Body and soul in the La Crosse Blufflands South

Southward view from Hass Tract in La Crosse Blufflands South
Conservancy Stories
Grant Smith

Reflections on a hike from the Easter Road trailhead (Hass Tract)

I hiked the Hass Tract of the La Crosse Blufflands South alone. A friend's wife had died unexpectedly the week before, and I needed some time to be only with myself, my thoughts, and a brisk breeze in late December. I needed time to reflect in a place of natural beauty and quiet upon what her life meant to me. The trail from the Easter Road trailhead provided me that sanctuary.

I am pleasantly surprised at the ease to get to many of the Conservancy trails; this trail was no exception. The driving and hiking directions to the trail on the Conservancy web site are explicit and detailed. The Easter Road trailhead literally begins where a La Crosse south side neighborhood ends on Easter Road. Parking at the trail head is sufficient for several vehicles.

The trail itself is perfect for every hiker – from the novice hiker who seeks an alternative to walking the track at the YMCA to the experienced hiker who wants to train for a Colorado 14er. The dirt trail was frozen and icy the day I hiked, but “I knew no haste” and I had my hiking poles. I navigated the trail easily. The trail begins wide enough for two people to walk side by side, but it narrows to a single-file path as you get nearer to the ridge and summit. The trail was never so steep that I felt “winded,” but it was steep enough in places to give me a good workout. Only a few downed trees blocked the trail, and exposed roots acted more as steps than as hazards. Again, a perfect trail for every hiker.

Hiking in the winter affords you the opportunity to see through the trees into the prairie, the river, the Minnesota bluffs, and the city below the ridge. I stopped often on the trail to identify La Crosse landmarks.   

As I looked over the modern city of La Crosse, I could not help but wonder about the inhabitants of the area before the arrival of the Europeans. Surely by December they had finished the harvesting of their crops – corn, beans, squash, tobacco – and safely stored their produce in underground pits. In the winter did the Oneota hunters leave the village for extended hunting of buffalo west across the Mississippi River? Did those unable to travel retreat to the bluff rock caves for shelter from the winter?  How many natives would I have seen in the prairie in the 17th century? How many separate villages stretched from where Gundersen Hospital now stands, through the Valley View Mall, to the Sand Lake area near Holmen? How many single-family homes made of fallen trees, buffalo hides, and native grasses were there? How many larger homes to house several families were there? Why did the Oneota build palisades around their villages – protection from other tribes or from wild animals?

I tried to imagine a summer scene in the prairie below – women tending to their communal gardens, perhaps young children playing an early form of lacrosse, older children fishing on the Mississippi River and its tributaries, smoke rising from open campfires and from openings in the thatched houses. Would I have heard laughter, scolding, dogs barking, singing?

And then my thoughts turned to my friend's wife. She is buried in the Mormon Coulee Cemetery. Her resting site will be sacred to her family and friends. I thought of the Oneota cemeteries that are now covered by buildings, parking lots and streets. I will continue to remember my lost friend as I visit her grave site. I will also continue to show reverence to the early native people, as I walk in the woods that the Oneota traversed, protecting the plant life and wild life that sustained them. On the Hass Tract bluff we can visualize the connection that we have still with people who have long since departed – a connection made visible in the land we share.

Henry David Thoreau said that when he began walking, his thoughts began to flow. The La Crosse Blufflands South Hass Tract provides that rare setting to bring the body and the soul together. With each step up the bluff, with each puff of air, with each cold breeze against the face we are reminded of our history and of our future in the Driftless Region.

Grant Smith is a retired Viterbo University English professor. Photo by Krysten Strong of Mississippi Valley Conservancy.

Learn more about the La Crosse Blufflands and download a trail map for the Easter Road trailhead.

Sign up for the Trail Trek Challenge.