Ashlea Hal­pern and An­drew Parks are just start­ing to sweat. They're bare­ly glis­ten­ing in the 150-de­gree heat of the pine-paneled, egg-shaped sau­na that was laid out­side the ­Amer­i­can Swed­ish Institute in Min­ne­ap­olis.

Hal­pern and Parks are free­lance trav­el and life­style writ­ers (Hal­pern's next as­sign­ments will take her to Swit­zer­land and Uzbekistan) who spent a dec­ade in New York be­fore tour­ing the world.

They've tak­en sau­nas be­fore, in­clud­ing in Ja­pan, which they found in­timi­dat­ing, due to the nu­di­ty, but this is the cou­ple's first sweat ses­sion in their new­found Mid­west­ern home. They climb straight to the top bench, where it's hottest, like old pros, as if they'd spent their whole lives per­spir­ing in the wood-lined box­es of Bloom­ing­ton base­ments and Brai­nerd lakes area cab­ins.

Fast­er than a pair of glass­es can fog up, Hal­pern and Parks have be­friend­ed their sau­na-mates: four physi­cists, in­clud­ing two from Rus­sia and one from Kazakhstan. Hal­pern in­quires a­bout a cou­ple of Ka­zakh cit­ies (Quick: Name one Ka­zakh city) and wants to know what the Rus­sians think of the food at St. Paul's Mos­cow on the Hill. (They con­firm it's authen­tic.)

A few minutes later, the physi­cists con­vince Parks to fol­low them out­side for a face-first dive into an ice-crust­ed snow­bank. iPhone in hand, Hal­pern docu­ments Parks' cul­tur­al bap­tism be­side the sau­na, which will soon be me­mo­ri­al­ized as No. 40 on the cou­ple's fast-grow­ing "Rea­sons to Love Min­ne­so­ta" list mak­ing the rounds on so­cial me­di­a.

Two years ago, Hal­pern and Parks would nev­er have im­ag­ined they'd be liv­ing in Min­ne­ap­olis.

But a 16-month, 40-state, 229-town search for a new home (the cou­ple joked that they were "speed dat­ing America") con­vinced them to set­tle here, in a place they'd nev­er visit­ed, a place they knew little a­bout a­side from its in­fa­mous win­ters.

Now they've be­come our big­gest ev­an­gel­ists.

The search be­gins

Hal­pern and Parks met at Syracuse University's stu­dent news­paper in 2001 and, after college, lived in Brook­lyn for a dec­ade, working for sev­er­al gloss­y na­tion­al publications, in­clud­ing New York Magazine, Bon Appétit and Entertainment Weekly. In late 2014, they de­cid­ed to trav­el for a year, and then lived in Bang­kok for an­oth­er eight months.

When they were ready to move stateside, they con­sid­ered L.A. But high housing costs spurred them to instead em­bark on a cross-coun­try search for a new home that of­fered cul­tur­al rich­ness, di­ver­si­ty and af­ford­a­bil­i­ty, along with pro­gres­sive, friend­ly lo­cals.

The couple cre­at­ed a mas­sive spread­sheet listing all the lo­ca­tions they were con­sid­er­ing. Then they visit­ed more than 200 of them, along with a few buck­et list tour­ist at­trac­tions (in­clud­ing Grace­land and the Grand Can­yon), on a two-part road trip spread over near­ly a year and a half. Some cit­ies they ruled out af­ter just a few hours. For the top con­tend­ers, they stayed as long as six weeks.

Min­nesota was bare­ly on their ra­dar. The only per­son they knew here was a form­er co-work­er of Halpern's who had moved to the Twin Cities for a job.

"I no­ticed that she would post some­thing on Instagram a­bout how much she loved it here, and that was what first plant­ed the seed," Halpern said.

What­ever she saw in her friend's dig­i­tal dis­patch­es — Prince's gold star on First Ave; a vintage box of "mixed veg­e­ta­ble" flavor Jell-O or a plate of Hi­ma­la­yan food; the all-gen­der restroom at the Y; an i­dyl­lic ur­ban lake framed by a blue­bird sky — seemed to sug­gest: This is a good life, and it could be yours.

From First Ave to Five Watt

In mid-September of 2017, they arrived in Duluth, af­ter a pit stop at the fa­mous Moc­ca­sin Bar in Hay­ward, Wis. — the one with the tax­i­der­my dio­ra­mas of gam­bling badg­ers and beer-drink­ing wea­sels — and a failed at­tempt to see the world's larg­est ac­cor­di­on mu­se­um in Su­pe­ri­or. (It was open by ap­point­ment only.) They made it to Min­ne­ap­olis, where they ate at Hola Arepa and saw a show at First Ave on their first night out. The next morn­ing, fu­eled by Five Watt cof­fee, they toured the vin­tage shops along Min­ne­ha­ha Mile.

Over the next few days, they hit big tour­ist at­trac­tions (the Walk­er, the Basilica) as well as in­sid­er gems (Loon Grocery, where Parks had heard a guy named Mus­tafa made awe­some gyros).

Everywhere they went — Pat­i­na, Mid­town Glo­bal Market, the Pavek Museum of broadcasting — they asked shop­keep­ers and baristas and, bas­i­cal­ly, any­one who would talk to them for their rec­om­men­da­tions. At the same time, Hal­pern and Parks were tak­ing the pulse of the place.

They liked the way peo­ple em­braced their home, but were also ex­cit­ed a­bout chan­ging it. They ap­preci­at­ed the Twin Cities' two-in-one ge­og­ra­phy and abundance of cultural diversions. "For every five things we do here, there are 50 more I put on the list," Halpern said.

Chick­ens seal the deal

"This is it — we can stop look­ing now," Hal­pern told Parks as she climbed back into their car, parked out­side Wild Rum­pus in Linden Hills. "Ohmigod, their bookstores have chick­ens."

In ad­di­tion to its en­vi­a­ble met­rics — a me­di­an home price around $250,000; 97 percent of resi­dents liv­ing with­in 10 min­utes' walk of a park — what fi­nal­ly sold the cou­ple on Min­ne­ap­olis was its less quan­ti­fi­able quirk­y charm.

A year ago last Feb­rua­ry, Hal­pern and Parks signed a one-year lease on a bun­ga­low.

Their coast­al friends were baf­fled. ("No mat­ter how much you tell some of our friends in New York or L.A. a­bout it, no one gets it un­til they come here. They just think you're liv­ing in Si­ber­i­a," Hal­pern said.)

Locals were surprised to learn the cou­ple had cho­sen Min­ne­ap­olis for its at­trib­utes and not, like so many trans­plants, be­cause they had fam­i­ly near­by.

"Min­ne­so­tans are re­al­ly proud to be here, and they're tick­led and pleased when you love a place as much as they do," Hal­pern said.

To pay the bills, Hal­pern works as an ed­i­tor-at-large for the trav­el mag­a­zine Afar and writes for oth­er na­tion­al pub­li­ca­tions. Parks fo­cus­es on cov­er­ing res­tau­rants and bars, con­tri­but­ing to maga­zines such as Food & Wine or Trav­el + Lei­sure.

But their pet pro­ject is cul­ti­vat­ing their Minnevangelist website and so­cial me­di­a ac­counts de­signed to "spread the gos­pel of Min­ne­so­ta's great­ness" to outsiders and residents alike. So far, their following is small, but they hope at some point that it can generate enough money to pay others to contribute.

Near­ly every day since its January 2019 launch, Halpern and Parks add to their "Rea­sons to Love Min­ne­so­ta" list, which in­cludes ev­er­y­thing from po­et­ry-dis­pens­ing gumball ma­chines to a Midwest Pol­ka Association dance. The tight cu­ra­tion, strik­ing photos and de­tail-packed, vi­brant­ly writ­ten de­scrip­tions differentiate the Minnevangelists' rec­om­men­da­tions among typ­i­cal­ly bland tour­ism guides.

Using a mas­sive Goo­gle docu­ment con­tain­ing near­ly 2,000 places they want to investigate, the two fre­quent­ly "itinerize" out­ings of half-a-doz­en or more stops.

But they're also open to spontaneity. Hal­pern ad­mit­s to reg­u­lar­ly an­noy­ing Parks by mak­ing him turn the car around to check out some­thing they've just passed. "We rare­ly go from point A to point B," Parks said.

A day in the life

On a re­cent Thurs­day, af­ter lunch at Break­ing Bread, a homey, so­cial en­ter­prise res­tau­rant on West Broad­way in Min­ne­ap­olis that Parks had been want­ing to try ("Ev­er­y­thing we do is driv­en by your stom­ach," Hal­pern joked to Parks), the Minnevangelists set off to ex­plore several other des­ti­na­tions in Near North.

The two drive a Cadillac Escalade, whose incongruity Hal­pern felt com­pelled to ex­plain: Af­ter their tiny Nissan kept get­ting stuck in the snow last winter, her dad tipped them off to a good deal on the SUV through a police auction. (It had been seized con­tain­ing several bricks of co­caine.)

Their next stop was the nearby Min­ne­so­ta Af­ri­can A­mer­i­can Her­it­age Museum, where the two pe­rused the ar­ti­facts — an Af­ri­can-print dress, a North High let­ter jack­et, a "Green Book" — in the small gallery be­fore end­ing up in a leng­thy con­ver­sa­tion with the mu­se­um's co-found­er.

Part of what dis­tin­guish­es the Minnevangelists' ap­proach to so-called serv­ice jour­nal­ism, where life­style re­port­ers of­fer tips and rec­om­men­da­tions, is that they are as much in­ter­est­ed in the peo­ple behind the place as the ex­peri­ence a vis­i­tor will have there.

Everywhere they go, they're chat­ting peo­ple up to find out their back stories. (For instance: The owner of the Japanese boutique Umei used to work for Mat­tel, ful­fil­ling a Barbie-fu­eled child­hood dream.)

Sometimes, they have to work a little to get people to open up. When Halpern and Parks introduced themselves to the owner of the tiny U­krain­i­an Gift Shop, he gruff­ly in­formed them he was on his way out. Too many Instagrammers, he com­plained, have barged in aim­ing cam­eras at his wares, with­out so much as a hel­lo.

"We have the op­pos­ite prob­lem," Hal­pern said. "We talk too much." Soon the owner had relented and was con­sidering her re­quest that his daugh­ter teach her how to make the shop's e­lab­o­rate­, deco­rat­ive eggs.

On the way to their next des­ti­na­tion, the cou­ple dis­cussed the trend in the tour­ism in­dus­try to ex­peri­ence a place "like a local." The iro­ny, Parks not­ed, is that na­tives of­ten stick to the same stamping grounds, over­look what's right un­der their noses or strug­gle to get off the couch.

"Resi­dents," he said, "could ben­e­fit from act­ing more like travelers."

For ex­am­ple: With­in min­utes of ar­riv­ing at Royal Found­ry, a new dis­till­er­y off Glen­wood Avenue, Hal­pern and Parks gen­tly encouraged the own­er into shar­ing his life's his­to­ry. By con­trast, a life­long Min­ne­so­tan pat­ron­iz­ing the place might have gone to high school with the guy and never known that he ar­rived in Min­ne­so­ta from Bel­gium, speak­ing flu­ent French.

Toot­ing our horn

Re­gard­less of wheth­er we're tourists, or resi­dents act­ing as such, so­cial me­di­a in­creas­ing­ly helps us de­cide where to go and what to do.

Chris­tine Fruechte, CEO of Colle McVoy, a Min­ne­ap­olis ad­ver­tis­ing a­gen­cy with expertise in the tour­ism in­dus­try, said Instagram, in par­tic­u­lar, is a ma­jor force. A small study of United Kingdom millennials that found 40 percent con­sid­ered a des­ti­na­tion's "Instagramability" as a fac­tor when mak­ing hol­i­day trav­el plans, said Fruechte, who is a Star Tribune Media Co. board mem­ber.

Tourism functions as a sort of "first date" in recruiting people to move to Minnesota, said Matt Lewis, director of Make It. MSP, an economic development program focused on attracting and retaining talent.

Like travelers, people considering relocation find great value in personal recommendations, which makes happy newcomers such as the Minnevangelists particularly effective in recruiting others.

"Newcomers share their experiences back with the networks where they came from," Lewis said. "And if they have a great experience, they'll be our best advocates."

Fruechte ob­served that Hal­pern and Parks' per­spec­tive as trav­el writ­ers and outsiders gives them a lot of cred­i­bil­i­ty and that the con­tent on and @minnevangelist is "hit­ting all the right but­tons."

"Min­ne­so­tans tend to be more hum­ble," she said, "so we need peo­ple like this to best toot the horn of Min­ne­so­ta to a lar­ger audi­ence."

Be­set by hu­mil­i­ty or not, most lo­cals would have trouble simply keeping up with our new­ res­i­dent tour­ists.

The Minnevangelists high­light places it can take lo­cals sev­er­al de­cades to get around to visit­ing, such as the Frank Lloyd Wright-de­signed gas sta­tion in Clo­quet. Most of us have nev­er made it to the Hock­ey Hall of Fame in Eve­leth or gone dogsledding in Ely. And who knew that North America's larg­est Hindu tem­ple could be found in Ma­ple Grove?

The Minnevangelists have been here only a year, and they're al­read­y out-Minn-ing the rest of us.

But Hal­pern and Parks don't see it as a com­pe­ti­tion. They just want to re­mind peo­ple of the cool places they know a­bout and per­haps intro­duce them to some­thing new.

"That's re­al­ly our goal, to share our en­thu­si­asm," Hal­pern said.

"We're just show­ing a fresh eye, a per­spec­tive from some­one who isn't from here, of what it's like to fall in love with a place," Parks add­ed.