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Published: April 24th 2018
Chautauqua Park, Beatrice, NE
After the day before, yesterday was unremarkable. And, well, that’s just fine.
We started the day by enjoying an hour or two in our own private campground. Since we were the only campers, miles from anything, we enjoyed a leisurely breakfast with the birds singing in the background. Joan and I both did a 15-minute workout in the open air, which was invigorating. As part of our changed travel routine, we try to get a short but vigorous workout in before we get in the car for a driving day. It virtually eliminates the back and leg pains I sometimes get driving long distances. Joan does a yoga thing, I have a HIIT routine I do, trying to restore some of my long-gone muscle mass. Meanwhile, the girls kept our morale up by licking our faces when we were laying down on the mats.
Around ten-ish, we had things packed up and hit the road. We navigated back the two miles of dirt roads to the highway, and then headed north to Interstate 70, which, just for the record, was bumpier than the dirt road. I’m sure that highway is part of our embarrassing
backlog of infrastructure projects. Fortunately, after being passed by everyone, we got off the interstate after just 28 miles, and headed northeast towards Colby. From there we tried to catch a green-dot (i.e. scenic) route, but somehow couldn’t find the right road sign. It doesn’t help that the signs on the road, and the numbers in Google and Gladys, and the highway map, just don’t match sometimes. A highway can have several different designations, but if each of your navigation tools uses a different number, then that just isn’t very helpful.
But generally, we just sort of zigged east and then zagged north, and, whenever there was a diagonal road, we took that. It really is interesting how our highway system seems to be, almost universally, roads running north-south, or east-west, but rarely on the diagonal. In our case, it is definitely a northeast diagonal route from New Mexico to the Great Lakes, but the number of roads running that way is surprisingly small. So a lot of zigging and zagging is required to move that way.
We stopped for lunch in Norton, Kansas. And, contrary to a vow I made years ago, we ate at a Mexican
restaurant, Las Canteras. I fully admit to being a New Mexican food snob, and finding satisfactory enchiladas, burritos, and green chile in other states is a real challenge. So, generally, we just avoid those kinds of restaurants. In this case, though, there weren’t any other options as we both wanted an adult beverage and the only other restaurant in Norton was a family-style, country-food, buffet. So Mexican it was and I have to admit it wasn’t bad. I ordered the Special Dinner which, as you can see in the picture, is a humongous plate - even I couldn’t finish it. And the food was really pretty tasty, especially the taco, enchilada, and tamale. So, if in Norton, stop there!
After 315 miles of driving, we rolled into Beatrice, Nebraska, our destination for the night. Joan had two campgrounds in mind, but was more interested in Chautauqua Park, right in the middle of town. It is a small town or county park in an arboretum on the side of a river. Really very pretty. We are going to stay here a couple of nights. (And we have full hookup of water and power so we can recharge our batteries and
fill up the water tank.)
Wanted to talk a bit about the ecology we’ve been driving through. Ever since we left Walsenberg, Colorado, we’ve been driving through the major ecological zone known as the Great Plains. We will be in this zone until we get to the eastern portions of Iowa. This is the belt of prairie that runs down from southern Canada to, and beyond the Rio Grande River. It is generally characterized as a grassland, lacking forests of any real degree, flat, and abnormally dry. Nourished originally by rivers flowing from the Rocky Mountains, the soil used to be very fertile, however modern agricultural has absorbed most of the good dirt and by exposing so much of the land to tilling, the soil is now subject to wind erosion. (Remember the dust bowl? - OK, maybe not ‘remember’).
Since the predominant airflow is west to east, the Rockies create a rain shadow in the westernmost sections of the zone, with increasing rainfall as you move east. The result is a change of grass types from short -grasses in the west to longer varieties in the east and a mix in the middle. Although much of the
grasses are now gone, you can still see the patterns reflected in the kinds of crops that flourish. The short-grass prairies have been allocated primarily to rangeland, if used agriculturally at all, because they are so dry. The mixed-grass sections have become the nation’s wheat-growing zone, and the eastern portions have been planted in corn and soybeans which require more moisture.
The section of the Great Plains we have traveled through so far is known as the South-Central Semi-Arid Prairie. As the name suggests, it is the drier part of the region, originally populated by short-grasses, is now primarily range land with intensively irrigated areas in western Kansas and southern Nebraska. It is further subdivided into three sub-regions which we have been able to see on our trip.
The first of these is the Southwestern Tablelands, running from Walsenberg east pretty much to the Kansas state line. This is dry country and doesn’t have much agricultural use. You can see that driving through the area - there might be occasional rangeland, but there is no farming activity. One of the rivers draining the area is the Arkansas which we crossed multiple times and could barely distinguish it from
a creek. One thing that does seem to be cropping up here are wind farms - we saw several groups of large windmills turning elegantly in the breeze. Certainly this is a more rugged portion of the Great Plains with mesas and red-hued channels more evident. Mostly, though, it is just dry.
Almost exactly where you cross into Kansas, though, things change. This is known as the High Plains and is characterized as smoother and more rolling plains than the lands to the west and with a mixture of short and tall grasses, nourished by a bit more water. Currently it is used mostly as grazing land for livestock, and crops of wheat, sorghum, corn and some cotton. Oil and gas extraction are big industries here.
After leaving the interstate around Colby, and for the rest of our mileage to Beatrice, we were in the third zone, the Central Great Plains. Originally a mixed-grass prairie, this is now almost entirely agriculture. You can definitely tell that as you travel through Kansas and Nebraska towns and countryside. The land is flatter than to the west and the rivers are bigger, all reflecting more moisture. Mostly this is wheat country,
but there are also crops of corn, sorghum, alfalfa, and cotton.
Once we leave Beatrice, we will leave the Semi-Arid Prairie and move into the Temperate Plains, but I’ll talk about that then. The interesting thing about understanding these ecological zones, is that it helps me understand the changes we see as we travel between them. While zones might appear as just lines on a map, they also reflect an underlying reality that colors our experience. Maybe its just me, but I think its kind of fun!
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