A Mindful Drive….

I am reading Jon Kabat-Zinn’s book Coming to Our Senses: Healing Ourselves and the World Through Mindfulness, I highly recommend it! It is an excellent source for every reason to be mindful and present in everything we do – each day – indeed a tall order.

In light of that reminder, I decided to make a “mindful” drive to Rochester, MN to spend time with my grandchildren. I have made this 90 mile, 1 1/2 hour drive, for that purpose, almost weekly since my first grandchild was born in April, 2004. That being said, I am not always “mindful” in my effort – because it is routine. On the other hand, I do not consider myself to be a distracted driver. I do not listen to books-on-tape or the radio. I do not text while driving and I do have bluetooth for my phone, which I infrequently use during an average trip.

After I travel about 20 minutes in traffic; traveling west on 494, a freeway that goes around the Twin City Metro area, I set the cruise control to 67 and head south on Highway 52 – a rather straight shot, 4-lane, divided highway – to Rochester. It is not very long after leaving 494 that the landscape changes from suburban to rural. I even have one landmark intersection that I have always described in my mind, in a rather exaggerated manner, as “the end of civilization.” No more Starbucks, Caribou or shopping malls – strip or otherwise – only gas stations, truck stops and farms. There is more to see, of course, but I don’t always pay attention to what is there. So this week, I tried very consciously to see what I was driving past.

Minnesota may pride itself on a variable landscape, but this trip is across fairly flat terrain – good farm land. I have always been aware of the change in seasons on this road. In spring, the soil is dark and moist. I see farmers plowing in their fields and smell fresh manure. In summer, everything is green. The corn is growing its way to be “knee high by the 4th of July”. In the fall, harvest is in full swing; tractors are busy even when I am heading home at night. There is one particularly beautiful, curving incline, just south of Cannon Falls, that has a stand of deciduous trees that is brilliantly colored at that time of year. Those trees are a natural reminder of the seasons, if you are paying attention.

February – winter in Minnesota – brings a windswept, snowy white landscape into view. This week was no exception. While we have not had substantial snow for a week or more, there was one snowplow clearing the other lane and shoulder of blown and drifted snow. The wind creates interesting borders to the blacktop surface. I am grateful for the vigilance of the highway department. Rarely do I encounter unfavorable conditions, unless there is fresh snow – or rain – or freezing drizzle; in which case I start out a little later to avoid the heaviest traffic and drive a little slower to allow for hazardous road conditions. That is one of the benefits of having a commitment without schedule, appointment or timetable; just a day spent in the company of my two delightful grandchildren, now almost 5 and 7 years old.

Farms line the highway – from Inver Grove Heights to Rochester. I am most aware of falling down, faded red barns, but today I notice several, both red and white, obviously in use on a regular basis, not neglected and left to deteriorate at their own pace. The farms appear small, not large corporate operations. The houses are mostly modest in size, mostly old, some new, too close to the highway for my living comfort. Their proximity to the road has certainly changed over time; progress of sorts, allowing people like me to drive by at 67 mph without hesitation. I imagine the family, Mom, Dad and three or four children talking over oatmeal and homemade bread; romanticizing what I remember as a child visiting relatives who lived on a farm in Wisconsin.

When the economy took its’ most recent turn south, I fantasized about buying a farm on this road; a place where our family could live together, close to the land, with a few cows, chickens, pigs and goats; growing whatever we needed to survive in our garden. Truth be told, we could probably do that on our lot in the city, if need be. But would it be as satisfying as being out in this wide, flat landscape, I wonder? I will probably never know. I like the fantasy.

There are geographic and location specific landmarks that accompany my journey. The Koch Refinery, 30 minutes from home – both coming and going – has billowing, heavy dark smoke on this particularly cold, winter day. I remember when there were tanks with armed soldiers outside the gates after 9/11. Now it is just a powerful, industrial facility with people working to meet our need for fuel. The smoke during the day and the lights at night create a dramatic image on the horizon as you drive – a landmark of time and place on the road to and from my destination.

I cross 5 counties on this trip – Hennepin, Ramsey, Dakota, Goodhue and Olmsted – several rivers and one lake. Signs indicating the direction of towns named Wabasha, Minneola, Red Wing, Vermillion, Northfield, Kenyon and Mazeppa dot the roadside along with regular reminders of community groups who have “adopted” segments of the highway and pick up trash twice a year. One of those signs is for Delta Theta Sigma. My husband, Dale’s college fraternity brothers get together seasonally to keep that section near Hastings clean.

Towns that are time and location landmarks on the trip are Rosemount, Inver Grove Heights, Coates, Hampton, Cannon Falls (halfway), Zumbrota (20 minutes), Pine Island (more heavy smoke from some industrial plant located there) and Oronoco (just 5 minutes more to reach Amy and Joel). There are restaurants in most; small, local and picturesque in their own way. The Covered Bridge is one, evidently named after the wooden structure that stands to the side in the parking lot – not over any body of water, just connecting the parking lot to that of the motel next door. Oscar’s is another. I wonder if they are related to the Oscar’s in Minneapolis that serves lutefisk at holiday time? The House of Coates boasts famous hamburgers. I have never stopped to taste one. There are McDonald’s, Subway and Dairy Queen, along with the fast food restaurant that used to be a Hardees and has changed names and food offering, I assume, at least 5 times in 7 years. There are also two establishments advertising steaks and nude dancers. Who is it who frequents them, I wonder? One is closed now.

Animals populate the farms along the way; mostly cows, but also horses, llamas and sheep. There used to be a large herd of elk, within a long black fence, about 10 minutes north of Rochester. They were all destroyed over a year ago, due to chronic wasting disease, my son tells me. There is a lot for “animals in transit”, as I call it. I have no idea where they are going, but there is always a different herd of cows, occasionally horses, or sometimes no animals at all, in this one lot next to the highway. I wonder where they go?

Highway 52 has changed through the years. It has been completely resurfaced, I am happy to report, making the trip more pleasant and easier on my back and my car. Water towers of various shapes and sizes mark the towns. Occasional windmills; wood sculpture and iron lawn ornaments sales lots; and farm implements for sale and those left to rust inhabit the roadside. Hazards are few, except for the ever present danger of deer deciding to cross the road. I have never had the experience, but my son has, and I have seen evidence of others’ experiences along the roadside. There are businesses in transition, empty buildings, and other seemingly thriving retail establishments like Greg’s Meats (boasting over 200 awards for their sausage and smoked meats) and the Cheese Mart (which advertises beer and winemaking equipment for sale). There are American flags and ProLife signs dotting the roadside until you get closer to Rochester. Then the billboards are prolific, encouraging you to eat and/or stay at this place or that, all of which are “conveniently located” to the world famous Mayo Clinic.

And then I am miraculously at Exit 59 for County Rd 22 W/W Circle Dr/55th St NW., only blocks from my destination. All of these images and sights were seen and attended to on this one drive to be with my grandchildren; but, in truth, I have seen many of then hundreds of times and only made note in my mind. If I were more poetic, I would probably be more evocative in my descriptions. But I am just me, a grandmother on the way to spend a day with her grandchildren, trying to be mindful on the way there.

Next time you are on a familiar stretch of road, making a routine trip to somewhere, pay attention, be mindful. See what you notice for the first time, and wonder.

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