When I was a child, I had a wild imagination. Anything would fire it up, especially tales of exploration: in dank, twisting caves; along rushing creeks shadowed by stone bluffs; on sun-kissed hilltops, with the world stretching out all around.
And I loved the tales told by two real-life children’s-book heroines: the resourceful tomboy Caddie Woodlawn, who roamed the wilderness of western Wisconsin during the Civil War, and Laura Ingalls Wilder, who relished life in the Big Woods above Lake Pepin before they became farmland.
Western Wisconsin, it seems, has fired many young imaginations. One September, I took my own two children there, on a 185-mile tour with six spots that appeal particularly to kids.
We started just outside Spring Valley at Crystal Cave, discovered in 1881 by a boy chasing a squirrel.
When it disappeared into the ground, he poked around with a stick and found a hole. The next day, his parents lowered him and his brother into it, along what now is called "the slide.’’
"Would any of you have sent your boys down here?’’ asked our bubbly young guide, April. "Better not have,’’ muttered my son Peter.
But he loved the cave and its fanciful formations of Popeye, Casper the friendly cave ghost, Caveman Charlie and, according to Peter, a dragon’s head.
He liked the two bats we found sleeping near the ballroom, but was more impressed by fossils of 435 million-year-old sea creatures: crinoids, which look exactly like Spaghetti-Os, and centipede-like trilobites.
In the wish room, we each pressed a nickel into walls gleaming with coins. "I wished for a camera,’’ Peter said.
We bought a picnic lunch at the grocery store in Spring Valley and followed County Road B and Wisconsin 128 through the picturesque Eau Galle River valley to Elmwood.
From there, we took Wisconsin 72 east to Downsville, and 25 south to the Caddie Woodlawn Home and Park.
Visiting Caddie Woodlawn
In the early 1860s, a red-haired girl named Caroline Woodhouse lived here, in a cottage that still stands.
She was the daughter of a millwright and a proper Boston mother, whom she drove to distraction by running off to visit her Santee Dakota friends, by braving the rattlesnakes of Chimney Bluff to pick blueberries and by playing pranks of all kinds.
But mostly, Caddie had a heart as big as the outdoors she loved.
In 1935’s Newbery-winning children's classic "Caddie Woodlawn,’’ written by her granddaughter, Caddie spends a precious silver dollar to buy candy, tops, combs and handkerchiefs for three bereft little boys whose Dakota mother has just been sent away by their white father.
It’s a scene that chokes me up even today and, apparently, was just as vivid to my daughter, Madeleine.
"Look, it’s the Hankinson boys,’’ she whispered, as several boys of Asian heritage ran up to Caddie’s house.
After exploring the house, we ate our lunch at one of the park’s picnic tables. Then we drove on down Wisconsin 25 to the Eau Galle Cheese Factory. It was Sunday, and the cheesemakers weren’t working, but we sampled half a dozen kinds of cheese and ordered ice-cream cones.
A mile further, we turned west on U.S. 10 toward the town of Arkansaw, where we stumbled on an enchanting little park along a creek.
It was squeezed between a sheer limestone bluff and a rock face beneath County Road N and crossed by a Z-shaped wooden bridge.
It even had a time capsule inside a pyramid of mortared rocks, "to be opened in 2029.’’ The children loved it.
"Let’s go fossil-hunting,’’ shouted Peter, before he and Madeleine shucked off their shoes and went wading in Arkansaw Creek.
I couldn’t persuade them to leave until after they’d played on an old-fashioned merry-go-round. Then we headed south on N and west on SS, a roller-coaster, until we hit County Road CC.
That led south to the Little House Wayside, a re-creation of the log house on the spot where the famous author lived for two years after her birth in 1867 and for another two years after her family’s brief stint in Kansas.
Just a replica
But the cabin, surrounded by fields of clover, soybeans and corn, left Madeleine cold.
"It’s just not that interesting to me, ’’ she said. "I think, 'Wait a minute, this isn’t where Laura and Mary were born. It’s not their cabin. It’s just like it.’ ’’
I thought about Pa Ingalls as we followed CC back north to H and Wisconsin 35 in Maiden Rock, then north again on A along the Rush River.
Pa, who yearned to get away from people, moved his family seven times in 10 years and ended up with nothing in a town on the South Dakota prairie.
Yet this land he forsook is one of the most beautiful and least citified pockets of the Midwest, and the bluffland is as wild as it’s always been.
"That looks like the hill where Davy Crockett and his men were when the Indians attacked,’’ Madeleine remarked as we descended to the river.
Three miles above Maiden Rock, we found Terry Cuddy, who was a little wiser than Pa. She and her husband, John, founded Rush River Produce in 1987 on a hill with a sweeping view of the river valley. Now they grow gooseberries, currants and blueberries.
Hunting and gathering
"It’ll be berry hunting, not picking,’’ Cuddy said cheerfully, as she led us to the least-picked-over rows. "So have fun, enjoy, and eat as many as you want. It’s all part of the experience.’’
Soon both children were intently hunched over the bushes, along with a buzzing symphony of insects far too busy to bother with them. It seemed to activate Peter’s hunter-gatherer instincts. "Can we come back tomorrow?’’ he asked. "The day after tomorrow?’’
We drove down into the pink sunset over Lake Pepin and got home long after dark. I tucked them into bed, Madeleine to dream of a rushing creek and Peter of a blueberry patch in the hills.
We’d been gone 11 hours, and never once had I heard the dreaded "B’’ word. In Caddie and Laura’s back yard, boredom is the furthest thing from a child’s mind.
Trip Tips: A child’s tour of western Wisconsin
Getting there: From the Twin Cities, it’s about an hour to Crystal Cave, a bit more to Rush River Produce.
Crystal Cave: From Interstate 94, take the Ellsworth exit south and follow signs. It's open daily from Memorial Day through October, weekends in April and May.
Caddie Woodlawn Home and Park: It's four miles south of Downsville on Wisconsin 25, free and open daily in summer.
For more about Caddie, see The first American Girl.
Eau Galle Cheese Factory: Cheesemakers work until about 2:30 p.m. Monday-Saturday, 715-283-4211.
Little House Wayside: Open daily. It’s seven miles north of Pepin on County Road CC.
For more, see Laura Ingalls Wilder stories.
Rush River Produce: Blueberries are available July through August and can be picked 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. Thursday-Sunday. Picking is best early in the day, 715-594-3648.