Kyle Eller: To get a sense of the real Minnesota, try Highway 23

I took the scenic way home from Sioux Falls last weekend. Since 1989, I have taken almost every sensible route there and back at least once. I went away to college there. I married a girl from there, who missed mom and dad. Now our child must see...

I took the scenic way home from Sioux Falls last weekend. Since 1989, I have taken almost every sensible route there and back at least once. I went away to college there. I married a girl from there, who missed mom and dad. Now our child must see grandparents.

Over more than 15 years, just a ballpark figure, I have probably done it 75 times, round-trip. That's in the neighborhood of 57,000 miles, the equivalent, on these roads, of driving for more than a month straight, without a break.

"Scenic" here is a relative term. The options are not great. Lately, our habit has been sticking to the freeways, I-35 all the way down to I-90 and then across. It's by far the longest of the common routes, and the least scenic, but freeway speeds mostly make up for it.

Because it's multi-lane traffic on major roads, it feels safer. (I'm not sure if it is.) You also don't find yourself encountering somebody's tractor going 20 mph, and if you do, you need not wait 23 miles until Farmer Joe turns off for the feed store or you get a break in the oncoming traffic. Just time the Twin Cities to avoid rush hour.

Cutting the corner and following Highway 169 from the Twin Cities offers better scenery. The area around Mankato and St. Peter is pretty.


But my favorite route is plain old Highway 23, cutting across the state diagonally through St. Cloud and Willmar and Marshall. It's the route I have traveled most frequently. It's shorter but slower, with a lot of two-lane traffic and farm vehicles.

It happened that I was driving alone last weekend. The first decision I made was to take Highway 23 and leave early.

I have pretty much all of the towns memorized and have stories for many of them. There's Bock, a tiny place between here and St. Cloud that has a nice gas station. One time when I had car trouble, they helped me out for little or no money, and for years I made a point of stopping there, even if I didn't really need to.

I got my first speeding ticket just outside of Pipestone, shortly after I had my first flat tire. The Highway Patrol officer told this then-minor driver that she would have to cut into his beer money a little, but she knocked the speed down to help my insurance.

And so on.

My favorite places on the trip are the Green Lake/Spicer area ("Folks are nicer in Spicer!") and the Minnesota River Valley around Granite Falls, because they're pretty. Cold Spring has a pleasant spot, and the trees coming north from St. Cloud toward Mora and Duluth feel like home.

On the way south, you can't help but smile coming in to Rock County and encountering fields full of ... rocks.

Part of the reason I live here is the trees and lakes and hills. But those open spaces in Rock County, wind whipping across the road, have a beauty about them. Those old, abandoned farmhouses along the road, what a book I once reviewed called "American ruins," are compelling in their way.


One can't help but notice, too, those towns so small that the speed limit doesn't even drop down. They are emblematic of something less pretty.

As a product of a small town, now living in our small city in an out-of-the-way part of the country, I feel some solidarity with the farm towns, the small cities, the places where snowmobiles are a primary mode of transportation.

A side of 21st century life we don't talk about much is the death of the small town. In Minnesota, the Twin Cities metro area is a black hole mindlessly sucking in capital, investment, culture and young workers. It continues to grow while the Bocks of the world dry up and blow away.

Some of it is economic. I'm a great example -- I love the small town lifestyle, its pace, its values, but in my line of work small towns just don't hold great opportunities. More and more of the kinds of work we do can be described that way.

Social and cultural reasons also play a role. Gnats now have longer attention spans than some of us. This generation, with the most varied and intense and portable entertainment options in history, seems to be the most bored, too. Small towns don't hold their interest.

I used to skip rocks at the lake, walk through the woods or just look at the sky a whole summer afternoon without being bored.

This is a real loss. If nothing else, it is good to have a choice in lifestyles, city, suburb, small town or country. But our small towns seem to be turning into retirement communities and, if they're lucky, tourist playgrounds for city folk. The industries that once could support families in such places are gone or radically altered.

This will change us in ways we can't predict. People who live at a small-town or farm pace see things differently than city and suburb dwellers. Apparently this is diversity we will not protect.


I wonder why so few seem to care. In Duluth, not so far removed from such scenes, we ought to.

Anyway, I like the scenery on Highway 23. And the scenery I like is not just the pretty river valley but also the garage in Bock.

Kyle Eller, features editor of the Budgeteer, may be reached at 723-1207 or by e-mail at .

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