Excerpt from “A Trail of Stars – Our Fight for Sanity in an Insane World”May 8, 2014
I had once read about a region northwest of Chicago that possessed the greatest concentration of cold-water streams anywhere in the world. A landscape etched and tunneled by hundreds of springs that bubbled up into streams, disappearing underground only to return to the surface somewhere else.
O ver time, this became a familiar terrain, the region that included places we would sometimes visit like Baraboo, Devil’s Lake, and other parts of Wisconsin, Minnesota, and nearby Galena, where we hiked, paddled, and picnicked. I had read about this place, easily pictured because I had also traveled through it, back and forth by bus to Thunder Bay, to and from camp in Ontario.
The passage through this ethereal land was as I imagined Tolkien’s Middle-earth, where more than once, I had walked out from the shadows into perfect light and marveled at the crispness of the robin’s-egg sky, against purples and browns that gave shape to the tops of green hills. This extraordinary region was embellished with an intricate topography that took form on many maps that spread out from contiguous corners of Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, and Illinois—from Galena to Minneapolis.
I n a dream once, I looked down from space on those six hundred cold-water streams, their sustaining creeks and springs, and numerous rivers that flowed into the Mississippi, eventually draining into the Gulf of Mexico. Zooming out, the shape of the place resembled an obsidian adze, then a fossilized leaf with textured veins running towards a stem—zooming in, it became the pulsing heart in the middle of the continent; it had split a sea of ice like firewood. I imagine myself on the top of a hill, beneath a cobalt sky, staring out across the layered landscape, the horizon hidden behind a mile-high wall of ice grinding slow across the plain. A ship of land moving through a sea of ice.
Unlike the surrounding Midwestern landscape, this place was almost completely devoid of glacial residue known as drift, so it was no surprise it had been dubbed the Driftless Area.
Near the Mississippi River, the town of Galena had grown on the edge of this amazing geography. And across the river, in southeast Iowa, there was a tributary which I had only seen in pictures and on maps—an extraordinary river. One day, I told myself, I’ll paddle its length to the Mississippi.