Minnesota's loneliest road: A quiet and unspoiled slice of rural America
FERTILE, Minn. — The day started out a pleasant 62 degrees. The fuzz from the cottonwood trees drifted lightly, and like a chocolate layer cake a cup short of frosting, the clouds were spread too thin to cover the vast blue sky.
It was the perfect Tuesday for a Sunday drive.
The company Geotab had named the least-traveled highway in each state, and it turned out Minnesota Highway 32 was in need of some four-wheel companionship. That seemed reason enough to send a Herald reporter on a road trip.
We would travel just 33 miles of the almost 145-mile stretch of two-lane highway connecting Greenbush in northwest Minnesota to state Highway 34 near Barnesville in the west-central part of the state. Though we didn't go the full distance, the route first authorized in 1920 also passes through towns such as Middle River, Thief River Falls, Red Lake Falls, Fertile and Gary.
Our mission was to see what we could see, so we hooked up at U.S. Highway 2 and headed as far south as Minnesota Highway 200. Was it as lonely? Was it as isolated? Was it as beautiful as all the other quiet highways that wend their way through America?
"It's pretty boring," said Bill Bathen, the first man we met. "You'll see a few things. Rural towns, a lot of farm country."
Bathen, the manager of a Vertical Limit field crew from Wanamingo, Minn., came from south of the Twin Cities with at least a half-dozen other men and two jumbo cranes to lift equipment to the top of a T-Mobile tower not too far off the beaten path.
"We're just here to do some maintenance on the tower," he said. "Cell towers are planted everywhere in the world."
Of course, he's right on that. America's growing dependence on being connected to everything and everybody probably has made the metal giants as likely a rural sight as fence posts. The towers pierce the prairie in even the most remote places, blending in almost unnoticed.
One thing motorists definitely will not see along Highway 32 are billboards. For miles, the road was clear of all but a few blue Adopt-A-Highway signs, and unspoiled nature unfolded as far as the eye could see — fields thick with brush and sturdy aspen trees, ditches stuffed with crisp, yellow reeds and last fall's spent cattails.
But as serene as it was with the grasses swaying, the songbirds singing and the cows clustered low in the shade, two employees of the DNR still chuckled at hearing the highway was the state's quietest.
"I could think of some roads far more remote and isolated than this one," Becky Ekstein said outside the office the DNR rents from Glacial Ridge National Wildlife Refuge.
"Yeah, we're on this road every day. We're used to it," Shane Peterson added.
The pair said the DNR runs a "roving habitat crew" to restore prairie and wetlands in the area.
"We're starting to get some cover back, and you can see quite a bit of wildlife," Ekstein said. "Even an occasional moose is seen out here."
The area also is home to many shorebirds and grassland birds, such as prairie chickens.
We spotted neither moose nor prairie chicken, but down the road we met Ryan Broden, who introduced us to a flock of white and rusty farmyard chickens and two friendly dogs — a black Lab named Lilly and an unspecified, long-haired moppet called Oliver.
The sometimes-boisterous chickens roamed free in the neatly manicured lawn belonging to Broden's father, Roger. A well-worn wooden swing tied to an old tree out front showed signs of many years of pump, pull and underpush.
And, in fact, the younger Broden said the farm settled by his great-grandparents celebrated its centennial in about 1983. Broden lives across the road at his grandparents' farm.
"I love the country life. I grew up in the country, and I didn't move very far from home," he said. "Right here, we're 10 miles from Fertile and 5 miles from Maple Lake. It's quiet. It's peaceful. You don't have neighbors you have to impress."
Broden is surprised to hear Highway 32 made the least-traveled list but recalls it oddly has another more unfortunate distinction.
"Through the years, it had a history of fatal car accidents," he said. Plus, the road is a common route to reach lake country with Maple, Sarah and Union nearby.
Back on the road, we see more American flags flying in farmyards, and we stop to meet more dogs — Buddy, Bella, Boozer and Bear — before pulling into the park-like yard of Howard and Elizabeth Haugen.
They have operated the Fertile Garden Center for more than two decades at their home place outside Fertile.
They say the country life has suited them well. They raised two children here and also built a booming business.
"It's a great area to live. It's like a bedroom community," Howard said. "A lot of people who live in the Fertile area work and commute to Thief River Falls, Crookston and Grand Forks."
"Life is good here," Elizabeth added. "You just have to take the time to enjoy it."
She was doing just that when we arrived. Gardeners slow down a bit by June, so she took advantage of the lull by affixing 1-cent stamps to a pile of letters in the cool of her kitchen.
"It's a family farm and it's secluded, but I love it because we're out of town and yet we're close enough."
And the customers don't seem to have any trouble finding the sprawling greenhouses each spring.
"We love seeing the people. There's quite a few who make a day of it and go to all the little greenhouses and load up," she said.
Stop for lunch
The town of Fertile is just a short shot away now, so we stop for gas and lunch at the Northside Express and Deli owned by John and Kristi Lehmann.
A good-sized crowd already has gathered, and the Lehmanns' daughter, Kassidy Lee, is at the grill. It's her first day back after maternity leave, and everyone asks about her girls.
Father and daughter grew up in the area, and they agree it's a great place for families.
"I like the small-town living," Lee said.
"Everybody knows everybody," Lehmann added.
The laid-back town is shrinking a bit, but it still has its amenities, Lehmann said. For one, not only can you buy a pop and bag of chips at the Express — you also can pick up a fresh bouquet of roses or order a juicy California burger made with Lehmann homegrown beef. Others headed to the lakes often grab frozen patties and steaks to throw on the grill.
That sounds like a great idea, but then we remember it's Tuesday, not Sunday — and suddenly, we're not the least bit happy about taking the least-traveled road back to work.