Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

When COVID-19 alters summer plans August 6, 2020

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Nearing Madison, Wisconsin, in early July.

 

THIS WAS SUPPOSED TO BE our summer. The summer to explore. The summer of no broken bones and physical therapy and health crises. Three years in a row of challenges left us yearning for a good summer. Randy and I already had tentative plans to spend time in Madison—where two of our adult children live—and explore that region of Wisconsin.

 

Plans to spend more time outside of Minnesota this summer changed. This sign is located at the entry point to our state near La Crosse, Wisconsin.

 

But then COVID-19 happened and all summer plans vanished. Poof. Just like that.

 

Along the interstate in Wisconsin in July, returning home to Minnesota.

 

Now, rather than discovering Wisconsin, we are simply traveling from Point A in Faribault some four hours to Point B in Madison. And once there, our activity is restricted to visiting with family. No touring museums. No dining out. No anything that will put us in contact with the general public.

 

I never tire of appreciating and photographing the beautiful farm sites in the valley east of La Crosse.

 

Except we still have that matter of needing to stop at interstate rest stops en route and back. The newly-constructed one in La Crosse gets a gold star rating for easy access and overall cleanliness. The eastbound one near Mauston…won’t ever stop there again.

 

One of my favorite barns looms on a hillside along the interstate near Madison.

 

A longer trip like this also requires one gas up. While Randy filled the van in Madison, I went inside to grab a bottle of lemonade, and then waited in a long line marked with social distancing circles. Most customers were complying and wearing masks. (This was prior to Madison, and now Wisconsin’s, mask mandate.) But then two unmasked young men walked in and stood right next to me. I gave them a look, looked intentionally down at the social distancing circle and then back at them. They got the message and stepped away. No words necessary.

 

A farm in Amish country in southeastern Minnesota.

 

It’s interesting how, in a global pandemic, even stopping to get gas or pee or to picnic raises concerns and takes thought. And care. Masking up, grabbing hand sanitizer, dodging people… I’ve never felt so anti-social.

 

Wisconsin offers plenty of places to pick up cheese as seen on this interstate sign.

 

East of La Crosse and in the Wisconsin Dells area are particularly stunning rock formations jutting from the landscape.

 

Anyone remember supper clubs? Every time I see this sign along the interstate, I think, “I want to dine there.”

 

All of that aside, wouldn’t you just love to hop in your vehicle now and drive away from it all? Drive to see loved ones. Drive to explore some interesting natural place you’ve never seen before. Dine out. Stop at cheesy attractions. And I mean that literally when it comes to Wisconsin. Or drive away into the future, when no COVID-19 exists.

 

Look at all the places these campers have traveled.

 

Westbound on the interstate, nearing La Crosse.

 

More campers…saw lots of those in July on the interstate in Wisconsin en route to and from Madison.

 

I expect some of you have gotten away. Still vacationing. Still traveling. If that fits your comfort level and you’re being careful, then good for you. Just be mindful of mandates and quarantines and everything you can do to protect yourself and others.

 

A lock and dam on the Mississippi River by La Crosse, on the river that separates Wisconsin from Minnesota.

 

Life goes on. Even in a lockdown. And as cranky as too many people seem over restrictions and shutdowns, I’m grateful for those requirements. Health and safety are more important than temporary inconveniences or sacrifices or whatever argument spewed. I don’t need to send more sympathy cards to friends who have lost loved ones to COVID-19. I’ve already mailed two.

 

Nearing Claremont, Minnesota, as the sun sets upon our return from Madison.

 

Maybe next summer will be my summer to explore Wisconsin…

 

TELL ME: What did you intend to do this summer before COVID-19 changed your plans? Or did you continue as planned? If you could go one place right now, where would that be? How are you coping with everything?

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Along Wingra Creek: The natural beauty of Madison July 30, 2020

Wingra Creek, photographed from the recreational trail with the same name.

 

MADISON. My first impression several years ago of Wisconsin’s capital city remains unchanged. This is a place defined by water, lots of green space, an extensive recreational trail system and residents who love their Badgers, bikes, beer and cheese.

 

I took this photo in downtown Madison in June 2018. Love the buildings and vibrancy and walk-ability of this area, including the nearby state capitol. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2018.

 

As I’ve explored Madison, pre-COVID, I’ve always felt comfortable. And that says a lot for someone who doesn’t really like big cities all that much. Madison maintains a minimum metro feel, yet offers all the amenities of a growing urban area. During past visits, I’ve spent time downtown—including inside the capitol, restaurants and art museums—and toured the Olbrich Botanical Gardens and more.

 

Another way to follow Wingra Creek, via paddleboarding.

 

Oh, the loveliness of sunset lighting when photographing a flowering milkweed.

 

A single wildflower stalk rises along the creek bank.

 

On a visit in early July, because of the global pandemic, I confined my activities to a stop at a frozen custard shop and to walking. One evening I grabbed my camera to follow a section of the Wingra Creek Path near my daughter and son-in-law’s home. The golden hour of sunset presented ideal soft-glow lighting for photos.

 

A flowering milkweed.

 

Flowers flourish along the grassy creek bank.

 

A patch of bee balm.

 

While the rest of the family walked ahead, I lagged, stopping to photograph the many wildflowers that grow along the banks of Wingra Creek.

 

I’ve learned to be vigilant while using Madison’s recreational trails due to the high volume of bikers. Because of a hearing loss, I often don’t hear them approaching from behind. And most speed by.

 

Occasionally a biker zipped by at a rate of speed which caused me concern. I recognized quickly that I needed to pay attention to activity around me and not get too lost in photographing this beautiful place.

 

Flowers, grass, trees, water, sky…

 

A coneflower.

 

Berries on a bush along the trail.

 

Had I not known I was in the middle of a city, I would have thought myself in the countryside.

 

Looking down Wingra Creek from a foot bridge linking to a park. The trail is to the left.

 

The tiniest of flowers I photographed.

 

The first wildflower photo I took on this walk and among my favorite for the perspective.

 

The water. The flowers. The lack of city noises. All define this recreational trail as a place to embrace nature.

 

A trailside reminder that we’re still in a global pandemic.

 

Dog walkers. Bikers. Families out for an evening stroll. Joggers. Us. Everyone simply enjoying time outdoors with subtle reminders that we remain in a world-wide health crisis. A sign reminding trail users to social distance. A discarded face mask littering the side of the pathway.

 

The trail passes through this tunnel.

 

But for a short while we mostly forgot all about the tunnel of COVID-19.

 

Paddling in Wingra Creek.

 

When we retraced our path and crossed a footbridge back to my daughter’s street, I almost missed the paddleboarder gliding under the bridge, so quiet was she. As I watched, I admired her skills.

 

Light filters softness into my floral photos.

 

And I thought, how peaceful this moment in the golden hour of a July sunset.

 

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Close-up in the Atwood Neighborhood of Madison July 22, 2020

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One of the many inspiring signs posted in the residential neighborhood where I walked a square block.

 

THE MESSAGES ARE STRONG. Powerful. Statements that express the beliefs of those who live here. In a section of the Atwood Neighborhood in Wisconsin’s capital city.

 

A view of the Atwood neighborhood, including the bike trail that crosses this busy street. The residential neighborhood photographed for this post is to the left (and unseen) in this image.

 

On a recent trip to Madison to visit our second daughter and her husband and our son, I walked a block-square residential area near the son’s apartment building on the east side. I chose that over following the bike trail since I suffer a hearing loss and often don’t hear bikers fast-approaching from behind. Madison has a great system of recreational routes. But strolling sidewalks feels safer for me as I take in my surroundings, sometimes pausing to take photos.

 

Charming homes and yards…with powerful messages posted.

 

I was delighted to find fairy gardens in one yard.

 

Vegetables grow in a watering tank along the boulevard.

 

In the block I walked near the trail, also near Olbrich Botanical Gardens and Lake Monona, I found plenty to photograph. This is a well-kept area of older homes snugged together. Most front yards overflow with flowers, including in one, sweet fairy gardens. Inviting front porches, decks and entries define these homes that truly fit the definition of charming.

 

A bold door carries a strong message.

 

This sign references the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis on Memorial Day, which prompted a movement.

 

A statement of beliefs outside another Atwood home.

 

In these mostly lawn-less properties, there seems a cohesiveness of pride and of people who care about others, about issues, about this place they call home. And beyond. I saw that in the many posted signs addressing current-day concerns.

 

Bowling balls make for interesting garden art.

 

Lilies burst color into one of many front yard gardens.

 

This typewriter garden art intrigued me. I wished I could roll a piece of paper into the typewriter and leave a message.

 

Among the lilies and the outdoor art—including a rusting vintage typewriter—I experienced a sense of neighborhood that expands into home-grown businesses like Monty’s Blue Plate Diner, Michael’s Frozen Custard, the Barrymore Theatre

 

In this photo, the message I quote below is posted in the sign to the far right, bottom.

 

And I heard, too, this overall general message: No matter where you are from, we’re glad you’re our neighbor.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

From fireworks to face masks… July 9, 2020

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An over-sized American flag flies along Interstate 90 near Madison, Wisconsin, on the Fourth of July.

 

MADISON, WISCONSIN on the Fourth of July is, if anything, noisy. Loud with fireworks. We sat on the balcony of our son’s apartment in the Atwood neighborhood the evening of July 4 and watched and listened as fireworks spread across the night sky. Left. Right. And in between. No fireworks from an organized official public show, but from neighborhoods.

 

A pop-up fireworks tent in Mauston, where we stopped for a picnic lunch.

 

Randy and I arrived in the capital city in the early afternoon, passing numerous fireworks businesses en route. A temporary tent in Mauston. A permanent fireworks building in some other location along Interstate 90 that I can’t recall.

 

A large-scale fireworks business just off I-90 near Madison.

 

Wisconsinites like to do it up big with their fireworks, brats, beer and cheese.

 

Lots of campers on I-90.

 

Traffic volumes were heavy along I-90 and the city of Madison thrumming with people and traffic. You could forget for a moment or ten that we are still in the midst of a global pandemic except for the people wearing masks and the electronic road signs advising travelers to “buckle up and mask up.”

 

A public service announcement flashes over I-90. I saw this message numerous times along I-90. Thank you, Wisconsin, for the reminder.

 

I appreciate the message. And I appreciate, too, the many people I saw in Madison wearing face masks, showing their care and concern for others. We could learn a thing or two from the good folks of Madison about the importance of wearing masks. (At least here in many parts of greater southern Minnesota. Thank you, Rochester, Mankato and Winona, Minnesota, for mandating mask wearing. St. Paul and Minneapolis, too.)

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

A snapshot of Madison, Wisconsin’s capital city January 27, 2020

Wisconsin’s capitol sits atop a hill in the heart of downtown Madison. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo October 2019.

 

MADISON, WISCONSIN, is, if anything, a capital city of vast green spaces. At least that’s my observation after visiting several times. Two of my three adult children now live there. So I’m exploring, getting to know this place that doesn’t feel all that much like a large metro area.

 

Downtown Madison, around the capitol, is one busy place on a Saturday morning during the Farmers’ Market. The way some of the streets come together reminds me of the squares in greater Boston. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo October 2019.

 

I’m comfortable here without skyscrapers defining the cityscape. The lovely domed capitol, set atop a hill, centers the walkable downtown. I’ve been to the Dane County Farmers’ Market there, albeit on a rainy Saturday that didn’t lend itself to lingering. We ducked inside the capitol to avoid the rain.

 

Randy stops to check a photo he took inside the Olbrich Botanical Gardens conservatory. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo December 2019.

 

Madison edges two lakes. Parks along the lakes and elsewhere make this city feel welcoming to someone like me who prefers open spaces. I’ve already visited Olbrich Botanical Gardens three times.

 

Me, thrilled to see my first Andy Warhol original. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo by Miranda, December 2019.

 

And last trip here, I toured the massive Chazen Museum of Art where I delighted in Andy Warhol’s depiction of Marilyn Monroe. The museum, on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus, has no admission fee but a donation box.

 

Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo December 2019.

 

But something else grabbed my eye while out and about—a pedestrian with a bicycle wheel strapped to his back. Madison is a bike-friendly place with trails throughout the city. So seeing this should not have surprised me. But, still, it did and caused me to laugh. As a back seat passenger in my daughter’s car, I didn’t have the best spot to get a good photo. But you get the idea.

 

During an October visit, I walked along this recreational/bike trail near my daughter’s home. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo October 2019.

 

I love this aspect of Madison, this embracing of bicyclists on a great trail system.

TELL ME: Have you been to Madison? What would you recommend I see next visit? I’ve been to the capitol, dined at several restaurants, patronized a cheese shop, but have yet to visit a brewery.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

The art of Wisconsin’s Bucky Badger June 12, 2018

Bright Idea Bucky by artist Kathryn Schnabel and located outside Central Library in downtown Madison, Wisconsin.

 

I’M NO SPORTS FAN. Nothing wrong with that. Sports don’t interest me. Art does.

 

 

So even I can appreciate Bucky on Parade, a public art endeavor in the city of Madison and in Dane County, Wisconsin, that simultaneously promotes athletics and art.

 

Visitors written ideas and inspirations are incorporated into the fabric of the Bright Idea Bucky.

 

The Madison Area Sports Commission produced the event with support from local tourism and the University of Wisconsin—Madison. UW is home to the Buckingham U. “Bucky” Badger mascot, star of Bucky on Parade.

 

Butterflies cover this statue created by Lon Michels and titled Enlightened Bucky. It’s located at 100 W. Mifflin Street.

 

I photographed three of the 85 Bucky Badger works of art during a recent visit to Wisconsin’s capital city. I wasn’t purposely looking for Bucky, thus only the trio. The personalized fiberglass statues of 64 local and regional artists are on display until September 12.

 

“Grow” by Emmalee Pearson and outside the Olbrich Botanical Gardens entry.

 

On September 29, the statues will be auctioned at a Bucky on Parade Finale Party with proceeds benefiting Garding Against Cancer, the Madison Area Sports Commission and other community charities.

 

 

Wisconsin’s Bucky Badger, like Minnesota’s Goldy Gopher, is a big deal to fans, and the economy. I didn’t have to look beyond downtown Madison to find Bucky merchandise…

 

 

and, uh, Badger Liquor.

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

First impressions of downtown Madison, Wisconsin June 11, 2018

 

 

AS SOMEONE WHO DOESN’T particularly like big cities, and I realize that term is relative, I like Madison. That surprised me.

 

The modernistic entrance to the U.S. Federal Courthouse.

 

The Wisconsin Historical Society.

 

The Madison Museum of Contemporary Art.

 

But on my recent first visit to Wisconsin’s capital city of 252,000-plus, I discovered a downtown that mixes historic and contemporary to create an energetic, yet small town inviting, vibe. Granted, I only spent an hour downtown and popped into only one shop on a Sunday morning. But that was enough for me to grasp a sense of place, a place I want to explore further.

 

 

Looking toward the capitol.

 

 

This is a foot-friendly city with State Street, a pedestrian mall, stretching for blocks from the University of Wisconsin—Madison to the state capitol building. This is also a bike-friendly city. I noted, too, many restaurants with outdoor dining along tree-hugged streets. Madison visually impresses with its greenery seemingly everywhere.

 

 

With the exception of homeless people I observed alongside a building near the capitol, I never felt like I was in an overpowering-to-my-senses urban area.

 

 

 

 

I felt, instead, like I was in greater Boston, which has the same smallish within a large metro area feel. Pie-slice street corners and angled buildings remind me of Porter and Davis Squares on the East Coast. Just less busy with pedestrians actually respectful of motor vehicle traffic.

 

 

Likewise, the packed, porch-fronted old houses of the downtown Madison area neighborhoods remind me of the old neighborhoods around Tufts University (where my son attended college) in Somerville and Cambridge, Massachusetts. I expect had UW-Madison been in session, I would have seen lots of college students in the heart of this city given the university’s downtown location.

 

 

 

 

I found plenty to focus my attention. Architecture and signage always draw my interest and Madison offers visual variety in both.

 

 

After an hour-long tour through downtown with family, I determined that I need to return, to step inside the buildings, the places, that define the center of this capital city.

 

TELL ME: If you’ve been to Madison, what would you suggest I see on my next visit? Please check back for two more posts from Madison, including one on Bucky Badger craziness.

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

A glimpse of Thailand in Madison, Wisconsin June 7, 2018

This 40 x 22-foot and 30-foot high pavilion was built in Thailand, disassembled and shipped to the U.S. and then rebuilt by nine Thai artisans in Madison.

 

YOU WOULD NEVER EXPECT this in Wisconsin, this ornate Thai pavilion. It seems so out of place in a state that brings to mind beer, brats, cheese and the Green Bay Packers.

 

Underside details of the roofline.

 

Yet, in the Olbrich Botanical Gardens in the capital city of Madison, a Thai pavilion centers a space of water features and tropical gardens. It is the only Thai pavilion in the U.S. and only one of four built outside Thailand. The Olbrich pavilion was a gift from the Thai government and the Thai Chapter of the Wisconsin Alumni Association to the University of Wisconsin-Madison. UW-Madison has one of the largest Thai student populations in the country.

 

Posing for quinceañera photos.

 

One of many water features in the Thai garden. Water represents good health and prosperity to the Thai people.

 

The quinceañera  group gathers inside the pavilion for photos. Thus, I couldn’t get a closer look at the pavilion.

 

On the Saturday afternoon I visited the gardens, the cultural mix of pavilion and peoples reminded me that we truly are a diverse country. Here I was, an American of German ethnicity, viewing this Thai structure while simultaneously delighting in observing youth celebrating quinceañera in Wisconsin.

 

 

I appreciate any opportunity to grow my cultural awareness, whether through art, music, food, customs, gardens or simply observing.

 

Members of the quinceañera party cross the bridge spanning Starkweather Creek and leading to the Thai pavilion and gardens.

 

We are, at our most basic, individuals who desire food, shelter, security, health, happiness, love and joy. Or so I see it.

 

 

In Thailand, common roadside pavilions provide shelter from weather. The Madison pavilion is a work of art, a place of serenity, a structure fitting a palace or temple grounds. In that it differs from the simpler of Thai shelters.

 

A volunteer watches to assure visitors don’t touch the gold leaf on the pavilion. Touching destroys it.

 

Most of us never live such lives of gold leaf opulence. I certainly don’t.

 

 

But I appreciate the opportunity to glimpse the untouchable wealth of a world beyond beer and brats.

 

PLEASE CHECK BACK next week as I take you into downtown Madison and conclude this series from Wisconsin.

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Exploring Madison: First stop, Olbrich Botanical Gardens June 6, 2018

My first view of the downtown Madison skyline with Lake Monona in the foreground.

 

GREEN SPACE. Those words define my first impression of Madison, Wisconsin. This is an outdoor-friendly city with prolific public pathways, with an obvious bend for recreational activities that take folks outside.

 

Closing in on downtown Madison with the state capitol on the left.

 

In woods, parks, gardens, open spaces and tree-lined streets, green colors the lush landscape. Lakes and waterways add to the city’s natural beauty. This capital city of 252,000-plus pulses with bikers, boaters, joggers, walkers and others simply enjoying the outdoors. There’s a certain undeniable vibe in Madison, as if those who live and visit here need to spend every minute outside before winter sweeps cold and snow into the land in a matter of months. But I expect even then plenty of outdoor activity happens.

 

 

 

 

 

 

On my first visit to Madison, where my second daughter and her husband recently relocated, I walked through the Olbrich Botanical Gardens, a 16-acre space of outdoor gardens and a tropical conservatory. On the afternoon of our visit, exceptionally high heat and humidity left me drained and occasionally seeking a shaded bench. Time and temps kept us from the Bolz Conservatory, a spot I’ll check out during a cooler season.

 

 

 

 

While the gardens are beautiful, they were not at their peak during our transitioning from spring into summer tour. Yet, it was a delight just to be there with my daughter and husband, walking the pathways, smelling fragrant flowers, enjoying the art and water features, observing young people celebrating quinceanera

 

The Thai Pavillion from across a creek.

 

Of special visual interest is the Thai Pavilion and Garden, the only one in the continental U.S. It was a gift from the Thai government and the Thai Chapter of the Wisconsin Alumni Association. UW-Madison, located in the heart of the downtown, has one of the largest Thai student populations of any U.S. post-secondary institution.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Some 1,000 volunteers work these gardens, greet visitors and more. What a labor of love in a place that seems so suited for Madison, a metro area with a small town feel and lots of green space.

 

 

FYI: Check back for a second post from the Olbrich Botanical Gardens as I take you up close into the Thai Pavilion and garden.

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Only in Minnesota, North Dakota & Wisconsin February 10, 2018

Ice fishing on Union Lake in rural Rice County, Minnesota. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo February 2017.

 

LIFE CAN BE STRANGER than fiction. As a life-long Minnesotan, I know that to be true.

 

Vang Lutheran Church advertises its annual Lutefisk & Meatball Supper. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

For example, here in Minnesota, we drive onto frozen lakes to drill holes in the ice and then angle for fish. We also organize polar plunges in which we dive into frigid lakes in the winter to raise monies for charities. And we eat cod soaked in lye at annual church dinners. Some of us. Not me, although I’ve tried lutefisk twice.

 

Downtown Fargo, North Dakota. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

Our neighbors to the east and west can tell similar strange stories. The most recent comes from the campus of North Dakota State University in Fargo. On Thursday around lunch-time, a cow escaped from The Little International Livestock Show and roamed the campus for a short time before it was wrangled.

 

This photo, taken in southwestern Minnesota, illustrates the size of the cow which escaped at NDSU on Thursday. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2010.

 

The NDSU Saddle & Sirloin Club sponsors the show, the largest student-led event on campus with 300 collegiates involved. That likely explains the calm reaction of students in the short video clip I watched of the escape. Students didn’t panic. They continued walking to classes or wherever they were headed. Many of them come from rural areas to this school with numerous ag majors. No reason to get excited about a bulky, wandering bovine.

 

Packers fans houses in Wautoma? Or simply a gold house and a green house? Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2012.

 

Then we have Wisconsin, which never ceases to surprise me, especially with its Packers fanaticism. I’ve seen brat buns and popcorn colored green and gold. And in Wautoma, two neighboring houses are painted in Packers colors. At least they were several years ago.

 

My daughter, Miranda, snapped this scene through the back car window while in Madison, Wisconsin. Photo courtesy of Miranda Boyd.

 

But then along came a February 4 report from my daughter, who lives in eastern Wisconsin and who was in Madison for the weekend. She snapped a photo of a guy riding a motorcycle, or maybe it’s a scooter, as snow fell on a 10-degree day. How crazy is that?

TELL ME: What stranger than fiction story can you share from your community or state?

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling
Wisconsin biker photo courtesy of Miranda Boyd