Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Adventuring along the Mississippi River.

Towards the end of last week, a sudden and powerful urge to go out and explore came over me. I expected to stay close to town and go on a nice hike, but Tor suggested some other options and my adventure seeking self was ecstatic. The plan was formed to seek out the Mines of Spain just outside of Dubuque (a two hour drive away). Because of the driving distance, we decided to make a day of it by stopping off in Guttenberg, exploring Dubuque, and going to the Mississippi River museum. We also managed to fit Wisconsin in.

Guttenberg is a quaint river town an hour away from Decorah. There's a lock and dam system there, and plenty of cute little shops and eateries along the water. We stopped at the Clayton Ridge Meat Market and ate at their cafe called the Picket Fence. One of my favorite things about the Midwest so far is the pricing on food - a sandwich and side cost $4.99. It was a good sandwich and the best beans I've ever had. The cafe was super midwestern kitsch, which I love, and I posed with the little piggie placemat. I enjoyed you BBQ'd, little piggie. Delish.

After Guttenberg, we headed into Dubuque. Dubuque is the 8th largest city in Iowa, and an important river town on the border of Wisconsin and Illinois. Dubuque itself was weird. All of the storefronts and buildings downtown had this really neat old-time type architecture with red-brick buildings and stylized structures. But, every other corner had a bar and there were a ton of pro-life billboards. It had this weird feeling to it - you wanted to like it, but I couldn't ever imagine living there and I definitely didn't leave my car doors unlocked as I do in Decorah.

In any case, we stopped at the Mississippi River Museum, which was totally worth the $15 admission. I learned about the barge system for grain transport, about how they reversed the flow of the Chicago river, and that the Colorado river has been pretty much destroyed by dams. I also saw paddle fish, which are ridiculously awesome looking.

Afterwards we went to the Mines of Spain, which is a nature area along the Mississippi just outside of Dubuque. There's a huge bluff there that was quarried down the middle to create the horseshoe canyon. The canyon was pretty epic to hike through, and even better to climb on the top of. The flip side, however, is knowing the massive environmental shift created by completely tearing out the middle of this large limestone bluff. Of all the places I've explored, Iowa has been the most changed by humans in every sense of the word. It's trippy - this nature area was gorgeous, but would exist in a different way if Mr. Dubuque didn't come in and tear shit up. Regardless, the surrounding area has been restored to oak woodlands and prairie, and it was really nice to hike through.

We also messed around a lot on the frozen edge of the Mississippi. Tor and Steffen were very determined to catch and ride an ice drift along the river. I'm glad they failed though - I would have had to join them out of fear of being abandoned along the river, and had we all been on some random ice chunk in the middle of the Mississippi, questions arise like ... how to get off of it.

After the sun set and we made our way back to the car, we lucked out and got a table at L.May in downtown Dubuque. This was a very fancy place which our hiking boots and dirty jeans clearly clashed with, but I had earrings on so it was okay. We got a fig chutney and goat cheese appetizer, and then three different fancy pizzas to split up and share. It was really good.

We thought about exploring downtown Dubuque, but it was dead and I, in my weak-ass Californian sensibilities, was really cold. So we decided to drive over the Mississippi bridge into Wisconsin so I could say I've been there, and Tor wanted to take us to this grotto in Dickyville. First, the town is called Dickyville. What good could come out of Dickyville? And second, a grotto doesn't sound very exciting. Just a shrine of sorts. Oh man, this grotto was nothing short of AWESOME. Father Matthias Wernerus created the grotto from 1925 to 1930, themed on the ideas of love of God and love of Country. According to the pamphlet, "it is a creation in stone, mortar, and bright colored objects - collected materials from all over the world." And by objects, this is very much the case - rocks, stones, gems, porcelain, everything. Everything, arranged in all sorts of designs and patterns and on everything. It was amazing. There's the main grotto with the Virgin Mary, and then a whole structure behind it with all sorts of saints and sayings. Behind that, you have a whole park full of different structures - and a whole section about America and important historical happenings. It was ridiculously awesome. My words and pictures do it no justice.

All in all, I had a fantastic day. I like the Mississippi - and having lived with little rivers around, this is the biggest river I've seen. Everyone knows about the Mississippi, you grow up knowing it exists no matter where you live in the United States. The same cannot be said about Sacramento's American River. So meeting the Mississippi was really exciting. And adventuring with Tor and Steffen was a lot of fun - I ended the day feeling supremely happy.

Find more pictures here.

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