Biking through the bluffs of southeastern Minnesota, a native son discovers a new corner of his home state
I was born in Minnesota and am as proud of it as Garrison Keillor, but in the 20 years I lived there I never visited Bluff Country, a region in the state's southeast corner where dramatic limestone cliffs hug a meandering river valley. Though the area has long been popular among trout-fishing and canoeing enthusiasts, it's the network of abandoned railway tracks along the Root River, paved over for biking in 1985, that lures me here at last. The 60-mile path allows Sunday-afternoon cyclists like me to wend through Victorian river towns at a leisurely pace, overnighting at quirky B&B's, without having to brave too many uphill climbs or oncoming cars. More than that, the idea of traveling solely by leg muscle and willpower appeals to the neo-Luddite in me.
On an overcast Sunday in June, I make the two-hour drive from the Minneapolis—St. Paul airport to Lanesboro, the hub of the 42-mile Root River State Trail and its adjunct, the 18-mile Harmony—Preston Valley State Trail. I park my car, strap on my backpack, and find my rented bike, a 15-speed orange Huffy Dynamo, waiting for me in an alley (thanks to a previous arrangement with a local agency). Unfortunately, the gears creak, the chain groans, and the adjustable seat barely adjusts. But it's Sunday, and Lanesboro is deader than the one-horse town in High Noon, so I push off.
Heading west on the trail, I whiz past the town's 1868 dam and cross the wooden bridges spanning the Root River's south branch. Dodging day-tripping families on their way back to Lanesboro, I pull over now and then to inspect the gorgeously green flora of this mixed hardwood forest: meadow rue, wild rhubarb, tiny wild iris, columbines, raspberry and gooseberry bushes, and more. Cottonwood seeds drift softly down to earth, like Joyce's "faintly falling" snow.
At Isinours Junction, the trail becomes a bit precipitous. As I climb, the vegetation gives way to dairy farms on hardscrabble hillsides, beautifully decrepit farmhouses, and glistening new silos. Eventually, a white water tower with fountain painted on its side looms in the distance. The "Sinkhole Capital of the World" (a reference to the sedimentary limestone it's built on), Fountain is the westernmost town on the Root route. Aside from a sulky farmboy skateboarder and the drone of a lawn mower, the town is perfectly still, in an Invasion of the Body Snatchers way. The White Corner Café is closed, so I lean my bike against a building and take a seat inside the Village Square of Fountain diner, where I devour a piece of cherry cheesecake.
Following the descent back to Isinours, I veer right on the Harmony—Preston Valley State Trail. My destination is Preston, the seat of Fillmore County. There seems little to the place at first, apart from an abandoned grain elevator, but then I turn a corner to discover rows of textbook-example Victorian houses with neatly clipped lawns. A woman tending a bed of enormous orange poppies waves from across the street as I walk into the JailHouse Historic Inn, an 1869 red-brick Italianate structure that was once the county jail, although it looks more like a country doctor's mansion.
Checked in, I stow my bike in the garage and make my way to the Fan Room, a slightly cramped but agreeable space with old-fashioned fan-motif wallpaper and matching bed linens. Despite my cheesecake gluttony, I wolf down some chocolate-chip cookies made by the friendly innkeeper before going on an early-evening walk to stretch my legs.
In town, I pass a stern-looking Catholic church, a True Value Hardware & Variety store, and Lisa's Klip N Kurl; stenciled ads for rag rugs and hand-tied fishing flies clutter shopwindows. Red Bench Antiques & Collectibles is closed, but the owner sees me peering in the doorway of the former bank building and lets me in, which leads to a half-hour conversation about Czech glass and the hazards of cigarette-smoking. On the way back to the inn I wait in line to buy a $1 bag at the Old Maid popcorn cart, which has been in business since 1934. On this quiet evening, it's the only game in town.
Exhausted from my 23-mile ride, I eat a quick hamburger and go to bed early. The next morning, after Belgian waffles and fresh blueberries in the JailHouse's subterranean dining room—dramatically lit by candles—I set off for Harmony (population 1,013), crisscrossing the Camp Creek tributary a few times before abandoning water entirely for a plateau of farmland with earth so pungent, Willa Cather could have scripted it.
After a thigh-searing climb I arrive in Harmony, the trail's southern terminus. Though I'm aware that Minnesota's largest Amish community settled here in the mid 1970's, I'm still startled to see an Amish girl race past on a horse and buggy. Just then, a man walking by remarks, "Nice day for riding, isn't it?" I'm not sure if he's talking to me or the girl, who wears Coke-bottle glasses and a druid-like tunic over a green dress. It occurs to me that I must look just as odd in my helmet and neoprene shorts.
Stopping at the Harmony Visitor Information Center, I buy a ticket for a two-hour Amish Country Tour. Along with five other tourists, all from small towns in the Midwest, I hop into a crowded minivan that smells faintly of farm animals. During stops at Amish homesteads, we buy hand-sewn quilts, raspberry and strawberry jams, simply designed furniture, and goat's-milk fudge. Meanwhile, our driver's folksy appeal wears off when he starts telling jokes in a W. C. Fields drawl. "Did you hear about the Amish man who married an English girl?" he asks. "The marriage didn't last long. He drove her buggy."
When the tour ends, I bike the 22 miles back to Lanesboro, where I take a wobbly-legged late-afternoon stroll. Lanesboro (population 858) won the Great American Main Street Award in 1998—a fact I've learned from the boastful propaganda posted all over town. Almost every building on Parkway Avenue North is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, including Mrs. B's Historic Lanesboro Inn & Restaurant, my resting spot for the night. Once the town store, built in 1872, the place is decorated with chintz and wallpaper of every stripe—and floral. My room has a wonderful Norwegian sleigh bed and an Amish quilt with classic geometric blocks, plus a terrace with a view of the Root River.
For two days the skies have been blanketed with a thick cappuccino foam, but on the third, rain is imminent. My Huffy Dynamo has left me huffy after the previous day's ride, so I return it in Lanesboro and rent a 21-speed Schwinn Sierra through the Little River General Store, a trail and water-sport outfitter. My itinerary: due east to the Whalen Inn, where the pie is legendary, and then on to the town of Houston (population 438). I'm a pig for pie; I'll bike five miles for a slice, even in the rain.
At the inn, I'm greeted by lissome Minnesota schoolgirls who couldn't possibly eat what they serve. I go against farm-stand convention and opt for a slice of pie with no indigenous ingredients: banana cream, a frothy puff in a flaky crust. Nirvana. The rain is coming down steadily now, so I retreat reluctantly to Lanesboro.
Despite the downpour, I intend to finish my route. I return the bike to the Little River General Store and settle into my car to drive Highway 16, which essentially parallels the river and biking trail, 30 miles east to Houston. I feel as if I'm betraying my mission by driving, but the sylvan countryside makes the trip less painful. The Root River valley grows broader, the surrounding limestone cliffs tethered to one another with tufts of fog. On the radio, the few stations that come in clearly blare teen pop and seemingly nonstop ads for the Butterfest in Sparta, Wisconsin.
The rain is pelting down in Houston and everything's closed except for the bars vending off-sale liquor. So I backtrack to the neighboring town of Rushford and head for its tiny history museum, located in the former rail depot and managed by the cutest little old lady in the world. On the surface, Rushford seems placid and empty, a little Mayberry R.F.D. But there's a subtle inscrutability to the town. It seems like the kind of place that produces both politicians and porn stars.
On my last night, I drive to the Berwood Hill Inn, a restored 132-year-old farmhouse in Lanesboro's rolling hills. Dripping with antimacassars, burled-wood antiques, and fireplaces, it's as luxurious as a B&B can get, down to the bedtime truffles and the next morning's decadent five-course breakfast, which includes an asparagus frittata and thick farm sausage. But I'm happiest with its sweeping Technicolor vista of hills and farmland, bad weather be damned. Even though I don't live here anymore, I assure myself before loading up my car, I'm still a native son.
B&B's rule in Bluff Country. There are many more than those mentioned here; for others, log on to www.bluffcountry.com.
Berwood Hill Inn R.R. 2, Box 22, Lanesboro; 800/803-6748; www.berwood.com; doubles from $155. A former farmhouse, Bluff Country's most luxurious inn is set on a hilltop with valley views. The handful of rooms, all idiosyncratic, are stuffed to the gills with a mishmash of American antiques.
Habberstad House 706 Fillmore Ave. S., Lanesboro; 507/467-3560; www.habberstadhouse.com; doubles from $110. Detailed woodwork and simple furniture fill this 1897 Victorian. The top floor's Amish Suite ($135) is a wall-to-wall knotty-pine aerie that looks like a Nordic ski lodge.
Historic Scanlan House B&B 708 Parkway Ave. S., Lanesboro; 800/944-2158 or 507/467-2158; www.scanlanhouse.com; doubles from $105. This late-19th-century residence could stand proudly among San Francisco's famed Painted Ladies. Period antiques and original woodwork are plentiful, as are frilly touches—such as antique dolls and an old wicker baby buggy.
Mrs. B's Historic Lanesboro Inn & Restaurant 101 Parkway Ave. N., Lanesboro; 507/467-2154; doubles from $95. In the center of a well-preserved Victorian hamlet, Mrs. B's is a faithfully restored limestone building, its interior decked out in florals and chintzes from the reception area to the powder room.
JailHouse Historic Inn 109 Houston St. N.W., Preston; 507/765-2181; www.jailhouseinn.com; doubles from $49. The circa-1869 Italianate red-brick building was once the Fillmore County Jail. Guests can overnight in one of 12 standard rooms or sleep behind iron bars in the Cell Block room.
Meadows Inn B&B 900 Pine Meadows Lane, Rushford; 507/864-2378; www.meadowsinn.com; doubles from $135. Just outside town, the Meadows is a little far from the trail for cyclists but worth the extra mileage. Rooms have comfortable bed linens and floral wallpapers; two balconies overlook a stand of virgin pine.
"Sticks to your ribs" aptly describes most of the food in Bluff Country. The following restaurants serve satisfying regional dishes; Mrs. B's Historic Lanesboro Inn also offers guests dinner on request.Checked tablecloths and employees with old-country accents characterize Das Wurst Haus (117 Parkway Ave. N., Lanesboro; 507/467-2902; dinner for two $12), a no-frills café that specializes in house-made German bratwurst and potato salad. Nearby, at the Old Village Hall Restaurant & Pub (111 Coffee St.; 507/467-2962; dinner for two $50), fresh pastas and grilled beef and lamb are served in a converted two-story, light-filled Italianate civic building. Try the pineapple gazpacho and the rich fruit compotes, available only in summer. At the Intrepid Traveler in Harmony (121 Main Ave. N.; 507/886-2891; dinner for two $50), the changing dinner menu is based on local produce and locally raised beef and lamb. The smoked duck breast is a favorite of regulars. In Fountain, have breakfast at the White Corner Café (315 First St.; 507/268-4334; breakfast for two $10). It's renowned for old-fashioned all-you-can-eat french toast or pancakes, both with eggs and meat. Just call ahead: the hours are limited (7 a.m.—1:30 p.m. most days), and bikers are often disappointed to find it closed.For a carbohydrate fix when you get to Rushford, order a blueberry fry—a crescent-shaped doughnut with blueberry filling—at the Rushford Bakery (220 S. Mill St.; 507/864-7460). The Whalen Inn (618 Main St.; 507/467-2623; lunch for two $8) serves soups and egg and tuna salad sandwiches, but it's the freshly made pies, from coconut cream to peach (in season), that attract bikers by the dozen.
Homes on the Range
Descendants of the 18th-century Ohio Amish settlers migrated to Harmony in the 1970's. No trip to Bluff Country is complete without a guided drive through their farms, where Plain People eschew modern comforts for a world with no electricity, no phones, and, of course, no cars. Both Amish Country Tours (507/886-2303; $11) and Michel's Amish Tours (800/752-6474 or 507/886-5392; $25) offer two-hour excursions, taking small groups to Amish homesteads and shops where jams, quilts, and furniture are for sale. Little House on the Prairie fans should make the short drive to the Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Site (221 W. Courtland St., Spring Valley; 507/346-7659). Guides lead groups through the church that the frontier girl and her family attended while living in Spring Valley. After the tour, follow the signs down the Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Highway, which begins in Pepin, Wisconsin (re-created in Little House in the Big Woods), then winds north through Walnut Grove, Minnesota (On the Banks of Plum Creek), on its way west to De Smet, South Dakota (the original "little town on the prairie").
Where to Shop
Antiques shops and summer yard sales are plentiful in every corner of Bluff Country. Here, six of the area's best:In Harmony, the Bearly Used Second Hand Store (40 Center St. W.; 507/886-3171) is a neatnik's nightmare but a pack rat's fantasy—and with rock-bottom prices: a McCoy cookie jar might go for $10 and a summer patio dinette set for $25. Center & Main Antiques (15 Main Ave.; 507/886-2485) is strong in cut glass and crystal, plus Red Wing and California pottery. While the town is chockablock with Amish quilt stores, the Village School Quilt Shop (92 Second St. N.W.; 507/886-2409), located in a 1924 schoolhouse, has the most vibrantly colored ones. Skandinavien Blomma (25 Center St. E.; 507/886-2201) is known for its well-edited selection of Nordic imports: Swedish textiles, lingonberry preserves, brightly painted Dahl horses, wool sweaters, books of Ole-and-Lena jokes. If German and Czech glass and pottery pique your interest, make your way to Red Bench Antiques & Collectibles (132 St. Anthony St. S.; 507/765-2731) in Preston. In Peterson, Suite 16 Antiques (117 River St.; 507/875-2730), in a 1902 schoolhouse, sells antique kitchenware, 1940's children's books, and a comprehensive selection of vintage pottery.
The Root River and Harmony—Preston Valley state trails are largely easy to bike, but both have short, steep stretches that can be challenging. For bike rentals, call the Little River General Store (800/994-2943 or 507/467-2943; from $10 per day) in Lanesboro. The store recently burned down, but it plans to relocate by the end of summer. Meanwhile, the owners still rent bikes and provide pickup and drop-off services. Little River also runs canoe trips on the Root River and its tributaries.
Cross the bridge and step back in time to 1899 reads the sign at the entrance to Historic Forestville. The village, part of the 2,000-acre Forestville State Park, nearly became a ghost town around 1868, after the Southern Minnesota Railway passed it over while linking larger cities in the region. Now guides in period costume conduct tours of restored buildings, such as a historically correct 1856 general store, a farm residence, and an intact granary. It's impossible to leave without learning something about life in a frontier town headed for extinction. Nine miles southwest of Preston on County Rd. 118; call 507/765-2785 for more information.