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County by County

College buddies explore state on yearly mystery road trip.

Most people plan carefully for vacations and getaways. Three friends, all alumni of the University of Minnesota, Morris, get together annually and never plan beyond where they’re going to meet and who’s driving. Mark Turner, and siblings DeAnn and Rod Strenke have flipped burgers on the grill owned by the Swamp Sisters, partied with prom goers late into the night in a small town parking lot, and discovered a wrecked police car parked against a boulder in an undisclosed location. Such experiences reflect one of the mystery trip rules: don’t turn down an opportunity for adventure. Other rules include: stay off the beaten path; mix with the locals; be on the lookout for culture, history, heritage and antiques; pool the money and travel on a shoestring budget; and stay in Minnesota. That last one has one exception but more about that later. This marks the 13th year of the trio’s annual Mystery Road Trip. They’ve visited Marshall, Morrison, Washington, St. Louis, Ottertail, Wright, Lincoln, Mille Lacs, Cottonwood, Rock, Cook and Martin Counties. When they visit a county, they see as much of it as they can in three days, traveling the high roads and back roads, turning down dusty paths and onto side streets. Their quest for the flavor and character of Minnesota has made memories and cemented friendships. The Road Trip is also a fun getaway for three friends who don’t see much of each other aside from that weekend. Mark is the executive director of the Five Wings Arts Council in Staples. DeAnn is a marketing manager for Modernistic Inc., a large format print and graphics company based in St. Paul. She lives in northeast Minneapolis. Rod is a system analyst for General Mills and lives outside Center City which is small town near Taylors Falls. Choosing which county to visit is as simple as drawing one from a large envelope containing smaller envelopes, each with the name of one of Minnesota’s counties. The envelope still contains the names of roughly 70 counties, subtracting those they’ve visited, the ones where each currently resides, and the major metropolitan areas that can’t be explored in a mere weekend. Planning for the Mystery Trip begins with something like this April, 2010 message from DeAnn to Mark and Rod: “Because of Good Friday I was thinking of you two…and the Mystery Road Trip! Let’s talk about it as it is just a few weeks away! We know the weekend but we don’t know: Where are we leaving from? Who is driving? What is in the envelope?” The three, all now in their fifth decade of life, decide the location of departure, who will drive and what they’ll be driving. Rod has official custody of the large envelope and one of his children pick the county envelope before he leaves home. The three friends meet on Friday of the chosen weekend and open that envelope to see where they’re going. Then off they go to explore Minnesota. One envelope holds a bonus trip: a spur of the moment trip to Nashville, the one exception to staying in Minnesota. When they meet on the first weekend in May, the chosen driver better have a full tank of gas. So far, they’ve stayed in Minnesota. From Mark’s written account of the first trip, back in 1999: “After a fabulous breakfast and piles of coffee, the three friends jump in the wagon all bushy tailed and ready for their initial adventure at 10 a.m. – right on schedule.  They open the envelope and simultaneously exclaim, ‘Where the hell is New Folden!’  After consulting the tri-fold map of Minnesota retrieved from the wagon’s glove-box, the trio proceeds westbound down Highway 10 toward the weekend’s destination and, some would say, destiny. “A stop at Frazee to wash the windshield and take a photo with the “World’s largest Turkey” was first on the agenda.” The next stop was at the Shooting Star Casino, to “have lunch.” With “lunch” settled they moved into the bar. Mark’s narrative continues. “Aching to find out more about the community they are in search of, Mark starts chatting up the bartender (as he usually does) and asks her if she knows anything about the town of New Folden.  Her response was one of both confusion and uncertainty; but to her credit, she did beckon to one of her older colleagues who ended up being more than happy to share some advice that would inherently mold the first leg of the journey. “’Yea, I’ve heard of it. I think there’s a bar there,’ the large middle-aged Ojibwe security guard said.  ‘But what you need to do is stop at the Rusty Nail in TRF.’  Later in the conversation, it’s deciphered that TRF is local slang for Thief River Falls.  “On the lookout for garage sales, antique shops, or any other reason to stop on this trip of leisure with no itinerary, the travelers pull over in the roadside town of Brooks which boasts the appearance of two businesses – a gas/convenience/pub on the west side of Hwy 59 and an antique store on the east side.  The myriad of old tin signs advertising products of days gone by nailed to the shop’s siding and a couple of old cream separators standing in the three-car parking lot lured the trio to pull in.  Once out of the car it was pretty clear that this ‘store’ doubled as a residence for the shop owner.  Undeterred, and more curious than before, Rod gets to the door first only to see a crudely hand-written note on the locked glass door telling customers that the owner ‘will be back in 30 minutes.’ “Finding no reason to get back into the car without having a beer and also finding no reason to be in a hurry, the trio crosses the road and enters the only place in Brooks currently open on a Thursday afternoon.  With DeAnn appropriately positioned in the middle, the three belly up to the small bar which overlooks the pass-through to the convenience store side.   After several minutes without seeing a soul around, and periodically eyeing up both the see-through cooler door stocked with a limited variety of bottled beer and the pull-tab box, a slow moving older man who resembles Mr. Wilson from Dennis the Menace makes his way out of the walk-in cooler.  “’When you get a chance, can we get three Budweisers please,’ requests Mark.  Looking both startled and flustered, the old man chirps back, ‘It will be a minute, there’s just too many things going on right now…’  DeAnn can’t help but snicker in disbelief as both Rod and Mark just raise their eyebrows with a shrug and almost simultaneously comment, ‘Well, we’re not in a hurry.’  The pull-tab box was practically calling their names, but it was mutually agreed they were lucky to finally get the round of beers and to call Mr. Wilson back for pull-tabs would more than likely be pushing his day over the edge.  In fact, he was so frazzled with all the alleged activity, he forgot to even charge for the beers.”  After gassing up and stopping for a sleeping bag and pillow, since Mark forgot his, the trio moved on up the road, finding an antique shop, the seldom mentioned dry Seven Clans Casino and eventually, New Folden. While that first trip was heavily weighted toward youthful pursuits, the three were emboldened by their inaugural venture in mystery trips. They haven’t missed a year since. Mark remembers the highlights of last year’s trip to Martin County, straight south of central Minnesota and sharing a border with Iowa. “We found out (Martin County) was the largest pork producing county in Minnesota.  They also have a fabulous historical society museum, a super cool barn quilt tour (large painted quilt patches on the sides of barns throughout the county) and interestingly enough, a very strong support for residents serving in the military.” The trip of 2012 is, of course, a mystery yet to unfold. Just the way they like it.

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