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Contributor: Travel editor Kerri Westenberg.
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GRAFTON, N.D. -- Numbers, to some extent, define us all. We juggle PINs, social security digits, passport numbers, cell phones and passwords in our brains like some street performer or circus act. Well, I got a new one: No. 877.
Yep, according to the amiable clerk of courts, I became the 877th person ticketed in 2012 in tiny Walsh County, N.D. But what started with a whispered couple of curse words under my breath as state trooper Cashin (pun intended) strolled down the shoulder ended up not such a bad deal.
I pulled off the boring interstate south of Winnipeg looking for a diversion to break up the boredom and check out an old church in the dot of a town called Oakwood, N.D. On the way back to I-29, after rolling through a stop sign in the absolute middle of the flatest stretch of earth -- just east of Grafton -- trooper Cashin zoomed out of a farm field neatly sewn with a spring planting of wheat. He gave me a ticket for $20 and suggested we visit Lower Fort Garry in Winnipeg as he and his wife had recently.
Four miles later, we found the cool art deco court house built in 1940 out of rose marble and other smooth stones and stylish angles. The clerk laughed when I asked if I get the early bird discount for paying my fine within five minutes of my infraction. Outside, I learned that a half-dozen of Grafton's finest had mustered up for service on May 14, 1899 and died in the Spanish-American War trying to quell some revolt in the Philippines. Seems like an awful long way from home. The statue in their honor includes a quote: "No one stampedes the First North Dakota."
No one gets away with a Hollywood stop in Walsh County, either. But for $20, a self-guided tour of a nice piece of architecture with some history thrown in wasn't such a bad deal after all.
It's not at all unusual to find yourself saying "Oh, I've always wanted to do that" upon seeing a mention of someplace like the Taylors Falls' Folsom House, the Split Rick Lighthouse or even the inside of the State Capitol.
Well maybe this could be the year, especially with our way-extended warm season. And it doesn't hurt to have a prodder/planner along the lines of the Minnesota Historical Society's 2012 travel map.
Available free via the society's web site, the map highlights more than a score of sites around the state, and could be especially useful in planning a double-dip trip such as Le Sueeur's W.W. Mayo House and St. Peter's Traverse des Sioux (below).
Or perhaps just something closer to home that you've been meaning to check out for years or even decades.
MILWAUKEE -- It's a little off the road, but the perfect way to break up a drive to Chicago. The Three Brothers Bar and Restaurant is tucked on a corner of a Milwaukee residental neighborhood, not far from Lake MIchigan. It's one of those old brick taverns where the barkeep lived upstairs. There's a big onion on the turret on the corner.
For three generations now, a Serbian family has been cooking up delicious home-cooked food. I had some stuffed grape leaves and my wife went for the mousaka, which came in a huge wedge of amazingly fluffy eggplant and cheese. Washed it down with a Slovak beer and we were on our way.
The charming dining room is a mish mash of old tables under a classic Schlitz Beer lamp. A lake landscape graces the wall behind the bar. Adding the the charm: no credit cards allowed. It's all cash with hand-written checks. The little lamps on the tables add a sweet ambiance. Here's a link to the menu: http://www.singlepage.com/three-brothers-bar--restaurant/menu?ref=google
We're almost even. This has been such a nice, extended autumn that it very nearly makes up for last winter. And last so-called spring. And that beyond-ridiculous dewpoint-palooza in mid-summer.
Not only have the temperatures been above average, but the milder conditions have extended the fall color season mightily. For many of us, that means extra jaunts to Lake Pepin's west side, where they don't call Hwy. 35 the "Great River Road" for nothin'.
Along this Wisconsin byway, every "scenic overlook" and historical marker between Bay City and Alma is worth a stop. For those who like to linger at such vistas, stocking what Yogi Bear would call a pic-a-nic basket with the fabulous provisions at the Nelson Cheese Shop is a swell idea.
Antique shops and Pepin's Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum and Harbor View Cafe are seriously popular spots for many, although four of us had a very disappointing meal at the latter over Labor Day Weekend.
Amidst all these culinary, cultural and consumer destinations, the one not-to-be-missed stop is the Smiling Pelican bakery in Maiden Rock, Wis. Every morsel of every piece of pastry or pie, cookie or cake that emerges from Sandra Thielman's ovens is a heavenly, sensuous jolt of all that is good in life.
It's almost a blessing that the bakery has no website, lest my keyboard sustain drool damage. But there is a Facebook page (if you dare). Even if there weren't so many other wonders in that region, the Smiling Pelican would be worth the drive -- but only until Dec. 23, when it closes for winter.
First came heat; temps in the 80s do not mix well with fall color tours in my book. I didn't see myself hiking in the woods in search of pretty reds and crimsons coupled with taking a dip in a forest stream to wash away the sweat.
Then came the winds, so much that many leaves across the state blew off before they hit peak color.
So when I headed out to look for fall color recently -- wearing a seasonally appropriate sweater -- I first logged on to the Department of Natural Resources fall color map. Good thing. I'd wanted to go to Nerestrand-Big Woods State Park, near Northfield. Though in a typical year, it'd be awash in brilliant hues, now it was a dull scene. The map pointed me in the right direction: Amid a state depicted in nearly all brown (the color code for "past peak"), a swath of a bluff country along the Mississippi was showing promise, so I hit the road. Driving south, it seemed as though the brightest color I'd find was the yellow stripe in the middle of the road. Then I turned a bend and saw a valley blanketed in autumn's rich display. While the wind and rain that had buffeted the area had done a number of the highest trees, those in the more sheltered valleys hung onto their leaves.
I just peaked at the trusty DNR map again: Seems like even the beloved bluffs along the Mississippi are past their prime. But if you want one last glorious encounter with the beauty of autumn, all is not lost. Go to the Lanesboro area, south of Rochester. The hilltops may be brown, but keep to the valleys and you may find your reward.
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