“Hey, there’s a puddle up here,” Josephine Hochsprung yelled down to her parents. Secured by ropes, the 8-year-old clung to a massive jagged wall in Blue Mounds State Park, cupping her hand on a ledge that had collected water.
All muscles and smiles, the girl made rock climbing look easy. It is not, I learned, after clipping my harness to a rope, pushing up from knobs and reaching for any cracks my fingers could grab. Instructors from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources’ “I Can Climb” class shouted encouragement and pointed to possible footholds.
I failed to reach the very top. But I did get a good close look at Sioux quartzite.
The pink-red bedrock stretches in a band across Minnesota’s far southwestern corner, surfacing at gentle swells, hidden waterfalls and boulders that punctuate pastures. The quartzite asserts itself most dramatically at this park, where the cliff line — 90 feet high and more than a mile long — towers above a field thick with grass.
Pioneers called this imposing landmark outside of Luverne the blue mound because it shone azure from far away. In nearby Pipestone, Indians have for centuries broken through the distinctive rock to reach a clay stone they consider sacred. Sixty miles away at Jeffers, an outcropping contains ancient carvings of buffalo, thunderbirds and other symbols.
Eventually, I took the easy way up this geologic and historic force of nature: a hiking trail. At the crest, the wind hit me. On the prairie, away from the ridgeline trees, it was strong enough to hold me up when I leaned in.
I turned from the tousled field to look at the farmland 100 feet below, beyond the park boundaries. The two scenes — vivid displays of nature’s tenacity and our ability to work it to our advantage — struck me as powerfully as the breeze. From this elevated vantage, another thing became clear: The cliff, the prairies and other surprising gems belie the notion that this slice of Minnesota bears nothing more than crops and flatlands. Especially in summer, when creation buzzes, the region unfolds both ancient history and stunning beauty.
On the ridgetop, grasses speckled with white and purple flowers stretched for miles, including acres set aside for the park’s resident bison herd. The plants didn’t bend in a straight line with the wind as much as they quivered and bobbed, looking stirred and agitated.
Birds that braved flight bounced erratically, soaring upward only to be jolted sideways or thrown back toward earth.
The warm airstream built from the west with little to stop it except the trees planted in neat rows by early settlers so their homesteads wouldn’t blow away. A field of soybeans shimmered under its fury, the silvery bottom of the leaves rippling like waves on a lake.
Farms appeared like tiny toys, their white houses, red barns and bands of trees perched on lush green carpet. Farther away, enormous white windmills stretched to the sky, three arms slowly churning, harnessing the savage wind for energy. They looked like a giant’s modernist garden. Above it all, the sky arced to meet the faraway horizon.
“I love the summer skies — the big skies and their beautiful cloud formations,” Virginia McCone said as she sipped iced tea and swatted black flies at the table in her large farmhouse kitchen.
I’d stopped by her place near Sanborn, down a dusty road shared with pea harvesters, to take a walk into history.
A path behind the house leads to a remarkable testament to pioneer life: a musty, squat, one-room house built with sod cut from lush grasslands.
Inside, what little light that passed through deep-set windows illuminated two quilt-topped beds, a wood-burning stove and a weathered table and chairs. A rusting washboard leaned against a window well, a reminder that pioneers, women and men alike, worked long, hard days.
Outside, sparrows flitted from a gnarled oak to the house’s grassy rooftop, chirping a song of the prairie.
Nearly 30 years ago, Stan McCone built this soddy employing the same backbreaking method the early settlers used to establish homes in a treeless country. He hitched horses to a sod cutter — a small sled with sharp blades for fighting through roots — and sliced 2-foot-wide blocks. Then he piled them high, using frames for doors and windows, until the house took shape.
The McCones’ 40-acre plot also holds a small log cabin and a prairie dugout, made with sod walls embracing a hole in the ground. Stan built them all, well before Parkinson’s disease began to take its toll.
“When you’re young and tough, you don’t mind doing tough things,” Stan told me, in a tone reminiscent of his Irish forefathers — the people he hoped to honor by creating this old-time scene.
“He has so much admiration for the pioneers,” Virginia told me, “not just his people but all the people who settled here.”
As she spoke, Stan walked with a barely discernible hesitance across their gravel driveway toward a barn. In his hand was a walking stick as tall as he is.
Countless people have stopped to see the soddies; a woman from Hawaii was stepping out of the dugout as I peered in. There was a time, too, when visitors could sleep in the sod house. For years, the McCones offered it up as a bed-and-breakfast for the curious, but Virginia gave that up after Stan became ill. The chores, though, had their benefits.
“Many a night I’d be out lighting a lantern for guests,” Virginia said, “and a whole field would light up with fireflies, like diamonds.”
To drive through the state’s southwest in summer is to be immersed in a geometric grid of bucolic beauty. Straight rows of corn give way to cow pastures with streams running through. Compact towns, adhering to their own precise crisscrosses, rise from the horizon with silos and church steeples.
A still wild place holds on amid this agricultural landscape. Pink roses mingle with big bluestems, cacti forge a living atop a Sioux quartzite outcropping and a creek bubbles over that same craggy ridge to create Winnewissa Falls.
Now known as Pipestone National Monument, the area was retained by Indians in an early treaty with the U.S. government because many deem it sacred land. It is where various tribes have historically come together, set aside any hostilities and quarried for the auburn pipestone, the malleable material used for making peace pipes. According to at least one legend, the color comes from the blood of their ancestors.
Freeing that hallowed stone from layers of hard quartzite can require years of toil, as Indians first shovel through soil, then chip away at the rock using sledgehammers, wedges and their own sweat and determination.
Ray Redwing, a member of the Flandreau Santee Sioux Tribe with a scruffy gray goatee, wrapped his agile fingers around a dusty, T-shaped piece of pipestone inside the visitor center. His tall frame folded onto a stool. He worked to transform the rosy block into a gleaming pipe. On a table before him lay crumpled sandpaper, a metal file and dusty rags, the tools of his trade. Completed pipes depicted buffalo, a turtle, an eagle’s head. Among the collection was one with a disk astride sleek wings.
“Recognize this?” he asked. “It’s the Starship Enterprise.”
“Your ancestors wouldn’t have made that,” I quipped.
“No,” Redwing replied with a crooked smile, “but they would have liked it.”