Updated: Feb 22
With an early morning fog blanketing the Des Moines River Valley, I returned to 320th Street just south of the Osgood Elevator and headed west. Over 20 miles awaited me on another hot, but dry, day as I headed northwest toward Fort Defiance State Park on the western edge of Estherville. To my east a field of wind-turbines stood out in the morning mist, and as I walked a caught a glimpse of the past and present merging in the fog.
About a mile in I crossed the West Fork of the Des Moines River for the final time. Since leaving Montrose over a month earlier, I followed the river north and west. The crossing on Part 3, Day 3, marked my fourteenth crossing of the river. For the rest of the journey I would be west of the river, and a strange part of me felt a sadness at soon leaving the river behind.
I wound my way northward on the aptly named River Road, a gravel surface road extending south out of Graettinger. I passed several farms and the road climbed up and down, a reminder of the shifting geographic context I crossed during the day. I had ventured into the Algona End Morraine, known for a knob and kettle geography, from the much flatter Des Moines Lobe. As I crested one hill I would see another before descending. At the top of one hill, the sun shone brightly off thousands of pieces of debris at a local landfill.
A small town of just under 1,000 people, Graettinger was founded alongside the Burlington, Cedar Rapids, and Northern Railway. The railway agreed to name the town for a German physician named Dr. Alois Graettinger, provided he cede them the lands.
Known for the oldest Labor Day celebration in Iowa, today Graettinger hosts a clean downtown, a golf course, and a beautiful baseball park. I shuffled through town, eventually turning onto Highway 4 on the western edge of town.
I had initially planned to walk along Highway 4 all the way to Estherville, however, narrow shoulders and heavy traffic led me to take an unexpected turn onto a gravel road running west. I climbed up from the river valley hoping to find a flatter path, but ended up being sorely disappointed. A series of massive hills paired with the heat and my blistered feet to turn the remainder of the days journey into an unfortunate endurance test.
Stopping to stretch a few miles into my detour from Highway 4, I started to ration my water and resilience for the remaining miles to Fort Defiance State Park. Hill after unrelenting hill tested my tired feet as I trudged onward. Without the knowledge of the finish line looming the following day I do not think I would have managed to get through the day. I kept reminding myself that every mile crossed represented a shorter day to follow, and with my feet continuing to deteriorate I knew I might as well get as much completed as possible.
After finally turning onto a hard surface road at Twelve Mile Waterfowl Production Area, several more hills greeted me. With little to no traffic on N26/370th Avenue, I continued to slowly move northward. With one final hill and a bend in the road I finally arrived at Fort Defiance State Park.
Fort Defiance, named for a fort formed by the Northern Iowa Border Brigade following the outbreak of the US-Dakota War in 1862, stands just to the west of Estherville. The 191-acre park stands tall over the surrounding area, however, thick woods blanket the park eliminating any views of the surrounding countryside. Another legacy of the Civilian Conservation Corps, the park opened to the public in 1930.
Collapsing into a footsore, sunburned heap, I completed my twentieth day on walking along the Des Moines River from Montrose. The next time I saw the Des Moines I would be headed homeward bound on Highway 9. The day represented the last day on the river, and I had completed over 350 miles on my journey to better understand Iowa's environmental past and present.