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A curious route: 20-mile stretch of western Minnesota highway offers a mix of mystery, geologic transitions

DOWNER, Minn. - It's a 20-mile stretch of blacktop that straddles the Clay/Becker County line in western Minnesota.

Fargo-Moorhead residents who use it as a route to the lakes call it the Downer Road.

It starts when you take the Downer exit off Interstate 94 and head east on 90th Avenue South, also known as Clay Highway 10.

Aside from a pair of sharp curves just outside of Downer, the road runs arrow straight to the Becker County line, where Clay Highway 10 turns into Becker Highway 4.

Along the way, the flatness of what used to be the bed of ancient Lake Agassiz gives way to hilly uplands and pothole lakes, formed 10,000 years ago when mammoth chunks of ice broke from a glacier and caused depressions that continue to collect water.

Roadside surprise

Curious features dot the route between Downer and Cormorant Village, a small burg on the west edge of Becker County that confirms your arrival in lakes country.

In one spot, an ancient tree stump stands at the intersection of Clay Highway 10 and Clay Highway 32.

You probably won't see it unless you're looking for it. But 30 years ago, before lightning strikes and time wore it down, the tree was a mammoth feature on the landscape and a reminder you had traveled roughly halfway to the lakes.

A bit farther down the road as you go east, look to the right.

Way off in a field, you can just make out the shape of a gargantuan tricycle, a rusting hunk of garden art that has no marker to explain its presence.

Just as mysterious are the discarded shoes and boots rotting away on fence rows and telephone poles alongside the road.

But Jean Braseth, of rural Lake Park, can help with this enigma.

Years ago, her husband, Earl, was out doing some field work when he decided to stick cowboy boots on fence posts.

The idea caught on, and motorists began stopping to add to the collection, creating a bone yard of sorts for mismatched footwear.

"It used to be a lot cuter when it was cowboy boots. Now, it's any kind of shoes," Jean Braseth said.

Sky high

Regular travelers on the Downer Road may sometimes get the feeling that the closer they get to the lakes, the cloudier the sky becomes.

It may not be their imagination.

Driving from the bed of former Lake Agassiz up the lake's ancient beach ridges, the elevation rises by as much as 300 to 400 feet, said Gary Clambey, an associate professor with North Dakota State University's department of biological sciences.

"Air masses are forced upward by the higher land, and as they're forced upward, they cool a little bit," he said.

"You might see the formation of more cloud cover, or at times, actual precipitation," he added.

The biology of the landscape also changes.

Leaving the Lake Agassiz basin and its tall grass prairie, you encounter scrub land and springs, with some willow and dogwood trees springing up amid the prairie, Clambey said.

As you continue eastward, the terrain becomes more irregular, much more scenic.

"You're into glaciated uplands," Clambey said. "What you see is a combination of oak and aspen, some elm and ash. It's fairly well-wooded."

When Becker County Highway 4 turns into Becker County Highway 5, it won't be long before you roll into Cormorant Village, a crossroads on the edge of lake country.

Need gas for the pontoon? How about an ice cream cone?

You will find both at the store owned by Richard Sherbrooke.

Sherbrooke, who grew up in the area, said when he was a boy all the lake roads were still gravel.

"It's certainly changed a lot since I was a kid," he said.

And that goes for lake homes, too.

"Most of these homes, instead of being cabins, nowadays are getting to be year-round homes," Sherbrooke said.

While many people still make the weekend trek to the lakes, a growing number live at the lake and use the Downer Road to get to work.

"There's certainly more people commuting to Fargo from here than used to be," Sherbrooke said.