An Old Hwy 61 Blog and Photos by Gail Gates

“Winter, a lingering season, is a time to gather golden moments, embark upon a sentimental journey, and enjoy every idle hour.”― John Boswell

The narrow road suddenly took a long icy dip, and I slowed my vehicle to a cautious crawl. Making my way safely to the parking lot, I noted small pockets of open water on the Kettle River. Ice. Snow. Rock. Remnants of the quarry that once was. Thus is Robinson Park, Sandstone, MN, on a wind-chilled February day. I grabbed my camera and headed toward the ice walls.

The old quarry site never fails to delight me. Some trails may or may not be noticeable in winter. Good boots and winter gear encourage exploration. In the distance, a majestic train trestle forms a haughty stance over the river, and I’m ever hopeful that one day I will actually see a train cross while I am visiting. Closer to the sandstone walls that form the towering vertical enticements for climbers, odd chunks and pieces of the past remind us of the work done in this area. A few placards explain some of the history and ignite my imagination.

As I near the climbing area of ice and rock, I see several cars tucked among the trees. High overhead, two men are holding nylon rope. Have they already scaled the walls, or are they getting ready? Another man is standing by his car, putting on climbing gear. He gave me a perfunctory grunt/greeting, but it was clear he didn’t want to make conversation. I smiled and wandered closer to the ice-coated walls. And while I cannot imagine clawing my way upwards over a frozen cascade of water, I thrill at the idea of those who do.

Each year (canceled in 2020 due to the pandemic), a “Sandstone Climber’s Festival” is held, usually in January. However, if, like me, you want to visit just to see the beauty of the ice shrouding the rock walls like a designer gown, the park is open and free of cost. The ice is typically there from late December through early March.

Speaking of Sandstone, I used to enjoy the local cafe Sprouts on Main when I was in the area around lunchtime. Alas, I had heard that the owners couldn’t keep it going under the pandemic conditions and closed the doors. I swung by to see for myself and discovered it is now called Sand Rocks. A sign mentioned craft beer, and I saw what appears to be a large deck area off the back. A quick Google search stated they are open 3-11 Thursday, Friday, and Saturday. I’m happy that Sandstone has a new cafe. Sand Rocks wasn’t open when I was visiting, so if you have tried it, please leave a message and let the rest of us know what you thought!

After my romp in Robinson Park, I headed south on Old Hwy 61 simply for the pleasure of seeing the rural landscape tucked beneath a layer of winter snow. I was tempted to stop by Hinckley’s infamous Tobies for a caramel roll but fought back my sugar demons. This time! Since I was in Hinckley, I drove by the former restaurant, Cassidy’s, which closed some time ago. I hoped that perhaps a new cafe was in place, but it did not appear to be the case. My love of Old Hwy 61 includes the wish for new growth after old favorite establishments fade away.

I then wiggled my way down to Rush City. The mill along the train tracks is now for sale, and my optimism envisions an entrepreneur gobbling it up and getting the town bustling again. The historic Grant House is open for groups and, I believe, overnight guests, but thus far not the restaurant. I heard that it is in the works, though?

Okay, I had skipped breakfast AND a Tobie’s caramel roll. It was time to eat. I rolled into Harris, MN, and parked by Kaffe Stuga. The locals were already gathering for their lunch, so I found an open booth and ordered a Diet Coke while waiting for two friends to join me. It’s hard to explain the Stuga… small town, reasonably priced, good food…but there’s something more. Maybe the familiarity? Or the way the waitresses buzz around in a precision choreography while remaining friendly and attentive? How about the dessert case floating over the counter filled with the day’s homemade pies? It’s nostalgic and wonderful. I had to buy a “Kaffe Stuga” sweatshirt before I left because, well, I had to!

On this day of fun Old Hwy 61 meanderings, my last stop was at North Folk Winery. If you head west from Harris, MN, you’ll come to Stark, MN, and then a few more westerly miles brings you to the winery. It’s a gorgeous post and beam building offering delicious Minnesota wine. My favorite is their Marquette, but most of my friends like the sweeter varieties. Each to their own! (In shameless self-promotion, I have greeting cards featuring my photography for sale at the winery. My reason for the visit on this day was to refill the card tower. Thank you to all who buy my art!) The owners of North Folk, Ann and Mike Tessneer, keep the atmosphere lively and pleasurable. There’s a cozy wood-burning stove in the corner, a limited menu of delicious nibbles, and a calendar of events to consider.

Winter always seems in a rush to appear and is slow to leave. (Sorta like a few people I know, now that I think about it.) But with the right attitude and information, a visit to the areas along Old Hwy 61 make the season one worth savoring. I didn’t even mention ice fishing on the many lakes, or cross-country skiing in Wild River State Park, for instance, or…

I guess I’ll have to make another trip along one of my favorite highways real soon!

Get out there and get happy!