For most of American history, the Great Plains have been an afterthought. Early pioneers crossed through the prairies and plains on their way to seek silver in Colorado, gold in California, fur trade in Oregon, or religious sanctuary in Utah… But not many stayed put out on the grasslands. The Great Plains are considered a part of the journey, for sure, but not really a destination. Most people I know talk about the sparsely-populated states of Kansas, Nebraska, and the Dakotas as elements of the westward journey that must be endured, not embraced.
But I just don’t get it. The Great Plains are great.
Seriously! I love driving those roads, witnessing the slow blend from woodlands, to farmlands, to wild grasslands, to the rocky contours of the Badlands and Black Hills. Out on the prairies, I feel fresh and full. It’s open and vast and wild and free and beautiful.
There were a couple of times on this most recent visit to the Great Plains when I felt so happy that my heart was going to burst until I let out a full-throated, deep-chested bellow in the car. At one point, I got off the interstate to drive up into the Fort Pierre National Grasslands, eventually following a small dirt road for a few miles into the middle of “Nowhere” — and man! It was so refreshing to have all that elbow room.
It takes a long time to get across the Great Plains — even driving at 85 miles per hour — but that’s part of the joy of it. There’s all kinds of space: to think… to pray… to listen to podcasts… to soak in silence… to play music, whole albums at a time. It’s a truly lovely place.
My friend Paula says that the Great Plains of North America (and South Dakota, specifically) is like the “solid spouse” of regions. Perhaps not the most dashing, or daring, or debonair. It’s beautiful in its own way, though, and one especially grows to appreciate its beauty — and integrity, fidelity, and solidity — as life rolls along.
I like that way of thinking about the Great Plains.
Driving westward on this most recent trip, I thought about more similes of my own. The Great Plains are like the mini-van of landscapes: maybe not the sleekest or sexiest, but spacious, comfortable, and secure… The Great Plains are like the jumbo-sized Cherry Coke of geography: probably not the most intoxicating or trendy, but oh-so-sweet, smooth, and refreshing…
The Great Plains are great.