A Travellerspoint blog

July 2010

Crossing the Great Plains

Finding Hidden Suprises in America's Heartland: A Study in Yellow

sunny 85 °F

For the first time in my life, I found mountains uninspiring. I drove right by them, indifferent to their snow capped peaks, their green petticoats of pines, the gushing white waterfalls falling from their shoulders. I was surprised by this. Normally, mountains are my soul mates, my inspiration, and what I come out west to see. Not this time. I spent 5 days driving through British Columbia, passing by some spectacular ranges from the coast down to Revelstoke and Glacier National parks. I looked at them, but felt no urge to hike, climb, or even give them much thought.

When I reached Montana, I drove right by Glacier National park without a second glance. I didn’t have much interest in sharing the park with hundreds of slack-jawed tourists, decked out in their “Ranger Dan” tan outfits and sun hats. Maybe I was getting bitter. A sign informed me that the “going to the sun” highway was seeing delays from road construction. This was the one draw for me on this trip, to drive my old van over one of the most spectacular roads in the northern US, but I didn’t want to sit in a stifling traffic jam in the mid July heat to accomplish that goal.

I continued driving eastward on US highway 2, a road that I have almost driven from coast to coast (in sections). In northern Montana, this highway is known as the “hi-line” and for me it was the most direct route to my goal: Lake Superior. Leaving the small town of Browning, I settled into the driver’s seat and got ready to cross the Great Plains.
To some, driving across the endless plains is the worst punishment in the world. “It’s so damn boring!” is their battle cry, and they waste no time in getting across. They keep the pedal to the metal, 80 miles an hour, cigarette butts flipped out the window every 15 minutes. If you ask them how the trip went, they’ll invariably answer, “Fine, except for the plains.”

I guess I’m just different. I love driving over the prairie. I love being able to see the horizon in every direction miles and miles away. I like the rolling hills of grass. I like trying to contemplate the vast distance that makes up the plains. An ocean of grass, stretching for roughly 500 miles east to west and 2000 miles north to south. It’s a huge natural feature.
I spend a lot of my time looking out the window, trying to imagine what it was like trying to cross on horse back, or in a covered wagon. We have it easy. Paved roads are quite comfortable compared to what the pioneers faced. Sometimes I feel like I was born in the wrong era. I’m old fashioned. I’d actually like to try crossing the plains on horse back or by walking. Thing is, there are a lot of fences and roads these days. One must have access to the land, as well as keeping the livestock in, and the trespasser out.
This crossing was a surprise. I’d never crossed the plains in July before, and I was surprised to see how vibrant and full of life the plains were. Long fields of thick green grasses were dotted with wild flowers. The Cottonwoods were standing tall and proud along the riverbanks. They offered a traveler a lot of cool shade to escape the intense glare of the sun. Many of the fields had already been cut and the hay was already rolled in in round bales. There were acres of fields and pastures planted with crops. They all appeared healthy, and I would predict a good year for farmers.

While driving, I enjoyed watching the livestock gorge themselves on the green grasses as I drove by. Fat cows stared stupidly at me while chewing their cud. Of course, you would probably look at me as if I was crazy too if I drove by you and bellowed out a long “MOOOOOOOOOOOOOO” at you. You have to do something to entertain yourself out here.

I have an affinity with dandelion heads. I like the puffy gray-white heads that are just waiting for a big gust of wind to release them from the stem. If I was to go bald, I’d like to have it happen like a dandelion losing its seed: One big gust of breeze and 10 seconds later I look like Terry Bradshaw. Anyway, I enjoy helping the flowers reproduce by occasionally plucking a stem and blowing the soft white parachutes into the air.

I have newfound respect for North Dakota. What a vibrant state! There are whole fields of yellow and purple flowers in bloom. Acres and acres of bright color stretching off to the horizon, an organized visual masterpiece of yellow, green, purple, bright blue, and white. It was amazing, and completely unexpected. I’ve never been here in July. Whenever I had visited before, the fields were all sun baked tan, wind swept and dead. I always wondered what it would look like in the growing season, and now I know-it is beautiful.

I would bet that young train engineers pictured a scene just like this one as they daydreamed about operating a train when they grew up.

Graham’s Island State Park that is located on Devil’s Lake in the northeast part of the state. I was amazed with the variety of birds that make this park their home. The birds are constantly singing, whether they are the raucous laughing gulls, warblers, sparrows, red winged black birds, or other varieties. My arrival coincided with a feeding frenzy of dragonflies. They were out in force, gorging themselves on particular flies that were going through its own hatching cycle, amassing themselves in the thousands. The dragonflies flitted around on patrol through the day, but when dusk had settled in, they REALLY began to chow down on the flies. It was hard to estimate, but over my 60 ft by 30 ft campsite, I would estimate several hundred dragonflies circling around. Now imagine the whole park with the same density of dragonflies zipping overhead eating flies. It was eerie. The only sound was that of the low buzzing of fly wings and of dragonflies.

My crossing of the plains was the highlight of my trip. I spent three and a half days crossing the wide expanse. I will gladly come back in July. The sights and sounds of the plains during the growing months are really something to see. So don’t judge a book by it’s cover, come visit the northern plain states and see its subtle beauty for yourself.
As my siblings ask themselves while they peruse the photos of my travels."Oh Brother, Where art thou?"

Posted by Rhombus 15:21 Archived in USA Tagged photography Comments (2)

My Van Turns 200!

Reflections on the best vehicle I'll ever own.

sunny 80 °F

Rolling eastward over the vast western plains of America, I find myself quite excited as to what is going to happen within the next 60 seconds. I’m not sure when it’s going to happen, and my anticipation reminds of me of Christmas eve’s of my youth. Then my van’s odometer clicks over. In an instant it reads 200,000. I made it. My van made it, a major milestone has been reached, and it is cause for me to stop and celebrate. Of course, I take a few photos.

This may not seem like a major life accomplishment to you, but it is for me. This number means a lot to me, a reminder of how far I’ve traveled in the last 7 years, and how much I’ve grown because of those miles.
Some History.
In the fall of 2003,I had totalled my car in a near head on collision. It wasn’t anybody’s fault, she pulled out in front of me, and I couldn’t react in time. Accidents happen, and it was my turn. The end result is that it left me short of a vehicle, and I needed to purchase another one. I was pondering what kind of vehicle I wanted, and it came down to a car just like my last one (a 94 cutlass supreme) or some sort of van. I didn’t know why I wanted a van, I just did. I guess I had visions of driving around in a big van, hauling all my friends, or just having a lot of room to carry my toys.

Later on in that week, I tried to pack my camping gear into the back of my sister’s car. It was a struggle. My backpack was too big, and I really had to cram to get the trunk lid to close. Right then and there, I knew what I wanted, and so began my search for a van.

After a lengthy search, and many test drives, I finally found the van I wanted. It was beautiful, and had only 42,000 miles on it. I signed my name to 90 pages of legal speak that documented the fact that I now owed the bank a lot of money. I only lost one night of sleep over the decision. I reasoned that it was only money I didn’t have, and now I had a van!!!

I hauled my friends around (8 of them at a time). I decorated the inside, I put in a carpet, some plants (a mistake), and generally was quite happy with my purchase. That winter, I was laid off from my job for the first time. Not being one to complain, I immediately made a plan to go visit some friends and go skiing out west. I went all the way out to Washington and Oregon for the first time, I skied, I hiked, I lived out of my van, and I learned that I had bought the ultimate travel tool for the United States. I was becoming addicted to travel, and I was happiest out on the open road. I loved driving around the country and seeing what was there was to see down countless empty highways.

A Synopsis of Travels with my van:
2004- 1st trip. From Duluth to the Pacific Northwest then across the country to South Carolina.
2 month road trip.
2005- Return to the Pacific NW to pick up friends. Travel down to Southern Utah and back to pacific NW
Returning to Minnesota. 6 week road trip.
2006- To New Mexico and Arizona, back to Duluth, Followed by a trip out to Montana and Wyoming.
2 month road trip.
2007- Several weeks in New Mexico, back to Duluth, then to Arkansas and Missouri, Returning to Minnesota and then back to Montana. 2 month road trip.
2008- 3 month road trip out west covering 16 states.
2009- 3 month road trip around US covering 14 states, followed by a 2 week trip up to Alaska. After the summer, a 2 week trip back from Alaska
2010- 2 months ski bum in Idaho, Travel home through southern Idaho, 3 week road trip to Alaska and now a 2 week return trip to Michigan.

I look back at my first trips in the van and shake my head. I didn’t have a clue on how to travel. I was smart enough to take out the back seats, but there was stuff everywhere in a jumbled stack all over the back. Gradually, I got better at travelling. I developed a system, built a bed and storage area, added toppers to carry more toys and to save space. I didn’t drive as far everyday, I slowed down and really got into living the slow life. I brought my girlfriend (at the time) to share in the experience. I stayed a lot at state parks, national parks, national forests, and motels when I felt like it. The whole point of working was to earn enough money so I could travel all winter. I became a vagabond.

The question I get asked the most is, “Where is your favorite place in America?” It’s impossible to say. I’ve found good things to every state I’ve been to. I’ve been to all of the states, except seven. I’ve also been to four Canadian provinces. Naturally, I have states that I visit more often than others (Montana, Washington, New Mexico, Minnesota, Idaho and Denial to name a few), but I know dozens of little pieces of paradise all around this country, and they all are special in their own way.
Not all the roads I’ve been on have been good roads. I’ve driven through some nasty storms, I’ve seen lightning in a blizzard. I’ve had rocks bouncing off of the road along side of me as I drove over a mountain during the night. I’ve seen taken short cuts that have led to long cuts. I’ve been lonely, sad, happy and mad (though usually only in big city traffic) and every other emotion you can have. I’ve broken down in small towns and bigger cities. I’ve slid sideways down the middle of the road on black ice at 40 mph. I’ve been stuck in the ditch on several occasions. I’ve locked myself out of my van once. I’ve wondered how much money I had left on numerous occasions, and have eaten Dorito sandwiches in a pinch. I’ve had a great time in this old van of mine, and I wouldn’t trade any of my experiences for anything. Hmm. Maybe one thing…

I’m writing this in the small, quiet town of Chester, Montana. I like Chester. Besides the trains that pass by every ½ hour or so, there isn’t much going on. Roving bands of kids seem to run the town. Most are on bikes, some are walking. They are all outside, late into the evening, hanging out, throwing a ball, playing in the playground. I hear them yelling and shrieking, and it is music to my ears. It’s the sound of summer in small town America. Refreshing.

Chester lets you camp for free at it’s immaculate city park. Beware of the sprinklers. I didn’t heed the warning signs until too late. I was jamming on my banjo, oblivious to the time when sprinkler system two went on at it’s scheduled time. Did you ever see a banjoist leap 4 feet in the air from a sitting position? Chester has. I bet my neighbors had a good laugh over that one.

The sun has set, cool breezes are blowing through the open windows of my van. It’s getting dark, and a quarter moon hangs low over the city park. In the west, the last tendrils of orange hang over the horizon. The only sound left is that of the kids, staying up late, cursing, screaming and having fun. Hopefully, it’s past their bedtime.

Tonight, I hope I dream of my van, and all the awesome places we’ve been together and all the places we’ve yet to see. Thanks ol’ buddy.

Posted by Rhombus 08:50 Archived in USA Tagged automotive Comments (2)

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