John's Journal
Spring Grove/Caledonia: Where Everybody Is Part Of The Team5/6/2015
(This is the fourth in a four-part series about the schools that are located in the four corners of Minnesota.)

SPRING GROVE – The school building in this southeast Minnesota town of 1,300 is an architectural showcase that was built in 1922. Ten miles up the road in Caledonia, which has double the population of Spring Grove, is a modern school constructed not in the last century but in this century.

Those two structures form fitting bookends on one of the great stories of Minnesota cooperation. It’s a story of two schools and two communities working together to ensure that all interested students have the opportunity to participate in activities. Caledonia is large enough to field teams in all sports; Spring Grove would struggle to do so.

Spring Grove has its own teams in boys and girls basketball, nine-man football and volleyball. When it comes to baseball, golf, gymnastics, soccer, softball, track and wrestling, the schools have cooperative teams. The majority of the athletes come from Caledonia, which is not surprising based on Caledonia’s high school enrollment of 241 and Spring Grove’s 90.

The coop teams provide a unique perspective for coaches and kids to learn about the “other” school.

“We fit in really well together,” said senior softball player Samantha Bratland from Spring Grove. “All of us kind of hang out outside of softball. Being only 10 miles apart really helps us be a close-knit group.”

An odd thing occurs every spring. After athletes from the two schools compete against each other in volleyball and football in the fall and basketball in the winter, they often find themselves wearing the same uniform in the spring.

“We are from different schools and it’s definitely interesting when we do different things against each other in other sports,” Bratland said. “It’s definitely weird going against them but we always have fun doing it.”

Most of the coop arrangements go back many years, with baseball becoming the newest coop sport six years ago. The baseball team had co-coaches (one from each school) in the first year, and when the coach from Caledonia relocated after that season, Spring Grove’s Dave Konz remained on as the head coach.

“It’s blended well together,” he said. “We’ve got it down pretty good. Bus schedules can change constantly, and games can be rescheduled. We’ve worked together well and it’s been a pretty seamless transition.”

Some of the coop teams are called Spring Grove-Caledonia and others are Caledonia-Spring Grove. Caledonia’s colors are black and gold, Spring Grove’s are black and red.

“We’ve had these conversations,” said Spring Grove athletic director Michelle Anderson, who also coaches volleyball and softball. “Is it C-SG? Is it SG-C? The kids don’t care. Black is our common color, so we do a lot of things in red with black and gold trim and it looks really good.”

La Crosse, Wis., is the nearest city of any size (22 miles from Caledonia) and many residents of these towns commute there for work. The school in Spring Grove, where welcome signs proclaim it the first Norwegian settlement in Minnesota, has a stable enrollment, as does Caledonia.

It’s common for graduates of both schools to return home at some point. Among them is Spring Grove superintendent Rachel Udstuen, a 1991 graduate. While attending Luther College in Iowa she was a student-teacher at St. Paul Central, then worked in Mason City, Iowa, and a Twin Cities charter school before spending four years in Saipan in the western Pacific. She returned to Spring Grove in 2003.

Udstuen’s final year of high school was Anderson’s first year on the Spring Grove faculty.

“That’s one of the things we really love; we do seem to have what I would call ‘our kids’ go away to college, go away to start their professions and their careers, and they find their way back sometimes,” said Anderson, who recorded her 300th career victory as a softball coach this week. “They move back and they become superintendents and integral parts of our community, and it’s pretty cool.”

Udstuen added, “We had wonderful experiences, but when we started to have a family we knew this was where we wanted our kids to grow up. We wanted them to experience a small, close-knit community.”

The close-knit spirit is certainly part of the cooperative sports teams.

“It appears to be going really well,” said Caledonia principal/athletic director Paul DeMorett. “I don’t think there’s ever been a problem with the kids.”

DeMorett, in his sixth year at Caledonia, has a unique perspective on life in a smaller town. He is a Twin Cities native who graduated from Armstrong High School in Robbinsdale in 1984. He previously worked at schools in Pierz and Tower.

“Obviously this is a lot more laid-back (than the Twin Cities),” he said. “It’s a slower pace and it’s easier to make connections with kids because there are less of them. That’s one of the great things about it.”

Caledonia is a sports powerhouse, with football leading the way. The Warriors own six state championships in that sport, including five since 2007 in Class 2A. Caledonia’s boys basketball team was the 2A state champion in 1997 and the runner-up last winter; the girls basketball team was the state runner-up in 1998 and won a state title in 2009. In girls golf, the cooperative team won state championships in 1988, 1990, 1995, 1996, 2003 and 2005.

Success in athletics is no accident. Athletes, coaches and parents are committed to providing quality experiences for all the teams.

“We all put the effort in and it’s always our goal to go far in every sport and do the best we can,” said Devan Heaney, a Caledonia senior and member of the Warriors football team and the coop track squad.

DeMorett said, “The kids work hard, and that’s what’s it all about. We have some great coaches and they’re instilling great values in our kids. One of them is work ethic. My very first day working in Caledonia in July of 2009, I walked in and saw 60 kids in the weight room at 7:30 in the morning on a Tuesday. That right there said, ‘These kids are dedicated and they work very hard.’ ”

That’s a theme in both towns and both schools: people working together and working hard to ensure participation for all students.

“I’m really happy that the kids have an opportunity to do those kinds of things,” Anderson said. “I think they’re happy to share those experiences, as well.”

--To see photos from Caledonia and Spring Grove, go to the MSHSL Facebook page.
Hills-Beaver Creek: Community Pride, Growing Enrollment5/5/2015
(This is the third in a four-part series about the schools that are located in the four corners of Minnesota.)

HILLS – The girls and boys golf teams at Hills-Beaver Creek High School provide the starkest example of how deeply this school is tucked into the southwest corner of Minnesota: The golfers live in Minnesota, practice in South Dakota and play their home meets in Iowa.

The three-year-old school building in Hills (which houses seventh through 12th grades; the elementary school is in Beaver Creek) is two miles from the Iowa border and six from South Dakota. The Patriots golf teams practice at Hidden Valley, a par-3 course in Brandon, S.D. Their home competitions are held at Meadow Acres in Larchwood, Iowa. Even though there was no golf practice scheduled on a recent sunny afternoon, most of the team members headed to Larchwood when school let out.

Meanwhile, the remainder of the spring athletes – the boys and girls track teams -- gathered in the gymnasium to stretch before heading outside to practice in a town that has no track.

The school does not have baseball or softball teams, there is no available golf course in its own state, and the track team has no track. And yet, Hills-Beaver Creek is one of the happiest places on earth. Some of that joy comes from athletic success, but much of it springs from a solid sense of community pride in a district with a growing enrollment.

The new school was built after the citizens overwhelming voted to approve it. Many of those citizens work in nearby Sioux Falls, S.D., an expanding regional center that has given a big boost to schools on all sides of the state borders.

“Our kids here have everything in Sioux Falls,” said Dan Ellingson, a veteran teacher and coach whose wife is among a large percentage of residents who work in Sioux Falls. The South Dakota influence is strong; all the local television stations are in Sioux Falls, meaning news reports tend to focus on that state.

“The old joke is our students know the governor of South Dakota more than they know the governor of Minnesota,” said superintendent Todd Holthaus, a native of Albany, Minnesota.

Sioux Falls’ most important impact here is on enrollment. People are moving into these small communities to raise their families while working in Sioux Falls, and many of them are Hills-Beaver Creek graduates.

Hills has a population of 650, Beaver Creek has 270 residents and the village of Steen, also in the school district, is home to 150 souls. The high school enrollment is 79 students, with younger grades expanding rapidly. The average class size is 25 pupils, but the elementary school is bursting at the seams; sixth-graders will be moved from Beaver Creek to the building in Hills next fall.

“This is a tremendous community, and they’re so supportive of the school,” said Steve Wiertzema, the athletic director and boys basketball coach. He is a native of Worthington (45 miles away) who has been at Hills-Beaver Creek since 1981. He also is dean of students and is on the teaching staff.

Wiertzema’s multi-tasking isn’t rare in a small school like this. Ellingson, who has been on staff since 1990, teaches junior high and high school social studies, is the guidance counselor, district assessment coordinator and golf coach. He was the head football coach for 19 years and now coaches middle school football and basketball.

The school in Hills is a showplace. The classrooms are spacious, the entrance/cafeteria/theater space is bathed in natural light and the gym is bright and roomy, with a second-story weight room looking down from one end of the court, which bears a red, white and blue Patriots logo.

The school sits on the northwest edge of town, with farm fields stretching off to the horizon. Some of those acres are owned by the school, and the FFA chapter farms that land in a true small-town arrangement.

“Our FFA instructor goes to area businesses,” Wiertzema said. “The (grain) elevator donates chemicals and puts them on, farmers donate their time. He makes his calls and the next day these guys come in with their tractors and it’s done. The FFA and school split the proceeds. What a deal, huh?”

Hills-Beaver Creek won a nine-man football state title in 1990 and has reached the state football playoffs nine other times. One of the greatest athletes in school history is Steve Esselink, a 1999 graduate who played basketball at the University of Minnesota and was a state champion long jumper in high school.

Wiertzema’s son Kale, a 2005 graduate and star football/basketball player, is back in his hometown as an elementary teacher and head girls basketball coach. The same goes for Erin Boeve, a 2004 graduate who played volleyball at Iowa State. She now works at a local bank and is married to Patriots football coach Rex Metzger, another alum.

“Community is so important here,” Steve Wiertzema said. “I taught in Barrett, Minnesota, for three years out of college. I got the call to come down here and it’s probably the best thing that could have happened. Our kids grew up here and they want to be back here.”

Another alum, currently living in the Twin Cities, will be back at Hills-Beaver Creek in the fall. His family includes a talented, young softball player at a giant Twin Cities school who is being recruited by college coaches. The fact that the Patriots don’t have a softball team didn’t get in the way of the families’ decision to move.

“We’re not small, we’re tiny,” said Holthaus, who has worked here for 12 years after stints at Jackson County Central, his hometown of Albany and St. Cloud Christian. “Our size is definitely attractive to me and my family. I never thought in a million years I would come here to a small outstate school. It’s definitely very pleasurable to me and the experience has been fantastic in regards to family values and parental involvement.”

Steve Wiertzema said one of the challenges at his school is travel for athletic contests. The football team used to be in a conference that included far-away southeast Minnesota teams like Grand Meadow and LeRoy-Ostrander, but in recent years football travel has been easier. Some basketball opponents can be found a short drive away in Iowa and South Dakota.

The basketball teams belong to the Red Rock Conference with such schools as Ellsworth, Westbrook-Walnut Grove, Adrian, Fulda, and Murray County Central. The Patriots football team, which has belonged to the Southern Confederacy Conference, will join most of those conference teams in the nine-man South District when district football begins this fall.

The closeness of Sioux Falls and Interstate 90 makes commuting easy. Beaver Creek is on the interstate and Hills is seven miles south of I-90. Steve Wiertzema lives just outside Hills, where the doorstep of Sioux Falls is only 16 miles away.

“And Sioux Falls is growing in this direction,” he said.

Growth is good.

--To see photos from Hills-Beaver Creek, visit the MSHSL Facebook page.

--NEXT: Caledonia and Spring Grove
Cook County: Isolated, Committed And A Great Place To Live5/4/2015
(This is the second in a four-part series about the schools that are located in the four corners of Minnesota.)

GRAND MARAIS – Cook County High School is exactly what the name implies. It’s the only school in Cook County, which is the second-largest county in Minnesota by total area, but has the fifth-smallest population of all 87 counties.

That equation – a macro area with a micro number of people -- means that students come from all over the county in the tip of northeast Minnesota’s arrowhead to attend school. Some live far up the Gunflint Trail, a county road that snakes northwesterly from Grand Marais through Superior National Forest and the Boundary Waters Canoe Area nearly to the Ontario border.

“I think the furthest bus ride is about an hour, if you go all the way up the Trail, and they have to go to the very end of the Trail to pick some kids up,” said athletic director and volleyball coach Pam Taylor, a native of Chaska who has worked in the school district for 33 years.

Cell phone service can be spotty in the hilly timberlands that shadow the Lake Superior shore, and broadband internet is relatively new in the county. A trip to the dentist can mean two hours on the road. It’s an isolated, scenic location where summer teems with tourism and winter mean lots of opportunities to sit by a fire or bundle up and explore the outdoors.

Lyle Anderson, who was hired at Cook County as a teacher and coach in 1976 and retired in 2009, came from North Dakota and figured he would stay for a couple years. Now in retirement, he’s still here.

“Heck yeah,” he said, “I absolutely fell in love with this place.”

This part of Minnesota is unlike any other, with the phrase “winter sports” often meaning outdoor sports. The highlight of Anderson’s coaching career was leading the Cook County Vikings to Class A state football championships in 1997, 1998 and 1999, but he also coached basketball, wrestling, track and, yes, skiing.

The Cook County boys and girls basketball teams, girls cross-country team and one-act play groups have all been to state competitions. Football leads the way with 11 state tournament appearances, most recently in 2007.

Simply putting teams together for practices, much less games, can be a big task due to the distances that athletes must travel. Along the lakeshore, the school district extends nearly 70 miles from Schroeder in the south to Grand Portage and the Canadian border in the north. When a team bus returns to the school from a road game, some kids will drive another hour to get home.

Because of that, when the Vikings play Polar League road games, some varsity contests start at 6:30 instead of 7 p.m. so the teams arrive home sooner.

“Especially on weeknights we can get home a little earlier,” Taylor said. “That eliminated getting back to school at 1 o’clock in the morning and having to be here by 8. A lot of times kids will try to arrange to stay in town but sometimes they can’t.”

Travel can present challenges other than distance. Taylor talks about her son, a student at Vermilion Community College in Ely, driving home to Grand Marais on state Highway 1, which winds for 107 miles through the Superior National Forest.

“He had run off the road and went in the ditch. He stood on top of his car in order to get cell phone service.”

When teams ride a bus to Ely and back, they often take extra garbage bags in case anyone becomes ill.

“I hate that road on a bus,” Taylor said with a smile. “There are a lot of times when I get phone calls, ‘So and so got sick on the bus going to Ely.’ If they have any kind of car sickness, they’re in trouble.”

The enrollment in grades nine through 12 is 170; that number has been falling in recent years and is expected to be around 149 in 2015-16. After a history of playing 11-man football, the Vikings will play their first season as a nine-man team next fall.

“That’s going to be a big switch,” Taylor said. “But the last couple of years in football our numbers have been low, and then kids get hurt. Nine-man makes travel easier, too. With 11-man we went all the way to Ogilvie (213 miles each way). I think now the furthest one will be Cherry (132).”

Senior Noah Warren said his high school memories will revolve around football.

“That was what half of my school was all about,” he said. “Playing football with my brother and the guys above me and the guys below me. I think (playing nine-man) is probably a step forward. When we finished last year we had 17 guys on the team. There’s not a lot you can do with that.”

Jami Sjogren, a senior three-sport athlete, said one of her favorite things about the school is that everyone knows everyone.

“It’s pretty small, easy to navigate around. You’re not going to get lost,” she said. “We’re all really close. In my class, I’ve gone to school with most of them since kindergarten.”

Taylor added, “I think one thing that’s unique with these guys is they do all know each other. They know their whole class, but not just their class, they know the whole school. The elementary kids know the high school kids. I think that’s kind of important for these guys.”

One of the newest members of the school staff is Adam Nelson, who is in his second year as the principal for grades six through 12. The 33-year-old is a native of Red Wing, 305 miles to the south; he and his wife have two children. His duties also sometimes extend to officiating junior varsity basketball games and filling in as a middle school coach.

“Coming from Red Wing, we used to complain about driving to Hutchinson or Chanhassen,” he said. “It’s like an hour and 15 minutes to Chanhassen. Here, we have to go about two hours to get just about anywhere, other than Silver Bay and Two Harbors.

“It was a really eye-opening experience when it came to the sports teams. The dedication of the coaches and athletes and parents to do the things they do up here, just to make it happen, is pretty incredible. There are a lot of great people around here.”

--To see photos from Cook County, visit the MSHSL Facebook page.

--NEXT: Hills-Beaver Creek
Kittson County Central: Small Numbers And Tremendous Pride 5/3/2015
(This is the first in a four-part series about the schools that are located in the four corners of Minnesota.)

HALLOCK – On a wintry spring afternoon, the toughness of athletes from extreme northwestern Minnesota was on full display. A handful of baseball players boarded a yellow bus at a tiny school in Lancaster, the bus drove 12 miles to pick up the rest of the team at the slightly larger Kittson Central High School here and then motored two hours south for a game against Norman County, a cooperative team with students from Ada-Borup and Norman County West.

Kittson Central and Lancaster also have cooperative sports teams – the Kittson County Central Bearcats – but the story on this day was the weather: a gray sky, swirling snowflakes, temperatures hovering around the freezing mark, and a havoc-wreaking wind booming across the Canadian border with a full-throated scream.

This game was only the Bearcats’ second of the season. And nasty weather isn’t the only factor in deciding when or if games will be scheduled or played. With a combined high school enrollment of 143 (90 at Kittson Central, 53 at Lancaster), all hands must be on deck for games to be played. While Kittson Central’s 32 seniors were on a week-long class trip to Washington, D.C., and New York City, no games were scheduled because four baseball players were gone. And when the Lancaster seniors went on a trip a week later, two others were absent.

“You’ve got to play sometime,” said Kittson Central athletic director Terry Ogorek, a Lancaster native who has worked at the school in Hallock for 35 years as a teacher, coach and administrator. Much has changed in those years, including the closing of other schools in the area, consolidations and new nicknames.

Team photos on the wall of Ogorek’s office tell the changing tale: The Hallock Bears … the Kittson Central Wolfpack … the Kittson County Central Bearcats.

“The biggest challenge of all is our declining enrollment,” Ogorek said. “We’re pretty small and Lancaster is even smaller yet.”

The athletic teams have done very well. Last fall, the KCC football team advanced to the nine-man state semifinals and the volleyball team played in the state tournament. The girls basketball team won a state championship in 2002 and the football team – with Ogorek as coach -- won state titles in 1988 and 1994. The Bearcats also field a successful BEST Robotics team.

“It’s a great relationship between Kittson Central and Lancaster,” said Steve Swiontek, the superintendent and principal in Lancaster, 12 miles south of the Manitoba border. “Coaches all get along, parents get along, booster clubs get along, it’s a marriage made in heaven.

“Even though the temperatures get very cold in the winter, this is a very warm community. People really love their school, we have a dedicated staff and with the students there are very few behavior problems. It’s nose-to-the-grindstone, old-fashioned values. It’s a great place.”

In order to go to a bigger place for serious shopping, movie theaters or fast food, one of the main options is making the drive to Grand Forks, N.D., which is 75 miles from Hallock. That’s a testament to the isolation here on the flat farmland of the Red River Valley, where the Canadian city of Winnipeg (95 miles from Hallock) is much closer than Minneapolis (386 miles.)

Geography also is a big factor in sports scheduling. Being backed up into the northwest corner, the Bearcats can only travel south and southeast. Lengthy bus rides are the norm.

“I imagine if you take a look at the southwest and southeast corners of the state, towns are probably closer together and they might not have the same problems we have,” Ogorek said.

Kittson County Central offers football and volleyball in the fall, boys and girls basketball and boys hockey in the winter, and baseball and girls and boys golf in the spring. The hockey team, which has athletes from Kittson Central, Lancaster and Tri-County in Karlstad, faces the toughest scheduling challenges. A map of Minnesota on Ogorek’s office wall is adorned with pushpins representing the travel the hockey team has faced in recent years. The pushpins extend deep into southwestern Minnesota to Marshall (365 miles one way) and Windom (411) and all the way to the shore of Lake Superior and Silver Bay (362).

“Hockey is the worst,” Ogorek said. “We don’t have any qualms about traveling pretty much two-thirds of the state of Minnesota to try to get a full schedule.”

Geography can make it difficult to hire teachers, as well. Most of the school employees, in fact, grew up in the area. One who didn’t is Lindsey Gullickson, who is in her second year teaching physical education for kindergarten through sixth grade in Hallock and is an assistant volleyball coach.

Gullickson is a native of Bemidji (155 miles from Hallock) who went to college at North Dakota State College of Science and Bemidji State. The position at Kittson Central was the first job offer she received.

“It’s awesome. The community is awesome, the kids here are great,” she said. “I couldn’t have asked for a better place to start teaching. It was kind of nerve-wracking because it’s kind of far from my family, it’s kind of in the middle of nowhere, but I took the chance and it paid off. I like the small town, I like the small class sizes, I like that there’s so much parental support here. I really enjoy it.”

As with most small communities, many high school graduates leave for college and return only to visit.

Kittson Central senior Annaliese Johnson, a winner of the MSHSL Triple-A (Academics, Arts, Athletics) Award, called Hallock a wonderful place to grow up but said she isn’t likely to live here after college. She will attend the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul and major in biochemistry.

“Most people go to college, whether it be Northland (Community & Technical College in Thief River Falls or East Grand Forks) or one of the Fargo schools,” she said. “Lots of people get their agriculture degree and come back. I want to be close enough to come and visit.”

According to census records, the population of Kittson County hit a peak of 10,717 in 1940. That number has dropped in every census since; in 2010 the county total was 4,552. That trend has meant the end of several schools in the county.

“You don’t talk about consolidation for the K-12 program,” Swiontek said. “If I was to say something like that, they wouldn’t crucify me but they would certainly hang me.”

Senior Caleb Christenson, the male winner of KCC’s Triple-A Award, described life in Hallock – where the population was 981 in the 2010 census -- as quiet and peaceful.

“I would kind of say it’s slow, especially after just being in New York,” he said. “It’s a community. Everybody knows everybody. You drive down the street, everyone knows who you are and what kind of car you drive.”

Johnson added, “Visitors come here and think it’s this quiet little town, but it’s really not. There is something going on all the time. My schedule is usually packed. There’s always food somewhere and a lot of community stuff. They think it’s almost nothing, but that’s not the case.”

Change is as constant as the prairie wind in this corner of Minnesota, and it can take many forms.

“The one thing about the school district here, and you’ll see the same thing in Lancaster, is the metamorphosis,” Ogorek said. “Things are always changing. We’ve got consolidations, we’ve got sports co-ops, job descriptions change, mascots change.

“But the one constant thing is the student body. With our sports cooperatives as they are, the kids get along so great. It’s just like they were in one district.”

--To see photos from Kittson Central and Lancaster, visit the MSHSL Facebook page.

--NEXT: Cook County High School in Grand Marais
A Preview: The Four Corners of Minnesota4/30/2015
This number is the easy part: 1,845 miles. That’s how much traveling I did on interstates, U.S. highways, state highways, county blacktops and one gravel road as I navigated the four corners of Minnesota to visit the schools that occupy those places. A series of four stories – one from each corner – will be posted on John’s Journal over four days next week, accompanied by photo galleries on the MSHSL Facebook page. The schools I visited are…

--Kittson Central and Lancaster, which have cooperative sports teams in the northwest corner.

--Cook County in Grand Marais in the northeast corner.

--Hills-Beaver Creek in the southwest.

--Caledonia and Spring Grove, which coop in several sports in the southeast.

I learned a great deal, and the lessons went far beyond geography, the price of gas and which convenience stores have the cleanest restrooms. More than anything else, I learned about the devoted people who work as coaches, teachers and administrators in schools all over our state and, by extension, our nation. There is no way to gauge the impact they have on our youth and our communities, and they deserve our respect and admiration.

At large schools, it can be hard to grasp what life is like at small schools on the fringes of Minnesota. Many of these little schools include students in kindergarten through 12th grade in one building, where the kids know every other student by name, regardless of their grade.

I saw a superintendent filling in as a substitute teacher; a high school where the entire faculty consists of seven people; a school that’s the only school in its county; hallways that are identified as the “high school hallway” and the “middle school hallway”; a custodian who also works as an assistant coach in two sports and drives a school bus; an FFA chapter that farms school-owned land and splits the profits with the school district; a sloping, asphalt parking lot where softball players practice when their field is unplayable.

It all was inspiring, providing proof that the people who work with our students, along with the parents and community members who take great pride in their schools, continue to perform selfless duties on behalf of us all.

All those miles behind the wheel resulted in other observations not directly related to what happens in our schools. I visited Kittson Central, Lancaster and Cook County on one long, looping, three-night trip with overnight stops in Grand Forks, N.D, Roseau and Grand Marais.

The weather on the northern swing was lousy, and that’s being soft on the weather. Temperatures hovered around freezing, snowflakes were a regular sight, and most outdoor activities were called off while I was up north. The southern trips – separate journeys two days apart to Hills-Beaver Creek and then Spring Grove and Caledonia – took place on warm, sun-splashed days.

During the course of my travels I saw dozens of deer standing along the roadways, along with a few others that had come out on the wrong end of collisions with motor vehicles. I saw swans resting on farm fields and pelicans floating on ponds. There were pheasants and raccoons, in positions equal to the aforementioned deer. I saw turkey vultures along the shore of Lake Superior and a bald eagle performing slow counter-clockwise circles over farmland a few miles east of Blue Earth. I did not see any moose, despite several “Moose Area” warning signs up north. I also did not encounter any falling rocks, despite warning signs on a winding road through southeast Minnesota’s bluff country.

I smelled the rich soil as farmers in the south began preparing their fields for planting. I smelled skunks. I kicked chunks of ice off my car in downtown Ely and went through a car wash in Rochester. I saw several giant statues of fish in downtown areas and along lakeshores, and I also saw some colorful statuary devoted to chickens (why chickens? I have no idea).

The John’s Journal Toyota Camry drew confused looks from a few people, as well as an occasional comment or question. On the Canadian border, a Border Patrol officer asked me, “What’s the deal with the car?” At a rest area on Interstate 90, a friendly gentleman walked up to me as I pulled into a parking spot and said, “John’s Journal? What’s that?”

I told him where I worked and what I did, saying that the best part of my job was visiting schools and writing about what goes on inside the walls and on the athletic fields.

He replied, “Really? What a neat job!”

I agreed with him.

*Schools/teams John has seen/visited: 504
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry in 2014-15: 11,230
*Follow John on Twitter. He’s @MSHSLjohn