It was a gorgeous fall day in southwest Wisconsin, and all we could see was heartache and misery.
"Welcome to Virginia 1862," read the sign at the gates of Norskedalen, where pioneer homesteads evoke the Civil War era.
Pushing open the door of a chinked-timber farmhouse, we encountered Nedda Blodgett, who was surprised to find strangers in her parlor but quickly welcomed us in a Southern drawl.
In the coulees of southwest Wisconsin, a lush green zone draws anyone who craves a heady dose of nature.
It starts in spring, when trilliums bloom along Rustic Roads, morel mushrooms pop out on hillsides and water rushes down the crooked Kickapoo River.
It's not close to any city, but people find their way. Norwegians were first to be drawn to its deep, narrow valleys, like miniature fjords.
In southwest Wisconsin, following the Kickapoo River is a lot like watching a magic act: No matter how closely you pay attention, eventually what you see is going to disappear into thin air.
When it reappears, it will be in a completely different spot, and you'll have no idea how it got there.
"Look, there it is again," said my husband, as we drove Wisconsin 131 through the Kickapoo Valley. "It's meandering like mad."
In 1862, a poor Norwegian couple and their four small children, including their infant son Thorvald, joined a wave of immigrants to Wisconsin, eventually settling in the coulees of Vernon County.
Vernon County was an interesting place in the 1860s. Only a generation before, Black Hawk and his band had fled through it, hounded by militia.
They ran headlong into a slaughter that remains one of the most shameful chapters in U.S. history. Today, 11 plaques mark the route, which ended near the town of Victory.
In Mount Horeb, Wis., trolls are revered, not reviled.
The little town west of Madison calls itself the Troll Capital of the World, for its many mascots most wooden, but one live and Norse traditions.
It doesn't have the medieval Norwegian stave church that has been the town's pride and joy since 1937. The ornate wooden building has gone back to Orkdal, Norway, whose residents built it for the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago and will reassemble it as an attraction for Orkdal.
In Westby, Norwegians take their love of tradition to extreme heights.
The high ridges and deep coulees south of La Crosse drew so many Norwegian immigrants in the 19th century that the area around Westby became known as "America's little Gudbrandsdal,'' after the valley in Norway.
The Norwegians had left their homes, but not their customs. Today, Norwegian flags fly from lampposts, and the visitors center is a stabbur, a top-heavy wood building used in Norway since the Middle Ages.
In Wisconsin's Driftless Area, the 400 Trail and Baraboo River go together like ice cream and cones.
One is good. Both is better.
They follow each other for 22 miles, the trail only a few feet above the river and its sloughs. Snapping turtles think the trail is a beach, depositing their eggs into its crushed limestone, and fishermen walk the trail to get to secret fishing holes.
There's a beautiful pocket of Wisconsin that dairy farmers would have had all to themselves if it hadn't been for a few renegade bicyclists.
In 1967, Wisconsin made a bicycling trail out of an abandoned rail bed that it had devoted to hikers until it saw that most of the users were on bicycles. That trail, the Elroy-Sparta, sparked a national race to convert unused rail beds into trails.
Today, Wisconsin has more than 2,000 miles of rail trails. Of those miles, more than a hundred skirt the edge of coulee country around La Crosse, a dramatic region of high ridges and valleys untouched by glaciers.