Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

The Minnesota ice challenge February 6, 2019

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The snow boots which help me navigate through a Minnesota winter. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

A TIME EXISTED WHEN ICE excited me. I’d pull out my Aunt Dorothy’s hand-me-down figure skates in anticipation of an hour or two on the ice.

Oh, the nostalgia. Oh, the memories of skating on the rink (if you could call it that) next to the grain elevator in Vesta. Oh, the memories of skating across icy ponds formed in cornfields from melting snow. Skating there meant swerving around corn stubble. But when you live in a definitively rural area, you make do. And I did. And I loved to skate. Loved ice.

Now? Not so much. OK, let’s just be honest. I don’t like ice. Now that I’m well past the safe age of skating and ice poses a risk rather than a reason for fun, I avoid it. Two falls in the past two years resulting in broken bones, surgery on one and months of therapy are cause enough to practice caution. Note that neither of those breaks occurred on ice. But given I’ve experienced the results of falls, I am mindful of slick surfaces.

And we currently have an abundance of those in Minnesota from driveways to sidewalks to parking lots to roadways. It is the nature of winter, some winters worse than others. And this one seems to be especially bad with bitter cold temps and fog and freezing rain and snow creating slippery surfaces upon which we must navigate.

So how do I manage, especially when walking? I shuffle like the old (er) person I am. I walk around icy patches if possible. I hang onto the husband (hey, nothing like going down together) or whatever vehicle. I wear my snow boots with their semi gripping tread. I stay clear of paths covered by snow and/or ice if possible.

But, unless I sequester myself inside until May, I can’t fully avoid every potentially bone-breaking surface. Rather, I need to be mindful, use common sense and hope that spring arrives sooner rather than later.

TELL ME: Have you (or someone you know) experienced a fall, or near fall, on an icy surface? What were the results? How do you stay safe if you live in a cold weather climate?

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

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Hey, Faribault, can we stop & let kids cross the street? May 14, 2018

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While there are no stoplights along the street referenced in this post, I use this illustration to make a point: Please stop for pedestrians. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

I LIVE ON A BUSY STREET, an arterial route through Faribault that sees a high volume of traffic, especially during the morning rush hour, after school rush and evening rush. Laugh if you wish. But I’ve lived here long enough—nearly 34 years—to know. Good luck trying to pull from a side street or back out of your driveway onto Willow Street during those times of day. It’s nearly impossible.

That brings me to the issue I wish to discuss. Pedestrian traffic. What if you were a kid trying to cross this high traffic roadway to reach your bus stop or to walk to school or back home?

On a recent Thursday morning, I observed a teen a block away waiting for a lull in traffic so she could cross Willow Street. She waited and waited and waited. And then waited some more. Why wouldn’t anyone stop? It was clear she needed to cross given her poised position at the edge of the curb and at an intersection.

 

A biker squeezes around a bus in busy Davis Square. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo May 2016.

 

If this was Boston, she would have stepped right into the traffic lane regardless of oncoming traffic, regardless of anything. I wouldn’t advise that. When visiting Davis Square two years ago, I waited for the light to turn green rather than disobey the traffic signal. All the other pedestrians swerved right around me, crossing against the light. Clearly I did not understand that pedestrians claim the streets of Boston. But Minnesota is not Boston. So we wait, yielding to motor vehicle traffic.

Even with a crosswalk law in place in Minnesota, I don’t see much change in drivers’ attitudes toward pedestrians. The Minnesota Safety Council notes key parts of that law, which you can read by clicking here. The Council suggests a common sense approach to determining when/if it’s safe to cross a roadway.

Common sense. As I watched a steady stream of vehicles pass the student hoping to get to school on time, I wondered if anyone would ever stop for her. Finally, a school bus stopped, a signal for southbound traffic to also stop. Finally, after five-plus minutes of waiting, she could be on her way.

There was a time when walking across Willow Street was a bit easier, a bit safer. Before an elementary school just blocks away closed, an overhead crosswalk sign with flashing yellow lights signaled drivers to slow down and stop for kids. Shortly after Garfield Elementary shuttered decades ago, that signage was removed. I’ve often wondered why given the many kids and other pedestrians who still attempt to get across this high traffic street.

 

 

I have a personal reason for feeling strongly about this issue. In May 2006, my then 12-year-old son was struck by a car while crossing Willow Street on the way to his bus stop. He escaped with only minor injuries. Granted, he was crossing in the middle of a long block rather than in a crosswalk, not the best idea. Still the driver of the car that hit him never stopped and has never been found, despite multiple witnesses.

In the 12 years since, nothing has changed. The high volume of traffic remains. Kids still struggle to cross this busy roadway on their way to and from school. I suggest drivers in Faribault practice some Minnesota Nice, just like that school bus driver who realized that a teen waiting on a corner needed to cross the street on a Thursday morning.

FYI: Additionally, here are Pedestrian Safety tips from the Minnesota Safety Council. Click here.

Also click here to read about a Faribault student who was struck by a vehicle while crossing another busy city street on her way to school in October 2017. Lul was seriously injured.

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Observations while caught in St. Paul traffic July 25, 2017

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Southwest bound into St. Paul on Interstate 35E. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo May 2017.

 

CREEPING SOUTHBOUND ALONG INTERSTATE 35E in St. Paul early Sunday evening in a snarl of traffic due to a lane closure, I studied my surroundings. And people watched.

I waved to the elementary-aged girl flapping a mini American flag out the window of her family’s maroon van sidled next to ours. She smiled. I smiled. And I wondered if her dad couldn’t wait to get out of the metro Minnesota traffic mess and back to Iowa.

I watched, too, as a motorcycle driver sped his bike, American flag flying from the back, onto the shoulder, skirting lanes to get ahead of four-wheel traffic.

Soon several vehicles followed in the right lane that had emptied of traffic about a block before the right lane closure. The zipper merge worked up until then. I could see an accident waiting to happen as the impatient motorists flexed their muscles, bullying into the left lane with concern only for themselves and whatever hurry they had. Drivers like that endanger all of us with their excessive speed.

I dug two peppermint life savors from my purse, rolled down the passenger side window, tried to relax in the near traffic gridlock. I’ve never determined how people can handle this daily congestion while driving to and from work or wherever.

 

 

 

Randy diverted my attention to a sign posted on the Children’s Hospital and Clinics of Minnesota building next to the interstate. We laughed at the suggestion that joint replacement could transform the average patient into a buff biker.

 

Tents like the one above hugged the fenceline above and along Interstate 35E just south of Interstate 94 in St. Paul.

 

Then I noticed a string of one-man tents hugging the fence along and above the interstate. I have no clue why anyone would camp in such a location. What was that all about?

As much as I dislike traveling through the Twin Cities metro, I always spot something intriguing. And I always land back home in Faribaault incredibly thankful that I don’t live in the Cities.

© Copyright 2017 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

 

Real stories from troopers about distracted driving in Minnesota April 22, 2016

Photographed along Interstate 35 between Medford and Faribault, northbound lane.

Photographed along Interstate 35 between Medford and Faribault, northbound lanes.

THE MINNESOTA STATE PATROL, on its Twitter account, asks this question: Is a text more important than the life in your car or the one next to you?

As law enforcement agencies across the state crack down on distracted driving during April, it becomes undeniably clear that texting while driving is a major problem. We all knew that. Right? Yet we continue to engage in behavior that endangers us and others. Our need to constantly be connected is a tough habit to kick.

Said a 25-year-old woman stopped recently by a trooper along 35E in the metro: “It’s such a habit.” She claimed to be unaware that she was texting. Really?

This billboard sponsored by Federated Insurance of Owatonna stands along Steele County Road 45 that runs parallel to Interstate 35 just north of Owatonna.

This billboard sponsored by Federated Insurance stands along Steele County Road 45 north of Owatonna. CR45 runs parallel to Interstate 35. The photo of the young girl on the billboard personalizes the message.

But a semi truck driver along I-90 clearly knew he was texting. His phone was Velcroed to his steering wheel. When a trooper stopped him for weaving and crossing out of his lane, he admitted to texting his kids. Really?

West of Fosston, a driver was stopped for changing speeds with her head down. The young mother admitted to texting. Her infant was in the back seat. Really?

This message is posted just north of Faribault along the northbound lanes of Interstate 35.

This message is posted just north of Faribault along the northbound lanes of Interstate 35.

In Shakopee, a trooper stopped a 37-year-old man who was looking online for a karate facility address while driving. Really?

And how about this one: A 27-year-old man was cited in Duluth for reading texts with his right hand, drinking with his left and steering with his knees. Really?

Is a text more important than the life in your car or the one next to you?

Be safe on the roads this weekend, my friends.

FYI: Click here to read the Minnesota Patrol Twitter page. And click here to read #SpeakUpMN, what Minnesotans are saying about distracted driving.

© Copyright 2016 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

On the road in rural Minnesota December 30, 2015

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Bales on trailer, 91 along hwy 14

 

ROUNDING A CURVE along U.S. Highway 14 northeast bound into Sleepy Eye, the pick-up truck lugged a cargo of 14 round bales on a recent Sunday morning.

 

Bales on trailer, 84 going up hill

 

As it labored up the hill past the Sleepy Eye Golf Club, I wondered whether the top bales would remain in place. They appeared untethered. My husband and I were following two vehicles behind.

 

Bales on trailer, 82 with bins nearby

 

But the bales stayed put as the truck and trailer topped the hill, curved past grain bins and bumped along the highway through downtown Sleepy Eye where the vehicle in front of us turned, putting our van directly behind the mound of bales.

 

Bales on trailer, 89 in downtown Sleepy Eye

 

I was hoping we wouldn’t have to follow this wide load too far, especially not all the way to New Ulm. Passing along this section of highway is often challenging under the best of circumstances. And this was not ideal with bales hanging nearly over the center line and a non-functioning left trailer brake light.

 

Bales on trailer, 93 turning

 

On the east edge of town, the driver veered his truck to the county road on the right. I was thankful, especially when I visually confirmed that the top four bales were unsecured. The bales, Randy noted, weren’t going anywhere. Maybe. Maybe not.

In the back of my mind I remembered the ice that slid from a semi trailer along Interstate 35 four days prior. That ice missiled across the median and into the driver’s side window of our van. Bam, just like that. The glass didn’t shatter nor even crack. But it was enough to scare us, or at least me. The thought of a heavy round bale tumbling into the path of our van seemed equally as frightening.

Have you had a similar experience on the roadway or observed a situation you considered unsafe while traveling? I bet you have some unbelievable stories. Go ahead. Share.

© Copyright 2015 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Oh, blessed summer eve on a Minnesota farm June 30, 2011

If you look closely, you will see the farm dog in front of the 1915 farmhouse to which a machine shed was added.

WIDE SWATHS OF SHADOWS sliced across the farmyard as the sun edged toward the horizon on a whisper of a summer night.

The old farm dog, tethered to a chain next to the 1915 farmhouse-turned-granary-turned storage shed, rose from his resting place on a paw-worn patch of grass. Water and food bowls rested on the single cement step nearby, within his reach.

The dog didn’t bark, didn’t lunge, just let me be as I moved into his territory. He stood, paced and then eased onto his haunches, acknowledging my non-threatening presence as I dropped to one knee to view the world from his perspective.

I wanted only to photograph this guardian of the farm on a summer evening as absolutely picture-perfect as any day you’ll get in Minnesota. Still. Serene. Colors sharp like new crayons. Sunlight, eye-blinding bright to the west, on the other side of the barn, outside the dogs’ reach.

This June evening, for these few hours, this watchdog could not roam the farmyard. He could only eye the visitors seated across the gravel drive at a picnic table. Friends gathered for pizza and lemonade sweetened with fresh strawberries and then more berries atop angel food cake and ice cream topped off with whipped cream.

Laughter punctuated conversation. Then bibles flipped open to words written upon pages thin as butterfly wings. The shrill call of a cardinal pierced the silence between ideas shared and scripture read.

Then, as the farm dog watched, the friends bowed their heads in a prayer of thanksgiving—gratitude to God for protecting the owners of this farm from serious injury in a motor vehicle accident the previous day. A rear-end collision. Truck spinning, tipping onto its side along a Minnesota highway. Glass in teeth and waistbands and hair.

None of this the guard dog knew on this most blessed of summer evenings on a Minnesota farm.

TODAY, JUNE 30, has been designated as “Maroon Day” in Minnesota, historically the deadliest day on our state’s roadways. Since 2000, more fatal crashes have occurred on this final day of June, leading into the July Fourth holiday, than on any other day of the year. Statistics show 30 fatal crashes resulting in 35 deaths.

All of Minnesota’s nearly 600 state troopers, in their signature maroon vehicles, will be patrolling today.

Buckle up. Drive carefully and be safe.

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling