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Twin Cities day trip: Hunting wildflowers in Nerstrand Big Woods, antiques in Northfield.

I don’t roll out the term “carpeted” lightly.

But it’s hard to argue with the amount of wildflowers I just saw–now appearing for a limited time only!–at Nerstrand Big Woods State Park.

From late April through early May, the Hidden Falls trail is in fact carpeted with False Rue Anemone, dime-sized blooms that look like what you’d draw if someone said make a “flower.” Both Yellow and Blue Violets plus White Trout Lilies representing. I see you, hyper-hyphenate Jack-in-the-Pulpit, popping through brown leaves.

Now I can’t be sure if I saw the rare and endangered Minnesota Dwarf Trout Lily, more on that later. But I thought the name “Dutchman’s Breeches” was a real kick in the pants and I decided THAT wildflower would be my holy grail. I fixed the image of a pants-like flower in my mind and headed out.

But first–only part of Nerstrand is open right now. At the time of my visit (5/15/19) ALL of the trails on the south side of Hwy 29 were closed until further notice. They are too wet and need maintenance. This portion of Nerstrand Big Woods contains the “Big Woods” trail. When it’s open, you’ll find part of Minnesota’s past here: one of the last remnants of the large forested area that covered Minnesota before Europeans arrived.

Back to the north side, and back to the Hidden Falls Trail. This easy one-mile loop leads to the most pleasant, play-ready waterfall. This trail is prime for spring wildflower peeping. A boardwalk leads you through the forest with rope barriers on the side to protect the wildflowers. In particular, the Minnesota Dwarf Trout Lily.

Here’s the thing about this lily. It only grows here. I mean RIGHT here, in Minnesota’s Rice, Steele and Goodhue Counties and nowhere else on earth. The wee flower has been considered federally endangered since 1986. It’s so important for visitors to mind the barriers because foot traffic compacts the soil and damages the plant’s delicate underground “runners.”

I’m guessing the droopy-headed bloom I saw was a White Trout Lily, NOT the rare dwarf trout lily. The dwarf lily was probably blooming somewhere behind the barrier. It’s hard to say. They both have spotted leaves and are nearly indistinguishable except for size, so this can be an easy case of mistaken identity.

You can add a bit of challenge to your hike by tacking on the 1.7- mile Fawn Trail and I’m glad I did. I stopped to grab a slurp of water, let my eyes wander and then I saw it: a Jack-in-the-Pulpit which is truly one of the greatest names ever.

Unless you’re counting “Dutchman’s Breeches.” Now there’s a name. Catchy and descriptive. On the park’s info board, the blooms do look like bloomers, little pantaloons on a stem. Not particularly rare, but if we’re playing wildflower bingo, I got particular delight in checking off the Dutchman’s Breeches box.

Driving just 20 minutes northwest from Nerstrand, you hit charming Northfield. This is such a college town, at Hogan Brothers hoagie shop, there are three tip pitchers. Each has its own label and loyalties: St. Olaf, Carleton and Townies. It may be small—the population is about 20,000–but Northfield packs a lot in.

I would have loved a post-hike beer on the patio at Imminent Brewing, but it was my misfortune to be there on a Wednesday. (It’s open Thursday through Sunday.) The Norstralian Sparkling Ale sounds like a real continent-bending thirst quencher. Next time!

It’s hard to miss the centrally located Archer House River Inn, a grand little red brick hotel. Built in 1877, it must have been quite the swanky joint at the time. No two of the 36 guest rooms are the same. It overlooks the Cannon River and all the other bars and restaurants lining the quaint riverwalk.

With wildflower hunting behind me, the antique hunt was on. And there are dozens of antique, vintage and thrift shops in the area. For the sheer “wowza” of it, stop into Antiques of Northfield right on Division St. Carole Christensen is a vendor, but also a collector and curator. She started collecting 1950s ceramic TV lamps as a kid–you know how this story goes–and now displays more than a thousand of them in her TV lamp museum. The history of these lamps is quite interesting, if misdirected. In the 1950s, when televisions started appearing in homes across America, the conventional wisdom was that watching in low light damaged your eyes. So thousands of TV lamps were designed–Matadors! Poodles! Panthers! A dachshund Carole won’t sell me! I bought a lime ceramic log planter from Gilner California Pottery and left before I could do more damage.

The Big Woods and a ceramic log all in one day! Heading home, feeling fully woodsy, the foliage along the highway seemed greener than when I passed it 24 hours earlier. I thought about the wildflowers I’d seen at Nerstrand; spring ephemerals, many of them. That means all the parts of the plant that are above ground will disappear by the time the forest canopy fully develops in June. Such a great reminder of the fleeting nature of spring in Minnesota and the wildflowers you feel so lucky to see.

Arkansas Road Trip Part 3: Best of the Ozarks, Little Rock to Bentonville

The Clinton Library, Little Rock’s River Market, Crystal Bridges Museum and more.

There is an actual little rock. As titular rocks go, it’s pretty small. Little Rock, AR gets its name from a hip-high chunk of rock on the south bank of the Arkansas River. It was a landmark for early river traffic and became a well-known crossing. Today, that riverfront is still a happening spot–there just happens to be more bikes and BBQ than boats.

The River Market District is the heart of Little Rock’s downtown scene with museums, bars and restaurants. An indoor market hall has food, music, art and farmer’s market. You should probably take a selfie with the sooo-eet bronze sculpture known as the “River Market Pig,” which sits on a fountain right outside the market. Behind it, the impressive Vogel Schwartz Sculpture Garden has more than 100 sculptures dotting meandering pathways. Biking or walking around the downtown riverfront is an ideal way to spend an afternoon with or without kids.

The William J. Clinton Presidential Center & Park cuts the most dramatic profile on the waterfront. The architects were inspired by Clinton’s idea of “building a bridge to the 21st century.” Some observers say the rectangular design reminds them a double wide trailer, but hey, by whatever conveyance necessary forward into the future! The Clinton Library was dedicated in 2004 and houses the presidential limo, gifts from heads of state, a recreation of the Oval Office plus mountains of research material.

Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art is another example of AR architecture reaching to elevate not only what’s inside, but the hometown’s profile. In this case, Bentonville. Where Walmart founder Sam Walton opened his first five-and-dime. (“Walmart’s 5 & 10” is still open to the public as part of the Walmart Museum at 105 N. Main St. in downtown Bentonville.)

Architect Moshe Safdie worked with Sam’s daughter Alice Walton to create a museum that makes a statement, but also respects the land surrounding it. Combining the “power of art” and the “beauty of nature” was the guiding principal.

Inside, Crystal Bridges’ permanent collection features hundreds of works of American art from the colonial era to present. Here are all the big-name stars of American art, but not just them.

As you wander the museum taking in masterpieces by Warhol and Hopper, Stuart Davis and Marsden Hartley, you’ll also discover lesser-known artists. Personally, I was excited to spot a work by Wanda Gag. The artist, born in New Ulm, Minnesota, illustrated “Millions of Cats,” the oldest American picture book still in print.

If you’re hungry after all that walking, visit the Great Hall. You’ll find the museum restaurant “Eleven” under a soaring, pine-beamed ceiling. Grab coffee or a meal and you’ll be dining with stunning views of the ponds. Of course, a Chihuly dangles nearby.

Allow a minimum of two hours to tour this part of Crystal Bridges’ permanent collection. There is just so…much…art.

Outside, you can explore 3.5 miles of trails on the sprawling grounds and pass dozens of outdoor sculptures as you go. (Note to self: Come back in fall.) There are a couple architectural specimens on the grounds; visit the Frank Lloyd Wright “Usonian” House, relocated to its current spot in the southern woods. Buckminster Fuller’s “Fly’s Eye Dome” is on the North Lawn Trail. Inspired by the faceted eye of a fly, this structure was supposed to be a model of an affordable, portable house of the future.

And all of this is…absolutely free, other than admission for any special exhibits. Crystal Bridges is a staggering tribute to the breadth of American expression and creativity. And it couldn’t be more at home in Arkansas.


Arkansas Road Trip Part 2: Best bathhouses, beer and barbecue in Hot Springs

Soaks, sips and smoked swine around Hot Springs Nat’l Park

Let’s start with that kink in your neck; you may have one after driving this many twisted miles into the Ozarks. Lucky for you, the heart of Hot Springs, AR is Bathhouse Row, where you can still soak in a tub and “take the cure.”

Hot Springs grew up around the 143-degree water and the people who poached there. In the early 1900s, you could go to a doctor and get a prescription–not for pills, but for a week of thermal baths.

Monumental bathhouses sprouted along Central Ave., some basic, some swanky. All that steam gave rise to the name “Valley of the Vapors,” which is also the name of an independent music festival held every March.

Today, the eight bathhouses remaining are part of Hot Springs National Park. That means you’ll see official park rangers walking around downtown, looking like they could take on a bear or a latte at any given moment.

Buckstaff Baths and Quapaw Baths are still active as public bathhouses. Buckstaff, with its crisp blue awnings and white columns, offers a traditional, people’s bathhouse experience. It’s been operating continuously since 1912. Quapaw Baths is the spa with more modern amenities. Under the distinctive mosaic tiled dome, you’ll find a swimming pool and a rock-walled steam cave.

The Spanish style Ozark Bathhouse serves as the Ozark Cultural Center, featuring the work of the artist-in-residence. Do stop at the Fordyce Bathhouse, the park visitor center and museum. This is a gem worth touring, on your own or with a guide.

In 1915, the Fordyce was the grandest bathhouse in town. It was restored in 1989 down to every detail–the marble fountains, patterned tile floors, stained glass, fish-riding cherubs, weird health devices of yore.

The ladies’ side of the bathhouse had a “Cooling Room,” where gals would lounge and drink the spring water after treatments.

Seems nice, ladies, until you see the men’s side of the bathhouse. Quite a step up in swank, what with the stained glass skylight depicting “Neptune’s Daughter” above the DeSoto Fountain. But the Fordyce wasn’t just fancy, it was forward thinking.

Cutting edge tech of the day included the Hubbard tub, built with a monorail above it so disabled patients could be easily immersed in the water. Torturous-looking needle showers, steam cabinets and weird quacky-looking gadgets promised to cure what ailed ya.

There was even a treatment called the “Scotch Douche.” Apparently, this “special shower” involved varying the temperature of water being applied to the spine and nowhere more invasive than that.

My vote for best modern-day use of hot springs water goes to beer. Every pint at Superior Bathhouse Brewery is brewed with it. This beautifully restored bathhouse is the first brewery in a U.S. national park, and the first to put #HotSpringsOnTap.

As for food, Arkansas is a barbecue lover’s state. According to “Eater,” this region borrows from Texas and Memphis styles, then slathers it with a red, tomato-based sauce. McClard’s Bar-B-Q Restaurant is the legendary spot in Hot Springs for old school ‘que. It started the way many barbecue joints did–grilling on the side of the road for travelers. They’ve been keeping the smoker hot at 505 Albert Pike since 1928. Yum. Earned its spot in the Arkansas Food Hall of Fame.

For breakfast, follow your nose to Will’s Cinnamon Shop at 1001 Central Ave. because it is hard to spot from the street. Top your hot and gooey, straight-from-the-oven cinnamon rolls with your choice of frostings. Definitely take some to go, because they still taste great the next day after spending the night in a cooler. Wish I’d gotten more.

Next stop on our Ozarks odyssey–Little Rock, where the Clinton Presidential Library parked its double wide trailer. Kidding, lots of great architecture and more still to come on our Arkansas road trip! And be sure to sign up to get the next blog in your mailbox.

Arkansas Road Trip Part 1: Best of the Ozarks, Eureka Springs to Hot Springs

Have you ever rolled the spring break dice? Just gotten in a car, cranked some tunes and driven south until you reach warm? Well this year, it happened. After consulting a map and drawing a line straight down from Minnesota, the answer was…Arkansas. The “Natural State!”

I left my makeup at home, packed up the hounds and headed to the Ozarks.

The Ozarks is a region spreading over parts of Missouri and Arkansas (mostly) and Kansas and Oklahoma (a bit.) It’s 47,000 square miles of mountains, rivers, hollers and woods. In late March, a cheerful green 5 o’clock shadow was already sprouting. As the blossoms grew more numerous, so did the Pentecostal churches dotting the twisty roads. The Bible Belt was tightening.

Entering the Ozarks from the northwest corner of Arkansas, this loop begins in Eureka Springs. Route 23 is a shoulder-less luge run and it spits you out at the northeast end of town. With only about 2,000 residents, Eureka Springs preserves its hippie vibe with one hand and its Victorian architecture with the other. In fact, the entire city is on the National Register of Historic Places. Homes and bathhouses were built around the city’s natural hot springs, many clinging to the steep, rocky hillsides. Yep, you’ll find it to be a “Stairstep Town” although locals don’t toss that nickname around much.

Eureka Springs Music Park greets you with a welcome blast of color and sound. Make no mistake, yarn bombing is alive and well here. Find the park at 288 North Main St. and use #eureakayarnbombs to tag your photos. Interactive sound sculptures invite you to poke around. A ball of yarn’s toss across Main St. from the park, a grove of candy-colored cabins called “All Seasons Urban Treehouse Village” backs into the hillside. Urban in front, rural in the back. When the trees are leafed out, the units must surely feel like treehouses.

At Local Flavor Cafe, at 71 S. Main St., I took server River’s recommendation for the locally-raised pork medallions in a bourbon cream sauce. Friends, we are in hog, not to mention Razorback country, and I was not disappointed. There are many restaurants in this tiny town, and this one really focuses on the best of local ingredients.

Keeping it local on the beer front, my smooth red dachshund Franz gave Core Brewing Company‘s “Arkansas Red” brew four paws up. What can we say, we are breed loyal.

You can dress local at Regalia Handmade Clothing where Mark Hughes’ commitment to the slow clothing movement produces beautiful results. I met the designer at a pop-up shop at the William J. Clinton Presidential Library in Little Rock; we’ll visit that spot in a later post. In Eureka Springs, find Mark’s store stocked with easy-to-wear pieces in natural and vintage (!!) fabrics at 16 White St.

Outside downtown on Highway 62 West, the dog-friendly Best Western Inn of the Ozarks had beautiful mountain views. Thinking of dessert, as always, I checked the menu of the restaurant next door, Myrtie Mae’s Cafe. According to legend and their website, Myrtie started a fried chicken joint on this spot in the 1920’s and continues frying up tasty bird today. I’ll try that next time, but what exactly is “POSSUM PIE???”

I’m embarrassed to admit I didn’t know about this Arkansas delicacy. We are talking layers of cream cheese, chocolate cream, local pecans, whipped cream and a slight abandonment of self respect. This is probably a good time to mention we are in pecan country and if you like pecan pie, you could make a tour of that. Anyhoo, check out one recipe for Possum Pie here. And remember, this is why we travel. There are undiscovered pies around every turn.

Continuing a few more miles on Highway 62 West, Thorncrown Chapel is a marvel of wood and glass. This treehouse of worship was designed by Arkansas architect E. Fay Jones and sits on a lovely private parcel of woodland. Built in 1980, Thorncrown Chapel was an instant classic. The American Institute of Architects put it on its list of top buildings of the twentieth century.

If you’ve ever felt a spiritual connection to nature, this structure just might amplify it with its soaring roof and more than 425 windows.

Well road trippers, that’s just stop #1 on our Ozarks odyssey. Next blog post, on to Hot Springs, AR whose historic downtown is a national park. Plus, we’ll visit a historic bathhouse with some curiously named olde tyme therapies. Just trust me on that one.

Weekend in Las Vegas: 5 best bets off the beaten Strip

Las Vegas is a town that begs you to make an entrance. Lights! Sequins! Action! The Stratosphere looks like a Google pin drop on the Strip from miles away. Even Wayne Newton announces his (currently shuttered) “Casa de Shenandoah” with a gilded gate AND a thundering herd of half-horses. Danke Schoen, Wayne!

All part of Vegas’ bigger-than-life charm, yes. But if you’re looking to venture off the beaten Strip, here are five best bets in Sin City.

Let’s start with #1 Valley of Fire State Park because if I had come to Vegas for this alone, it would have been worth it. About an hour drive northeast of downtown, Valley of Fire is the largest state park in Nevada. I didn’t even go at the most “fiery” time of day for photos–I can only imagine this place at sunset–but STILL, the rock formations are gorgeous.

Sandstone erodes more quickly than limestone and that difference makes for some fascinating textures. People invariably describe the terrain here as something you’d see in a “Star Trek” episode. Which I guess is to say “otherworldly.”

There are lots of short hikes, all with incredible views, so sample a few. I recommend driving the length of White Domes Road to the White Domes loop trail; it’s 1 mi. in length. The Rainbow Vista trail, also about a mile in length, lives up to the description on the sign: “an adventure in color.”

Back to downtown’s Arts District for refreshment. The creative neighborhood comprises about 18 blocks of galleries and bars. For that reason it’s sometimes called “18b” but my friends who live in Vegas call it the “always burgeoning Arts District.” I’m not sure how up-and-coming the area is, but I can tell you this: There are two stops you must make across from each other on South Main Street: #2 Rebar and #3 Oddities.

Rebar, at 1225 S. Main St., has an unbeatable combo: drinks and antiques. Everything’s for sale in the joint. It’s dog friendly with a menu of cocktails that benefit local charities. And, as my local friend demonstrated, you can’t beat the mystery beer. Like the “Unknown Comic” of beverages, mystery beer is presented in a brown bag. For three bills, you don’t know what kind you’ll get, but it’s always great ‘n crafty–take a gamble!

“Welcome to the weirdest store in Vegas!” was the greeting at the store across the street, Oddities. They’re not lying. For both looky loos and curio cabinet curators, there’s rogue taxidermy, animal bits and bones, some vintage prosthetics…really, no list would ever do this place justice. I overheard a customer’s query regarding the provenance of the taxidermy. The clerk assured her all the critters in the cases died naturally. In case you were wondering. Oddities should not be missed at 1228 S. Main St.

Las Vegas, ever an avatar for somewhere else, is a hotbed for Tiki culture. The Sands Hotel operated from 1952-1996, with the famed Aku Aku tiki lounge hula’ing it up in the 60s and 70s. (Check out pictures on critiki.com and weep.) Turns out, a bit of Aku Aku history is acting as a soiled bird roost in #4 Sunset Park in Henderson. It’s a giant Moai, a primitive Easter Island-like head. This is one of a pair that once stood outside the restaurant and was re-homed to an island in Sunset “Lake.”

Aku Aku might be long gone but there are still plenty of spots you can sit under a thatched roof and share cauldron-sized rum drinks. Two Vegas standards carrying the tiki torch of authenticity are Frankie’s Tiki Room and #5 The Golden Tiki. Find the Golden Tiki in a Chinatown strip mall at 3939 Spring Mountain Rd. It has its own mini “Museum of the Strange,” and contemporary artwork from Tiki Bosko.

And that’s a whirlwind weekend in Vegas. Leave the Strip to find your own strange and wonderful trip. And by all means, leave your suggestions for next time in the “Comments” section below!