Soaking up art in Wisconsin, Minnesota

Having been born and raised in L.A., my view of the Midwest has always been somehwat abstract. To begin with, “Midwest” is a rather amorphous term, which Wikipedia rightly defines as archaic since, according to the Web site, it was so named before the Louisiana Purchase when the Great Lakes were part of the Northwest Territory and the Great Plains were considered the westernmost part of the U.S.

Admittedly, if it weren’t for a long-scheduled visit to my in-laws for a family reunion, I would have been hard-pressed to find myself recently checked into the Lodge at Cedar Creek in Rothschild, Wis., about 20 minutes south of Wausau.

Whatever anxieties I harbored about the Midwest’s sweltering mid-July weather and meat-and-potatoes fare were squelched as I entered the Lodge’s cavernous, Northwoods-styled lobby. The hotel’s Saw Mill Grill held out its own beacon of promise, from the ubiquitous cheese curds to the “Wisconsin fish fry” (alas made with cod and not the state’s ever-popular walleye). Our room, with its vaulted ceiling and efficient air conditioning (kept at meat-locker temperatures), proved a cathedral of cool and calm from all the family activity in our midst.

The in-room guide listed no fewer than 21 places of worship nearby, including the Mount Sinai synagogue and the nondenominational Calvary Chapel of Wausau, dispelling the notion that this is a God-fearing community of like-minded Christian citizens.

Wausau proper’s vintage downtown has benefited from the steadfast efforts of preservationists, and the mixture of mom-and-pop establishments is largely unsullied by chain-store interlopers.

Coming from a city where parkland is about as rare as the California condor, it’s hard for me to think that this town of approximately 39,000 residents houses 37 city parks totaling 337 acres vs. one four-screen multiplex. One can only chalk it up to the kind of homespun priorities that encourage more quiet reflection and outdoor forms of entertainment, like the Wisconsin Valley Fair, Art in the Park and the Festival of Trees.

A detour on the way to Madison — Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin house — was another reminder that high culture isn’t limited to the big cities. The 600-acre Spring Green estate, overlooking the river valleys of southwestern Wisconsin, was not only Wright’s home but his lab, where architecture students would test his theories while living off the land. Talk about organic, sustainable lifestyles — it seems to have all begun here.

The last leg of our Midwestern trip — the Twin Cities of Minnesota — further demonstrated that this part of the country, with its blue-state tradition of liberal voters and progressive politicians, is not so idealistically alien as most Left Coasters might think. After all, Wisconsin abolitionists played a key role in the formation of the Republican Party associated with Abraham Lincoln, and Minnesota was the only one of 50 states to back native son Walter Mondale in the Reagan landslide of 1984.

In Minneapolis we attended the world-premiere production of “The Great Gatsby” at the Guthrie Theater. And even if the staging amounted to a CliffsNotes-like version of local hero F. Scott Fitzgerald’s masterpiece, the Guthrie’s new complex — designed by French architect Jean Nouvel — proved as perfect a venue for drama as Manhattan’s Vivian Beaumont or the Mark Taper in Los Angeles.

Here, in “flyover country,” was enough culture to make Angelenos envious. This marvelous metropolis — with its Walker Art Center, Minneapolis Sculpture Garden and lakefront mansions as stately as any in L.A.’s Hancock Park — reaffirms my belief that every great city has a river that runs through it (in this case, the Mississippi) and a superstructure that encourages strolling, as opposed to “commuting.” Perhaps Angelenos could learn something from the Heartland.

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