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Novel Destinations

Books transport us to faraway fantasies and magical lands. They can also serve as travel guides to their settings. Here, 14 spring trips inspired by books, movies, and music.

Novel Destinations
Photo by Stephan Hoglund
StephanHoglundPhotography.com

You've never been to these places but feel as though you have. The familiar landscape, the people who seem like friends—you’ve found the place where imagination and reality merge, the heart of literary travel. As I learned while researching my book Off the Beaten Page: The Best Trips for Lit Lovers, Book Clubs, and Girls on Getaways, fiction has inspired travel since at least the early 19th century, when bookish British travelers climbed into carriages, novels in hand, to tour the literary landscape of England and Scotland: Dickens’s London, the West Yorkshire moors of the Brontë sisters. Harry Potter tour buses now cruise London. Fans of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo flock to Stockholm. Here in the upper Midwest, the land and towns are no less populated by our imagination, and to visit with a writer’s descriptions in mind enriches these places we might assume we know. We’ve mapped out the itineraries for you. All you have to do is put down whatever you’re reading and go.
 

Searching for Argus

No GPS can direct you to Argus, North Dakota. Yet, between Wahpeton and Fargo, in the Red River Valley, you’ll recognize snapshots of the scenery and people of Argus, the fictional setting of many of Louise Erdrich’s beloved novels, including her latest, Round House, for which she won the National Book Award last year.
 

Where to go

Start in Wahpeton, where Erdrich grew up and her parents taught in a Bureau of Indian Affairs boarding school. Wahpeton isn’t a hotbed of charm, but it is an authentic farm community at the edge of the Western plains, which Erdrich captures so intensely in her fiction. As the New York Times put it, “Everything in Argus is raw, from its climatic extremes....to its courtship rituals.” When Fidelis Waldvogel arrives in Argus in The Master Butchers Singing Club, he turns in a circle to get his bearings. “There was horizon to the west and horizon to the south,” Erdrich writes. “There were streets of half-grown trees and solid-looking houses to the north. And a new limestone bank building and a block of ornately bricked stores on the principal street stretched down to the east. The wind boomed around Fidelis with a vast indifference he found both unbearable and comforting.” When you’re in Wahpeton, go to that limestone bank building on Dakota Avenue and you’ll find the Red Door Art Gallery, offering regional and Native American art. (Rocco Landesman, head of the National Endowment for the Arts at the time, stopped in and called the gallery “creative place-making at its finest.”) Says Erdrich: “The landscape around my hometown has changed a great deal since I finished The Beet Queen. Giant corporate sugar production has taken over the farmland.” Like so many farming communities, the main street struggles to stay vibrant. Nevertheless, Erdrich says, “Wahpeton still inspires me.” From there, head north on I-29, where you’ll recognize the inspiration for the “Scales” chapter in Love Medicine and, like many of Erdrich’s characters, you’ll arrive in the big city of Fargo.

READ

The Master Butchers Singing Club by Louise Erdrich

EXPLORE

In Wahpeton, the Red Door Art Gallery (reddoorgallerywahpeton.com), Mother Hubbard’s Cupboard antique shop (701-591-0134), and Bookhaven used-book store (701-672-5830) are all along Dakota Avenue. Bagg Bonanza Farm Historic Site (8025 169th Ave. SE, Mooreton) is an example of the huge farms spawned by the railroad. Don't miss the back room of Zandbroz Variety store (420 Broadway, zandbroz.com) or the Plains Art Museum (704 First Ave. N., plainsart.org) in Fargo.

STAY & EAT

The Hotel Donaldson: 17 plush rooms, artisan food, and the HoDo lounge (101 N. Broadway, Fargo; hoteldonaldson.com).

EVENTS

On April 20, the Erdrich sisters (Louise, Lise, Heid, Angela) will give their first public reading together at the Stern Cultural Center (800 N. Sixth St., Wahpeton, 701-671-2298).
 


FARGO FOLLIES

The joke, of course, is that the Coen brothers’ classic comic noir isn’t set in North Dakota (which didn’t stop an unfortunate Japanese woman from arriving in Bismarck 10 years ago, looking for the $1 million loot from the supposedly “true story”).

➻ Where to go

Many of the locations used by the Coens have been razed in the past 17 years, like the Embers and the King of Clubs. But the Lakeside Club, where Marge interviews the hookers, is alive and well in Mahtomedi, serving steak, fries, and popovers (10 Old Wildwood Rd., 651-777-4097). And the site of the José Feliciano concert was none other than the Chanhassen Dinner Theatres (501 W. 78th St., chanhassendt.com).

➻ Where to stay

Book a room at the Hitching Post Motel in Forest Lake, where Jerry is arrested (23855 Forest Blvd. N., 651-464-1900). Knotty-pine walls, quilts on the bed—oh fer Minnesotan. 
 

 

Prairie Blossoms

Every spring, the prairie blooms in tiny Walnut Grove—blooms with girls in calico dresses and bonnets. Their moms, and sometimes really game dads, bring them to retrace the steps of Laura Ingalls Wilder and her family. On the off-chance you haven’t read Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie series or seen the ’70s-era television series—and yet are still reading this—Walnut Grove is where the Ingalls family lived in a dugout house on the banks of Plum Creek, just outside town.
 

Where to go

Drive Route 14, also known as Laura Ingalls Wilder Memorial Highway, from Mankato to Walnut Grove and use your imagination. You’ll get a sense of how daunting it was for pioneers to travel west across the treeless prairie, much less live here—hence houses made of sod. Few traces of the Ingalls family remain. There’s a good museum in Walnut Grove with replica buildings and objects from the Ingalls’ era, plus a large gift shop in which obsessive fans could easily drop a paycheck. But to really submerse yourself in the experience, go outside. A short walk gets you to the site of the family dugout on Plum Creek (the actual structure, about the size of a king mattress, caved in long ago). To get a feel for what this primitive lifestyle was like, visit the Sod House on the Prairie, a series of newly built sod structures in nearby Sanborn. Or wander into the grasslands adjoining the creek, where Laura, known as “half-pint” in the books, would get lost in grass so tall she’d have to call Pa to be rescued.
 

READ

On the Banks of Plum Creek by Laura Ingalls Wilder. Also check out The Wilder Life by Wendy McClure, in which the cheeky Little House devotee attempts to create “Laura World” by making Vanity Cakes and Long Winter bread, churning butter, and traveling to Laura sites across the Midwest, with unpredictably charming and insightful results.

EXPLORE

In Walnut Grove, the Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum and Ingalls Dugout Site, about a mile north of town (330 Eighth St., walnutgrove.org). In Sanborn, Sod House on the Prairie (12598 Magnolia Ave., sodhouse.org). The soddies were built by Stan McCone with antique tools. McClure calls the largest one “the Cadillac Escalade of sod houses”—it would’ve been a mansion to the Ingalls family.

EAT

Pack a picnic and eat at the dugout site next to Plum Creek, or grab a burger at Nellie’s Café in town (550 U.S. 14, 507-859-2384).

STAY

Lodging in these parts is as scarce as prairie chickens in a blizzard, especially during the Wilder Pageant (July 12-13, 19-20, 26-27). So make it a day trip, camp, find a motel in New Ulm, or keep moving west—to the Dakotas—as the Ingallses did. For prairie aficionados, combine this itinerary with the one to Blue Mound State Park, outlined below, and include a stop at Pipestone National Monument. The monument (a park, not a statue) offers a unique insight into the Native Americans who were living on the prairie when Laura arrived. Natives still live there today and quarry the area’s red stone, as they have since at least 1200, to make peace pipes (nps.gov/pipe/index.htm).
 


WANDA GÁG’S HIDEOUT

As he lay dying, Anton Gág made an odd request of his eldest daughter: to keep pursuing art, even as she supported her six siblings and mother. Wanda honored that wish 20 years later when she published Millions of Cats, the first modern picture book and still a hit with kids today.

➻ Where to go

The Gág house in New Ulm is interesting enough—its skylights, turrets, and attic-level studio reflect the family’s artistic flair. But the real draw comes from within: the house doubles as an exhibition space, featuring everything from displays on the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862 to paintings by Flavia Gág, the baby of the family. September marks the 85th anniversary of Millions of Cats, so expect something big (226 N. Washington St., wandagaghouse.org).

➻ Where to stay

New Ulm has a good amount of B&Bs and hotels to choose from, but the best of the bunch is Bingham Hall. There, plush robes, fine breakfasts, and handsome rooms are second only to the generous hospitality of the innkeepers (500 S. German St., bingham-hall.com).
 


FREDERICK MANFRED’S SIOUXLAND

In southwestern Minnesota, peering over the prairie from his six-foot-nine vantage, Frederick Manfred wrote 24 novels set in what he called Siouxland. Lord Grizzly was a finalist for the 1954 National Book Award. Scarlet Plume, a fictional recounting of the U.S.-Dakota War, is the Manfred novel most closely associated with the area.

➻ Where to go

Manfred’s estate is now the interpretative center in Blue Mound State Park, overlooking buffalo-dotted grasslands. From quartzite ridges, you can see into South Dakota and Iowa. Freya Manfred’s Frederick Manfred: A Daughter Remembers, from 1999, is a poignant guide. Of the old house, she says, “The entire northern wall of the house was a low cliff of pink and purple Sioux quartzite. Sometimes small amounts of groundwater seeped out of it, and bull snakes found their way down its craggy face.”

➻ Where to stay

Camp in the park for the prairie experience. You can even stay in a tepee that sleeps six (dnr.state.mn.us/state_parks/blue_mounds).
 

 

Adrift Among Giants

The Driftless Area of Wisconsin is tailor-made for meandering, provided you don’t mind a lot of ups and downs. To get an idea for the region, read David Rhodes’s beautiful novel, Driftless. As he explains in the book: “The last of the Pleistocene glaciers did not trample through this area, and the glacial deposits of rock, clay, sand, and silt—called drift—are missing. Hence its name, the Driftless Region. Singularly unrefined, it endured in its hilly, primitive form untouched by the shaping hands of those cold giants.” Rhodes’s fictional town of Words is tiny yet full of the drama, humor, and pathos of contemporary rural life. The real-life villages of the region aren’t much different. One wonders if the residents have stories as interesting as their fictional counterparts, but regardless, the drama is there in the landscape. Because of its singular geology, the region is loaded with trout streams, bike trails, hilly hikes, and picturesque dairy farms.  

Where to go

Make the charming town of Viroqua your base. It’s just about impossible to get lost, but if you ask for directions you’ll wind up in a little chat. The friendly folks may remind you of the characters in Rhodes’s book: organic farmers, artists, shopkeepers, and the nice Norwegian lady at the dairy co-op. The Amish sell produce and handmade wares at roadside stands, making the entire area a farmers’ market in summer. Folk bands from the Twin Cities often play here, and the surrounding hills are full of Minnesota expatriates. You’ll be reluctant to leave but can return anytime by reading Rhodes’s new novel, Jewelweed, out in May from Milkweed Editions and featuring some of the characters you’ve met in Driftless.
 

READ

Driftless and Jewelweed by David Rhodes

EXPLORE

Wildcat Mountain State Park technically has neither wildcats nor mountains, but it does have incredible vistas over the rolling hills and deep hollows (dnr.wi.gov/topic/parks/name/wildcat). As long as you’ve come this far, you may want to drive a little farther east to Spring Green and take the Loving Frank tour at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin estate (5607 County Rd. C, taliesinpreservation.org). Read Loving Frank, by Nancy Horan, a fictionalized version of his scandalous relationship with Mamah Borthwick Cheney, which only ended when she was murdered.

EAT

Enjoy local flavors at Driftless Café (118 W. Court St., Viroqua; driftlesscafe.com).

STAY

The Farmer's Inn in Viroqua (7830 Anderson Rd. E., thefarmersinn.net). Owners Gary and Jean Bekkedal rent out a cabin on their farm, where they have Jersey dairy cows, calves you can sometimes feed from a bottle, sheep, chickens, some beautiful draft horses, and, if you’re real nice, a trout stream they’ll tell you about. A few miles from Viroqua are two equally charming Victorian B&Bs to choose from, the Roth House (102 Pine St., Soldiers Grove; therothhouse.com) and the Old Oak Inn (500 Church St., Soldiers Grove; theoldoakinn.net).
 


LAKE WOBEGON TRAIL

Discover the land that inspired Garrison Keillor on the Lake Wobegon Trail, cutting through Stearns County (lakewobegontrail.com). The 46-mile trail parallels I-94 from St. Joseph to Osakis along a paved former-railroad line—above-average biking.

➻ Where to go

Hit the trail just west of St. John’s University. Get some fish fry and rhubarb pie at Fisher’s Club, a supper club Keillor's invested in (425 W. Stratford St., Avon; fishersclub.com). In Freeport, the trailhead starts across from Charlie’s Café (115 E. Main St., charliescafe.com).

➻ Where to stay

The historic Palmer House Hotel, the model for Sinclair Lewis’s Minniemashie House in Main Street (500 Sinclair Lewis Ave., Sauk Centre, thepalmerhousehotel.com).
 


VACATIONLAND, U.S.A.

Sarah Stonich’s Vacationland, out this month, is set in Naledi Lodge, a fictional north-woods resort on its last knotty-pine legs. Stonich spent plenty of summers around such mom-and-pop places, as chronicled in her 2011 memoir, Shelter.

➻ Where to go

In Ely, hit Cobweb Antiques (138 E. Chapman St.)—Stonich’s grandmother lived in the annex next door. Have burgers at Stony Ridge Resort (60 W. Lakeview Pl., stonyridgeresort.com), then hike to the point at Semer Park or down to the DNR’s float-plane corrals, where vintage deHavilland Beavers are cared for like flying thoroughbreds.

➻ Where to stay

Camp Van Vac, a string of shore-hugging cottages erected in 1917 (2714 Van Vac Ln., campvanvac.com).
 

 

Spirits of the Lake

Alake as big as Superior can hold a lot of stories, shifting and changing with the waves. Duluth writer Danielle Sosin offers some compelling tales in The Long-Shining Waters, her breakout novel of 2011, mingling the experiences of Grey Rabbit, an Ojibwe woman living in the 1600s, with those of Berit and Gunnar, anglers from Norway making their living off the lake at the turn of the last century, and Nora, a modern-day bar owner who finds herself embarking on a journey around the entire lake. Their stories mesh as each character, in their own way, struggles to survive. Occasionally the spirit of the lake itself pipes in—such is the power of place.

Where to go

Fuel up at the Anchor Bar in Superior, Wisconsin, the scruffy inspiration for Nora’s bar, the Schooner (413 Tower Ave., anchorbar.freeservers.com). Up the shore is Split Rock Lighthouse and the beach at Father Baraga’s Cross, both of which get shout-outs in the book. Says Sosin: “For the bigger picture, one of my favorite spots is Palisade Head, an enormous cliff outside of Silver Bay, but only if you are not afraid of heights.” She recommends hitting the Superior Hiking Trail and taking time to listen to the lake. “Any rock ledge or stony beach from Duluth to the border will do,” she says. “All you have to do is sit yourself down, and that lake will make its presence known.”
 

READ

The Long-Shining Waters by Danielle Sosin

EXPLORE

The North Shore Commercial Fishing Museum (7136 Hwy. 61, Tofte; commercialfishingmuseum.org). The first settlers along the lake staked fishing claims in the water beyond their cabins, and most of the couple dozen commercial fishermen still plying the lake are relatives of these hardy folk. You may recognize people like Berit and Gunnar in the vintage photographs.

EAT

The juicy burgers at the colorful Anchor Bar are legendary. In fact, the bar’s website promises the “No. 1 cheap good burger in Wisconsin” and the “second-best bartender in the Twin Ports.”

STAY

Bluefin Bay, a complex of suites, studios, condos, and town homes along an enviable stretch of lakefront (7192 Hwy. 61, Tofte; bluefinbay.com).
 


BOB DYLAN’S PAST

Until recently, the Iron Range scarcely acknowledged that a teenager named Bob Zimmerman emerged from there to become Bob Dylan. Now even his old family home in Hibbing has its own Trip-Advisor page (despite not being open to the public).

➻ Where to go

Start in Duluth, where Dylan was born, and follow Bob Dylan Way, a 1.8-mile walking tour linking the city’s cultural hotspots (find a map at bobdylanway.com). The annual Duluth Dylan Fest is typically around his birthday, May 24. In Hibbing, the city librarian offers walking tours by appointment (or use the map at hibbing.mn.us), taking in his former home, the café where he hung out with Echo Helstrom (his muse for “Girl of the North Country”), and the stores run by his family, among other sites. Dylan Days, offering music, bus tours, and general Dylan fandom, will be held May 23 to 26 this year, based at Zimmy’s Restaurant.

➻ Where to stay

To really get a feel for the Iron Range, stay at the Mitchell-Tappen House in Hibbing, a B&B that was moved, along with the rest of the town, in 1919, so that ore underneath could be extracted (2125 Fourth Ave. E., mitchell-tappanhouse.com).
 


THE BEST OF JIM BRANDENBURG

With two favorite regions in Minnesota and decades of images to display, the globetrotting National Geographic photographer Jim Brandenburg maintains two galleries in opposite corners of the state, one in his hometown of Luverne, another in Ely, where he lives now.

➻ Where to go

It’s a seven-hour drive from Ely to Luverne, so make this a two-part adventure. To build his Ely gallery, Brandenburg used the same team behind his incredible home studio, Ravenwood. The blond wood and smooth curves underscore the purity of his photos (11 E. Sheridan St., jimbrandenburg.com). The Luverne gallery has double significance, being both in his hometown and his means of preserving the prairie—all proceeds help the cause (213 E. Luverne St.). See the fruit of his labors 20 minutes north at Touch the Sky Prairie.

➻ Where to stay

Accommodations in Ely range from a cozy B&B (blueheronbnb.com) to remote cabins (bwcawlogcabin.com) to campsites (ely.org). In Luverne, regulars predominate: Comfort Inn, Super 8, a handful of motels (cityofluverne.org).
 

 

Finding Fitzgerald

With the movie The Great Gatsby, starring Leonardo DiCaprio as the mysterious gazillionaire, hitting theaters in May, the Cathedral Hill neighborhood of St. Paul will likely get a surge of curious visitors. After all, the story really begins here, where its author, the tragically aspirational F. Scott Fitzgerald, grew up, wrote, and partied. But even those who don’t know Jay Gatsby from Josh Groban would enjoy a walk around this leafy enclave, its regal homes just “this side of paradise.”

Where to go

For a walking tour of the author’s neighborhood, download the St. Paul Public Library’s F. Scott Fitzgerald in St. Paul: Homes and Haunts guide (sppl.org) and begin outside 481 Laurel Ave., a lovely red-brick three-story building that was Fitzgerald’s birthplace. At 599 Summit Ave. is the house where his parents later lived and where he finished This Side of Paradise. He famously described it as “a house below the average on a street above the average.” Fitzgerald was a “poor boy in a rich boy’s world,” says Patricia Hampl, who has compiled his stories set in St. Paul. This made him a striver, it seems, a theme in his greatest books. In Winter Dreams, Dexter Green “wanted an association with the glittering things and glittering people—he wanted the glittering things themselves.” Like Fitzgerald, Green couldn’t quite explain why he wanted in and “sometimes he ran up against the mysterious denials and prohibitions in which life indulges.” After the success of This Side of Paradise, Fitzgerald left St. Paul and it was assumed that St. Paul had left him. He was the life of the party by then, as both the chronicler and the protagonist of the Lost Generation. Yet he often returned to his native city by proxy, through the characters he led around its streets. He took Sally Carrol to the Winter Carnival in The Ice Palace and, as Basil Duke Lee, he spent A Night at the Fair. He went boating with the beautiful Judy Jones on Black Bear Lake (likely a stand-in for White Bear Lake) in Winter Dreams, a precursor to The Great Gatsby.
 

READ

The St. Paul Stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald, edited by Patricia Hampl and Dave Page

EXPLORE

Take a tour of The James J. Hill House (240 Summit Ave., mnhs.org/places/sites/jjhh). Hill shows up in The Great Gatsby when Gatsby’s father says, “If he’d of lived he’d of been a great man. A man like James J. Hill. He’d of helped build up the country.” Get all the Fitzgerald you can carry at Common Good Books, Garrison Keillor’s bookstore (38 S. Snelling Ave., commongoodbooks.com).

EAT

W.A. Frost (374 Selby Ave., wafrost.com). A pharmacy in Fitzgerald’s day—he sipped soda at the counter—the romantic restaurant is known for having one of the most beautiful patios in town.

STAY

The glam, pre-Jazz Age Saint Paul Hotel (350 Market St., saintpaulhotel.com).
 


SIGURD OLSON’S LISTENING POINT

Sigurd Olson was, in the truest sense, a conservationist— a guide and writer who advocated eloquently for preservation. He did so from his enviable retreat beside Burntside Lake, near Ely, known as Listening Point after his seminal 1958 book of the same name.

➻ Where to go

Olson helped draft the Wilderness Act. By all means (well, canoe) head into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. Listening Point is now a foundation, hosting events and visitors by appointment. Guided trips to Listening Point and history tours are available around Burntside Lake (burntsidetours.com).

➻ Where to stay

One of Burntside Lodge’s elegant log cabins, which have been there longer than Olson ever was (2755 Burntside Lodge Rd., Ely; burntside.com)
 


THE SWEET LAND TOUR

Ali Selim’s 2005 film, Sweet Land, tells the tender love story of Olaf, a young Norwegian farmer, and Inge, his German mail-order bride. The painterly cinematography is no less romantic, sweeping the amber fields and prairie skies of southwestern Minnesota.

➻ Where to go

Inge first meets Olaf at the Montevideo Depot, now a museum (301 State Rd., montevideomrhc.org). Eat at the film crew’s favorite place, Java River (210 S. First St., javarivercafe.com). Drive the Minnesota River Valley Scenic Byway (mnrivervalley.com). Scenes were also shot at Our Savior’s Lutheran Church of Baxter (1421 N. Fourth St.).

➻ Where to stay

The cottage at Moonstone Farm, where several scenes were shot (9060 SW 40th St., moonstonefarm.net).
 


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