The Grasslands – The Most American Landscape

Grasslands!  There are no major grasslands in Europe.

Grasslands! There are no major grasslands in Europe.

Yes, you’ve read this before, but maybe I’m going to make this an annual post on this holiday . . . because it’s still true.

Happy 4th of July from the Great Plains Trail!  On this most American of holidays, it’s time to recognize (and brag just a bit) that the most American of landscapes is indeed the Great Plains.  I will expand on this idea briefly so you can get back to grillin’ and chillin’ in your neighbor’s backyard.

In the varied and intricate history of the country we call America, with its many cultural influences and stories, it can be argued that the dominant cultural thread is a European one.  From the time of Columbus onward, the creation of what was to become America was, by and large, a grand European project.  Yes, I know, there are countless other influences, and yes, I know, we signed the Declaration of Independence and then overthrew our European oppressors in the Revolutionary War, but that was hardly the end of European influence.

Evidence that Europeans have had trouble adapting to the grasslands

Evidence that Europeans have had difficulty adapting to the grasslands

One of the reasons why Europeans took to the place so readily was that it reminded them of Europe.  The coasts, the forests, the mountains, the lakes – they all reminded Europeans of some place they had left behind in “the old country.”  All of them except the Great Plains – there is simply no equivalent landscape in Europe to compare with the Great Plains.  Europe has mountains, hills, valleys, coasts, forests, and even deserts, but there are no major grasslands in Europe.  It is most likely this fact that leaves the Great Plains relatively empty even today despite a nation of over 300,000,000 people.  The Europeans that “settled” the nation stuck to what they knew, and they knew nothing of the grasslands, and so they were generally avoided, or passed through as quickly as possible.  They remain, if not unspoiled, at least unpopulated today.

The Windmill - another American icon from the Great Plains

The Windmill – another American icon from the Great Plains

The Great Plains, as the only truly American landscape, gave rise to such true American icons as “the cowboy,” “the buffalo,” “the teepee,” “the covered wagon,” and “the ranch.”  The Great Plains also created the unique American value of self reliance and independence.  These things were not seen as virtues until Americans ventured beyond the well watered landscapes of the east.

So there you have it, and you are welcome to disagree, but I declare that as far as landscapes are concerned, the most American is the vast open country of the Great Plains!  Not only is it the largest single landscape we have (covering at least 1/4 of the country, depending on how you define it), but it also gave rise to who we are, and how we define ourselves as a people and a nation.

Happy Independence Day!

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Limitations Imposed by the Earth’s Curvature

I’m reviving an old theme here:  Quotations relating the the Great Plains by authors famous and not famous.  Enjoy!

IMG_0245

It is a stern, formidable land that invites no dalliance with the viewer, no light hearted love affair with persons who visit or inhabit it.  Yet for those who are willing to accept it on its own terms, to battle its storms and fight its droughts, it offers incredible beauty – buttes that turn purple in the fading twilight, pinnacles of rock as delicate as anything designed by a human architect, broad horizons that stretch as far as the limitations imposed by the earth’s curvature, deep canyons and broad rivers, all covered by a sky unequaled for grandeur except on the ocean.            

Alexander B. Adams, from Sunlight and Storm The Great American Plains

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , | Leave a comment

The Skies Above the Plains

Sister tornados from a massive supercell outside of Simla, Colorado. Shot of a lifetime for me. I have been trying to get a shot like this for 6 years. I hope you enjoy!

This spectacular photo, taken by storm chaser Kelly DeLay, which has been making the news of late, was taken just a few days ago, and just a few miles from where the Great Plains Trail will pass!

I know what you’re thinking, but do not fear.  This is just part of the impressive beauty of the plains.

For better looks (totally worth it), follow the link above to Kelly’s website.

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

The Journey – Part Last

South Dakota

South Dakota!

Windswept scenery

Windswept scenery.

The south end of the Black Hills

The south end of the Black Hills.

Business opportunity?- convert this into a GPT breakfast joint!

Business opportunity?- convert this into a GPT breakfast joint!

Finally made it!

Finally made it!

The Mickelson Trail marker in Edgemont.  Mile 0.0

The Mickelson Trail marker in Edgemont. Mile 0.0  (This was taken at a different time – hence the green grass as opposed to the brown grass in the rest of the photos).

OK, I can’t believe it’s almost been a month since I posted a blog.  Wow.  Truth is . . . I’m a teacher, and the end of the year was hectic and insane, and I found that I did not have the time nor energy to put together a coherent post.  But enough of the whining, let’s finish the journey. . .

The last leg of the journey brought us to Edgemont, South Dakota, a full 106 miles from where we began at Agate Fossil Beds National Monument.  I was excited, but a little wistful to end the trip.  It had been incredible in so many ways.  We headed north at a very fast pace, nearly 4 miles per hour I realized later!  We came through the sparse, somewhat abandoned town of Provo, SD, but quickly realized it could not be totally abandoned because we were drawn to the smell of someone, somewhere cooking a big breakfast.  We imagined, pancakes, waffles, bacon, toast, coffee, orange juice, the works – no wonder we were making such good time!  It was not coming from a restaurant because there do not seem to be any operating businesses in Provo.  It seems to me that there is a prime opportunity there for someone to open up a little breakfast joint.  One thing is for sure:  Great Plains Trail hikers are guaranteed to be hungry!

The last few miles from Provo brought us into Edgemont.  Edgemont is the southern terminus for the Mickelson Trail, a converted rail-trail which runs for 110 miles through the Black Hills. The GPT will merge with the Mickelson Trail as well as have connectors to the Centennial Trail, which runs roughly parallel, but is more of a rugged hiking trail.

We finished our hike, ironically, at the Mickelson Trail sign that marks mile 0.0 – after 106 miles, it was a sight for sore eyes.

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | 6 Comments

The Journey – Part Five

Sure, he looks cute now . . .

Sure, he looks cute now . . .

A fine day for a long walk

A fine day for a long walk

The campsite

The campsite

The big star sets, revealing all the little stars

The big star sets, revealing all the little stars

 

Cows.  I can’t say I have a lot of experience with them.  I grew up in the suburbs, but I did spend a few weeks working on various farms in New Zealand, and I managed to learn at least one thing:  Be careful around the bulls, they can be unpredictable.

So it was with some apprehension that we approached a large bull alongside the road in an unfenced area of the nearby ranch.  We made plans if he charged.  Ken’s involved doing a Superman dive over the fence on the other side of the road, mine involved vaulting the fence with one hand on top of a post.  At this point, one of my board members, Bob, was also hiking with us.  I’m not really clear what his plan was.  As we drew alongside of him, it became clear that there was no hope for any of our plans.  The other side of the road was low and was filled with a deep, wet muck – not exactly a good launching pad, and even my post idea was useless because right in that area (and only in the area), the strand of barbed wire ran directly over the  top of the post, as opposed to six inches below it.  We passed a few nervous moments, casting cautious glances and ready for anything.  Luckily, he was only very curious.  He kept his eyes on us at all times, but stayed more or less where he was.

The rest of the day was less eventful as we crossed the Nebraska/South Dakota border, and headed north toward Edgemont.  We saw few cars, and returned to camp at a wide open stretch of public land on Oglala National Grassland.  It was one of the most beautiful campsites I’ve ever seen.  It was exposed, but the weather was quiet, and we had a 360 degree view of rolling grasslands with the Black Hills rising to our north, and the Pine Ridge hooking around to our west and south.

I awoke in the middle of the night, exited the tent, and spend a few blissful moments, before I got cold, staring at the full show of stars, a show I hadn’t seen in a long time.  This will be one of the best places to camp on the Great Plains Trail.

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , | 6 Comments

The Journey – Part Four

The dry cracked earth just west of Toadstool.

The dry cracked earth just west of Toadstool.

Near the end of the day

Near the end of the day

The Mini Mountains

The Mini Mountains

Pronghorn on the move.

Pronghorn on the move.

What part of the Toadstool badlands look like - This is NOT the route we chose!

What part of the Toadstool badlands look like – This is NOT the route we chose!

The new route was a success!

The new route was a success!

Toadstool is an amazing place.  I’ve now been there enough times in the last few years that I’m starting to get to know it pretty well, I think.  To the north of the campground, there are a series of imposing badlands, and then it starts to peter out and becomes just rolling grasslands about a mile further north.  In my initial routing plans from my first few visits, I knew of no other way than to backtrack to the road, but as I grew more familiar with Toadstool, I began to think that routing a section of new trail north of the campground might just be possible.

Note:  All apologies for the order of these photos.  WordPress is just putting them wherever it wants, and I seem to have no control over it, so they’re out of sequence.

We met briefly with Mike Watts, who is in charge of the recreation department for Oglala National Grassland, and he confirmed that most of the way north of the campground was still on public land.  He also gave us the go ahead to find our way through, and seemed excited about the trail in general.  So with that, we started out on a true route finding mission!

The badlands just to the north of the campground were indeed steep and tricky, but we did manage to find a more or less feasible way up an over and between them.  In wetter times, it may not be ideal, but in reasonably dry weather, the way was pretty easy.  Beyond that, the way was not too tricky, and there were no other major obstacles.  You can more or less just head WNW until you meet up with a little used forest service two track road that then takes you out to the main road about a mile further on.

The day was young, and we had many miles yet to cover, but the success of actually routing new trail put a smile on my face for the rest of the day!

Overall, we covered about 18 miles that day and although most of it was on roads, we saw zero cars.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , | Leave a comment

The Journey – Part Three

Some of the scenery along the road north of Crawford

Some of the scenery along the road north of Crawford

A well deserved break in one of the public sections of Oglala National Grassland

A well deserved break in one of the public sections of Oglala National Grassland

In the canyons of Toadstool

In the canyons of Toadstool

The Bison Trail to Toadstool

The Bison Trail to Toadstool

From Fort Robinson we were faced with a 26 mile trek all the way to Toadstool Geologic Park, which is part of Oglala National Grassland.  So on the day before, we took a “day off” to do some things in town, and also shortened our trek about three miles by taking the very pleasant White River Trail from Fort Robinson into the fine town of Crawford, Nebraska.  That left us with 23 miles to go . . .

We started early headed north from Crawford through open croplands with nice views of the bluffs.  Although we were hiking a road for 20 of the 23 miles, we saw very little traffic, and only had one short conversation with a Nebraska game warden.  We weren’t sure if he randomly found us, or if someone had called him, perhaps a bit suspicious of two guys walking along and maybe hunting out of season.  It’s possible because later we saw a number of “No Hunting” signs posted along fences and gates.  We explained that we were just walking a portion of the Great Plains Trail, to which he seemed mostly indifferent.  He bid us a “Good day” and we carried on through some really nice scenery.  Dry hills with the steepness of mountains rose to the south, while to the west and north, the “Pine Ridge,” Nebraska’s answer to the Black Hills, awaited in friendly repose.

After our encounter with the warden, we saw no one else for the rest of the day, but walked the remaining 16 or 17 miles in relaxed conversation, all the while, the road dropping into wooded hollows, and then rising into breezy pine covered hill tops.  The final three miles were all on what is known as the Bison Trail, a spectacular badlands and open prairie trail that connects the aforementioned Toadstool Geologic Park to Hudson-Meng Bison Bonened.  The bonebed is the site of a 10,000 year old bison kill site by early humans in the area.  It was not open when we passed through there, but it is a unique spot and well worth the visit.

We dropped into Toadstool exhausted, but really, it was one of the best days of hiking I’ve ever had, and is right now my favorite section on the Great Plains Trail!

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments