The rain is tapering off now, and the thunder rolls in the gloaming. This weekend, indeed all of summer, has come to an end. Sitting in the front window, the sounds of the rain drops falling through the leaves is lulling me to sleep. This long, most melancholy of holidays is almost over. We couldn’t stand to spend it sitting around 20 Prospect just waiting for it to end, so we drove over to Eau Claire for the weekend to visit Grandma and Grandpa. I’m not sure if the kids, or the puppies enjoyed it more. In both their worlds it’s hard to beat Grandma’s house.
Mrs. 20 P’s family moved there when she was middle school aged, so it’s half a hometown for her. Not being the sentimental type, she doesn’t hold dear to the place the way that I would. Hell, after 17 years of visiting I’ve come to adopt it as a my foster hometown. It was the place where we were married on a cool October afternoon back in 1995. Hard to believe that was almost 15 years ago. (Note to self, this is my 15th Anniversary, don’t screw it up)
Eau Claire is a deceivingly large city. I think there’s something like 70,000 people living there, although the place doesn’t feel any bigger than Batavia. It sits on the edge of the Northwoods, between the sandy central plain of Wisconsin, and the coulee country of the Mississippi River. (When I first heard the term coulee country I thought they were referring to Chinese immigrant railroad workers. We don’t have coulee in WNY)
Coulee’s are little furrowed valleys that empty down into the big river. It makes for some lovely country. In my opinion, some of the most beautiful, pastoral land in all the world. I put it right up there with the rolling hills of Brabant, or the southern English countryside. Little farms scattered about the hills, the roads winding up the valleys, through hollow’s and over ridges, interspersed with scraps and remnants of the “Big Woods” that once stretched across these parts and marked the edge of the great plains.
It is fertile land and home to many orchards and dairy farms. Every time I visit I begin to daydream about retiring there in a farmhouse in little wooded hollow, somewhere in the hills south of Eau Claire. Perhaps I could even find some work teaching part time at one of the state universities there. Then I could sit on my porch at night and watch the pine martins darting above the meadow as the sun set over the lip of the ridge, sip a nice bourbon and ponder the mysteries of life. Someday perhaps, but for now I must content myself with our quarterly visits, measured out to mark the seasons.
Eau Claire itself has a good bit of history behind it. Founded at the confluence of the Eau Claire and Chippewa Rivers, it was a natural highway for the Indians and the early French Voyaguers. Later, as the northern white pine forests began to fall beneath Paul Bunyan’s axe, saw mills sprung up all along the rivers, and it became a lumber town. By the time the woods were cleared, and the mills in decline the city fathers had managed to put together a manufacturing economy, and begin to draw in immigrants to staff them. So came the Irish and the Germans, and a goodly amount of Norwegians, to work the mills and till the farms. The names live on in the histories of the local Catholic parishes, of which my Brother in Law serves as pastor. Sitting in the century old wooden pews on a Sunday, in one of the two churches that make up the parish, I think back to what it must have been like for those immigrants in the saw dust days, that only managed to bring a steamer trunk and their faith to this wild Eden half a world away.
Sunday dawned clear and cold, but by noon the temperature was nearing 70, and after mass and a hearty breakfast at the Altoona Restaurant, I threw a leg over my road bike and headed out into the hills. This is by far my favorite place to ride, this side of East Flanders. The land is built for it, short steep little climbs, long curving roads through the valleys, lots of pavement, and very few cars. I spent 2 hours touring through the hills around Eleva and Strum. Despite the occasional subdivision, popping up out in the fringes of Eau Claire, it is still unspoiled country. Some of the farms themselves seem to have seen better times, but others are still thriving.
When I first began to take these rides I used to puzzle at the sight of small tended garden plots of about an acre, growing diverse mixtures of plants and vegetables. Each one with a small wooden shack, or lean to, along it’s edge. On weekends you will find old conversion vans, and minivans parked along the side of the road, and see age old Hmong men and women out in the field in their conical straw hats, squatting as they tend their gardens. There are very few Hmong living in this part of Western Wisconsin, and it took me a while to connect the dots between these little plots of land, and the Hmong farmers selling their produce at the local farmer’s markets. I’m guessing that many live in the cities, and drive out here to tend to the lend they lease from the locals, to grow the vegetables and fruits that feed the yuppies of the Twin Cities. Economics is an amazing thing sometimes.
In other parts of the hills the farms are in various stages of being reclaimed by the woods. The lands used more for hunting than raising crops. Here the old red barns are slowly slumping to earth, their days numbered. As I have written before, this part of our heritage and our history is fast disappearing but few of us have taken the time to notice. In their place metal pole barns rise as efficient, but far less romantic surrogates.
I rode the hills until my legs were burning as badly as my lungs. When I turned back towards town I passed a small pioneer cemetery and decided to stop. Walking amongst the headstones, I was lost in the stories of the forgotten. As easy as it would be to romanticize the lives of these hardy souls, I wouldn’t trade places with them. It was a hard life, in a land that had yet to be tamed by our technology.
Her lies the Cleasby family. Four children born between 1867 and 1885 that all died before the age of 3. On the other side of this marble sentinel is the inscription for their Mother who passed away at 42. These were Laura Ingalls Wilder days, and people that would have fit well into one of her stories. I wonder what their lives were like, here in this valley, a full days wagon ride from Eau Claire. Wolves still howling along the edges of the woods in winter. The threat of infection and disease, a constant worry for a woman who lived so much more of life in her 42 years than I have in mine.
I am a lucky man. To live in this place, at this time, and free from such worries that I can spend a Sunday afternoon sweating out a 40 mile ride through the same landscape that these pioneers worked themselves to death over, and still be home in time for cake and ice cream. May God bless their souls wherever they may be, and have mercy on ours. We don’t begin to understand the wealth of our inheritance.