Loess Hills, western Iowa
Just east of tiny Presho, South Dakota (population 588), on a morning of brilliant light, I crossed the hundredth meridian. The evening before I had driven through the Loess Hills of western Iowa, a well-watered country of oak woodlands and meandering streams. Fields of corn lay cupped between gentle hills, the land painted with a palette of greens. The sky was clearing after a thunderstorm, and the air smelled like rain. It seemed to be – perhaps a little falsely – a benign world. But 250 miles to the north and west, by the time that I reached the hundredth meridian, the sense of the land had changed dramatically. The trees had disappeared, or were mostly limited to swales and north-facing breaks. The sky had gone vertical, the air was shorn of its humidity, the horizontal had peeled back toward a more planar horizon.
At the edge of the West, the soundtrack for the morning’s drive was The Tragically Hip’s “At the Hundredth Meridian”: “Left alone to get gigantic / Hard, huge and haunted…” Out near Presho, the land is hard because of the unpredictable, bitter droughts of summer, the wind-blasted blizzards of January, the aching imperatives of aridity and cold. The land is huge because the great swaths of space and undulating short grass prairie create a place where, as Willa Cather wrote, “The earth is the floor of the sky.” There is distance, and then more distance. And the land is haunted by the ghosts of the Lakota, who were pushed out of their country, and onto reservations like Pine Ridge, just to the south of Presho – and by the ramshackle, weather-beaten farm houses scattered across the High Plains, monuments to abandoned dreams. For rain did not “follow the plow,” and no amount of human initiative and determination could breed crops out of the dry soil.
High Plains west of Presho, South Dakota
There is nothing magical about the arbitrary line we call the hundredth meridian, but it does parallel, closely, the north-south run of a line marking an average annual precipitation of twenty inches. East of this line, as in the Loess Hills, there is moisture enough, mostly, for agriculture that does not require irrigation. But beyond the hundredth meridian, dryland farming on the 160 acres allocated by the Homestead Act to each yeoman farmer was impossible. And so, after an initial rush onto the High Plains the country began emptying out, as the immigrants went bust. It is still emptying out. Jones County, just west of Presho, lost almost 9% of its population between 2000 and 2003; North Dakota had more people in 1920 than it did in 2000.
On a morning of beautiful light in early September, when a breeze blows gently out of the west and the prairie is washed by green, after a summer of unusually bountiful rain, the High Plains seem like they would be an easy place to live. But the beauty disguises a tougher reality – that this would be a lonely, demanding home. It would take all of your energy and determination, I think, to make a life here. Still, I love the space, the emptiness, the gathering sense of the arid West. The imperatives of this aridity draw me toward Death Valley, and into the ecologies of species that manage to hang on in a world where water is so very rare.
I thought of these things as I pushed on, further into South Dakota, and then Wyoming and Montana. It was a good day for driving, a 1000-mile kind of day, when the motion was an easy, comfortable vector. On the third of September, headed west along I-90, it was as Richard Hugo had it in “Driving Montana”: ‘Tomorrow will open again, the sky wide / as the mouth of a wild girl, friable / clouds you lose yourself to. You are lost / in miles of land without people, without / one fear of being found, in the dash / of rabbits, soar of antelope, swirl / merge and clatter of streams.’