Beer, caves and medieval fantasy in Maquoketa

Jordan Sellergren/Little Village

“Said Gawain, gay of cheer, ‘Whether fate be foul or fair, Why falter I or fear? What should man do but dare?’” —‘Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,’ late 14th century poem

“The green girdle stays on during sex.” —Sir Gawain (paraphrased), ‘The Green Knight,’ 2021 film

When I was a 10-year-old Girl Scout on a field trip to Maquoketa Caves, I joined a small fellowship of brave Juniors who decided to go as deep into one of the caves as we could.

This wasn’t the gaping maw of the Dancehall Cave, but a smaller cavern (I think it was the Wye Cave) that got narrower and narrower the further we spelunked. Our headlamps lit orange-brown stalactites and stalagmites — “The ’mites go up and the ’tites come down,” we recited over and over — the walls slick and crusted with minerals.

We could see only about 10 feet ahead of us, had no idea how far we’d crawled and, more importantly, how much further the cave went, how much tighter it would get and if there even was an opening at the end.

Turning around didn’t feel like an option, until suddenly it was — until, at some random point, one of us admitted to a bit of claustrophobia and fear that we could, well, literally die if our dimming flashlights decided to burn out in the bowels of this old Iowa hill. I remember crying as we turned around, crawling for an hour in the direction we’d already come when, in theory, an exit could have been just 20 more feet ahead of us. We just didn’t know, and sometimes you have to make the choice you know is safe, however annoying or boring.

But when we finally reemerged into the daylight and soft green forest canopy, it felt like a birth. We joined our fellow, wiser scouts in sliding down a muddy hill over and over until it was time to wrap ourselves in garbage bags, load up the minivans and transport our bruised bodies back to Iowa City.

Welcome to Maquoketa Caves State Park, Aug. 14, 2021. — courtesy of Katelyn Meyer

A few birthdays and bat fungus outbreaks later, Maquoketa Caves and I reunited this summer for the first time since the Bush administration. I brought my friend Katelyn and my dog Goldie, both of whom resented me for doing so at various points in the journey.

Maquoketa, a diamond stud in the nose of eastern Iowa, is a small Jackson County town in the far southern edge of the Driftless Area, a landscape shaped by ice age glaciers and characterized by forested ridges, deep river valleys, cold trout streams and subterranean drainage systems that have carved caves and sinkholes in limestone, dolomite, gypsum and other soluble rock over the centuries.

Katelyn hikes in Maquoketa Caves State Park, Aug. 14, 2021. — Emma McClatchey/Little Village

Stepping onto the trails in Maquoketa Caves State Park, I felt transported into the world of The Green Knight, a new A24 joint I’d seen in theaters the week before. A trippy interpretation of the medieval poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, which you may remember from 10th grade English, the film finds King Arthur’s nephew Gawain (played by a dashing Dev Patel) chopping the head off the titular knight in a quick bid at some greatness and glory. But the Green Knight doesn’t die, and he tells Gawain that he will return the blow a year hence, miles away in his Green Chapel. After nearly a year of drinking, partying and generally enjoying his newfound fame, Gawain gets the lecture from King Arthur that he must go meet his destiny. Full of self-doubt and surrounded by fantastical forces, Gawain embarks on a journey over countrysides, battlefields, woodlands and giant-inhabited mountains to face off with his foe.

Before I started my trek through the woods, Katelyn and I did some imbibing of our own. Maquoketa Brewing is the town’s first brewery since Prohibition, and it’s a positive sign of progress after Maquoketa’s Main Street was devastated in a 2008 fire. Indeed, co-owner Mark Lyon said he read a magazine article listing a craft brewery as one of 11 indicators of a thriving city, and pitched the idea of opening one to his wife Judy. Judy agreed on two conditions: they serve cider on tap and install purse hooks in the taproom. Maquoketa Brewing launched in January at 110 S Main St.

Flights are served on Iowa-shaped trays at Maquoketa Brewing, 10 S Main St Suite A. — Emma McClatchey/Little Village

I’ve never been a fan of sweet or sour beverages, so I don’t often drink ciders. But when I picked out the brews that would fill the five spots on my Iowa-shaped beer flight, I decided to tack on one of the two ciders featured at Maquoketa Brewing: the Jacked UP: Apple Pie, brewed by Crimson Sunset Cidery in Cascade.

It was by far the most delicious cider I’d ever tasted — a perfect balance of tart, sweet, spiced and sparkling. I confidently declared, “Fall has arrived” after the second sip, and ordered a growler to go.

But there were many great supporting players among the beers we sampled. The Lemon Drop pale ale was surprisingly subtle with light, citrusy hops, and the Belgian Tripel had all the body of a classic Oktoberfest. Katelyn, an avid sour beer fan, gushed over the Orange Sour, which she nicknamed the Beermosa. I was fascinated by the London Calling, an English bitter that combines the style’s signature English hops and malts with marshmallow and caramel notes to create a reddish beer worth savoring.

The atmosphere inside was clean and stylish, with a dozen large Edison bulbs dangling above the bar to create an eyecatching industrial chandelier. But we sat on the small patio space out front with Goldie to drink and watch trucks drive through town hauling old beat-up sports cars, no doubt fodder for a nearby demolition derby.

Fat Man’s Misery at Maquoketa Caves State Park, Aug. 14, 2021. — Emma McClatchey/Little Village

Two hours later, fully sober but already a bit dizzy from the humidity in Maquoketa Caves State Park, I fancied myself Gawain at the precipice of the Green Chapel as I walked through a moss-covered slot of rocks called Fat Man’s Misery.

Towing a dog and feeling more like a miserable fat man than the lithe Girl Scout I was 18 years ago, I didn’t explore the Wye Cave or any of Maquoketa’s small, jagged crawl spaces. But I did take the time to enjoy its enormity, sheer drops, ancient rocks and landscape that looked both alien to Iowa and very Iowan. I stared in curious awe at flitting bats and balancing boulders and mouse-sized people from the Upper Dancehall Cave. We took the photos everyone takes, sweating in the custard-thick air.

The view from the Upper Dancehall Cave in Maquoketa Caves State Park, Aug. 14, 2021. — Emma McClatchey/Little Village
Goldie steels herself for a walk through the Dancehall Cave, Aug. 14, 2021. — Emma McClatchey/Little Village

Goldie lapped up some cave stream water, probably doubling her body’s magnesium, and boldly conquered stepping stones and slippery floors that I thought I’d need to carry her over. We greeted fellow park-goers diverse in age, size, race and idea of appropriate spelunking attire. We closed the fitness circle thing on Katelyn’s Apple Watch three times over, meaning we’d walked lots of steps, I guess. We’d seen creeks, stone halls, giants, townsfolk, cave creatures, a green chapel of sorts.

And we were lost.

Maquoketa Caves State Park takes on a fairy tale quality, Aug. 14, 2021. — courtesy of Katelyn Meyer

My Nissan Rogue became a big red X on our mental treasure maps as we hiked a mile on a gradual incline, realizing with each step we were not on the trail we thought we were and that there may be no way to go but back the way we came. An old injury flared in Katelyn’s knee. I was panting worse than Goldie.

Hark, a family in yonder wood!

We crossed paths with a pair of young girls, walking ahead of their parents, and asked if the parking lot was up ahead.

“No, that’s the prairie,” one said. “We made the same mistake. You’re gonna have to go back that way.” She pointed to the trail behind us.

I was ready to concede defeat, but Katelyn told me she couldn’t face that path again, so we pressed forward.

A trail map showed us just how off-course we were. But in our incompetence, we experienced a hike we didn’t expect — in lighter air, on soft and forgiving grass, past hundreds of purple prairie flowers and butterflies.

I opened Google Maps on a phone with 13 percent battery life, and stared at our little blue circle in a sea of green, trying to orient myself like I was reading a compass. I realized we’d have to walk along a gravel country road for about a half mile and reenter the park from the campground entrance to reach the parking lot. So we did.

The last leg of our hike: a desperate shortcut along country roads between Maquoketa Cave State Park’s prairie and campground. — Emma McClatchey/Little Village

We kicked up dust on a road cut between looming August cornstalks, feeling like we’d gone from the rainforest to a meadow to a desert, when we finally saw the campground sign over the hill. Phew. Things were feeling a little dire for a second there.

The first vehicle we saw when we reentered the park: my Nissan Rogue. An apparition of great beauty, a brilliant unicorn, a sleeping nymph, the lady of the lake, Gandalf the White. We cranked up the air conditioning and breathed out laughs, glad neither of us lost our heads.

Emma McClatchey is Little Village’s managing editor and misadventurer. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 298.

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