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Since we had veered from the Interstate to less traveled roads yesterday, today we traveled west on Highways 44 and 18 across the southern part of South Dakota, a very different experience from freeway driving.

Although Alain de Botton writes “…There is an almost quaint correlation between what is before our eyes and the thoughts we are able to have in our heads: large thoughts at times requiring large views, and new thoughts, new places….” 

I find that what my mind settles on when occupied with nothing besides the scenery depends on the type of road I am traveling. Often railroad and large transmission lines parallel the Interstate and, the day before on I-90 through South Dakota, we saw numerous ethanol plants* which are complexes of aerial pipes, boxy buildings, and enormous round metal grain bins as well as oil refineries and coal-fired power plants, an industrial scene which sends the mind into quite unpoetic contemplations.

Off the freeway, you see a different view, with fewer industrial reminders so that it feels as if the highway is connected to a more bucolic landscape. With few visual interruptions, I find more of what Alain de Botton described as a benefit of rail travel. Even though I’m traveling by auto, I easily become engaged with the passing landscape–letting my imagination roam among the basics of colors and shapes, searching for wildlife, noticing cattle and horses, and appreciating the old fashioned windmills with short spinning blades powering (without electricity) pumps that fill tanks and troughs. But the region we drove through in southern South Dakota has been plagued by drought.

Little separates this section of Highway 18 in South Dakota from the adjacent landscape.

In a newspaper, the Custer County Journal, I bought in Hot Springs, I read about the drought in South Dakota: “Decimated by drought ranchers throughout Custer County have experienced dams, creeks and wells that have gone dry, a severe lack of hay and pastures with little to no grass.”

Dry grassland, trees, and electric wires along Hwy 18 in South Dakota

In the same article I read the effect of the bare and cracked, alkali-looking dips in the grasslands: “Stock dams are also dry, and the ones that aren’t dry are so muddy cows are getting stuck in them…”

Along Hwy 18, South Dakota. Grasslands. Oct. 1, 2012.

As a landscape, the view strikes me as veldt-like, a Serengeti, of grasses and trees that have grown along some watercourse not obvious to us. A stark beauty, and later, we crossed into Wyoming and saw a herd of antelope grazing as placidly as cattle near the highway. But of course there is more to landscape than mere entertainment for visitors and travelers, as we know, since each of us lives someplace.

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*Ethanol is manufactured from corn and used as a biofuel, and an additive for gasoline.

Alain de Botton. The Art Of Travel. Virgin Books (2002).

Jason Ferguson. Drought Shrivels Herds. “Custer County Chronicle.” Sept. 26, 2012. Pages 1, 2A.