Return of the Steinbeck Highway

Monday, 11 October 2010 10:15 PM Written by 

DETROIT LAKES, MINN. -- Walmart Store # 2957

It's too dark to poke around this lighted up town of  8,300.

But with all the neon, motels, malls and billboards along the road, it's already pretty clear this community 40 miles east of Fargo is nothing like it was on Oct. 11, 1960, when John Steinbeck camped here at a truck stop. Today it's a recreation mecca, swelling in summer and winter.

The drive from St. Paul, Anoka and all points south was nothing like what Steinbeck saw, either.

US 10 and Route 52 have been replaced or covered over almost entirely by I-94. It is really only in Sauk Centre, where Steinbeck picked up Route 71 to take him back to US 10 at Wadena, that the Steinbeck Highway returns.

Sauk Centre, Sinclair Lewis' hometown, looked pretty nice to me. Perfect, almost.

It's got old houses, old neighborhoods, old sidewalks and tall old trees. The business district looks healthy. There's a giant church.DSC_0045

It's another one of those Norman Rockwell-brand pre-zoning towns that planners want to recreate from scratch today from the top-down but never can.

As Jane Jacobs knew,  towns like Sauk Centre grew organically and spontaneously from the bottom-up, not from some genius' master plan or from zoning laws.

Anyway, I didn't have time to visit Sinclair Lewis' home or the Sinclair Lewis interpretation center. And I forget what local crimes and hypocrisies he was all worked up about in his books.

Based on my drive-through, though, it doesn't look like he had much to complain about.

You can get cute little homes on Original Main Street for way under $100,000, a guy who lives in one of them told me. And even the two-story beauties are in the $150,000 range.


The drive from Sauk Centre to here was a return to the look and feel of the Steinbeck Highway I saw in New England and Ohio.

Almost nothing new was along Route 71 -- just farms and a few small towns of 595 like Eagle Bend. The two-lane road is smoother and wider and safer than in Steinbeck's time.

Steinbeck would probably have seen more trucks, because there were no interstates.

But they couldn't possibly have been as gigantic and loud as the 18-wheel beasts that came thundering toward me as I cruised at 70 through miles of slightly tilted or barely rolling farmland and woods.

Steinbeck would have seen most of what I saw through my windshield. That includes an impressive auto junk yard outside Eagle Bend.

It had at least a dozen cars from the 1940s and '50s that I counted as I flew by. They were neatly pointed at the highway like they were on a used car lot that time forgot.DSC_0060_copy_copy

The one thing new that Steinbeck would have been really shocked by on his ride from Sauk Centre to Wadena on Route 71  is the graceful monster that suddenly appears on the horizon near Hewitt, population 267. 

I'm sure there's an outrageous story to be told about how that boondoggle of a wind turbine ended up being built right smack in the middle of nowhere. 

No matter how uneconomic wind turbines are, or how much in government subsidies they waste, or how many birds they kill, or how much noise and vibration they make, they sure are pretty when they're standing all alone where they ought not to be.


To report inappropriate comments, abuse and/or repeat offenders, please send an email to and include a link to the article and a copy of the comment. Your report will be reviewed in a timely manner. Thank you.