The author overlooking the mighty Mississippi River from an Effigy Mounds trail.

Roadtrip Day 5: Taliesin, Effigy Mounds, Toppling Goliath, and Rochester

Tuesday, September 19, 2023
Taliesin, Spring Green, Wisconsin
Effigy Mounds National Monument, Iowa
Toppling Goliath Brewery, Decorah, Iowa
Rochester, Minnesota

It may have only been day number 5 (of who knows how many to come), but I was already starting to question my pace. I felt right at home in Madison and wanted no more than to spend a few days here walking around more of the city between the two lakes and seeing what it had to offer, but I knew I had to keep putting the miles in.

But first, an early breakfast. I wanted to get some writing done, so I found a comfy nook in the hotel’s lobby, opened up my laptop, and picked at the keyboard while eating. Nothing quite like rubbery flapjacks with single-serving corn syrup, powdered eggs, pinky-sized mystery meat sausage links, and all the other great “free” food to be found in most American hotels. The people-watching was pretty good though—some Germanic-sounding business people awkwardly made chitchat at a table near me, and my blood got pumping in annoyance at the various speakerphone conversations I overheard (when in the world did it become acceptable to not use headphones in public‽).

State Street in Madison, Wisconsin during the day.
The view Southeast down State Street with a view of the Wisconsin State Capitol building.

Suddenly it was 11am, and morning productivity had led to a nearly complete Day 2 post, but I was antsy from too much hotel coffee and wanted to hit a few shops before I left town. I walked over to State Street again, this time in the quieter, calmer light of day, and found it was just as charming as it had been the night before. In fact, there clearly isn’t much vehicular traffic on State Street on a random Tuesday midday, so pedestrians were sauntering through the middle of the road, and there seemed to be some sort of collegiate photo shoot happening with a few people posing in the middle of the road.

As I’d decided to collect fridge magnets to commemorate my favorite spots along this trip, I found a nice nick-knack/curio/touristy shop and picked up both a magnet and some locally-made thank you cards that I know I’d need for later in my trip. The proprietress also suggested a Greek cafe a block away for some lunch before I left Madison, so sat at a nice outdoor table and crammed a delicious, spicy gyro down my gullet as I finished writing about Day 2. I’ll tell you what—I’d never been a fast eater, but this peripatetic lifestyle was starting to speed up my eating habits, for better or worse.

Then it was goodbye to Madison, and I rushed out of the city at about 1pm, with several stops still in mind for the day.

During breakfast, while perusing Google and cross-referencing my trusty Road Atlas to plan my route, I noticed a site on the map that I hadn’t known about previously—”Taliesin”. It seemed fantastic, in the Tolkien sense, and it wasn’t too far off my planned route anyway, so I figured I may as well stop by while I was in the neighborhood.

Turns out, Taliesin is Frank Lloyd Wright’s home and estate. I had never known he called Wisconsin home, as many places around the country lay claim to his influence and advertise his designs and creations. In fact, it seems he quite loved the state and even penned a letter to that effect. There’s even an entire “Frank Lloyd Write trail” across 8 different sites within Wisconsin.

Taliesin offers a number of interesting-looking tours, but unfortunately they were all longer than I was able to spend for what was only an impromptu stop. It was my first lesson on this trip that there’s a balance to be struck between having a plan and leaving space for the unknown & unexpected. It’s a lesson that I’d contemplate quite a bit in the coming weeks.

Although I didn’t take a tour, I did dally in the gift shop for a bit, chatting with some of the employees there about the inspirations for some of Wright’s designs. And I bought a pillow, quite randomly. It was a nice duck feather-filled throw pillow with a coverlet in one of his textile styles. It wasn’t super cheap (it’s a Frank Lloyd Wright gift shop pillow after all), but it also wasn’t outrageous, and my couches back home could use some fresh throw-pillow blood anyway. Besides, my one night of camping so far in Indiana Dunes had reminded me of the importance of a nice pillow.

Speaking of camping, I utilized the nice, sunny parking lot of Taliesin to finally pack up my gradually-drying tent that had been loosely situated in my back seat for the past couple days, as the warm breezes of the road had finally dried it out.

On the road in Wisconsin.
On the road in Southern Wisconsin.

As I got back on the road I kept thinking about Wright’s love letter to Wisconsin since I found myself having similar thoughts. I knew it was too early in the trip to make such judgments, but Wisconsin had already stole a bit of my heart. It was friendly, clean, slow-paced, and with a pleasant landscape that blended rolling farmlands, idyllic lakes, cute cities and towns, and peaceful retreats.

The roads, even the highways, had been getting progressively more scenic as I gradually made my way West, and Southwestern Wisconsin was no exception. I found myself slowing down, or pulling over and stopping entirely, to enjoy the views and slices of nature that I passed on my way.

But even as I was lost in thought about the beauty around me, I was also feeling a bit rushed—not that I sped—In fact I found myself typically going slower than most of the other cars on the road, as I was enjoying the journey. I was feeling time-crunch only because I wanted to get to my next destination in time to actually do some hiking.

Perhaps because I stopped so often to take pictures on the way, I arrived at Effigy Mounds National Monument nine whole minutes after the visitor center had closed for the day. This was more upsetting to me than it ever should have been, since I had made the decision to collect National Passport cancellations back in Cuyahoga, and if I couldn’t do so everywhere, then what was the point‽ [Deep breathing]. Thankfully, my rational mind prevailed and I quickly calmed. Even more thankfully though, I noticed that the cancellation stamp and maps were actually available outside the visitor center, so I sheepishly stopped knocking on the door, collected them, and laughed at myself.

It was already nearly 5pm, but looking at the park maps there were several nearby trails starting right from the visitor center, including the primary one that passed by the largest concentration of mounds. I started up right away to hikejog at least a couple miles out and back.

Photo of Little Bear Mound with superimposed lines.
I badly drew a stick-figure bear to help show what the mounds represented.

Effigy Mounds was another site that I hadn’t heard of prior to this trip. It lies in Northeastern Iowa, just across the Mississippi River from Wisconsin, on some bluffs that overlook the river, with gorgeous views. It’s been a sacred site for a number of Native tribes for millennia, and hundreds of burial mounds lie across many miles of the ridge. Most of the mounds are just that—circular mounds, but several are in animal shapes, including a couple “Bear” mounds. The “Great Bear Mound” is actually one of the largest surviving prehistoric structures in North America (according to some signage I passed).

There were a few other people on the easy, wide trails, but for the most part they were leaving at the end of the day, so I had the trails to myself. There were several signs exhorting hikers to be respectful and to stay off the mounds, since they are still considered sacred, and despite most being looted over a century ago, they are still burial mounds.

This led to an interesting inner dialog…I felt the urge, as I always do, to run. It was a cool, clear evening, and the trails were wide and woodchipped and gently hilly. Perfect. But a part of my brain was thinking “would running be disrespectful to the ancestors’ spirits?” So I asked permission (in my head), projecting my intentions to any beings who might be tuned in in the area. While waiting and breathing, I felt I had an answer along the lines of ‘intention is everything; at least you asked; besides running the trails in itself is never disrespectful‘. Great! Off I went.

As I jogged and viewed the landscape and mounds and contemplated the depths of human history there, I began thinking about what it meant to “commune with spirits”, in any sense. As with many people in our current era, I usually and quickly dismiss anything related to this topic as imaginary—this despite having a fairly robust inner spiritual life. But I found myself wondering what the difference actually was between imagination and reality. Perhaps, through quantum probability interactions and friction between parallel universes of possibility our brains actually can perceive aspects of other realities.

…Or perhaps Harry Potter’s brain was correct when he saw Dumbledore say, after falling victim to the Killing Curse for a second time, “Of course it’s happening inside your head, Harry. Why should that mean that it’s not real?”

And so I enjoyed the rest of my hikejog in what felt like harmony.

Northeastern Iowa hilly cornfields.
The hilly cornfields and estates of Northeastern Iowa.

Slightly sweaty, thinking deep thoughts, and ready to keep going, I proceeded toward my next stop a little deeper into Iowa. Driving West into the setting sun through rolling cornfields, I yet again kept being struck by beauty, and had to pull over and capture some memories and photos along the way.

I reached Toppling Goliath Brewing Co just in time for dinner—and apparently for Bingo as well. This was one of the “best of” breweries I’d collated when initially planning for this trip that was pretty close to the route I was following. I’d never heard of it previously, but that only shows my ignorance, since they actually distribute not just nationally, but internationally. Well, I can say now—they certainly earned it—their beer is fantastic.

Their food is too, including their cheese curds, which I don’t think I’ve ever actually tried before. The people were also super nice—staff were attentive and knowledgeable, and I chatted with a few fellow patrons, including a music professor at a local college who had lived in Old City, Philly for a while. In retrospect, I wish I’d joined in for Bingo as soon as I arrived since some of the prizes (from a prize wheel) were pretty great. Also the announcer was having a great time—every time “69” came up, he paused suggestively, then said the number slowly and with verve.

Sunset from Toppling Goliath.
The gorgeous sunset from Toppling Goliath in Decorah, Iowa.

By the time I left, the sun had already set (beautifully though), and now I just wanted to get to my next cheap hotel for the night. It took about 40 more minutes of Northbound country roads to get to Rochester, MN. I’d originally thought about heading toward Minneapolis, but had decided that A) exploring smaller cities would be interesting, and B) Rochester was an hour closer to my overall route.

Well, I can now say that this was a mistake. Rochester *sucks*. They have the Mayo Clinic, and a handful of neat buildings and parks, but that’s really it. Perhaps the lesson here is to stick to large cities or small towns, but skip the in-between medium places that are just blah.

Photo of some tasters from Forager Brewery.
Some delicious and varied tasters from Forager Brewery.

The one saving grace, prior to just hitting the sack early for the night, was the Forager brewery. It was thankfully walkable from my hotel (which allowed me to experience a bit of Rochester at night, further confirming my perceptions), so I was able to get there just in time for a small flight before they closed. Their beer was fantastic indeed, their space quite pleasant (including a spacious outdoor area), and it looked like their food menu was great too. Alas, a few quick tastes was all that was in the cards.

Day 5 Distance: ~230 mi (370 km)
Total Trip Distance: ~1,279 mi (2,058 km)
(Approximate since I forgot to record exactly today)

Next Up: A stop in Kasson, MN, Pipestone National Monument in South Dakota, then Sioux Falls, SD.