BACKROADS IN ESPECIALLY remote rural regions often yield an eclectic mix of discoveries. Like those spotted along a gravel road off Wabasha County Road 21 in the Zumbro River Valley between Mazeppa and Oronoco in southeastern Minnesota. A homemade roadside sign for Mac’s Park Place drew Randy and me to take a path into the unknown.
What we saw remains somewhat of a mystery, especially Mabe’s Deer Camp. Was this once a public place for hunters and others to gather? Or was this (is this) a private hunting retreat for friends and family?
And who is Mabe?
I expect locals could tell me lots of stories. Or I can spin my own backwoods river stories about Mabe’s, imagination running rampant.
That’s the thing about backroads. You see oddities that leave you wondering. And sometimes it’s OK to wonder, to not have all the answers. To delight in the simply seeing. In-the-moment appreciation for that which unfolds before you, unexpectedly.
TELL ME: What oddities have you discovered along a back country road?
BACK COUNTRY ROADS often lead to interesting discoveries. Places that reveal America at its grassroots basic. Such is the road leading to Mac’s Park Place. And such is Mac’s.
It was the homemade sign posted along Wabasha County Road 21, which winds through the Zumbro River Valley, that caught the attention of Randy during a day trip in southeastern Minnesota. I missed the sign sporting an angler and a fish along with a list of all Mac’s offers:
That roadside signage was enough to make Randy reverse course and aim down a gravel road to Mac’s Park Place along 406th Avenue, rural Mazeppa. The restaurant/bar/campground is located between Mazeppa and Oronoco along the Zumbro River.
This is an area lovely in natural beauty. Winding river. A bit of backwoods wild. The ideal setting for a place like Mac’s, perhaps not widely-known to those without connections to the area.
Check back to see what I saw along the route to Mac’s, and then at Mac’s. I wondered at some point if we should continue on, not quite knowing what we were driving into…
OH, HOW STUNNING the traditional Hmong dresses worn by two sisters posing among the peonies in a rural southeastern Minnesota garden.
Their unexpected presence graced my annual tour of Aspelund Peony Gardens with culture and color on a recent Sunday afternoon. What a delight to encounter these friendly women who say they simply love peonies. Their attire included floral print fabric. They traveled from the Twin Cities metro to this country location northwest of Wanamingo/northeast of Kenyon, site of Aspelund Winery and Peony Gardens. After they photographed each other, one sister asked me to photograph them with her camera. I obliged.
I try to come here every year in early June to see the rows and rows of peonies in bloom. And to sip wine. This visit, Randy and I met our friend Valerie and her friend Jean. The place was busy. Owners Dawn and Bruce Rohl sell wine and take orders for root peony tubers, available in the fall.
Here Rascal the dog welcomes guests up the gravel driveway with raucous barking. I’d barely opened the van door when Rascal ran up and I reached down to pet him. Later I saw Princess the cat weaving through the peonies.
Those are the nuances which endear Aspelund Winery and Peony Gardens to me. The simplicity of this place atop a hill overlooking the Zumbro River Valley, red barn and silo in the distance. This place of towering oaks and tire swing, of old tin-sided shed, apple trees, massive rhubarb plants, twisted grapevines…
On this June afternoon, the wind blew fierce, whipping lose ends of my hair, dipping peony stems, playing a refrain inside my head of “summer breeze makes me feel fine” (Seals & Croft 1972). I felt mighty fine in this peaceful place among blooming peonies. Some buds remained clamped tight, but likely have opened in the days since my visit.
I prefer meandering on this plot of land among the apple trees and grapevines and, especially, in the peony gardens. Here assorted shades of mostly pink and crimson flowers bloom. Colors vary from subdued to vibrant. Shapes, vary, too.
But it’s not all visual for me. I take time to bend close to the blossoms (check for bees), smelling their fragrant perfume which, if you’re a romanticist, may prompt you to reflect on long ago brides gathering peonies from their mothers’ or grandmothers’ gardens for bridal bouquets. They did so in my community of Faribault, storing peonies in the cool sandstone caves along the Straight River to preserve until their wedding days. Faribault was once The Peony Capital of the World. Some of the Aspelund peonies were sourced from those once grown in Faribault.
Touring Aspelund Winery and Peony Gardens has become an early summer tradition for me. I feel comfortable here, at peace, soothed by the wind and the wine and the welcoming conversations. The small scale of the business suits me as do the unpretentious owners and the rural setting. As I watched two young girls sway on the tire swing, pushed by their dad, their happy voices rising, I felt such joy in witnessing this scene.
And I felt happiness, too, in that chance encounter with the two sisters from the Cities, celebrating their Hmong heritage in a field of peonies.
FYI: Aspelund Winery and Peony Gardens is open from 4 – 7 pm Thursday and Friday, noon – 7 pm Saturday and noon – 5 pm Sunday. Note that the tasting room is small, basically a walk-up and order space. Outdoor seating on the deck and other areas can be difficult to secure during busy times. However, you can order a glass of wine and walk around the gardens. If you want to see the peonies, go now; their bloom period is nearly done.
AS I VIEW THE LANDSCAPE layered in snow and consider the unseasonably cold temp of 12 degrees, I reflect that only 11 days ago, southern Minnesota looked and felt much different. Like the season of autumn rather than winter.
Today I take you back to October 18, to photos from a Sunday drive that started in Faribault and continued east through Kenyon, Zumbrota, Mazeppa, Oronoco and Pine Island, then back home.
As farm-raised kids, Randy and I enjoy these rural drives that transport us back in time and also give us a much-needed break from the realities of COVID-19, of politics, of life stressors. I never tire of seeing cornfields and farm sites, especially during the harvest.
There’s something about immersing myself in the countryside, about simply being in a rural landscape, that comforts me. That soothes and calms. I need that now more than ever.
We all have, I think, those places which offer us such a respite. Perhaps yours is a room in your house, a place in nature, maybe even within the pages of a book. I’ve been reading a lot lately and highly-recommend Susan Meissner’s A Fall of Marigolds.
Fall. It’s my favorite season, cut too short this year by an early significant snowfall. I’m not happy about it and I doubt many Minnesotans are. We often boast about our hardiness. Yet, we grow weary, too, of our long, cold winters. Most of us, anyway.
Yet, we choose to live here. This is home. And always will be for me. No matter the season.