The Venerate Outpost
In a bump in the road called Pilot Mound, Minnesota, Karl Unnasch makes stained-glass creations in his mercantile-turned-studio. In January of 2018, Philbrook’s own Mark Brown drove up from Tulsa to see what he was all about.
By Mark Brown
“The reader may, if he likes, begin with the first of the book, build his way through it, and graduate by building the log houses; in doing this he will be closely following the history of the human race …”
— Daniel Carter Beard, Shelters, Shacks and Shanties (1914)
I’ll drive anywhere. My preference is to places I’ve never been, but even long treks across the familiar Great Plains offer respite. Airports having long since lost their romance for me, I sing the lost highways.
But even I have limits. Tulsa to Minnesota in a day is one of them. The things I usually enjoy about driving — taking my time, stopping at little vistas, watching the landscapes unfold, seeing two coyotes dive into a drain pipe near Big Cabin — those disappear when I trade beloved spectacle for necessary speed. Philbrook to Pilot Mound, Minnesota is 688 miles: 10 hours without stops. All this for Karl Unnasch.
My trip had two purposes: deliver the ornamental glass to Pilot Mound and, for the museum archive, write a story about the enigmatic stained-glass artist who was turning an 19th century woodpile into Philbrook’s next art piece.
When I first met Karl back in the spring of 2017, the cabin was still transitioning from a pile of logs into an art installation. From the pictures I’d seen, Unnasch hadn’t yet worked his stained-glass magic into the logs. But that was, in fact, one of my reasons for driving all this way.
Some of that magic was in the back of my Nissan Rogue, sleeping precariously under a canvas tarp: hundreds of glass jars, vintage ashtrays, wine goblets, platters, and bowls that would become lanterns and light fixtures, essential components of Unnasch’s project. In that regard I felt, at least in spirit, a lot like the semis I’d passed along 35, delivering supplies from far away.
My trip had two purposes: deliver the ornamental glass to Pilot Mound and, for the museum archive, write a story about the enigmatic stained-glass artist who was turning an 19th century woodpile into Philbrook’s next art piece.
“Saw an Amish buggy!” I texted Karl with my whereabouts: several miles south of Des Moines, near Winterset, home of the Covered Bridges Welcome Center (as in The Bridges of Madison County) and the birthplace of John Wayne. Des Moines feels like a more Midwestern Tulsa, flanked by corn. Both have a river running through downtown; both downtowns are waking up after decades of sleep; both show empty sidewalks after five. One point for Des Moines: it’s the capital of Iowa, and the capitol building is a gorgeous, golden dome that reflects gorgeously the last of the winter night’s sun.
But we have a better arena.
Southern Minnesota is the upper crust of the American bread basket. A light snow lay heathered on dormant fields of corn. I hear Minnesota and think lakes, but that country was far north of me. Here were gently rolling hills falling off into lazy creeks lined with frosted conifers.
To my relief, an interstate highway sign indicated the exit for Chatfield, “The Gateway to Bluff Country.” After coasting through the cute, if brief, downtown, flanked by the northern branch of the Root River, I headed west, climbing a long hill overlooking the valley floor. Dark rock outcroppings threw shadows across the snowmelt.
The roads were clear and, while there was no indication of Pilot Mound on any road signs, I kept going. The sun even appeared, for bits of time, between silver-gray clouds that soon closed like drapes. I took a curve and began a descent into a dark holes of the woods. When I emerged, I’d arrived in Pilot Mound. I pulled up in front of a gray storefront and got out. Off to the side stood the log cabin. It was a pile of Lincoln logs, but none of the Lincolns were home.
Southern Minnesota is the upper crust of the American bread basket.
I stuck my face in a window of a former mercantile — now a studio — and heard the door squeak on its frozen hinges. A stout, bearded guy who’d look at home in chainmail opened the door.
“Welcome to Bluff Country!” Karl said.
“And there’s snow!” I said, shaking his hand.
“This? This is thin butter on shitty toast.”
Karl Unnasch will tell you it’s a studio. I say it’s more of a repository: part junk heap, part construction zone, part mind-game. Many of Karl’s fanboy pastimes are on parade here: superhero action figures, cartoon legends, zombie propaganda, many of them amassed simply because he likes the look of them. For all the exhaust that his art creates, he bought an old diner’s grill vent-a-hood, beneath which hangs a collection of shears, cutters, snippers and a few menacing samples of medieval weaponry. For hard-earned downtime, there are crates of ale and plastic tubs of salted-in-the-shell peanuts.
When I arrived in Pilot Mound, the Unnasches sat me down for lunch in the old homestead he’s been fixing up since 2008. I begged off, given a late breakfast on the road, but Karl’s wife Nicole either didn’t hear me or ignored me in a wave of hospitality that would not be quelled. I passed on the creamed corn and smoked sausage, leaving more of the latter for Karl and the former for little Hugo, fresh from a nap.
I did manage, however, to sample from a jar of pickled garlic scapes, which tasted like pickles. The house of Unnasch will pickle just about anything and has a basement full of Mason jars to prove it. But a plentiful larder wasn’t all that lent the house a Hobbitish aspect.
There was the round kitchen-to-den archway,which Karl built as “a gift for Nicole,” and the antique pump organ employed as a liquor cabinet. In the middle of the bathroom stood a pillar of stone cradling a brass basin, over which a high-wire act of chain pulleys for hot and cold water flanked a faucet that sprayed from the ceiling like a small shower.
Set into the bathroom walls lined in plywood were a dozen iron doors off old stoves and such, which functioned as a kind of rustic medicine chest. To get to the toilet paper, I pulled open an iron lid reading, “Check Draft.”
“I’m not interested in steampunk,” he said. “I’m not interested in it being sexy.” Instead, everything was sturdy and natural, stone and iron and wood. “There’s not a single piece of sheetrock in the place.”
Karl’s not the only Frodo in the woods. His hunting buddy Coop, head of IT for Fillmore County, recruited him to help with road naming in around the hamlet. How information technology translates to naming convention is a Bluff Country mystery, but out of it you get, half a mile north of Gaelic Road, Hobbit Lane.
Scott Stulen (Philbrook’s Director) and Karl Unnasch met at the Rochester Art Center, where their passionate natures applied to more things than painting and sculpture.
“Like a lot of my friends — and maybe this says more about me than it does them — he doesn’t do anything that’s not all in,” Stulen said of Unnasch, whose artist statement explains an idea he calls “constructs of nostalgia” this way:
“I continue to develop a more refined visual language that becomes a ‘gray’ area where identity, value, memory and record are gleaned, processed and addressed. An overriding ‘conflict vs. cooperative’ heartbeat stems from thematic conversations of work/play, the adult/the child, the aware/the naïve, the planned/the instinctive, and the connected/the remote.”
Karl is the son of Winnie and Richard Unnasch, for thirty-five years a dairy farmer with a homestead just over the hill.
“Northern German, last time I checked,” Karl said when I asked about the name. “Pomerania, maybe?” Out in the drive, Richard Unnasch unloaded an Igloo of frozen beef parcels: a belated Christmas gift. Once he filled Karl’s freezer, he was off to Wisconsin.
“What’s there?” I asked.
“Another son,” said Richard with a shrug.
In all, there are six Unnasch siblings, including a sister who teaches art in Lanesboro, Minnesota, where Karl grew up. A once-booming mill town and cooperative hub to neighboring farmers before the 1980s bust, it’s now a tourist destination of rustic streets lined with dining rooms and watering holes. From the Root River State Trail — at one time a rail line — you can access trails for mountain biking and cross-country skiing. Karl’s own school has converted into swank condominiums overlooking the Root River.
“We’ll go by there,” Karl said. “May even hit the High Court for a beer. We’ll see.”
Bluff Country is also Amish country, where clothes are hung on lines to freeze-dry in the dead of winter. “There’s a new barn,” Karl said, pointing out an unblemished white-and-red prefab. “You can tell they’re doing well.”
We were “sewing,” meaning wending our way back and forth along the rural routes in and around Pilot Mound. Karl knew the land well enough, I noticed, that he didn’t even bother removing the grime obscuring his SUV’s back windshield.
We came to a crossing in the middle of small wood. Across the road, what had to have been a proud homestead years ago now sat eerily silent, shedding window panes and spitting roof shingles. While I was out snapping pictures, Karl pointed out a small red shack just off the road. The ground all around was green with moss.
“That’s a springhouse,” he said. The temperature inside a springhouse hovers around 38 degrees. “You can cool a watermelon in there.”
They call this the “Driftless Area.” The land here escaped the ravages of the last ice age, allowing its topography to reflect the erosion of water chipping away at limestone. “Prows,” meaning limestone bluff points resembling a ship’s bow, jut out from the treeline as geological reminder. “Unspoiled beauty,” the tourism website calls it: “For the casual traveler who is looking for quiet time to reflect in nature’s beautiful surroundings, Bluff Country offers a special place far from the maddening crowds.”
Eventually, we end up at Hot Iron Drive and the family farm, where Karl came of age. Towering up from the middle of it is a formidable red barn that, in its heyday, was a milking facility. A conveyor still leads to the second-story loft.
“Throwing bales is how I got this bum shoulder,” said Karl, feeling it at 47.
The Unnasches now farm corn and soybeans (“Agro food,” Karl said), and the barn is now a spot for lobster feeds and family Christmases before the big potbelly stove. The old washroom became the hunting kitchen where kill is processed and cooked. Karl had plans to turn the barn into a distillery, before he opted for the art trade.
“I didn’t want to turn my passion into my work,” he said.
Just past the barn, with a nice view of a tall bluff, stands a log cabin, overlooking a parcel of land that, in spring, turns to marsh when the confluence of the Root River and the Trout Run Creek swells. Unnasch family lore has it that the cabin originally sat on the opposite bank of the Root, before being relocated to the spot above the tin shed that served as Karl’s first studio.
“It’s over 100 years old, for sure,” Karl’s mom Winnie once told the Chatfield News. “It was the Trulson cabin and we have a picture of the cabin when it was across the river, but we don’t know who’s in the picture.”
Karl, prone to speculate on such matters, adds a wrinkle to the theory.
“I can’t attest to the truthiness of the family legend/story,” he said, “but I can attest to the sensible logistics involved. It would take very little resources to disassemble the stacked logs and get them down a low incline to the river, then float them across, then pull them up a low incline to reassemble them on-site of a rocky knoll, versus hauling them in what would have been more than one trip to the nearest road that crosses the river once and a creek twice of roughly a four-mile distance up and down hills with draft animals.The story makes good ‘horse sense’.”
We had been outside for a nearly half an hour, and my bones were feeling it. I went to make a note and realized I’d left my pen somewhere. I jumped around nervously, hoping to mush the sled along.
“You cold?” Karl asked. “It’s a stinger! Get in; we’ll head down to Chris Vogen’s now.”
Karl wanted to show me where straight-line winds had made a mess of Vogen’s barn. I don’t think it was the totaled barn so much, though, that he wanted to show me, as a window into the world he lives in: a country where people know and look out for each other, where barter and banter trade equally, and where community-dulling addiction, if present, wasn’t so easily swept under the rug.
Near Vogen’s, we drove down to the river to take a look at the remnants of an old iron bridge. The water in the Root showed floes of ice in the dark current. Everything in the landscape was either a wet brown or snow white. Climbing the hill, Karl whipped the truck into the drive of Seth Erickson, because he wanted to show me another log cabin.
“Think there’s anybody home?” I asked.
“Ah, it dudn’t matter,” he said.
The cabin was in its third incarnation: a life of idleness. Its second incarnation was as a granary. There were still seeds and stems strewn about the floor. The whole thing was skinned in lumber, making the cabin all but unnoticeable to the untrained eye. But, in its first life, the cabin was a small but mighty fortress of solid beams and plank flooring, with a ladder leading to a modest loft.
Karl came to life in such places. It all goes back, he said, to the time he was visiting a friend in Ipswich, England, a guy who knew a guy — a well-heeled videographer for Nat Geo — who had recently acquired a 15th-century Viking feast hall.
“The ceiling only came up to about here,” Karl said, waving a hand a few inches above his 5’6” head.
England afforded him opportunity to chase another of his obsessions: bog mummies. For decades now, in various parts of the western isles, the ground has been giving up ghosts in the form of Iron Age-era humans, unearthed millennia after their burial in the marshlands of England, Ireland and Wales. These specimens were pristinely preserved due to the organic qualities of the peat bog from which they were uncovered.
The bodies are striking in their composition, facial features and even expressions frozen in time. There is a theory, based on evidence both observed and examined via radiocarbon dating, that some of the so-called bog people may have been been murdered, if not ritually dispensed by ceremonial rite.
“Druidic and whatnot,” Karl said.
However you explain them , I think it’s the preservation of the bodies that appeals to Karl. After all, the bog mummies are nothing short of pickled, in their way.
Holding forth in Lanesboro’s High Court Pub (circa 1876), Karl nursed a pint and unleashed on a torrent of subjects: wild deer, pale ale, Penn Jillette. He ate popcorn by the fist to punctuate.
“He really has a sweet tooth,” said Suzy Slater, Karl’s newest studio assistant, under her breath but not enough.
“I don’t have a sweet tooth,” Karl said. “Do I?”
“Oh, you have a sweet tooth, all right.”
Out the window, Lanesboro portrayed in flower boxes and retro street lamps what it used to ooze in real color: people with jobs to do, kids on bikes with places to go, storefronts peddling serious wares instead of novelty gifts. Across the street, where another brick building used to be, there’s a gaping hole left there by a town cop who set fire to it in an elaborate scheme to win back a woman. (It failed.) But for its foibles, Lanesboro punches above its population (750) and has become something of a tourist destination: “One of 20 Best Small Towns to Visit” (Smithsonian), “One of Ten Charming Midwestern Towns to Visit This Summer” (Fodor’s). Heck, Outside magazine included it among 20 “American Dream Towns” in 2007.
“Used to be a time,” Karl said, “when people did things with heart — cooking and agriculture, whatnot — because that’s what you did, and you knew who you were doing it for.”
He was talking about everyman here, or at least a lot of men and women, Lanesboro and beyond. Back in that time, people who did things for reasons less than legitimate were not to be trusted.
“Nobody wanted to be around that person,” Karl said. “Because he was a dick.”
Suzy asked me about Tulsa, and I drew her a map and a legend. Then I asked her how she ended up in Pilot Mound. She paused.
“I’m reconnecting to things I always liked,” she said, “but had gotten away from.”
A Hoosier from Noblesville, Indiana, a small farming community now rolled into the Indianapolis metro, she has a bachelor’s from the Meadows School of Arts at Southern Methodist University, where her focus was on steel sculpture and alternative-process photography. That may or may not explain how she ended up in custom jewelry design, a career in which she stayed for 11 years.
“While I loved the trade,” she said, “after over a decade I just couldn’t see myself sitting in the back of a windowless room for the rest of my life.”
In 2015, she said, she went home and back to school for an MFA at the Herron School of Art and Design in Indianapolis. On a first semester field trip, she met Scott Stulen, the newly installed Curator of Audience Engagement and Performance at the Indianapolis Museum of Art.
“We were out in the Art and Nature Park when he promptly sat down and excitedly told us about all the programs he was working on, all the while describing how important his team is.”
Slater joined that team, first as an intern and then as a contractor and teaching artist. (She also created a work of her own for the 2017 Mini Golf installation at IMA.) It was there she met Karl, where twice she helped him install “Playtime in Indy,” the 50-foot Christmas tree built entirely of children’s toys. In August of 2017, she moved to Pilot Mound to become Karl’s fifth assistant in as many years. (They tend not to last long. One made it all of a day.)
“They don’t understand what they’re getting into,” Karl said. “I’m preparing them for the life ahead, all of it. It’s not what they signed up for.”
A life of giving and teaching, thinking and acting, a glad-handing, back-breaking metier where art and life meet.
“I think all of the aforementioned events were a type of vetting process,” Slater said. “To see what I am about and if I could possibly be a fit, because there is no job description for what I do. While studio manager/assistant would be the closest thing to a title, that would only be a part of it. Because to be here is a lifestyle, not just a job.”
“Mark, sprinkle a bit of salt on the side pork,” he said. “Really gives it that …”
I don’t know how to spell the sound that followed, but it’s a sound Karl does with aplomb. The side pork — sometimes called side meat; think bacon, but more rib than belly, thus more meat — I surmised would benefit from a drizzle of John (Bostrack) and Amy’s cherry syrup.
I’d barely awaked from a deep sleep in a little attic bunk, after two piles of Nicole’s lasagna, a big salad, and a bigger chocolate cake with berries. Unnasch Lasagna includes a dollop of “hots” on the side, hots being pickled peppers you’d find on a Chicago-style hotdog. I gave half my cake to Hugo.
“Yeah, we don’t starve around here,” Karl said.
The plan that day, after the walk, was a road trip. Karl and Nicole have a house across the Mississippi in La Crosse, a mid-century split-level with a big hearth in the middle.
“We’ll have a fire night,” Karl called it. But not before a walk.
Easily the most visible structure in Pilot Mound Township is the Lutheran church across the road. We entered through the unlocked front door. A snow shovel leaned against the clapboard. Inside, the church was full of the moldy ghostly leathery aroma of penitence in action. Like a lot of the small-town churches of my experience, the Pilot Mound Lutheran Church flies both the Christian flag and the Stars and Stripes. Both of them, draped on brass poles, stood at attention over against a wall.
Karl did some pro bono stained glass for the Lutherans: a pair of Gothic windows at the rear of the chancel and a quote from St. Matthew: “The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few.” The design is bordered in a Mobius strip..
“We’re not religious,” Karl said of the donation, “but I needed the tax write-off.”
We headed to the town hall, the other building of old Pilot Mound still intact. We poked around in vintage secretaries that still held voting records, meeting minutes and transcripts back to the 1920s. Pinned to the bulletin board was a flier for a “wild parsnip warning.”. The walls were adorned with those bucolic landscape oils that depict America as prairie Eden. There’s a sadness in the images that pushes beyond pastiche. They scream to me of faith, in nature as idyll, in agrarian ethic, and as such, as corporations assume ownership of the land and families disintegrate, with the parents dying in tree-lined kirkyards and kids melting into the suburbs, such scenes don’t make me want to lie down in green pastures, beside quiet waters, they make me want to hibernate.
Karl reached into a drawer and pulled out a circa-1956 Skelly road map of Minnesota.
“Here, take one,” he said.
It was in pristine condition, the colors bright, the pages clean and fresh.
“I could have used this a couple of days ago,” I said.
Back over the bridge, Karl pointed out his fishing hole on Money Creek, a nice pool beneath a broad tree that, come summer, will throw a lot of shade. It seemed a fitting way to end the walk. We packed up the car for the roadtrip east over the Mississippi. We’d follow the Root River.
But first, we raided Karl’s root cellar. Nicole and Karl are Seed Savers. He loaded me up on heirloom beans, dried herbs, huckleberry jam and “hucky” barbecue sauce, pickled cucumbers and new potatoes the size of Nerfballs. (Later, on my way back to Tulsa, I’d pass the Seed Savers Exchange: a repository of American heirloom garden and food crop heritage in the form of 20,000-plus seed varieties, seven miles north of Decorah, Iowa.)
On the way out of town, we passed the actual Pilot Mound:a rise not a mile outside the township. An American flag waves in the breeze.
“The old ox trail west,” Karl said. From atop Pilot Mound, a trailblazer could see for miles.
We didn’t get three miles before we hit Rushford, a cute little burg with a handsome Lutheran church and a big municipal park.
“Wait up a second!” Karl said, stopping our caravan. “You ever had lefse?”
We parked across the street from the spartan establishment of Norsland Lefse. Inside, behind glass, women in hairnets produced the potato flatbread known in the mother country as lefse. You roll up and stuff with sausage and cheese, or smoked trout and onion and sour cream, or butter and sugar and cinnamon.
“Nicole and I will stop here sometimes on the way back and forth,” Karl said. “Anyway, you can fill your coffee here.”
I refilled, and bought a jar of lingonberry. At a table near the door, a team of emergency medical workers smiled and asked if they could help.
“Just getting some lefse,” Karl said. “It’s a new one on him.”
“Oh yeah?” a couple of them said in unison. It was like somebody told them smiles heal better than chest compressions.
In the car, I tore off a flat of lefse, the pita of the plains. Tasty, but without stuffing, it felt like chewing on notebook paper.
Karl Unnasch espouses a philosophy he calls “lateral knowledge.”
“Long story short,” he said, “it is my concept of using the closely-bound yet unconnected information you have at the time of a pending problem to best apply toward a hopefully imminent solution, without full recognition nor previous experience of the situation you are bound to.”
He cited Morgan Freeman from Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, who, when charged with performing a cesarean, replies, “I have seen this many times. With horses.”
“A damn good pop-culture example of lateral knowledge,” Karl said. “You have never even had contact with any of the elements of the current situation, yet you have plenty of related knowledge to make you the best candidate to solve it compared to those surrounding you.”
In a book he’d been reading, Shelters, Shacks and Shanties and How to Build Them, author D.C. Beard builds upon a progression of skill sets that inform a would-be “axeman” in the construction of everything from fallen-tree shelters to an Adirondack log camp, from a tree-top house to a tar-paper shack. Written for the “Boy Pioneers and Boy Scouts” of the Great War era, Beard summons the knowledge of ages, when the American camper, as he called it, “was building his fires, toasting his venison, and building ‘sheds’ when the red-bearded Eric settled in Greenland, and when Thorwald fought with the ‘Skraelings,’ and Biarni’s dragon ship made the trip down the coast of Vineland.”
Karl, an obsessive man by any measure, obsesses about log cabins in a way that I hadn’t thought possible.
“The reader must have, no doubt, noticed that the problems in this book have become more and more difficult as we approach the end,” Beard argued, “but this is because everything grows; as we acquire skill we naturally seek more and more difficult work on which to exercise our skill.”
Karl, an obsessive man by any measure, obsesses about log cabins in a way that I hadn’t thought possible. He sits around watching YouTube excursions in log-cabining, of guys roaming leafy countrysides in search of neglected specimens, others sawing logs and wattling seams.
How Karl ended up with the cabin: While rebuilding the old Trulson cabin that sits on his parents’ land, Karl drove to Wisconsin to scavenge parts at a place called Gene’s Used Furniture in Weyerhaeuser. There he noticed a stack of timbers the sort of which stands out to a man keen on cabins. A bit of barter later, and it was his.
Originally, he’d planned to live in it, there in Pilot Mound. But then Scott Stulen called from Tulsa and the residence was reimagined as an installation, an inhabitable artwork of old wood, stained glass, and rope light., with some industrial-strength shingles, maybe Karl’s favorite feature.
“Shingles,” I should say, as what he held up for display were two child-size T-shirts, board stiff from multiple dippings in Hetron 922. Overlapped and lit from within, they would provide stylish shelter from the hail and thunderstorm; he tested their durability with shotgun blasts from close range.
“Corrosion resistant to both strong acids and bases,” he wrote me in an email. “Inherent toughness provides fabrication advantages and resistance to both impact and thermal shock damage. Meets FDA regulation Title 21 CFR.177.2420.”
All along, he’d been envisioning a playful look for the place. “I was going for a kid’s clubhouse feel,” he said. “A soft, fairy-tale feel.”
Only now, instead of residing on the banks of Money Creek, it’ll sit next to Crow Creek, between Menashe Kadishman’s Negative Tree and Philbrook’s outdoor fireplace.
“We need to do something with Waite’s old barbecue,” Karl said, licking his chops.
The Wisconsin side of the Mississippi feels colder than the Minnesota side. The river froze in stages, with the freshest currents forming the slushy floes. Out in the liquid middle waterfowl floated, fresh from their sorties.
In my focus on Karl, I’d failed to note that I’d be adding a state to my list. Wisconsin made it thirty of fifty. To celebrate, we went to the Bodega Brew Pub, where I ate a Braunschweiger and onion sandwich and drank a Belgian ale.
“This is where I met Nicole,” Karl said. “Match.com. It was warm and she was in a sundress.”
Nicole’s parents emigrated from Romania. Her mother, self-conscious of her vampirish canines, had them filed down. Her father, Hugo Jan Huss, “was basically national conductor of Romania,” Karl said. After performing a concert for Nicolae Ceaușescu, general secretary of the Romanian Communist Party, he defected, first to Paris and then to Chicago.
“After the concert, he met Ceaușescu and shook his hand,” Nicole said. “He knew then he could never go back.”
A portrait of the great Jan Huss sits on the piano lid in the La Crosse house. Baton poised, dressed in tails and sporting a neatly trimmed beard, he strikes me as a man of singular focus. It’s in the eyes, which are also, strikingly, Nicole’s eyes.
“He was a rascal, that one,” Karl said.
The next morning at the house, Nicole asked if toast and eggs would be OK. But the Braunschweiger from the night before still held sway in Karl and me so we sipped coffee instead. It was almost time to head out.
Karl opened my vintage Skelly map, which did not extend far enough east into Wisconsin to offer any guidance. Instead, he ran his finger over the terrain of Minnesota, pointing out the not-so-subtle shift from bluff to prairie to lake country. The top of the map depicted a thousand baby-blue puddles.
“Stick to 35 until you see the bridge for Lansing,” he said. “Stick to the river.”
The thermometer read 5 degrees Fahrenheit. I went outside for two minutes to start my car: long enough for my all-but-bald head to get bitten.
“It’s a stinger!” Karl said. “There’s a reason we’re so thick.”
I said my goodbyes. Little Hugo was pounding thin buttered toast while Karl handed me a Ziploc bag of pitted dates and a tumbler of coffee.
“See you in April.”
I followed Nicole’s directions out of La Crosse and Karl’s from there onward, clinging to the river road like a frontier scout in my Japanese SUV. The Mississippi of this upper valley is a maze of sloughs and willow isles, dotted with ice-fishing huts in which presumably huddled heavily padded ice fishermen.
Between Genoa and Victory, I came upon the Battle of Bad Axe historic site. The battle itself was a lopsided skirmish of the Black Hawk War (some have chronicled it the Bad Axe Massacre) fought in 1832 between the legendary band leader of the Sauk and Fox and the U.S. Army. The Native Americans not slaughtered moved west, while the New Americans settled Wisconsin and Illinois, pitching cabins akin to the 1880s version now sitting on the banks of Crow Creek on the Philbrook grounds. You can just make out the roof of tiled t-shirts from 29th Street.
I crossed the river back into Iowa and settled in for a western trek. Before turning south to Des Moines and Kansas City, I had a lot of Iowa to cover. I gassed up in the burg of Waukon, after which it was all rolling farmland and feed cooperatives. Homesteads hid behind evergreen windbreaks, snow dusting their gravel drives.
As I drove I thought about how, back in Pilot Mound at the Lutheran church, I’d pulled a tract from a forgotten bundle: “The Rural Crisis and the Church in Ministry,” dated January 1985. On the cover was a sepia-toned photo of a farmer, walking head-down along a country road, a bluff towering over the humble homestead.
“A lifelong commitment to the high calling of producing food and fiber for the neighbor is being forcibly terminated for many,” came the plea.
Karl told me he did the Lutherans’ stained glass for the tax write-off, but I don’t believe him. I think he did it for the farmers: for the rural crisis and the church in ministry. For the humble homestead. Heathen, pagan, or whatnot, there’s an artist-woodtick in a studio across the road from a country church adorned in stained glass, the message of which could be: yeah, I don’t farm anymore but we’re still all in this together.