Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Flirting with the elements

No funny stories today, I'm afraid. Although the day isn't over yet, so I guess there's hope.

I awoke this morning in Dickinson and got on the road early in a heavy fog. As it began to clear I got some wonderful photo opportunities, including the attached shot of a North Dakota country road in the clearing fog, which I think may be my favorite picture of the trip so far.

The fog came and went all morning as I drove through the North Dakota badlands, up to Williston, in the northwest corner of the state. The countryside is beautiful, but these North Dakota towns are not much to look at. For the life me this feels like the stuffy back attic of America, but that's probably not fair. There is so much vast, beautiful emptiness up here, with no sign of human habitation whatsoever, But every little town you do come to is full of chain restaurants. It's jarring.

It's hot today and as I drove in the countryside around Williston, thunderstorms were springing up all around me. The second attached picture is my pitiful attempt to capture the vastness of a thunderstorm piling up over the grasslands.
Tomorrow I turn my nose toward home, along with the rest of the SUV. It will take three days as I follow good old US 52 from it's beginning at the Canadian border on down toward eastern Illinois.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

World's Largest Wierdness

Greetings from Dickinson, North Dakota. With 16,000 people, this bustling knot of strip malls and chain restaurants clustered along I-94 is by far the biggest town I'll stay in during my visit to the Dakotas. I'm not here to see anything, it was just a convenient way point after a long drive.

Today I left Pierre and drove north and west through South Dakota. I still think it's beautiful, although the weather continues to provide passing showers. Attached is a shot of a late morning thunderhead over the grassland.

I stopped for gas in Lemmon, South Dakota, and couldn't resist following the signs to the Worlds Largest Petrified Wood Park, a full city block of bizarre shapes and constructions built from tons of petrified wood. Apparently a single man, accompanied by his long-suffering family, built the park in the 30s from the petrified wood that is abundant in the area. A picture is attached for your edification. Ironically, the only other attraction in town is a creationist museum, with a reconstruction of the ark and (apparently) lots of evidence of the fact the the earth is only 6,000 years old. I didn't visit it, so I can't say how, or whether, it addresses the issue of a whole city block of 50 million-year-old fossils just down the street.

I continued on into North Dakota, and, not to be outdone in the "world's largest" competition, I happened across the Enchanted Highway. This road, (paved and headed north, so I took it) is, according to Wikipedia, a "collection of the world's largest scrap metal sculptures constructed at intervals along a 32 mile stretch of highway". I'd call that true. Whether these are sculptures you'd want in your back yard is another matter. I enclose a picture of "The Tin Family" as an example. This project is also the product of one man's obsession, and is ongoing. I am told it is one of the major sights to see in North Dakota, which says more about the state than the sculptures, I think. I don't know why it's called the Enchanted Highway. I suppose "The Scrap Metal Sculpture Highway" doesn't have the same ring.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Pangs of conscience

Today I drove along the Native American Scenic Byway south of Pierre, which hugs the Missouri river through several different Indian reservations. For the most part the scenery was stunning, as evidenced by the attached picture.

Not content with the scenic views and historic landmarks that are part of the byway, I detoured into towns along the way, and found crushing, abject poverty, with evidence of violence and hopelessness. And yet, the people I talked to were so friendly, and open. I couldn't bring myself to photograph what I saw; it felt voyeuristic. It was hard. What could I do? I bought a cup of coffee at the tribal store. The 50 cents it cost didn't do much to assuage my guilt.

Sorry for the down post. I'm sure I'll find something quirky and funny to report tomorrow. For today, I count my blessings, and remember my obligations to others. I hope you do to.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Wild, wild, West

I made my way up to South Dakota today, after a couple of fine days in Nebraska. The weather continues to be more rainy and cool than not, and I continue to not be discouraged. Unfortunately, although I would like to knock your socks off with stunning photos, the colors in the pictures I am taking undere these gray skies will need considerable work in Photoshop before they can really shine.

The best spontaneous photo of the day is attached. It is of the hills near Pierre, SD. It is spontaneous at least in the sense that I took it through the dirty windshield of my SUV, holding the camera in one hand while driving 65 miles per hour with the other. I will not comment on the safety of this particular maneuver. Don't worry, I normally stop the car in order to take pictures.

The concept of a road is a bit more approximate around here than I'm used to. Several times yesterday in the Nebraska sand hills I followed my maps and GPS along clearly labeled roads that become little more than muddy tracks. My rented SUV turned out to be more of a necessity than I could have possibly realized. Today the State of South Dakota took the cake with state highway 53, a clearly marked, signed, and speed limited highway that turned out to be 30 miles of two lane dirt road. I drove it anyway. A picture is attached.

Finally, from yesterday, after meeting and talking to a rancher who was moving hundreds of heads of cattle from one field to another across a busy highway, I got to watch one of his cowboys lasso an errant cow in the middle of traffic. This really is the West.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Greetings from Nebraska

I am off on my summer sojourn and photo safari, this time to Nebraska and the Dakotas.

Yesterday I drove all day from Urbana, IL to the Northwest corner of Iowa, to spend the night in Sioux City. Today I drove across northern Nebraska to Valentine, where I am staying for a couple of days. Valentine is the seat of Cherry County, which has a population of 6,000, in a land area that is larger than Connecticut, Delaware and Rhode Island. It is one of the least populated parts of the U.S., and is all grasslands and sand hills. I think it's wonderful. The weather has been cold and rainy so far, but I am not disappointed. Nature is always beautiful. I have rented an SUV for this trip, and already it has come in handy on dirt tracks as I pursue photos.

The picture of the day is a view of the McKelvie National Forest, a stunning vista lacking only...well...forest. Not a tree in sight. It's the only national forest that I have been to that had no trees. Live and learn. The second photo is of the sign for the forest, provided to verify my claim.