One of the reasons I love going to the Driftless area is the beauty I see there. From my new home in North Carolina it's a much longer drive than it was from St. Louis, more than double. As I was driving to get there I went through Chicago. After I survived Chicago I was wondering aloud to Stella, 'why is this drive worth it??!!' remorseful of making the decision to make the drive in the first place. After Madison, I saw it. The rolling hills, the brief and sudden coulees. Peace, fresh air and beauty happened all at once. Then I said aloud with a deep breath of relief, 'oh yeah, this is why.' There's nothing quite like long solo road trip to teach one the art of self conversation - I can say I'm talking to Stella but that's not exactly the truth although she does perk her ears to hear what I'm saying then when she determines that it's not applicable to her she goes back to sleep. And as we drove deeper into the Driftless Region all the memories of exploring the coulees and hollows started to come back to me. The fish caught, the flora and fauna and the people.
My time in the Driftless this May was no different. Though we had some very unusual weather and storms the beauty was still there. Fishing before, during and after the rains brought newness to everything. Yeah it was surprisingly cold and miserable at times but the inherent beauty of it all supercedes that and is what I remember. The bugs hatched, the fish ate, the flowers bloomed, the streamside mint filled the air when you stepped on it. Oh man, the mint!! When you see a fish rising in the pool or run ahead and you crouch down to stay out of their senses and you get a lungfull of the mint you just stepped on - there is nothing in my imagination that compares with that. It reminds me to take it slow and easy, not to rush - observe and enjoy that particular moment. Check my fly, check my tippet, watch the fish and see if I can learn from it, then make my move to see if I can fool it.
Part of this past trip to Viroqua was the wonder of the people there. One morning when I was hanging out at the fly shop I decided to walk down the street to the new coffee shop. On my way there I ran into -almost literally- a lady walking briskly up the street. She was walking with some serious purpose and what seemed to be a little agitation. Right before she reached me she paused and said in a high local dialect 'I sure hope you're goin home cuz the big storm's a comin!!' The night before there were some big storms in the area and I think she expected more. Then she said hi to Stella as most people do, then she kept on. I heard her say something in the distance but couldn't tell what it was. When I stopped in at the coffee shop (newly opened Kickapoo Coffee Cafe) I saw a remotely familiar face that I later realized was someone I recognized from the Driftless Cafe from years past. I ordered a coffee then was talked into a pastry (I'm not much on pastries). But this thing, I think it's called a Pate Brisee, is savory, local and amazing. It has all kinds of stuff in it that I would never put together - egg (I just recently started liking scrambled eggs, barely), spinach, ham, cream cheese, aioli all in a flakey croissant pastry shell. It was truly incredible and addicting. I ended up wearing 1/3 of it. Every day after that I ate one - each day a little different with fresh local ingredients. One night I even dreamt of them - once having a bonafide nightmare that they sold out before I could make it in town. By the end of my week in Viroqua I felt like I had friends there at the coffee shop. I would stop in once or twice a day, say hello, get my morning pastry goodness and coffee, and my afternoon coffee and treat, chat, show off fish and fauna pictures and talk about the day. It was a great place to stop with my fishing buddies, look at maps and make plans. I'm sure they were tired of stinky and wet fisherman, wearing their strange rubber pants and space boots, stopping in, but they didn't let on. Always smiles as big and friendly as ever. One day on the picnic table outside I noticed a pot of herbs - with a tall stem of mint in the middle. Hospitality, food and feeling welcome is a beautiful thing.
If it's not obvious, I'm a sucker for plants. I love running across wild plants that I recognize from other places - my childhood and recent gardens. I saw some pink honeysuckle for the first time. And I saw some columbine not yet in bloom. Makes me want to go back when the columbine is in bloom. Hmmm - now I'm thinking of when to go back....
In his book Trout, Ernest Schwiebert says "I fish because of beauty". I can't think of a better answer to give when someone asks me why I love fishing, why I build fly rods and why the Driftless area has such a hold on me.