Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

On the road in Wisconsin: Deer & cows & more, oh, my June 4, 2018

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About to enter Wisconsin at La Crosse.

 

SINCE MY SECOND DAUGHTER moved to Wisconsin seven, or maybe it’s eight, years ago, I’ve grown to love this neighbor to the east of Minnesota.

 

Crossing the Mississippi River with Minnesota to the right, Wisconsin to the left.

 

A particularly scenic vista heading west toward La Crosse and eventually Minnesota.

 

 

I like Wisconsin’s rural character, its rolling hills and bluffs and open farmland.

 

East of La Crosse.

 

 

 

Cow cut-outs line a ballpark fence in Mauston. Can you correctly answer the dairy trivia question? Check the end of this post for the answer. And also check back tomorrow to learn all about this herd of cows.

 

I like the quaint farm sites, the cows grazing and the proud promotion of dairy. This is, after all, the Dairyland State.

 

A cheese-promoting mouse statue along the interstate.

 

I’m amused by the obsession with brat frys and cheese and the Green Bay Packers.

 

I’ve never seen so many dead deer as in Wisconsin, except in Pennsylvania. Live ones, too. On the return trip to Minnesota from Madison, I counted 17 dead deer along the interstate. I likely missed some. I didn’t count the miscellaneous roadkill. On the trip out, I saw even more dead deer, but didn’t tally those.

 

I’m not so amused, though, by all the dead deer along roadways.

 

This message flashed multiple times on signs along the interstate on Memorial Day weekend. During the 538-mile round trip to Madison and back to Faribault, I saw only one law enforcement officer, a policeman just outside Kenyon, MN. I wish one would have been around to catch the driver of the car that passed a semi on the left shoulder of the interstate in Wisconsin.

 

Nor do I find the drinking culture particularly positive.

 

As expected, there’s plenty of road construction mixed into summer travel.

 

But all in all, I find Wisconsin an interesting and beautiful state with small town nuances that often delight me.

 

The Wisconsin Dells, with its many waterparks, is a popular tourist destination. Here vehicles are backed up along the interstate following a serious car crash. I was thankful we were on the opposite side. Traffic gridlock stretched for many miles.

 

I am now in the process of discovering a region of Wisconsin previously unvisited. That’s the Madison area. In the past, visits to my daughter took me off the interstate at Tomah and across the state to Oshkosh and then a bit north into the Fox Valley. Now she lives in Madison, a Memorial Day weekend destination. It’s a four-hour drive, an hour less than the previous drive. But it’s still scenic and so quintessential Wisconsin.

 

FYI: Please check back for more posts from Wisconsin, including one on those cows in Mauston and several posts from Madison. All photos here were taken along Interstates 90 and 94, except the image in Mauston.

TRIVIA QUESTION ANSWER: D. Holstein

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

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Reconnecting to southwestern Minnesota, root place of my creativity May 22, 2018

Near Morgan, Minnesota.

 

THERE IS NO PLACE, none, that I’d rather be this time of year than in rural southwestern Minnesota. It is the place of my heart, of my memories, of everything that shaped me into the person, the writer and photographer that I am today.

 

 

This place of wide skies and dark rich soil in some of Minnesota’s best farm land claims me still, decades after I left. I left not because I disliked this place, but for education and opportunity. Like so many of my generation.

 

In a reminder of decades past, a vintage tractor works the land on the edge of Delhi.

 

When I return to visit family here, I feel an ache of absence, that longing for a return to the familiar.

 

 

I realize those who’ve never lived on the prairie often fail to recognize its value, its beauty, its power in inspiring creativity. To many, even my own children, southwestern Minnesota seems the middle of nowhere. But to me, this land has always inspired. And it’s somewhere. Home.

 

 

Between Echo and Delhi.

 

A long familiar landmark tree along Minnesota State Highway 19 near the Belview corner.

 

When you’ve lived in a place so stark, in a place that exposes you to the elements, where life evolves around the land, you learn to appreciate the details. Like the endless wind. The spaciousness of land and sky. The scent of tilled soil. Rows of corn erupting green from the earth. A lone tree along a highway.

 

 

 

 

Acre after acre after acre across this land, I take in the rural scenes of farmers working fields, rushing to get crops in during a particularly late planting season.

 

Near Morgan, Minnesota.

 

I notice vehicles kicking dust along gravel roads,

 

Parked near the grain elevator in Morgan.

 

small town grain elevators,

 

 

a school bus splashing color into the landscape. I see it all in this place, this middle of somewhere.

 

A rural-themed license plate on a vehicle driving past Echo on a recent weekday morning. I confirmed with writer and photographer Ruth Klossner that this was her vehicle. She was on her way to interview a source for a magazine article. Ruth collects cow items of all sorts and opens the doors of her Bernadotte home for visitors to view the massive collection.

 

This is my joy, to each spring return to my Minnesota prairie roots, to reconnect to the land, to embrace the birth source of my creativity.

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Spring flooding in my home county of Redwood April 30, 2018

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Entering my home county of Redwood along Minnesota State Highway 68 southeast of Morgan.

 

SEVERAL DAYS AGO, traveling back to my hometown of Vesta, I noted snow sculpted in some road ditches. This late in April, the scene was unexpected. But then a blizzard raged across southern Minnesota only weeks earlier. And that road ditch snow, hard-packed by prairie winds, had yet to melt in the then 60-degree temps.

 

Nearing Vesta (left in photo) along Minnesota State Highway 19, I saw more and more flooding of farm fields.

 

A view of the flooding from Highway 19 just northwest of Vesta.

 

And just across the highway, more flooding.

 

Beyond the snow, though, I noticed water setting in farm fields. The late significant snowfalls and plugged culverts and tiles likely contributed to the collection of snow melt water in many low-lying areas. It would be awhile, I surmised, before farmers would be working this land.

 

 

The deep blue of those temporary ponds appeals to the poet in me. I see lines of poetry in splashes of blue across an otherwise drab landscape stubbled by remnants of last year’s harvest.

 

The Redwood River, flooded over its banks, along Redwood County Road 10 heading south out of Vesta. That’s my home farm in the distance. There have been times when the river flooded across the roadway.

 

A temporary lake of floodwaters borders my hometown of Vesta.

 

Flooded farmland along the Redwood River on the edge of Vesta.

 

On the south edge of Vesta, within view of the Redwood River, a lake formed as the river overflowed its banks and flooded surrounding farm land. The town itself was in no danger with a hill—rare as they are on the prairie—bordering that end of town.

 

Water spreads easily across the almost tabletop flat landscape, here just north of Vesta.

 

There’s something about floodwaters that draws my appreciation, causes me to stand and just look at the river and recognize its power.

 

These grain bins sit a gravel road and short stretch of land away from the floodwaters of the Redwood River in Vesta.

 

I realize that soon (maybe even as I write) this flooding will be another memory as farmers ready for planting and, in several months, the harvest.

 

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

On the road to southwestern Minnesota, a photo essay December 19, 2017

A former country school near Essig along U.S. Highway 14.

 

TWICE A YEAR, my husband and I head west from our Faribault home to my native southwestern Minnesota for gatherings with my extended family. We travel solely with destination in mind, not deviating to meander through small towns and explore. We get on Interstate 35 in Faribault, exit onto U.S. Highway 14 in Owatonna and then follow the Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Highway all the way to our destination 2.25 hours away in Lamberton. That would be in Redwood County, just 10 miles east of Walnut Grove.

Near Janesville, this billboard sparkles in the morning light.

Everything along this route is familiar to me from the curves in the highway to the billboards to the farm sites and my favorite barns west of Springfield. While sometimes the drive can seem like forever, especially when wind whips snow to create iffy driving conditions, mostly I enjoy the rural route.

At the beginning of our trip, I photographed this farm site west of Owatonna. The farther west we drove, the greyer the skies became.

Enjoy this photo essay along U.S. Highway 14, aiming west toward the prairie into some of our state’s richest farmland as we headed back for the holidays last Saturday.

Red barns splash color into the rural landscape, here near Janesville.

 

An ethanol plant near Janesville breaks the monotony of farm fields.

 

Highway 14 takes us through New Ulm. I spotted this catchy and festive billboard on the west end of town.

 

You know you’re in the heart of farmland when you see a cash corn price posted on a sign, this one at Christensen Farms near Sleepy Eye.

 

This reindeer statue stands along the east edge of Sleepy Eye. It’s there year-round.

 

Weathered by wind and weather, this barn sits west of Sleepy Eye.

 

A row of vintage trucks are parked atop a hill on the east edge of Springfield.

 

One of my favorite barns on a farm site west of Springfield.

 

We reach our destination in Lamberton where grain elevators mark this rural community.

 

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

The shifting of seasons in Minnesota November 4, 2015

barn

Grey skies hang over a barn and harvested cornfield west of Sleepy Eye along U.S. Highway 14 on a late October morning.

AS THE SEASON SHIFTS here in Minnesota, I struggle to hold onto the light. To the color. To memories of lush landscapes and warm days.

A bare field near Belview in southwestern Minnesota.

A bare field near Belview in southwestern Minnesota on a late October morning.

I am no fan of the transition months—November and March. I’ve always thought these the least visually inviting. Grey skies dominate. Cold winds rage. The land appears devoid of color. Black fields. Muted tones. Everywhere.

One of my favorite barns in the Springfield area along U.S. Highway 14 in southwestern Minnesota.

One of my favorite barns in the Springfield area along U.S. Highway 14 in southwestern Minnesota.

But then a barn flashes red in the monotone landscape.

Clouds break apart over a farm along U.S. Highway 14 in southwestern Minnesota.

Clouds break apart over a farm along U.S. Highway 14 in southwestern Minnesota.

Sun spotlights through the clouds beaming light upon the land. A patch of blue emerges overhead.

In the final days of October, my camera landed on this stunningly beautiful treeline near Shieldsville.

In the final days of October, my camera landed on this stunningly beautiful treeline near Shieldsville. I’ve seen some of the prettiest fall colors near my Faribault home. This is true every year.

Nearing the end of October, some corn remained to be harvested.

Nearing the end of October, some corn remained to be harvested.

Along U.S. Highway 14 east of Springfield, this brick barn stands strong and tall.

Along U.S. Highway 14 east of Springfield, this brick barn stands strong and tall.

I begin to notice patches of color—autumn leaves still hanging on, corn carpeting fields, defiant red barns still standing.

The barn with the smiling lips, between Sleepy Eye and Springfield, always makes me smile.

The barn with the smiling lips, between Sleepy Eye and Springfield, always makes me smile.

Harvesting corn along U.S. Highway 52 in the Rochester area in mid-October.

Harvesting corn along U.S. Highway 52 in the Rochester area in mid-October.

A country church along Interstate 90 near the Winona exit reminds me of blessings and thankfulness, especially at harvest time.

A country church along Interstate 90 near the Winona exit reminds me of blessings and thankfulness, especially at harvest time.

Reasons to smile. Reasons to appreciate November. This eleventh month raises my awareness of thankfulness. Thankfulness that I live in Minnesota, a state of four seasons, of changing landscapes, of bountiful harvests. And this week of unexpected November warmth.

© Copyright 2015 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

A photographic journey through rural western Wisconsin November 5, 2014

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Rural, red barn, bin and field

 

SHADOWS AND CURVES AND LIGHT.

 

Rural, round bales

Sky.

Rural, harvested cornfield

Land.

Rural, white barn and silos

Farm buildings.

All draw my eyes to the landscape, my hand to the camera, eye to the viewfinder, finger to shutter button.

 

Rural, red barn and Harvestores

 

Flash of color: A red barn.

 

Rural, red barn, fields and grey sheds

 

Rural scenes unfold before me on this drive through western Wisconsin, from Nelson north to St. Croix Falls in early October.

 

Rural, red barn and lone cow

 

I am linked to the land by my past, daughter of a southwestern Minnesota crop and dairy farmer. Even after 40 years away from the farm, fields and farm sites hold my heart more than any grid of city blocks or cluster of homes or urban anything.

If I could, I would live in the country again, close to the scent of dried corn stalks and fertile black soil.

 

Rural, house by trees

 

I would live under a sky that overwhelms, inside a white farmhouse with a welcoming front porch. That was always my dream.

But dreams cost money. Instead, I have lived in an old house along an arterial street in a town of some 23,000 for 30 years. I am grateful to have a house, to live in a community I love among dear friends.

 

Rural, country church and cemetery

 

Still, a part of my soul yearns, aches for the land I left.

© Copyright 2014 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

A Sunday afternoon of memories June 11, 2014

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Sunday drive, farmsite with red trucks

IT IS THE TYPE OF DAY when clouds dodge in and out of the sky. Mostly in. The type of day when I wonder if I should grab a sweatshirt heading out the door. The type of day when, one minute my husband and I are riding with the vehicle windows rolled down, the next zipping them up as the sun ducks behind clouds and cold air rushes inside.

Sunday drive, barn and silos, distant

It is the type of day, early in June, when grass and foliage appear vibrant green in a season of excess moisture.

Sunday drive, fork in the road

And I wonder how, after a deluge of rain the day prior, cars can still kick up dust along gravel roads.

Sunday drive, grain complex

Everything seems sharp and new, as if I am seeing everything for the first time on this Sunday afternoon drive. And I am, after the longest of Minnesota winters.

Sunday drive, hillside farmsite

Barns and farmhouses scattered between fields hold memories that cause my very soul to ache for missing the farm.

I grasp snapshots of prairie memories from the scenes that unfold before me.

Crossing the Straight River southeast of Faribault.

Crossing the muddy Straight River southeast of Faribault.

Me pedaling my bike over the bridge across the muddy Redwood River.

On the other side of the bridge, train tracks.

On the other side of the bridge, train tracks in rural Rice County, Minnesota.

Me scanning the tracks as I cross the rails into Vesta.

The pick-up truck, a rural necessity.

The pick-up truck, a rural necessity.

Me sitting beside my Dad in his red-and-white Chevy pick-up, bouncing across the stubbled alfalfa field.

Birdhouse condominion perched atop a hill next to a building site in rural Rice County, Minnesota.

Birdhouse condo perched atop a hill next to a building site in rural Rice County, Minnesota.

Memories rise and fall like the hilly roads that twist and turn our van through the countryside southeast of Faribault.

Our drive takes us through Walcott Township in Rice County. I grew up in Vesta Township 120 miles to the west in Redwood County.

Our drive takes us through Walcott Township in Rice County. I grew up in Vesta Township 120 miles to the west in Redwood County.

I’m unfamiliar with this place, yet familiar.

An aged Fordson parked alongside a road southeast of Faribault.

An aged Fordson parked alongside a road southeast of Faribault.

I know these barns, these farmhouses, these tractors, these fields. In another place, another time.

A farm upbringing imprinted them upon my soul 120 miles to the west of here.

FYI: To read my first post from this Sunday afternoon drive, click here.

© Copyright 2014 Audrey Kletscher Helbling