When one has seen Spring’s blossom fall in London, and Summer appear and ripen and decay, as it does early in cities, and one is in London still, then, at some moment or another, the country places lift their flowery heads and call to one with an urgent, masterful clearness, upland behind upland in the twilight like to some heavenly choir arising rank on rank to call a drunkard from his gambling-hell. No volume of traffic can drown the sound of it, no lure of London can weaken its appeal. Having heard it one’s fancy is gone, and evermore departed, to some coloured pebble agleam in a rural brook, and all that London can offer is swept from one’s mind like some suddenly smitten metropolitan Goliath.
When the hills called I used to go to them by road, riding a bicycle. …
-Lord Dunsany, “The Field”
Recently I did, in fact, go to the hills by bicycle – west along the Military Ridge trail, to Governor Dodge State Park in the Driftless Area. The Driftless is the part of the Upper Midwest – mostly Wisconsin – where the glaciers of the last Ice Age never reached. As a result, the terrain is rather more dramatic; West Blue Mound, 1719 feet above see level, is the highest point. Here it is from the trail:
The photograph flattens things out, somewhat, alas. Anyway, according to Wikipedia the Driftless is also called the Palaeozoic Plateau, although I have never heard anybody in Wisconsin use that term; it’s always been just “the Driftless”.
After a fifty-odd mile ride, as I was getting my bike up a considerable slope from Cox’s Hollow Lake to the park office, it did cross my mind that maybe the terrain was a bit too dramatic. But then I parked my bike, pitched my tent, and after several long minutes dozing on a surprisingly comfortable wooden picnic table, I swapped my helmet for a hat with a floppy brim and went wandering.
From the trails on offer I picked the Lost Canyon Trail; despite the romance of that name, one of the other options offered serious competition by boasting a Cave Trail. Due to time constraints, the Cave Trail remains a shadow-haunted mystery, its portals into unplumbed abysses of elder night waiting for another trip. The Lost Canyon Trail did not disappoint, though – it led first through prairie, then woodland, which was pleasant but had me thinking, you know, is this canyon actually lost? Like, they don’t know where it is?
But, no! Soon I could look down into it from the woods, full of pines and ferns and rocks. And before too long I followed a little stream to where it plunged over Stephen’s Falls into the canyon, and could walk a stony little switchback trail down the 80-odd feet to the base of the falls, where it was deliciously chilly after walking in sunshine and 31C. Half-way down I made not one but two of my best sightings of the trip. First bulblet fern (Cystopteris bulbifera) – unmistakable on turning over the frond to see the little bulblets:
and then walking fern (Asplenium rhizophyllum):
It “walks” because the tips of the leaves, when they touch the ground, can take root and produce a new plant. Hence the tangled cluster seen here.
A number of people were at the foot of the falls, one of the park’s major sights, and I had an urge to run down and grab them and demand they look at these amazing ferns. This I resisted, but only with difficulty. So I just shared the moment with these survivors of two great extinctions. It was a personal Palaeozoic Plateau.
From there it was a cool, dim and beautiful ramble along the streamside, until the trail took a hairpin turn to climb back up, and return to its beginning. I had a head-lamp with me, and probably could have happily explored more trails for hours; but the length of the day and the work-week before it started to catch up with me like a thousand of bricks, and as the Sun sank I was more or less falling asleep on my feet. On the rambling I did manage to do, I caught an adorable – and also sleepy – baby garter snake (Thamnophis) leeching heat from the limestone gravel:
I worried that it was dead, actually, but a closer look showed its sides expanding and contracting with its breathing. Better ears than humans get would probably have picked up snoring.
Fighting with weariness I did stay out to see the Sun going down; more and more hidden by clouds, but still casting a last light on upland behind upland.
And so, to my sleeping bag. You know, I still can’t really sleep the night through when camping, but having an e-reader makes a huge difference. You’re never really roughing it with half-a-thousand self-illuminating books in one pocket of your cargo shorts. And, anyway, like Humboldt says:
… I experienced in my travels, enjoyments which have amply compensated for the privations.