Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Prairie poetry in Fergus Falls June 12, 2011

SATURDAY MORNING MY HUSBAND and I hit the road, heading north on Interstate 35 and then west on Interstate 94 to the west central part of Minnesota.

This was our destination:

It's approaching noon on Saturday, and we've nearly reached our destination, Fergus Falls.

Because of this:

The first of my four Roadside Poetry billboards in a stretch of ditch along North Tower Road in Fergus Falls.

I got word last Monday that my winning Roadside Poetry Project spring poem will come down on June 17, to be replaced with a summer poem. (Click here to read a previous post about my poem.) So if I wanted to see “Cold earth warmed by budding sun sprouts the seeds of vernal equinox” and my name—all sprawled across four Burma Shave style billboards—we had to get our butts up to Fergus Falls.

So we did, making the 200-mile trip this weekend under big skies that stretched all the way to the Dakotas.

After a few stops, including a swing into Melrose to view an historic Catholic church (more on that in another post), we eventually reached Exit 54 into Fergus some 3 1/2 hours later. We followed Highway 210/West Lincoln Avenue, turned onto North Tower Road and drove past the NAPA Auto Parts store before reaching those poetry billboards. I mention NAPA because Randy works at the NAPA store in Northfield as an automotive machinist and we found it interesting that my poems just happened to be right down the road from the Fergus NAPA store.

We passed right by the NAPA store to reach my billboards just down the road.

When Randy pulled to the side of North Tower Road by my billboards, I determined this was not the safest place to park. So we pulled into the Fastenal parking lot and then descended the steep ditch, wading through tall, and wet, prairie grasses—sweet clover, June grass, alfalfa—and more than a few thistles.

Our shoes and jean legs were soon soaked with moisture. But, you know, that really didn’t matter. I was so focused on viewing my four-line, spring-themed poem and on taking photos that the wet feet and denim seemed more a nuisance than anything worth fretting over on a glorious early Saturday afternoon.

And so, billboard by billboard, we worked our way down the road ditch, stopping by each sign for photos. Eventually I handed the camera over to Randy, who managed to figure out how to turn on the camera, focus it, compose and snap some pictures.

Me posing by the last of the four billboards with my spring poem.

This may be the first and last time my poetry, and my name, will be on billboards, so I savored every letter, every word, every line, every billboard...

Then I snapped this image of my husband, who had plucked a spear of prairie grass and slipped it into his mouth. The frame marked one of those quick clicks of the camera that resulted in a photo that you could never recapture given its spontaneity.

A sweet shot of my husband as he walked away from the final billboard.

I’m uncertain how long we worked the road ditch along North Tower. But long enough to appreciate that this spot on the edge of town, under a sky that always feels bigger, wider, on the open prairie, perfectly fit a poem written by me, a southwestern Minnesota prairie native.

I crouched to capture this image which focuses on the road ditch prairie grasses.

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

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10 Responses to “Prairie poetry in Fergus Falls”

  1. Sounds like you two had a good trip out to see your poetry winning signs. I love the photos! Whenever I see the tall prairie grasses growing in roadside ditches I always dream about those prairies when they were first settled by those very tough pioneers when they rode across them in covered wagons with grass so tall looking like a green ocean before them, the grasses tickling the bellies of the horses as they rode along. Our prairies had to be pretty intimidating to those pioneers who came from the forested lands of the East.

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      Yes, we had a delightful trip, Harriet, especially exploring many small towns on the way back to Faribault. I’ll bring those stories and photos to you in upcoming posts.

      Your description of the early settlers traveling across the prairie sounds so realistic. I can only imagine what this must have been like for them. What hardy souls.

  2. dorothy Says:

    Great! I bet you can do it again. Seeing your name on a roadside sign is fantastic! Congrats! That’s “MY Little Princess”!!!!!

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      I have no doubt I could likely write another winning poem. But I don’t know the rules on submitting again.

  3. Bernie Says:

    I’m so glad you guys went. The pictures are great. Too bad they can’t give you the last sign with your name on it. You could hang it in the house or on the side of the garage.

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      Wouldn’t the neighbors love that, a banner hung on our garage or house. Actually, the Roadside Poetry Project people are hanging onto the banners with the hopes of someday placing the poems on more billboards around Minnesota. Funding is the issue. Maybe there are other options, like a traveling poetry project, posting the banners at county fairs or libraries or small-town celebrations…

      I’m glad we made the trip too. Seeing my poetry billboards in person meant the world for me. (Thanks, Randy, for taking a Saturday off from work.)

  4. Paul Carney Says:

    Hey, I really like your idea about…”Maybe there are other options, like a traveling poetry project, posting the banners at county fairs or libraries or small-town celebrations.” Certainly, there must be other fun venues for displaying the banners.

    We continue to pursue other locales for potential Roadside Poetry sites. All we need is a 400-yard stretch of roadside and a community that is willing to invest in the template structure (basically posts and panels).
    Because the poems are printed on banners, we simply “swap” the archived poems and share the love of verse.

    Audrey, I’m SO glad you were able to make it up to Fergus Falls to see your verse on the billboards. The banners went down this afternoon, and the summer poem, sweetly penned by a local 3rd grader, will be posted this weekend.

    Thanks for being such an enthusiastic champion for the Roadside Poetry cause.

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      There you go, Minnesota Prairie Roots readers. If you would like the Roadside Poetry Project billboards in your community, contact Paul Carney (or me and I’ll connect you).

      I’m so glad, too, that Randy and I made the trip to Fergus. It’s one thing to see your poem in photos and another to stand along the side of a road and see the words stretched across four billboards.

      Can’t wait to see the new poem penned by a third grader. Thanks for the opportunity, Paul and everyone else connected to this exciting public poetry venue. I’m happy to spread the word and generate interest.

  5. Emily Says:

    Audrey–After I’ve looked through your posts here, I am even MORE excited to head up to Fergus. What a fun experience! The Viking Cafe, sturdy shoes, driving directions…you’ve given me some solid advice. Thanks! Also, I’m continually impressed by your blog. Your appreciation for your home state and region come through so clearly. I love that. Cheers to you!

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      I’m happy to pass along travel tips to a fellow poet. Watch for traffic, too. Your poem is posted along a busy stretch of roadway.

      Mostly, enjoy the moment. Take in the scenery, the location, the joy of seeing your poem in print on BILLBOARDS. The feeling is exhilarating.

      Also, thanks for your kind words regarding Minnesota Prairie Roots. I love Minnesota–its people, places, events…. So many stories exist for the telling and I love sharing them.


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