NEW YORK MILLS, MINN. -- Hwy. 10 is one of Minnesota's slightly buried treasures. Running north of Interstate Hwy. 94, it used to be the main route from the Twin Cities to Fargo, N.D.
The old highway is a country diner compared with the fast-food world of interstate interchanges. You can stop at the El-Ray Truck Stop and Cafe in Motley or the Cardinal Cafe in Staples or the Four Seasons Motel in Wadena or one of the one-pump gas stations that are holding out against the convenience store/pump-your-own combos.
Cross into Otter Tail County, and you're getting close to one of the quirkiest places in Minnesota. Go past Bluffton -- yup, built on a bluff -- and look for the tractor sculpture alongside the road.
That's the tractor with the faux "Thinker" statue on it.
Welcome to New York Mills, home of 972 people at last count and home to the Great American Think-Off, where debating turns into spectator sport and spectacle for one weekend every year in an event that combines just enough self-promotion with a healthy dollop of rural folksiness.
Hosted by the New York Mills Regional Cultural Center, the Think-Off has turned the small town into an epicenter of edgy intellectualism.
Consider last year, when a record number of entrants (820) sent in essays in response to the question: "Is Honesty Always the Best Policy?" In an understated way, the center's Web site (www.kulcher.org) recounts: "As the country grappled with the spectacle in the White House, the Think-Off audience and the C-SPAN viewing audience agreed with a soft-spoken priest from New York -- honesty is not always the best choice."
Left unsaid was that the Rev. Clark Berge reached the finals by defeating Susan Block, a California sex therapist who does cable TV and radio appearances, in a close vote among the more than 300 people gathered at the New York Mills Sports Center. (Everyone who pays their way in gets to vote, with volunteers sneaking into the teachers' lounge to do the counting. Ah, democracy.)
Berge won the gold medal, but you can bet that it was Block, who brought a video guy and her "10 Commandments of Ethical Dishonesty," who made the lasting impression. At least that's what it seemed like after the Think-Off, when everyone was invited back to the Cultural Center for microbrews, veggies and cookies.
This year's competition will be held June 12. The topic: "Which is More Dangerous: Science or Religion?" In addition to the $2,000 and expenses for the four finalists to share, this year's winner will be offered a book contract by a Massachusetts-based publishing house that specializes in academic books and manuscripts.
Promotional material for the contest is a bit breathless: "This year's question probes the dark side of two of mankind's great intellectual institutions: Science (which has given civilization medical and technological advancements, but has also yielded nuclear weapons) and religion (which has provided civilization with its moral and ethnical foundation, but has also invoked genocide and ethnic cleansing). Armchair philosophers from across the nation will use their pens and wits to battle it out, ultimately deciding which is more harmful to humankind."
More like rhubarb pie than apple, huh?
The Cultural Center is not a one-trick operation. The brick building seats about 125 people and sponsors a variety of arts-oriented events, including a residency program that brings writers and artists to town for two-and four-week stays, with the understanding that they will find ways to share their work and talents with the community.
In other words, artists with a hankering for privacy can apply for a residency and, in return for spending eight or so hours per week working with people in the area, can create for themselves a unique rural getaway.
In that spirit, as well as in the spirit of the weekend visitor, read on for more about visiting New York Mills and the surrounding area.