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Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Rockin’ the Rockies

A few weeks ago, I devoted a blog to the enchanting state of Colorado. But we must tramp that way again on our current excursion through the Endless West. So I’ll offer a few more glimpses of what seems like the “Top of the World” when you’re winding among Colorado’s “14ers” ― the 53 Rocky Mountain peaks over 14,000 feet (4,267 meters) high.

One of them ― Sunshine Peak in the San Juan Range ― is said to rise exactly one foot above 14,000 feet. How that was calculated, anyway? Did somebody climb to exactly 14,000 feet and then use a ruler for the rest?

If you’re ever in those mountains, I suggest that you stand perfectly still and listen to the wind, whistling or moaning or barely whispering ― but ever moving ― through the evergreens. I once took my kids across the country, including a white-knuckle drive up a one-lane, gravel “scenic route” through a corkscrewing Colorado pass. Somehow, through the sheer terror, one of my daughters thought to ask me, “Bops [an affectionate version of “Papa” from her childhood], why does the wind blow?”

Up here, I told her, it blows just about all the time. Even on a clear, sunny day, anyone who has ever flown in a small plane above the crests knows the distress of bouncing and dropping, and bouncing again, on churning ripples of air. Some wind currents can produce downdrafts so powerful that they smash airplanes into mountainsides.

The wind howls in snowstorms and in violent thunderstorms that spring up in an instant, sending terrifying peals of thunder echoing through the canyons. Coming down off the eastern slopes of the Rockies, surges of cold air have been clocked at 180 kilometers an hour and higher. “Chinook,” or “snow-eater,” winds, they call them.

Yes, but what makes the wind blow? (Hush, I’m stalling.)

OK, here’s my best shot:

The atmosphere would be deadly calm everywhere in the world, I’m told, were it not for differences in air pressure as measured on a barometer. When there’s high pressure and pleasant weather here, there’s lower pressure with unstable conditions somewhere next to it. Air is drawn from here to there, causing it to move like, well, the wind. The greater the difference in pressure, the faster the breeze.

Once that wind gets to blowing in the mountains, it’s magnified by the funnel effect of canyons. I can testify that it swirls through the deep slit called the Royal Gorge ― our destination that scary day years ago. It’s a slice 316 meters deep and only a few meters across, gouged into pure granite by the rushing Arkansas River.

Differences in temperature can stir the air as well. So, high in the majestic Rockies, you have just the recipe for strong, almost nonstop winds.

We made it safely to and across the gorge and on to even steeper country at Wolf Creek Pass, on winding U.S. Highway 160 near that Top of the World.

Save for the wind; the babble of a cold, rushing creek somewhere below; the cry of a hawk or rustle of an unseen deer; or the grind of gears shifting as older cars and motor homes labor to negotiate the 10-kilometer-long, 7-percent incline, it’s uncommonly still there.

They call it a pass, but for much of the winter, when snow falls so hard that plows cannot push it fast enough, there’s no getting through Wolf Creek Pass at all. You see, it snows into June and starts again in September ― so much snow that they built a steel shed over part of the road to catch the avalanches. Driving under them and thinking about tons of snow cascading down, the overhangs look kind of tin-roof flimsy.

Not all the snowslides come out of nowhere. The Colorado Department of Transportation sometimes closes the road and sets off avalanches on purpose. Men take aim at the mountain with old Army howitzers or newfangled nitrogen guns. Sometimes they drop explosives from a helicopter. A fun job for action-lovers!

All the long wintertime, highway workers and their families live up there in green metal sheds, right along the road, so they can get the plows moving before too much heavy snows build up. Imagine what it must have been like when there were no trucks, no bulldozers, no helicopters, and the road through Wolf Creek Pass was little more than an Indian game trail. Mules and wagons provided transport, and then only in summertime.

If they wanted to cross the Rockies, the Indians and early “mountain men” trappers, and then pioneer white settlers, had no choice but to push through this or some other high pass. Did they know, as they paused at the summit, that they were literally standing atop the Western World, on the Continental Divide?

The Great Divide, Americans came to call this spine of the Western Hemisphere that runs from Alaska, through Canada, and all the way down to Patagonia at the tip of South America.

Look to the west, down into the San Juan National Forest, and the water from every river, every brook, every sewer pipe in pockets of civilization eventually runs to the Pacific Ocean. And to the east, down into another sea of green, the Rio Grande National Forest, every drop of water that does not evaporate finds it way into streams that head east and south, toward the Mississippi River or Gulf of Mexico.

Europe and Asia and Africa ― even Australia ― have continental divides as well: their own Tops of the World.

In high Colorado valleys, you’ll find colorful Old West towns like Silverton, which got its name when a miner told a friend, “We may not have gold here, but we have silver by the ton!” Scenic, narrow-gauge, steam trains bring tourists up to Silverton from Durango, hub city of southwestern Colorado.

Legendary characters lived in these high, rugged places: men like Bat Masterson, a fierce saloonkeeper whose reputation was so nasty that, it was said, he never had to draw his gun; and Calamity Jane Cannary, a cigar-smoking drifter with a heart of gold. The outlaw Butch Cassidy, made famous generations later when Paul Newman played him opposite Robert Redford in a stylized 1969 movie, made his first unauthorized bank withdrawal hereabouts, up in the town of Telluride.

And then there was Alferd Packer, the only one of six prospectors who went into the snowy San Juans one winter and came out alive. He was found guilty of murder ― and cannibalism.

This is also a region with a real mystery.

Up near the top of a red and tan cliff called Mesa Verde, there’s a wide, horizontal slit in the rock. For reasons unknown ― to defend itself, maybe, or to find shelter from the searing summer heat and winter blizzards ― a civilization called the Anasazi ― the ancient ones ― carved a secret, rocky trail down to this slit in the mountain and built a sophisticated city of stone. It had brick and stone dwellings with walls and windows, ladders and burial pits.

That was back about 1200 A.D., as the Magna Carta was being written in England, Constantinople was being sacked by Christian Crusaders, and the European trader Marco Polo was visiting Mongolia and the warrior Genghis Khan.

It would appear that the Anasazi lived comfortably. They dragged down small game and crops from the top of the mesa, and there’s no sign that enemies bothered them. In fact, there are few signs at all, for these people left no written language, no cave drawings, no carvings in the stone.

About 75 years after they constructed their elaborate city in the hillside, the Anasazi abandoned it ― just up and left! ― leaving behind only their ladders and a garbage dump.

Not even anthropologists know why. Where did they go? Probably south, where it was warmer, where they blended in with other tribes. But who knows? It’s part of the mystery of Mesa Verde.

And of the charm of “Rocky Mountain High” country, as singer John Denver called Colorado.

I’m pretty sure he was talking about the view.

 (These are a few of the words from this posting that you may not know. Each time, I'll tell you a little about them and also place them into a cumulative archive of "Ted's Wild Words" in the right-hand column of the home page. Just click on it there, and if there's another word in today's blog that you'd like me to explain, just ask!)

Howitzer  A large, high-angle, muzzle-loaded artillery piece that fires shells high into the air but for short distances. Its name, from the Dutch, first referred to catapult-like siege guns of the 1700s.

Newfangled  Not just new, but a recent fad or fashion. From a Middle English word meaning “addicted to novelty.”

Friday, February 19, 2010

Connecting a Nation

As you’ve read in my recent posts, the American West is a crazy quilt of regions, beginning with rolling grasslands and lonely prairies and extending westward across a spine of high mountains, wasteland plateaus and wide deserts to the sea. The East had been largely settled, and fully developed cities bustled along the Pacific Coast. Only nomadic Indians, for the most part, occupied the great gap in between. During the U.S. Civil War of the 1860s, prosperous California, rich in gold and silver, was even a full-fledged state, aligned with ― but no more than a distant and unconnected cousin of ― the other states of the Union.

It wasn’t until four years after federal troops subdued the rebellious southern Confederacy that a stunning technological achievement tied East to West, riveting the attention of the nation and inspiring a momentous westward migration.

On May 10, 1869, railroads from the west and east met in the barren highlands of Utah. The dream of a transcontinental railroad was at last fulfilled.

The meeting of the Union Pacific line from the east and the Central Pacific from the west profoundly changed American life. What had been a two-month trip from New York to San Francisco by wagon ― or a three-month ordeal by ship around the tip of South America ― now took just five or six days by rail.

Bill Kratville, a consultant to the Union Pacific Railroad, which is still in business, reminded me that prior to this amazing rendezvous of lines people generally lived their whole lives within a few kilometers of their homes. “The railroad opened a chance for everyone to go somewhere,” Kratville told me. “Clear across country even, reasonably easily. There was great romance in this that the writers and photographers and artists eagerly portrayed.”

This was not a luxurious journey, mind you. Passengers sat on hardwood seats the whole 2,858 kilometers (1,776 miles) from the Missouri to Sacramento rivers. But it beat the teeth-rattling trip by horseback or stagecoach or wagon.

Kratville and I talked in a little park in Council Bluffs, overlooking the Missouri River on the western edge of Iowa. This was once Milepost One of the Union Pacific, with freight yards, a hotel, and a building where mail from farther east was sorted for the journey to California on the transcontinental line.

Only one little shed remains from those days, but among some picnic tables stands a seldom-visited, 17-meter-high cement monument. It’s painted gold and shaped like the ceremonial Golden Spike that linked the Union Pacific and Central Pacific rails 141 years ago. More about that in a bit.

The Union Pacific’s locomotives, passenger cars, and iron rails had to be carried to Council Bluffs on steamboats, because railroads had not even crossed all of Iowa when construction of what President Abraham Lincoln called the “Pacific line” began in 1861.

“They would lay track ahead of the train,” Bill Kratville told me. “The men would take rails and ties off flat cars and spike them into the graded ground ahead. The train just kept building westward, rail by rail and tie by tie.” Indeed, the crews included muscular specialists, including “tie men,” “rail men,” “screwers,” and “spikers.”

At the other end of the line, in Sacramento, California’s capital city, the state in 1976 opened the California State Railroad Museum where the Central Pacific started its way east. There’s early train stock there, and a display showing the work of poorly paid Chinese laborers, whom the Central Pacific hired by the thousands. Museum vice president Paul Hammond told me that these “coolies,” as they were unkindly called, pushed the railroad through the rugged Sierra Nevada Mountains using only picks, shovels, and treacherous blasting powder.

“It was a great workforce of dedicated folks who kept to themselves,” Hammond told me. “They were small people willing to do the most dangerous tasks. And they didn’t get ‘likkered-up’ as much as the white miners and laborers did. They simply boiled some water, made tea, and kept on working.”

The Central Pacific was eventually absorbed into a larger line and then purchased by the Union Pacific in 1996. Today the UP runs 1,500 or so freight trains a day through 20 western states. Each is controlled from a futuristic dispatch center in Harriman, Nebraska, that would amaze the trainmen and “gandy dancer” track workers of the transcontinental railroad. Every train is tracked on what dispatchers call the “Star Trek Wall” and on six computer screens. Not only that, but you can home in on each train and tell what each of sometimes 100 or more cars is carrying, where the load originated, and where it’s going.

Today, UP freights and Amtrak’s “California Zephyr” passenger train follow the route of the old transcontinental railroad. A good stretch of Interstate Highway 80 also runs along these historic rails.

And it can be argued that the change in the American West, from a desolate and daunting “empty quarter” into a “New West” of big cities, high-tech centers, and tourist destinations, began on a single day.

One of American history’s most famous photographs caught the moment on May 10, 1869. It’s called “The Wedding of the Rails.” Amid the sagebrush, hundreds of men pose around and atop the Central Pacific’s locomotive, “the Jupiter,” and the Union Pacific engine 119, which stand, cowcatcher to cowcatcher. At the focal point, CP president Leland Stanford ― for whom Stanford University in California is named ― shakes hands with UP vice president Thomas Durant as two railroad workers reach forward from the engines to exchange bottles of champagne.

It was a glorious and improbable moment beneath remote, black-limestone Promontory Summit in Utah ― one that would herald a new day not just for travel and convenience, but for the U.S. economy and defense as well. Troops could now move all the way across country in days rather than months. Ore and produce from irrigated California fields could reach eastern markets. And what had been scrub land all the way across the country became highly prized. Towns along the track thrived; others, just a few fields away, withered and died.

Remember the Golden Spike? What is commonly thought to be the single, real, ceremonial spike that brought the two lines together in Utah is preserved at Stanford University. Leland Stanford took it with him back to California.

It’s engraved with a prayer: “May God continue the unity of our country as this railroad unites the two great oceans of the world.”

In truth, four spikes ― two gold, one silver, and a silver-plated spike with a golden head ― were driven into the rails with a silver sledgehammer at the Wedding of the Rails. The second gold spike ended up in San Francisco, then disappeared, it is thought, during the catastrophic earthquake of 1906. The other special spikes probably rest in some rich person’s curio cabinet.

A little town grew up at Promontory Summit. But when the railroad moved its main line south, across the Great Salt Lake, Promontory, as they say, dried up and blew away. In 1916, the railroad erected a modest, concrete obelisk at the site of the meeting of the rails. Hunters found it handy for target practice.

After awhile the old, original rails were ripped out, too. They were donated for scrap during World War II.

But nowadays in temperate months at the Promontory site, visitors get quite a show. Ever since government funds and citizen donations funded a new Golden Spike National Historic Site there in 1965, gleaming reproductions of the black and maroon, coal-burning UP No. 119 and the CP’s blue, crimson, and gold, wood-burning “Jupiter” roll together so tourists can snap pictures. And each May 10, there’s a complete, full-costume re-creation of the historic event.

The convergence of these great lines may have been the world’s first live, coast-to-coast “media event.” Somehow, accounts from the time tell us, the ceremonial hammers and spikes were wired to a telegraph line beside the rails. Each stroke registered as a click at telegraph stations nationwide. And when the hammering of the first golden spike was complete, a message was transmitted to the east and west coasts.

It read, simply, "DONE."

 (These are a few of the words from this posting that you may not know. Each time, I'll tell you a little about them and also place them into a cumulative archive of "Ted's Wild Words" in the right-hand column of the home page. Just click on it there, and if there's another word in today's blog that you'd like me to explain, just ask!)

Coolie  A derogatory slur for unskilled Asian ― especially Chinese ― laborers employed in mines and on the railroads of the early American West. The term was borrowed from British colonialists’ word for Indian servants.

Crazy quilt  A patchwork cover sewn from irregular scraps. The term is often broadened to describe places ― even ideas ― cobbled from odd sources.

Candy dancer  A laborer on a railroad work crew. The term is thought to have followed the introduction of the first track-laying machine by the Gandy Corp. of Chicago. One can picture the workers dancing out of the way of such a contraption.

Friday, February 12, 2010

My Bison-tennial

I’m beginning a new regimen today, aimed at increasing the frequency and reducing the length of these blogs. It’s a challenge, since I can really get cranking on these stories from across America. Quite a few foreign students of the English language have praised the extended narratives, colloquial insights, and word definitions as delicious, five-course written “meals” and first-rate language-learning tools. But after weighing feedback from readers and editors over the past year and a half, I’ve come to see that the average, time-crunched Web visitor hasn’t the time or patience to digest an epicurean feast. So, knowing full well that it’s harder to write short than write long, I intend to post thrice weekly. When a subject hollers for greater depth, I’ll break it into a tray of short, tasty courses.. So keep a sharp eye out for new postings! 

My Bison-tennial

The first distant peak is in sight on our odyssey through the Endless West. But before we head into the imposing Rockies, a pause to admire an old and formidable companion to Plains Indians and westbound white settlers.

One that numbered in the millions

More than 60 million brown, shaggy, hump-backed American bison, better known as buffalo, once roamed from what is now Pennsylvania to the Rockies out West. Their name, adopted by what is now New York State’s second-largest city-- also way back east-- attests to what was once the creature’s enormous, unfettered range.

By 1830, however, the march of white settlement had driven the great herds west of the Mississippi River and cut their number by a third.

For many tribes of nomadic Plains Indians, the buffalo provided meat for food, hides for clothing and shelter and trade, sinew for thread, even dung for fuel. The source of their survival, in short. Before Spanish explorers introduced the horse to the Great Plains, lodge-dwelling Native Americans stalked the buffalo on foot. Disguised in buffalo hides, they snuck up on their prey, often driving the startled beasts over cliffs.

As Ben Red Elk points out in a videotape that I picked up at a trading post in Nebraska, the Indians honored the great bull who led each herd, calling him “Tahtonka” ― father. “Tahtonka would come,” Ben Red Elk told us in one of the captivating stories passed down orally through generations of native people. “But [to make him appear] the vision must be danced and sung. Tahtonka would come, and they danced the vision of the food.”

Once tribes got the horse, or more often, smaller, faster ponies  captured from herds of wild mustangs, the hunt grew easier. Then whites with rifles moved into the plains, slaughtering buffalo and bringing whiskey to trade for hides, which were soon floating by the millions down the Missouri River to St. Louis.

Next came another horse ― the “iron horse,” as Indians called it: scary, smoke-belching trains across the plains. “They brought gentlemen hunters who slew for so-called sport,” Ben Red Elk notes with sadness. “The prairies began to rot with wasted carcasses.”

Sport-shooting from the windows and observation decks of trains provoked Indian skirmishes in the iron horse’s path. But it was a mild outrage compared with what lay ahead. The U.S. Army, committed to protecting pockets of white settlement, migrants heading west, and prospectors seeking their fortune on Indian land, vigorously pursued a devastating strategy: exterminate the bison, and the warring Plains Indians could not survive.

Remember that estimate of 60 million free-roaming buffalo?

By 1890, fewer than five hundred remained throughout the West, mostly in scrubby back country, in zoos and rodeos, and in make-believe, cowboy-and-Indian pageants like Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. Bison bones scattered across the prairie were gathered to be ground into fertilizer.

The Army proved right. Nomadic tribes could not survive on jackrabbits. Close to starvation and enfeebled by whiskey and the white man’s diseases, Indians were driven onto reservations far from home. Their warrior leaders were killed, chased into Canada, or forced to surrender.

Today, many Americans get their first and only look at buffalo in the wild at Yellowstone National Park in northwestern Wyoming. There, amid erupting geysers and stinky mud pots, bison herds run free, right through the brutal winters and head-high snows. 

Come spring and summer, when the tour buses arrive, ignorant or foolhardy visitors sometimes coax these temperamental, horned animals right up to their cars. Park rangers describe clueless parents, seeking the perfect photo souvenir, trying to hoist a child onto the backs of resting buffalo ― even “tame” bears that have learned to beg for treats. 

At Yellowstone and elsewhere on the Plains, you’ll sometimes see a curious, stationery cloud of dust. The dust ― or clods of mud if the ground is wet ― are kicked up by bison, wallowing on their backs and sides in an effort to ease the sting of flies and ticks, or to relieve the itch that comes with the shedding of their winter coats. Deep, unexpected depressions in the earth throughout the prairie began as such wallows.

Several American coins, including the “Indian head nickel” produced from 1913 to 1938 and the new Kansas and North Dakota state-series quarters, depict the buffalo. Indicative of the boundless early range of these creatures, the buffalo also appears on the Manitoba provincial flag in Canada and on the coat of arms of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.

It’s easy to see why one feels “buffaloed” when intimidated or stymied, for a single American bison, snorting and pawing the ground, is a regal and dangerous figure. Why getting “buffaloed” can also mean getting tricked or fooled makes less sense, since the buffalo falls toward the dimwitted end of the animal-intelligence scale. (See running off cliffs, above.)

Carol and I got a close look at American bison south of Manitoba and far to the east of Yellowstone, on the windswept Dakota plains.

In 1958, little Jamestown, North Dakota, looking to lure tourists off the east-west Interstate-94 superhighway, crafted the “world’s largest buffalo” ― a three-story, 60,000-kilogram beast ― out of steel-reinforced concrete. A living adult, male buffalo weighs “just” 900 kilos.

A restored frontier village sprang up there. And then, in the early 1990s, the National Buffalo Museum, dedicated to the massive herbivores whose herds once stretched to the horizon.

At the museum, you’ll see mounted buffalo heads, warm buffalo robes so big that they’re now used for rugs, and, out back, a small herd of live bison. Among them, the biggest attraction: White Cloud, a 13-year-old albino “white buffalo” ― so rare that many Indians consider her sacred.

The museum’s owners also operate a wholesale bread store in town. So, to spice up the animals’ boring diet of grass and hay, the museum’s founder, banker Bob Mountain, told me, about once a week the bison are fed a truckload of bread and rolls. “We drink the coffee while we serve them doughnuts,” Mountain said.

The buffalo is no longer an endangered species. Besides herds that run wild in Yellowstone and other national parks and a few other clusters like the one in Jamestown, more than 300,000 buffalo are raised domestically for their meat, which is leaner and lower in calories and cholesterol than beef. And speaking of beef, only 10,000 or so buffalo are purebreds, thanks to a couple of centuries of inbreeding among roaming bison and cattle.

All in all, the buffalo is back and thriving. Save for those who prosper from casino revenue, however, the same cannot be said for the Indian tribes whose survival was tied to these shaggy stampeders of the Great Plains.

 (These are a few of the words from this posting that you may not know. Each time, I'll tell you a little about them and also place them into a cumulative archive of "Ted's Wild Words" in the right-hand column of the home page. Just click on it there, and if there's another word in today's blog that you'd like me to explain, just ask!)

Odyssey  A long and most eventful journey. The word is taken from the wanderings of Odysseus in Ancient Greece, who took ten years to reach his home in Ithaca after the Trojan War ended.

Unfettered  Unchained, unencumbered. Fetters are shackles, especially of the feet.

Monday, February 8, 2010

The Endless West II

Saddle up! We leave Texas in our dust on our trip through the vast American West. Time to head north, across the Red River into Oklahoma.


The West is full of ghost towns, once abuzz with miners, merchants, and even fancy concert halls with gas lamps and red-flocked wallpaper, then abandoned to the elements once the oil or ore played out.

But one boomtown still thrives. Bartlesville, Oklahoma, is one of the most prosperous and sophisticated small towns in the land.

All over Oklahoma, scattered across the sagebrush, one used to see thousands of simple oil rigs called pumpjacks. Driven by “bullwheels” hitched to powerful engines by long thick belts, pumpjacks look like giant praying mantis insects. They bob up and down, up and down, day and night, day after day, sucking oil out of vast pools under the ground.

As long as the oil holds out, that is. Today in these parts, the pool has pretty much dried up, and most pumpjacks sit idle and rusting.

But once, one of the world’s largest oil reservoirs — the Mid-Continent Field, reaching up into Kansas and as far south as Mexico — bubbled directly beneath eastern Oklahoma and the rough-and-tumble town of Bartlesville. Though the region used to be official “Indian Territory” -- where the federal government had forcibly resettled whole tribes of native Americans from distant homelands -- Indians had paid scant attention to the stinky, foul-tasting, black goo seeping from rock formations and the dry prairie itself. They used some of it in balms but mostly avoided it.

But whites knew all about its other, lucrative uses — for kerosene, petroleum jelly and, by the turn of the 20th Century, the gasoline that powered a transportation revolution. Ever since Edwin Drake drilled the first well back in Pennsylvania in 1859, prospectors were looking everywhere for oil.

In 1904, a former barber named Frank Phillips moved to Bartlesville from Iowa. He founded a bank and had the good fortune to strike oil on his land. Phillips became a millionaire overnight, and he and his brother formed their own oil production company. Phillips Petroleum became the giant, international Phillips 66 oil company that merged with Conoco Inc. in 2002 and moved the company headquarters to Houston, Texas. Still, little Bartlesville thrived and produced an array of fine homes and cultural attractions.

The native tribe thereabouts did well, too. Much of the oil was discovered on Indian land, and whites who wanted to tap it had to negotiate leases from the Osage. It wasn’t long before Osage Indians were the richest tribe in the United States. This was long before casino gambling enriched a number of tribes, including the Osage.

South of town, Frank Phillips bought a big ranch that he called Woolaroc (for its woods, lakes, and rocks). Today it’s a museum, wildlife preserve, and cultural center that tells the story of the Old West. And of the “Mother Road,” the now-romanticized, two-lane U.S. Highway 66 from Chicago to Los Angeles that runs through these parts and from which the oil company got its name.

But Bartlesville is known for more than oil. From the 1920s into the 1960s, the Phillips 66 Company sponsored the most famous semi-professional sports team in American history. The Bartlesville Phillips 66ers basketball team was composed of former college stars who took jobs with the company. They regularly defeated top collegiate teams and other semi-pro teams like the Ambrose Jellymakers, named for a Denver, Colorado, producer of jams and wines. The Phillips 66ers even defeated a U.S. Olympic team that would go on to win a gold medal in London in 1948.

And Bartlesville is home to an odd-looking building designed by America’s most famous architect: Frank Lloyd Wright. It’s a 19-story skyscraper, largely made of copper. “Price Tower,” Wright’s only tall building, was built in 1953 for a company that made pipe. The quirky Wright delivered a cantilevered design, inspired by the structure of a tree. Inside, one finds few right angles. Special furniture had to be designed to fit into it.

In Frank Lloyd Wright tradition, the building leaked and was drafty. He was an imaginative architect but a lousy engineer. Nonetheless, the folks in Bartlesville call Price Tower, now an arts center, “innovative” and “the tree that escaped the crowded forest.”

You won’t find many city slickers out on the Woolaroc Ranch, though. Indian exhibits, 30 varieties of native and exotic animals, and a Colt firearms collection are the draw. And a big bullwheel in the oilfield engine house, which the hands fire up for visitors as a noisy testament to the world’s richest oil boomtown.

A Piece of the Prairie

One-third of North America, stretching from what is now Indiana in the Midwest westward to the Rocky Mountains, and northward from Texas deep into Canada, was once uninterrupted prairie, where Plains Indians hunted free-roaming bison, elk, and antelope. Much of that prairie has since been obliterated by cultivated farms, cattle ranches, and bustling cities and towns.

But two stands of the ever-shrinking tallgrass prairie remain in the state of Kansas.

A “sea of grass,” the first Europeans called the never-ending grasslands. Others called it “Great American Desert,” though its rolling, sandy hills were often lush with flowers and grasses. Seeing few trees, the first visitors thought the region unfit for most cultivation. These days, the tallgrass prairie is the rarest and most fragmented ecosystem in North America.

One piece survives in the Flint Hills of eastern Kansas, whose limestone and shale eroded into grass-covered hills too rugged to farm. Millions of American bison, called buffalo, roamed freely there, and then ranchers brought their cattle to graze.

In 1996, the nation’s only tallgrass preserve was established when the owners of the 4,000-hectare (9,900-acre) Z Bar-Spring Hill ranch sold their spread to a private organization called the National Park Trust — and deliberately not to the state or federal government. If the feds got hold of it, the ranchers grumbled, they’d want more, adding, “We do not want anyone to tell us what we can or can’t do with our own land.”

So the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve became the nation’s only privately owned national park. Don’t tell the Z Bar boys, but it’s managed by a federal park service ranger!

Tallgrass shoots can reach your waist, depending on rainfall but the individual plants aren’t much to look at. It’s the totality of it all: the wildflowers, arrays of big and little bluestem, switchgrass, or Indiangrass — and the sunrises, sunsets, and summer storm clouds roiling above — that give the place its lonely, majestic character.

Ninety kilometers to the north, on another former cattle ranch, lies a larger remnant of the prairie. This one gets few visitors because it’s operated as a research facility by Kansas State University and the worldwide Nature Conservancy.

This Konza Prairie Biological Station is named for a Kansas Indian tribe. Scientists there study three critical influences on the sweeping prairie: grazing by large ungulates like buffalo and antelope; the effects of the region’s fierce climate (blizzards, droughts, gully-washing thunderstorms); and fire, which the researchers deliberately set from time to time. Controlled burns are useful because nitrogen-rich shoots, tasty to roaming buffalo or cattle, emerge in the aftermath.

I can picture an antelope outrunning, and a meadowlark flying far from, a prairie fire. But a gopher or grasshopper or shrew? I’m told the lucky among these small creatures burrow underground before the flames race overhead. And one species of hawk flies right into the smoke, looking for unfortunate critters that are scurrying for shelter.

Fire, even more than a scarcity of water, is the reason why one sees few trees on the prairie. Grasses and flowers regenerate. Woody plants are toast.

Like parts of the African savannah and South American pampas, the Konza Prairie and Tallgrass National Preserve have never been plowed. And the conservation groups that own them intend to keep it that way.

Middle America, Precisely

Even though a lot of Kansas feels “western” — towns like Dodge City were notorious hangouts for cowpokes and gunslingers and loose women — when you reach Lebanon, Kansas, you’re only halfway to California. Or to Florida; Maine; Washington, D.C.; or Washington State, for that matter.

You are literally in the center of it all: America’s “centroid,” as scientists call it. A milo field right outside tiny Lebanon is the precise center of the U.S. land mass, ignoring separate and far-distant Hawaii and Alaska.

Twenty years ago or so, the milo farmer, Randy Warner, mounted a GPS device onto his truck and drove around his fields, looking for the exact spot where 39 degrees, 15 minutes north latitude crosses 98 degrees, 35 minutes west longitude, as calculated by the U.S. Geological Survey. The USGS told Warner it had put a brass plate there, but he couldn’t find it.

Aside from occasional geography nuts (e.g. Carol and me) who search out such places, there isn’t much excitement in these parts. In 1999, though, Warner helped crews spread 700 bags of marble dust in his milo field as an “X marks the spot” representation of America’s midpoint for “The X Files” science-fiction movie. About 100 folks from Lebanon helped out. That’s a third of everybody in town.

Indeed, Lebanon could be the model for what some call “dying rural America.” It has steadily lost population, lost its grade school, car dealership, and even the community hall where movies were once shown. The town gave up its annual Lebanon Anniversary parade years ago; not enough people were interested in planning or walking in it. So the pace of life is slow. A typical headline in the local paper, the Lebanon Times — circulation 540 — reads, “Dorothy Fisher Has a Wonderful Birthday.”

Talking with Randy Warner, I got to wondering how geographers pinpointed his field as the precise center of the far-flung United States before global tracking satellites soared overhead. They did not, certainly, do what I would have done: stretch a string tightly across a U.S. map from northwest to southeast, and northeast to southwest, then stick a pin where they crossed. That wouldn’t have made sense, since the nation is anything but a rectangle. Not only do our borders wiggle, but the string from Florida would have to cross a lot of water in the Gulf of Mexico.

Later, a retired USGS field chief told me that in their spare time, six veteran topographers laid a map of the United States onto a thick piece of cardboard. Then they carefully cut along the outline. Finally, gingerly, they kept setting and resetting the cardboard cutout on a thick pin of some sort until it balanced.

That very point, tracked down in Farmer Warner’s field, was declared the midpoint of the country. (Sounds to me more like America’s center of gravity, but what do I know?) Amazingly, computer and satellite studies later confirmed that the spot pinpointed in Lebanon was correct!

So I can’t tell you how many angels can balance on the head of a pin, but I know where your cuticle would point if you could lift up the original United States and balance it on your finger.

Oregon or Bust

What is by many accounts the greatest peacetime migration in world history took place in the expanding United States in the 1840s and ’50s, when there were only three states west of the wide Mississippi River.

From way across country in the Pacific Northwest, both a government-sponsored surveying expedition and trappers working for John Jacob Astor’s American Fur Company had sent stories back east of lush, green valleys ripe for farming. When the American economy slid into two straight depressions in 1837 and 1841, thousands of families pulled up stakes and headed west to Oregon in covered wagons, bent on finding them.

This delighted the federal government, which was seeking settlers in the Great Northwest to keep it out of British hands.

An estimated 400,000 people made the trek from Missouri to Oregon. Throughout the West, their wagons wore ruts in the earth that are still visible more than 150 years later. The migrants jammed their wagons with tools and food as well as bedding, plows, rifles, and meager family treasures. Their loads often weighed 700 kilos (1500 pounds) or more.

Little did they know that they would have to discard many goods beside the trail in order to lighten the load through sucking mud and up steep mountain paths. They learned how to hitch their livestock, ford rivers, and spread out and rotate positions in line so that fewer of them had to breathe the choking dust kicked up by the horses and oxen that pulled their “prairie schooners,” the bony milk cows that tagged along behind, and the many family members who walked beside their wagons, all the way to Oregon.

The voyagers started in early Spring, when grass was green and plentiful. They pushed hard, six days a week, knowing that they had to reach the Rocky Mountains before the deadly winter snows. Hostile Plains Indians killed some of the migrants, but many more died from cholera carried in contaminated drinking water.

Nebraska rivers like the Platte, wide and shallow, were quite passable until it rained. Then they would rise and rage and sweep away settlers and animals and wagons. When the sojourners reached Scotts Bluff in western Nebraska — still a landmark that the Washington Post newspaper once called “an American Gibraltar above the Great Plains” — excitement abounded, for the travelers knew that the great mountains and a big trading post for restocking their wagons lay just a week ahead in Wyoming.

Nebraska has erected signs marked “Oregon Trail Auto Route,” and many landmarks of the old trail can still be seen. They include Windlass Hill, so steep that settlers had to lock their wagon wheels and almost slide down to next valley.

It is one of many places in Nebraska where neither pavement nor plow has buried the Oregon Trail.

Have you heard the story of the Three Little Pigs? The one in which a big, bad wolf tries to huff and puff and blow down the pigs’ houses? The first two, made of straw and sticks, were child’s play. But the third was made of brick. No matter how hard he blew, the wolf could not topple it. So the story ends happily — for the third little pig.

There have long been lots of such sturdy brick houses back east. But recreating one was nearly impossible on the wild Great Plains, which had rich soil but little clay to make bricks. As in the wolf story, tornadoes and howling winter winds made short work of anything built of sticks or straw. Lumber was out of the question; there weren’t enough trees.

So the prairie newcomers built homes out of the land itself. Ordinary, everyday prairie sod. Or what the locals cheekily referred to as “Nebraska marble.”

These cheap, safe, and warm houses became “soddies” — strong as a brick home and equally fireproof. Here are the specs:

Sod, first of all, is not dirt. Or not all dirt. It’s mostly tufts of coarse grass, clumped into the soil and held together by the grasses’ tight, twisted network of roots.

A homesteader like William Dowse, the man who built a Nebraska sod house that I visited, took his “breaking plow” and sliced long strips of grass and earth into rows about 35 centimeters wide. Then he took a sharp spade and sliced these long rows of grass and earth into slabs a little less than a meter long.

Though they were nothing but earth and grass, these were called “bricks,” so in that sense, pioneer houses were made of bricks! Grass ones, weighing about 45 kilos (99 pounds) apiece.

Settlers stacked the sod bricks atop each other, grass side down — first rows straight, second rows crossways and so on up — to form the walls of the house. Where they wanted a window, they’d put a heavy plank between rows to hold the sod above.

Somehow, somewhere, the builder would find enough trees to cut wood for windows, doors, and a frame for the roof. The last was the tricky and dusty part. The homeowner would lay the last strips of sod across the roof frame. As a result, one of prairie housewives’ biggest complaints was that little clumps of soil would keep falling from the ceiling onto their nicely swept dirt floors. And into the soup! To catch them, the settlers would tack muslin material beneath the joists.

Talk about sturdy. When a tornado ripped across the Dowse property in 1941, it blew a barn, a windmill, a chicken house, and some sheds to bits. But the soddie was unscathed.

Over time, families up and left most these soddies and moved on. By the time others arrived, society had advanced enough that they could write away to the Sears or J.C. Penney company and have a whole new, wooden house shipped, in pieces, to them on the prairie.

Never again would dirt clumps in the soup be a worry.

Last Nebraska Stops

Nebraska contains both Midwest-style cornfields and the dry, dusty canyons of the Old West. And you know you’re in the West when you get to the town of Ogallala and see the sign for Boot Hill.

Back in the 1870s, Ogallala was a boomtown like Bartlesville, but not because of oil. It was a cow town, a raucous marketplace for steers on the long cattle trail up from Texas. From there, the Union Pacific railroad shipped the steers off for slaughter in Kansas City. “Shooting up the town was quite a common sport,” wrote Ogallala pioneer settler Harry Lute, of the alcohol-fueled violence that often ensued among the heavily-armed cowboys, in town after their long cattle drives.

Boot Hill was the crude burial ground of 100 or so people — a remarkable number for a town with a permanent population only slightly higher. Some died of snakebites or typhoid or in childbirth, but most were the unfortunate recipients of western justice at the end of a gun or a rope. Horse thieves, card cheats, and gunslingers too slow on the draw were buried with their boots on. Thus the name.

“No church spire pointed upward here,” wrote cowboy Andy Adams in 1875.

Which is precisely why author Larry McMurtry went to Ogallala to research what became Lonesome Dove, his best-selling novel about the legendary cattle drives. And why a TV network produced a highly rated mini-series about the drive, the drovers, Ogallala, and Boot Hill.

“Nebraska’s Cowboy Capital” has grown into a tame town of 4,400 people, not counting tourists, passing hunters, and visiting boaters. Once a year, thousands of cattle, worth millions of dollars, are still sold at Ogallala’s livestock auction.

But Boot Hill has not grown in more than a century.

Something else in Nebraska that hasn’t grown, either, surprisingly, is an amazing procession of sand hills, up near the South Dakota border, 2,000 kilometers from the nearest ocean. There are more than a hundred of these hills, some 125 meters high and (get this!) 30 kilometers long.

These are far different from beach dunes or the great sand seas of Saudi Arabia or China. Many are covered with hardy grasses and flowers. If spring and summer are particularly rainy, you’d swear you were in the lush, green hills of Ireland.

But it’s a fragile beauty. The soil is so loose that cattle wearing a trail, or off-road vehicles vrrooming, along them can tear open the earth’s skin and cause a “blowout” in which sand re-emerges and overwhelms the vegetation. To keep their porous land from eroding or washing away in a flash flood — and fences and telephone poles from falling over — Nebraska Sand Hills residents have adopted the curious custom of tying old tires together. You see strings of them everywhere, and they’re not exactly a scenic wonder.

The sand was formed less than 10,000 years ago during a period of warming and drying, when wind gathered up grains of rock that had broken off the Rocky Mountains and carried them 640 kilometers (400 miles) east across great flatlands before depositing them in huge piles. Because this sand is too heavy to be carried more than a short distance by the wind, the grains actually bounce along the landscape. Since hardy plants (or tires) hold most of the sand in place these days, you don’t run into many sandstorms. But geologists say it’s only a matter of time before another warming period (sound familiar?) kills off vegetation and loosens the Sand Hills to drift far and wide.

Make no mistake: this is barren country. To this day, even counting all the people from little towns, fewer than 1,000 people live in some of the counties that touch this inland sea of sand.

As one Sand Hiller, as they’re called, told me, “When you’re here, you’re nowhere.”


Flocked  Flock is a small tuft of fiber, and flocked wallpaper containing flock is not flat as a result. It is decorated with colorful patterns of flocking that one can feel.

Homesteader  An American pioneer who had been granted a parcel of land in return for settling the vast expanses of the American West.

Prairie Schooners  Heavy pioneer wagons with arching wooden bows that supported billowing canvas covers that gave the wagons a vague shiplike appearance.

Raucous  Loud and disorderly, and often a bit lewd, as in some of the hootin’ and hollerin’ inside a western saloon when dusty cowhands reached town after a long cattle drive.

Specs  Specifications, as in the blueprints and other particular requirements for an engineering job.