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Traveling by car across the vast distances of the American West you decide between “making time” on the Interstate where the speed is often 70 or 75 mph or taking a slower and possibly more scenic route. We did that this afternoon, leaving the freeway at exit 258 in South Dakota and traveling south on Highway 45 through farm country. The land was flat and mostly the amber color of unharvested field-dried corn or the golden stubble that remains after harvest of wheat or barley, or stubble disced back into the soil so that the very black soil of this country is revealed. According to an interpretive sign at a freeway rest area, ten thousand years of prairie grass decomposing resulted in the deep dark rich soil. As we drove, though, what attracted my attention most was the burgeoning clouds. There is something mesmerizing about how clouds change, like music, or imagination, following a logic that is not obvious.

The view from Highway 44 west of the Missouri River in South Dakota.

After about thirty miles we turned onto Highway 44 and drove west. The flat fields gave way to rolling hills that became more jumbled and closely stacked until the terrain fell away towards the Missouri River which we crossed on a long narrow bridge. The river was a wide lake, the effect of a dam or dams, that reminded me of the Columbia. I had been looking for a spot to stop and take a photo of the landscape and growing thunderheads. West of the Missouri River we gained elevation and the terrain opened up into pastures and grazing lands. The autumn foliage added lines and clumps of reds and yellows along swales and slopes. A sign for a scenic viewpoint flashed past and I braked and pulled in. Weeds grew through cracks in the pavement and trash was scattered about, but farther out the landscape had a suggestion of possibilities that might have been part of the attraction to my ancestors who came to this area nearly a century ago.

The clouds, too, were part of the equation.

Note on the photo: Taken with a Canon EOS Rebel T3. I rarely do any digital manipulations but in this photo the sky and clouds were overexposed. I used a “curves” function to adjust the exposure but the colors were off so I changed the photo to black-and-white (desaturated), which highlights the drama of the landscape and sky.