Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

A cold and wintry drive across the southwestern Minnesota prairie January 2, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 10:52 PM

Snow drifts across Minnesota Highway 30 New Year's Day morning as we drive west toward Westbrook.

IT’S NEW YEAR’S DAY morning, and we are westbound on Minnesota Highway 30, driving past Darfur, Jeffers and Storden on our way to Westbrook on a journey that is taking longer than usual.

Earlier, icy roads altered our planned shortcut along Watonwan County Road 3. About a block down the glazed roadway, we turn around and head back to Minnesota Highway 60 that takes us further south to St. James, where I lived nearly 30 years ago.

As we drive, the wind whips snow across the four lanes of highway in this place of flat, wide open spaces. My mind flashes back to the winter of 1982, when I lived in St. James and was trying to plan my May wedding. Endless snowstorms stranded me in town on weekends and I wondered if I would ever see my fiancé in Faribault, let alone plan our wedding.

Now here I am, 27 years later, sitting beside the man who became my husband, trying to recall exactly how to get through St. James to highway 30. You would think I could remember the streets in this community, but I don’t. And I’m not exactly watching the road signs.

Instead, I am gawking at the downtown businesses. “Oh, look, they still have a Pamida,” I say. I would stop if we had time and it wasn’t so darned cold. But we don’t have time and I really don’t feel like leaving the relative warmth of the car.

Then we are in the heart of downtown. “I wonder if that movie theater’s still open.” And then I see the theater where my husband, Randy, and I saw the first Indiana Jones movie.

Randy laughs and together we remember the second floor theater with a ceiling so low that part of the movie played on the ceiling. I would stop if we had time and it wasn’t so darned cold.

Then we are driving past the park and the lake and I am pretty sure we are going the wrong direction. We are, because we have been too busy reminiscing. But it’s been fun, and soon we are turned around and headed the right way, west and north out of town to highway 30.

Snow blows and hardens in drifts across the roadway.

Now we are cruising along, bucking the drifts of snow that are edging onto our traffic lane on this endless highway. All around us, white stretches as far as we can see—acres and acres and acres of snowy fields broken only by the occasional farm place and those towns, Darfur, Jeffers and Storden.

In the passenger seat of the car, my legs are getting cold as the wind seeps through the metal and glass. Trips like this remind me just how fierce winters on the prairie can be. Just last week, a woman died in southwestern Minnesota after her vehicle became stuck in the snow and, instead of staying in her car, she tried to walk to a nearby highway for help.

As a prairie native, I am cognizant of winter weather dangers and wish we had a cell phone, although those don’t always work here, in what my kids term “the middle of nowhere.”

There is beauty in this winter landscape, especially in the evergreens iced with snow.

But we are getting closer now to our destination, my brother Doug and sister-in-law Twilia’s house in Westbrook, for a family holiday gathering postponed a week because of a winter storm.

We marvel at the many evergreen trees whose boughs weigh heavy with snow. We worry about the many pheasants foraging for food along the sides of the highway. We see the power of the wind in the rapidly-turning blades of windmills near Storden.

Clusters of windmills near Storden dwarf farm places and cast whirring shadows across highway 30.

We grumble about the cold later, when we leave my brother’s that evening and then again when we wake up at 9 a.m. Saturday morning at my Mom’s house in Vesta, 30 miles further north. The outside temperature is 25 degrees below zero.

We wonder Saturday afternoon whether our car will start. It does, after two cranks. Whew.

And then, after a weekend with family on the bone-chilling cold prairie, we are driving back east, toward Faribault, altering our route again because of icy Brown County roads.

Tonight we are home, snuggled in our house, under our wool and fleece blankets. I am writing. Randy is watching the news.

“What’s the forecast?” I ask.

“Lows in the minus 20s tonight. It might get above zero tomorrow,” he says, hopeful.

© Copyright 2010 Audrey Kletscher Helbling