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In southwestern Wisconsin there is an area roughly one hundred and sixty miles long and seventy miles wide with unique features. Its rugged terrain differs from the rest of the state. The last of the Pleistocene glaciers did not trample through this area, and the glacial deposits of rock, clay, sand, and silt-called drift-are missing. Hence its name, the Driftless Region. Singularly unrefined, it endured in its hilly, primitive form, untouched by the shaping hands of those cold giants.
As the glacial herd inched around the Driftless Region, it became an island surrounded by a sea of receding ice. There, plant spores and pollen, frozen for tens of thousands of years, regained their ability to grow. Moss fastened to the back of rocks. Birds and other creatures carried in seeds, which sprouted, rooted, and prospered. Hardwoods and evergreens rose into the sky, with warmth-loving tree tribes settling on southern hillsides and cold-loving tribes on northern slopes.
Rivers and streams-draining fields for the glaciers and migratory paths for animals-poured into the Mississippi River valley. The waters rushed thick with salmon, red trout, and pike, which in turn attracted osprey, heron, otter, mink, and others who lived by fishing. In time, larger animals moved in, including bear, woolly mammoth, giant sloth, saber-toothed tiger, mountain lion, and a two-hundred-pound species of beaver. (The name Wisconsin is believed by some to be a derivation of the word Wishkonsing, place of the beaver.)
With the wildlife came humans, and for thousands of years people about whom there can now be only speculation conducted civilization from those ancient woods. The summer camp of the Singing People was once located in the Driftless.
The first Europeans to arrive were trappers, hunters, and berry pickers-men who lived much as the people who were already there, often mating and living with them. In time, trading posts sprung up along the larger rivers, attracting more trappers and hunters. Rafts piled high with furs floated downstream, until the supply of cash animals was nearly exhausted.
Then a larger wave of immigrants came, displacing the frequently moving trappers, hunters, and foragers. Trading posts gave way to forts, farms, and villages.
The new arrivals, almost without exception, came in search of homesteads. Families as numerous as church mice rode in wagons on wheels with wooden spokes pulled by oxen and mules, dreaming of Property. When they arrived, they climbed out of their wagons, sharpened their axes, and moved into the Driftless to harvest a ripe and waiting crop: timber. Logging roads and lumber mills invaded the hills, and within a single generation the Driftless forests-like the rest of Wisconsin's virgin oak, pine, and maple-were cut, floated downstream, and made into railroad ties and charcoal.
After the settlers cut down the trees and dug up all the lead and gold they could find, many abandoned the Driftless in search of flatter, richer farming. Those who remained were generally the more stubborn agriculturists, eking a living from small farms perched on the sides of eroded hills. Like the Badger State totem that burrows in the ground for both residence and defense, they refused to leave. For better or worse, their roots ran deep.
Small villages blossomed with schools, post offices, and implement dealers; dairy and grain cooperatives; hardware, fabric, and grocery stores; filling stations, banks, libraries, and taverns. And the Driftless farmers moved into these villages after their bodies wore out. Old men and women sat on porches in work clothes faded by the sun and softened by innumerable washings to resemble pajamas. They talked in whispers, shelling hazelnuts into wooden bowls, telling stories, endless stories, about long ago.
The young people listened but were skeptical. It didn't seem possible for men and women to do the things described in those stories: people didn't act like that.
"They don't now," the old people complained.
It was impossible to explain how in those days, in earlier times, in the past, there really were giants-people who did things, good things, odd things, that others would never do. Those giants were at the heart of everything. Nothing could have been the way it was without them, but how could anyone explain them after they were gone?
Over the years, most of the Driftless villages grew into towns and cities. Other villages, however, grew up like most other living things, reached a certain size and just stayed there. Still others, like Words, Wisconsin-a cluster of buildings and homes in a heavily wooded valley-noticeably shrank in size, and entered the twenty-first century smaller than years before.
To get to Words you must first find where Highway 47 and County Trunk Q intersect, at a high, lonely place surrounded by alfalfa, corn, and soybean fields. The four-way stop suggests a hub of some importance, yet there are no other indications of where you are. This lack of posted information can be partly explained by the constraining budget of the Thistlewaite County Highway Commission and partly by the assumption of its rural members: people already know where they are. No provisions are made for those living without a plan.
Still, there is some mystery why a four-way stop should be placed here, impeding the flow of mostly nonexistent traffic. Grange, for instance, with a population of five thousand by far the largest town in the area, has a justifiable need for four-way stops and even several stoplights; but Grange is fifteen miles to the east on 47.
Red Plain, to the west, has grocery, feed, and dime stores, a gas station, a grain elevator, four taverns, and one stop sign on a highway that connects after sixty miles to the interstate.
Heading south on Q does not take you directly anywhere, but for those knowing the roads this is eventually the shortest route to Luster.
Eight miles north of the intersection, the unincorporated village of Words has no traffic signs at all. County Trunk Q is the only way into the tiny town, which sits at the dead end of a steep valley. Few people go there. State maps no longer include Words, and though Q is often pictured, the curving black line simply ends like a snipped-off black thread in a spot of empty white space. Even in Grange, most people don't know where Words is.
Excerpt from "Driftless" by David Rhodes (Minneapolis: Milkweed Editions, 2008). Copyright © 2008 by David Rhodes. Used with permission. All rights reserved.
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This program aired on November 4, 2008. The audio for this program is not available.
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