This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.
I agree with every one of you. Mountains are glorious pieces of real estate, rising above the clouds in their snow-capped purple majesty there in the Sierras, the Rockies, and the Cascades. And I agree that the Grand Canyon is an awesome slit in the ground, fearful and sublime. I'll still take a row of Upper Mississippi River bluffs any day.
Bluffs. What a perfect word for those wooded hills lining both shores from Dubuque up to St. Paul, almost pushing the long thin towns at their feet out into the river. No wonder that European travelers who came over to see the sights, singled out the river bluff for special praise. Bluffs call our bluff. Scenic wonders like mountains and canyons do all the work for us; we look at them and are impressed. But bluffs are interactive nature; they leave much of the work for the viewer's imagination to complete. What are they? They're too steep to be hills, too slanted to be palisades, too rounded to be even small mountains. And for the most part, they're unseen, covered completely by a thick blanket of red, black, white, and burr oak, and by cherry, walnut, hickory, and slippery elm. And they're separated by—is it ravines, or valleys?
Take a trip up the Great River Road that winds beneath the bluffs through Guttenberg, Lansing, Brownsville, Winona, Wabasha, Lake City, and Red Wing. The long line of bluffs, some rising to five hundred feet above the river, will work their magic on you. Now they seem like a long row of gray elephants drinking from the river. Then you are suddenly in a house of mirrors on a circus midway, each bluff a reflection of a reflection until they disappear down to the horizon. Next, each bluff become an ancient kingdom with a castle and watch tower hidden on top, and then old ceremonial mounds left by ancient citizens of Atlantis seeking refuge from their sinking island.
Now for a friendly word. Before you decide to take your trip on the Great River Road and let your imagination work on those bluffs, be warned. The bluffs will be working their magic on you. They may well settle in your mind and heart and leave you with a feeling of loss when you return to your home on level ground. There are reports of a few travelers who have heard the Pied Piper call sifting down from the bluffs, and who have never been heard from again.
Rock Island Lines with Roald Tweet is underwritten by the Scott County Regional Authority, with additional funding from the Illinois Arts Council and Augustana College, Rock Island.