Why I love Albert Lea

Published 4:05 pm Tuesday, June 21, 2016

By Ann Austin

Ann Austin is the executive director of the United Way of Freeborn County. She and her husband, Nick, have two children. 

My favorite place in the world is in Albert Lea.

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There’s a spot out at Myre-Big Island State Park that is on top of a little hill overlooking a pond and a grassland filled with Indian paintbrush grass that flows like ocean waves when the wind blows. And the wind blows strong most days.

I have been there during joyful times and when I’ve felt desperately sad and alone. I always leave feeling at peace. Lately I haven’t been able to spend as much time there — too busy with life to live and work to be done — but I look forward to the days I can wander freely again in the woods and grasslands. Escape is only temporary, and that is all it needs to be.

My first experiences of the park were through the stories my husband, Nick, would share with me. His grandparents would take him there as a young boy; they would drive slowly, looking for deer. As a Cub Scout, he would camp and wander in the woods.

We went for many hikes and mountain bike rides in our first years together. He took me along the glacial eskers and explained the geology and history of the land. We watched for otter, deer and turkey vultures, and I obsessively tried to identify plants along the path. One evening we saw a great horned owl, and it stared deep into our souls.


It gives me joy every day knowing there is wildness nearby to explore. 

There is a reverence for nature and the natural world in Albert Lea and among its inhabitants.

So many people choose to spend time outside: running, fishing or sitting on their porch to watch the sunset and talk about life.

I love how people stop their cars to let the ducks across busy roadways in town. On any random day you can observe an eagle soaring above the downtown or formations of white pelicans searching for the perfect fishing spot. Lately, there have been loons who have chosen to linger on our lakes.

Our city leadership values the beauty of the natural world that surrounds u,s as well, and has chosen to landscape our downtown to feature native plants such as the blazing star and purple prairie clover. To some, these plants may appear to be weeds, but they give me joy every time I go to the library or take a walk around the lake. I know they will take good care of our soil and provide food and shelter for the little birds and insects, often forced out of areas where humans choose to live.

The boathouse and community gardens have been intentionally placed to help people gain greater connection to the earth and the joys of the natural world. This not only adds value to our current days, it helps our children develop an understanding of how important it is to protect our earth.

Local stores like Albert Lea Seed House also carry native seeds so we can cultivate our backyards to become green, sustainable places for ourselves and our wild neighbors. One of the first things Nick and I did at our old house was to purchase a packet of wildflowers — every year we would see new growth of coneflower and Indian paintbrush in our yard. I had the pleasure to meet little leafcutter bees in our backyard and watched them build their homes.

I love Albert Lea because I have been able to find meaningful work, create meaningful relationships, develop a stronger connection with nature and continue to learn new things. I plan to grow a garden this year and learn the art of canning. I happen to have many friends who already do this and have been very encouraging and helpful with advice.

Here, I am able to experience a quality of life I’m not sure I could find elsewhere. It’s just #awesomealbertlea.