Morning Thanks

Garrison Keillor once said we'd all be better off if we all started the day by giving thanks for just one thing. I'll try.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Descent into God's Country

It would be interesting to know how often I've made the trip between northwest Iowa and southeast Wisconsin, hundreds of times, I'm sure. And again last weekend, leaving Alton just before six. 

Leaving that late in the day may well have been a first, but we're retired folks now, and there were late afternoon commitments so we simply figured we'd go half way on Thursday, take a motel, and journey on the next morning. Leisurely. You know, like old folks.

That trip takes most of nine hours, sometimes more, depending on what you eat and where; and brings you through goodly chunks of two geographic regions--tall-grass prairie (mostly corn as long ethanol production is so amply blessed), and the bushy, woodsy Great Lakes region full of sneaky curves on a thousand roads once upon a time laid atop deer tracks and Indian trails. 

The seam of those two geographic regions is a place Old Style beer used to call "God's Country." The assertion that the Mississippi River valley is God's country and Anywhere Else, U. S. A. isn't is entirely arbitrary, but I've often thought about Old Style beer when I-90 begins an awesome descent on Minnesota's eastern border. I love that sudden drop off, always loved the way the highway courts the river for a dozen miles or so, finally crossing it and all its tribs just west of LaCrosse. I've no quarrel with Old Style.

Other places on the globe may resent a brewery for making the outrageous claims that it used to, but when you come off the bare-naked plains and descend into those gorgeous wooded hills, you can't help thinking they've got it right. But then, for me, the Great Lakes region, the shore line coast of Lake Michigan, is home.

And that's why, Thursday night, on our way to a halfway motel on the Mississippi's French Island, I suddenly and for the first time got scared. It was pitch dark when we made that steep five-mile long descent, and in the sheer darkness, the highway's otherwise familiar meandering seemed foreign. I could see no farther than the reach of my headlights. I was tired, too, but I was jumpy as I've never been before, not in all of those trips through the hills.

I'd probably never driven that stretch at night. 

I didn't feel like I normally do when the prairie ends and the highway drops out from under the car. It didn't feel like another wonderful homecoming because the hills were lost in the darkness. The winding road seemed treacherous because I didn't recognize it, couldn't. In a hundred trips back and forth, I'd probably never driven into God's Country at night. Not once, and the way home seemed almost dangerous, not like home at all.

It was scary, not simply because the highway demanded so much of my attention but because I honestly thought I knew that road like the back of my hand. And I didn't. Not in the darkness. What seemed so beautiful and so ordinary seemed suddenly a stranger.

It's not a pleasant feeling to know, suddenly, that that which was familiar is somehow not so, when what you see before you is new even though it really isn't. I don't know that I can explain it exactly. Things shouldn't have been the way they were. 

Don't get me wrong. We had a great time at a short little reunion, a celebration for my sister and brother in law's "golden" anniversary. But for a moment last weekend, I felt something quite scary, something this old man is guessing there will be more of down the road as they say, an uncomfortable fear that what should be familiar somehow isn't.

The motel was just fine, the visit was short but sweet and greatly blessed, the weather was perfect, just a touch of fall now in the air. It's just immensely clear outside my window this morning because a northwest wind came by and blew out all that cloudy summer humidity. Colors jump. This morning, once again, just outside my window, I can see for miles.

But that strange and even scary descent through the dark hills and into the deep of the valley, a trip I thought I knew, is something I can't help remembering, even in the soul.


Anonymous said...


I ice fish about 25 minutes to the south of I-90 on the back waters of the mighty Mississippi in Blackhawk Park.

It is truly God's country and I can hardly take my mind and eyes off the snow-covered ice and bluffs as I enjoy God's creation... watching eagles and catching perch, crappies and blue gills refreshes my spirit like nothing else I know... we'll have to try it sometime.

An Iowa fishing license does work on the Mississippi River.


Shelbi said...

I would suspect, having just driven that stretch two weeks ago on the way to Sam's grandpa's funeral, that part of the unfamiliarity of the road is due to it being under construction. We had to forgo our traditional lunch at the rest stop just over the border there because it was closed due to construction. -Just saying that it may not have just been the darkness that made that stretch more difficult to navigate than normal. It was fairly difficult even in the middle of the day, and we've traveled that stretch enough times to know it well, too.
So there really is a "French Island?" We always thought that sign was a question. "French Is" ...what? Kind of a running family joke.