The Pampas and the Gauchos

119330-120-78394B6FThe Pampas

Continuing our review of the world’s major grasslands, we have what is commonly referred to as the Pampas in South America.  The Pampas is a relatively level region extending from the Atlantic Ocean in Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil.  At roughly 300,000 square miles, it qualifies as a major grassland.  It is drier in some areas than others, but is generally something of the ‘breadbasket” of South America with good soils for agriculture.  Not unlike the Great Plains of North America, much of the original wild character has been plowed under.  It has a much milder climate than the Great Plains, but interestingly, also produces tornadoes as cool air from Patagonia and warm tropical air from the north collide.

200px-Gaucho1868bThe Pampas in South American Popular Culture

Once again, it is the grasslands that gives so much to the character and culture of regions and nations.  Like the cowboy in North America, we have the gaucho in South America.  They were celebrated for their horsemanship and rustic, outdoors way of life.  Even though the gaucho way of life has largely disappeared, it remains a romantic notion.  Sound familiar?


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The Tantalizing Horizon

ABE1Thanks to everyone who commented on the previous post about the importance of grasslands in American history and culture.  It’s a fascinating topic.  A number of people pointed out that Europe does indeed have a major grassland – the vast central Asian Steppes do extend into parts of Europe, a bit west of the Black Sea.  It definitely helps explain why when the American plains were “settled,” it was often by people with roots in those areas of Europe.

So in honor of the world’s grasslands, let’s devote the next few posts to highlighting the plains, prairies, pampas, llanos, cerrados, steppes, savannas, and velds of the earth.

The Central Asian Steppes

400px-Eurasian_steppe_beltFrom the Black Sea in the west, to China and nearly to the Pacific in the east, are the steppes of Asia.  It includes at least parts of China, Mongolia, Russia, Ukraine, and several of the “stans.”  The region has been incredibly important in history as a trade route between Europe and Asia for everything from spices to horses.  Much of the trade was along the famous Silk Road.  Of course, not only were goods traded – ideas, traditions, art, religions, and all other aspects of culture were also traded as Europe and Asia grew up together through the ages.

Marco Polo


One famous example of this was Marco Polo.  A wealthy merchant from Venice, Marco traveled east with his father and uncle all the way to China, and served the great Kublai Khan for years.  He returned to Europe, was imprisoned, but wrote his tales of wonder from the wild open lands of Asia.  These stories helped fuel the European desire for exploration, not only as a means of gathering wealth, but also as a grand adventure to see foreign lands and cultures very different from those found in Europe.



Grasslands and Travel

Bikes are a great way to travel this longer section.

I think it’s clear from history that like the sea, grasslands inspire travel and adventure.  Forests tend to invite us to stay and settle and build a home.  The open lands of the steppes and plains dare us to find out what lies beyond that tantalizing horizon.  The Great Plains Trail strides (and rides) proudly along with that tradition!




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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!

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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!


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

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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.


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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.


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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.


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