Mankato is easy to overlook, even though it's home to a state university, gateway to the prairie and prominent in Minnesota history.
Downtown is girdled by highways and train tracks, befitting Mankato's longtime status as a trade town. Its streets are quiet, except when the many bars throw a block party.
There are few towns more conspicuously American than New Ulm, Minn.
Laid out by the town founders, its wide streets follow an orderly grid toward downtown, where cars park at an angle in front of boxy brick businesses and meat-and-potatoes cafes.
There are softball games and Friday-night fish fries and many friendly people. It's the epitome of small-town America and yet this is a town famous for being German.
Oh, the joy of being German.
There's no question that Germans know how to have a good time. After all, they've given the world Oktoberfest, half-gallon steins and "The Little Chicken Dance.''
And what else? Beer, of course, the enjoyment of which is a God-given right to Germans; their adage "Hopfen und Malz, Gott erhalts'' roughly translates as "Malt and hops, to God, are tops.''
For many people, the Minnesota River Valley is full of shadows.
In 1862, years of greed and misunderstanding erupted into a clash that cost settlers their lives, the Dakota their homeland and a new state its innocence. Even today, the valley's lush peacefulness is undercut by anger and guilt.
But on the first weekend of August, people of indigenous and European descent alike come to Upper Sioux Agency State Park to have a good time. At a wacipi, or powwow, the tradition of welcoming outsiders has held steady for many generations.
Around the world, people know Minnesota for its waters source of the Mississippi, land of lakes.
But those are not the waters for which it's named. Those waters belong to a river whose cloudiness led the Dakota to call it "waters reflecting the skies" the Minnesota.
It was more than a mile across at the end of the last ice age, when it drained glacial Lake Agassiz, the largest lake that ever existed.
In 1858, as Europe creaked under the weight of its impoverished masses, Minnesota was a place of opportunity.
It had plenty of land, and newcomers who worked hard could gain social standing as well as property, an impossibility in the old country. So the poor surged in, thankful for a future.
"When I consider my children, I think their futures will be very good, yes, much better than if I had stayed in Norway,'' my great-great-grandfather Rolf wrote home after his arrival in 1862.
Of all the fun things a person can do, riding a horse is not one of the cheapest. Unless youre part of the country-club set, its an expensive hobby kind of like golf.
But theres one place where you can go on a trail ride and golf and stay overnight for less than $100 per person.
My friend Debra knew about a Minnesota River Valley stables that offers scenic three-hour trail rides for $60. I knew about a guesthouse right on the golf course in Fort Ridgely State Park where five of us could sleep on the floor for $15 apiece.
New Ulm hasn't always understood the kind of people who color outside the lines.
That describes the entire family of Anton Gág, a German-Bohemian artist whose work can be seen at New Ulm's Cathedral of the Holy Trinity and the brewery of August Schell, who was his patron and sent him to art school in Chicago for six months. All seven children were creative, spending their days drawing, telling stories and building sets for plays.
"He didn't want the children to be like other children," says Mary Ann Zins of New Ulm.