June 10: Marquette to Brownsville, Minnesota - The Great North American Sticky Bun Hunt - CycleBlaze

June 10: Marquette to Brownsville, Minnesota

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AMERICA IS a young country and little is old. Towns and villages boast they they were founded in the 19th century, younger than the house I live in, which wouldn't be considered remarkable in France. All are 600 years newer than the oldest building in our village.

But Effigy Mounds are old. Very old. They lie just outside Marquette and they are the mysterious remains of people who

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lived in America for thousands of years before the white man. The colonists regarded Indians as primitive, unorganised people. They dismissed the earthworks and ploughed most of them flat. How could a primitive race build such elaborate shapes, such large shapes? They must have been the work of a mysterious, earlier people since vanished.

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The Indians were driven away from works we now realise were holy sites. Almost all the effigies, in the shape of animals most of them, have been farmed away or built on. But here they have been preserved and notices remind visitors that the people who built them are not some vanished race but live still among us. Treat the mounds as the sacred sites they have always been, the signs urge.

It's not easy, even with the outline picked out, to distinguish shallow mounds from the surrounding grass.
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I understand the lack of understanding of the colonists, though. It is not easy to see the mounds as anything but heaps of grassy earth. It is only from the sky, and after the shapes have been picked out by small channels, that shapes are apparent. It strikes me as significant that understanding of what the mounds portrayed came in the same era as the birth of aviation.

Hills like jelly moulds.
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We spent an hour at the mounds, walking the trails, watching an explanatory film, and then rode through the same lovely countryside as yesterday. But not quite the same. For now we have been passing between conical green hills like small volcanos, and around flat-topped, steep-sided hills so densely covered with trees, and so regular, that with half-closed eyes they look like upturned jelly moulds.

On the way to Brownsville we were given free coffee and cakes. Why? Because it was cold and wet and because Americans are like that.
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Sometimes we have ridden beneath towering bluffs with the river on the other side of us, so familiar that we could have been at home in the Lot valley. The cliffs pushed up from the valley floor with the road at their foot, a strip of grass neighboured the road and separated it from a single railway track, and sometimes the remaining area between the rails and the river was left to a linear shantytown of shacks and simple houses raised from the ground on stilts. They were, a brittle-voiced woman told us at a Sticky Bun Opportunity, weekend and summer homes for visitors.

"Without them we'd have no trade at all, pretty much," she said in a voice like a crumpling Coke can.

Twice we saw long freight trains, impossibly long and impossibly slow, snaking beside the river. It is no surprise that Superman was an American; in no other country could you run faster than a speeding locomotive.

And then, as we freewheeled to the campground before Brownsville, a couple stood beside the road, the man with his arms raised in signal. He was fair and bearded, she shorter and darker and looking cold. They had been there a while.

"Hi, Léo and Steph," the man beamed. "You haven't the faintest idea who we are..."

Scott and Sue Hoffman live across the river in the appropriately named town of La Crosse. We had been in brief correspondence when I last planned this trip, when Scott invited me to spend the night. This time they were occupied with a family wedding and so, unannounced, they had driven out to see us. They had already looked round the campsite, then gone into town to look for bikes. We, of course, arrived late because we had spent so long at Effigy Mounds.

Scott is a nurse and Sue a special-needs teacher. Before they met, Scott had lived in Holland and toured Europe by bike. The ride included Denmark. I was jealous. My first cycling ambition, when I was 14 or so, had been to ride to Copenhagen to see the mermaid in the harbour. I had never done it and now I shall sulk that he has. So young a friendship, ruined already...


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