Faithful readers of this column might remember that last week marked phase one of our “gotta see the kids” late-summer tour, with a trip to the Moorhead, MN/Fargo, ND region to visit our older son, Colin, and his family. We were anxious to see how they’d fared in the northern plains, with our daughter-in-law experiencing her first year as a full-fledged college professor and Colin working as a chef in a region seldom featured on the Food Network except on programs about lutefisk. meatballs and lefsa. We also wanted to hear about life in a region where 30 below is considered kinda balmy and what it’s like to stack sandbags in a blizzard (Fargo/Moorhead is the home of the now-famed Red River of the North.)
And, for me, there was the constant, irresistible lure of backroads travel. And believe me, there are a lot of options in a region where secondary roads often trail quickly into dirt tracks through deserted miles of hidden lakes and virgin forests.
We saw a lot of lakes. We saw a lot of trees. But, most interesting to me was the sight of an America that I thought no longer existed except in the memories of those of us who slogged through the upper midwest in search of that perfect family vacation of the ’50’s.
We took Geri, our daughter-in-law, plus a willing granddaughter, on one of those forays one sunny day, as we headed east to search out a perfect swimming hole for their family to enjoy for the rest of the summer. There are, of course, lakes o’ plenty in the land of 10,000 lakes, but what really caught my eye was the steady stream of signs proclaiming “resort” at nearly every turn. After a few false starts and dead ends, we finally caught sight of some of the places those signs were advertising, and I was immediately swept back into a time long before the advent of the mega-developments, casinos and fun parks that now seem to dominate every pretty lake in America. Instead, these resorts were the good old mom and pop places that I remembered from the long drives my family used to take in search of an ideal spot for my dad to fish, while my mom got a chance to sit in the sun and read a book and my siblings and I experienced the joys of fresh, clear water and sandy lake bottoms. The places we saw had names like Whispering Pines, Bear Paw, Sleeping Fawn and Sunny Point. They were the kind of quiet little resorts, featuring shorelines dotted with fishing piers and tiny cottages, that generations of families visited year after year until someone finally decided WiFi, water parks and fast food were more important than sunsets, rowboats and great fishing. They’re still there, existing, somehow. And I’m glad they are.
The drive home was planned as a two-day wander in search of a little nirvana of our own. We found it that first evening in a Minnesota State Park with a familiar name--Father Hennepin--on beautiful Mille Lacs (Thousand Lakes) east of Brainerd. We discovered, to our delight, that we remembered how to set up our tent and that our air mattress still doesn’t leak. After a shoreline hike, the evening was spent gazing into a campfire, accompanied by the cry of loons and the occasional chug-chug of fishermen trolling the lake. Even a late-night thunderstorm failed to dampen our spirits, as we found, to our relief, that our tent still doesn’t leak, either.
The next morning started dangerously, as our navigator (that’s me) carelessly directed us on a winding, “where the heck are we, anyway” route that inexplicably took us across the river marking the upper Minnesota-Wisconsin border a total of four times before we settled on a straighter path that would take us down through east central Wisconsin. I say “dangerously,” because, despite all our intentions to “let the road take us,” four aimless border crossings with no progress towards home are apt to turn any second honeymoon into something more akin to the second world war.
Our good humor revived, we proceeded through a unique Wisconsin landscape featuring wooded hills and bluffs, more lakes and postcard-pretty dairy farms that are seldom seen unless you get off the well-beaten tourist-track of the interstate highways and other busy roads.
And there were the towns. There aren’t many of them. Just enough, I think, to provide schools and churches and commerce for the surrounding countryside. Some of them feature small cheese factories that turn the fruits of their neighbors’ labor into a rich, creamy product with little or no resemblance to the over-processed stuff found on supermarket shelves. They are, universally, neat-as-a-pin, prosperous-looking places that, it might seem, continue to thrive through hard work and the relative absence of any nearby big cities that might draw away retail trade and tax dollars.
My favorite was a town called Plain.
Perched on a steep hillside, it’s an appealing little village, with an active downtown, nice homes, a nifty nine-hole golf course and a huge church and shrine on top of the hill. But it was the name that caught my attention from the moment we hit town. Some research after I got home showed a couple of historical options. One states that the name was “widely rumored to have been selected as an homage to the Shrine of the Virgin Mary at Maria Plain in Salzburg, Austria.” Another, though, said that it was “called Plain because the inhabitants were plain people." A letter to the local newspaper in 1915 from an anonymous reader made this offer:
“ I for my part would suggest a name not yet found in Wisconsin, and in order to avoid unnecessary criticisms and hallucinations, I reserve three in petto, [secretly] promising at the same time that they all will be delighted at its beautiful sound and easy spelling."
Apparently, those three ideas never flew, and the name stayed plain, but to a small-town boy like me, Plain was beautiful, all the same.