Once more, traveling Highway 12

I did a posting, on July 24 of this year, in which I began thinking about U.S. Highway 12, the road between Baraboo and Madison that I have been traveling my whole life.  I focused then on the magnificent quartzite outcroppings that are exposed in the Baraboo Hills — the remnant of an ancient mountain range that dates from an estimated 1,650 million years ago.

As I stated in my July posting, “The highway is, in fact, a living historical record of places, events and changes that have been an integral part of the region and of my life across these years.”

Traveling north toward Baraboo from Madison, just after crossing over the Baraboo Range, is a spot on the highway with significance to me.  Once, back in the late 1980s, my mother had been visiting us for a few days and I was driving her back to Baraboo.  We had made the long climb up and over the west bluff, had just started to coast back down the other side toward Baraboo, when my car suddenly went ‘dead.’  No response to the gas pedal, no sound of the motor, nothing.  I guess the brake must have worked, because we smoothly rolled over to the side of the road and stopped.  I was totally out of gas.  Never happened before in my entire life.  There was a farm house very near by.  I went to the door and shared our plight with the man who came to the door.  He very kindly filled a can with gasoline, brought it out to the car  and siphoned it into our tank.  My mother had the presence of mind to give him $10.  And we had a story to tell.  I never pass by that farm without remembering that event in our lives.

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Back to heading toward Madison again, looking east across the outwash plain, we come upon the final vestiges of the U.S. Badger Army Ammunition Works, built initially to help provide ammunition to the troops in WWII.  The “powder plant” as we called it was one of the largest in the country.  A village of houses and a school was built on the west side of the highway.  I remember staring out the car window at the guard houses along the highway and being able to see the guard with his rifle silhouetted inside. The plant was reactivated during the Korean War, and. to some extent, during the Vietnam War.  Gradually over the years, the buildings from the massive plant have been removed.  Controversy exists over the contaminated state of the land, and what it can be used for now that the plant is gone.  All that exists at this point is a museum, a rather lonely reminder of another age.  



There are three small towns between Baraboo and Madison.  Prairie du Sac is one of them.  The name means “Prairie of the Sauk;” Sauk refers to a Native American tribe indigenous to the area.  The next town, close by, is Sauk City.  The county where Baraboo is located is Sauk County.  Wisconsin has many cities and towns and rivers that have names reflecting Native American origins.  Prairie du Sac is well known in the area for the large numbers of bald eagles that congregate along the nearby Wisconsin River during certain times of the year.  A viewing platform has been built right downtown, overlooking the river. to enable people to watch for the eagles. You can see the image of an eagle on the left stone pillar of the Prairie du Sac sign; you can also see a sampling of small town entertainment being advertised.                                                                                   



Lastly, moving on toward Madison, driving up and over another of Wisconsin’s rolling hills (appropriately named Sauk Hill), a small gravestone used to be visible close to the highway, on the left, at the edge of a nearby woodsy area.  At some point in our many travels on the highway, we realized the gravestone was no longer there.  Ed and I were intrigued, and finally one day we stopped to explore.  We walked through the brush and into the woods and quite soon found a whole cemetery, with graves dating back into the 1800s.  “Oh, here’s a gravestone.  Oh, here’s another.  Oh, there’s a whole bunch of them!”   We had discovered a ‘secret’ cemetery.   Most of the epitaphs were in German, presumably from an early German settlement.  Such a strong reminder of an earlier time, before Wisconsin became a state, when early European people, in this case immigrants from Germany, were arriving in the area and settling down to make a new home.   I was on Highway 12 recently and was going to stop to once more find the cemetery in the woods.  But I was surprised to find the brush and trees so thick that I found it daunting to try to fight my way through.  A Highway 12 widening to 4 lanes that took place in recent years was obviously respectfully diverted around the area where the cemetery is located.  So, this ‘final resting place’ is presumably still there and still on the survey maps.  Rest in Peace.


Ah — the Wild Things Again

I wrote a posting, maybe a year ago, about the presence of wild things in our urban neighborhood — a deer in the yard next door, turkey vultures roosting in the big spruce tree in our neighbor’s back yard on their way north in the spring, a fox making the circuit in our back yard one morning at breakfast time.  Our neighborhood blog includes sightings of coyotes, opossums, and raccoons by others in the area.  There is something life giving about having wild creatures right here in our daily lives. Such sightings are often moments of gentle excitement and pleasure for us (apart from the opossum, which is not a thing of beauty by any stretch of the imagination).

Well, here is another kind of wild thing.

Corydalis ochroleuca

This little beauty planted itself in the depths of one of our window wells — a spot with very little exposed soil and little or no direct sunlight.  I noticed the flower and photographed it through a window in our basement (that’s the window sill on the bottom of the picture),

There is something very cheerful about this wayward plant.  We have some Corydalis planted by design in our backyard garden, but this little lady wanted to pick her own site, overcoming hardships of marginal soil and light to take root at the bottom of a window well.  A sign of an adventurous spirit and escape from the planned boundaries of the garden.  I felt a surge of “gentle excitement and pleasure” upon discovering it, and I have been daily finding enjoyment in its presence since.  A small example of the beauty that we can find in our everyday lives.  .

On the Road Again

I have been traveling U.S. Highway 12 between Baraboo and Madison, Wisconsin, my whole life — literally.  I was born at University Hospitals in Madison and had my first ride home to Baraboo when I was 2 weeks old.  As a child, we came to Madison in my earliest years to appointments with the pediatrician, the eye clinic, and the orthodontist.  Every year, before school started in the fall, we came to shop for new school clothes in the many stores around the Capitol Square. Once in a while we drove to Madison to attend concerts.  (I remember on one occasion, probably when I was 8 or 10 years old, my sister and I came with our parents to hear the world-renowned pianist Artur Rubinstein perform in the Memorial Union Theater. Eleanor and I “split” one ticket —  she attended the first half of the program and I attended after the intermission.   At the time, I worried some about whether or not we were “breaking the law”!)

And so I came to know the 42 miles between Baraboo and Madison well — the contours of the land, the small towns, the farms, the rivers, the bridges, the special points of interest.  Now, in my adult years, I realize that this highway offers much more than a way to get from Baraboo to Madison. The highway is, in fact, a living historical record of places, events and changes that have been an integral part of the region and of my life across these years. The countryside along U.S. Highway 12 offers at least four layers of historical significance to me:

  • Deep geological time including some of the earth’s oldest exposed rock formations, known to and studied by geologists from around the globe;
  • Native American history including the tensions that came with European settlers;
  • The conversion during World War II of some of the most fertile, privately owned farmland in the state into the U.S.Badger Army Ammunition Works during WWII.  At the time, this plant was one of the largest in the country, with operations that continued during the Korean War and, even to some extent, the Vietnam War; and
  • My own personal memories of places and events associated with Highway 12.

I will describe the first of these — geological time — in this posting.  The other three will come in the next blog.


How can I capture the essence of the Baraboo Hills in a few paragraphs?  The Hills comprise about 200 square miles of land, with north, south, east and west ranges forming a sort of oval or elliptical shape. The range is clearly visible in satellite imagery. The town of Baraboo is located within the valley that lies between the high ranges.

The Baraboo range has been referred to as a geologist’s “mecca”, one of the world’s “remaining outstanding ecosystems,” and the “remnant of an ancient quartzite mountain range.”  Ancient — as in really, really old.  U.S.Highway 12 makes its way south through the Baraboo Hills as it heads from Baraboo to Madison.

One of the first obvious signs of the Hills is a rather sharp curve in the highway, just four miles south of Baraboo, a curve that cuts through an enormous stone outcropping of quartzite called “Point of Rocks.”  This prominent outcropping of quartzite is very important to geologists because it has the best exposure known of sedimentary features — features that help tell the tale of the earth’s development over an estimated 2,800 million years.  The Baraboo rocks date from an estimated 1,650 million years ago.  The many features of the outcropping were studied by a University of Wisconsin geology professor in the late 19th century and were used to describe the various phases and layers of the planet’s topographical formation.  Features such as cross bedding, soft-sediment deformation, stratification, and ripple marks were observed and identified at that time by Professor Van Hise, and his methods and findings laid the groundwork for structural geology theory and practice today.

Point of Rocks along Hwy.12, with geology students. Photo by Dr. Diane Kiesel of the UW Baraboo Center.

Can you see the “syncline” of the quartzite?  The rock is inclined 25 degrees to the north, i.e. the layered rocks are downbending toward the north.  Exactly what causes such deformations is unclear.

After completing the sharp curve around the Point of Rocks, the highway immediately begins to ascend the east range of the Baraboo Hills, traveling up and over and then down, down onto an outwash plain. The outwash plain consists of deposits left behind by the rivers that drained the last Wisconsin glacier some 90,000 years ago.  Off to the east can be seen the low ridge of the Johnstown Moraine,also known as the terminal moraine, an accumulation of sediment along the margins of the Green Bay Lobe of last glacier.  Off to the west can be seen the hills of the Driftless Area, a term used to identify areas in the Midwestern United States that were not covered by the Ice Age glaciers.  The highway, in effect, crosses over the outwash plain between these two geological features — the Johnstown Moraine to the east and the Driftless Area to the west.

In recent years, now with at least rudimentary understandings of the geology of the Baraboo Hills,see the Hills and ridges and plains and quartzite along the highway with very different eyes.  The deep geological time exposed in these rocks feels like a visible sign of creation.  And my “respect” for all rocks in the world has increased a thousand fold.

Dott, R.H. Jr, & Attig, J.W.. (2004).  Roadside Geology of Wisconsin. Mountain Press Publishing Company:  Missoula, Montana.

Kruse, H. (n.d.).  Natural Areas in the Baraboo Hills.  Published in cooperation with Goblin Fern Press, http://www.goblinfernpress.com

Lange, K.I. (2014).  Song of Place:  A Natural History of the Baraboo Hills.  Ballindalloch Press:  Baraboo, WI.

Google:  Devil’s Lake State Park Baraboo Hills Wisconsin for spectacular views of the quartzite rocks on the bluffs around the lake.

(To Be Continued)