I ran into one of my best friends today – his name is Joe Welch.

I haven’t seen or talked to him for a long time (a very long time) but that didn’t matter. We picked up just where we left off – 30 years ago.

I met Joe and wife Kara at the turn off of Wisconsin State Highway 35. They were accompanied by Scott and Lana – Winona residents who came out to see the Relay safely into town. We cycled the last miles to Levee Park together, catching up on a few things . . .

Lee Gundersheimer met us at Levee Park and we launched into the day. First a drive to Garvin Heights to see the city from above. It’s a breathtaking view from the top – and a breathtaking ride for cyclists and runners. We took the minivan. Lee gave us a guided tour back down the bluff and through town to our lunch meeting at the Boathouse Restaurant with Mayor Mark and his wife Kathie.

Like all great love stories, Mark and Kathie met in a bar in Mankato. We learned about their journey across the US and finally back to Winona, which they consider home.

Mark is seven years into his Mayorship and has accomplished much in connecting the city to the river through parks, trails, arts and community spaces. This couple says that their kids won’t be coming back to Winona, Minnesota, but we’ve heard that before . . .

Lee delivered us to our home for the night. A place near Winona State University owned by Steve and Nancy Bachler. We had a minute or two to settle in before walking the few blocks onto the University grounds to encounter the 15th season of the Great River Shakespeare Festival. It was the closing day of the event, the final performance of Cymbeline, and we had nearly front row seats. The actors were at their best, and the audience was even better—meeting the performance with such enthusiasm and support. Seeing this play was one small window into the amazing arts culture of Winona and the connected network of support it has that continues to persist year after year.

Following this Shakespearean awakening, we ventured on to Bubs to meet Lee and some other locals for dinner.

However, when we arrived, doors were locked, signs said closed on Mondays. We called up Lee, and filled him in, so he regretfully directed us to the Jeffereson. There we convened with Bonnie and Dean Chapman as well as Steve and Nan, and of course Lee our gracious host. Beers and burgers mostly went round the table, and good conversation prevailed about Dean’s life on tow boats down in the Chicago area and now up in Winona. We made plans to speak more fully with Nan and Steve in the morning over breakfast, and headed onward with Lee to conclude the night with a final tour of a historic building downtown.

The Masonic Temple, now a performing arts building, which Lee is working to get in full operational order for access by anyone in the community wanting to put on a production. It’s an amazing facility, with historic drops, beautiful stage, floors, a huge space waiting to be occupied. They currently operate it during the cooler months only because there’s no air conditioning, but the Arts Commission is working to levy a bond to raise the money for the A/C and other improvements to get the facility in full working order—an amazing amenity for this river city.

We almost didn’t stop in Winona. We were on the other side of the river and almost passed it by until the mayor of Alma said you have to go there. Well, it’s clear now he was right.

Winona – the last stop in Minnesota.