The High Plains, where they have escaped the bulldozing effect of continental glaciers, are hardly flat, as this rolling landscape in South Dakota shows.
As I drive from east to west on I-70 from Missouri into western Kansas, or on I-80 from Iowa into western Nebraska, or on I-90 from Minnesota into western South Dakota, here are some three-dozen things that I observe as the road leaves the scattered forests and tall-grass prairie of the Midwest and stretches into the High Plains:
- Because short grasses replace tall grasses and trees, the horizon seems to stretch farther and farther away.
- The 360-degree horizon is flat, but the middle ground and foreground are not necessarily so. In South Dakota, for example, north and east of the Missouri River, much of the land has been planed by continental glaciers and is thus flat. South and west of the Missouri River, the land escaped continental glaciation and therefore can be quite rolling. Some think the velvety hummocky landscape looks like a great golf course. The same could be said for the Flint Hills and Smokey Hills of Kansas, and the Sand Hills of Nebraska.
- Periodically, one encounters fantastic geologic formations like Nebraska’s Chimney Rock, or Colorado’s Pawnee Buttes, or North and South Dakota’s Badlands. These whimsical landforms break the monotony of an otherwise expressionless horizon.
- There are a surprising number of prairie ponds, sometimes lined with rushes and cattails, sometimes not.
- In the summer heat you can conjure larger and larger mirages on the highway up ahead.
- Exits are farther apart; there are more signs warning drivers, “Next Exit __ Miles”
- At the higher elevations, the August air smells sweeter.
- My nose and lips begin to crack in the thinner, drier air.
- The atmosphere is clearer, so I can see the outline of clouds at an impossibly far distance — more than 100 miles away.
- In an afternoon summer shower, the sun is apt to shine during a brief cloudburst.
- Because of blizzards, there are barricades at the on-ramps of highways and in some places across the lanes (e.g., on I-80 at Mile 238 between North Platte and Kearny).
- Because of drifting snow, there are long stretches of snow fences.
- There are more signs announcing the conservation district one is in.
- There seem to be as many John Deere dealerships as car dealerships.
- In August, the corn becomes noticeably shorter.
- You can see lots of crop dusters — often biplanes — flying low over the corn.
- There are more center pivot irrigation systems, especially for corn and sugar beets.
- Wheat and sunflowers replace corn and soybeans as the miles mount. Usually it’s winter wheat.
- Trees are limited to bottomlands and windbreaks around houses and fields. Cottonwoods line streams. There is an occasional Russian olive.
- There are more and longer barbed-wire fences.
- There are more windmills of the old-fashioned kind. Nowadays there are huge wind-harvesting machines, and big trucks carry the propellers along interstate highways as “oversized loads.”
- There are more pickups and more drivers wearing cowboy hats.
- There are more cowboys and references to cowboys in billboards.
- There are more saddlery shops.
- There is a higher percentage of Indian names.
- There are more black angus cattle and some red angus cattle, too.
- There are more feedlots.
- You see more corrals with pretty horses in them.
- Museums are more apt to display the long-barreled Colt 45.
- Towns become like tree islands amid a sea of grass. One can make out the boundaries of the town from a fair distance. The skyline provides welcome vertical relief from the unending horizon. Towering over the town are a great white grain elevator, silver silos, a water tower or two, and perhaps a church steeple.
- You can see long black trains in the distance, usually carrying coal.
- And there is only one place in the world where you can see all the billboards announcing the approach of Wall Drug Store!
You can infer a lot from what you observe as you head west. For instance:
- The greater number of billboards sporting gun and ammo ads tell you that this is Second Amendment country. Don’t even think about interfering with the libertarian spirit out West.
- The homesteads are often far from surface water. Geologically this suggests the existence of great aquifers; legally it suggests the doctrine of prior appropriation of water rights.
- The tourist tee-pees you see by the side of the road echo the time when they were the indigenous shelter of Plains Indians, who made them from buffalo hides.
What have I failed to observe or forgotten to note?