Lanesboro, Minnesota

Minnesota Bluff Country

Exploring the back roads of Southeastern Minnesota

Above: Bluff Country in Southeastern Minnesota, near the town of Lanesboro.


was a little shocked to find that, when I offered to take Jane anywhere in Minnesota 'within reason', she insisted on the Spam Museum in Austin, near the border of Iowa.

The Spam Museum rests in the downtown of the city, which is home to Hormel Headquarters. In some parts of the world these days, spam is more associated with the junk people get in their emails. But the term originated with the famous luncheon meat, which famously grosses out, and is consumed by millions.

The luncheon meat was the first in the world to require no refrigeration. And so the notion of meat in a can, absurd, yes, has caused countless numbers to imagine or falsify the apparent contents of those cans.

Minnesota Landscape

It is somewhat disconcerting to find that travel guides to the State of Minnesota list the Spam Museum as one of the best museums in the state. That might sound offensive, since the Twin Cities is considered the cultural epoch of the Midwest.

Jane and I roamed around in the Spam Museum on a hot June afternoon. It is hard to dislike or condemn such a museum, particularly for its ability to poke fun at itself.

But I was disappointed in the museum for not facing up to its most important contribution to society - the way it changed the diets of South Pacific Islanders, and its alleged relationship with cannibalism.

Everybody knows that Hawaiians, Tongans, Samoans, Guamese, Cook Islanders and so on eat more spam per capita than anywhere in the world. We also know about Pacific Islander's dietary problems, which are due to a sudden conversion from traditional fish and foraging cuisine to a processed Western diet. 

Travel writer Paul Theroux wrote in his book, The Happy Isles of Oceania, that Spam is popular in the Pacific Islands because its taste 'nearly approximates' that of human flesh.

The remark, which Theroux occasionally repeats in front of audiences for laughs, has made its way around the world. The remark has been mentioned by other travel writers, such as Medical-Travel writer Oliver Sachs.

The statement was meant as a bit of humorous irony. But, to the chagrin of many, the rumor persists. Cannibalism did exist in the Pacific, but never in Hawaii or other Eastern Pacific Islands. Spam is most likely so desired by Pacific Islanders because of the high cost of fresh mainland meats in such islands. Regardless, many islanders eat it voraciously, and the meat's relationship to these islander's declining health is probably Spam's greatest legacy.

That the Museum avoided this Spam legacy made it feel all the more a cheeky public relations propaganda for Austin's largest employer, Hormel.

Minnesota Landscape

Small roads in Minnesota bluff country.

We left Austin without disappointment, for we knew that back in Minneapolis we could boast of our visit to the Museum. All Minnesotans are naturally curious about the Spam Museum, and most endeavor to some day venture out and actually see it.

We head east on the Laura Ingolls Byway, towards Lanesboro, one of Minnesota's most beautiful towns. Lanesboro sits among a series of limestone bluffs that rise hundreds of feet above seas of corn. A river meanders through all of this, and in a spectacular distance are dozens of wooden barns and steel silos.

Lanesboro marks the beginning of Minnesota's Amish country, which is centered around the small town of Harmony on the Iowa border. In downtown Lanesboro, we stop at a small Amish gift shop. I am fascinated by the many books on Amish life. I pick one up, which is a justification for their wearing plain-clothes.

I am shocked by the forwardness of the book, which states that Amish people feel that 'The English' dress like sluts, and 'just because it feels right, doesn't mean you do it.' And that bikinis are bad, and that suffering in warm weather is a part of their faith.

Americans love the Amish, who are rolling about these country roads in black wagons. That we are so fascinated by them is ironic; because we have been so quick in the past thirty years to shed our small town traditions for big WalMarts and convenience stores and block-like churches, which resemble WalMarts. Perhaps the Amish remind us of the America that Americans rejected.

Minnesota Church near Lanesboro, Minnesota with an elegant steeple.

An old Methodist church near the Laura Ingalls Scenic Byway.

The Amish of the Midwest, coincidentally, ironically surprise 'the English' when we learn of their acceptance of many modern conveniences. Cell phones are common among Amish youth. And in the Midwest, the practice of rumspringa (which is Dutch for 'Jumpin' around), often involves going out into the outside world and getting a taste of modern society.

For some Amish, who are raised relatively isolated from alcohol, cigarettes, drugs and rap music, the temptation is so strong, and some Amish youth quickly become addicted to crack and meth. In The Devil's Playground, a documentary about Midwestern youth engaging in rumspringa, one subject becomes a drug dealer, addict, and ultimately a jailbird.

This life of hangovers and loud music, over 90% decide, is not for them. It's unfortunate, though, from a non-Amish perspective anyway, that rumspringa seems to encourage the hangover, so that the Amish adolescent learns at the right moment, that outside their quiet farms the world is just nuts.

I like the reminder that the Amish present to Americans. While I believe in progress and modernism, the Amish themselves were born of radical and progressive ideas for their time. And their lives are affected and employ progress and technology much more than we ever imagine. The Amish often use cell phones, and diesel engines, and ride Amtrak.

While the Minnesota Amish see the outside world as a devil's playground, there is a genuine one beneath their feet. Southeastern Minnesota is home to the world's largest underground network of caves. Perhaps to make up for the Spam Museum, Jane encourages us towards one of these caves, just outside of Harmony.

A guided tour takes us underneath, into the lighted passages of Niagara Cave. Our tour guide shows us the fossilized remains of 400 million year old fossil remains: round shapes of giant and extinct butterfly algae.

There are about 200,000 Amish in North America today. But since each couple has on average seven children, they are one of the fastest growing segments on the continent. I wonder, if they ever became the dominant population in Minnesota, would the state continue to produce Spam? And what would our tour guides say about those beautiful butterfly algae fossils, exposed by great cracks underneath Amish country?

Explore more in the Great Plains

Traveling the back roads of Louisana's bayou country prior to Hurricane Katrina.

Notes on Minnesota culture and fishing customs, including a backstory about hagfish.

Travels in Austin and the Texas Hill Country region, including notes on American camels.

Notes on the Spam Museum, Southeastern Minnesota and the Amish of the Midwest.

The sky above is green, and the strange color casts a glow on everybody rushing for cover.

Travels in Southern Georgia, from Macon to Okefenokee.

Sketches, photographs and notes from my travels in America's deep south.