Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Embracing nature, seeking peace in chaos October 7, 2020

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Posted near the amphitheater at River Bend Nature Center, Faribault, Minnesota.

IN EVERY WALK with nature one receives far more than he seeks—John Muir.

A scene at River Bend, looking from the swamp across the prairie to the distant treeline on Sunday afternoon.

Those words, imprinted upon a memorial plaque at River Bend Nature Center in Faribault, hold a depth of meaning worth pondering. To think that every walk outdoors gives us more than we expect, or search out, seems valid. Especially now, during COVID-19, when many of us are rediscovering the beauty and healing power of the natural world.

Even the drying swamp grasses prove beautiful against the autumn sky.

Are you among the many embracing the outdoors with renewed enthusiasm and appreciation? I certainly am.

This is an example of the many beautiful tree-lined streets in Faribault. I shot this along Second Avenue, with Central Park on the left and The Cathedral of Our Merciful Savior on the right.
To the northeast of Cannon City, we stopped along a back gravel road so I could photograph this distant, colorful hillside across acres of ripening corn.
Northbound along Interstate 35 just north of Faribault, leaves are changing color.

Whether walking at a local park or hiking through a nature center or following a city street or driving along a back country road or even traveling along a busy interstate, I feel a heightened sense of gratitude for the sky, the trees, the land, all that surrounds me.

Wildflowers still bloom at River Bend as autumn wanes.

And as autumn presses on toward winter, I also feel an urgency to get outside. On foot before ice and snow pack trails and I feel less secure in my footing. Maybe this will be the winter I buy metal grippers that clamp onto my boots. Maybe this will be the winter I reclaim my youthful enthusiasm for the season.

A prairie plaque honors a volunteer at River Bend.

Many days I long to get away. Away from traffic and noise and busyness and people to the quiet of woods, the silence of the prairie, the peace that nature offers.

Autumn colors trees at River Bend.

There’s so much turmoil now. Too much hatred. Too much dissent and too much untruth and too much of everything that’s mean and unkind and disrespectful of others. I yearn for a world where we all hold genuine compassion and care for one another.

The hole, the decay, in this tree reminds me in some ways of our country right now.

I’ve never, in my sixty-plus decades on this earth, witnessed such chaos, discord, selfishness…

Like these bold berries pop color into the River Bend landscape, we can pop positivity into the world. We can choose to be bold, to stand for decency and the common good.

I have within me the power to act with decency, with empathy, with understanding. With kindness.

North of Faribault along I-35.

To settle my mind into a frame of peacefulness, I embrace prayer and nature. To do so is to receive more than I seek.

Currently, I am reading The Finnish Way: Finding Courage, Wellness, and Happiness Through the Power of Sisu. A friend, who recently moved to the lakes region of central Minnesota, gifted Katja Pantzar’s book to me. I’m only 58 pages into the read. But already the words written therein about the Finns’ resilience and close connection to nature resonate. In two more chapters, I’ll be into “Nature Therapy, The Benefits of a Walk in the Woods.”

In the woods at River Bend…

I don’t expect the contents of that chapter to surprise me. Whether walking in the woods or through a city park, we can benefit from simply being in nature. To feel the warmth of sunshine, to hear the rush of wind through trees, to watch water tumble over rocks, to smell the scent of autumn…all calm the spirit, restore peace, and lift moods. What a gift.

TELL ME: Are you rediscovering nature during COVID-19? If so, in what ways has this helped you deal with the pandemic? What’s your favorite nature spot?

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Memory in flight January 23, 2020

The fighter jet sculpture located at The Owatonna Degner Regional Airport. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo January 2020.

 

SOME MEMORIES REMAIN, decades after the event, forever seared into our minds. But often they stay in the subconscious, surfacing only when triggered by something heard, seen, smelled, tasted, thought.

I hadn’t thought in a long time about the plane. Until I researched the story behind an airplane sculpture at The Owatonna Degner Regional Airport. I photographed the trio of T-38 Talon Thunderbirds while passing by on Interstate 35 as day broke on a recent Sunday morning.

My mind didn’t shift then to the afternoon decades ago when a fighter jet roared over my childhood farm outside Vesta in Redwood County in southwestern Minnesota. Rather, my thoughts focused on my mom. We were en route to visit her at a care center in Belview.

But now, weeks later, I sorted through photos taken on that 2.5-hour drive and remembered a summer afternoon in the 1960s. I was outside when the fighter jet flew low and fast over the farmyard, causing me to dive under the B Farmall tractor and the cattle to escape their fence. The sight and sound of that plane terrified me. We seldom saw planes, mostly just the trails of invisible or barely visible slivers of silver jets.

To this day, I don’t know from whence that mystery plane came or why the pilot chose to fly at such a low altitude. I can only speculate that he was on a training mission. And why not conduct that in a sparsely-populated area? Never mind the people or livestock.

That experience resurfaced as I sought out info about the three fighter jets artfully positioned at the Owatonna airport. Initially, they stood outside nearby Heritage Halls Museum, now closed. Museum founder and local businessman and pilot, R.W. “Buzz” Kaplan, led efforts to bring the retired U.S. Air Force jets to the area. Eventually the planes would land permanently at the airport, highly-visible to those traveling along the interstate.

Kaplan, on June 26, 2002, died at this very airport after the plane he was piloting, a replica WW I JN-4D “Jenny” biplane, crashed shortly after take-off. This airport has been the site of several fatal crashes, including one in 2008 which claimed eight lives. I hadn’t thought about that crash either, one of the worst in Minnesota, in a long time.

It’s interesting how the split-second decision to photograph a sculpture of three fighter jets along an interstate can trigger-roll into more than simply an image.

Life is that way. Memories, rising in unexpected moments, connecting to today.

TELL ME: Do you have a long ago memory that sometimes surfaces? I’d like to hear your stories and why that memory remains and others don’t.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

From Minnesota: So this is spring? April 10, 2019

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My neighborhood Wednesday evening.

 

CLOSED SCHOOLS. Closed Interstate. Crashes and back-ups. All were the result of a winter storm that socked parts of Minnesota today, my community included.

Officials shut down Interstate 35 between Faribault and Medford for hours on Tuesday afternoon into evening following multiple vehicle crashes. Thirty-five, I heard. True? I don’t know. Then the detour route onto a county road was closed after a semi hit a railroad bridge, according to one report I read.

 

My snowy backyard photographed early Wednesday afternoon as the snow fell.

 

What a day. Ambulances and police cars screaming by my house along with all that detoured traffic. Snowplows scraping snow that fell at a rapid pace. Snow layering to six inches.

 

I photographed these crocuses in my front yard flowerbed just days ago. Now they are buried under six inches of snow.

 

Randy and I just got back inside after clearing heavy wet snow from our driveway and sidewalk and that of a neighbor. This is heart attack snow, thus I paced myself. I’ve had it with winter. Only days ago spring seemed here. Temps in the sixties. Sunny. Lawns hinting at green.

 

My backyard shortly after the snow began falling Wednesday morning.

 

And now this, this storm set to linger into Friday. Already winds are picking up. Cold. Biting. Nothing like spring.

 

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Minnesota blizzard closes interstates, creates difficult or impossible travel February 24, 2019

Red circles mark road closures in Minnesota as of late morning Sunday. Source: MnDOT 511 website

 

GOOD MORNING, DEAR READERS,

Here we are, in the midst of another winter storm in southeastern Minnesota. The good news from Faribault: Our snowfall total this morning was not nearly what I expected. About six inches instead of ten. Yahoo. Snow started falling around 6:30 p.m. Saturday and ended sometime early this morning.

I live in town, in a valley. That means my home is sheltered from the brunt of winds that will reach 50 mph this afternoon. Friends who drove into Faribault from the country for 8 a.m. church reported some drifting, but overall decent roads for the weather we’re experiencing.

I expect that to change as the day progresses and wind speeds increase to create drifts and white-out conditions. A blizzard warning remains for southern Minnesota.

Our governor has declared states of emergency in Steele (the neighboring county to my county of Rice) and Freeborn counties.

One look at the Minnesota Department of Transportation website and the severity of this storm and the resulting impossible travels conditions are clear. Every red circle on the map represents a road closure. That includes Interstate 35 from Owatonna to the Iowa border. For awhile the interstate was closed beginning at Faribault. Interstate 90 along the Minnesota-Iowa border. Closed. U.S. Highway 14. Closed. State Highways 60, 30, 15… Closed. I can’t possibly list all of the road closures.

Here’s the deal. Just stay home. It’s not worth risking your life to travel today (outside of city limits) anywhere in southern Minnesota. End of sermon.

TELL ME: If you live in Minnesota, what are conditions like in your area today? Share your weather stories.

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Winter photo poetry February 18, 2019

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A WINTER LANDSCAPE IN RURAL Minnesota can, at first glance, seem visually unappealing. White upon white upon white.

But then a moment happens. A curtain opens in the mind to reveal a scene that holds spectacular beauty.

Stubble pokes through snowy fields. A farm site stands isolated, yet strong, in all that winter vastness. And then, a layer of golden light slips between land and clouds.

The light. The textures. The immensity of the scene. All collide before my eyes, to create a winter photo poem. Beautiful in its complexity. Beautiful in its simplicity. Winter.

 

I photographed this scene along Interstate 35 somewhere north of Faribault around sunset Saturday.

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Managing an especially cold & snowy Minnesota winter February 15, 2019

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My neighbor across the street moved and put his house on the market several months ago, but has yet to sell it. Now he’s clearing snow from two properties. If you’re looking for a house to buy in Faribault and want to be my neighbor…

 

THE SNOW KEEPS PILING up here in Minnesota in storm after storm after storm. And when snow isn’t falling, brutal cold settles in. This weather is taking its toll, physically and mentally.

 

The snow piles continue to grow in Faribault, here at a gas station along Minnesota State Highway 60/Fourth Street.

 

We long for warmth and sunshine and a day without snow removal. As snow mountains obscure vision at the ends of driveways, sidewalks and street corners, clearing the snow becomes more taxing.

 

Special snow removal equipment works on the Cedar Avenue bridge over the Minnesota River on Wednesday afternoon.

 

This snow-filled truck and snow blowing tractor creep along Interstate 35 in Burnsville Wednesday afternoon.

 

During lulls between storms, snow removal crews work to widen roadways, clear snow from bridges and shoulders.

 

Ice dams and icicles on our house.

 

And then there are those ice dams forming along rooflines. I’ve never seen anything like it, the length of some icicles extending to the ground. Randy has yet to tackle the task of shoveling snow from our house and garage roofs. He can barely keep up with clearing snow from our place and that of a neighbor after a long day of work.

 

Passersby stopped to help push my elderly neighbor’s car up her snowy driveway during a recent storm. Randy warned her of the ice underneath, but…

 

A recent commute home from Northfield took him nearly an hour rather than the usual 22 minutes due to treacherous roads in a snowstorm. As an automotive machinist, he doesn’t have the option of working from home. If he doesn’t work, he doesn’t get paid.

Schools across the state closed an unprecedented number of times in past weeks.

 

On a day when highways were clear, Randy and I came upon a five-vehicle crash on Interstate 35 in Burnsville. Vehicles in ditches and endless crashes have marked this winter.

 

Any plans are tentative, based on weather and road conditions. Travel during bad winter weather and you risk going in the ditch, getting in an accident, becoming stuck in metro gridlock or stranded in a rural area. No, thanks. I’ll stay home and read a book.

 

Snow blows from the top of a semi tractor trailer Wednesday afternoon along Interstate 35 north of Faribault.

 

All of these challenges make winter sometimes difficult to navigate. But then I read something that causes me to pull my head out of the snowbank and smile. Like the story in the Faribault Daily News about local high school teacher Dave Wieber whose physics students video recorded kindergartners sledding. With the video data collected, they determine how fast the average student slides down the hill. How fun is that? I love when teachers get creative, make learning fun and exciting.

 

The scene exiting Interstate 35 into Faribault onto Minnesota State Highway 21 from the north.

 

And I love when a community celebrates winter with an event like last weekend’s Faribault Flannel Formal. Although I didn’t attend, I’ve seen enough photos to know this is exactly the type of event Minnesotans need in February. Flannel attire, music, drinks, contests, conversation. And hotdish.

 

A neighborhood near my home, along Fourth Avenue.

 

When I think about it, fun and creativity help many of us manage winter. New York state songwriter Linda Bonney Olin, in her song Praise God From Whom All Blizzards Flow, is a great example. She uses humor to write her “doxology for those blessed with wintry weather and a sense of humor.” It’s well worth your read. Click here and be thankful for shovels, gloves and plows. And the ability to still smile in this longest of winters.

 

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Scenes along the interstate in Minnesota May 8, 2017

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Driving toward downtown St. Paul along Interstate 35-E.

 

YOU NEVER KNOW WHAT you’ll see while traveling the interstate. Too many motorists engage in risky behavior like tailgating, weaving from one lane to the other, texting, talking on their cells when their full attention should be on the roadway and more. It’s a crazy driving world out there.

 

I admire these MnDOT responders who aid motorists, here in the thick of interstate traffic near downtown St. Paul. It appears a mighty dangerous job.

 

I’m no fan of heavy traffic or travel in the Twin Cities metro. But then I suppose many people aren’t. Rural roadways can be just as unsafe.

 

Is the tanker actually carrying coffee or simply advertising it? Photographed northbound on I-35 toward the Twin Cities metro.

 

What’s the final destination of this outdoor enthusiast headed eastbound on I-35E?

 

How does the boss drive?

 

All of that aside, I always spot interesting scenes along the interstate. Interesting to me, anyway.

 

Southbound into St. Paul along I-35E.

 

TELL ME: What have you observed while traveling along the interstate?

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

On the Road: About patriotism &, um, Zombies February 13, 2017

WHEN MY GIRLS were little—which would have been about 25 years ago—stickers were all the rage. Kids filled mini sticker books with page after page after page of stickers. Puppies and kitties and…, for my equine loving second daughter, horses.

I didn’t understand the rationale behind transferring stickers from one piece of paper to another. But the girls loved their sticker collections and paging through them.

 

patriotic-zombie-stickers-on-vehicle-5

 

That memory flashed through my mind Saturday afternoon when I spotted a mobile sticker collection on a vehicle heading north toward the Twin Cities on Interstate 35. At first glance, I thought the stickers purely patriotic: Home of the Free, Support Our Troops, Land of the Free Because of the Brave.

 

patriotic-zombie-stickers-close-up-3

 

But then, after examining the photos I shot of the vehicle, I discovered these stickers: Zombie Outbreak Response Team and Deep Inside We All Want a Zombie Apocalypse. Uh, no we don’t. Except perhaps in Illinois. Lawmakers in the House last week approved October as “Zombie Preparedness Month.” You just can’t make this kind of stuff up. The legislators aren’t really talking zombies here, but rather preparation for natural disasters, according to media reports.

But then again, who knows? The license plate on the patriotic zombie vehicle reads Illinois.

TELL ME: What do you think of any of this? The stickers? The legislation?

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Reclaiming an appreciation for winter through photography February 2, 2017

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winter-landscape-12-treeline

 

IN THE DAYS OF MY YOUTH, I embraced winter. I saw potential in every snowfall. Snow caves and tunnels. Snow forts. Sledding.

 

winter-landscape-14-sky-field

 

Snow pushed to the edge of the farmyard and rock-hard snowdrifts formed a mountain range, a seasonal anomaly on the southwestern Minnesota prairie. It was the ideal setting to role-play the Royal Canadian Mounted Police or to challenge siblings in King of the Mountain.

 

winter-landscape-9-farm-site-2

 

I can’t reclaim those carefree days lingering now only in memories. But I can still appreciate winter, an attitude I’m relearning. That is easiest accomplished through the lens of my camera.

 

winter-landscape-7-interstate-35

 

Heading out of Faribault last Sunday afternoon for Owatonna along Interstate 35, I felt the sun radiating warmth through the van windows. And I noticed, too, the blueness of the sky scuttled by white clouds. I welcomed the blue after too many grey January days.

 

winter-landscape-6-farm-site

 

Aiming my camera to the west toward farm fields layered in a thin coating of snow, I was nearly fooled into thinking I was back on my native prairie. The land appeared familiar in the winter commonality of bare trees and open fields. And I found comfort in that—in the uncluttered landscape, in the simplicity of lines, in the visual vulnerability the earth shows in winter.

 

winter-landscape-10-trees

 

TELL ME: What do you most appreciate about winter, if you appreciate it? If you don’t, why not?

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Hot Sam’s Part I: Art, antiques & oddities in rural Lakeville August 15, 2016

A vintage van becomes a work of art at Hot Sam's.

A vintage van becomes a canvas for art at Hot Sam’s.

HOT SAM’S ANTIQUES, rural Lakeville, defies a singular definition. It’s unlike any place I’ve ever toured.

You'll see lots of vintage vehicles scattered throughout the property.

Vintage vehicles are scattered throughout the property.

There are weird and quirky surprises seemingly everywhere.

Weird and quirky surprises are seemingly propped everywhere.

Behind the sunflower and the fanciful treehouse are a log cabin and other buildings housing antiques for sale.

Atop the hill, behind the sunflower and the fanciful treehouse, are a log cabin and other buildings housing antiques and collectibles for sale.

It’s part photo park, theme park, artist’s haven, junkyard, antique shop. It is undeniably unique. And how you perceive this place depends on your individual preferences. If you like the odd, unusual and quirky, you’ll appreciate Hot Sam’s.

Posted at the entry to Hot Sam's located along Pillsbury Avenue just off Interstate 35, Lakeville exit.

Posted at the entry to Hot Sam’s located along Pillsbury Avenue just off Interstate 35, Lakeville exit.

The lovely and friendly Kathy poses for a quick portrait with the on-site pooch.

The lovely and friendly Kathy poses for a quick portrait with the resident pooch.

The Avon Freeway is new since my last visit to Hot Sam's several years ago. Avon collectible vehicles line this log along the driveway.

Avon collectible vehicles line a log along the driveway. A hodgepodge of items decorate the fence.

I first visited this attraction just off Interstate 35 south of the Twin Cities several years ago, returning on a drizzly Saturday afternoon in early June. Things had changed a bit. I couldn’t simply pull out my camera and start photographing the vignettes created by owner Jake Hood and his artist friend Barry. I had to check in with Kathy Sakry, Jake’s partner. With a bit of prompting, she remembered me and then waived the usual photographer’s fee, a necessity, Kathy says, to cover expenses.

The narrow gravel road into Hot Sam's leads to a quirky world of art and finds.

The narrow gravel road into Hot Sam’s leads to a quirky world of art and finds.

Geese wander the shore of the on-site pond.

Geese wander the shore of the on-site pond.

Looking toward a section of the beach, the setting for many water-themed vignettes.

Looking toward a section of the beach and the pond, the setting for many water-themed vignettes.

With Kathy’s OK, I threaded, camera in hand, down the puddled gravel driveway toward the sandy beach. I kept a watchful eye on the overcast threatening sky.

Sand is hauled in to help stage the beach scenes like this cabanna, added since my last visit.

Sand is hauled in to stage the beach scenes like this recently-added cabana.

An inviting tropical scene...

An inviting tropical scene…

Jake visits with a guest.

Jake visits with a guest.

The beach-side cabana, turtle-topped sand dune and dune buggy scene is Jake’s latest project. Thatch materials came from a now-closed business at the Mall of America. No surprise. Jake hints at connections to junkyards/scrappers/other sources from Minnesota to the coasts. You clearly need those ties to create an attraction like Hot Sam’s.

My husband obliges my request to sit for a photo.

My husband obliges my request to sit for a photo.

Butt bar stools, for example, come from some place in Vegas. What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas. There’s a certain mystique that envelopes Hot Sam’s, although if you had the time, Jake would likely share detailed stories.

This guitar sculpture and other sculptures are perched atop a hill along Interstate 35 south of Lakeville.

This guitar sculpture and other sculptures are perched atop a hill along Interstate 35 south of Lakeville.

Jake and I talk before he takes me and my husband into a hidden paradise.

Jake and I talk before he takes my husband and me into a hidden paradise.

Entering Hot Sam's tropical paradise. This is the only view you'll get of this place tucked into the woods. Maybe Jake will show you if you ask. But then again maybe he won't.

Entering Hot Sam’s tropical paradise. This is the only peek you’ll get of this place from me. Maybe Jake will take you there. But then again maybe not.

As it was, he invited my husband and me to board his golf cart for a short drive into a hidden section of the property. I hung on as Jake twisted the cart through the woods, down a hill, around a curve and into a recreated island-themed paradise. This party spot is most often frequented by musicians drawn to Hot Sam’s by an over-sized guitar sculpture visible from Interstate 35, Jake tells me.

If you've seen this shark and other hillside sculptures from Interstate 35 south of the Lakeville exit, then you've seen Hot Sam's art.

If you’ve seen this shark and other hillside sculptures from Interstate 35 south of the Lakeville exit, then you’ve found Hot Sam’s. Take the Lakeville exit and go east a short distance before turning south onto Kenrick Avenue.

For years, sculptures have been positioned roadside atop Hot Sam’s hill. For years, I’d seen the art and never bothered to exit the Interstate. I expect many other motorists have done the same.

A scene outside a building filled with antiques and collectibles.

The front porch of a building filled with antiques and collectibles.

That’s the thing. We drive by, just drive by. And then one day, if we have the time and/or inclination, we stop. And then we discover a place that defies easy definition, a place that showcases creativity, a place that everyone should tour. At least once. Or twice. When we’re always in a hurry, we miss the Hot Sam’s of the world. And that is our loss.

You never know what awaits you if you only take the time to stop at a place like Hot Sam's.

You never know what awaits you if you only take the time to stop at a place like Hot Sam’s.

TELL ME: Have you ever toured Hot Sam’s? Or have you visited a place just as interesting and unique? I’d love to hear. Check back tomorrow for one final photo look at this south of the metro area attraction.

FYI: To get to Hot Sam’s Antiques from Interstate 35, take exit 81 near Lakeville and go east on Dakota County Road 70 about half a mile to the stoplight. Then turn south onto Kenrick Avenue/County Road 46. Continue approximately 1 1/2 miles on Kenrick, which turns into Pillsbury Avenue. Hot Sam’s is located on the west side of the road at 22820 Pillsbury Avenue South, Lakeville. You’ll see a sign.

Open from 10 a.m. – 6 p.m. weekdays (except closed on Thursday) and Saturday and from noon to 6 p.m. on Sunday. I recommend calling in advance to confirm hours.

© Copyright 2016 Audrey Kletscher Helbling