Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Halloween 2020 recap November 2, 2020

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The grandkids, with their parents, getting ready to go trick-or-treating.

I ADMIT THAT WHEN I LEARNED my young grandchildren were going trick-or-treating, I was concerned. The CDC labeled the door-to-door tradition to be high risk during this global pandemic. Yet, I knew my daughter and her husband would be careful, as I expected others in their suburban Minnesota neighborhood would be. And that’s exactly how Halloween played out.

Isaac peeks out the front door side window before he leaves for trick-or-treating.
Setting a festive mood on the front porch…
Heading into the neighborhood early Saturday evening to trick-or-treat.

As I stayed behind to replenish the individually bagged candy and stickers and the glo-sticks arranged on an unattended table on the front porch, the rest—Isabelle as Thomas the Tank Engine, Isaac as a dinosaur, Randy as a divided Minnesota, and the parents as themselves, warmly dressed Minnesotans—set out to gather treats.

The candy table positioned outside the front door on the porch.
A Halloween garland visible through the front windows.
Spider web art created by my daughter and granddaughter and positioned in a front window (because the wind was too strong to place the cardboard piece outdoors).

I settled on the couch with the newspaper, occasionally hearing voices outside the front door. Then I’d wait a few minutes, until I knew the trick-or-treaters and their parents were gone, before stepping out to restock.

Isaac discovered that if he held his blinking lights treat bag next to something, the light would reflect. This fascinated him.

Eventually, the cold, fierce wind drew my family back to the house, where Isaac was more interested in his light-up candy bag than the candy. The kids each got one treat before we left and they transitioned toward bed.

Earlier, Randy and I sat with the kids and frosted and decorated homemade carrot cupcakes I baked the previous day. Isaac, at 22 months, was more interested in slicing the cupcakes with his child-sized knife. Izzy, 4, struggled with the thick frosting (note to self: next time make homemade cream cheese frosting), but managed the sprinkles quite well. When she later ate a cupcake overloaded with black sugar, her tongue turned black and black ringed her mouth. Coal residue from Thomas the Tank Engine, perhaps?

Chalk art on the driveway.

All in all, it was a fun Halloween. The kids were happy. The grandparents were happy to spend time with the grandchildren. And the parents, and the neighborhood, managed Halloween in a safe way, with all treats set outside and social distancing followed.

Randy noted one other difference. Trick-or-treating, without doorbell ringing and interaction, simply did not feel the same. He’s right. But this year, health and safety mattered more than tradition.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Mask up, Minnesota July 22, 2020

A sign posted at the Steele County History Center in Owatonna. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo June 2020.

 

A PRESS CONFERENCE WEDNESDAY afternoon led by Minnesota Governor Tim Walz could have passed as a persuasive speech when he announced a statewide mask mandate effective at 11:59 pm Friday.

I needed no convincing as I listened and took notes. I’ve consumed enough reliable information from health officials and others to long ago recognize the value of wearing face masks during this global pandemic. Common sense also tells me that masking up helps limit the spread of the potentially deadly COVID-19 virus.

Other state officials, including Lt. Governor Peggy Flanagan who lost a brother to COVID, two infectious disease doctors and two small business owners joined the governor as he announced executive order 20-81 requiring face masks to be worn in all indoor public places in our state.

 

A woman attending an outdoor band concert in Faribault last week masks up in this edited file photo.

 

I’ve awaited this announcement for weeks as city after city in Minnesota—most recently Northfield in my county of Rice—adopted ordinances requiring face masks. The governor and his team are aiming for a 90-95 percent compliance rate to help slow the spread of COVID and save lives.

“This is a small sacrifice for a potential big gain,” Walz said as he referenced health and economic benefits.

The lieutenant governor called for Minnesotans to make wearing masks a part of their routine, to “normalize this” and to help kids get comfortable in masks to prepare for schools reopening. Children under five don’t need to wear masks, although masks are encouraged for anyone over age two.

At times, the news conference sounded like a pep talk. “Minnesotans, we can do this,” Walz said. “…we are good at doing things for others.” Wearing a Paul Bunyan buffalo plaid mask, the governor also urged people to be kind to one another in adopting this “science based solution.”

 

Social distancing remains part of the safety protocol to protect ourselves and others from COVID-19 as noted in this sign posted at the Steele County History Center. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo June 2020.

 

Yet, several, including Minnesota Commissioner of Health Jan Malcolm warned that “A mask is not magic.” People still need to stay home when sick, avoid large crowds, practice six-feet minimum social distancing, wash/sanitize their hands frequently, avoid touching their faces… The state health department weeks ago recommended the mask mandate and Malcolm reiterated the importance of wearing face masks to help protect others and control the spread of COVID-19. She also noted that masking presents a psychological benefit in reminding people that “COVID is still with us.”

She echoed the governor’s sentiments with an encouraging, “We can do this.”

While Malcolm focused on the health aspect, Steve Grove, who leads the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development, focused on the economic side. Wearing masks will keep the Minnesota economy open and pave the way for further reopening, he said. The Minnesota Retailers Association earlier backed a mask mandate. He urged individual responsibility in wearing masks while also pointing out the need for businesses to assure employees are following the order and that signs are posted requiring customers to be masked. To that end, the state is shipping disposable masks to one Chamber of Commerce in each of Minnesota’s counties for dispersal to businesses.

When customers don’t comply, Grove suggested “thoughtful conversation.” He doesn’t want, he said, for businesses to become “the mask police.”

 

I photographed this mask wearing local while attending a car cruise in downtown Faribault in mid May. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo, May 2020.

 

At one point, the governor called not wearing a mask “reckless and not neighborly.” I could sense his frustration with how masks have become a political issue. “My responsibility,” he said, “is to follow the best guidance and the best science.” But then the Democratic governor noted that “President Trump is telling you to wear a mask.” Walz had hoped Republican leaders in Minnesota would support him in issuing a mask mandate. Up until now, they have not. I feel the governor’s frustrations, too, with those who make this a political issue.

I’ve felt incredibly frustrated also with the lack of mask wearing in my community among the general public, but especially by employees in several local businesses. They want our business, yet fail to recognize the importance of protecting customers. I recently decided that I would no longer shop at local businesses where staff do not mask up. Those include local hardware/farm supply stores and two bar/restaurants (where we’ve done take-out only). I also determined to no longer allow a mask-less grocery store cashier to check out my groceries. She wore a face mask around her neck, where it did absolutely no good.

Now all that changes with executive order 20-81, an order which DEED Commissioner Grove says is “rooted in health and growing our economy.”

Mask up, Minnesota. It’s the right thing to do for yourself, your family, your friends, your neighbors, your community, your county, your state and your country.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Thoughts on the pandemic, from sleep to reality June 16, 2020

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Dreams roil storms into my sleep. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo July 2011.

 

EDITOR’S NOTE: I wrote this post several weeks ago and kept it in-draft. So, when you read this, remember that as I have not updated this from the original writing. My feelings about the need to take this pandemic seriously and to think beyond ourselves remain unchanged.

 

FOR THE FIRST TIME since the COVID-19 crisis broke, I dreamed about the pandemic.

I expect my turbulent emotions of that day and the day prior prompted the dream. Anger and disappointment framed my thoughts as did a converged weariness over a pervasive attitude of self-centeredness in this pandemic.

 

Our face masks. Please, people, wear masks. And if you already do, thank you.

 

And so I dreamed of a long-dead neighbor and of extended family converging on our property, no one wearing face masks, none social-distancing. They got too close, in my face. And when I told them they would need to leave, some turned on me. And then I awoke from my nightmare. Or did I really?

 

On one occasion, I left the house without my hand sanitizer. The planned trip inside a local convenience store did not happen as a result.

 

Life, some days, can play like an ongoing bad dream. If I let it thread that direction. It depends on the day. Trips to the grocery store frustrate me. Employees are now wearing masks—finally—in the local places I shop for food. But too many customers still are not and I don’t get it. I skirt those people (if possible) in the too-narrow aisles.

While shopping at a big box store, I thanked the masked cashier for the store’s requirement that all customers and employees wear masks. I could see her eyes smiling. “All we hear are complaints,” she said. I’m not surprised.

Recently I stopped for ice cream at a favorite independent shop in a neighboring town. The teen behind the walk-up window was not masked. The same for curbside food pick-up at a favorite local restaurant. The woman who handed me my bagged and boxed food was unmasked. I was masked. Both situations surprised me and made me feel uncomfortable. Health and government officials recommend we wear masks. And in some cities, like Minneapolis, masks in public places are now mandatory. And when restaurants re-open, servers will need to don masks. Why not now, during walk-up or curbside pick-up?

 

A message posted on the marquee of the Paradise Center for the Arts at the start of the pandemic. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo edited.

 

I’m not sharing these stories to call people or businesses out. Rather, I’m frustrated by the “me” mentality. This pandemic is not about us individually. This is about us collectively. Decisions we make affect others. We can unknowingly carry this virus, perhaps give it to someone who is in the vulnerable demographic. There’s no guarantee either that, if we become infected, we won’t get really sick. We just do not know.

Our thoughts need to stretch beyond ourselves, to thinking of others. And then acting and choosing behaviors that show we truly and deeply care about our families, our friends, our neighbors, even the people we encounter at the grocery store.

 

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

The progression of COVID-19 in Minnesota & my thoughts May 6, 2020

The marquee at the Paradise Center for the Arts, photographed on March 17, 2020. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

A SERIES OF PHOTOS I’ve taken in historic downtown Faribault represent, in many ways, a visual timeline documentation of the progression of COVID-19 in Minnesota.

Just three days after touring the annual Faribault Area Student Art Exhibit and shopping the Faribault Winter Farmers’ Market at the Paradise Center for the Arts, I photographed this message on the PCA marquee:

 

Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo March 17, 2020.

 

That was 10 days before Minnesota Governor Tim Walz issued his initial Stay-at-Home executive order. On the date of that first photo, March 17, the state was already shutting down due to the global pandemic that has changed every facet of our lives. Among the closures, our local center for the arts.

 

PCA marquee photographed on April 11, 2020. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

I next photographed the marquee on April 11, when the “closed until” date had changed to May 1.

 

Photographed on April 19, 2020. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

And then, only eight days later, I stopped to photograph the marquee message again. This time no “closed until” date was noted. Rather, the posted words offer encouragement. That seems the best approach. One of hopefulness, of unity and of strength rather than focusing on dates that continue to change.

None of us really knows how long COVID-19 will be around, although every indication is that it will be here for a long time. Infection and deaths are rising at a rapid rate here in Minnesota. Yes, testing has increased, resulting in higher numbers. But so has the spread. Just ask my friend who lives in Worthington. Or my extended family who live in Stearns County. Even in my county of Rice, which still has a low rate—30 positive cases as of Tuesday—in comparison to many other counties, numbers are on the rise.

 

A helpful reminder posted on the Paradise Center for the Arts marquee. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo March 2020.

 

These are difficult days for so many of us. My heart breaks for those who have lost loved ones to COVID-19. Like my friends Raquel and Bob. Randy and I are concerned about my mom and his dad, both in the high risk elderly group living in care centers. But worry doesn’t fix anything. So we do what we can to tamp our fears, use common sense, and try to keep ourselves and others safe. We aren’t gathering with family or friends. We limit our travel to local. Shop only for necessities. Wear masks. Social distance. Wash our hands often and use hand sanitizer.

 

Posted in the front window of the Paradise Center for the Arts. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo April 2020.

 

But this is about much more than just our individual behavior. The current marquee message at the Paradise states, WE ARE ALL IN THIS TOGETHER. Our choices, our actions, our decisions affect others. Our families, friends, neighbors, strangers… That, I believe, is especially important to remember during this global pandemic. This is about the health and safety of all of us.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Adapting worship in rural southwestern Minnesota during a global pandemic May 4, 2020

The Rev. Adam Manian leads worship services at St. John’s Lutheran Church, Vesta, Minnesota, on Sunday, May 3, 2020.

 

HIS ROBE BILLOWED in the wind as he stood atop the hay rack on a stunningly beautiful spring Sunday morning in southwestern Minnesota. A simple wooden table adorned with a gold cross formed a makeshift altar behind him.

To the south, vehicles filled the parking lot next to a farm field bordering the Redwood River. Across the river bridge, more fields and farm sites define the landscape, including my childhood farm a half-mile distant.

I visualized this rural scene as I focused on my computer screen. I watched the Rev. Adam Manian prepare to lead Sunday morning worship services outside St. John’s Lutheran Church, the church where I was baptized, confirmed, married, and have attended weddings and funerals of many loved ones.

 

The one-block Main Street of downtown Vesta. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo April 2018.

 

It seemed fitting that the pastor would preach from atop a hay rack backed up to the church entry. This place in Minnesota is through and through rural, centered on agriculture. It is also a place centered by church and its importance in the faith lives of most and in the social fabric of the Vesta community. I can only imagine how much locals—including aunts, uncles and cousins—miss gathering at St. John’s. I miss seeing my faith family, too, at Trinity Lutheran in Faribault.

 

I watched the St. John’s service live-streaming Sunday morning. Drive-in worship will continue next Sunday at 9 a.m.

 

During these weeks of social-distancing, stay-at-home orders and the need to protect our most vulnerable and each other, churches have gotten creative in continuing with worship. On this first Sunday in May, the pastor of this very rural congregation in a community of some 300 launched drive-in worship. Worshipers sat in their vehicles and tuned in to 102.1 FM on their radios while he led the service. And 120 miles away to the east, I booted up my computer and watched live-streaming of St. John’s service.

It did my heart and soul good to see that on this Sunday, “Good Shepherd Sunday,” the pastor at my hometown church was tending his flock—providing for their spiritual needs through the familiarity of liturgy, beloved hymns, preaching and prayers. What a blessing, especially to the many seniors in the congregation who now find themselves isolated, alone, separated from loved ones. An aunt even washed her car in preparation for Sunday’s service.

I thought back to decades earlier when my paternal great grandparents, Rudolph and Matilda Kletscher, arrived here and St. John’s grew from a mission church that met in their farm home. My faith is rooted here, in this church, in this place, among these prairie people.

 

Entering my home county of Redwood along Minnesota State Highway 68 southeast of Morgan. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

As Rev. Manian preached, I noticed the wind, ever-present in this landscape of wide open space. His robes billowed. His audio caught the wind. The camera shook on occasion. Tree branches swayed. Birds flew and some chirped in morning birdsong. It was as if creation joined in worship.

Occasionally I heard the start of a motor, presumably to run the air conditioning.

And when the pastor’s family, inside the sanctuary, sang “Have No Fear, Little Flock,” I experienced such a connection to St. John’s, such a renewed sense of confidence that we will get through this COVID-19 crisis, that God stays close beside us, that we are all in this together.

 

These grain bins sit just down a gravel road from St. John’s church in Vesta. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

I realized, too, that we are writing stories every day of overcoming, of adapting, of being here for one another, of resilience. We are writing stories of hope and of community. These are our stories. Faith stories. Community stories. Personal stories. Stories connected by the commonality of living during a global pandemic.

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Thank you to my cousin Lori for tipping me off to St. John’s drive-in worship service.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

My story: Insights learned from whooping cough April 16, 2020

 

The gravestone of Deloris Edna Emilie Bode, my aunt who died of highly-contagious whooping cough at age nine months. A great aunt, Ida, also died of pertussis at the same age. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

FROM THE BLOG ARCHIVES

In the summer of 2005, when I was 48, I came down with what I initially thought was a bad cold. Turns out the horrific sore throat, followed by the equally horrific cough, was actually whooping cough. After three doctor’s visits and a misdiagnosis of bronchitis, I was correctly diagnosed with pertussis, the first case my physician had ever seen in his longtime career.

When he informed me that pertussis is also known as the 100-day cough, he was not joking. I was racked by uncontrollable fits of coughing from around July Fourth until well after Labor Day.

For me, the summer of 2005 was spent languishing on the couch, feeling like absolute crap, exhausted from lack of sleep (ever try sleeping when you are constantly coughing), utterly worn down, unable to barely function.

The worst, and I mean absolute worst, moment came when I awoke one night gasping for air, my windpipe narrowed. In retrospect, that asthmatic type attack warranted a 911 call and I now consider myself fortunate to have survived. Yes, it was that bad and necessitated another visit to the doctor for a regiment of the inflammation reducing steroid prednisone and an inhaler.

I don’t know why I experienced a particularly bad case of whooping cough. Typically the young and elderly are most harshly affected. Unvaccinated infants can even die.

Nor do I know how I got a disease I thought had vanished decades ago and which claimed the life of my Aunt Deloris in 1935 at nine months old. My doctor speculated that I could have been exposed waiting in the check-out line at the grocery store. I’ll never know.

 

FAST FORWARD TO 2020

Why do I share this experience, which I first blogged about in 2010? I reblog this because it’s a very real example of how easily I became infected with a highly-contagious bacterial disease simply by being out and about in public. To this day, I have no idea where I picked up whooping cough and then passed it along to two family members. Since then, I’ve learned that the vaccine for pertussis, a serious respiratory tract infection, wears off and re-vaccination is needed.

When I consider how ill I became from whooping cough at age 48, I can only guess how the much more serious COVID-19 might affect me 15 years later at age 63. I recognize the two differ—one is bacterial, the other viral, for example, with many other differences. But some similarities.

Having contracted pertussis via community spread illustrates and underscores the importance of social distancing, of staying at home, of recognizing how quickly and easily the highly-contagious and potentially deadly COVID-19 virus can spread.

 

WHAT I’M SEEING

I shop at the grocery store weekly because, you know, I eat. I’ve seen too many people who don’t seem to care about social distancing. I can tell right away. They hog the aisle, don’t move over, come too close. In all fairness, many people are being safe, careful and respectful and I appreciate that.

While en route to the grocery store or to a park (about the only places I go now days), I’ve observed groups of obviously unrelated people chatting, even leaning into car windows. No social distancing. I’ve seen landscapers clustered around the back of a pick-up truck.

I recognize that we live in a free country and that people will make choices that are unwise, unsafe and not in the best interests of their health. But when those decisions affect the health of the general public, it’s different. We are all aware that COVID-19 is highly-contagious, even deadly. Every single one of us ought to care because our lives, and the lives of those we love, of our friends, our neighbors and, yes, even the woman in the grocery store, depend on us caring. Whether we live in New York or Minnesota, this virus does not distinguish between rural and urban. No one is immune.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Thankful Tuesday: Here’s to you, blue collar workers April 7, 2020

Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo October 2015, northbound on Interstate 35 with the Minneapolis skyline in the distance. We depend on mechanics and automotive machinists to keep our vehicles running.

 

MONDAY MORNING I PULLED a whiteboard from the closet. And then I started a list. Of everyone and everything I need to pray for daily. The list numbers nine categories already and I expect will continue to grow. Typically I wouldn’t need a written list as I have a good memory. But I find myself needing a recall prompt. And, in some sense, physically grabbing a black marker and writing on a whiteboard helps me.

Last evening I added three more names to the prayers for friends and family category after a sister-in-law asked me to pray for a friend’s son, who is infected with COVID-19, and his young family.

On that prayer list I’ve written thankfulness as a reminder to thank God for the many people—especially in healthcare, emergency response, law enforcement and military—who are on “the frontline” serving others.

 

Randy at work in the automotive machine shop. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

Today, though, I want to focus on thanking essential blue collar workers, those men and women who don’t have the option of working from home. That includes my husband, Randy, an automotive machinist. His employer has taken steps to protect customers and employees. Customers (mostly) are no longer allowed inside the store or inside the shop with doors to both locked. Rather, they must stay outside, call and then await curbside service.

 

The door to the automotive machine shop is now locked and signs posted on social distancing, business hours and new customer services practices.

 

But for Randy, it’s not that easy. He sometimes needs to help customers carry heavy auto parts into the shop so he can perform tasks like turn brake rotors, resurface heads and much more. That means close contact then and as they discuss the needed repair work. I don’t like it. But he reports customers are getting better at social distancing. Still…

Randy is not alone. All across Minnesota and across this nation, automotive machinists and mechanics are working hard to keep vehicles—from tractors to cars to trucks, including semis—running. There’s concern in those garages and shops where employees must drive customers’ vehicles into bays. Imagine stepping into a semi cab driven by an over-the-road trucker who’s traveled who knows where. There’s real fear, with extra precautions needed to clean those cabs and protect the mechanics repairing them. Yesterday I talked to someone with a family semi truck repair business. She’s worried about exposure to COVID-19 and understandably so.

Yet, these hardworking men and women—just like those in grocery stores—continue to work. (And, yes, I’m grateful Randy still has a job.) They work to deliver products, goods and services to us. Thank you, truckers and delivery drivers. Thank you, grocery store employees. Thank you, mechanics, automotive machinists and those working the counters in parts stores. Thank you, all blue collar workers. We need you, and that is evident now, more than ever.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Five people, two dogs, no kids April 1, 2020

 

Ducks swim in the Cannon River at North Alexander Park, Faribault.

 

NOW, MORE THAN EVER, the desire to get outdoors, to stretch my legs, to connect with nature, to escape all things COVID-19 related intensifies. I need the mental break, the sense of calm that prevails when I distance myself from the current crisis.

I live in a city of some 24,000 with an extensive recreational trail and park system and a sprawling nature center. We can spread out within city limits or quickly drive into the countryside for a rural escape.

 

Walking the dog along the trail in North Alexander Park.

 

On Saturday morning, before a day of rain began, Randy and I drove to North Alexander Park on the other side of Faribault to walk the Northern Link Trail connecting with the Straight River Trail. The paved path hugs the Cannon River, curving past trees, playgrounds, picnic shelters, and clusters of ducks and geese.

 

A section of the trail passes through a space populated by trees, and birds.

 

I enjoy this section of trail for several reasons—the river, the waterfowl, the diversity in open and wooded spaces, and the minimal number of people walking or biking here. It’s always been that way, even pre-coronavirus. While the trail is typically uncrowded, the park itself is usually busy. Teens shoot hoops. Families picnic. Athletes play baseball and softball. Kids use the playgrounds. But not now. Not during the COVID-19 pandemic.

 

Fences block picnic shelters.

 

A broad view of the now off-limits playground.

 

Stay off the playground.

 

With a “Stay at Home MN” executive order and social distancing in effect, park amenities can no longer be used. Orange snow fences wrap picnic shelters and playgrounds. When I saw those, I stopped. Sadness swept over me to see these places, where families often gather, where kids swing and slide and climb, closed. This is our new reality. Intellectually, I understand. Mentally, I rebel.

 

In my mind’s eye, I see a little one swinging.

 

A playground near the Cannon River.

 

No sliding here…

 

I want to hear the laughter of children. I want to see kids run and slide. And swing sticks at pinatas during family celebrations, as I have during past walks here.

 

Geese line the bank of the Cannon River in North Alexander Park.

 

But on this Saturday I saw none of that. Heard none of that. Instead I observed only three other adults (besides Randy and me) and two dogs. And I heard the warning honks of nesting geese, breaking the morning silence.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Hunting for teddy bears March 31, 2020

The 30th anniversary edition of Michael Rosen’s book, We’re Going on a Bear Hunt, published in 2019.

 

WE’RE GOING ON A BEAR HUNT. We’re going to catch a big one.

Those words from the 1989 children’s picture book, We’re Going on a Bear Hunt written by Michael Rosen and illustrated by Helen Oxenbury, are inspiring the latest global movement unifying the world during the COVID-19 pandemic. Teddy Bear Hunts.

Worldwide, families are searching for teddy bears in windows during walks about their neighborhoods and communities. Minnesota Public Radio reports in its March 30 Daily Dose of Sweetness series that Rochester, home to the world-renowned Mayo Clinic, is already heavily involved in the Teddy Bear Hunts. My friend Jackie, a nurse at Mayo, confirms that.

 

A teddy bear sighting in the window of a house at the corner of Fourth Avenue and Division Street in Faribault.

 

Here in Faribault, I haven’t searched much for bears, only watched for them while out and about on Saturday to pick up groceries and to later walk a city trail. Randy spotted one bear, in a house window at the corner of Division Street and Fourth Avenue.

 

A close-up of the Fourth Avenue teddy bear with a cross above it.

 

I find these hunts a great idea to distract kids, and grown-ups, from the scary realities of the current health crisis. Shifting our focus onto something fun seems vital to our mental health. I often wonder how much our kids are picking up on our concerns, on the seriousness of the situation. When I asked my eldest awhile ago what she’s told her 4-year-old about COVID-19, my daughter said only that “a lot of people are sick.” Isabelle can understand that. I’m thankful my grandson, at a year old, is too young to comprehend any of this.

For us grown-ups, movements like Teddy Bear Hunts help us cope by shifting our attention to engaging the youngest among us. Kids have always held that ability to refocus our minds, to make us smile, to remind us of life’s simple joys. Like reading a book and going on a bear hunt in the middle of a global pandemic.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Into the woods March 25, 2020

Hiking at River Bend Nature Center on Sunday afternoon, March 22.

 

THE NEED TO GET AWAY from it all—the barrage of COVID-19 thoughts and media reports—and the need to exit the house brought Randy and me to River Bend Nature Center in Faribault on Sunday afternoon.

The weather still feels very much like winter here in southern Minnesota with a cold wind, temps in the 30s and 40s, and patches of snow remaining in shaded areas or unmelted piles. So we dressed warmly, pulled on gloves and snugged on stocking caps before setting out.

 

Social distancing of vehicles in the parking lot at River Bend Nature Center on March 22.

 

As our vehicle rounded the curve and descended the hill into the heart of River Bend, I noticed something unusual in the parking lot. Social distancing. Most vehicles were parked every other space, with more vehicles than usual.

 

The entrance to the interpretative center, now closed.

 

I grabbed my camera, photographed the parking lot and then started downhill toward the trail-side center, eventually angling right toward the Turtle Pond. Along the way we met clusters of people, whom I assumed to be families as no social distancing was happening. Most, in passing, dropped into single file lines to distance themselves from others like us. I found myself fully aware of the space between us and other hikers on paths not always wide enough for the suggested six feet of separation.

 

This couple kept their distance from us, as they should have.

 

At one point I stepped to a side look-out and waited while other walkers passed, thus avoiding the too-close contact. I noticed, too, a young couple cut through the woods with their dog rather than come near us.

It was an odd feeling, this conscious effort to keep at a distance. It didn’t feel right. I tried to make up for that by greeting others with a smile and a “hello.” We can still be friendly.

 

I saw moss on rock piles and on fallen logs.

 

Randy starts across the bridge over the iced over Turtle Pond.

 

The process of collecting sap is underway at River Bend, pandemic or not.

 

As Randy and I walked, I scanned the woods for signs of spring and that seemed mostly fruitless. Ice still sealed the pond. Icy snow still covered sections of trails. Dried leaves still clung to trees while carpets of green moss and maple sap collection bags hinted of spring.

 

I often lag behind Randy because I stop to take photos.

 

Yet, I felt grateful to be outdoors, healthy and walking beside Randy.

 

Our friend’s daughter had a captive audience to watch her show off her biking skills.

 

We stopped once to talk with a friend who was out with her two young daughters. The 4 ½ -year-old showed off her bike riding skills. And for a moment or ten, we three adults forgot about the global pandemic and focused on the joy of watching a preschooler who recently mastered biking without assistance. The world seemed normal in that small space of time. Except for the awareness that we needed to stay six feet apart.

 

There on the prairie grass, an unexpected find.

 

Then we continued on, eventually crossing the windswept prairie. There Randy spotted a fuzzy caterpillar and we wondered aloud about its early appearance in these still too cold days of March.

 

Looking across the prairie pond.

 

After a brief stop at the prairie pond, we decided we were too cold to continue on. We turned back toward the interpretative center—now shuttered to the public—and aimed for the parking lot. But in getting there, we passed a group of young people tossing a football. Had it been any other day in any other time, I likely would not have thought much of it. But I found myself wondering, “Should they really be doing that?”

 

Trails remain open, but the interpretative center is closed.

 

These are unsettling times when even a walk into the woods to enjoy nature feels anything but normal.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling