Just Down the Road

Since early in the pandemic our little nearby impromptu road trips seemed to take hold; times when the walls grew close and we sensed a need to breathe, to sense new air and landscape. These trips just down the road are long from being routine, for if so some of the adventure and joy might wane.

Usually Mary will make the suggestion late in the afternoon after a day of creative labor. She might have been in her “cave” piecing together one of her incredibly creative quilts, or perhaps dabbing her paint brushes into a mix of water color paints with Pandora on the Alexis. Here in my studio there never ceases to be something to work on … until it’s time to cook. I’m not a bad cook, although my wish is to create dinners with such of an array of flavors as Mary can create with a salad. Much like her quilts, her salads are rich with  both color and flavor.

Now when she suggests we hop in the car for a drive I reach for the keys along with my camera gear with hopes the battery is charged and there is room on the card. Her urgings are nearly impossible to decline for there seems to be something just waiting for us somewhere down the road. “Down the road” is somewhat like Christmas for we usually find a gift, although we simply cannot predict what might be in store. 

For years I’ve driven past this tree-lined wetland, yet on this one afternoon the light and color gave us a beautiful gift!

We’re blessed with wildlife nearly year round. We have ample whitetail deer, a few pheasants and even fewer wild turkey, plus we live on a birder’s “interstate” thanks to the ribbon of river “lakes” along the border starting with Lac qui Parle Lake, followed by Marsh, Big Stone and eventually Travis. We’re also blessed with multiple river tributaries and some steep, wooded ravines off the prairie. Across the lake in South Dakota is the Coteau des Prairies, still mostly undeveloped ­ — broad, hilly landscapes defying time.

One of our favorite drives is the nature loop at Big Stone National Wildlife Refuge, although it has been closed for several weeks this summer for the resurfacing of the road. Foreman for the project is Mary’s son, Dan, which means we trust that the road will be more solid and less of a pothole haven than before.

No I don’t own a deer farm, yet there are herds of Whitetails around. This post sunset color gave us a wonderful gift!

Beyond the Refuge we have several routes through various grouping of what remains of the glacial prairie potholes to the southeast of us, and just down the road is Big Stone Lake State Park. This is the “Meadowbrook” section of the park, which is several miles from the northern Bonanza section. Meadowbrook is mostly prairie while Bonanza blends a hillside of prairie with a fine woodland that stretches along the banks of Big Stone Lake.

Nearly are many patches of restored prairie and undrained wetlands, mostly small “potholes” that are decidedly smaller than the bigger “lakes” or sloughs to the Southeast. Bless the farmers who leave them undrained!

A swallow grabbing a beakful of water on the Minnesota River provided a “minimalist moment.”

There are also some nice areas to scout near Mary’s Lake Linka cabin, too, although the ancient glacial moraine is under continued and serious attack by an ambitious farmer-barron who threatens the natural resources of the area with his conversion of the former prairie and pastureland to corn and soybeans. As an old Colorado rancher friend named Myles Craig would say, “Boys, them roots don’t grow much pointing upside down!” Yet, there is the protected Ordway Prairie, Lake Johanna Esker and Glacial Lakes State Park among other perpetual natural options bearing no names and catch-as-catch-can possibilities. The nearby Griffin Estate is one, with some of it in Nature Conservancy. 

Our late summer afternoons heading into twilight are special times for capturing interesting light and color. Almost as special as the colors of an awakening dawn, if one can awake early enough. On a recent evening we ventured to the north only a few miles and caught a beautiful cloudy and colorful sunset that set off a line of trees surrounding a wetland. I’ve driven past that wetland numerous times over the years without even as much as a glance, yet on this particular afternoon, with that light, a whole new life and look greeted us. Another lovely “Christmas” moment?

Catching the wild turkeys at roost was nearly a “bucket list” moment.

On another afternoon, after a somewhat monochrome sunset, we caught three deer in silhouette at the apex of a steep ravine that gave life and interest to the colorful sky. Again, just down the road. Then on the evening of the recent Summer Solstice we found a sky painted from a heavenly brush, strokes giving us colorful wisps of clouds hovering over a distant, curvy wetland to add a beautiful feature to the image.

More recently, thanks to the closure of the Refuge auto tour, we decided to circle the highway loop around the nearly 12,000 acre compound and caught the twilight afterglow at the Minnesota River bridge where gulls and swallows energetically swept over the river surface. A lone swallow diving for a beakful of water near a half submerged drift log brought us another wonderful gift. It was just the sort of split second moment we seem to find on these nights just down the road.

My recent Summer Solstice” image was taken “just down the road.”

Later, on the way home, as we motored past a 400 acre area section of the State Park where non-native “weed trees” are being removed and burned to release a natural fen, we caught a grouping of wild turkeys roosting in the branches of a barren tree. For years such an image was something I’ve wished to see and photograph, a quiet and unspoken moment we aged might call a “bucket list” item. Another wonderful surprise!

These gifted moments of grandeur and joy have all been just down the road, and we’re rarely disappointed. A photographer friend in Maine once asked if I owned an actual deer farm, and another artist friend once called this area a prairie paradise. There may be too much commodity farming for that to be a reality, yet having lived for years in the “black desert” of Chippewa and Renville Counties, some of the former glacial paradise remains around us. We are blessed with all of this nature and physical beauty … just down the road. 

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About John G. White

Somewhat retired after a long award-winning career in newspapers (Wisconsin State Journal, Dubuque Telegraph-Herald, Denver Post and a country weekly, the Clara City Herald). Free lance photographer and writer with credits in more than 70 magazines. Editor with various Webb Publishing magazines in St. Paul, and a five year stint as editorial director at Miller Meester Advertising.

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