Archive

Tag Archives: south dakota

goode mapWhen I was growing up — in the Antediluvian Age when everyone smoked Lucky Strikes and cars all had clutches and carburetors — the maps in my grade school rooms had 48 states on them.

Those classroom roll-down maps were beautiful to my young eyes — all that green, yellow and ruddy brown in wood engraving density. They are maps that have never been equalled, and I knew, looking at the map, pulled down in front of the black chalkboard, that I wanted to go to every one of those states and see if Colorado were really the color of chestnuts, if Florida were really Kelly green. It seemed so lush.

Over the years, I’ve gone to — and written about — all 48 contiguous United States, seven Canadian provinces, a couple of edgings into Mexico and a few places in Europe and Africa.

In each of the places I’ve been, there is a top sight to see, like the Grand Canyon in Arizona or Yellowstone in Wyoming. And I’ve loved them all.

But there are also smaller, less well-known places that have quietly become some of my favorites. I’m sure everyone has the same: places where something special happened, or that sum up the qualities of a state or region, or that just seem so relaxed and beautiful that they draw you back over and over.

For me, such places are often remote from normal tourism attractions. I am a sucker for unspoiled grasslands in the Great Plains, for alligator-filled swampland in the South, for backcountry roads in the Appalachians. Others may look for happy crowds to join, for music and dancing or roller coasters. My favorites, however, tend to be empty of people, silent and to provide long views over a significant arc of the planet.

So, here are a few of those places, listed state by state.

edmund pettus bridge

Alabama

If you want to learn about the Deep South and how much it has changed, you should visit Selma. It is where the great Civil Rights march of 1965 began, crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge and heading on to the state capitol at Montgomery. If you think the battle is over, you should visit Selma and see, despite how far we have come, how distant is the horizon.

Badger Springs Road 1Arizona

Of course, the Grand Canyon is on our license plates, but almost any other square foot of the state is nearly as wonderful, from Hoover Dam to Douglas, from Four Corners to Yuma. But I have a special place in my heart for an obscure exit ramp from I-17 north of Phoenix. Badger Springs Road is a bit of largely undisturbed desert, with trails and cactus, and I can always pull off the highway and find a bit of peace and quiet.

Arkansas


The state is rich in rural areas, craggy in the north, flat and muddy in the east through the Mississippi flood plain, steamy with hot springs toward the south. But the little town of Toad Suck in the center of the state seems even a little quieter, a little more remote than most, and is graced with a state park as well, along the Arkansas River. No hotels, but friendly people.

manzanar

Northern California

California is too rich; I have to split it in two. Even then, I could name a dozen places in each half: In the north — Tule Lake National Wildlife Reserve, Mono Lake on the eastern side of the Sierras, Lassen National Park, the Humboldt Redwoods, the tule marshes along the Sacramento River. But I keep coming back to Owens Valley, just below Mt. Whitney. From the soda-flat Owens Lake north to the ruins of the Manzanar Relocation Center — where Japanese-Americans were interned during World War II — the valley is both picturesque — the Alabama Hills where so many Western films were shot among the wonderland of rocks — and historic — in addition to the concentration camp, there is the sorry and violent tale of how a thirsty Los Angeles stole the valley’s water earlier in the century.

Southern California

East of San Diego is one of California’s most pristine deserts. It is called Anza-Borrego Desert State Park and it is the primordial home of all those Washington palm trees that line the streets of Phoenix. Borrego Springs is a surprisingly kempt little town in the middle of it, but the rest of the park usually seems as empty as a college campus during spring break.

Pawnee Buttes 5 copy

Colorado

For most people, the state probably brings to mind skiing or expansion baseball, or an over-hyped beer, and certainly Colorado is best remembered for post-card mountains — all those “fourteeners” — but I love the Pawnee National Grasslands, one of the best places to get a sense of what the West was really about, what the Great American Desert was — not desert, but the Great Plains, vast, sweeping and grassy.

Connecticut

There is no more peaceful a river valley in the nation than the Housatonic north of New Milford. The Appalachian Trail winds along a portion of its banks. There are covered bridges, meadows and not too far away, near Cornwall, there is a large stand of virgin white pine, called the Cathedral Pines. U.S. 7 parallels the river most of the way.

Delaware

Delaware is a tiny state, and most people notice it, if at all, for the chemical plants and refineries that stick their bellowing smokestacks into the air, and the highways that pass through it on their way elsewhere, up over the twin Delaware Memorial Bridge. But there are the “Hooks” — Prime Hook and Bombay Hook national wildlife refuges, swampy and woodsy on the broad mouth of Delaware Bay.

Florida

If you cannot get enough of the Everglades, or if the national park is too crowded, head north off U.S. 41 on any of a dozen gravel roads into Big Cypress National Preserve. Or take the loop road to the south, through incredible cypress wetlands, with sagging Spanish moss and blackwater swamps.

Okefenokee

Georgia

The Okefenokee is my favorite swamp. That’s saying a lot. I’ve seen more wildlife in it than in any other. Drive up Georgia 177 from Edith into the Stephen C. Foster State Park and rent a canoe. Paddle within inches of swimming alligators. Look into the trees for the snake birds — anhingas — with their darting necks and their wings spread out in the sun to dry.

Idaho

With its camas prairies, steep mountains and gaping canyons, the Nez Perce Indian Reservation is one of the most beautiful parts of this beautiful state. You can see the valley where Chief Joseph began his tragic 1,500-mile unsuccessful flight to freedom for his people in 1877.

Mississippi barge

Illinois

Chicago has big shoulders in the north, but down at the very bottom are the forlorn toes of Cairo, one of the most memorable of Mississippi River towns. It is aging, with peeling paint and boarded up storefronts, but you can feel in the humid air the history behind it. And you can see the conjoining of the muddy Mississippi water with the clearer, faster moving Ohio River. Boats and barges move past in the misty mornings like iron dreams.

Indiana

If you want to find the prototype of Disney’s “Main Street U.S.A.,” you couldn’t do better than to see Paoli, in the southern part of the state. No more perfect quiet little Middle-American village can be found. There are no tourists and nothing to do, but imagine what it must be like to live there, under the spreading chestnut trees just off the town square.

Iowa

Iowa is sometimes surreal: At the bottom of the bluffs of the Mississippi are cities filled with Victorian architecture. There are trees and vines. On top of the bluffs, there are endless rolling farms, with silos instead of trees, like some Grant Wood painting. The best of the cities is Dubuque, one of the greatest surprises of my travels. It is one of America’s most beautiful cities.

Kansas

If you want to get away from civilization, you can hardly do better than the middle of Kansas. Just north of Lebanon is the “Geographical Center of the Conterminous U.S.,” which is a highly qualified title to be proud of. But    you stand there, looking out over the grass and wonder, if they dropped the Big One here, would anyone hear it?

harlan county ky

Kentucky

   The state is mud in the west, limestone in the center and coal in the east. Among the stumpy, round-bumped mountains of coal-mining Harlan County and neighboring Letcher County, are some of the poorest homes and interesting people of the country.

atchafalaya thicket

Louisiana

It surprises even me, but one of my favorite places is along the Interstate. For 20 miles, I-10 rises on piers over the Atchafalaya Swamp. Take an exit into the dark woods and drive along the river into old, mossy river towns, built where the terra is not so firma. Even the pavement seems squishy beneath your feet.

Schoodicwaves2x

Maine

Everybody heads to Bar Harbor, where the T-shirt shops and frozen yogurt stores are chock-a-block. Pass on that and head to Schoodic Point further north. Also part of Acadia National Park, it is one of the ruggedest, rockiest parts of the rocky Maine coast.

Maryland

Antietam National Battlefield, near Sharpsburg, is the most emotional Civil War site I have visited. Every aspect of the fight, and all the blood and bullet-holes, seem spread out graphically, and the spirits of the dead and suffering seem almost palpable at the sunken road called Bloody Lane.

Greylock Mt from Melville home Mass

Massachusetts

Arrowhead is the one-time home of Herman Melville in Pittsfield. The house is actually a character in many of his stories, and you can look out the second-floor window of his study, where he wrote Moby Dick, and see the saddle-back peak of Mt. Greylock to the north, “Charlemagne among his peers.”

Michigan

The Upper Peninsula is a big place, but everywhere you turn, there are forests, lakes and rivers, including Papa Hemingway’s Big Two-Hearted River. It’s hard to pick a single place, but there is always the drive on U.S. 2 along the southern shore of the peninsula along Lake Michigan.

Minnesota

A river doesn’t really start from a single source, but the agreed fiction is that the Mississippi begins at Lake Itasca, southwest of Bemidji. The lake is not that large, by Minnesota standards, and seems quite placid. The “father of waters” begins at a reedy little outlet that you can step across and brag you crossed the Mississippi on foot.

Mississippi

The blues began in the Mississippi Delta, and they are still played in the shabby juke joints of Clarksdale, one of those old, cracked-concrete, grass-in-the-railroad-ties, dying-downtown Deep South county seats. Everybody you see, sitting on their porch fronts, seems more human, more profound. Maybe it’s the blues.

Missouri

The Ozark Mountains can be beautiful, with lichen-covered limestone and rivers that disappear underground. Like at Big Spring State Park on the Current River, where the river comes gushing back out of the rock like a fountain.

bear paw surrender site

Montana

Chief Joseph began his three-and-a-half month trek in 1877 in Idaho, he ended it on the flat, grassy, empty plains of northern Montana, at a place called the Chief Joseph Battlefield near the Bears Paw Mountains, only 40 miles from the safety his Nez Perce Indians sought in Canada. He was captured by the U.S. Army, and promised “From where the sun now stands, I will fight no more forever.”

bailey yard nebraska

Nebraska

People look at me funny when I tell them that Nebraska is probably my favorite state to visit. The sand hills, the puny “national forest,” the Platte River and Scotts Bluff — they all seem unbearably windblown and lonesome. I love them all, but in North Platte, you cannot feel alone at the biggest railroad freight yard in the country. You can watch trains all day.

Nevada

If Nebraska is my favorite state, Nevada is probably my least favorite. It is empty, true, but its emptiness seems hard and thoughtless, like a biker at a roadside bar and casino. But I cannot deny the beauty of such places as Big Smoke Valley, between the Toiyabe and Toquima mountains, and the wide sagebrush plains where you don’t see a car for hours, but maybe a dozen dusty pickups.

New Hampshire

The Kancamagus Highway is one of the most beautiful drives in the country, winding through the White Mountains along the Swift River. It goes from Lincoln to Passaconaway and passes some stunning stony waterfalls.

pulaski skyway copy

New Jersey

This is the state where I grew up. I came to despise the suburban banality of most of the state, but I loved two things: the northwest corner, with its minuscule mountains and bucolic forests; and most of all, the industrial corridor of the Jersey Turnpike, with its refineries, chemical plants and the always-beautiful Pulaski Skyway.

New Mexico

At the top of the Sacramento Mountains, in the Lincoln National Forest is a place called Cloudcroft. There is great camping, wild animals and — usually — clean air that is so clear, it could cut diamonds.

Bear Mtn Bridge

New York

New York offers more than any other single state except California. There are dozens of favorite sites, from Montauk Point to Niagara Falls. But I will always have a special affection for Harriman State Park, along the Hudson River, and Bear Mountain, that looks down at the gorge, just south of West Point and its military academy. Seven Lakes Drive, through the park, is what nature in the East is all about.

Ashe County road, creek &dogwoo

North Carolina

No question here: Ashe County, tucked up in the northwest part of the state, above the Blue Ridge, is away from the normal tourist loop, but more beautiful than any other place north of the Smoky Mountains. Any gravelly back road will take you to something surprising and there is the New River to canoe down.

Sunflowers Zap North Dakota

North Dakota

It hardly counts for anything, and there is no real reason to visit, but I cannot get enough of Zap, a tiny crossroads, where the roads don’t go anywhere. Between Beulah and Golden Valley, Zap sits among the rising and dropping swell of the grasslands, with the occasional pond for cattle to drink from.

Virginia Kendall SP, Ohio 3 copy

Ohio

Just south of Cleveland, there is a small bit of woods and rock called Virginia Kendall Park. It is right next to the larger Cuyahoga Valley National Recreation Area, and benefits from more people going there than here. There is a rocky bluff in the middle of the park and echoing voices in the forest among the leaf litter.

Oklahoma

One of the worst massacres of the so-called Indian Wars took place just outside of Cheyenne, along the Washita River. The site is now nothing but grass, a line of trees along the water, and some outcroppings of rock. But the surrounding Black Kettle National Grasslands can give you a real sense of what the land looked like 121 years ago.

Columbia River Gorge Oregon-Washington

Oregon

The Columbia River Gorge is one of the scenic wonders of America, and one of the most scenic drives is along the old, outmoded Columbia River Gorge Scenic Highway, which rises up the mountainside above the interstate highway, and takes you through more waterfalls than any comparable stretch of road outside Hawaii.

falling water

Pennsylvania

The second most famous house in America — after the White House — is probably Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater, a vacation home he designed for Pittsburgh’s wealthy Kaufman family beginning in 1934. It is also one of the most beautiful buildings in the country, sitting literally atop a waterfall and jutting out over the small forest glen.

Rhode Island

If you’re on the A-list, you’ll naturally gravitate to Newport and its extravagant mansions. I’m not on that list; I prefer the more humble Conanicut Island, where real people live. It sits in the middle of Narragansett Bay and gives you a good sense of what life on the bay is like.

South Carolina

Myrtle Beach gets all the traffic and spring-breakers, but Huntington Beach, 10 miles further south along Murrell’s Inlet, is the better place to be. With Huntington Gardens just across the street, with all those animal sculptures of Anna Hyatt Huntington, and a fresh-water alligator pond next to the salt marsh, Huntington Beach is a great — a great — place for seeing birds.

pine ridge rez

South Dakota

The Pine Ridge Indian Reservation may be poor, but it is beautiful. And as with many places noted for its poverty, it is very real. The people take the time to talk to you and there is history at every turn in the road — not all of it very comfortable for an Anglo to remember.

Tennessee

Most of the crowds at Great Smoky Mountains National Park gather along U.S. 441 across the crest of the range, or in Cades Cove in the southwest of the park. But one of the great drives, and less crowded, is up the Little River Road through the back side of the park. It follows the cascading Little River most of the way, and finds its way back to the visitors center at Sugarlands.

lbj ranch grandparentshouse

Texas

Even Texans will tell you the center of their state is the best part: The Texas Hill Country is an oasis in the middle of a state that sometimes seems like nothing more than the world’s largest vacant lot. And the best part of the Hill Country is found at the LBJ Ranch near Johnson City. It is no wonder that our 36th president loved his ranch so much. It is a jewel in a perfect setting.

Utah

Is there a square inch of the state that doesn’t deserve to be a national park? I haven’t found it. But one of the most overlooked gems is the ride along Utah 128 from Moab to Cisco. Through most of its route, the road seems to be the one you would imagine at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. Well, perhaps that exaggerates it a wee bit. But it is special.

coolidge plymouth

Vermont

Near Plymouth is the birthplace and homestead of Calvin Coolidge, who has recently lost his title as the president we made the most jokes about. In fact, Silent Cal was a smart cookie and not at all the buffoon stand-up comics make him out to be. He was raised in a tiny Yankee village that is preserved as a state park.

Monticello Entrance Hall copy

Virginia

Virginia is another state that seems to have more than its fair share of special places. Perhaps it’s history, perhaps geography, but almost anywhere you turn, there is something that will draw you back over and over. Still, there is something special about Thomas Jefferson’s mountaintop home, Monticello, a monument to just how profoundly beautiful a little nuttiness can be. The Age of Reason meets Henry Thoreau.

Washington

Eastern Washington is largely a blank spot in America’s consciousness. Seattle, the Olympics, the Cascades, Mt. Rainier — they are all in the west. But there is hardly an odder or more peculiar and spooky landscape on Earth than what is called the Channeled Scablands east of the Cascades. The Grand Coulee Dam blocks the Columbia River there, where a prehistoric flood scraped the earth clean for hundreds of miles.

West Virginia

The Hawks Nest, on U.S. 60 between Gauley Bridge and Ansted, looks out over the deep declivity of the New River Gorge and is one of the great scenic views of the eastern U.S.

Frosty dawn Wisconsin

Wisconsin

Southern Wisconsin has many treasures, including the Mustard Museum in Mt. Horeb, and the world’s largest six-pack of beer at La Crosse, but nothing can beat the genuine zaniness of the Dickeyville Grotto, a religious site in Dickeyville created out of broken bottles, seashells, stones and broken crockery. It is one of the great “outsider art” sites, and don’t miss the tribute to Columbus.

Wyoming

What’s the highest, most alpine road in America that actually goes somewhere? Undoubtedly, it is the Bear Tooth Highway, U.S. 212 from Red Lodge, Mont., to Yellowstone National Park. It climbs up over Bear Tooth Pass at 10,940 feet and provides more long Rocky Mountain views than any other road. Look out for the marmots.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

road into hills BW
In 1997, I took an epic road trip north along the 100th longitudinal meridian from Laredo, Texas, to the Canadian border. The previous blog entries covered Texas and the Central Plains. This final installment brings the Northern Plains and the end of the trip.

wounded knee 2

Mile 1294, Wounded Knee, S.D.

Most of the action by the U.S. against the Indians in the past century was reprehensible at best. The list of atrocities is nothing to be proud of, from Sand Creek to Washita River. But one of these massacres bothers me more than the others.

It is the photographs that make the difference.

On Dec. 29, 1890, a Lakota elder named Big Foot and more than 200 of his band were gunned down by soldiers at Wounded Knee, S.D.

The Indians had obeyed Federal orders to come to the reservation and had obeyed orders to give up their rifles. Big Foot was deathly sick and coughing up blood.

But the soldiers didn’t believe the Sioux had given up all their guns. One remained, and as it was being turned in, a gun somewhere went off and the army went crazy, gunning down not only the Indians, but up to 30 of their own men. The Indians, wearing “ghost shirts” they thought would protect them, fought back as well as they could with knives, hatchets and a few pistols. But most of those killed were women and children.

Of the battle, one is reminded of My Lai in Vietnam. Writer Herbert Welsh, who saw the battle site soon after, wrote, “From the fact that so many women and children were killed, and that their bodies were found far from the scene of action, and as though they were shot down while flying, it would look as though blind rage had been at work.”

It isn’t the stupidity or the injustice that gets to me — there are many examples, not only in the so-called “Indian Wars,” but pretty much in all of history. Humans have not been good to other humans anywhere on the globe.

No, what gets to me are the photographs.

big foot corpse

Taken three days after the massacre, they show the frozen, contorted body of Big Foot, with his hands knotted up arthritically and his body bent up out of the snow in frozen rigor. He is isolated against the blank, white background of the snow, and all the more symbolic for that isolation. A few soldiers stand off in the background talking and a horse puts his nose to the ground for some grass sticking through the snow.

Another shows a line of soldiers standing behind a mass grave. James Mooney, who wrote the first definitive account of the Ghost Dance phenomenon and the Sioux uprising of 1890, wrote:

“A long trench was dug and into it were thrown all the bodies, piled one upon the other like so much cordwood, until the pit was full, when the earth was heaped over them and the funeral was complete. Many of the bodies were stripped by the whites, who went out in order to get the ‘ghost shirts,’ and the frozen bodies were thrown into the trench stiff and naked.

“They were only dead Indians,” he added, with an accusatory dose of irony.

There is another set of photographs that come to mind — the emaciated, contorted bodies being bulldozed into mass graves at Dachau and Buchenwald.

For many, the Indian Wars are just cowboys and Indians stuff from a long ago history. But for me, they sing of a continuity of outrage. The “Final Solution” of one century mirrors that of its predecessor.

So, I have wanted to visit the site at Wounded Knee and when I got there, was surprised to find it barely marked at all. Perhaps both sides feel shame over it. The whites for the evil they don’t like to recognize in themselves, the Indians for the humiliation.Pine Ridge Reservation square

The Pine Ridge Reservation in southern South Dakota is more beautiful than it has been described, with grassy hills and cedar trees dotting the plains. While it is true that poverty is endemic, it is not the fault of the landscape, which is better than some of the grasslands I passed through in Nebraska on my way north.

But the actual massacre site is little more than a spot in the road. There is a hand-lettered wooden sign that describes the event, but there are no official markers, no commemoration, no visitors center, no rangers ripe with interpretation.

wounded knee gulley

The dusty ground at Wounded Knee is a gully with the bridge on one side of the road, and a hill with the Indian graves on the other. During the battle, troops had placed cannons on the hill and lobbed exploding shells down the slope at the Indians.

There are also a few ramadas. In the summer, there are booths selling Indian crafts. In October, most were empty, although there were two young Lakota girls with a clothesline strung with dreamcatchers.

I stopped and asked them if this was the massacre site and they said yes.

“Where did it happen here?” I asked.

“All around.”

The older was about 12, the younger, 8. We talked about being Indian, about the effect of history and about the price of dreamcatchers.

“We need to sell them. Our sister is in the hospital and needs our help,” said the elder, in an ages old play for sympathy. I wondered who had taught her to scam me. If I had any doubts over whether it was a scam or not, they dissipated  when I said: “I’m sorry to hear that. What does she have?”

The girl looked caught out and gave me a distressed look, as if she hadn’t anticipated the conversation getting this far.

“Why is she in the hospital?,” I repeated.

A wait of two beats: “She’s sick.” It was almost a question.

I felt more sorry for her being caught in a lie than I did for her probably imaginary sister, so I bought one.

badlands 1

Mile 1379, Badlands National Park, S.D.

Near Kadoka, S.D., the rolling grass of the plains is cut through by erosion, sculpted into spiky, spooky mazes of canyons and hills. They were called by the early French trappers, “les mauvaises terres a traverser,” or “bads lands to cross.” And they certainly would be, if it were not for the smooth roads of the National Park Service.Kadoka sign

The Badlands National Park is a long, gangly loop of lands lodged in the corners of the Buffalo Gap National Grassland and the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. In places, the park is less than a mile wide, although if you walked from one extreme to the other along its length, you would hike a semicircle of something like 60 miles.

Most of it is flatland. As you drive along S.D. 44 from Scenic to Interior, the badlands themselves are a whitish line of crenelated hills on the northern horizon.

Only when you get close to them, near the Ben Reifel Visitor Center at its eastern end, can you really appreciate the blasted, washed out, weathered exhaustion of them.

blizzard headlights

Mile 1707, Bismarck, N.D.

A freak October blizzard blew across the Dakotas. One day, I was in Pierre, S.D., and it was 80 degrees; by the time I pulled into Bismarck, N.D., the next day, a front had barreled through and the thermometer had dropped into the 30s. With winds at a steady 50 mph, the wind-chill was more than a TV weatherman’s conceit: It could mean frostbite.

During the overnight, a line of powerful thunderstorms had run from Texas to Manitoba along a cold front that moved east with the speed of a freight train. Tornado warnings were issued for the whole length of the front.

One day the Prairie population was talking about their tomatoes lasting so late into the season, the next day, they are scraping windshields with parkas pulled tight around their cheeks.bismarck night snow downtown

Just before the blizzard moved in, I wandered through the streets of Bismarck, looking up at the sky that was turning ever more slatey and frigid.

To get in out of the cold, I wandered into several downtown stores, including one antiques shop. The woman behind the counter also does home interiors: One side of the shop is given over to fabrics, the rest to consignment antiques.

The proprietor was a bubbly woman of about 50, who praised the plainness of the  Prairie people.

“Even the politicians are ordinary people,” she said. “The governor is a regular customer and his wife says she’d come here more often except that she has to clean the house.”

But there are cosmopolitan Bismarckians and those who are less so.

“I ask my customers if they’ve ever been out of North Dakota,” she said. “If they have, I know they’ll go for the weird things, some of the more tasteful and unusual treatments.” She fingers one of the fabrics that is tightly gathered with pleats.

“If they’ve never been outside North Dakota, well, I bring out the J.C. Penney catalog. They’re really conservative.”

I told her that I take it to be an inborn modesty they seem to have in the Plains Midwest, a desire not to appear more fashionable than they are.

“But it’s not quite modesty, either,” she says, “almost a kind of lowered expectation.”

Like Pierre, S.D., whose tourism brochure proudly claims it is the “tenth best small town in America.”

Or the High Plains Museum in McCook, Neb., whose billboard promises only that it is “interesting and free.”snow tractor bismark

As I begin driving again, the skies have begun flaking and the crystals blow around the pavement like sand blown across the beach in a storm.

What are predicted are snow showers and snow squalls, but by the time I’m 100 miles out of Bismarck, it is a full-scale blizzard.

Luckily, the roads are still warm enough that nothing is sticking to them, although the farm fields are speckled with white, catching in the furrows making a scumble of white and black.

It is a tailwind, so as I drive, I hardly notice it, except to see the grasses bent sideways and vibrating on the shoulders. And the snow dances on the pavement in front of me like some sort of fairy mist, swirling and shifting. I can see the flakes bobbing around in front of the windshield.

But when I stop at a rest area and step out of the car, I can see that the snow is rushing past me horizontally. I can barely put my foot down where I intend as I walk through the gale.

Visibility is reduced at one point to less than a tenth of a mile; the world is whited out and the windbreak trees at the other side of the cornfield are faint ghosts.

Contending with weather like this, I decide, must make you modest. You are not likely to believe the hype of the American media siren when you know a pair of jumper cables can save your life.

By the next morning, the wind has died down, although the snow flurries continued. When I set out again, the landscape is white and astonishing.

snowdrift on highway

Mile 1869, Canadian border, N.D.

It seems as if there is nobody left on earth. The hills are empty of buildings and if it were not for the tractor paths through the fields, you might actually believe that the acres and acres of sunflowers grew there naturally.

In the summertime, the expanse of yellow is astonishing. I have driven through North Dakota when the sunflower crop is as brilliant as trumpet music.

In October, though, the color is gone and all the heavy seedheads, browned and dried, bend over like so many showerheads — and all facing east.

Sunflowers in two seasons

These giant flowers should not be confused with the roadside sunflowers that cover the Great Plains. Those, with their ten or a dozen three-inch flowers per stalk, swaying in the breeze, are delicate and lacy compared with the commercial variety that grows in the fields.

Each of those grows a single giant flower on a woody shoulder-high stalk with a central disk crammed with the sunflower seeds we nibble on at ball games. But it isn’t as snacks these fields are filled, but for their oil, used in food processing.

You can see them in the summer, armies of them, over the rolling hills, cut through only by the two-lane blacktop and, every few miles, a farmhouse surrounded with its outbuildings, fences and a couple of pickup trucks parked in the gravel driveway.

I first came through North Dakota on a train, some 20 years ago, and I was fascinated by the lonesomeness of the land. Neighbors are miles apart; the only way you know you are on an inhabited planet in the winter is to see the smoke from a distant chimney coming over the snowy rise.

It is this country that Gertrude Stein meant when she said that, “In the United States there is more space where nobody is than where anybody is. That is what makes America what it is.”

And it seems to me, as I finish my odyssey up the 100th Meridian, that it is this Heartland that seems the most American to me. It is this country of Thomas Hart Benton paintings and Hamlin Garland books that seems to hold the nugget of Americanism.

New England may have been the intellectual center of the growing nation and the twin coasts may have driven the commercial development. But it is this central axis, furry with grass, that has been and remains the heart of our country.

It is the Plains that spread out in front of the wagonloads of pioneers and gave them the epic sense of continental expansion.

It is the Plains that separated the Atlantic and Pacific, as guts fill the space inside our skin.

It is the Plains that gave the country its defining metaphors, whether cowboy, Indian, sodbuster, religious migrant, long stretching miles of highway or landscape that must be tamed. We learned self-reliance and cooperation, we learned how to adapt when we must and how to maintain tradition when we could.hundredth meridian sign ND

It is the Plains and the Indian Wars that provided us — second only to slavery in the South — with the guilt that gives emotional complexity to our national naiveté and, when we don’t deny the sin, our depth as a people.

In the cities of East and West, we can pretend that society is paramount and that human beings have charge of the world. It is in cities that theories are propounded.

But in the Plains and prairies, we are forced nakedly into the realization that we live on a planet, with the racing sky above and the blackbirds dotting the snow beneath.

It gives us perspective.