As a freshman at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa, the new environment around our college campus was a mystery. Those first few weeks looping around town in training for cross-country amounted to one unveiling after another. There were gravel roads under tall limestone bluffs in town. There were asphalt roads that headed out of town through farm country dotted by sharp hills, dark cedars, and white birches.
Sometimes we’d sink into a valley during one of our long runs and the air would grow still. Then one might hear the conversational notes of chickadees piping to themselves. Once in a great while, there would be a pileated woodpecker flashing its white wing stripes as it flew away from us.
All the time there were little streams popping out of hillsides. They trickled like ideas that could not be ignored. In winter these artesian springs would freeze leaving tall ice falls or patches of slick ice across the road. You either had to go full force across them or slow down and gingerly find the few spots where stones and gravel shone through. Decisions, decisions. A symbol for much that was to come in life.
The place called Decorah takes hold of you eventually. Outside the realm of running, there were hikes into the hills with friends. That’s where the real climbing began, up and over the tall shelves of limestone that glaciation had left alone. This was the Driftless Region. Somewhere back in time these hills were formed by oceans full of shelled creatures, the remnants of which you could often find if you looked closely enough.
Much later in history, there were people who carved petroglyphs into these rocks. Those locations were not secret, but they were respected.
Decorah sits in the Oneota Valley, a twisting remnant of the impact of geology and hydrology. The Upper Iowa River is a national wild and scenic river. For many years the bridges across that river were suspension bridges made of steel and cable. But when farmers accidentally struck them with their tractors or some other aimless soul collided with their trusses another bridge would collapse into the river like a physical memory of times past.
We’d run across these bridges in all seasons. Some years the river would be high and exceed its banks. Other years the river would get low, exposing pale rocks that once harbored fish. These would be tough years to kayak and canoe because hauling your boat over shallow areas until the next open patch of river is no easy journey.
But the real danger was found in high water years. Occasionally some unfortunate canoeist would get their boat caught on a downed tree. The canoe would fill with water on one end and BAMP, the canoe would bend in two. The force of the river was that strong.
I recall being a college sophomore and a member of a school fraternity that decided to do a joint canoe trip with a sorority. We partnered up for the 15-mile canoe trip. As a very skinny cross country runner, I had neither great arm strength or much weight on my body. My female partner had even less arm strength and outweighed me by forty pounds. But I sat in back of the canoe to steer the thing, and paddled for all I was worth for several hours. The spring winds were strong and our canoe veered back and forth across the river as she offered zero help in keeping us going in a straight line. At one point I seriously fantasized about striking her in the back of the head with my canoe paddle and pushing her out of the boat. We eventually made it back, but I never talked to that woman again.
Such were the tests, at times, in the environment around Decorah. Running was tough because of the hills. But put on cross-country skis and try them? Even tougher. So the place had a way of keeping you honest no matter what you did.
These days a major cycling community has built up around Decorah. Some magazine just branded it a mountain town without the mountains. Another magazine calls it a hippie paradise. There are hippie cafes and people who look like they just rolled down from the mountains. So the descriptions are apt.
I simply call Decorah a second or third home-away-from-home. It is the crunch of leaves on the rolling streets that I miss this time of year. And the sound of gurgling cold water coming down from Dunning Springs until it spills into the river. I have stopped to soak in the sight of a dull brown Cooper’s hawk perched in an autumn tree over the Decorah streets. And I have witnessed the quiet drift of a Bald Eagle soaring over the college campus.
There used to be a heartbeat that throbbed from the hills each spring in the drumming of ruffed grouse. The habitat around Decorah has changed in some way that the birds cannot tolerate. Yet I still feel the echo of the deep sounds they used to make in my own heart whenever I walk or run in those hills.
And if the day is right, one might stumble on a flock of wild turkeys on some back road. I once watched sixty of the birds burst from the roadside heather to sail in spirals off the side of the bluffs and down to the valley floor 150 feet below.
Time floats when a sight like that comes along, and proves there is no better place on earth than Decorah, Iowa.