Driftless Historian

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This is the seventh in a series, “History En Vélo,” about cycling and thinking historically, shared with Active History.

The bike I’m riding at any given moment determines what type of historian I am.

As a historian, I’ve been a bit driftless. If I have to identify my research areas, I sometimes call myself an urban environmental historian, or (more self-importantly) a historian of urban environmental policy. It’s a jumble of different historical associations and publications: the Urban History Association, the American Society for Environmental History, or the Journal of Policy History. If that weren’t enough, recently I’ve been attracted to the interdisciplinary inquiry known as mobilities studies, attending the meetings of the International Association for the History of Transport, Traffic and Mobilities (T2M). As I drift between these different literatures, I’ve noticed that the kind of bike I’m riding determines which of these fields is foremost in my mind.  In that observation may lie a deeper insight.

Urban Historian: The Schwinn

If I’m riding my old Schwinn, I’m an urban historian. When I’m riding in the city, I’m on a sixty-year-old Schwinn Racer I bought for $10 at a garage sale. In a flat and compact college town along the Mississippi river, I ride my short-distance rounds to work and shops. In advocacy jargon, I’m what is known as an “everyday cyclist,” or someone who rides in their street clothes as part of their daily routine.

The upright Schwinn lets me see my surroundings with an urban historian’s eyes – the age of neighborhoods and the disjuncture between social groups that is a legacy of settlement, redlining, zoning and street layout. Riding through neighborhoods that are physically side-by-side, but miles away in social class, shows how the physical space embodies the human divisions.

The Schwinn in its natural habitat: a quiet residential street in La Crosse, Wisconsin.

Bike advocates describe what they call the “windshield perspective,” or seeing the world from one viewpoint. The automobile takes drivers only to certain views of the city, or to believe that the city is divided into set neighborhoods by leading us to believe that “you can’t get there from here.” But the bicycle pokes holes in that facade. Neighborhoods built by developers or policymakers to isolate social classes or groups from each other are, in objective reality, adjoining; the physical design of cities took great care to block the car or bus routes, but the bike allows free movement.

Here in La Crosse, I often take students to see a public housing development dating back to the 1960s. It is bounded on all sides by walls, raised causeways and an industrial area. The established grid of streets is broken to avoid it, making it an isolated bubble in the fabric of the city with only one road in or out. But the bicycle pierces the bubble. A hidden passageway that no driver ever sees cuts under the causeway, and it becomes clear that the distant and isolated project is literally on the other side of the wall.

University of Wisconsin – La Crosse students and faculty on a bike tour through the city.

The Schwinn takes me behind the “blacktop world of convenient, quantifiable things,” as historian Sam Coren describes the surface of the automobile city in his article “Difficult Topographies.” Rivers and streams, culverted or hidden, are suddenly routing options. While city blocks create seemingly impassable walls of private property, in some eras the blocks are pierced by “catwalks” – sidewalks in between properties, meant to facilitate a child’s walk to school. This network of secret connections exists only for free-range children and cyclists.

As a physical object, the Schwinn also makes me think like a historian of transportation. The design of the bike marks it as an object out of time. For much of the 20th century, Americans did not conceive of the bicycle as transportation for adults, but as a toy for children. Most bicycles on the mass market were heavyweight, single-speed cruisers adorned with useless decoration meant to entertain children: tassels, streamers, faux gas tanks and adornments meant to evoke motorcycles or automobiles. But the Schwinn was a rare design on the mid-century market, closer to an English roadster than the American heavyweight. With upright seating, full fenders and chain guard, imported components and a rear rack that allows you to hang a suitcase from its handle, the Schwinn was perfect for a white-collar professional to commute to and from work. But in America in 1964, how many adults were bike commuting? The Schwinn in its time appealed to a market that did not exist: adult commuters looking for a respectable mount for urban professionals.

The Schwinn — a 1964 Schwinn Racer, equipped with a three-speed Sturmey-Archer epicyclic hub.

The Schwinn is a bike whose physical existence belies autocentric America. Historians might consider this bike as a counterfactual. When I ride it, I can imagine a 20th century city that did not actually come to exist, or at least does not exist yet.

Environmental Historian: The Salsa

When I ride some bike other than the Schwinn – outside of the city limits – I see my world differently.  It could be any bike out of a small pool of recreational bikes, each hundreds of times more expensive than the secondhand Schwinn and a tenth the age.  These include a carbon-fiber road bike, a mountain bike with complicated suspension, or (more often these days) on a faddishly-new Warbird gravel bike from Salsa, a specialty brand. On these bikes, on a collection of routes mapped by volunteers and explored by leisure cyclists, I see the landscape not on the scale of decades, but on a much larger scale of tens of thousands or even millions of years.

A mountain bike on top of Grandad Bluff, looking over the La Crosse River Marsh and the Mississippi river valley.

Here I think of the landscape of the Driftless region, the name for the unexpected geology of this corner of southwest Wisconsin, eastern Minnesota, and northern Iowa. I think of the landscape because I have to physically climb and descend it, expending unbelievable effort. Riding outside the city, on these recreational bikes, I think like an environmental historian.

For geologists, the word driftless means the place where glacial “drift” was not deposited; unlike the smooth Midwest plains that surround it on all sides, the valleys of the driftless have not been filled by deposits of loess, drift, or till. This is an isolated island where the land is unglaciated, not ground down under advancing glaciers, but karst geology left behind for tens or hundreds of thousands of years of water erosion. Political maps and interstate highway atlases will not show this geographical feature, and state boundaries do not follow the geography, but those are human inventions. Physically riding or walking shows the ground truth.

The author on a gravel bike, climbing Crazy Corners road near Freeburg, Minnesota. Photo by Dan Novak.

The topography of the Driftless region and the Paleozoic Plateau resembles a wrinkled sheet of paper, crumpled up then halfway smoothed. It is a jumbled, rolling landscape of endless winding ridges, with each valley haphazardly cut by small springs and each ridge climbing to the same height. It makes for a corrugated landscape. Where the Mississippi river cuts through, bluffs face each other across a few miles of open valley; standing on a bluff in Wisconsin, you can see across open space to the mirror-image bluff in Iowa or Minnesota. On foot or by bike, the experience of traversing the driftless is binary: if you want to travel in a straight line, you’ll undertake what might seem like an endless series of climbs and descents. If you want to avoid such changes in elevation you’ll have to follow the geography, which would mean you will follow the way that the water flowed in the past, not your own human goals.

The author on a gravel road near Houston, Minnesota. Photo by Dan Novak.

Traveling the Driftless on a road bike might put one closer to the experience of the first people to negotiate this landscape. The Mississippi river valley is dotted with mound-builder sites, overlain by trail networks, and associated with tribes that long predate the political boundaries of states or networks of paved automobile roads. Experiencing this landscape under human power has a different logic. Settlements, mounds and trails follow the topography because of the way that humans move through landscapes, under their own power, then as now.

This land might be known to geologists as the Driftless, but it was first the land of the Ho-Chunk Nation. The mid-sized Midwestern town in which I live, and from which my bike rides necessarily begin, exists because this was the right place for trails to converge and peoples to meet. First Nations peoples traveled through these valleys to gather here for the same reason that a federal trading post and, later, an interstate highway crossed the Mississippi. Recreational bike rides begin their rides on this flat prairie, returning to the only logical place for humans to congregate.

Eighteenth-century French explorers and trappers gave another layer of nomenclature to this region, naming settlements at Prairie du Chien, La Crescent and Trempeleau, and calling the water-eroded, steep-sided valleys “coulees,” a derivation of the French couler, “to flow.” Elsewhere it could mean a lava flow or a seasonal gully, but here it denotes the characteristic valleys of the Driftless. When settler groups arrived in the 19th century, the coulees came to be named after their origins or families. The best recreational rides will wind up roads named after Russian Coulee, Swede Bottom, Irish Coulee, and Mormon Coulee.

Cyclist Dan Novak rides a gravel bike up a coulee, with contour farming to take advantage of the available space.

Riding in the coulees also makes it clear how ill-suited the region is for large-scale market agriculture. No vast fields or right angles are possible here. Instead, the landscape demands small-scale dairy or family farming. Settlers adapted to the geography with “contour farming,” following the terrain with alternating crops to stop erosion and eke out productive use. Seen from above, the result is like a 1:1 topographical map of itself, a corduroy landscape, as farmers etch contour lines with their plows.

Without the industrial agriculture that is prevalent elsewhere in the Midwest, Amish communities fit here, on small plots of land with less attraction for market agriculture. Their buggies and wagons share the county highways with recreational cyclists and gleaming SUVs; as a recreational cyclist climbing and descending the same roads on the road bike, I can see discarded horseshoe nails, and the scrapes in the asphalt as horses strain to get traction on a hill.

Road bikes climbing a Driftless bluff near Houston, Minnesota.

That these roads are paved at all is an artifact of political history, and that legacy has differentiated the landscape and our human experience of that space. On the Wisconsin side of the Mississippi River, many rural roads are paved. Just a few miles away in Minnesota, a road the same size would have been left as gravel. The difference is caused by a 1890s political debate known as the Good Roads movement, an effort to pay for roads out of general taxation that was more widely implemented in Wisconsin to serve dairy farmers. While the Minnesota state legislature also pursued Good Roads legislation, they did so less assiduously, and many roads of the Minnesota Driftless remain unpaved.

Climbing a gravel road in a coulee near Houston, Minnesota.

This historical oddity has left a strange landscape for my rides on the Salsa gravel bike. On the Wisconsin side of the Mississippi River, paved roads with low traffic lure road cyclists into the coulees. But on the Minnesota side, a new type of cycling explores the unpaved roads of the Paleozoic Plateau. A gravel bike is essentially a road bike with drop bars, disc brakes and wider tires for riding the unpaved roads. Gravel biking is a subculture within recreational cycling; it may give way to other fads, but while it is here I take great pleasure in what it has to offer. Free from the danger of speeding traffic on paved roads, and with a bit less of the toxic competition of road cycling, gravel biking takes city dwellers into agricultural landscapes and state forest lands.

Mobilities Scholar

On my Schwinn, I’m an urban historian, and on the Salsa gravel bike, I’m an environmental historian. But noticing that my worldview shifts as I swap out bikes makes me something else entirely. Knowing that the way that I move through the world changes the way that I understand that world makes me into a mobilities scholar.

If our mode of moving mediates our understanding of our world, that is true even if we never change modes – or, especially if we never change. Our view of our cities, our societies, and the planet itself depends upon our movement through the world. For nearly all academic historians, that mode is in automobiles and jet aircraft, for some, public transportation. But only a small fraction of the globe’s population possesses a driver’s license, and few travel far from the location of their birth.  What chronicle do we make of our world when we perceive it from only one perspective? And more dangerously, what if we do not even perceive that we are limited to that one perception?

These are my thoughts as I bike my way up the coulees and ridges of the Driftless region, or ride between neighborhoods in my small college town. The views from the top of the bluffs are different from the views below, and the bike is what brought me to see that. I think that the same thing can happen for everyone; ride the bus instead of driving your car, and you’ll see a different city and a different people. Do the same on foot, and your world will change around you.  As for me, I’m going for a ride in the Driftless.

All photos by author except where noted.

Feature Image: Gravel Road near Nodine, Minnesota.

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James Longhurst is a historian of urban and environmental policy, and a professor at the University of Wisconsin – La Crosse. He is the author of the book Bike Battles: A History of Sharing the American Road (University of Washington Press, 2015), now in translation as Las Batallas de la Bici (Katakrak Press, 2019), on the web at https://bikebattles.net/ He is an everyday cyclist, slow roadie, reformed triathlete, social rider, gravel grinder, amateur mechanic and shop intern.

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