Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Goin’ to the lake June 27, 2016

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Boat, 1 ahead on I-94

 

TRAVELING TO CENTRAL and northern Minnesota on a summer weekend, motorists expect heavy traffic as folks head to lake cabins and resorts. It’s a given. Campers, trucks pulling boats and loaded-down vehicles cram roadways. Ditto for the return trip home Sunday afternoon.

 

Boat, 5 pulled along I-94

 

Even knowing this, I did not expect to see a semi truck transporting an oversized boat along Interstate 94 between Monticello and Clearwater on Saturday morning. As traffic slowed in both lanes, my husband and I wondered if we’d encounter an accident, road construction or what.

 

Boat, 7 close-up of along I-94

 

And then, as speeds picked up again, we saw the or what—the ginormous boat carried by the semi.

That led to speculation: What lake in central/northern Minnesota can handle a boat of this size? How will the owner get this boat into a lake? And what is the value of this boat?

 

Boat, 9 along I-94 in side mirror

 

Randy, who grew up in central Minnesota, unlike me a native of (mostly) lake-less southwestern Minnesota, speculated on Gull Lake near Brainerd as the boat’s destination. Right or wrong, we’ll never know. We lost track of the watercraft after sneaking ahead of the boat-towing-semi just before it crossed the Mississippi River bridge at Clearwater.

IF YOU’RE A MINNESOTAN, I’d like to hear a story about driving north on a summer weekend. If you’re not from Minnesota, tell me about traffic in your state on the weekends, perhaps areas you avoid or wish you could avoid.

© Copyright 2016 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

A rural Minnesota teacher takes action when her students need books May 12, 2016

This prairie chicken statue celebrates the real prairie chickens which reside in the Rothsay area.

This prairie chicken statue celebrates the real prairie chickens which reside in the Rothsay area. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo, May 2013.

FORTY MILES EAST of Fargo, an 18-foot tall, 9,000-pound statue marks Rothsay as The Prairie Chicken Capital of Minnesota. Without the kitschy roadside attraction, travelers likely would consider this just another small town along Interstate 94.

Downtown Rothsay is ag-oriented. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2013.

Downtown Rothsay is ag-oriented. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo, May 2013.

A few years ago, I popped into Rothsay. It’s your typical Minnesota farming community with a farmers co-op, hardware store, a bank, automotive body and repair shop, and such. And, if it’s lucky, as Rothsay is, a still surviving public school.

From what I observed, this is an historic blacksmith shop, not a working one. Note the bikes in the background parked outside the public school.

When I visited Rothsay three years ago, the school sat behind this historic blacksmith shop. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo, May 2013.

In the three years since I visited this Wilkin County community, a new school has been built. But there’s a problem, specifically in the Media Center. A shortage of books exists for high school students.

This graphic comes from the gofundme page.

This graphic of book covers comes from the gofundme page.

Now Kristie Sullivan, an English Language Arts teacher who returned to her hometown to teach, has established a gofundme page to fund the purchase of books for high schoolers. She’s seeking $5,000 for titles ranging from classics like The Catcher in the Rye to the current-day popular The Hunger Games.

I can’t think of anything in education more important than books. They are the foundation tool of learning. If you can read, you can learn.

I understand the situation Ms. Sullivan faces. Years ago, when my children were attending a Christian day school in Faribault, I volunteered in the library. There was no funding for library books. So I had to get creative. New books came through cash gifts, a birthday book program, rewards from an annual book sale and from a used book drive. I also purchased many books at garage sales. I’d like to think I made a difference in getting books to students.

Kudos to this young teacher for caring so much about her students that she set up this gofundme page. Such action shows me she is passionate about teaching. And when a teacher is passionate, kids learn. Really learn.

FYI: If you are interested in supporting this gofundme project to buy books for Rothsay High School students, click here.

(h/t Fargo Forum)

© Copyright 2016 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Why I hate traveling around the Twin Cities on a summer weekend August 12, 2013

“OH, THE PLACES you’ll go…you can steer yourself any direction you choose…”

Apparently Dr. Seuss has never driven through the Twin Cities metro on a weekend, especially this last one.

You could not go any direction you chose due to road construction. Everywhere.

On Saturday morning, heading north from Faribault on Interstate 35 and then eventually northwest on Interstates 494 and 94, my husband, son and I encountered gridlock, as in stopped traffic or traffic moving at a 20 mph maximum for mile beyond endless mile. I have never seen the traffic situation this bad in 30 years of occasionally traveling these three interstates.

It all started near Lakeville, where we crept along to the I-35 Burnsville split.

But pity the poor motorists backed up even further as the sound bound lanes of 35 were shut down completely for the entire weekend. After viewing the miles and miles of stopped traffic there, we opted for an alternative route home on Sunday (more on that in a minute).

Back to Saturday morning. Before the river bridge in Burnsville, north bound traffic finally opened up. Yeah. Little did we know…the worst was yet to come.

Not long after exiting 35 onto 494 west bound, which for once was not a harrowing experience of trying to shoehorn our van into traffic, we encountered more delays. Again, road construction is to blame along with the usual heavy weekend traffic. All told, travel time from Faribault to Monticello totaled nearly two hours. Usual drive time is maybe an hour and 20 minutes.

The only two positives in all of this: At least everyone was creeping along, meaning no crazy motorists driving like maniacs and/or weaving in and out of traffic. And roads are being improved.

Four hours later, following a brief stop at a rest stop, we reached our destination, a family reunion in Morris.

The reunion was great (photos of that forthcoming tomorrow). But the thought of returning home through the metro on Sunday afternoon, not so much. We knew the traffic then would be even worse with motorists heading back into the Cities from a weekend up north.

My husband’s oldest sister, after sharing a story of how she and her husband once sat for 40 minutes on a metro interstate on a Sunday afternoon without moving, proved the deciding factor in taking the long back way home. At least we would be moving.

So near St. Cloud, we exited 94 on Sunday and followed Minnesota Highway 15 all the way to Winthrop. Seems other motorists had the same idea. Yeah. But at least we were moving.

Road construction on Minnesota Highway 21 in Faribault.

Road construction on Minnesota Highway 21 in Faribault. Nothing compared to metro road construction and the major traffic snarl-ups there. Sorry, but I failed to photograph the interstate gridlock.

Five hours later, following a lunch break and a stop to purchase fresh veggies at a roadside stand, we drove into Faribault and, ta da, more road construction. In the nearly 30 years I’ve lived here, I’ve never seen this much road work on major roadways (Minnesota Highways 60 and 21) in my community. Not quite metro area gridlock, but…

DO YOU HAVE ANY stories to share about traffic in the Twin Cities metro this past weekend?

© Copyright 2013 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

A photographic journey through the prairie to Fargo May 24, 2013

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Rural scene, I94

ON THE WAY WEST TO FARGO, the land is wide, the sky big.

Rural scene, Sauk Centre

Fields and farm sites—punctuated by occasional cities, like Sauk Centre, Alexandria and Fergus Falls, and exits to small towns—once west of St. Cloud, define the Interstate 94 corridor leading northwest to the North Dakota border.

Rural scene, Downer sign

It is a place that can be both unsettling and freeing, depending on your perspective, your mood, your experiences.

Rural scene, farmhouse

Raised on the southwestern Minnesota prairie, even I am sometimes overwhelmed by the infinite spaciousness of this prairie, this sky.

Rural scene, lone tree

I ground myself with my camera, locking on scenes that root me to the earth, give me the security of feeling tethered.

Rural scenes, barn and silo

And when I do that, I notice the details of lines and shapes—in fence posts and grain bins, a lone farmhouse or a single tree, the angle of a barn roof or the vertical rise of a silo.

Rural, bins

I still feel small in this expanse. But I, at least, feel less lost in the vastness.

Copyright 2013 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

The enduring smiley face May 18, 2013

Freeport water tower

I DON’T CARE how many times I’ve seen this water tower smiling down at me along Interstate 94 in Freeport. I still react with a smile each time I spot it.

In a community which is reportedly the inspiration for Garrison Keillor’s fictional Lake Wobegon, this water tower epitomizes “Have a good day” in a singular visual.

And that, my friends, makes me happy.

Copyright 2013 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Touring Rothsay, the “Prairie Chicken Capital of Minnesota” May 17, 2013

DAILY, THOUSANDS OF TRAVELERS zip by Rothsay on Interstate 94, mostly oblivious to this rural Wilkin County community which claims notoriety as the “Prairie Chicken Capital of Minnesota.”

If not for the 18-foot high prairie chicken statue perched atop a hill overlooking the interstate, few would notice Rothsay. (Click here to view my previous prairie chicken post.)

Small

The local combination lumberyard and hardware store, a mainstay of small towns.

But this community of nearly 500 is worth a stop for anyone who appreciates small towns as I do. I delight in the businesses which define communities like this—the local co-op, hardware store and lumberyard. The bank. The home-grown eateries and one-of-a-kind shops. The efforts to preserve history.

Vehicles parked behind the body shop.

Vehicles parked behind the automotive body and repair shop.

Even the vehicles parked along the quiet streets, the unlocked bikes beside the school, tell a story.

On this stop in Rothsay, I had only time for a quick photographic perusal. That was enough to satisfy my desire to view this community, to feel its heartbeat.

Most rural communities are home to a cooperative.

Most rural communities are home to a famer’s cooperative.

I just had to appreciate the name of this ice cream shop in Rothsay, with a mosquito atop the roof.

I just had to appreciate the name of this ice cream shop in Rothsay, with a mosquito atop the roof.

A church turned thrift store.

A church turned thrift store.

Ole and Lena's Pizzeria serves pizza, pasta and sandwiches. No lutefisk listed on the outdoor sign.

Ole and Lena’s Pizzeria serves pizza, pasta and sandwiches. No lutefisk or lefse listed on the outdoor sign.

Typically the nicest building in town, the bank.

Typically the nicest building in town, the bank.

From what I observed, this is an historic blacksmith shop, not a working one. Note the bikes in the background parked outside the public school.

From what I observed, this is an historic blacksmith shop, not a working one. Note the unlocked bikes in the background parked outside the public school.

FYI: Click here to read my previous post about the Wilkin County Sheriff’s Department office in Rothsay.

© Copyright 2013 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

How a prairie chicken saves the day May 14, 2013

NUMEROUS TIMES ON TRIPS to and from Fargo, I’ve wanted to stop and photograph a kitschy roadside attraction along Interstate 94 on the edge of Rothsay. But time never allowed, until Friday morning.

This prairie chicken statue celebrates the real prairie chickens which reside in the Rothsay area.

This prairie chicken statue celebrates the real prairie chickens which reside in the Rothsay area.

I convinced my husband, who didn’t seem as excited as me, that we had time for a photo op with an 18-foot tall, 8,000-pound prairie chicken. He sat in the van while I did a quick photo shoot in the whipping wind.

In the right background of this photo, you can see the smoke rising from a grass fire along Interstate 94 near Rothsay late Friday morning.

In the right background of this photo, you can see smoke.

From our hilltop position next to the interstate, we noticed a towering plume of white smoke in the distance. Randy speculated a controlled burn at a nearby wildlife refuge. I wasn’t so sure. Who would be crazy enough to light the land afire on a windy day like Friday? But what do I know?

The road to the left leads into Rothsay, "The Prairie Chicken Capital of Minnesota."

The road to the left leads into Rothsay, “Prairie Chicken Capital of Minnesota.”

So…given my curiosity about this self-proclaimed “Prairie Chicken Capital of Minnesota,” we drove into Rothsay and meandered through residential areas before parking across from the Wilkin County Sheriff’s Department office (that’s another story) to scout out the town.

Soon, the wail of sirens pierced the quiet of an unexciting Friday morning in Rothsay as a rescue squad vehicle and fire truck roared out of town. To that fire, I presumed.

I shot a few more photos and then, just as we were about to leave the downtown, spotted a thrift store in an old church. We stopped.

This photo shows a section of the road ditch burned Friday morning along I-94 near Rothsay and photographed several hours later.

This photo shows a section of the road ditch burned Friday morning along I-94 near Rothsay and photographed several hours later.

When I met a local exiting the thrift shop, I asked if he knew anything about the fire. As I expected, he did. Word travels fast in a small town like Rothsay, population around 500. The fire, he said, was burning in the road ditch along the west side of the interstate about a mile north of town.

“Could have started with a bearing going out on a truck,” he speculated.

Or a cigarette butt tossed out a vehicle window, I thought.

Then he advised us not to take the interstate. “Go past the truck stop on the edge of town and keep going straight north til you get to County Road 108. Turn onto that and it will take you back onto the interstate,” he repeated. Thrice.

He reckoned that drivers, blinded by the smoke, might be piling into one another on the roadway. “They don’t slow down like they should.”

More of the charred road ditch from the Friday morning grass fire which halted traffic and caused accidents.

More of the charred road ditch from the Friday morning grass fire which halted traffic and caused accidents.

Randy wasn’t so sure the elderly man was right. I was. He seemed quite sure of his information.

As we aimed toward the edge of Rothsay, my indecisive husband suggested that we watch for southbound traffic on I-94. There was none. So north we traveled on a county road, soon catching glimpses of long lines of stopped traffic on both sides of the interstate.

From the County Road 108 entrance ramp nearly all the way to Moorhead, a distance of about 40 miles, we had the entire interstate mostly to ourselves. Talk about an eerie feeling. But better to freewheel along the interstate than to be stuck in traffic at the dual emergency site of a grass fire and multiple crashes.

So that is my story of how a prairie chicken, and a kindly man from Rothsay, saved the day for us.

And, I suppose, I can take some credit, too, as I suggested we stop in Rothsay. If not for my desire to photograph kitschy art, we would have driven right into that smoke and…perhaps another vehicle.

The feet of the giant prairie chicken along with info about the statue built in 1976 by artist

The feet of the giant “booming” prairie chicken along with info about the statue erected in 1976.

FYI: According to minimal information I found online, several crashes resulted from the large grass fire burning along I-94 near mile marker 36 north of Rothsay. I couldn’t find any details.

Also, according to info I read online, the 23-mile section of roadway from the Downer exit to Rothsay is known as “the Bermuda Triangle of I-94” because of the high volume of crashes during the winter months. The article doesn’t cite grass fires. Click here to read that story.

This past weekend, numerous grass fires were reported in this region of Minnesota. Click here to read about the fires.

Also, due to the high fire danger in many areas of Minnesota, the Department of Natural Resources has issued burning restrictions in specific counties. Click here to learn more about those restrictions.

© Copyright 2013 Audrey Kletscher Helbling