Great Plains road trip, 2010
On my trip out west this year, I had a clear and specific objective: explore the northern lakes region, which abounds in wildlife and geological peculiarities. I had never really taken the time to get to know that part of the country, and my desire to see the brand-new home of the Minnesota Twins, Target Field, made such a northward excursion very convenient.
The landscape of southeastern South Dakota is virtually indistinguishable from that of Iowa, or from Illinois, Indiana, or much of Ohio, for that matter. But the farther north you go, the fewer trees, cornfields, and cattle feedlots you see, and the fewer signs of human habitation. Instead, there are wide-open expanses of wheat and other small grains, not much different from the virgin prairies that Lewis and Clark first encountered in 1803. My first stop was at South Dakota State University, in Brookings. I toured the McCrory Gardens, drove around the campus (much of which was under construction), and finally walked to the top of the Coughlin Campanile, which at 165 feet high is one of the tallest structures in the Dakotas. Great exercise, and great views from the top. Then I continued north to Watertown, and soon came across lakes of all sizes. I remember people talking about Lake Kampeska way back when, and was astonished to discover that it is an intensively developed resort, ringed by vacation homes that stretch for miles. I had to take a detour to get to my next stop, Waubay National Wildlife Refuge, as the road into Waubay was closed due to the steadily rising level of Bitter Lake over the past decade or so. (Climate change?) At the refuge I climbed a lookout tower that seemed even higher than the one at SDSU, and was definitely more nerve-wracking. I seem to get more acrophobic as I age. But the skies were clear blue, just perfect for taking pictures, and I couldn't pass up the opportunities. Another visitor told me there is a herd of buffalo in that refuge, but I didn't see them. Later in the afternoon, I passed through a hilly zone that abruptly terminated at the edge of a vast flat, lowland plain, in the northeastern corner of the state. If I understand correctly, that vast ridge is a remnant of the Ice Age glaciers that carved out the lakes that cover the Upper Midwest today. I was especially curious about the North-South Continental Divide between Lake Traverse and Big Stone Lake, which mark the border with Minnesota. Unlike the better-known Continental Divide which passes through Rocky Mountain National Park (which I didn't quite reach during my trip to Colorado last year), the watershed divider which passes near Browns Valley, Minnesota is almost imperceptible. It's quite an intriguing anomaly.
Having grown up in South Dakota, it would probably come as a shock to most people that I had never even set foot in neighboring North Dakota. Well, I finally made up for that omission, though just barely. The eastern half of the state is extraordinarily flat, and as I crossed the Red River into Minnesota the next morning, I recalled the huge floods that plagued Fargo and Grand Forks this past spring. (Contrary to what Homer Simpson guessed while watching a TV quiz show, the capital of North Dakota is Bismarck, not Hitler. ) As I drove southeast toward Minneapolis, I noticed more trees (especially spruce and pines), and the terrain became more rolling. I wished I had set aside more time to explore the north woods countryside, but it was raining that day, so it probably didn't matter. After spending most of the afternoon watching the Twins host the Mariners, I drove through the University of Minnesota and some older neighborhoods of Minneapolis.
Next I crossed into Wisconsin, where there were more hills and more trees. I noticed some striking large rock formations at several points, like little Gibraltars. Those were a prelude to the truly spectacular Wisconsin Dells, a vacationer's haven. All the amusement parks and commercialization reminded me of Gatlinburg, Tennessee, adjacent to Smoky Mountain National Park. Continuing east into Milwaukee for the first time in my life, I stopped at Miller Park for lunch and a "photo op." If the skies hadn't been so hazy that day, I probably would have stopped to take pictures of downtown. [Likewise for the state capital city which I bypassed, Madison.] Then I drove south to Chicago, got stuck in traffic for a long while, and paid a brief visit to U.S. Cellular Field and the surrounding neighborhoods. They seem to be working hard to improve that part of Chicago, which has a rough reputation. Then I got back on the expressway, forked over a few more dollars at the toll gates, and headed to Virginia, via Indianapolis, Cincinnati, and Huntington, West Virginia, which was my final "tourist stop." I took pictures of the state capitol building, which features a gleaming gold-plated dome, as well as the Kanawa River.
I have compiled a couple dozen new photos from my trip on the 2010 Summer photo gallery page, summarized in the montage of rural scenes from South Dakota below. I included on that page one photo of each of the four baseball stadiums which I visited on this trip, but there will soon be multiple photos for each of them on the respective stadium pages. (Only a true baseball fan would understand why.) There are also four new photos of birds, including the Pheasant and Pelicans seen in the montage, as well as butterflies. I should note that when I left Virginia, the state was in the midst of a severe drought, and the countryside was parched and brown. The farther west I traveled, however, the greener the landscape became. It was the exact opposite of the normal situation. While I was in South Dakota we had heavy torrential rains on at least three occasions, even though the ground was already saturated from previous rainfall. As I was leaving town, the lower portion of The Bluffs golf course in Vermillion was severely flooded. That, too, has been duly recorded via digital photography.