Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by 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

 

In need of laughter, a few sort of humorous stories March 24, 2020

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The grandkids play hide-and-seek behind curtains, while in Grandma and Grandpa’s care. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo February 2020.

 

THESE DAYS I FEEL like I’m on information overload regarding COVID-19. That’s no surprise given my journalism background. I need to be informed. It’s just the way I am.

In addition to the extra media reports I’m consuming, I’ve also reached out to my family more. My eldest daughter and her family live in the Twin Cities metro. My other daughter and her husband and my son live in Madison, Wisconsin. All in major metro areas with many cases of the coronavirus. Wisconsin is now under a shelter-in-place order. I expect that in Minnesota soon.

I miss my family. My grandchildren, especially. But we are not seeing each other to protect one another. It’s the right thing to do. I expect many of you are in the same situation. I suggested to Randy that we drive to the metro and wave to the grandkids from outside their home. He thought I was joking. I was sort of serious.

For now I settle for updates from the daughter about Isabelle, almost four, and Isaac, just over a year old. Here’s a text she sent several days ago:

Yesterday the kids were pretending to go to the store to buy hand sanitizer. Izzy said, “Come on, Isaac, let’s go buy hand sanitizer.” And then they would carry their bottles around.

It’s funny. But yet it’s not.

From my Wisconsin daughter, I got this text the other evening:

John and I are going to get out of the house and go for our daily “apocalypse drive”…so strange to see barely any cars on a Friday night.

It’s funny. But yet it’s not. They are now without jobs.

Then there’s this idea from Brad, a native Minnesotan now living in the South, who suggested to me and some of his family members that we take up this activity to fill unexpected time at home:

Find your encyclopedia. Every day look up one of the Presidents, starting with George Washington. Was most interesting. Got through FDR.

One of his family members replied:

What’s an encyclopedia?

Now that’s funny.

#

IF YOU HAVE a personal humorous story to share, please do so in the comments section. I’m looking for stories from your life, not from a media report or other source. I need to laugh today.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

So…I forgot about St. Patrick’s Day amid COVID-19 concerns March 18, 2020

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In March 2015, friends posted shamrocks in my yard on St. Patrick’s Day. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

IF LEPRECHAUNS REALLY EXISTED, perhaps we could dispatch them into the U.S. with their lucky charms. Oh, never mind. Travel bans went into effect at midnight March 16 keeping native leprechauns from entering the U.S. in efforts to stop the spread of COVID-19.

My apologies to all you Irish readers. I forgot yesterday was St. Patrick’s Day. My mind has been elsewhere—on family indirectly affected by the coronavirus, on a work project, on anything but this day that honors St. Patrick.

 

Irish pride shows on the town water tower.

 

So here I am, a day late, sharing photos I took in late January while passing through Kilkenny. That would be Minnesota. Not Ireland.

 

Kilkenny’s gathering spot, Murphy’s Pub.

 

Kilkenny, a community of around 130 in Le Sueur County, doesn’t celebrate St. Patrick’s Day. Not on March 17 anyway. Rather, they celebrate Half-way to St. Paddy’s Day in September with a parade, car show, “World Famous Toilet Bowl Races” (don’t ask) and more.

 

A distant view of the Kilkenny, Minnesota water tower.

 

My recent drive through Kilkenny yielded minimal photos. I focused mostly on the Irish angle—the water tower and the local pub. I expect St. Patrick’s Day in Kilkenny was rather quiet this year given the state-mandated closure of all bars and restaurants by 5 pm Tuesday and continuing until March 27. Those establishments can still deliver and offer take-out, just not dine-in. But it’s not like you can order a mug of green beer or a shot of Irish whiskey and drive or walk away (which is a good thing).

 

Another view of Murphy’s Pub in Kilkenny.

 

It’s to the point where I can’t remember all the closures and cancellations that are happening. But, they are countless and, in Minnesota, include movie theaters, museums, craft breweries, bowling alleys and much more. Even the Mall of America has closed. Not that that affects me. I’ve never been there.

 

There he is. Now I see the leprechaun.

 

As I wrote this late Tuesday afternoon, the number of positive coronavirus cases in Minnesota stood at 60. None in my county yet. So perhaps a leprechaun did fly into Minnesota prior to the travel ban and passed through Rice County with his lucky charms while en route to Kilkenny.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

What to read, or not, during a global pandemic March 17, 2020

The sun rises east of Faribault. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

WITH A RECENT OVERLOAD of reading and listening to media reports on coronavirus, I need mental diversions. I continue to start each day by praying and reading devotionals. That’s mostly unchanged from pre-COVID, although the number and types of prayers are fluid. Beginning my morning this way calms and centers me. As a woman of faith, I need this reassuring, peaceful mindset that God is in control and will see us through this pandemic.

In the evenings, I settle into my recliner with a book or a magazine and hope that my tired eyes won’t cross (a vision problem fixed as a child, but not fixable again), rendering the pages unreadable. Sometimes I struggle to stay awake.

 

Buckham Memorial Library, Faribault, Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

I love to read. For that reason I’m especially thankful I got to the library on Saturday and stocked up on reading materials. No empty shelves there. The City of Faribault closed Buckham Memorial Library on Monday to help mitigate the spread of COVID-19. We’ve no confirmed cases in my county. Yet. The library closing continues until the end of the month. Maybe longer. I appreciate that city leaders are being proactive in declaring a local state of emergency rather than reactive.

 

In Audrey’s reading pile.

 

At the time I visited the library, I had no idea the facility would close two days later. I’m glad I chose as many magazines and books as I did. I checked out six magazines ranging from architectural to lifestyle to food. And I have a stash of five books covering topics from farming to murders in Minnesota to mental health and more.

 

In Randy’s reading selections.

 

Now compare that to what my husband chose. Randy, not nearly as much of a reader as me, selected books about Putin, fish in Minnesota and, get this, plagues. Or more specifically, Diseases in History—Plague by Kevin Cunningham. As if we don’t have enough to think about with the current coronavirus global pandemic. Let’s toss in learning about the bubonic plague, the Black Death, the flu…

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

A look at COVID-19 from a personal perspective March 12, 2020

I photographed my mom’s hands during a visit with her last Saturday.

 

HOW IS COVID-19 affecting you and those you love? Your friends? Your neighbors? How is this pandemic changing the way you go about your daily life? Are you worried? Anxious?

I would describe my attitude as one of cautious concern. I’ve not yet stockpiled any supplies. But I hold concerns as the situation touches my life. All of our lives in some way, I suppose.

Last evening my brother texted that my mom’s senior living care center is restricting visitors, specifically banning those who have recently traveled overseas or been on a cruise. That’s a smart move designed to protect the vulnerable, at risk population. Anyone not feeling well and with cold and flu-like symptoms should stay away. Staff must clear all visitors before they are allowed to enter, my brother wrote. I’m thankful this center, in a very rural region of Minnesota, is taking this action, as they sometimes do during influenza season.

The facility details this policy on its Facebook page. I’m grateful for these efforts to protect my mom, who is on hospice, and others who live there. Even in rural southwestern Minnesota, where one might consider the risk of exposure to the Coronavirus to be low, the possibility exists. People from this region travel, too, as do those who visit the area.

With the continuing spread of the virus and these new restrictions, I’m thankful Randy and I drove 2.5-hours one-way last weekend to see Mom. We typically limit our visits to 1.5 hours. While each visit is bittersweet given Mom’s confusion and memory loss, I remain grateful for this bonus time with her. When I started talking about Coronavirus to Mom, Randy caught my eye, successfully conveying with his warning look that I should stop. I promptly did. He’s right. Mom doesn’t need to hear about a pandemic.

But I’ve heard plenty about it from others—how it’s affecting vacation plans and raising fears about loved ones with compromised immune systems and other health issues. I worry some about my second daughter, who works in the healthcare field in Wisconsin. And then there’s my son, currently attending an international conference in Florida and the risks that involves, especially with air travel. But neither are in the noted vulnerable population.

So daily life goes on. I’m probably listening to and reading way too many media reports. But I’ve always been a news junkie since pre-teen on, never wanting to miss the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite. (Yes, that dates me.) Is it any wonder I went on to earn a mass communications degree and then work in journalism? I’m thankful for a media which keeps us informed. And, no, I don’t want to get into a discussion here about the media. The World Health Organization has declared COVID-19 to be a global pandemic. Period.

It’s up to each of us to take Coronavirus seriously, even if we aren’t personally at risk. We have a responsibility to protect individuals like my mom. We’re in this together.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling