I spent this last week, a between-semester break, in the northern woods of Minnesota. Here, the ice is still thick on the lakes, a curling rink lies on every block, and everyone says, “Ya, ya betcha,” whether they agree with you or not. I traveled to the northern woods to visit my folks and to work with a physician at one of the few federally-run Indian Health Services hospitals in Minnnesota.

I flew into Nashwauk, where my parents live, on a rickety prop plane from Minneapolis. Right outside the twin cities, the landscape changes abruptly from farms, fields and suburbs to dense forests and lakes, with a delicate spattering of errant communities. As the plane approached my final destination, the earth turned a dark, rich red as mounds of iron ore deposits, discarded in heaps from years of residency by the iron mines, became the predominant feature. This northern strip, known as the Iron Range, is populated by small mining-era settlements.

Nashwauk itself is a drowsy little community with an abundance of classical small-town charm. It is nestled into the crooks of steep embankments of towering, rusty ore heaps. It must have been a bustling community when iron mining was still swinging and profitable, but now its ancient grand theatre stands abandoned and life for its 400 or so residents trickles by slowly. There are still working mines in the area, though – their smoke stacks erect and visible above the rooftops in the distance, silently churning out their product as they gouge gaping red lesions in the earth. However, they no longer provide much economic stimulus to these communities which have been suffering from several years’ of recession and dramatic brain-drain. I suppose I am, shamelessly, one of the products of the latter phenomenon.

Despite – or, more likely, because of – the lack of intensity or of any particularly urban stimulations, I always enjoy my time in the great North enormously. I wish I could share a list of activities I do up there but, really, I do very little at all. Perhaps I lay around indoors, reading a good book and enjoying the ambient peace. I may walk the dog across the town and back – a 30 minute trip. I may take a little drive along the back roads, thickly fenced with tall pines, counting the herds of deer grazing in the clearings. I sometimes sit at the kitchen table and watch the early spring birds flutter around the feeder. My favorite pastime, though, is visiting my mom’s quilt shop – the Quilting Patch. It is a delicious haven, warm and vibrant with rich, textured fabrics and crisp smells. Compared to the rest of the town, it can become somewhat bustling as customers, friends and neighbors drop periodically by. I guess I consider it a refuge from the surrounding serenity.

I will write about the other half of my vacation — the working half — in a day or so. Right now I need to dive into the summer schoolwork that has already become almost unmanageable on my fist day back. Such is the way of work and vacations.