Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Scenes from the road in Iowa June 8, 2017

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Westbound from Illinois into Iowa along Interstate 80. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo May 2016.


IN IOWA EXISTS a comfortable familiarity for me. It’s not that I’ve explored much of this state, except the northern fringes. But Iowa feels like a friendly next door neighbor or cousin, the ruralness of this land creating an instant bond.







For in Iowa—the Iowa I’ve seen—the lay of the land, the length of the sky, the scenes of barns and fields and small towns connect to my rural southwestern Minnesota roots.



I feel at home in Iowa, the place that is often the butt of Minnesota jokes. Outside the Twin Cities metro and the lakes and woods of northern Minnesota, our landscape mostly duplicates that of our southern neighbor.


The world’s largest truck stop, with eight restaurants, a movie theater, dentist and much more, has been open near Walcott off I-80 in eastern Iowa since 1964.


It’s OK to admit you like Iowa. Some of my favorite trips have been to Iowa communities—Clear Lake, Mason City, Decorah, McGregor, Marquette and Dubuque. These towns possess character and hold natural and historic interest for me.


Iowa 80, the world's largest truck stop.

Iowa 80, the world’s largest truck stop.


You know you’re in America’s agricultural heartland when you see a billboard advertising Pioneer seed.



Sometimes we need to step outside our boxes of preconceived ideas about a place and simply explore. Leave the metro and drive a gravel road, stop in a small town, delight in the simplicity of a rural landscape. Iowa and many parts of Minnesota are more than the middle of nowhere. If we choose to slow down, we begin to notice the nuances that define a place, that make it worth our time to visit and to appreciate.


TELL ME: If you’ve traveled to Iowa, what community would you suggest visiting and why? Or, if you haven’t been there, tell me what a visitor should see in your state or country?

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

NOTE: All images were taken in late May 2016 on a return trip from Minnesota to Boston.


Road trip stories: Roadside sermon June 26, 2016

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FOR HUNDREDS OF MILES on the beginning of a recent road trip from Minnesota to Massachusetts, I didn’t snap a single photo. That’s a rarity for me. I can’t explain why, only that I was settling in, simply observing rather than watching for photo ops.


Bible verse on billboard, 1 along I-80 in Indiana


Not until near mile marker 127 along Interstate 80 in Indiana did I take my first image, of John 14:6 posted on a billboard. It was meant to be. A certain sense of peace washed over me as I read the words. Sometimes timing needs no explanation, only acceptance.

FYI: Check back for more Road Trip Stories as I continue to share images and words from a recent 3,029-mile journey to the East Coast and back to Minnesota.

© Copyright 2016 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Not quite gypsies on a cross country road trip June 1, 2016

Our van is reflected in the side of a tanker truck while traveling Interstate 80.

Our van is reflected in the side of a tanker truck while traveling Interstate 80 somewhere east of Chicago.

HOW DO YOU DEFINE a road trip?

We were headed for Somerville, near Boston.

Headed for Somerville, near Boston.

I define road trip as a recent 3,029-mile drive through nine states that took my husband and me from Minnesota to our destination—Somerville, Massachusetts—and back. We followed I-80 through Iowa (to stay mostly south of Chicago) and then I-90 through New York on the way out and took I-80 through Pennsylvania on the return home.

Somewhere in upstate New York.

Somewhere in upstate New York.

There was minimal time to play tourist, although we tried to do so in Buffalo, New York, location of Niagra Falls. We were lost for 1 ½ hours in a rough and seedy part of town and never found the American side access to the falls. Road construction and inadequate road signage left us totally confused.

Tailgaters in heavy traffic somewhere along the route.

Tailgaters reflected in the passenger side mirror. Our travels went well until we pulled off the Interstate in Iowa and headed south for the Amana Colonies. Rounding a curve on a state highway, a driver crossed the center line and nearly hit us head on. Randy cranked a hard right to avoid a collision.

Without smart phones, we relied on directions printed from Google maps, a borrowed GPS system (which challenged me more than once), a good old spiral-bound Rand McNally road atlas and road signs.

In the hills of Pennsylvania, we came across this truck fire along Interstate 80.

In the hills of Pennsylvania, we came across this truck fire along Interstate 80.

Driving around Cleveland was no fun with all of the road construction.

We encountered lots of road construction, especially around Cleveland.

We navigated around major cities, swooped up and down the wooded hills of Pennsylvania, delighted in the beauty of upstate New York, survived morning rush hour in rainy Hartford, Ct., saw more dead deer than we ever hope to see again (Pennsylvania wins that count), rated restrooms, groaned at yet one more road construction zone, and complained about the toll roads.

I didn’t pack nearly enough CDs for the journey and hope never again to hear Cher sing Gypsies, Tramps & Thieves. At times I felt like a bit of a gypsy.

So many toll booths, although purchasing an EZ Pass transmitter in advance

So many toll booths…thankfully we purchased an E-Z Pass transmitter in advance of our trip that allowed us quick access through toll booths.

Five days of driving takes its toll.





Road trip, 407 red pick-up truck in Ohio


But everyone should take a road trip like this at least once to gain an appreciation for the immensity of this country, for the diversity in landscape and peoples and communities, and even barns. I did a similar trip nearly 40 years ago as a college student.

Westbound into Iowa as we near home.

Westbound into Iowa as we near home.

Everyone we met, upon learning we were from Minnesota, responded the same: “Oh, it’s cold there.” I found that interesting, that a single word defines our state to those who’ve never been here. Yes, it’s cold. Sometimes. But it’s so much more. It’s lush green and wide open spaces and minimal traffic congestion (except in the metro). It’s home.

After traveling 3,000 mostly Interstate miles, I am even more appreciative of Minnesota. We met some genuinely friendly people in every state, from a young couple at a state park in Indiana to Pat from Michigan who also got hopelessly lost in Buffalo to a native Bostonian cop with a thick Boston accent.

No matter where we live, we are still just people. We each have our own niche, our place where we feel most comfortable, that we call home. For me, that shall always be Minnesota.

Randy driving.

Randy driving.

FYI: Check back to read more about this cross country journey, beginning tomorrow with the reason for the trip.

© Copyright 2016 Audrey Kletscher Helbling