Traveling from the western end of South Dakota to the eastern end of Nebraska requires a long day's drive across a lot of prairie. After a few hours, it's the kind of trip that can make you start to reconsider the price of airline tickets.
I've made a lot of trips across this land, most of them driving, but a few in a small plane as well. It's fascinating to see the subtle beauty of the land from the air, whether it's the open spaces of West River ranch land or the patchwork fields of East River farm land. That beauty is easy to miss if you're traveling in a jet at 30,000-something feet. I suppose it's understandable that this part of the world is so easily dismissed as "flyover country."
A lot of people were flying over it too. Driving south in the late afternoon, we watched a sky filled with contrails, clear evidence of the amount of east-west traffic. At one point we saw two jets going east and two others going west on what looked almost like collision courses. They sped past each other, two of them crossing each other's trails to temporarily mark the spot with an X. A short time later, a single nonconformist bisected their fading paths from north to south.
As the sun set, a third of the vast prairie sky glowed with orange, violet, and turquoise, giving us an evolving light show for half an hour. More contrails stitched rows of white and deep purple across the layers of high, streaky clouds.
None of the travelers in the jets tracking so temporarily through the sky could have seen us so far below. They wouldn't have noticed, either, the new motel being built in the tiny town of Dallas that a recent article at SmartMoney.com dismissed as a place "two hours from the nearest major airport" where you can't even "get a decent bite to eat." They wouldn't have seen that the new motel was right beside a thriving steakhouse. Nor would they have seen the giant towers of the grain elevator that makes Dallas so important to the local farm economy.
They wouldn't have seen the birds, either. A long-dead cottonwood tree beside a stock dam provided the perfect perch for a bald eagle to pose in a stately manner befitting its status as our national symbol. A lake bed filled with dried grass and milo stubble must have been a prime hunting ground, because half a dozen hawks and golden eagles were circling it.
A rooster pheasant erupted out of the grass as we drove by. He must have seen the predators in their lunchtime holding pattern, because he dived back into the cover even faster than he had started out. He wasn't going to become someone's meal this day. He knew the dangers of living in flyover country.