Signs you've reached Minnesota's Iron Range: Eveleth's 107-foot hockey sticks, a year-round drive-in specializing in pasties and Gilbert's welcome banners in more languages than most Minnesotans recognize. At the next town to cross our path, Biwabik, the cultural hodgepodge shouldn't have been surprising given its Ojibwe name, Bavarian-style downtown and neon-lit "R-Bar and Sauna," a nod to the Finns.
Minnesota's mining boom brought together its richest melting pot, stirred with Slavs, Finns, Swedes, Poles, Italians and others. At our weekend destination -- the ski resort of Giants Ridge, which takes full advantage of the hilly Mesabi Iron Range -- we mull over a map of the 35 ski runs with Winter Olympic names such as Sarajevo, Helsinki, Cortina and Garmisch.
A sign at Giants Ridge explains that Mesabi was a giant whose sleeping body beneath the earth formed the hills of the Great Laurentian Divide. The ski area climbs 500 feet with runs and terrain parks that snake through hardwoods and pines. Views from the top stretch across forest to natural and mine lakes tucked into the rolling landscape.
My youngest daughter, Katie, and I start on St. Moritz, the learning hill, to warm up. The rest of the family -- my husband, our son and other daughter, Kylie -- flee to the nearest chair lift. I blunder my first trip up the J-bar, losing my balance and requiring the operator to stop the whole system. I struggle to get up, impossible with skis attached, and extract my boots, feeling as graceful as an upturned turtle.
It's not as bad as last year at Lutsen Mountains when the fearless Kylie innocently led me to the intermediate run. A straight shot downhill apparently equates to "easy" in her book. Bad idea. My backside served as a frequent brake while Kylie kept up a nonstop patter of encouragement and unsolicited advice. Above us, skiers whirred by on the chairlift, likely enjoying the comedy of errors below.
Lesson learned: Don't trust 7-year-olds when it comes to amusement rides and sports.
Suffice it to say, we're a family divided: A happy Ski Patroller, roller coaster-loving twig of a girl and gonzo snowboarder on one side, my cautious daughter and I on the other. I looked longingly at cross-country skiers heading onto Giants Ridge's 60 kilometers of Nordic trails, but couldn't persuade Katie to join me.
Lucky for us, we had tubing.
Giants Ridge, along with Duluth's Spirit Mountain, have both added tubing parks to complement skiing. I was about 12 the last time I went tubing near Burnsville's Buck Hill and got a boot in the back of the head.
It feels much safer these days with tubing parks sculpting snowy lanes to reduce crashes. Gone, too, was the mitten-shredding tow rope. With the slick modern system, you lie back as your tube is pulled uphill. A cable automatically releases and sends us to the starting point.
Even our family thrill-seekers found enough to love as they swooshed down the tubing hill, shrieking and giggling as they spun backward and curved to the bottom.
"Let's do that again!" yelled Kylie, on our first run down. Despite the darkness of the evening, it felt suddenly brighter out. Our family had finally found a winter equalizer -- a way to be together, all doing the same thing.
That's going to get more challenging as the years march forward, and I ponder these all-together-now moments as the cable pulls my tube uphill.
It strikes me as funny, too, to realize that the most relaxing moments of vacations seem to involve staring at our feet: bare feet dangling off docks, toes poking through warm sand, flip-flops propped on a dashboard for a road trip. This time I'm staring at my boots, daydreaming about a hand-warming pasty meat pie or sipping hot cocoa with a sweet slice of Slavic potica, a delicate Iron Range pastry rolled up with walnuts.
Then Kylie, who's in front of me, turns around and enthusiastically waves with her big I'm-losing-my-teeth grin. It's a moment that lasts mere seconds, but one I want to hang onto for years.
Lisa Meyers McClintick is a St. Cloud-based travel writer and creator of www.10000Likes.com.