The Driftless Area refers to a craggy 24,000-square-mile region in the Midwest. The landscape remains untouched by silt and clay and rock deposits—or drift—left by retreating glaciers. In effect, the Driftless was left to grow freely, wildly, its topographical features preserved. The landscape is hilly and stratified and pastoral, an American folk painting schematized.
The Gilles family’s Wooden Tent in the Woods sits in the middle of this region, down a valley on a farm at the end of a gravel road in the unincorporated blip of Ridgeway. This is southern Minnesota, bluff country, practically equidistant between Houston (along the Root River) and Winona (along the Mississippi). Lilly and I arrive on a Friday in late September. The leaves haven’t turned or shed much yet. It’s unseasonably hot, with temps hovering around 100 °F. The sky is the color of stone-washed denim.
We pull up outside the Gilles’ farmhouse, greeted by two gregarious dogs. There’s a creaking windmill, a tractor, dairy cows lazing. All around us: corn thinned for harvest. We follow Mike—grizzled and friendly and reserved, the quintessential farmer, grimacing in the late afternoon heat—in his tractor across a field and into the woods, down an unforgiving path to the campsite. If it had rained, this path would’ve swallowed my car.
The site is expansive, a recessed dell surrounded by a network of “easy, moderate, and challenging” trails for hiking or cross-country skiing. The Wooden Tent is actually a small A-frame set near the treeline, with ceiling vents and wire-meshed windows. Inside, there are built-in shelves, a couple comfy sleeping pads. I prop open the shutters to get some air flow going.
Also at the site (which, again, is huge): an enormous grill and fire pit, more firewood than any group could ever need, a swanky new ten-person picnic table (built by Mike himself), one of the cleanest outhouses I’ve ever used, lock box for food, elevated trash and recycling bins, and some kind of natural jungle gym constructed of huge cross-hatched logs. Mike leaves two large jugs of cold drinking water.
“You’re going to get raccoons,” Mike tells us. He’s neighborly, avuncular, his eyes pale and flecked with boyish light. He points to a running board on the Wooden Tent that’s been chewed by an unseen critter. “That board’s only two weeks old.”
When planning a trip, I’m usually meticulous. I craft and rearrange itineraries, make shopping lists and to-do lists and playlists. I over-pack. I research fun and interesting and strange things to see and do in the area (i.e., Fountain City’s Rock In the House, Cochrane’s Pizza Farm), and organize and plot and blueprint until the entire trip starts to feel like work. But this time I wanted to do things differently, so I didn’t plan a thing.
The following morning, I roll out of bed rested, the Wooden Tent cool. I build a fire and boil some water for coffee. Leaves fall slowly, dreamlike. It’s already hot out.
With no plans or itinerary (which feels to me a little like staring into an empty well), we just start driving. The Driftless Area’s elevation fluctuates from 608 feet to 1,719. It’s all eroded bedrock and loess, incised with so many rivers and tributaries that aerial photos look vascular as a maple leaf. We decide to drive 25 miles southwest to rent a canoe from Geneva’s Hideaway in Peterson, and take it down the Root River.
Terry Highum, who runs Geneva’s Hideaway with his wife Cindy, drives us upriver in a small bus. The walls of the bus have been signed and scribbled, yearbook-like, by adventurers over the years.
We set off in the afternoon. I take the rear, steering. The sun is so hot it’s shapeless. Although the river hugs Highway 16, there are few cars. The bluffs are layered shapes, traceries of burnished humps all around us. We see hawks, ducks, spectral egrets. We see a baby deer bent and drinking at the riverbank. It watches us, then retreats.
We quit paddling and drift, slowly and soundlessly, trying to paralyze time.
That night, a barred owl visits our campsite. We’re sitting around the fire, and we hear its call: Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you all? Lilly and I smile at each other.
We collect these perfect moments, carrying them around like wartime talismans, something clipped to the helmet or stored near the heart. These moments are the rewards for enduring sameness. We hunt and gather them, putting them together into what we hope is a life that is good, complete, and worth remembering.
Andrew Stark and Lilly Ball are the founders of LOST WKND, the new international literary arts and culture magazine based in Minneapolis. They’re at peace holding séances in the basements of haunted hotels, trailing bears through secluded woodlands, and exploring various middles of nowhere with their two small dogs, Gizmo and Barney.
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