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Vacation by Pushpin
On a whim, a family picks a point on a map. Hello Tracy, Minn.

By Patricia Weil Coates
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, July 6, 2003

I clutched the pushpin in my hand as my children spun me around, blindfolded, in front of the map. Decision time had come: We were really doing it, following through on my middle-of-the-night idea to take our family vacation wherever the pin pierced the large map of the United States that hangs on our basement wall.

As my family anxiously watched, I felt the map's slick laminate under my fingertips and stuck the pin in. The date was Jan. 1, 2002.

Seven months later, the four of us flew from Dulles International Airport to Minneapolis, the first leg of our journey to Tracy, Minn. A town of some 2,200 souls in the southwest corner of the state, Tracy had the distinction of being the community nearest to where my pin had landed.

Within hours of "landing" on Tracy, I had gone online in search of answers to our questions about the town and its environs. Was it hilly and covered with lakes, like we imagined most of Minnesota to be? Definitely not, we discovered right away. This was prairie country -- flat farmland dotted with small towns and only a few bodies of water. How would we get there? Luckily, Tracy was only about three hours from the Twin Cities, so we could fly to Minneapolis and rent a car.

Finally, what would we do there? Judging from the lack of distinguishing topography on the map, and the absence of national and state parks, not to mention urban centers, the prospects initially looked a bit bleak. That, however, was precisely the challenge we'd hoped for when deciding to vacation by pushpin: how to craft a memorable vacation for all of us, no matter where we were going.

"This is America," my husband, Vince, had declared. "There'll be something to do, and something redeeming, wherever we end up."

We all hoped he was right.

Images of Tracy

The months that led up to our departure passed with the kind of thrill that comes with turning the pages of a good mystery novel. As each new bit of information was revealed, we began to piece together, like a puzzle, an image of a part of the country that was totally unfamiliar to us.

My very first image of Tracy boded well: A picture of a vintage locomotive popped up on my computer screen. "Score one for Liam," I thought, knowing that any kind of railroad attraction would provide hours of entertainment for my train-crazy 5-year-old son.

Then serendipity struck. After a day or two of Web surfing, I came across a nugget of information that ended up providing the focus of our vacation. Tracy, it turns out, lies seven miles to the west of a tiny town called Walnut Grove.

Fans of Laura Ingalls Wilder, author of the popular "Little House" book series about frontier life in the late 1800s, will recall that Laura and her family lived for a time in a dugout built into the banks of Plum Creek, just north of the newly settled town of Walnut Grove. Wilder's moving account of her several years there as a young girl during the pioneer days of the 1870s is the subject of her book "On the Banks of Plum Creek."

Ten-year-old Eliane, who has read all the "Little House" books, could not believe her good fortune that Mommy had "landed" near Walnut Grove. Her excitement grew when we discovered that the town was home to an outdoor pageant about Laura and her family (held only in July, hence our decision to visit that month) and that the site of the original Ingalls family dugout, now just an indentation on the riverbank, was open to the public.

Other than the Wilder connection, and a smattering of small frontier museums throughout the area, it didn't take us long to realize that southwest Minnesota is not exactly a hotbed of tourism. Via e-mails, phone calls and the mail, however, we made acquaintances with many people in the Tracy area while planning our vacation. By the time we packed up for our trip in mid-July, we felt as if we were going to visit old friends.

Life on the Prairie

We landed in Minneapolis, and the next morning, after stops at the Mall of America and the wonderful Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, set off for the prairie. Driving south and west, we reached Minnesota's portion of our country's vast western plains in less than two hours. We knew we had arrived on the prairie when the highway became utterly and monotonously straight. Like the lines of a crossword puzzle, well-paved county roads crisscrossed the flatlands, forming huge grids and making navigation easy.

As far as the eye could see -- probably 30 miles in each direction -- fields of corn and soybeans stretched in endless green succession, broken only by an occasional fence, farmhouse or tree. The prairie grasses of frontier days have long given way to more lucrative farm crops, but trees are almost as scarce as they were in pioneer times.

We launched into prairie life at Virginia and Stan McCone's Sod House, a bed-and-breakfast near Sanborn. Living "Frontier House" for one day, we donned the pioneer clothes the McCones provide, learned to use oil lamps, explored 12 acres of prairie grasses and marveled at the sod structures Stan built as a tribute to the first homesteaders who came to the prairie.

The largest is the guesthouse, complete with an 1840s-era wood stove, wash pitcher and bowl, fainting couch and other authentic household items from a time gone by. Eliane made herself busy collecting water, trying on aprons and bonnets, and running through the wildflowers. Liam quickly discovered the Native American artifacts in a nearby log cabin and happily lugged around a toy wooden rifle the entire afternoon and evening.

Dinner was courtesy of the nearest, and only, restaurant in town -- Dairy Queen. At least we didn't go to bed hungry, as did many of the frontier homesteaders. That night we slept in a real "soddy," tall grasses rustling outside the windows, stars glowing bright overhead and all of us snug in our quilt-covered beds. So far, it was thumbs up for our vacation by pushpin.

The next morning, we headed for Tracy, just 40 minutes west on Route 14. Finally, the time had come to see what the dot on our basement map really looked like.

Trains, Bikes And Water Parks

What happens when a suburban Maryland dad gets lost in Tracy and asks for directions? He and his family end up on the front page of the local newspaper.

Vince, who is the first to admit that he is directionally challenged, spent several disoriented minutes trying to find Tracy's new aquatic center. As luck would have it, the person that he asked for assistance turned out to be Seth Schmidt, the local newspaper's publisher and editor. Amused that someone was actually lost in his small town, Schmidt asked Vince where he was from, and soon heard the entire saga. Our visit was evidently novel enough to merit a mention in the weekly Headlight Herald, and he asked us back to his office for an interview and photo shoot.

We'd figured Tracy would look like all the other small towns we had passed through since reaching the prairie -- dusty, slightly seedy and obviously losing both population and businesses. We figured right, but there were some pleasant surprises, too. Tracy's frontier museum, Wheels Across the Prairie, was fun, with a 1915 switch engine outside the restored train station, the very same station Laura Ingalls Wilder had waited in some 130 years ago.

Tracy's crown jewel, however, was a complete surprise: a brand-new aquatic center with tunnel slides, fountains and waterfalls that had opened just two weeks before our arrival. Minnesota seemed like a long way to go to hang out in a water park, but at $5 per person and no crowds, it turned out to be a great way to beat the scorching heat that persisted all week. We ended up spending two afternoons at this mini-oasis in the sun-baked flatland.

Lake Shetek Lodge, the only non-roadside motel in the area, was our home base for the week. The children spent hours playing in the lake, algae blooms notwithstanding. Co-owner Mary Mahrt's son Jared took us on a pleasant pontoon boat tour one evening, and husband John lent us some fishing rods. Casting off from a dock just yards from our room, Liam caught his first fish ever, a tiny perch.

We spent a morning cycling the six rolling miles of the Lake Shetek/End-O-Line Railroad Park Bike and Pedestrian Trail, and enjoyed the scenic vistas of Lake Shetek, nearby farms and the Des Moines River headwaters. During the height of the July tourist season, we passed exactly three people on the trail.

The End-O-Line Railroad Park and Museum in tiny Currie was also a hit, with its historic steam engine and caboose, engine house, restored general store and foreman's house, as well as a one-room schoolhouse featuring the real lunch pails, washbasin and wooden desks used by children more than a century ago.

The Ingalls Connection

And of course we followed in the footsteps of Laura Ingalls Wilder. We waded in the shallow waters of Plum Creek, just as Laura did, and crossed the footbridge over the creek to the site of the Ingalls family dugout. As we nibbled wild plums, we imagined we were Laura, who had picked the tiny fruits in the thickets that are still here today and dried them for winter eating. We sat on the large flat rock that Laura's biographer believes is the one Laura mentions in her book. In the Wilder museum, we saw the quilt Laura sewed with her daughter, Rose, and viewed vintage photographs and other artifacts.

On Friday night, Eliane and I left the men behind and took in the Wilder pageant, an elaborate amateur production held on a hillside next to Plum Creek that depicts the people and events Laura wrote about in "On the Banks of Plum Creek." Despite the mosquitoes that threatened to eat us alive, we were moved by the much greater hardships the pioneers endured and were heartened by their perseverance. At the end of the show, Eliane declared that she wanted to move to Minnesota so she could be in next year's production.

During our week in southwest Minnesota, we ate lunch several times at the Currie Corner, the only eating establishment in Currie. On the white walls of the small restaurant/ice cream parlor, visitors have left their mark in the form of graffiti, the majority of it written by people from Minnesota or neighboring states. One in particular caught our eye, since we thought that surely we had traveled one of the longest distances to get there.

"I came all the way from Australia for your ice cream," it read. "I will be back!"

So will we -- although next year it's Vince's turn with the pushpin, and he desperately wants to land on Baton Rouge. If he does, I'll be mighty suspicious.

Patricia Weil Coates is a freelance writer in Frederick.

Details: Tracy, Minn.

GETTING THERE: Tracy, Walnut Grove, Lake Shetek and the tri-county prairie region of southwest Minnesota are about a three-hour drive from the Twin Cities. Northwest flies nonstop from Washington to Minneapolis; AirTran, American, US Airways and United also offer service, with summer fares around $300 round trip. Sioux Falls, S.D., also has connecting air service to the Washington area and is about a two-hour drive from Tracy. Round-trip fares start at around $340.

You will need a rental car to explore southwest Minnesota. From Minneapolis, take Route 169 to Mankato, to Route 14 (Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Highway) and head west through corn and soybean country to the Walnut Grove/Tracy area.

WHERE TO STAY: Lake Shetek Lodge (21 Valhalla Dr., Slayton, 507-763-3200, www.lakesheteklodge.com), on Valhalla Island on southwest Minnesota's largest lake, has a wide range of rooms and activities. Owners Mary and John Mahrt will set you up with fishing rods and beach games, and pontoons, fishing boats and canoes are available for rent. A small sandy beach slopes into the lake, where even small children can splash safely in the shallow water. Accommodations range from single motel rooms (from $59.95) to three-bedroom suites with a full kitchen and two baths (up to $825 for six nights in season. June-Sept. 15).

In Tracy, the former Cozy Grove Motel underwent major renovations and is now the Wilder Inn (Route 14, 866-211-7877). Rates $35-$70 double. The Valentine B&B (385 Emory St., 507-629-3827) is the town's sole bed-and-breakfast, with queen-bedded rooms from $75 to $105.

Twenty miles east of Walnut Grove is the unique Sod House on the Prairie Bed & Breakfast (12598 Magnolia Ave., Sanborn, 507-723-5138, www.sodhouse.org), an 1880s-style sod house surrounded by acres of prairie grass and wildflowers. You'll brush your teeth in the washbowl and use oil lamps at night, and frontier-style clothing is provided. Owner Virginia McCone brings a hearty prairie breakfast right to the "soddy," where you can eat at the rough-hewn wood table next to the wood-burning stove and pretend you are homesteading on the American frontier. Rates range from $110 to $178; open April to October.

WHERE TO EAT: Dining options are limited. Choo Choo Charlie's Currie Corner (101 Mill St.), in the tiny town of Currie near Lake Shetek State Park, has great homemade ice cream, good subs and huge servings of nachos. You can add your name to the hundreds already on the walls. The Valhalla Steak House and the Key Largo Restaurant adjacent to Lake Shetek Lodge on Valhalla Island serve American cuisine in a pleasant setting. In Tracy, the Mediterranean (Route 14) has a large salad bar, homemade soups and reasonable prices.

WHAT TO DO: Laura Ingalls Wilder fans will want to visit the Ingalls homestead site just north of Walnut Grove and wade in the waters of Plum Creek ($3 per car, honor system at entrance, May-October). The 26th annual Wilder Pageant ($7-$10) will be held July 11-13, 18-20 and 25-27 on a hillside overlooking Plum Creek, and the Wilder Festival ($3 tickets sold day-of) is July 12, 19 and 26. For details and tickets: 888-859-3102, www.walnutgrove.org. The Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum (330 Eighth St., Walnut Grove, 800-528-7280; $3) displays artifacts from the Ingalls's life.

The End-O-Line Railroad Park and Museum (440 N. Mill St., Currie, 507-763-3708, www.endoline.com; $3) is a train lover's paradise, and the Wheels Across the Prairie Museum (Route 14, Tracy, 507-629-3661; $2 donation) is worth a visit. The six-mile Lake Shetek End-O-Line Bike and Pedestrian trail has lots of pleasant places to stop for views and a snack. Lake Shetek State Park and Plum Creek Park in Walnut Grove offer scenic swimming and picnicking locales.

INFO: Minnesota Office of Tourism, 800-657-3700, www.exploreminnesota.com. Walnut Grove Tourism, 800-528-7280, www.walnutgrove.org.

-- Patricia Weil Coates

© 2003 The Washington Post Company