Friday, April 28, 2006

Out from Aurora, OH

I was astounded by the miles and miles of new housing in this distant suburb of Chicago, they all seem to have been just now built. I wonder what intensified the suburban sprawl in this particular area, a new highway, a big plant, a city that encourages development. It was a little alarming to see as it didn’t stop for what seemed like miles and miles. As we are fast approaching $3.00 gas, I wondered whether these people will be able to pay their mortgage and their gas bill to commute to work., and I worried that what must have all been corn fields last summer was now ¼ acre lots with houses on them. Leavittown on steroids. I assume that there were shopping areas and schools and churches nearby but I didn’t see any only land zoned commercial but yet unbuilt. At this rate, if ethanol is the answer, we will have nowhere left to grow the corn to make it. And anyway, how much tractor diesel does it take to grow it in the first place?

At this point we are staying off the interstates and rolling along on state roads which mainly go dead straight for miles and miles turn a pair of corners where a section line ended and then go on more and farther. The occasional speed zone slows us, but we don’t see a traffic light for 40-50 miles at a time.

Eventually, the housing infestation gives way to the land of corn, and the geometry of the farm buildings, and not much else. I am relieved, this is how the heart land is supposed to be. In this area there are old corn storage buildings that are made of cement bricks with holes in them that are round on each end and flattened on two sides, they have steep roofs perched on them with a smaller shed that sits on the top, sometimes with windows. Most of the corn storage is the steel cylinder with a conical hat, clustered together with conveyors and ducts drawing up to a point together so that one machine can move the grain to each building. There are also the cylinders of wire still here and there, although that doesn’t look as though it would keep the corn dry in either a driving wind or snow. The ones I see have whole ears of dried corn in them.

There are barns and sheds of every shape, half cylinder Quonset huts, half cylinder roofs on low walls, barns with roofs that go right down to the ground on two sides making me imagine wind driven snow. Lean-tos, open sided barns, gable roofs. Most of them are painted white and assume a visual punch in the endless fields beyond their actual size. Many of the older buildings appear to have had animals in them, but here there are few farm animals that I can see, everyone is growing corn as hard and fast as they can. The next day we see the low sheds set away from the rest of the buildings that mean pigs to me, and now and then we are passed by truck loads of pigs heading off to sausage land.

We pass through a wind farm, the huge slow blades turning against the sky. They too are white, and so big that I am fascinated by them. How tall are they ? How long are the blades? How big is the generator? They remind me of some of George Lucas’s imaginary Star Wars machines lumbering to do battle. I guess they are noisy, I wish I could stand right next to one and put my hand on the mast to feel the vibrations and hear what the blades sound like as they cut through the air. Compared to the old fashioned will mills or a pinwheel, they are very slow, but maybe the outside ends of the blades are going fast in a huge path against the sky. I can’t understand why anyone would not want at least 6 of these to look at, and free electricity besides, but I know that these rather innocent looking white tethered birds cause all kinds of NIMBY.

Near Cedar Rapids we stop for the night at a state park that is on the banks of the Cedar River, with Chinese brush painting rock cliffs along the river. It was a CCC project, so has been a state park for a long time and it is heavily treed. We go into the trees from the wide corn fields as if entering a room. Here spring wildflowers are under the trees, we walk along the river and up to a lodge of rock and rough round cedar beams with the original wrought iron light fixtures and long hand made tables and benches. One end is round and over looks the river with multi paned windows. I try to imagine what all those unemployed folks thought of their time in the woods, doing all this manual labor, were they city people? Did they have masonry and carpentry skills or did they learn all this right here ? It reminds me of the rather naive philosophy of the park movement, that poor urban troubled souls would be healed in the woods by a nice fire in a fieldstone fireplace eating simple fare and sleeping deep after a day of hiking or fishing. Thomas Jefferson would have approved. And Lord Baden-Powell. Our prison system still, I believe, has the idea that farming will tame the criminal mind, I wonder what the gangsters and gangstas would think of carving benches or milking a cow.

A night in Iowa at a state park called Brushy Creek, we have the place nearly to ourselves, self check-in and solitude. The park is there because Brushy Creek is dammed up, looks like terrific bass fishing, and it is a big enough creek that the whole park is down below the level of the flat prairie, you wouldn’t t know it was there until you came to the edge and drove down in. Hidden in plain view. The signs tell about how big wall eye or muskellunge have to be to keep.

Later in our travels, I begin to see single farm sized feed lots, beefers by the barn with the corn to fatten them all around them. And by the time we reach the Missouri River, the flat land rolls and tosses, and there are more cattle out on the hillsides, while they are still growing corn where they can, terracing the fields, contour plowing, alternating strips with grass. On the other side of the Missouri, corn gets scarcer and scarcer until it is all rolling grassland with cattle. Now I know I am west. All I need to see is the mountains

The high plains are an unforgiving place to live and farm, the wind blows constantly carrying away moisture and top soil. There are elaborate windbreaks, triple rows of trees around many of the homesteads, and rows planted along the edges of the fields to try and slow the remorseless wind. The land on the other hand feels soft somehow, the passage of a river or creek erodes and pulls the earth away at a fast rate and with no rocks to stabilize it, even the edges of a pretty good waterway are smoothed and rounded. The bottom of the great inland sea still moves with the elements, like the sand on the beach after a storm.

We cross and run parallel to the Missouri, with signs to say we are on Lewis and Clark’s route. I often wonder what a place would have looked like before “progress” came along. The prairies are pretty unchanged in general shape from L & C’s time, fences and roads and houses aside. I realize that if I had a copy of their journals I could read what they were seeing as I drove through. The Missouri makes the land roll, so I feel as though I am getting to the high plains with the velvet hills that roll bigger and bigger until they fetch up at the feet of the mountains.

We stop at Niobrara State Park for 2 nights. The Niobrara River (running water in Sioux) begins far away in Wyoming and runs into the Missouri right here. The Missouri is a relaxed river, very wide, lots of water, but here it wanders across the wide flood plain, moving sandbars, finding new short cuts. The Niobrara comes in fast and as it hits the slower Missouri, it curls and eddies, dropping its sediments as it slows. So the junction of the rivers is a maze of shifting channels. The park is on a big set of pretty large hills, and has cabins up on the very top for rent that over look the Missouri and picnic and tent areas up high too. The big RV campground is lower down and over looks the Niobrara. We walk and drive much of it, there are deer and turkeys everywhere, the turkeys are in full mating time and we come upon two or three toms all fanned out trying to impress a lady, and rushing at each other to run the other off. We walk out to many of the over looks and then, after dinner down to a trail on an old RR bed that uses the old bridge so we can get out right onto the river and watch the sun go down in a soft pink glow. Then we drive up to the highest part to use our cell phones for email as the last light fades.

On west, leaving the Missouri and the land flattens out again to corn and pasture, then just pasture and some hay fields in the bottom lands. The hills begin to roll again and to dry out and there are fewer and fewer cattle, and fewer farms, it takes many acres to support one cow out here. We are soon in the Rosebud Reservation, where the once mighty Sioux live in small government houses with yards filled with dead and dying cars and trucks. Sometimes in tiny towns, but often just scattered across the hills. Unlike the tidy farms of the Midwest, especially those of the Amish, most ranches are no thing of beauty, equipment and sheds, barns not always painted. But the homes on the “Rez” are a discouraging thing to see mile after mile. A Stone Age people unable to cope with either the 19th, the 20th or the 21st centuries, and seemingly physically unable to tolerate or learn to live with firewater and drugs.

The reservation ends, we come to the town of Interior SD where the hills are all dry and only faintly green, and the top soil has less and less of a hold on the silty muddy soil below, any washed out slope or creek corner shows the light sediment of the ocean floor. Gradually bits and pieces begin to stick up out of the grass, rearing up with horizontal lines of red sediment, and then we are at the Badlands.


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