Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

On the road to & from Wisconsin September 14, 2020

 

Eastbound traffic along Interstate 90/94 was particularly heavy in eastern Wisconsin on Labor Day. We were driving westbound back home to Minnesota.

 

IF UNSCIENTIFIC OBSERVATIONS hold any value, then I assess that media reports about more people traveling via vehicle on Labor Day weekend held true.

 

Electronic road signs in Wisconsin are often creative and humorous. I consider humor an effective way to convey a message.

 

Randy and I were among the thousands hitting the road on the long weekend. Our destination: Madison, Wisconsin, some 260 miles/four-plus hours south and east of our Minnesota home. We drove there to see our second daughter and her husband and our son. We realize there’s some risk of COVID-19 exposure involved given their jobs. But we can’t not see them. Well, I suppose we could, but…

Typically, we explore Madison’s art and food scene. But that last happened during a mid-February visit, pre-virus spread here in the Midwest. Or at least knowledge of the spread. We limit our exploration now to whatever we can do outdoors, like walking the city bike trails and exploring other natural areas.

 

This farm site near St. Charles, Minnesota, in the heart of Amish country, is particularly lovely.

 

The drive to and from Madison is an easy one with four-lane highway or interstate all the way, except for a short stretch in Minnesota east of Owatonna. We left mid Saturday morning and expected uncrowded roadways. Instead, traffic proved plentiful as people embraced summer’s final weekend. Lots of pick-ups pulling campers. Westbound traffic was especially heavy on Saturday, eastbound on Monday. The opposite directions we were aiming.

 

I love this stretch of valley east of La Crosse for its scenic farm sites and landscape.

 

The scenery en route is particularly lovely, especially along the Mississippi River bluffs nearing La Crosse, Wisconsin. East of that river city, picturesque farms define the valley.

 

In Monroe County, rock formations rise from the land.

 

And later, rock formations rise alongside Interstate 90 like ships upon the sea.

 

I never tire of seeing these unusual rocks.

 

And then the Wisconsin Dells, with equally intriguing rock formations and tree buffeted gorges, offer another visual respite from the traffic. Even with all the detracting-from-nature waterparks.

 

Crops are ripening in Minnesota. This was the scene Labor Day afternoon as we returned home.

 

One of the aspects I most appreciate about Madison is its closeness to the rural landscape. This barn sits atop a hill just outside the city along I-90/94.

 

Rural Wisconsin as photographed from I-90/94.

 

I always appreciate the rural landscape of fields and barns.

 

Near Madison, this sign from a cattle breeder wishes travelers well. This makes me laugh.

 

And the humorous signage in Wisconsin. When you’re living in the middle of a pandemic, humor helps. To break up the drive and to break away for a moment from the seriousness of life.

 

On the drive home on Labor Day weekend, we were concerned about possible Interstate closure in La Crosse due to a visit by Vice President Mike Pence. Thankfully his visit did not affect us and we noticed nothing unusual except this flag on an overpass and a few strategically placed law enforcement vehicles.

 

TELL ME: Have you “gotten away” recently? Close to home? Or more distant?

Please check back for more posts from Wisconsin.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Road trip stories: Impressions of Barcelona, New York, not Spain August 12, 2016

Barcelona is located along Lake Erie just off Interstate 90 near the New York/Pennsylvania border.

Barcelona is located along Lake Erie just off Interstate 90 near the New York/Pennsylvania border.

MY FIRST IMPRESSION OF BARCELONA, a hamlet located within the town of Westfield, New York, was not a good one.

I had to pee. Bad. The van also needed gas. So it was a good time to pull off Interstate 90 in the southwestern corner of New York. I practically flew out the van at the Citgo station, only to stop abruptly at the front door. A sign banned anyone but customers from the restrooms. My facial muscles involuntarily scowled. Welcome to Barcelona.

When my travel weary mind finally clicked that, yes, I was a paying customer, I walked inside. I didn’t know I was being watched. But the clerk advised that, yes, she had seen my reaction. And, yes, I could use the bathroom.

Cones blocking a freshly-poured concrete sidewalk blocked me from getting too close to the Portland Harbor Lighthouse and keeper's house.

Cones rimming sidewalk construction blocked me from getting too close to the 40-foot high Portland Harbor Lighthouse and keeper’s house.

Once I got over that, I noticed the beautiful old lighthouse across the street. (I’m speculating that many lighthouse lovers travel here and then need to use the service station restrooms.) Being a landlocked southern Minnesotan, I find lighthouses a bit of a novelty. However, there would be no getting inside this 1829 lighthouse constructed of native fieldstone. Decommissioned in 1860, the Portland Harbor lighthouse and accompanying keeper’s house became private property.

I moved closer to the lighthouse keeper's house, until I realized this was private property.

Another angle, from the side, of the lighthouse keeper’s house.

Upon researching this National Register of Historic Places landmark later, I learned that the lighthouse was the first public building in the U.S. illuminated by natural gas.

Boats parked near the lake.

Boats parked near the lake.

I wasn’t about to leave Barcelona, though, without at least seeing Lake Erie. If it was Lake Erie. At that point, well into our second day of a long road trip from Minnesota to Massachusetts, I wasn’t even sure what state we were in. And my Great Lakes geography is lacking. I know the locations of Lake Superior and Lake Michigan. The other Greats, not so much.

It was a lovely day to be on the beach of Lake Erie.

It was a lovely day to be on the beach of Lake Erie.

Just blocks from the gas station, my husband and I found a public access to Lake Erie. I am always impressed by the immensity of the Great Lakes, how sky and water blend into an infinity of blue, how distinct horizontal lines divide land and water and sky, how such a vast body of water can appear calm one day, threatening the next.

My husband obliged my request for a photo of me on the shores of Lake Erie.

My husband obliged my request for a photo of me on the shores of Lake Erie.

I scooped my hand into the cold water, plucked silken smooth stones from the beach, posed for a photo to prove I’d been here, in Barcelona.

© Copyright 2016 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

The highs & lows of a 3,000-mile road trip June 10, 2016

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Traveling on Interstate 90 somewhere in upstate New York.

Traveling on Interstate 90 somewhere in upstate New York. This is one beautiful state.

MAKING A CROSS COUNTRY road trip isn’t easy. It’s especially grueling when you’re under a schedule with minimal time to stop except for gas, bathroom breaks, and to eat, sleep and pay tolls.

Although we spotted many signs directing us toward New York City, we did not go that way.

Although we spotted many signs directing us toward New York City, we did not go that way.

Despite the challenges, there’s a certain sense of adventure and accomplishment in completing a long-distance journey. It’s a great way to see the country. My husband and I traveled 3,029 miles on a late May road trip from Minnesota to Massachusetts and back. I’ve already taken you to our destinations of Somerville and Medford.

Ohio is a big state to traverse from west to east. Be ware of state troopers here. They were thick on the Interstate, the highest number we saw in any of the nine states we drove through.

Ohio is a big state to traverse from west to east. Be ware of state troopers here. They were thick on the Interstate, the highest number we saw in any of the nine states we drove through.

Now it’s time to take you other places.

Finally, after 2 1/2 days of travel, we reached Massachusetts.

Finally, after 2 1/2 days of travel, we reached Massachusetts.

But before I do that, here’s a summary of trip highs and lows:

Our room at the Super 8 Motel in Princeton, Illinois, where we met Carl, the desk clerk. See that picture of the Chicago skyline? Carl once worked in the second building from the right. We loved Carl.

Our room at the Super 8 Motel in Princeton, Illinois, where we met Carl, the desk clerk. See that picture of the Chicago skyline? Carl once worked in the second building from the right. We loved Carl. The quiet room overlooked a field and the John Deere dealership. Total cost: $66.81.

Highlights:

Road construction was expected. Everywhere.

Road construction was expected and endured. Everywhere.

Lowlights:

  •  Road construction.
  •  Toll booths.
  •  Too many dead deer along the Interstates, especially in Pennsylvania with New York coming in second.
  •  Hotels that allow smoking.
  •  A less than welcoming Illinois hotel clerk who refused to give us an AARP discount because the hotel “had met its quota for the night.” I’ve  never heard  of this before. We didn’t believe him and left. He had a bad overall attitude.
  •  Cleaning an apartment kitchen used by college students.
  •  Getting lost in a really bad part of Buffalo, New York, for 1 ½ hours.
  •  Crazy and dangerous drivers in Buffalo.
  •  Failing to see Niagra Falls once we reached the general falls area only to encounter road construction and no directions how to get to the American side of the falls.
  •  Morning rush hour in Hartford, Connecticut, on a rainy Monday.
  •  Nearly being hit head-on when a vehicle crossed the center line on a state highway in Iowa.
  •  Too many miles (600 driven one day) and not enough sleep.

FYI: Check back next week as I showcase specific places from our trip.

© 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