The interstate is a dial tone. The old highways are melodies. On the interstate, towns are just rumors, posted on signs. But roads like Hwy. 10 thread through the essence of Minnesota — a couple dozen miles of two-lane at 65 miles an hour, then dropping to 30 for a saunter through the middle of a small town.

If you’re in a hurry, take Interstate 94. If you’re interested in the state of the state, take 10. It doesn’t just go down Mainstreet. It is Mainstreet.

Leaving the Twin Cities, miles of RV dealerships, factories, outlet malls and other evidence of habitation thins out, and the land on either side opens up. St. Cloud presents itself as an unlovely intersection: gas, grub. Past that, it’s a different country.

The small towns start to pop up, spaced like a morning’s ride by horse. You pass Royalton, where ancient buildings huddle on one corner. You don’t know if that’s all that’s left, or if that’s all there ever was. You pass through the homely heart of Motley, a town whose very name seems rueful and apologetic, then juke west toward Staples. Let’s stop here first.

A few years ago, I stopped to take pictures of the empty hulk of Batcher’s Department Store, and was set upon by a local who wanted to know if I was from the Cities. Sure. Are you going to buy it? I know you’re going to buy it. Someone’s going to buy it. Had to break her heart. Can’t imagine anyone ever will. It’s the biggest building in town; the old yellow painted sign on the top still blares BATCHER, and the peeling sign in the back lot points you toward the parking lot. It’s been closed for years.

Same goes for the movie marquee: STAPLES, it says, in case anyone wondered. The marquee is blank. It went dark last year, but the marquee still fronts a three-story building from the 1910s. Buildings like this were emblems of civic pride. Around the corner, a grand old neon sign for Lefty’s bar, a one-of-a-kind landmark, the sort of thing people remember from childhood: Coming home from Grandma’s, asleep in the back, waking to see the sign, and knowing they were almost home.

That kid might have grown up and stayed. Or left. There’s hardly ever anyone downtown when I stop and walk around. There’s a fine old train station; there’s a 1960s laundromat sign that would fetch a nice price from a midcentury commercial art collector; a restored 1920s facade that’s as lovely today as the day it was installed. But the downtown feels moribund and exhausted. It doesn’t help that they built a bypass for Hwy. 10, so no one has to stop any more.

Last trip there were two little girls on scooters zipping along the sidewalk; they turned right and headed up the street, where everyone lives. Where the schools and churches are, where the life of the town goes on.

It’s just not going on downtown. Drive on; rejoin 10. There used to be a great neon sign for The Spot — concentric neon circles flashing on and off in sequence. It was there the last time I took the road. Not now.

Next stop: Verndale. Pull off to the park to stretch your legs, if you like. A sign for that small-town staple, the Lions Club. A water tower overhead with the town’s name, in case anyone forgot, and a few blocks of small brick buildings to serve the locals. A few years ago there was a grocery store, but it closed. This was a catastrophe. Knocks the wind right out of a place. The bar stayed open, but bars usually do.

The park has a war memorial. Fresh white paint. Two glass light fixtures — the originals, from the look of it. That’s quite an accomplishment. It’s not for that war, in case you’re wondering: It commemorates the Verndale-area soldiers who fought in World War I.

No getting back on 10 right now: train. They thunder through, loud and heavy, a big metal rocket en route to the planet Chicago. When the train finishes, it feels abrupt and brusque, as if it left a wound in the air. But it heals by the time you cross the tracks.

The grocery store, by the way, is open again. The gas station across the road has closed.

Next stop: Wadena. On the way in you know you’re dealing with a town of some size and swagger: a 1940s-style sign proclaims the name WADENA. Approaching downtown, you see stylized paintings of the old town on the side of a brick building — not sentimental, substandard, old-time nostalgia, but hard, crisp images from the days of trains and hats. This is a place that wants you to know it knows what it has: a real downtown, like they used to be. Before the big-box stores set up on the edge of town and sucked out all the blood.

Old signage: TIME Jewelry. And is that a Ben Franklin? Really, they still exist? Yes. The tile entrance to a store says Hardware in a style popular about the time the Verndale boys were shipping out for France — and it’s still a hardware store. Three blocks of pre-war downtown, all intact, mostly occupied: cafes, stores, Internet! and furniture. People on the sidewalks and cars on the street. At the end of downtown is the marvelous marquee of the Cozy theater, and yes, they’re still playing flickers.

Here’s something that sets Wadena apart: The buildings have plaques that tell you who used to occupy the storefronts. This was the Anderson and Johnson Dry Goods store for a few years, after which it was Anderson Dry Goods and then Johnson Hats and then Steinhart Shoes. The signs give you a sense of the stories that flowed through the doors and into the streets. It’s up to you to imagine the signs, the fashions, the possible sadnesses and the unknowable details behind all the names. But it does tell you that people have been here for a century, opening the door every morning and trying to make a go of it.

One large building, according to its plaque, was the embassy for J.C. Penney. Inside you find racks of consignment goods, a cafe in the back. The floor looks like it’s original. The handrails on the stairs downstairs: unchanged. There’s a flight of steps up to a mezzanine, where goods are arrayed more sparsely than they were in Penney times, but you can stand at the railing and look down on the store and picture it at Christmas. Noisy, festive, probably a bit too warm. Kids with Mom, men at the perfume counter asking what’s the new thing. Farm folk and town folk. Shiny cars outside, the COZY marquee down the street glowing through the swirling flakes. The most normal place in America. Everytown. Anytown.

These places grew up as outposts, reached by horse and cart. Come the weekend, you went into town, and it was something of an expedition. Provisions, a new hat to wear for Sunday church, a tool you needed now and didn’t want to wait for the Wish Book to mail. Then the cars came, and they grew into small versions of big cities. A splash of neon. A three-story building, a bigger bank, a radio station. The car meant you could go to the big burg fast, and that meant the slow, quiet decline of the also-ran downtowns. It gives you a pang to walk alone through the streets of a Hwy. 10 town that’s just holding on, its days of building and growing long past.

But then you drive through New York Mills, which seems perfectly content to be what it is, and nothing more. You drive on to Detroit Lakes, and find another downtown as hearty as Wadena, and you realize that the state abounds with these places. Saying you know Minnesota without walking the streets of its small towns is like saying you know the Twin Cities because you went to the Mall of America.

Of course, if you find yourself standing on the mezzanine at the old Penneys in Wadena, imagining the past and congratulating the way they saved it for the future, you may think: if I’d taken the interstate, I’d be half an hour from home.

Or you might think: I’m home already.