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In the Heart of Minnesota
Step into the world of writers and photographers as they tell you about the best, worst, and quirkiest places and adventures they encountered in the field.

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In Search of Lake Wobegon

By Garrison Keillor Photographs by Richard Olsenius

The author’s famous fictional town is alive and well and operating under several assumed names in the heart of Minnesota.

Get a taste of what awaits you in print from this compelling excerpt.

The Central Minnesota Arts Board lists two dozen theater companies and music groups in the county, but it doesn’t mention the dozens of taverns and cafés that are the actual centers of culture here. Like Fisher’s, an old screen porch of a supper club in Avon, open only in the summer, where you bring your own whiskey and they supply the glass, the ice, the baked walleye dinner with salad. Places with names like the Corner Bar, Sportsman’s Bar, Tip Top, or the Buckhorn, where gentlemen congregate for the purpose of enjoying a cold one and solving the problems of the world.

They plant themselves in a booth, or lean against the bar, and they enact a classic four-character play: There’s the Reader, who has come across an interesting item in the paper (“I read that within five years they’ll have figured out how to throw a bunch of genetically engineered enzymes into a steel tank full of wet silage and turn it into milk”), and there’s the Grouch, who maintains a dark view of human nature (“the big corporations are behind it because they want to clear out the little guys and put in 10,000-acre farms”), the Worrier, always a little nervous about something (“genetic engineering or not, I just can’t see things getting better anytime in the foreseeable future, I’ll tell you that”), and the Big Fella, the guy who holds back until the topic is exhausted and then gives the final word (“people are not going to buy artificial milk. That’s been proven. You can bet on it”). They sit and hold forth on politics (corrupt, on both sides, always has been), global warming (hogwash), golf (a huge waste of time), the Internet (ditto), education (not what it used to be), women (creatures of superstition and pointless ritual), the benefits of physical exercise (when it’s your time to die, you die, whether you walk two miles a day or not), and they take turns buying rounds, and if you happen to believe that mankind is on the verge of a new age of enlightenment and progress, these gentlemen will have a fine time pulling your chain.

Being there, drinking a beer, looking down the bar toward the others standing 15 feet away brought back a sudden clear memory of 1970 and sitting in the very same spot near the door and overhearing men talk and wishing I knew how to join in that conversation. A sudden jolting memory I had put away for 30 years.

Nobody ever welcomed us to town when we came in 1970. No minister visited to encourage us to worship on Sunday, no neighbor dropped in with a plate of brownies. Several times I stopped at neighboring farms to say hello and announce our presence and was met in the yard by the farmer, and we spent an uncomfortable few minutes standing beside my car, making small talk about the weather, studying the ground, me waiting to be invited into the house, him waiting for me to go away, until finally I went away. In town the shopkeepers and the man at the garage were cordial, of course, but if I said hello to someone on the street, he glanced down at the sidewalk and passed in silence. I lived south of Freeport for three years and never managed to have a conversation with anyone in the town. I didn’t have long hair or a beard, didn’t dress oddly or do wild things, and it troubled me. I felt like a criminal.

Get the whole story in the pages of National Geographic magazine.

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Sights and Sounds
Author Garrison Keillor narrates his story against a backdrop of images from the places that served as his inspiration. See the magic behind the myth in this multimedia slideshow.

Listen as author Garrison Keillor reads his complete magazine story.

Final Edit
A photo of a real Minnesotan from our coverage of the legendary Lake Wobegon is this month’s Final Edit.

What is most compelling to you about the Lake Wobegon tales and characters? Tell us your tales.

In More to Explore the National Geographic magazine team shares some of its best sources and other information. Special thanks to the Research Division.

Do you know how to determine the geographic center of a city, state, or other region? The United States Geological Survey says that “because there is no generally accepted definition of a geographic center and no completely satisfactory method of determining it, there may be as many geographic centers of a state or county as there are definitions of the term.” However, they have come up with their own definition: “The geographic center of an area may be defined as the center of gravity of the surface, or that point on which the surface of an area would balance if it were a plane of uniform thickness. Curvature of the Earth, large bodies of water, irregular surfaces, and other factors affect the determination of center of gravity. In determining the centers of the States, islands adjacent to their coastlines and large bodies of water were excluded.” To see a list of geographic centers of the 50 States, go to mapping.usgs.gov/mac/isb/pubs/booklets/elvadist/elvadist.html.

Prairie Home Companion
Listen to the news from Lake Wobegon from past broadcasts (RealAudio files, called “monologues” in the archived shows’ schedules) on the official site for Garrison Keillor’s weekly public radio show. On Saturdays from 6-8 p.m. EST, hear the live broadcast on Real Audio or watch a live Netcast. The site also includes “Post to the Host,” where Keillor answers listeners’ questions about the show, a history of Prairie Home Companion and a biography of Keillor, PHC merchandise, and much more.

Writer’s Almanac
Garrison Keillor’s daily public radio program of poetry and history. Each day on the five-minute-long program Keillor reads a poem and mentions some important events on this day in history. The site includes a year’s worth of archives.

Mr. Blue
Garrison Keillor’s weekly advice column for writers and the lovelorn. Updated every Tuesday on salon.com.

Minnesota Office of Tourism
Everything you need to plan a vacation in Minnesota. Descriptions of various regions of the state, information on activities, lodging, and festivals and events, a “Trip Planner,” and more.

Stearns County, Minnesota
Official information—statistics, history, business, recreation—for Stearns County, the would-be home of Lake Wobegon.

Stearns History Museum
This museum, located in St. Cloud, holds two floors of exhibits on the history of Stearns County. The website includes an online photography exhibit as well as information on other current exhibits, the museum’s research center, its store, a monthly story about Stearns County history, and special events.

Lake Wobegon Trail
The Lake Wobegon Trail is a 28-mile hike-and-bike trail in central Minnesota. The trail runs from Avon to Sauk Center and additions to the trail are planned. This website includes a map of the trail and photographs of the grand opening in 1998, which featured remarks by Garrison Keillor.


Dregni, Michael, ed. Minnesota Days. Voyageur, 1999.

Keillor, Garrison. Leaving Home. Penguin, 1992.

Keillor, Garrison. Looking for Lake Wobegon. Viking, 1985.

Keillor, Garrison. Wobegon Boy. Penguin, 1998.


“America’s Hometown,” National Geographic Traveler, July/Aug. 1998, 62-72.

Grove, Noel. “The Superior Way of Life,” National Geographic, Dec. 1993, 70-95.

Allard, William Albert. “Minnesota Memoir: A Lifetime of Lakes,” National Geographic, Sept. 1992, 92-119.

“Winter Wonders,” National Geographic World, Jan. 1990, 30-35.

Urquhart, Jennifer C., ed. “America’s Great Hideaways.” National Geographic Books, 1986.


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