A good day trip should involve either a very short drive or lots of leisurely driving. There's no middle ground. Driving an hour or two to shop for antiques or eat in some swell restaurant doesn't count. In my book that's not a day trip, that's going shopping or out to eat. So, sorry, but in the pantheon of Minnesota day trips, Stillwater, Red Wing, New Prague, and Pepin don't count. And as much as I admire our fine state parks, I'm tossing them out as well, mainly because they don't fit my agenda, and visiting them requires a sort of hearty resolve that I generally find missing when the mood to get out of town hits me.
That's the thing, I think: Day trips shouldn't make any great physical demands. They shouldn't really make any demands, period. Basically, the rule of thumb for any successful day trip is that you should be able to get the maximum amount of weird pleasure and experience out of the minimum output of effort and expenditure. That's not exactly a tall order, and that's the whole point.
I think it's important to steer clear of the interstate highways that make destination driving so easy but ruin the actual experience of pure pleasure driving. In siphoning traffic away from small towns and making obsolete much of the railroad service that was the lifeblood of so many of those same communities, the Eisenhower Federal Interstate Highway System condemned huge portions of the country to death by starvation. That's painfully evident here in Minnesota, where interstates 35, 94, and 90 run like fat scars up and down and across the map. Those freeways might take you somewhere else, might well deliver you from nowhere. But they won't take you to any of the places we're going to go, which are mostly, according to any conventional urban wisdom, nowhere.
Likewise, unless you can afford a cabin on one of the increasingly crowded (and expensive) lakes, or have all the time in the world to muck around in the Boundary Waters or Arrowhead Region getting hopelessly lost, buffeted by wind and weather, and eaten alive by all manner of flying things, the whole Up North business is perhaps best experienced vicariously. There are plenty of calendars and lush coffee-table books that will give you all the idea you need of what the place looks like without having to be surrounded by wilderness or other tourists. As with all other types of pornography, I can assure you from personal experience that these images represent a fantasy whose reality is a whole lot messier.
All of the destinations I'll be recommending instead lie in the roughly triangular out-state (I love that term, by the way; it sounds like an Orson Scott Card novel) sprawl that stretches south from the Twin Cities and runs up against Highway 169 to the west, Highway 52 to the east, and bottoms out at the Iowa border to the south. I-35 runs straight down the middle of the region, and the east-west slash of I-90 moves through its southern portion.
If you were feeling ambitious, and were purely in the mood to drive, you could make this entire trek in one day. But I'd recommend taking your time, and breaking it up into a series of shorter trips. You really should poke around in these out-of-the-way places where so much of the local color is fading by the day, like a not-quite-flattering family photo left too long near the window. Even though so many of us come from so many different someplace elses, I remain confident that there are hundreds of destinations a relatively short drive from the Twin Cities that are as exotic and unfamiliar as any foreign country.
First Leg: Pine Bend Cemetery.
Highway 52 South, Rosemount
approximately 22 miles from the Twin Cities
To find the most obscure, oppressed, and forsaken cemetery in America, you're going to have to be paying attention. It's easy to miss, given that it's literally surrounded by the gargantuan spectacle of the Koch oil refinery, with its myriad of barbed wire fences and "No Trespassing" signs. The cemetery, established on June 15, 1876, is on the east side of Highway 52, directly across from the flame- and smoke-belching stacks of the main refinery compound. Traffic whizzes along on the road, and if you're headed south from the Twin Cities you're going to have to figure out a way to get turned back north (the easiest way is to get off at the first exit, cross the highway overpass, and get back on 52). The cemetery has a gravel driveway on the right that crosses railroad tracks and gives way to grass just outside the gates.
I'd suggest packing a lunch. The Pine Bend Cemetery is the sort of place characters in a J.G. Ballard novel would have a picnic if characters in J.G. Ballard novels had picnics.
Given what it's up against (which on most days looks and smells dangerously close to pending environmental apocalypse), the cemetery is remarkably well cared for. It's really quite a pretty little place, if you can manage to avert your eyes from its towering and monstrous neighbor to the west. There are a number of Civil War casualties buried at Pine Bend (most of them are marked "G.A.R. 1861-1865"), as well as other worn gravestones from the 19th century.
As you laze among the tombs and try to hold your breath you may well amuse yourself by recalling that Rosemount purportedly received its name from Irish settlers who were inspired by memories of a picturesque village in Ireland.
The extinct settlement of Pine Bend is commemorated by a fading historical marker just off the highway shoulder a quarter-mile or so to the north. But this tribute to the Dakota village of Chief Medicine Bottle is even easier to miss than the cemetery, obscured as it presently is by the debris of highway construction. The plaque, in the likely event that you are unable (or unwilling to risk your life) to get close enough to actually view its corroded text, reads as follows:
The cornfields and village of the Sioux Chief Medicine Bottle occupied the land between this point and the river from 1838-1852. This friendly Chief, uncle of the Medicine Bottle executed in 1865, with his band moved to the Redwood Agency after the Mendota Treaty of 1851 and died before the Sioux outbreak of 1862. This marker also stands on the abandoned roadbed of the St. Paul and Southern Railway.
You'll find everything you need (and then some) for your cemetery picnic or the next leg of your journey at the massive Pump House truck stop complex across the intersection from the historical marker. The Pump House is an astonishing full-service attraction in its own right, offering everything from cold beverages, microwave delicacies, a Subway franchise, fireworks, mud flaps, air fresheners, patriotic statuary, a full selection of magazines (including Lollypops, Hometown Gals, Leg Show, and Weed World), and what is surely the planet's largest assortment of beef jerky products. Should you wish--and you likely will--to freshen up or simply unwind after your visit to the cemetery, you may choose to make use of the Pump House's showers or to dump a pocketful of quarters in the facility's game room.
WHILE YOU'RE OUT THERE
A half-dozen miles south of the cemetery you'll pass through Coates (pop. 163), which is home to Jake's Totally Exotic Dancers, the most excellent House of Coates bar (liquor and food), a mysterious collection of rusting iron lawn art (on the southwest corner of the highway intersection), and little else. Hampton (pop. 363) is the next town along 52, and if you're looking to make something more than a day trip out of your getaway, this may be your last, best shot at securing a motel room without the inconvenience of a detour. The Silver Bell certainly looks like the sort of classic highway strip motel that is likely to provide--by virtually any standard--affordable accommodations. But in the early afternoon I was unable to summon a clerk at the office, so you might want to call ahead for additional information. The town also has an excellent water tower, a hair salon, tennis court, and a district of drinking establishments (the Black Stallion, Lucky's Round-Up, and Frank's Place) that seemed unusually well peopled for a weekday afternoon in a town of 363 residents.
Second Leg: West Concord.
Highway 56 South
approximately 70 miles from the Twin Cities
To get to West Concord (pop. 830) you're going to have to pick up Highway 56 South just past Hampton. Believe me, by that time you'll be happy as hell to leave 52 behind; truth be told, it's a freeway trying to pass itself off as a state highway, and it's been a long time since it fooled anyone. Highway 56, however, is the real deal, a modest two-lane that makes its lazy way from small town to small town all the way to the Iowa border. Generally by the time you leave one place (and it never takes long), you'll already be able to see the water tower and grain elevator of the next hamlet rising above the fields in the distance. Most of these burgs were modestly thriving and self-sufficient agricultural communities once upon a time, and West Concord is no exception.
Originally located east of its present location, the town took on its current name when it was forced to move west in the late 19th century to tap into the new rail service. Today, driving into West Concord from the north, you'll see welcome signs that advertise the community's annual Survivor Days and its status as the "Home of Peef's Chad Winsell." Winsell, who apparently served as the inspiration for the Santa Claus in Tom Hegg and Warren Hanson's storybook Peef, is the town's humble version of a local celebrity.
A walking tour of the community won't turn up much on the surface. There's a charming little drive-in restaurant, Ginny's, which has an adjacent miniature miniature golf course, and a tiny community park on a corner lot at the intersection of Main Street. The main drag is utterly abandoned late on a weekday afternoon; there's not a soul visible anywhere downtown, in fact, and most of the shop fronts are either vacant or closed for the day. Among those businesses that at least appear to still be hanging on--a diner, gift shop, hardware store, bank, grain co-op, and American Legion Post--only the on/off sale West Concord Liquor (located in the old city hall) seems to be doing much business.
I stopped in at the library, which shares space with the local government center and police department, and found Rita Hawes and Sharon Dahms preparing to close up for the day. Dahms, who along with her library duties also works on a family farm and teaches swimming, has lived in West Concord her whole life, and remembers the days when the town was an entirely different place.
"That was before people started coming in and buying up all the farms back in the '80s," she said. "We still had our own high school, and at one time we had two banks, three grocery stores, a couple auto dealers, several restaurants, and a movie theater. Now we don't even have a grocery store."
Asked to toot their little town's horn, Dahns and Hawes both laughed uneasily and then racked their brains.
"Well," Dahms eventually offered, "Steve Swiggum taught school here at one time."
"And the town once held a birthday party for a horse," Hawes said. "That made WCCO up in the Cities. The historical society also has one of the best collections of seashells you'll ever see."
Down the street at West Concord Liquor a group of locals was gathered for the evening happy hour. The bar is a dark, comfortably noisy place with a handful of tables, a small game room, and beer posters and sports schedules on the walls. A guy named Dave, who recently celebrated his 50th birthday, was nursing a beer at the bar and making small talk with some of the other regulars.
"I've lived here my whole life," he said. "I was born and raised on a dairy farm east of town, and started working at the local co-op a year out of high school. I'm old enough now where it's like, What the hell else am I going to do? This isn't the town I grew up in, though, that's for sure, but it's still home. I've got three sisters and a brother who all still live within 30 miles of here. In terms of social life this place is pretty much the hub, right here; it's practically the only place that's open at night. You probably saw it, but the main street's basically empty now. We don't even have a barber in town anymore. But it used to be on Friday and Saturday nights you couldn't even find a place to park downtown. People used to come in from all over to do their shopping, and they'd hang around to drink or get something to eat."
A young man at the end of the bar listened to this apparently familiar litany and rolled his eyes. Dave shrugged and said, "What can you say? A little town can't compete with a big town, that's all there is to it."
If you continue to follow 56 South all the way to the Iowa border, you'll pass through a series of small towns that are more or less mirror versions of West Concord: Hayfield, Waltham, Brownsdale, Rose Creek, Adams, Taopi. Among this lot, Hayfield (pop. 1,325), with its own barber shop, grocery store, newspaper, spinal care clinic, and Get Fit center, could fancy itself a prospering metropolis. Rose Creek (pop. 354), founded in 1867 (and according to the sign at the edge of town, now the "Home of Fun Days"), and Adams (pop. 800) both seem to be holding up reasonably fine as well. Adams is actually an attractive little community, made even more striking by the phalanx of huge wind turbines that loom above it from a hill just outside town.
Waltham (pop. 196) has a handsome 19th-century cemetery, a grain co-op, a bar called Cheers, and more dead ends than through streets; Brownsdale (pop. 718) boasts a small grocery store, a café, an unnamed barber shop, and a now (tragically) defunct roller rink that once upon a time drew kids from towns all over the area. Taopi (pop. 93), according to the 1938 WPA Guide to Minnesota, "was named for a well-known chief of a band of Santee Sioux. Taopi (Ind., wounded man) was converted to Christianity and aided the whites during the Sioux uprising." Perhaps befitting such a legacy, Taopi now consists of little beyond a post office, liquor store, and the remains of a once prosperous supper club, the Rusty Rail.
Just outside of town, however, there is a lovely DNR trail of native prairie and wild flowers that runs along an old railroad bed, a remnant of the days when Taopi's Union Depot provided passenger service to anywhere in the country, and the Great Western Line blew through town up to four times a day.
Third Leg: Lyle.
Highway 218 South
approximately 110 miles from the Twin Cities
My experience in the town of Lyle (pop. 566), located just above the Iowa border 20 miles from Austin, is a perfect example of the sort of serendipitous magic that can occur when you actually get out of your car and nose around in some of Minnesota's out-state towns. Before my visit the only thing I really knew about Lyle was that it had been at the center of one of southern Minnesota's largest methamphetamine distribution busts. Initial appearances weren't particularly promising: The highway through town is essentially the main street of the community, a desolate strip flanked on one side by the grain co-op and an auto body shop, and on the other by a few blocks of largely empty commercial spaces (including two buildings--now for lease--that had been occupied by some sort of Christian ministries outfit). There is also, though, the Copper Kettle Café, which I discovered to be the almost perfect example of an endangered species, the small-town diner.
Inside the Copper Kettle I found black vinyl booths, a lunch counter, American flags, homespun art (including a black velvet portrait of a German shepherd), and a board that listed the daily specials of meat loaf and hamburger hot dish. The booths and tables were occupied by an equal mix of senior citizens and groups of men who obviously get their hands dirty for a living. A John Wayne movie--honest to God--was on the television over the counter.
The food was tremendous, and obviously made from scratch--all of it. Craig Stark, who owns the place with his wife and lives upstairs, does most of the cooking, and the couple generally spends 15 hours a day in the restaurant, allowing themselves a day off on Monday and half a day on Sunday (after serving breakfast). His wife bakes all the pies, cookies, and rolls, and Stark hand-peels, cuts, and boils all the potatoes (bought from local farmers) that he uses in his mashed potatoes and home fries. He also buys much of the meat he uses from one of the oldest surviving meat markets in the area, and creates his own barbecue sauce for his popular Friday night rib specials.
Stark, a huge man with a big moustache who looks more like a retired professional wrestler than a small-town restaurateur, laid out a philosophy that wouldn't be out of place in the kind of food magazine that has breathtaking ads for $11,000 ranges. "I've always figured if you're going to run a local business you should buy local," he said. "That's obviously not as easy as it used to be, and it would obviously be a whole lot easier if more people would think that way. Nowadays we get quite a bit more business from travelers than we do from the locals. Truckers are good to us. I guess they get a little bigger meal at a little better price, and we still have real mashed potatoes; the truckers really seem to love those."
When a fellow burly guy came up to the counter to pay his bill, Stark introduced him to me as Tim Carroll, a local character who logs with horses. I chatted a bit with Carroll and invited myself to his farm outside of town to see what he was up to.
That seemed just fine with Carroll, even though I arrived to find him in the middle of supervising the cleanup of damage from a recent storm that resulted in a bunch of downed trees on his property. He was also in the process of loading a Federal Express semi-trailer truck with a shipment of handcrafted furniture from his wood shop.
After he got the truck loaded and on its way, Carroll walked me through his Cedar River Horse Logging and Wood Products operation. For 12 years Carroll, along with his teams of Percheron horses, has been engaged in what he calls "equine forestry." That basically means, he explained, logging and land management with horses instead of mechanical equipment. "Horses," Carroll said, "can get in and out of places you just can't get with machinery. And in the process of hauling out the logs they do a whole lot less damage to the other trees and the land. Machines have the tendency to wreck a lot of things."
Part of the appeal for hardwood buffs who might want to selectively cut a few oak, walnut, or cherry trees is aesthetic, but for Carroll there are also environmental and purely practical considerations. He has a 930-pound portable Lucas sawmill he can transport to sites in the back of his truck, so there's no need to haul the logs away to be milled. He figures he puts $1.48 a day into each of his horses, which cost him on average $1,200. Besides their work in the woods, Carroll also uses his horses in the hay fields and to plow the driveway in the winter. Not to mention the fact that he's now into his third generation of Percherons: "I've never seen a piece of machinery that can reproduce itself," he said. "It's all about harvesting renewable resources with renewable resources. I suppose I've got maybe $5,000 invested in all of my equipment--how long do you think it'd take you to pay off a $100,000 tractor? There's a reason it only takes the Amish something like seven years to pay off their farms."
After giving me a tour of his shop, Carroll walked me across the road to introduce me to his horses. The massive animals were gentle and attentive, and swarmed Carroll (and me) like a pack of dogs, nuzzling and leaning their huge heads in for a scratch. "I try to spend as much time as possible just grooming them," Carroll said. "It really does a lot to build up trust and connect you to the horses. We're together so much, and they learn something everyday, and so do I."
ON YOUR WAY HOME, WHEREVER THAT MIGHT BE:
From Lyle, I would suggest you meander steadily west and north, zigzagging at right angles along various county roads and state highways. There are a bunch of sadly beautiful--and just plain beautiful--towns down there between Austin and Albert Lea to the south and Waseca and Owatonna to the north. Try Hollandale, Maple Island, Geneva, Hope, or Otisco.
Whatever you do, though, be sure at some point to make your way back to 218 North just east of Hope (and I-35), where you'll find the town of Bixby, or what remains of it. The population of the place doesn't even register on any atlas or census that I can find, but people do live here. Some of them keep goats that stand on the roofs of doghouses and dogs that bray like goats. However many actual residents there might be, they make themselves very scarce. I've been to the place dozens of times, and only on my most recent visit did I encounter a human being. I was snooping around the railroad tracks by the grain elevator (across the street from the building that bears a peeling, badly faded, hand-painted sign for the "Bixby Store") when I flagged down a guy in a pickup truck.
"Tell me about this place," I said.
He looked at me like I was crazy. "Bixby?" he said. "There's nothing to tell."
"What about that old ballroom across the highway, Zeiner's?" I asked.
"Maybe it was something one time," he said. "Whatever it was, it's not anymore."
"Do you live here?" I asked.
The guy swatted the air dismissively with his left hand and grimaced perceptibly. "You might say that," he said, and took his foot off the brake and pulled slowly away.
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