As Printed in: Tapestry Magazine
Vol. III, No. 6, June, 2004
Riding the River
The Great River Road Loop – starting and ending in Lansing, IA
by Larsh Bristol
THIS IS A PERFECT 70-mile loop that has it all. Radical curves, smooth asphalt, dynamic scenery, and friendly river towns full of unique spots to drown road thirst or hunger pains.
Here’s what to do. Meet your friends in Lansing at any one of the stores, saloons, or galleries. If it’s your first visit to this fun river town take some time to walk around and soak in a real river-rat town that is in the midst of pulling, pushing, even kidnapping the locals into a new era of a tourism economy. Lansing is booming despite itself, as people from all over are discovering its beauty and unique character. Don’t leave until you’ve watched a 15-barge tow negotiate the sharpest corner on the river, at the same time maneuvering between the cement pylons of the Blackhawk Bridge. Only the best river pilots are allowed up the river this far, and they like showing off their tremendous skill.
Okay, you’ve seen the barge make the turn, tasted the town, and the road is calling. Take the Great River Road south from Lansing heading into the bluffs on your way to Harpers Ferry. The road is a little bumpy climbing out of Lansing for a few miles, so beware — but nothing major. Follow the curves, the ups and downs of the rolling hills, until you see the Wexford church — a beautiful old limstone church which is still very active. The cemetery is full of crumbling limestone gravestones from the early 1800s, bearing names still heard in this valley.
As you drop down into the next valley and want to treat yourself for negotiating the corners so well, you can stop at Mohns fish market — one of the last fish markets around, where once there were many. This is real river fish. It’s not frozen, doesn’t come in box, and has names you can prounouce like carp, catfish, sheephead, and the ever-favorite, walleye. Buy it live or smoked. Smoked seems to work better on a motorcycle. I had one of those bags that said it was waterproof, but I don’t know if a 40-pound flathead catfish would enjoy the ride much. The fresh fish market is a piece of America’s history that is disappearing quickly and should be experienced, even if it is just to watch Mrs. Mohn filet fish. There’s no one faster or neater at the job.
A couple of miles down the road is Harpers Ferry, a small village located on Harpers Slough and famous for its fishing, hunting, and river fun. Stop in for a beverage at Bucks and Bulls and you may sit down beside Eastern Iowa’s most famous resident: Coach Gene Kling who took the Waukon Indian girls basketball team to an undefeated and State Championship season. Ask him how many games he’s won in a lifetime and you’ll be impressed. You may run into local Don Kleinschmidt whose handmade duck and geese calls are the best example of marrying art with function. Across the street, fuel up at Pat and Annie’s for the only 93-octane, go-fast gas you’ll find in the area. Buy a power ball ticket and spend the next few minutes dreaming of quitting your job, jumping on your ride, and never looking back at responsibility or your boss again.
Continue south on the Great River Road along peaceful Harpers Slough, past painted rock, through Waukon Junction, and up the hill to Highway 76. Take a left at the T intersection by the ostriches and fainting goats of Scenic View Ranch, and head down the twisty downhill run to Effigy Mounds National Monument and where the scenic Yellow River dumps into the Mississippi. If you have time visit Effigy Mounds. If you don’t, make a strong note to come back when you do. It’s Iowa’s only National Monument and well worth the time and effort to stretch your legs and visit the effigies Native Americans built in the shapes of bears, eagles,and other aspects of nature they revered and respected. Throw some tobacco around here and your spirit may be rewarded.
WE HAVE TO get going; we’re dawdling way too much… but that’s the whole idea, isn’t it? The freedom to go where you want, and to spend the time you want there. Okay. We’re hitting the throttle now on a narrow piece of pavement sqeezed between the river, railroad tracks, and sheer limestone bluffs. Watch out for falling rocks. I know you see those signs all the time; but they really — I mean, really — mean it here. Boom — you’re in Marquette: where the Isle of Capris gambling boat may be calling, but it’s too nice a day to spend giving your money away in a dark but obnoxiously loud atmosphere. that’s for winter, when the bike is covered in the garage.
Cross the Marquette bridge over the Big Muddy and head into Prairie du Chien — with a whopping six-thousand-some population this is the largest town on the tour, and one full of history. Confederate President Jefferson Davis worked with President Zeb Pike to build a fort here, way before the civil war. Marquette and Joliet drank rum here, and Native Americans met imported Americans here for the first time along the river banks. This is the turn town. There’s lots to see here, but we have just enough time to grab a Pete’s burger from the shack by the liquor and gun store, wipe the juicy onion and ground beef slop from our chin and throttle hand, and start back home — up the river this time, and in a different state.
Go through Prairie and turn north on Highway 35 — past Design Homes and Cabelas. Now you have the river on one side and bluffs on the other, and one of the most scenic, smooth, and straight stretches of pavement you and your bike will ever ride, I guarantee. This is Wisconsin all dressed up. You ride alongside speeding freight trains, sluggish barges, and boats filled with bronzed bodies looking, frightenly, too much alike. You’ll pass lock and damn number 9 in Lynxville where there are four buildings in town — three of which are bars. Keep heading up stream to Ferryville — a one-street town with the river on one side and an abundance of places on the other that serve fried cheese curds, thick burgers, and greasy brats. You don’t go to a Pilates class then go out for a seaweed salad in Ferryville. Here is where you connect with the river and eat river food that’s fried in beer batter and tastes sinfully delicious. Pick up a bag of Ferryville’s renowned cheese curds, throw them in your saddle bags, and when you get home you can give the kids a souvenir of the trip.
From Ferryville keep north on 35 for six miles until you see the turn for Lansing. Take a left along the dike; with water all around you, zip along the dike until you see the Blackhawk bridge. Slow down some here as the bridge is like a sexy foreign spy — it’s beautiful but a little dangerous. The floor is steel and can be slick when wet, and there’s a couple of whoopdedoos in the middle; so unless you want to play Dukes of Hazzard and catch air, keep the speed down and the hands on your bars.
Now you’re back in Lansing where you started. You only traveled some 70 miles and it took nearly all day. Life is good. Go down to the Rivers Edge restaurant — watch the sun set in all its brillance on the river, and reflect on the day and on how lucky you are to have enjoyed it. Then go in and get a double batch of fried cheese curds — so your stomach can remind you all night that you just didn’t dream the Lansing-to-Lansing Great River Road loop.
See ya on the road
Copyright ©2004 The Tapestry magazine
This essay first appeared in The Tapestry magazine (Vol. III, No. 5. May, 2004).
Our thanks to Julie Berg-Raymond for sharing Larsh’s articles (and therefore his humor and personality) from Tapestry to be included and enjoyed by visitors to Larsh’s web site.