Where to Go When You Need a Break

Sometimes I just have to get away. I’ve lost my bearings. I find myself whining over the stupidest little things. I need a reset. Especially now, with the tug of spring exploding with new life all around me.

“Up North” cabins and resorts might satisfy this pull for some people. But for those of us with skinny budgets and shorter escape windows, a day trip can flip the reset button.

Make Your Woes Begone

Hannah Douglas wanted to get out of town this spring after going through a trying move from the Twin Cities to St. Cloud last year. Douglas missed walking and biking all the great parks of the metro area. COVID limitations and long, dreary winter days had kept her cramped indoors confined to fixer-upper projects in her new home for too long.

Then she learned about the Lake Wobegon Regional Trail. Yes, that’s the actual name of a paved, 62-mile-long, rural scenic route just west of St. Cloud. A dozen trailheads offer access over the course of this trail, which is named for the imaginary lake made famous by writer and former radio show host Garrison Keillor.

Douglas started her first outing early in April near the trailhead at the base of the water tower in St. Joseph, Minnesota.

“I just wanted to go watch nature and look at beautiful things, away from traffic,” says Douglas. “It’s part of the refreshing and renewal of oneself.”

Douglas likes the variety of scenery on the countryside route — farms, trees, lakes and rivers, and prairies. She also can’t get over the humor of the trail’s fictional name and its description as Minnesota’s Above Average Trail.

“There is no official Wobegon Lake, of course,” she says. “So, you’re just already laughing because you’re on something that’s a joke.” She is also amazed at the many amenities offered at the various trailheads, ranging from picnic shelters to bike repair shops to pickle ball courts.

One features a wooden covered bridge – a rare sight in Minnesota.

Ancient Carvings Leave an Impression

I chose my get-away spot in Southwestern Minnesota – a longish drive down Highway 169 through Mankato, then west on Highway 60. A friend joined me in heading to the Jeffers Petroglyphs, a historic site with carvings left by pre-Minnesotans some 5,000 years ago. Sunshine fluffy clouds greeted us on this late April afternoon, just as we turned westward, leaving behind the grim gray blur that had topped Minnesota skies for what seemed like months.

It felt good to have the long view for a change. Miles and miles of flat farmland. Grain country. fields dotted with leftover yellow stalks poking up, reminders of last year’s harvest. Barns along the way mostly in some stage of falling apart. Grayed wood slats splintering, sagging, finding their way to the earth – a mirror of my owned weighted spirit as we ventured out that day.

Here and there, signs of green grass along the roadside offered hope. So did the huddles of plump, round silver grain bins in farmyards. Though empty in springtime, they stood ready to be filled with harvests to come.

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Visitors at Jeffers Petroglyphs / Charlie Vaughn, courtesy MHS

Our destination at the Jeffers Petroglyphs site gave us more glimpses into the past and an invitation to restoration and renewal. Amidst the flat farmland and prairies, a small visitor center drew us into a parking lot. We were the lone visitors, as the site isn’t staffed for public tours and events until June. But we were not alone. The earth that greeted us is billions of years old, and a sign at the entrance reminded us that our surroundings were “landscaped by mother earth.”

The rocks that showed us carvings along the half-mile trail are around 1.6 billion years old. Plants have made their homes there for 9,000 years. We were among ancient kin.

The quietness and starkness of the area evoked a naked vacuum inside me. The meek, unpretentious company of earth, rocks, wind, prairie growth stalks, and the occasional call of a lone whippoorwill offered a marked contrast to my usual city surroundings. Though signs along the way gave us some inkling of what was etched into the mounds of red rock, the drawings only hinted at familiar shapes of turtles, deer, and arrows.

I was left to wonder about the people that lived here all these years ago, about my own ancestral relation to the earth, about the land and all its occupants. So much unknown. So much we, as a consumer, power-driven culture, have perhaps to relearn if we are to keep on friendly terms with the earth and its climate. Whatever imprint we leave on the earth today will shape its landscape – and its survival – for centuries to come.

As we walked back to the car, Pat Levine, my traveling companion, reported her impressions of our encounter with this ancient land that still feeds and teaches us.

“I feel more connected with God here,” she said. “With birds, with plants.” In this place far distant from the crime waves and war reports and epidemics that saturate our daily awareness back home, she paused and added, “I feel safe here.”

Go Solo or for Family Fun

Closer to home, Melissa O’Neal, who lives in Big Lake, frequents two out-of-the-way places northwest of the Twin Cities with her husband and children, and sometimes alone. One, near Monticello, is Montissippi Regional Park.

“It’s a great place to have some free family fun,” says O’Neal. Canoe-in or bike-in campsites are available by the Mississippi River. The main park area has large playgrounds, canoe access, boat launch, hiking and biking trails, and picnic grounds. Parking lots have handicap-accessible areas, and you can easily get onto a looped trail that wanders among “extremely tall pine trees,” says O’Neal.

“You really feel like you’re up north,” she says. The trails also cater to roller blading, walking, and biking, as well as scooter and wheelchair rides.

An intermediate-level disc golf course is a recent addition at the park.

“I would go there with my family during COVID when there were lots of limits to what else we could do,” says O’Neal.  “My husband had been asking me and the kids to play disc golf with him, and we thought throwing a frisbee into a basket was kind of stupid.”

But after giving it a try a Montissippi Park, the whole family is now enjoying the game, O’Neal says. They regularly carry discs in the car most of the time in case they spot a place to play.

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“We have a lot of free fun on the courses and it’s beautiful. It’s a very relaxing time.”

Get Your Camera Ready

Another favorite get-away spot for O’Neal is Sherburne National Wildlife Refuge near Zimmerman. This large wildlife preserve is home to eagles, hawks, geese, swans, coyotes, owls, and deer. Even an occasional bear is sighted. Nice walking trails offer lots of opportunity for nature hiking, some with hilly inclines if you like a challenge.

“There is a spot with an enormous eagle’s nest,” says O’Neal. “You can see it close up with the eagles circling, knowing it’s their home.” Uncommonly found birds, such as woodcocks, can also be spotted by observant hikers, she says.

The Sherburne refuge is a huge attraction for people who want to take photographs of animal and plant life, says O’Neal.

“My daughter’s graduation pictures were shot in the wildlife area,” she says.

O’Neal also recommends the Oak Savanna Learning Center there, which offers plenty of nature programs for people of all ages. Want a nighttime get-away? A star-gazing venture in the summertime can offer stunning glimpses of the night sky not available around city lights. Or what about taking in the sandhill crane or wildflower tours?

O’Neal describes her overall experience of this wildlife refuge as “completely rejuvenating and connecting to our creator’s creation. You feel a part of it when you’re walking especially.”

Go for the Quaint and Healthy

Looking for something more quaint and quirky for your refresher outing? Try a stop at the Lamb Shoppe 10 miles west of Hutchinson. This farm, wellness center, and “shoppe” feature healthy foods and wellness products.

Naomi English, a resident of St. Paul, enjoyed finding the grass-fed meats there, especially lamb, a favorite of her daughter’s. Plenty of other grass-fed meats plus a wide range of natural and local foods are available, along with an extensive selection of health-related products and learning opportunities.

The Shoppe started out in 1996 in an attachment to the family farmhouse, featuring meat from lambs raised on their land. Since 2010, a much larger, separate building allows for expanded services that even include Airbnb sleeping accommodations. Located along the Crow River and Luce Line Trail, this Minnesota treasure is meant to pamper people looking for healthy nourishment and renewal.

Massage, yoga, and an array of classes there may bring you back more than once. How about some of the May classes: Plant Sale and Herbal Education, Skincare as Easy as 1-2-3, or Diffusion 101?

No excuses, now. A short drive (or more environmentally friendly bus, train, or bike ride) might take you out of your ruts and angsty times. If nothing else, you can breathe more freely in the country open air. It may help clean out your mental, emotional, or spiritual cobwebs. I know my trip certainly did.


Pat Samples is a Twin Cities writing and somatic coach. Her website is patsamples.com

Last Updated on May 16, 2022

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