Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

So thankful for this newer & safer stretch of Highway 14 December 2, 2016

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Heavy traffic on U.S. Highway 14 between Nicollet and North Mankato late last Sunday afternoon.

Heavy traffic on U.S. Highway 14 between Nicollet and North Mankato. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo March 2013.

IN MARCH 2013, I penned a post, “Hope for one of Minnesota’s most dangerous rural highways.” That would be US Highway 14, specifically between North Mankato and New Ulm.

Back then, I quoted the Minnesota Department of Transportation:

The U.S. Highway 14 corridor between New Ulm and North Mankato in Nicollet County recorded 250 crashes from 2006 to 2010. This overall crash rate is consistent with comparable rural state highways. However, 11 of those crashes had either a fatality or a serious injury, leaving this portion of Hwy 14 with a fatal and serious injury crash rate 50 percent greater than comparable rural state highways. Safety in the area from North Mankato to Nicollet and at the intersection of Hwy 14 and Hwy 15 north of New Ulm is of particular concern.

Did you catch that? A fatal and serious injury crash rate 50 percent greater than comparable highways.

I don’t doubt those statistics and that assessment. For decades I’ve traveled Highway 14 to and from my native southwestern Minnesota. Heavy traffic, narrow lanes, and few opportunities to safely pass make this roadway particularly dangerous.

U.S. Highway 14 under construction between Mankato and Nicollet.

Barrels and signage guide motorists onto a detour in the final month of Highway 14 construction between Mankato and Nicollet. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo October 2016.

But now at least 10 miles of Highway 14 are safer due to the completion of a construction project which expanded the roadway from two to four lanes between North Mankato and Nicollet. Several years of putting up with detours was worth it.

Westbound on the new Highway 14 heading to Nicollet.

Westbound on the new Highway 14 heading to Nicollet.

For the first time Thanksgiving weekend, my husband and I traveled on the recently-opened four-lane. It’s great. Simply great. As the smooth highway stretched before us, we considered how reassuring to have a median rather than rumble strips and pylons separating narrow traffic lanes. No worry about cross-over, head-on or rear-end crashes.

You'll see lots of semis traveling this stretch of rural Minnesota highway.

Lots of semis travel this stretch of rural Minnesota highway where rumble strips and pylons once separated lanes. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2013.

We considered how the traffic flowed rather than clogged. On the old two-lane, a driver traveling below the 55 mph posted speed or slow-moving farm equipment could back up traffic. And when drivers get impatient, they don’t always use good judgment.

The highway skirts Nicollet to the south. I wonder what impact this will have on businesses in this small town.

The highway skirts Nicollet to the south. I wonder what impact this will have on businesses in this small town.

As Mankato has grown, becoming a regional shopping and cultural destination, and as our society has become increasingly more mobile, traffic has continued to increase along Highway 14. The need has existed for quite some time to expand this roadway. It makes my occasional travel to the region faster, easier, safer. I can only imagine how grateful are those who live in this area.

The four-lane ends shortly after the exit into Nicollet.

The four-lane ends shortly after the exit into Nicollet.

Now, if funding would be appropriated to finish the expansion to four-lane between Nicollet and New Ulm, I’d be even more pleased.

West of Nicollet, signage warns drivers that Highway 14 goes back to two-lane.

West of Nicollet, signage warns drivers that Highway 14 goes back to two-lane.

But if it’s like the just-finished project, there will be decades of talk and multiple studies and crashes before that happens. Sigh.

© Copyright 2106 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Thoughts & scenes along the Highway 14 detour October 5, 2016

TYPICALLY, ROAD CONSTRUCTION frustrates me. Unexpected delays and detours add to travel time and sometimes to distance.

U.S. Highway 14 under construction between Mankato and Nicollet.

U.S. Highway 14 under construction between Mankato and Nicollet, nearing the detour.

But I welcome at least one major road project in southern Minnesota—the expansion of U.S. Highway 14 between Mankato and Nicollet in to a four-lane. This stretch rates as one of the most dangerous roadways in rural Minnesota. Traffic volume along the narrow highway is high. Passing is mostly difficult and dangerous.

The improvements are needed to make this a safer highway. If only the expansion would run all the way to New Ulm.

On the detour route.

The detour route took us through Nicollet County farm land,aiming for Courtland.

Traveling to southwestern Minnesota last Saturday, my husband and I steered away from the Highway 14 project by taking Minnesota Highway 99 between St. Peter and Nicollet. Except this time 99 was closed before we reached Nicollet and we were rerouted onto the official Highway 14 detour route.

 

detour-43-red-barn

 

detour-51-john-deere-combine-in-field

 

detour-49-barn-roof

 

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The detour added about 15 minutes to our drive time. But that was OK. I enjoy rural landscapes and passing places like Immanuel Lutheran Church and School, rural Courtland, the home congregation of my maternal ancestors.

 

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As we rounded Nicollet County Road 25 near its intersection with Highway 14, a spectacular view of the Minnesota River Valley unfolded before us. Vast blue sky striped with grey clouds butted the distant tree line. I could see for miles and miles and miles. It is not the mountains. But, still, the scene wrote lines of poetry before my prairie native eyes.

TELL ME: What are your thoughts on road construction, detours and/or dangerous roadways?

© 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.

Massachussetts

Massachusetts

Pennsylvania

Pennsylvania

Road trip, 407 red pick-up truck in Ohio

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

 

Minnesota’s fifth season arrives April 6, 2016

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A sign near St. Paul flashes road construction info.

A sign near St. Paul flashes road construction info.

IT’S APRIL, AND ROAD CONSTRUCTION season is ramping up in Minnesota. Traveling in the Twin Cities metro, especially, can be a nightmare mess with road, ramp and lane closures and the accompanying snarl of slow-moving traffic or gridlock.

I am truly thankful that I live in Greater Minnesota, where road construction is a much more manageable problem.

Signature orange barrels mark construction zones.

Signature orange barrels and barricades mark construction zones approaching downtown St. Paul.

Still, with my eldest daughter and her husband living in the northern metro and extended family living points north, avoiding metro road construction is impossible.

So many signs and cones

So many signs and barrels nearing downtown St. Paul.

I know the traffic here is nothing compared to places like LA or Chicago. But still…

WHAT’S YOUR STRATEGY for dealing with road construction?

© 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 bear sighting in Faribault August 10, 2013

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Bear

UNLIKE SOME BLOGGERS I know (click here), I do not have to travel all the way to Wyoming to see a bear. I photographed this bear at the intersection of a four-lane highway and a busy street in a commercial area of Faribault Wednesday evening. The A & W bear almost seamlessly blends in with the road construction environment.

No need to be alert, make noise, carry bear spray or avoid hiking alone or running.

This bear, offering free root beer floats, seemed much too friendly for those worries.

Copyright 2013 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Hope for one of Minnesota’s most dangerous rural highways March 29, 2013

IF YOU EVER HAVE traveled U.S. Highway 14 west of North Mankato, you will understand why I am thrilled that something is finally being done to improve a small stretch—the 10 miles between North Mankato and Nicollet—of this deadly roadway.

Heavy traffic on U.S. Highway 14 between Nicollet and North Mankato late last Sunday afternoon.

Heavy traffic on U.S. Highway 14 between Nicollet and North Mankato late last Sunday afternoon.

Based on my more than 30 years of traveling Highway 14, I can unequivocally tell you that this rural roadway rates as dangerous. Think narrow lanes, heavy traffic, speeding, few opportunities to pass safely and too many drivers passing when they shouldn’t be.

Read this revealing information from the Minnesota Department of Transportation:

The U.S. Highway 14 corridor between New Ulm and North Mankato in Nicollet County recorded 250 crashes from 2006 to 2010. This overall crash rate is consistent with comparable rural state highways. However, 11 of those crashes had either a fatality or a serious injury, leaving this portion of Hwy 14 with a fatal and serious injury crash rate 50 percent greater than comparable rural state highways. Safety in the area from North Mankato to Nicollet and at the intersection of Hwy 14 and Hwy 15 north of New Ulm is of particular concern.

Did you catch that statistic? A fatal and serious injury crash rate 50 percent greater than comparable rural state highways. Impressive and scary, huh?

You'll see lots of semis traveling this stretch of rural Minnesota highway.

You’ll see lots of semis traveling this stretch of rural Minnesota highway. This recently-installed buffer strip now runs all the way between North Mankato and Nicollet.

In recent years, when traveling to southwestern Minnesota to visit family, my husband and I often have taken the “back way” to Nicollet from Faribault, passing through towns like Le Center, Cleveland and St. Peter, to avoid that horrible 10-mile stretch of Highway 14 from North Mankato. We’ve checked mileage and travel time and found both routes to be nearly identical.

Entering the construction zone, westbound on Highway 14 in North Mankato.

Entering the construction zone, westbound on Highway 14 in North Mankato.

But many times we still take Highway 14 between North Mankato and Nicollet. Now it’s a bit safer with a buffer, traffic sticks (to prevent passing) and rumble strips recently added between lanes. Those changes marked the first stage of efforts to make this area of roadway safer.

We were driving eastbound in this Highway 14 construction area in North Mankato when I snapped this photo.

We were driving eastbound in this Highway 14 construction area in North Mankato when I snapped this photo.

Sometime in 2017 or 2018, construction is expected to begin on a project which will extend the four-lane all the way from North Mankato to Nicollet. Finally.

That still leaves about 15 miles of dangerous Highway 14 travel between Nicollet and New Ulm.

Ten miles are a start in saving lives along this notorious rural roadway. But I, personally, will not be satisfied until the entire 25-mile stretch between North Mankato and New Ulm becomes a four-lane.

Highway 14 slices through agricultural land, as seen in this photo taken between Nicollet and Courtland.

Highway 14 slices through agricultural land, as seen in this photo taken between Nicollet and Courtland.

IF YOU’VE EVER driven Highway 14 between North Mankato and New Ulm, I’d like to hear your stories and thoughts about travel there.

To see the entire listing of 2013 MnDOT road construction projects slated for Greater Minnesota, click here.

© Copyright 2013 Audrey Kletscher Helbling