The Lake County Commission prompts me to rambling by exerting a profound legal change to my old home on Lake Herman.
On Tuesday, August 2, the commissioner lowered the speed limit on the road running along the west side of Lake Herman from 55 miles per hour to 45.
My dad built a house and moved us out to the western shore of Lake Herman in 1976. I grew up riding the bus up and down the north mile of that road, then County Road 41, now 451st Avenue. When we drove to Sioux Falls, we usually went south down the next mile of that road, past Gerry Lange’s farm and Camp Lakodia, to take the faster Orland-Franklin route instead of driving through Madison.
But you don’t get to know a road riding in the backseat. I started getting my firsthand sense of that lake road in seventh grade, when I took up long-distance running. I would run up our gravel driveway, stride out onto the oil in my white-with-red-swoosh Nikes, and huff north, up the hill past Gilmans’ farm, to the top where stood the A-frame house, the most prominent structure on Lake Herman at the time. After that climb, I ran down to Collignons’, past the bean field, past Kreuls’ house right by the road, past Groces’ driveway, and then up a bit past the pastures to the stop sign corner a quarter mile south of Highway 34. When I first ran that route in 1983, the stop sign was really all that was there. Nobody had a house around that intersection. The golf course hadn’t reached west to lay its back nine holes out to the crazy curvy road along that intermittent western creek. It was just a high, lonely intersection, stopping people crossing east-west, leaving them wondering if anyone might be speeding down from the north to t-bone them as they pulled out.
On foot, I would usually turn east at that point, taking progressively longer routes—past the golf course, then down Territorial Road on the eastern shore of Lake Herman, and, on the best summer days, often at dawn, into and around the state park, past the great dredge and over its sludge lines, past the campsites, past the bay that GF&P wisely sanded into Lake Herman’s best swimming beach, and down and up the best slopes I could find in Lake County, to what my dad later informed me he and his contemplative 1950s comrades in motorized mayhem had dubbed Philosophizing Peak.
But whatever distance I ran, I came back the same way, back to the stop sign corner, back down that straight mile of oil, back past Groces/Kreuls/Collignons/A-frame, pick up pace on that last downhill, and try to carry that momentum down the driveway back to the lake.
Four years later, I started to drive that oil. I recognized how the placement of our driveway, the boat ramp road, in that small dipsy-doodle valley on County Road 41, meant that if I saw even the hint of a car roof over the rise to the south, I needed to wait, because there was no way I’d get out of the driveway and up to speed before a car northbound at full speed would smack into me. Similarly, I learned that if I was coming from the south, I needed to start slowing down before that hill, because our driveway came up fast after that rise.
Oddly, I didn’t take up bicycling on that road until after high school. I realized how easily I could cover the 4.5 miles to the Hardees corner, the 5.1 miles to Spies/Jubilee/Sunshine, the 6.2 miles to Madison High School. Equipped with a mix of backpacks and panniers, for years I hauled groceries from Madison out to my home on Lake Herman. During three fine summers, I rode my bike to and from work at Prairie Village, fully clad in my jeans and mowing boots. I rode to work at Madison High School fall, winter, and spring, often pedaling up County Road 41 before dawn and riding back down that road long after sunset. (On John Collignon’s advice, I put some reflective yellow stickers on the back buckles of my backpack, so it wouldn’t be him in his pickup truck who would bring my hometown coaching career to an early end. Those yellow stickers remain on my pack today.)
On windy days, that those trips up and back on County Road 41 were equal punishment and reward. Whether southerly gust or northerly gale, I could count on gearing down and grinding hunched over against the wind one way and shifting up and flying, head up, maybe even arms out on larkish evenings, with the wind helpfully at my back the other way. 41 and the wind taketh, and 41 and the wind giveth back—though they never gave me more than 30 mph under my own power.
Rarely did I walk that county road. One walk happened in December 1996, after that multi-day blizzard. I’d been away at school in Canada. My flight from Edmonton to Minneapolis was hitchless; the skies from Minneapolis to Sioux Falls weren’t bad, but the wind-whipped ground was a mess. My flight got to the airport, but nothing on the ground was moving in Sioux Falls or for miles around. I slept in Sioux Falls, got a ride to Madison from Brian Appelwick the next day, and was boggled to hear Mom say on the phone that there was no way Dad could get out onto the county road to come get me.
It was 4 p.m. The wind was blowing hard from the northwest. Whipped snow and clouds above hid the sun, but it would be dark in an hour. Nonetheless, in a combination of disbelief that so much snow could have fallen, incredulity that my dad couldn’t get any one of his various machines to bust through such snow, determination not to lose any more time of my Christmas vacation sleeping anywhere other than the western shore of Lake Herman, and confidence that months of subzero hiking and biking in Alberta’s crushing cold had trained me for any winter adventure south of the border, I tied down my black Russian fur hat and started walking from Apple Lines to Lake Herman.
With the help of a passing HP trooper, I reached the place near the golf course where the plows had abandoned the cause. The wind had buried the road. At the top of the golf course hill, past the creek, I tumbled over an eight-foot snowdrift. I scrambled past the few new houses along that road, over more drifts, to the stop sign intersection. When I turned south, through the incessant curtains of blowing snow and the creeping blue-gray twilight, I could see headlights beaming faintly upward. That was Dad and my brother, waiting somewhere by Collignons. I still had to walk three quarters of a mile, over all sorts of wild snowdrifts, with the wind now at my back nipping through the backs of my thighs, which under longjohns and jeans were the least layered part of my body facing that wind. The county road was buried; I could stay with it only by the landmarks of the shelterbelts, Kreuls’ house, and Dad’s headlights up ahead.
Nobody did 55 on 41 that day, or for another day or two.
On clearer days, I met my share of drivers doing more than 55 on that narrow county road. I occasionally found my own excuses to whip along faster than I should—hot dates, tight appointments, my own lack of planning—despite the fact that later unhurried analysis shows that tearing out of the driveway and gunning the engine up to 75 to the stop sign corner would only shave 14 seconds off my trip while increasing the chance that I’d hit some ice or other unforeseen hazard that would cost me an hour in the ditch (see November 1986, just north of the stop sign corner, on one of those curves that the sign said called for 35 but which I though that day called for 40, when my 1964 green Volkswagen Beetle’s rear wheel caught a patch of gravel and spun my trip to an unexpected halt).
I don’t recall ever having a close call with another driver on that county road. (There were the teen morons on their phones who pulled a Ravnsborg in front of our family bike ride, but that was east of the stop sign corner, on the golf course road.) Even on the darkest, coldest nights, when no driver would expect to find a bicyclist riding on the west side of Lake Herman, drivers spotted me and my reflecto-tape and blinky lights and gave me reasonably wide berth.
Various changes have led me down other roads and relegated my trips up and down County Road 41/451st Avenue to fewer and further between trips to see Lake Herman and the folks who remain. My parents find themselves increasingly surrounded by new neighbors. The stop sign corner is becoming what my dad’s philosophizing friend Lee Yager might call a metropolitan madhouse with all those houses springing up in sight of the ever-woodsier back nine. Following Blooms, others have plunked houses along 451st itself, tying in driveways where once I would only encounter cows behind wire fences, following my footsteps along the shoulder with their envious dark eyes.
451st is still a stirring stretch of road, especially at sunrise or sunset. But far more people are now out running and biking and walking and driving along it. Daily 451st driver Vince Gabrielson told the commission that the road was designed just to be a gravel road, lacks shoulders, and thus should not have non-motorists on it:
Gabrielson indicated he uses the road daily and noted it was designed as a gravel road and doesn’t have shoulders. Because of the design, he said, pedestrians should not be using it.
He pointed out there are nearby resources which provide safe areas for exercising – Lake Herman State Park, where his wife walks, and The Community Center, where Gabrielson himself goes.
“It should not be a walking trail. It should not be a biking trail. It is not safe,” he stated [Mary Gales Askren, “Rural Speed Zone Approved Despite Some Opposition,” Madison Daily Leader, 2022.08.02].
Dang—if I had known that for 30 years I had been causing old Vince such angst over my inappropriate use of a poorly designed county road… well, I’d have gone out there running and biking every darn day, with extra trips south toward his place, to mark my rightful territory. Roads belong to people, with or without automobiles. To suggest their recreation and health must defer to and depend on automobiles is insulting.
Gabrielson cited the road’s old, narrow design. If he meant that argument logically, then he should concede that his neighbors wide trailers and tractors have no place on that road, either, and should all stick to wider paths. Or he should recognize that the changing and expanding use of 451st Avenue warrants changing and expanding 451st Avenue itself, with nice wide shoulders on both sides, or maybe a beautiful recreational path paved away from the road, across the ditch, at the edge of the right of way, to separate those cars and trucks and occasional tractors from all those good people, many of them new residents whom we ought to welcome with their large homes and property tax bills, proceeding under their own power.
Rather than reconfigure the whole road, the Lake County Commission decided they’d just lower the speed limit from 55 to 45 along the two miles of pavement framing Lake Herman on the west. Frequent 451st flyer Fred Janke asked the commission, “What was the speed limit when they moved there? When did the rights and wishes of the people who move in trump the rights of people who’ve lived there all their lives?”
I know how you feel, Fred, and so do our Lakota neighbors.
But no one has a right to drive 55. We all have a right to travel, not to mention a right to survive our travels (except maybe me on that one occasion when I chose to walk in a blizzard). When more people choose to live and travel along a road, we have to accept that the rules of the road must change to accommodate the rights of all those new users.
The west side of Lake Herman looks very different from how it looked when Dad built our house (did our interloping bug Vince back in 1976? did it bug the young people who held keggers at the boat ramp but now had Heidelbergers living close by to call the cops if things got too loud?), or when I went for my first run up the A-frame hill and on to the stop sign corner, or even less than a decade ago when I pulled my last letter from my Lake Herman mailbox. If things keep going this way, Lake Herman will end up packed with houses like Lake Madison. The county will have to drop the speed limit to 35. The county might even have to tell Gilmans they can’t shoot off their automatic rifles on their back 40 any more.
I shake my head at some of those changes, present and potential (though not the gunfire thing—that’s just foolishness). I miss the wider open we had when I was younger, even though my dad and I narrowed that open ourselves. Our coming is fine; it’s everyone after us who makes things a mess, right, Vince?
But changes happen. None of us get a pass to keep living the way we used to. If you have the good fortune of living on the west side of Lake Herman, you now have to drive ten miles slower and take 12 to 25 seconds longer to get to town.
Of course, if you ride bicycle to town, those 45 signs on 451st won’t slow you down at all.