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
Tags: , , ,

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


10 Responses to “Riding out severe weather in this Minnesota summer of storms”

  1. Michael Says:

    We also got to see the Wilder pageant this year, but not on such a stormy night. They say they have only been rained out once. You were close to being in the second rain out.
    Our security in a storm is such a concern. Two years ago I weathered a bad wind and rain event in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area. With the wind blowing down trees (we could hear them fall) and only a little bit of cloth between you and the elements, storms can be a challenge. While the others worried, I went to sleep, not much to do about it so I just settled in and slept. The others were a bit amazed I could do that. I’m just not the worrying type when it comes to weather.

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      Well, Michael, your experience in the BWCAW sounds even more frightening than mine. Good thing you’re not a weather worrier.

      I read that the Laura Ingalls Wilder pageant has been rained out three times since 1978. It’s a fantastic production and one I’ve seen three times now.

  2. Gordon Says:

    You had every reader in the car with you on this one, Audrey. A storm makes us feel pretty helpless when in the house, but there is something particularly scary about being in a car. I think it has to do with the constant “lift” sensation brought on by gusts of win.
    Glad you’re all safe.

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      I may have omitted one word from this saga. I believe I may have uttered “idiot” at one point to a certain someone in our car. My cousin confesses to using the same word. I can only say that in the terror of the hour, I was not fully in control of my emotions. Hopefully that “certain someone” will forgive me.

  3. virgil Says:

    Wow! What an experience. Thank they Lord all of you were safe.
    Also enjoyed your blog on the corpse flower. Great pictures. We saw it in 2007.

  4. Kristin Says:

    You can get the photos some other time. I’m glad you stayed safe.

  5. Bill Says:

    My wife is from Elmore (Minn) and her mom still lives there. Our family has been back many times for visits in the summer and we’ve survived many a storm also. Living in California really spoils us but or Minnesota trips are always welcome (the people are fantastic). After big storms everyone pitches in to help with the clean up and repairs. Minnesota has some very special people living there. Thank you for this wonderful story. Came across it by accident when looking up some information for our next visit. I know this post is close to 7 years old now, and I know you’ve experience many more Minnesota storms since then. So glad you left this memory for others to live the experience with you. Bill in California

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      Bill in California,

      I’m happy to have you stop by for a Minnesota visit and hear you say such wonderful things about our northern state and us Minnesotans. Thank you.

      That storm I wrote about happened less than three years ago; I think you were confusing the seven with years, when this happened in July, the seventh month. It was quite the frightening experience for me to be caught on that rural road in the midst of a storm with such strong winds.

      Anyway, I suppose living in California does spoil you. My oldest daughter’s boyfriend moved several months ago from LA to St. Paul and he is not too fond of our recent cold snap. But I think he’ll adjust.

      • Bill Says:

        Audrey in Minnesota,
        We were in Elmore, Minn. (over by Blue Earth) in July 2011. Thank you for the time line clarification… I was a bit confused on that part. My wife Jeanne and I have always found Minnesotans to be the friendliest people around (and we’ve been to a lot of places).

        My mother-in-law (age 94 and still very active and sharp – must be the Minnesota water) loves the changing seasons but we convinced her it was time to enjoy warmer winters and we track the weather every day…. Burrrr! Some really cold days these past weeks.

        We have so many stories of how wonderful people from Minnesota have been to us on our trips back… People who don’t even know who we are still treat us like we’re neighbors. I wish all the US could be like that. It was great hearing from you and again, thank you for straightening me out on the time line. You write very well. Bill

      • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

        Bill, thank you for the kind words expressed about Minnesota and Minnesotans. That’s so good to hear.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.