Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Gravel road on the prairie July 9, 2012

A gravel road just north of Lamberton in southwestern Minnesota.

WHAT IS IT ABOUT a gravel road?

A picturesque farm site on a sultry summer evening as seen from a gravel road north of Lamberton.

It is poetry and peace, country and charm.

You can almost hear the crunch of the gravel in this image.

But it is more. It is small stones crunching under tires and feet as dust rises and lingers, marking the trail traveled.

As the sun sets on the prairie, a truck travels along a gravel road up to a paved roadway north of Lamberton.

It is a marker of townships, the route of massive yellow road graders blading the road surface to a flat finish or heaving snow toward ditches.

It is memories of bumpy school bus rides and squishing into the back seat of the family car between brothers and sisters.

It is Dad’s admonition to always, always, move to the right when cresting a hill.

Utility lines along the same gravel road stretch into forever.

It is the memory of pinpoint stars dotting the pitch black darkness of a prairie night and the sweet scents of wild roses (once) rambling in ditches and of freshly-mown alfalfa and of hay baled and stacked onto a swaying wagon.

A gravel road is all of these to me, and yet, in its most basic definition, it serves as a way to get from point A to point B, and marks borders between town and country.

Standing on the gravel road, I turned south to photograph the cornfield and Lamberton in the distance.

It is a line in a plat book, a route connecting paved roads, a path to a rural home.

It is a gravel road on the prairie.

© Copyright 2012 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

On the road to Fargo, where sky meets land February 20, 2012

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Only 192 miles to Fargo, North Dakota. We've already driven 93.

SKY. That single word defines a road trip from Faribault to Fargo.

Don’t talk miles and time to me. Talk sky.

Once past the St. Cloud exit along Interstate 94, you start noticing the sky, how, the farther west you travel, the larger it becomes until the sheer immensity of that above overwhelms that below.

Sky meets land somewhere westbound along Interstate 94 toward Fargo.

For those who live in the confines of the city, where buildings and masses of streets and highways pull the sky downward and ground it, the vastness of the skies can unsettle the spirit and create a sense of vulnerability. You can’t help but feel exposed under brooding clouds and a sky that stretches into a distance without end.

Interstate 94 sometimes seems to run right into the sky as you drive west.

Yet, for me, a prairie native, there’s a certain sense of calm that comes from traveling into the sky. Because that is what you do when driving west from Minnesota toward the Dakotas. You drive into the sky.

After an initial awareness that you really are incredibly small compared to that above, you begin to notice the details. Or at least I begin to appreciate the details—like the hard edge where sky meets land, the ever-changing skyscape as clouds shift and the day wanes, the nuances in colors and texture that define firmament and field.

Power lines set against the backdrop of the sky provide a visual vertical respite for the eyes.

It is as if you’ve brushed yourself right into a landscape painting.

And I can’t get enough of it, of the strong horizontal lines that sweep across my vision, reconnecting me to my prairie past.

The landscape: flat and into forever near Fargo/Moorhead.

The ever-changing clouds blend with the rural landscape.

As the sun sets, the sky broods.

The sharp contrast of black and white against blue pleases my eyes.

Fence lines and farms slice through the land.

A church spire in the distance draws my eye in this place where my soul reconnects to the prairie.

ALL OF THESE IMAGES were taken with my DSLR camera, set at a fast shutter speed, while traveling along Interstate 94. Check back for more posts from this trip to Fargo.

© Copyright 2012 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

A Minnesota prairie native discovers a ship docked in the Wisconsin woods January 26, 2012

I GREW UP on the southwestern Minnesota prairie, a mostly flat land vertically-interrupted only by small-town grain elevators and water towers, by silos and groves of trees hugging farm sites.

I never felt hemmed in. How could I feel confined under an endless sky in a land that stretches into forever, nearly unbroken before your eyes?

Perhaps that will help you understand why I sometimes struggle with trees. I’m not talking a tree here, a tree there, but trees packed so tight that they become a forest. Dense. Black. Blocking views. I need to, have to, see the land spreading wide before me if I’m exposed for too long to miles of thick woods.

Likewise, I prefer my land flat.

All of that said, time and age and exposure to geography beyond the prairie have resolved some of those space and landscape issues for me. I can, within limits, appreciate terrain that rolls and rises, trees that clump into more than a shelter belt around a farmhouse.

I can appreciate, too, geological anomalies like Ship Rock, a natural formation jutting out of seemingly nowhere from the trees that crowd State Highway 21 in Adams County near Coloma in central Wisconsin.

Ship Rock is located next to Wisconsin Highway 21 in the central part of the state.

Whenever I pass by Ship Rock, which has been numerous times since my second daughter moved to Appleton, Wisconsin, in December 2010, I am awestruck by this isolated pinnacle of Cambrian sandstone. Finally, this past summer, my husband, teenaged son and I stopped to climb around the base of the rock cropping and to photograph it (me mostly photographing rather than climbing).

Ship Rock rises from the flat landscape, a surprise in the Wisconsin woods.

My husband walks across the rocks below the looming Ship Rock.

If you can ignore the distracting graffiti, then you can appreciate the nuances of the mottled stone, the ferns that tuck into crevices, the surprise of this Ship Rock docked in the most unexpected of places. The rock formation truly does resemble a ship.

I am surprised by the ferns that grow in the tight spaces between rocks.

Grass sweeps between rocks in this August 2011 image taken at Ship Rock.

A month ago while traveling past Ship Rock, I snapped a photo. The ship seemed forlorn and exposed among the deciduous trees stripped of their summer greenery. Yet she also appeared threatening, a looming presence rising dark and foreboding above the land awash in snow.

I could appreciate her, even if she wasn’t a grain elevator or a water tower, a silo or a cluster of trees breaking a prairie vista.

Ship Rock, photographed from the passenger window of our van at highway speeds in December.

CLICK HERE for more information about Adams County, Wisconsin.

© Copyright 2012 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Starry, starry night July 21, 2011

THE HOUR HAD SLIPPED well past midnight when I joined my sister Lanae and my son on the patio.

“Is there a place for me to sit?” I asked, as I stood still, waiting for my eyes to adjust to the blackness of the night.

“There’s a lawn chair next to me. Caleb’s lying on the patio.”

And so he was and she was and now I was—the three of us clustered under a sky filled with more stars than I’ve seen since my last visit to the southwestern Minnesota prairie.

I gazed skyward, quickly finding the Big Dipper.

“Do you see the Milky Way,” my astronomy-loving 17-year-old asked. I pivoted my head to the right and pointed.

We sat in silence, for minutes, simply staring at the immense sky studded with all those stars.

“This is what I miss about this place,” my sister said, finally breaking the contemplative silence. “The stars.”

And she is right. It is one of many things I miss about my native southwestern Minnesota. Only in rural areas like this, mostly untouched by light pollution, can you view the night sky as it is meant to be seen.

“Did you see that?” my boy enthused, eying the same falling star I had just seen shooting a trail of light across the dark.

“This is better than that place we went to in St. Cloud,” he said. He was referring to a high school astronomy class field trip last summer to the St. Cloud State University planetarium. I remember his visit there, how unimpressed he was with the whole thing and how he disliked being caught in Twin Cities rush hour traffic on the drive home.

No doubt experiencing the night sky here at my brother’s place just north of Lamberton—where only rural yard lights and small-town lights in the distance punctuate the darkness—would outshine any planetarium any night.

And, for sure, traffic jams are not an issue.

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

A glimpse of winter on the Minnesota prairie March 8, 2011

 

Traveling U.S. Highway 14 west of New Ulm to southwestern Minnesota.

I NEEDED A TRIP to southwestern Minnesota this past weekend, as much to be with extended family as to reconnect with the land where I grew up. I was not disappointed, on both counts.

I embraced the family I love as we talked and laughed and talked and laughed some more while celebrating my middle brother’s 50th birthday until just past midnight on Saturday.

Sometime in between, we joked about the possibility of being snowed in on his Redwood County acreage. Snow was in the forecast and we all know that snow on the prairie, combined with wind, could strand us.

By the time we finished breakfast mid-morning on Sunday, the flakes were flying and U.S. Highway 14 was dusted with snow, enough to cause cautionary travel as my husband, son and I headed east back to our Faribault home.

Fortunately, we drove out of the snow even before reaching New Ulm.

Every time I visit the prairie, I realize all over again how harsh winters are out there and how very different they are from the winters I experience in southeastern Minnesota. Honestly, if you saw the drifts and plowed ridges of snow along Highway 14 and the endless vista of wide open spaces that stretch like a sea of white, you would understand.

Join me on this visual journey along a section of the Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Highway between New Ulm and Lamberton. These photos don’t even do justice to winters on the prairie because we weren’t traveling in a prairie blizzard. But, in these images, you can envision the possibilities…

 

Railroad tracks run parallel to Highway 14 as the land stretches under spacious skies.

In some spots along U.S. Highway 14, the snow is piled higher than vehicles.

Snow had been pushed into rows in fields along Highway 14, acting as natural snow fences.

The wind sculpted drifts along the snow fences.

The snow had been pushed into mountains so high that only the top portion of Family Foods was visible from Highway 14 on the eastern side of Sleepy Eye.

Snow pushed off Highway 14, as seen through the windshield of our car.

Visibility was reduced as we traveled along U.S. Highway 14 Sunday morning near Lamberton, creating this surreal image of the local grain elevators. The top seven images were taken on Saturday.

We were thankful the lights on this sign, on the east side of Springfield, were not flashing Sunday morning. During severe winter weather these lights are activated and roads are closed to keep motorists safe.

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Returning to my Minnesota prairie roots September 12, 2010

THIS AFTERNOON, my husband, son and I returned from a weekend trip to my beloved prairie, southwestern Minnesota. The journey brought stops along the way and back—one which stretched into a 2-hour lunch at The Dam Store, a food/live bait/tackle place just outside Rapidan near Mankato.

This homey joint, which sits next to the Rapidan Dam on the scenic Blue Earth River, advertises the “BEST DAM HAMBURGERS AND PIE BY A DAM SITE.” That’s no lie. But you won’t read about it here. I’m planning a magazine feature story on this kitschy 100-year-old café/store. That explains the lengthy lunch hour (or rather two), of a cheeseburger and fries and dam good homemade chocolate caramel pecan pie, that evolved into interviews and photo-taking.

You'll find great hamburgers and homemade pies at The Dam Store, an unassuming century old eatery.

As we traveled west toward our destination in rural Lamberton in Redwood County, I filled my camera with images from the road, setting a fast shutter speed and zooming down the passenger-side car window or aiming through the windshield whenever a photo op arose.

All along that drive, I gawked at the sky, the wide, wide prairie sky that I can never get enough of no matter how many times I view it.

Likewise, I cannot get enough of this land where I grew up. Here the soil and sky and wind taught me how to see and smell and feel and listen, and because of that, how to write with a detailed, grassroots style.

Returning to southwestern Minnesota renews my gratefulness for roots that reach deep into the earth. Even though I left this land 36 years ago, I remain forever connected to the prairie, “home” in my heart.

Driving U.S. Highway 71 in southwestern Minnesota, you can see a sky and land that stretches beyond forever.

Empty corn cribs on the prairie await another harvest. Or perhaps they are no longer used.

Even a collapsed barn possesses a certain beauty on the prairie. While I saw many barns in disrepair or falling apart, I also saw many that still stand, strong and proud in this wind-swept land.

Sheep and a horse graze in a roadside pasture.

A lone silo leaves me wondering, "What happened to the barn?"

(I shot the landscape photos while we were traveling along U.S. Highway 71 between Minnesota Highway 30 and U.S. Highway 14 in southwestern Minnesota on Saturday.)

UPON OUR RETURN to southeastern Minnesota, I grabbed today’s Faribault Daily News from the mailbox to find my photo, and a feature story about me, splashed across the front page. Several days ago reporter James Warden interviewed me about my blogging.

I’ll be honest and tell you that I’d been dodging the interview with James because I’m a bit uncomfortable in the spotlight. I much prefer the other side of the notebook and camera.

Even though I would have preferred my story tucked discreetly inside the pages of the newspaper, I cannot contain my enthusiasm for James’ reporting and writing. He captured the essence of me and my blogging style by using words and descriptions and details that would be fitting of a Minnesota Prairie Roots blog post.

If you’d like to check out journalist James’ take on me and my blogging, click here.

© Copyright 2010 Audrey Kletscher Helbling