Four weeks ago, Minneapolis was buried in 15 inches of fresh powder. Three weeks ago, a switch flipped and it was sunny and 65. Nothing marks the death of winter better than a mini road trip. So on that first official spring weekend, we set out for our favorite destination: Pepin, Wisconsin via the Great River Road.
This trip transports us from city life to Huck Finn territory in the span of 75 miles. Our friends Monique and Uriah first introduced us to this corner of the world nine years ago. Luke and I have been revising and refining the route ever since.
The first stop is always Olies, a dark little biker bar with a warm and sunny patio facing the Mississippi River. It’s the perfect place to drink an over-priced bottle of beer and watch the trains pass (me) and furiously swat at bees with your hat (Luke).
A few miles down the road is the artsy village of Stockholm. We used to always stop at the Pie Company for a slice and a scoop. Luke is currently mad at them for expanding their storefront and subsequently raising their prices, so now we go to Lena’s Lucky Star for Ellsworth cheese curds instead.
At this point in the trip, Luke likes to duck into the hollers behind Highway 35 and drive on rustic roads that wind through trout streams. Back here is where you can access the Maiden Rock overlook, but only if you’re capable of locating the Shawshank Redemption Tree marking the turnoff.
Our final destination is always the Harbor View Cafe in Pepin. Well-stocked bookshelves line the walls of the dining room. Blue and white checkerboard tablecloths cover a dozen or so tables. A panel of windows face a harbor filled with sailboats. Best of all is its chalkboard menu that features made-from-scratch selections like halibut with black butter caper sauce. I would seriously consider selling an organ for this recipe.
On this particular trip, we arrived at 4:45 p.m., precisely when they open for dinner service. A windbreaker and khaki-clad crowd had already congregated on the sidewalk outside the front door, sipping glasses of wine and reclining in colorful Adirondack chairs facing the sun. We weren’t quite ready for dinner yet, so we walked across the street to a little place that referred to itself as “The Harbor View Waiting Room.”
The place looked vaguely familiar, as did the gentleman standing behind the bar. Almost immediately he recognized our faces. “I know you guys,” he said. “Have you been on my boat?”
Turns out, we had. About six years ago, Luke chartered a private sailboat ride before proposing to me on top of Maiden Rock. David, the man standing in front of us, was our captain.
“So, how did it go?” he said with a wink. I told him we’ve been married for four years, but flubbed our anniversary date.
He laughed easily and gave us a round of drinks on the house. We toasted our small world and its many concentric circles. Before heading out, David urged us to come back and compete in “The Moth” event he was hosting later that night.
Dinner took longer than expected, so we opted to head straight home instead. But the chance encounter kept us in high spirits all night long.
An unattended sailboat washed ashore the opposite bank of Lake Pepin the next day. The unidentified man was missing and presumed to be overboard. Police released the few details they knew: he was an experienced sailor, it was his first sail of the season, he planned to spend the night on the river.
Monique sent the news story to me after they released the man’s name. It was David.
Now, it’s easy to read into this situation, so let me ask you. Aside from the obvious tragedy, what the hell could this mean?
David obviously embraced life as most of us do. RIP
Luke and I are holding out hope that he faked his own death and started a new life in Mexico.