Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Riding out severe weather in this Minnesota summer of storms July 27, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 7:26 AM
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WITH SEVERE WEATHER once again in the forecast for Minnesota today, I am nervous, and understandably so in this summer of storms.

Between 11 p.m. and midnight Friday, my family was stranded in our car along Redwood County Road 5 north of Walnut Grove during a 45-minute torrential downpour that packed 70 mph winds.

I’ve never been more terrified in my life.

As the wind buffeted and rocked our car in the pitch black darkness of the country, as rain poured, as lightning flashed, I prayed, head pressed for awhile against the back of the driver’s seat where I was seated behind my husband. My 78-year-old mom sat in the front passenger seat and my 16-year-old son was next to me in the back.

At one point I grabbed my son’s hand and squeezed so tightly that he asked me to let go. Later he would slide his hand across the seat and grasp mine in his.

The evening started out pleasantly enough with the drive from Vesta, where I grew up and where my mom still lives, to Walnut Grove some 20 miles away. We were going to the Laura Ingalls Wilder pageant, Fragments of a Dream, presented in an outdoor amphitheater just west of this small town.

Throughout the performance, which began at 9 p.m., I kept a watchful eye on the sky, where clouds were building to the west. My cousin Randy, a trained weather spotter and seated behind me, made the mistake of informing us that the area was under a tornado watch until 4 a.m. That information instantly raised my anxiety radar.

Yet, the show continued as lightning flashed all around us, as rain fell hard enough (for a short while) for audience members to pull out umbrellas and rain gear. I kept thinking they would call the show soon and send us safely on our way. That never happened, although in retrospect it should have. My brother Brian would later tell me he watched the storm cell move into the area on television weather radar.

Around 11 p.m., we exited the pageant grounds and just as we entered Walnut Grove minutes later, the sheets of rain began to fall. My husband drove across State Highway 14 where a police car sat, lights flashing, as is typical for post production. On the other side of the highway, still in town, Randy pulled over, remarking that maybe he shouldn’t park under a tree.

I thought we would stay there until the storm passed. But then, before I could suggest we do so, Randy took off and our nightmare began. On an unfamiliar road marked only by center tabs on the recently sealcoated gravel surface, he blindly (in my opinion) attempted to direct the car north toward Vesta.

Soon enough, after I reminded him that he was responsible for three other lives, not just his own, he pulled partially off the road onto the shoulder. Ahead of us, we could see other vehicles parked too, their emergency lights flashing.

And then, only then, did I realize the gravity of our situation. We were in the midst of a severe storm packing fierce winds with nowhere to go. Winds estimated at 70 mph slammed against the car, flattened the roadside grasses and I’m pretty sure ravaged trees, although I couldn’t see them. As our vehicle rocked, I feared it would flip. I feared also that a tornado would drop from the skies. When the lightning flashed, I could see dark, ominous swirling clouds. The wind changed direction from west to northeast.

Several times I wished out loud that we could seek out the safety of a farmhouse. But how could we even see to find a farm driveway? My mom, in her ignorance or fear, repeatedly told me the car was the safest place we could be. I repeatedly told her that, no, a basement would be the safest place we could be.

To their credit, the rest of my immediate family members did not panic, although they would later admit that they, too, were scared. My aunt Iylene and cousin Janelle, who were caught on the same road during the storm, later shared that they were as terrified as me and especially concerned because six of them were inside a higher profile, wind-catching pick-up that was topped with a canoe.

When the rain would relent enough for us to see somewhat, my husband would drive a short distance. Probably four our five times he drove then pulled over. Drove then pulled over. We kept thinking this could not last forever. But it did.

With a non-functioning radio and the cell phone inside my purse in the car trunk (which didn’t matter since I typically cannot get reception in this area of Minnesota), we were uninformed, at the mercy of the elements and of our imaginations (or at least mine).

Had I been thinking rationally, I would have grabbed my camera and photographed the spectacular lightning show that lit up the entire prairie sky and sent an occasional bolt zig zagging to the ground. But I was not thinking clearly. Instead, I was focused on that wind, that fierce, fierce wind that just kept rocking our car in that nightmare of a night in the middle of the prairie.

When we finally arrived at my mom’s house an hour later, I could have kissed the ground of my hometown. I have never in my life been happier to see Vesta.

© Copyright 2010 Audrey Kletscher Helbling