An insistent autumn breeze rattled the stalks of bluestem and junegrass that stretched out before me in rolling waves. Goldenrod swayed among them, adding a pop of yellow to a browning scene. An occasional bur oak, topped by red, nestled in the hills. I stepped through the opening of a small fence. As I took in the scene, one sound rose above the wind. It was a cricket chorus, the song of summer’s end.
I stood among the Weaver Dunes, where grasses rise and fall following the lazy contours of sand laid down ages ago, when the Chippewa, Zumbro and Mississippi Rivers came together here. Some of the resulting hillocks reach 30 feet high. The sand prairie, as the ecosystem is called, lies tucked into the flatlands between the town of Kellogg and the Mississippi. The gentle beauty slumbers right next door to the attention-grabbing Mississippi bluffs.
The dunes’ unique characteristics — sandy uplands near shallow waters — make a perfect home for Blanding’s turtles, a threatened species. Each June, the creatures crawl from their watery homes to lay eggs on these gritty rises.
Visitors to this area may be even more uncommon than the turtles. To find this spot, I turned away from the bluffs to follow a tiny county road. A green monster of a combine towered above brittle corn stalks, stirring up an earthen cloud. A few miles down, I parked in a gravel pull-off that could hold no more than two cars. A weathered sign spelled out the significance of this hidden gem.
Blame it on the trees. Many people drive along Hwy. 61, heading south from the bluffs of Red Wing along the Mississippi River, and believe they are drinking up all the beauty the land can pour forth. It’s understandable, considering that maples and oaks hug the two lanes, flashing reds, golds and an orange so deep that an eye can mistake it for brown until a ray of sunlight illuminates its warmth. Birches shimmer with yellow. The leafy show, though, constitutes only the most ostentatious of autumn’s beauties. Details, small and subtle, add touches of brilliance.
“Fall colors are great, but I like the little things, too, like these birds,” Jim Watson told me as we watched cedar waxwings flit in an evergreen. We chatted outside the Red Hotel, a bed-and-breakfast he owns with his wife, Pam, in Lanesboro, as I waited for morning frost to melt from my windshield.
From where I sat, atop a narrow limestone outcropping, no signs of civilization interrupted the ocean of trees. Deep red, russet and gold spread to the horizon. Clouds mimicked the undulating leaves with swells of gray and white.
The trail to this nature-made turret in Whitewater State Park, known as Inspiration Point, ascends hundreds of stairs and twists through a hilltop forest. My palms sweated, more because of the steep drop-off on either side than the climb I’d just made.
A hiker more brave than I stood on this protruding rock, arms outstretched, reveling in the grandeur. I hunkered down cross-legged, no less enthralled by the late-October scene.
When I’d had enough of the bird’s-eye view of fall, I made my way back to the embracing woods, where strong trunks lined the path. I steadied myself by gazing at the ground, not the crowns of trees 400 feet below. That’s when I encountered the most vibrant of autumn’s reds in miniature. A Balaustium mite — tinier than a spider, as brilliant as an apple — scurried about on the chalky limestone.
I returned to the foot of the stairs as a middle-aged woman with untamed brown hair ambled by. “I just woke up from a nap,” she confessed with glee. “Such a beautiful day; the sound of the river lulled me to sleep.”
I needed no more encouragement to head in the direction opposite my car. Along the trail at a bend in Trout Run Creek, a wooden bench perched under a canopy of oaks. I sat down and listened to water gurgle and chirp on its long and rambling journey to the Mississippi River. Behind me, a pond covered in algae looked like emerald velvet against the brown carpet of fallen leaves.
On the winding dirt road I had taken to the park, I’d caught other glimpses of the wetlands that mark this area. My car skimmed past marshlands and ponds. Ducks circled, rippling otherwise still water. Cattails clustered like a collection of exclamation points.
Lush valleys such as this one dot southeastern Minnesota. From Red Wing to La Crescent, the Cannon, Zumbro, Whitewater and Root rivers run through a landscape of grass-covered bluffs, tree-lined hills and shaded woods. Topographical maps of the region show a succession of river valleys reaching inland from the Mississippi; their intricate pathways look like ice crystals spread across the land.
This is the heart of the Driftless Area, a pocket of Minnesota that escaped the last glacier’s powerful flow. The detritus and dirt carried by the glacier, called drift, cover much of the state. This area, on the other hand, remained pure bedrock.
Still, the glacier forged a lasting imprint. As the hulking ice melted, it formed a large lake. Those waters felt an ancient tug of gravity and carried on the slow work of carving the region’s now lovely river valleys.
• • •
Children had made good use of fallen leaves; they’d raked them into the outlines of a parking lot for their handmade wagons. When I pulled up to the shop of Amish furniture-maker Dennis Hershberger, the young boys and girls took turns wheeling their wagon from the makeshift parking lot to the top of the sloped gravel driveway. They’d kick once or twice and then hop in for a ride. I happened upon the scene during harvest time, when the nearby Amish school was closed so that older children could help on the farms.
The Old Order Amish began arriving from Ohio in the 1970s, and liked what they encountered in the Driftless Area: rich farmland at reasonable prices near stands of trees that would allow them to mill wood for their homes. Their community is now thriving, and a driver on the curving back roads of Fillmore County is as likely to encounter a plain black buggy pulled by a single horse as a tractor motoring to a field. Sometimes, the two share a road. Amish farmland is scattered among their traditional, “English” neighbors.
At another farm, a waif of a girl — 15 years old and just beyond the age of attending school — slipped through the door of an outbuilding used as a store. Inside, an array of baskets, soaps and other handmade goods lined the shelves. Leather belts hung from wooden pegs. A wood-burning stove kept the autumn chill at bay. The young woman peered down, her hair tucked under a black bonnet, to compute my bill with pencil: “$43.50, please,” for sleigh bells jangling on a leather strap, a large jar of bread-and-butter pickles and a fly swatter made of whittled wood and leather.
A chance to visit Amish farms draws people to these hills. So do the paved trails that slice through bluffs, pass cow pastures and curve along rivers.
Earlier in the week, I’d hopped on a bike to explore the countryside on the Root River Trail. The sun sparkled, adding warmth despite a chill in the air. As I rolled along, I noticed a blue jay looking agitated just off the asphalt. She squawked and pecked at the ground. I whizzed closer. The bird made one last cry and flew away. Then I saw the cause. The back half of a small brown snake slithering into the grasses as I passed. The bird had missed her chance to fatten up for winter.
• • •
At Frontenac State Park, not far south of Red Wing, I stopped on a sunny autumn day to take a solo hike. From the blufftop, visitors can park and overlook Lake Pepin, where the Mississippi widens and Wisconsin lies far across the waves.
I followed a trail, and then turned onto another that zigzags down toward the water. The going was steep; I kept my eyes on the ground. In places, so many yellow leaves blanketed the ground, I was afraid I’d lose the way.
Halfway down, I paused and looked up. Not more than 30 feet away, a doe shared the path. Animals, it seemed, also found the man-made staircase useful. She gave me a long look with her big black eyes, then bowed down her neck to chomp on a bush.
I let her lead the way, moving forward only when she did; waiting when she found another morsel of lunch.
Eventually, it was time for me to eat, too, and my lunch was back in the car. I gently kept walking. When I got too close for comfort, the doe hopped off the path, alert but standing a mere 5 feet from me when I passed.
As I carried on, a breeze unleashed more leaves. Against the blue sky, yellow ovals swirled from the sky, descending as gently as snowflakes.