the old mill, but offered no other details, leaving us thinking this would be a quick look at a historic structure lit by the full moon. Not so. The old mill, called Potter’s Mill, is now a restaurant, bar, art gallery and venue owned and operated by Mark and Rachel Herman. The building has a history as a flour mill, but more recently and for many years operated as a supper club. We enjoyed a few drinks and I even got lured into a second dinner of shrimp and grits (much thanks to Allen Ernst)—the theme here is New Orleans to Memphis—before heading back to Dave and Carol’s house to tuck in. It was a full day full of great generosity, and we do hope to return to this town with much more than a beautiful view of the river.