At roughly the geographical center of the state, Brainerd (pop. 13,592) is a medium-size Minnesota town that played a starring role in that offbeat Coen brothers movie Fargo.

The economy of this part of the state benefits greatly from recreation. In Minnesota this means lakes: over 400 within a 50-mile radius, with over 150 resorts or campgrounds on their shores. Brainerd, the commercial center of it all, began life in 1870 when the Northern Pacific Railroad chose to cross the Mississippi River here. The rail yards are still in the heart of town beneath the giant water tower, which resembles a Las Vegas-style medieval castle. The historic downtown has been badly “malled” by outlying shopping plazas. But among the discount merchandisers, pawn shops, and empty storefronts, there are still a few points of light, such as The Barn (711 Washington St., 218/829-9297), serving all you could want, including breakfasts, burgers, Maid-Rite-style sloppy joes, fries, and fresh fruit pies.

East of downtown Brainerd, there is a 26-foot statue of a sitting Paul Bunyan at Paul Bunyan Land (17553 Hwy-18, 218/764-2524, daily summer), part of the 23-acre kid-friendly rural-history theme park. The 4th of July in Brainerd is a big event, with marching bands, rock bands, and parades.

Many chain motels are clustered along the GRR (Hwy-371).