DNA X #17 The Ocean of Corn
Called the Great Plains, the prairie or simply the Mid-west this large expanse of land west of the Mississippi River is flat or sometimes rolling slightly. The land is fertile and threaded with rivers. Not so long ago, 40 percent of the US was covered in prairie grasses interspersed with a multitude of wetlands; a rich environment which supported 60 million bison and countless other species of plant and animal. By 1885 there were less than 600 bison left and today only one percent of the prairies remain. We head west through the breadbasket of America where this intensely farmed area has replaced the prairies. I realize as the miles click by we have traveled through 1300 miles of corn. As far as the eye can see there is an ocean of corn and the wetlands are gone. It is a staggering thought; most of all this corn is feed corn, grown to feed cattle. In the old days cattle were grass fed, some still are. In Iowa much of the corn is now grown to fuel the ethanol industry. This corn is a far cry from its ancestors. Now genetically engineered and hybridized it relies heavily on the frequent application of pesticides and herbicides. This year more than twelve billion bushels of corn were harvested. Surely there is enough corn here to feed the world.
We stop for the night in North Platte, Nebraska. Corn weary we walk across the parking lot to the nearest restaurant. As we open the door a chorus of cheers and whoops almost knock us over. The place is packed, there are speakers (blasting) placed every three feet around the room. Everyone is wearing red (good thing Jay has a red jacket on) and glued to the TV monitors that outnumber the wait staff. This is Cornhusker territory and it’s college football night. We try to sneak in and find a seat at the bar. We get a few curious stares and a downright glower from the bartendress as we move one of the blasting speakers away from our face. Beer is king here and not the imported types but the grumpy gal goes to the storeroom and rustles one up for Jay. We order salads and get more stares (this is fried food headquarters) eat as fast as possible and run the gauntlet through the Huskers to get some rest.
The next day we make a pilgrimage to Carhenge. Most people have heard of Stonehenge, the famous Druid stone circle in England. Here we have one of America’s Quirky Cairns for sure. Set out on a field in northeast Nebraska – the corn has been cleared away – automobiles are arranged in a circle supposedly in the appropriate proportions to Stonehenge. One visitor re-marked “so what’s the point?” Well point or not, art or not, it’s there to behold or not. Donations are welcome to maintain the “sculpture”. I’m not sure what the Druids would think. We continue west crossing into Colorado. In the distance we see an end to the vast flat plains, the silhouette of the Rocky Mountains at last comes into view. We stop in Boulder, Colorado, home of the University of Colorado and one of the most progressive cities in the US. We pull in to the St. Julien Hotel and Spa for a few nights to visit one of our sons and to give Blackie a well deserved service and day at the spa. We could use some rest too! This is a great city, nestled at the base of the Flatirons; dramatic stone slabs tilted against the front range of the Rockies. There are great restaurants, beautiful parks, art and culture. The St. Julien is located within walking distance of the main shopping areas and not far from the university. It is a football weekend and the city is packed with fans from both teams. This upscale hotel with very efficient staff did a wonderful job with handling the crowds and has a great restaurant not to miss!
Blackie gets her check up at Flatirons Land Rover fifteen minutes up the road. Manager Ed Dobbs and his crew take good care of Blackie, she gets new brakes, a battery, tire rotation & balance, oil change and a good bath. She is ready to go but we give her a couple more days in the garage to rest up. We think about our road trip mentor, Horatio Jackson Nelson and his journey and realize we don’t have a mascot yet. In our hotel room we see a little prairie dog. He seems to need a home and buying him will support the Prairie Dog Coalition in Boulder, a group dedicated to restore and protect these animals.
Over the last century 98% of prairie dogs have been poisoned, shot or bulldozed to the brink of extinction. They live in “towns” with organized social protocols using underground tunnels with specific chambers for sleeping, eating, W.C. etc. They are a “keystone species” providing housing and food for many other animals on the prairie like the burrowing owl and the golden eagle. So our little friend seems perfect, he doesn’t take up too much room, he is a good sentinel (prairie dogs always have someone on look out duty in the town) and seems eager to go. Perhaps Pip is a good name, so he can keep pace with our humor. So we load Blackie and give Pip the front row seat on the dash, his job is to keep a lookout for us; his eyes are better than ours. His sharp shriek will alert us to approaching trouble and his gregarious nature will inspire us to be outgoing in unfamiliar environments. We are ready to explore!