At first, the southeast Minnesota town of Spring Grove looks like any other town.
Theres a café, an antiques store and a park full of statues. But Spring Grove isnt ordinary. Its full of Norwegians.
In the park, two bronze men appear to be squabbling; theyre characters in a nationally syndicated comic strip written by a Spring Grove man 50 years before Neil Simon came up with The Odd Couple.
Sometimes, we like to travel like kings . . . and paupers, too.
I suspect a lot of other people do the same thing. To get what we want, we save on something else.
Our favorite splurge is eating out, but a meal for two in a really good restaurant costs $80-$100, same as a hotel room. Our solution? We pitch a tent.
It was a beautiful fall weekend in Lanesboro, and the streets of this picturesque town in Minnesotas bluff country were packed with sightseers and bicycle tourists.
They were browsing in gift shops. They were sampling at the winery. They were bicycling on the Root River State Trail.
In fall, Lanesboro is the darling of day-trippers and weekenders. My children and I love it, too. They spent 15 minutes with me in the arts center, I spent 15 minutes with them in the Indian crafts shop, and then we went in-line skating on the paved trail, across the trestle bridge and along the limestone bluffs.
For a hamlet out in nowhere, Lanesboro is picturesquely blessed.
Its hemmed in by tall limestone bluffs, circled by a spring-fed trout stream and bisected by one of the nations best bicycle trails.
Eagles, herons and egrets cruise along the scenic river just to the north, alongside canoeists and kayakers.
It was a sunny day in southeastern Minnesota, and everywhere I looked, there were Babes.
Babes bombing along bike trails, Babes prowling the shops of Lanesboro, Babes laughing over white wine in the inn where I was staying.
They were the Fat Bottom Girls Cycle Club from Des Moines, also known as Babes on Bikes, and they were having a swell time riding the smooth, scenic trails of the Root River Valley.
In an isolated bluff-country valley, reached only by small, winding roads, lies one of Minnesota's favorite getaways.
There are no condo resorts here, no wine bars and heaven forbid no national franchises. The aroma of manure hangs over downtown on Wednesdays and Fridays, when livestock auctions are held.
Only 750 people live here, and they can't afford to advertise much, so most visitors come via word of mouth.
Of all the immigrant groups, Norwegians perhaps are most sentimental.
They settled in hills and valleys reminiscent of their homeland, bringing trunks full of handcrafted ale bowls and mangle boards.
Generations later, theyre still painting bowls and stitching costumes in the old style and celebrating holidays with foods poor Norwegians ate in the 19th century.
Deep down, every morel hunter believes in divine providence.
There's nothing so providential as baskets overflowing with morels, and the taste is so divine hunters dream about it all winter. In spring, they offer a fervent prayer to the mushroom gods: May the fungus be among us.
Morels do taste heavenly. But it's the hunt that's so addictive it's fun to find something for free that's so expensive in stores and restaurants, and it's fun to beat the odds by finding something so notoriously elusive.
First, an elf sashayed down the street.
Behind him marched adults in bunads, the traditional Norwegian folk costume, and two shaggy little boys wearing the long noses, beards and tails of trolls.
Baton twirlers, roller-limbo skaters, polka dancers, folk dancers, fiddlers, buglers and queens of all kinds followed, lobbing torrents of Tootsie Rolls and hard candy to the crowd along the route.
Like most women who take care of small creatures, Karla Bloem splits her life into two parts: Before Alice and After Alice.
Before Alice, Bloem could sleep late and travel whenever she felt like it.
But then little Alice came along. Alice wakes her up at the crack of dawn, sulks if she leaves her and leaves messes all over the house. Alice is a spoiled brat, Karla Bloem admits.
At harvest time, Minnesota's bluff country overflows with beauty.
Fat pumpkins await buyers at farmers' markets. Golden clumps of wildflowers line bicycle trails. From buggies, the Amish sell homemade baskets, bumbleberry jam and apple butter.
There's an abundance of everything, including tourists.
Before the Root River State Trail was built, the only places to stay in Lanesboro were some small hunters' cabins near the city park.
That was before there was anything to do in the isolated village besides hunt and fish. Now Lanesboro is the recreational and cultural capital of southeast Minnesota, with a new theater, an arts center and 60 miles of paved bicycle trails.
With visitors pouring in, Lanesboro also has become the bed-and-breakfast capital of the Minnesota, with more B&Bs than any other town, plus several small inns.
Had it with mosquitoes? Head for southeast Minnesota.
That's karst country, where porous limestone lies just under the surface and rain sinks into fast-moving underground streams that are chilled to 48 degrees when they run through the many cave systems.
Trout like it, but mosquitoes don't. There's no standing water, so there's nowhere for them to breed.
In southeast Minnesota, some of the locals stand out a bit.
They travel in horse-drawn buggies, they dress only in dark colors and they speak an archaic German dialect. In their homes and workshops, they refuse to use electricity, natural gas or plumbing, all of which would literally connect them to the outside world.
They're Old Order Amish, direct descendants of a Swiss religious group that believed Martin Luther and other Reformation leaders didn't go far enough in returning the church to strict Scripture.
There's something inspiring about a certain pocket of northeast Iowa.
It's nurtured a a beloved children's-book author, a famous composer and two brilliant woodcarvers. It's stirred battalions of people who create art, preserve heirloom seed and carry on Norwegian culture.
There are a lot of stories in these hills and valleys on the edge of the Driftless Area, which escaped the flattening effects of the glaciers.
Under the cornstalks of Fillmore County, an unusual sculpture garden sits in shadow.
Stalagmite topiaries line walkways, alongside pale-green flowstone as translucent as Chinese jade. Stalactite statuettes dangle in artistic arrays.
Theyre obviously created by a Pollock of rock, a Van Gogh of stone. Yet their genius relies not on the medium water, applied one drop at a time but on eons worth of time.
In Minnesota, people value their own history so much that the Minnesota Historical Society was founded nine years before the state itself.
No wonder the state's living-history sites are among the best in the nation.
At a fur post, logging camp and fort, tourists get a peek into the past, and schoolchildren learn their heritage at the feet of lumberjacks, voyageurs, soldiers and farmers.