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Column: The high points of a visit to southwest Minnesota

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I learned only last week that Al Tlam — Elvin Tlam — died two years ago. He was 88, and he lived in State of Washington for decades. An engineer for Boeing. I would be surprised if half-a-dozen people from the local area know of Al.

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I knew Al because we each had rooms in Pioneer Hall on the University of Minnesota campus. Al paged through a list of new residents and learned I was from Worthington. He was from Jeffers, so he came and introduced himself. He invited me to go to the dining room with him, and we sat at a table with two or three other guys we knew.

Through the course of conversation Al said his family lived on a farm on one edge of a broad, flat expanse of red rock that was covered with Native American petroglyphs. The petroglyphs were at least hundreds of years old, Al said. I sat wondering, “Who is this guy?” Southwest Minnesota was the only place I ever lived. I had worked at the Daily Globe. I had been to Jeffers now and again. I never heard of petroglyphs —he’s feeding us a story. I didn’t challenge Al but I surely did not believe him.

Well — Al Tlam was not telling a tale. The Jeffers petroglyphs were not advertised, and they were not well known at that time, however. They were not the property of the State of Minnesota. You had to ask about them to find them.

It’s a funny thing. Years went by before I at last visited the petroglyph site. I was interested. I had petroglyphs in the back of my mind. The back. I was never eager to get there.

The Jeffers historic site is (about) 20 minutes north of Windom. It is visited by (about) 10,000 people every year. But I will tell you why I believe it is not talked of more widely, especially in this age. The petroglyphs don’t leap and dance. There are no bright lights shining from them. They don’t come together in a choir to sing. They are ancient rock carvings; some are thought to be thousands of years old. Coming upon them is a bit like coming upon the Washington Monument — “There it is ladies and gentlemen. All white. Four sides. A pointy peak. You excited?”

I keep mental notes of area sites because when visitors come I try to find places that will entertain them. Top of the list far and away is Hawkeye Point, only about four miles south of the Minnesota-Iowa state line and the absolute highest point in the state of Iowa. One thousand six hundred seventy feet. It is not apparent when you step from your car that you are looming above everything else in Iowa but this is the case. When guests stop at Hawkeye Point, they take pictures and email them to friends across the country. They take selfies. They stop to study the display of license plates from every state. They study the direction and distance to the highest points in 49 other states. Hawkeye Point is a hit.

Well — the Ocheyedan Mound ranks right up there. For decades the Mound was thought to be the highest point in Iowa, and so it still appears. People love to climb it, to say they have conquered the Everest of Iowa. I know. I know. It is just a bit like the Washington Monument. A mound lifts out of the prairie. But visitors seem excited to see it.

Blue Mounds State Park at Luverne. Visitors like that (except that Twin City visitors already have driven four hours to get to Worthington). People like the nature trails — Blue Mounds is a shade of nature many have never seen. The cacti surprise them. People like the park headquarters and the story of Frederick Manfred’s house. The trips are usually rated perfect if visitors see the buffalo herd, but you can’t depend on that.

Spomer Car Museum: rate this double A-plus. Dayton House is rewarding. Pioneer Village. Lake Okabena and the city parks along the way. The Spanish-American War monument in front of Worthington High School is another Washington Monument: rare but four sides and a pointy peak.

Ray Crippen is a former editor of the Daily Globe. His column appears on Saturdays.

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