There are two ways to do Lanesboro in autumn: on the weekends, when there's a bevy of activity, or during the week, when the mood is one of reflection and tranquility.
On a balmy autumn afternoon last year, acorns crackled and popped beneath my feet along a narrow path at the Eagle Bluff retreat just outside Lanesboro, Minn. The trail led to a cliff-top opening, with a vista bereft of virtually any sign of civilization. Just limestone bluffs teetering above the placid Root River, dotted by vibrant evergreens and ... deciduous trees whose colors had faded to bland yellows and soft browns.
I had missed the peak of fall colors in these parts -- "it lasts about three days," said a Parkway Pub bar-stool wag later that day, "but when it's going we kick the North Shore's butt" -- and I could not remotely have cared less.
In fact, this bit of happenstance was perfect, if not ideal.
Autumn, for me at least, is a time of reflection and rumination. For reverie more than revelry. For thinking deeply -- or not at all.
We strive to wring so much out of summer here that fall affords, if not demands, a chance to catch our breath -- especially since soon, it will be hard to breathe outside anyway.
So I had come to Lanesboro midweek, to avoid the weekend throngs of bikers and hikers. Taking the timetable less traveled by, that made all the difference.
Besides, trying to nail exactly when any Upper Midwest locale will be proffering its most vivid colors is a fool's errand, beyond the sad fact, noted by that pub crawler, that this stretch might encompass but a few days.
Because of weather patterns, latitude is hardly a reliable indicator of autumn-hued peaks. Last October the Twin Cities, 100-plus miles to the north, provided its optimum leaf-laden look a good week after I had returned from Lanesboro.
And while the oak- and birch-laden forests around the town had faded to brown, there were brilliantly tinted stands of maple dotting the streets of this bucolic burg, and plenty of spectacular scenery in the nearby hills and dales.
We tend to strive for the optimum experience(s) in our vacation planning, but Voltaire was right: The perfect is the enemy of the good -- and pretty much everything Lanesboro has to offer is very, very good.
Art and antiques abound
Among the main attractions: the Vintage restaurant, where I found chef Meg Olsen picking nasturtiums for a catered dinner in the adjacent garden. (The clematis, zucchini and some ginormous sunflowers were still blooming, lending a summery feel to the space.)
The Vintage, Lanesboro's most ballyhooed eatery, is open only three days a week. So I had to "settle" for a yummerific sandwich at the Pastry Shoppe, perhaps the world's most down-home enterprise spelling "shop" that way, and a wonderful dinner at the Old Village Hall, an erstwhile church. Another swell dining option, for the mood more than the food, is the deck at Riverside on the Root, where trees loom above you and the river babbles below.
A few blocks away, with some fine artsy and antique-y shops in between, stands an old creamery (356,722 pounds of butter sold in 1927) that now houses a winery, Scenic Valley. As at so many Lanesboro locales, the tchotchkes are as alluring as the featured item; I purchased a couple of Giacometti-like Christmas figures.
"It's amazing, the number of artists and artisans who came here in the '90s," said Denny Bell, proprietor with his partner, Rocky Haddorff, of the Belle Rive B&B, where I stayed. "This place was really hoppin'. It's quieted down a little lately."
Which suited me just fine, the better to stroll along Parkway Avenue, past the teeming-on-the-weekends Commonweal Theatre, the fantabulous Crown Trout Jewelers and Cornucopia Art Center and sundry bicycle rental shops, all the way down the hill to the Root River Falls. There, egrets plonked along the riverbed and plucked up appetizer-portion fish, and squat, wispy maple saplings painted the shores. Simply sublime.
Easy, peaceful feeling
The river is the root (sorry!) of most of the tourist business in these parts. The 43-mile Root River trail, running from Fountain to Houston, Minn., lures thousands of outdoor buffs (or is it buff outdoors types?) year-round, on skis and bikes and foot. In 2004, Outdoor magazine named Lanesboro, the trail's epicenter, "one of the 20 best Dream Towns in America."
This and other bike trails are what induced Minneapolis' Brian Daun to come southward, where he was taking a break, sitting on a swing outside the Gator Greens Mini-Golf course in nearby Whalan.
"What a great place," he said. "The trails are beautiful, and the people here are really friendly. You can strike up conversations. In Minneapolis, you have a harder time doing that."
But I hadn't come to Lanesboro to meet strangers; I had come to be one. Solitary strolls and drives occupied most of my 2 1/2 days there.
On my trek to Eagle Bluff, I spent a good bit of time driving along nearby Hwy. 250, where the landscape evokes the two prime industries that brought European settlers to Minnesota: timber and agriculture. It's not uncommon on this byway to crest a knoll and spot Monet-like haystacks strewn across farmland that abruptly abuts endless stands of pine or oak.
I headed out Ox Trail Road and eventually cruised through the Old Barn Resort, an odd amalgam of RV'ing and golf, where the generally unfriendly looks I got from campers were perhaps due to my ever so slightly exceeding the 5-mile-per-hour speed limit.
I came back through town and headed east on Hwy. 16 to County Rd. 23, where blackberry bushes line a tiny trout stream and the ruins of what was once a magnificent mill play host to an array of flora and fauna.
One of my favorite treks was along a gravel road in Whalan, past the Cedar Valley Resort. On the drive up I spotted a brief opening, and on the way back I stopped there and shut off the car. This promontory provided a view of a hairpin curve in the Root River, its width tripled at one point by a giant sandbar. The rustling of the birch trees' remaining leaves grew louder and louder, but it was still so quiet that I could hear the occasional car a mile-plus away on the other side of the river.
After yet another slice of idyllic repose, I hopped back in the car and pondered the soundtrack for the next leg of this languid excursion. I finally decided to stick with Bach's Cello Suites, and not just because Pablo Casals' glorious rendition had been serving this sojourn so well. The other finalist, Beethoven's "Pastoral" Symphony, somehow felt like overkill.
Bill Ward • 612-673-7643