The Townie and the Traveler

Buf Bill

Halfway between the city sprawl of Minneapolis and the rolling farmland of Lanesboro, my throwback hip hop radio station turned into country music. I heard the familiar voice of Darius Rucker ask, “When’s the last time, you did something for the first time?” The shift in formats mirrored what was going on outside my car windows, so I didn’t adjust the dial.

I was traveling on assignment to the “bed and breakfast capital of Minnesota” to discover if anything there would appeal to “young, active adults.” My itinerary included a two-night, three-day stay in early May, which is just before the wave of seasonal tourists flood the tiny town tucked into some of the prettiest bluffland in the country.

Despite the fact that I was traveling alone and heading into the trip fairly blind, my biggest fear was not finding a compelling angle, but who would eat an ice cream cone with me? Would anyone talk to a curious stranger or would I be forced to drink my beer alone?

I brought my bike and planned to ride the Root River State Trail for an entire day. At face-value, this is the most compelling reason to visit Lanesboro. The rest of my time would be spent wandering around town, talking to as many of the 750 residents and business owners as I could.

It doesn’t take much to stand out in a town that size, so things were going to go very smoothly or be very awkward. There’s no space in between.

It wasn’t long before I met one of the town’s most notorious characters. Enter, Buffalo Bill Cody. This man’s real name is Richard, but absolutely no one in Lanesboro calls him that. He found me browsing inside a bike shop and greeted me like he owned the place.

I saw him again a short time later at the High Court Pub, where I was sitting on the deck overlooking the river, typing up my interview notes. He acted like I was an old friend and bought me a beer. I invited him to sit and talk with me.

We chatted for two hours about the town’s history, what it’s like in tourist season, his Buffalo Bill character acting gigs that take him across the country, and a bit about his personal life. Bill talked most of the time while I listened. He was genuinely interesting and clearly used to leading conversations with strangers. By the time we were finished, his beer, half full in a dark brown bottle, was hot to the touch.

Later that night, I was wandering around town, checking out storefronts under the anonymous cover of darkness, and happened upon the Legion. A friend highly recommended their cheap drinks and welcoming vibe. 

Walking into bars is the hardest part of solo traveling for me and I was just about to turn around and head back to my hotel when I caught a glimpse of a now familiar face in the bar’s front window. I walked through the door to much fanfare.

Bill was hanging out with a guy named “Diamond Dave” who owns a few of the shops in town. Dave, an aging hippie, sat with his feet kicked up on the bar, watching a basketball game on TV.

I talked about my plans to ride the Root the next day and asked for suggestions regarding where I should go. Dave, within minutes of meeting me, offered to pick me up in his van and drive me to Harmony. He was heading that way to visit his mother.

Normally, that is an offer I would turn down flat. However, there was something about Dave that was inherently innocent, so I took his phone number and told him I’d text him in the morning. Dave finished his beer and went home, while Bill and I stayed for one more. He was doing more talking than drinking again and Gail, the bartender, stuck a straw in his beer mug. “So you can keep up with the ladies,” she said.

The next morning, I decided to take Dave up on his offer. At 8:15 sharp, Dave rolled up in a Dodge cargo van. I have seen this after-school special many times, but I had no reason to doubt Dave’s intentions.

We made three stops along the way: at his daughter’s house to pick up some keys, at his house to close the garage door, and at the gas station. He waved away my offer of gas money and handed me a chocolate caramel from his pocket. “I’m a chocolate guy,” he said with a shrug when I refused it.

Dave told me stories about taking road trips to Arizona with his wife and kids as we drove along the dusty highway between towns. He pointed out interesting landmarks and gave me the backstories behind the small businesses we passed. Dave was born in Harmony and lived in the area his entire life. He was both a townie and a traveler. 

So does Lanesboro appeal to “young, active adults” beyond the bike trail? It does for those seeking to discover the best kind of hidden gems – the Buffalo Bills, the Diamond Daves and the many area residents who readily embraced a curious stranger. They wrote that story for me in rounds of beer and ready conversation.

But it’s probably best to stay out of a stranger’s van, much less his motor home.

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