This blog is a first step in the realization of an idea. The idea is to establish The Great Plains Trail, a long distance non-motorized trail running north/south through the short grass prairies of North America.
The inspiration began in 1991 with an encounter with a landscape.
I was in college in my home state of Minnesota, and headed for my second summer of employment at Signal Mountain Lodge in Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming. My first summer, I arrived there by plane. I didn’t know it then, but by doing so, I missed what so many others have missed while rocketing through the atmosphere from one point on a map to another. My second summer, I managed to secure long-term rights to my parents’ car and pointed it west in early June.
All was quite unremarkable for much of that first day. The drowsy farmland of western Minnesota, dotted with groves of trees, rolled by expectedly. Not wanting to break stride, the drive entailed nothing more than shifting in my seat, searching for music to play, and fighting off the inevitable doze that comes with a long drive.
I stopped for lunch at the Missouri River. The broad water (now a series of dams and lakes) stretched away familiarly. On the far (western) bank, I noticed a rampart of large bluffs and hills rising steeply from the water with groups of trees huddled in the narrow ravines between the hills. It was picturesque. I checked the atlas and calculated, with some despair, the distance I had yet to travel. I was unaware of what awaited me on the other side of the river.
Somewhere on the ascent up that western bank, a new and invigorating landscape appeared as quickly as the old familiar one vanished. A swell in the land rolled under low clouds. Trees fled the scene, and at the crest of the hill, a long horizon appeared decorated with distant buttes. I was in the West and on the Great Plains.
Nothing could have prepared me for this. Growing up in the cloistered Midwestern suburbs, and summering only once in the Tetons, I had never seen a true horizon before. In the Midwest, there are always trees to block the larger view. In the West, there are mountain ranges, however distant, to enclose the space. The immensity was staggering. I felt invited, no urged, to not just see, but experience this new feeling of space.
I pulled off the freeway and eventually found a dirt road leading nowhere in particular. I stopped the car, got out and began to walk a few steps along the road. I was at once enveloped by a realm of silence, wind, cloud, sky, earth and grass. I could’ve walked forever.
The desire to walk forever in such a landscape never left me. That feeling soon became an idea: a long distance trail running north/south through the Great Plains.
We are fortunate to have the Appalachian Trail, the Continental Divide Trail, and the Pacific Crest Trail among the long distance trails in the United States. All of which exist in unique and beautiful regions of the country. They also exist because someone wanted a way for people to experience these places more fully and actively.
The Great Plains abounds in unique scenic beauty, teems with wildlife and ecological diversity, and harbors thousands of years of human history. My vision of the Great Plains Trail is a way to recognize, celebrate and promote these attributes. What better way to do that, than to allow people to experience it up close. Many people, if they’ve seen the Great Plains at all, have seen it only from the window of a car, and many more only from 30,000 feet above it. The Great Plains is a beautiful and endangered landscape. I invite you, no I urge you, to take a much closer look.