Category Archives: Through Space

Observations from trips to Guatemala (2003, 2004), Scotland (2012), the Antipodes (2014), and numerous trips in and around the USA: language, food, culture, geography, people.

Defining the Desert

Desert:

  1. arid land with usually sparse vegetation
  2. an area of water apparently devoid of life
  3. a desolate or forbidding area:  lost in a desert of doubt
  4. any area in which few forms of life can exist because of lack of water, permanent frost, or absence of soil
  5. any place lacking in something:  The town was a cultural desert.

Synonyms: wasteland, barren wilderness.

– Sources: Merriam-Webster and Dictionary.com

As I click through this past winter’s ton o’ photos of the Sonoran Desert, I realize how much my experience of the desert surpasses what I might have expected based on these definitions.

Certainly I have shots that evoke a sere, unforgiving environment.

Two dried seed pods against deep-blue sky.

Single blade of prickly pear with thorns

But I have other shots that invite a different understanding.

Desert: an area of lush prickliness

Close-up of thorns on rounded cactus

Desert: an area of soft prickliness

Single lavender fairy duster bloom

 Desert: an area of unexpected colour

Yellow fruit on cholla cactus

Bright yellow daisy-like flowers against bright-blue sky.

Orange globe mallow buds

Desert: an area of fuzziness, nay, even fluffiness

Red and green new leaves.

White seed fluff with green seed pods

Desert: a land of welcome shade

Yellow daisy-like flower in shade of tree

Desert: a land of life-giving water

Yellow grass reflected in water

 If a barren wilderness can so surpass its definition, surprising and delighting me, surely anything and everything can.

 

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Filed under New Perspectives, Photos of Flora, Through Space

Close to Everywhere

I’ve been everywhere, man
I’ve been everywhere, man
Crossed the deserts bare, man
Breathed the mountain air, man
Of travel I’ve done my share, man
I’ve been everywhere.
Hank Snow

Well, not everywhere.  I have been to the east/west centre of Canada where it intersects with the TransCanada Highway east of Winnipeg, though, and I have been to the most easterly point of North America and to the most northwesterly point of the contiguous United States.  It’s not climbing Everest, but it’s kinda cool.

So when I see “Geographic Center of the United States” on the map of South Dakota, I immediately broaden the scope of our trip to the Badlands and Black Hills to include a stop at this location.

The first signs of trouble come with my just-in-time preparation.  As we drive from the morning’s attraction (Devil’s Tower WY) to Belle Fourche SD, I read about the geographic center in short bursts calculated not to trigger motion sickness.  Oops.  What’s this?

“The actual geographic center of the entire nation,
including Alaska and Hawaii,
is 20 miles north of Belle Fourche.”
AAA TourBook, North Central Guide

“Why the hell, then,” I wonder, “are we going to Belle Fourche itself to see a monument?”  In Belle Fourche, at the Center of the Nation Visitor Information Center – the Center Center, I guess – I ask this central question, albeit more politely.  It turns out that I’m not the only puzzled visitor: The pretend-center Center has a brochure entitled, “Want to drive to the actual geographic center of the nation?”

“Funny you should ask,” I think, “I do, indeed.”  After a bad experience with a line close to the equator – the center of the entire Earth – I am not about to be fobbed off with a monument close to but not at the actual spot, even if the South Dakota granite is shaped like a compass rose, stretches 21 feet across, and has an official marker in its own centre.

Monument for geographic center of the USA

Monument in Belle Fourche, South Dakota

 

Toy bus at monument for geographic center of the USA

My travelling buddies at the monument in Belle Fourche, South Dakota.

Off we go, brochure in hand, justifiably excited.  The thrill of getting to the actual center is clearly worth the incremental effort, the other attractions foregone.

Again, the first signs of trouble come with my just-in-time reading.  The brochure’s inner two pages are decidedly unbrochure-like: no photos, no graphics, no large print.  Under the title “How did we get this honor?” I read what the US Department of Commerce, Environmental Science Services Administration and the National Coast and Geodetic Survey have to say.  It doesn’t start with an encouraging word.

“Determining the geographic center
of an irregular area
on the earth’s surface
is a precarious business
at best.”

Precarious?  At best?  But wait: It gets worse.

“There is no unique solution
and none of any scientific significance.”

Whaddya mean, no unique solution?  We’re bouncing 20 miles along a gravel road to a dusty rendezvous with a marker in a farmer’s field, and we’re not heading to a “unique solution?”  What the hell, then, are we headed to, exactly?

“Imagine that a map (of the area of which the geographic center is to be determined) has been placed on a piece of cardboard of uniform thickness and that this is cut carefully along the outline of the map.  The center of gravity of this map outline, or what might be called the geographic center, is that point at which the map will balance.”

Whaddya mean “what might be called” the geographic center?  Dudes.  It is called the geographic center, right here on my map.  See?  But wait: It gets worse.

The original determination was made in 1918.  The later expansion of the Union necessitated more glue-and-scissors work, but with less precise results than I might expect from such a rigorous method.

“ . . . the geographic center of Alaska . . . was determined . . . with an uncertainty of about 15 or 20 miles in any direction . . .  When Hawaii was admitted . . . its geographic center was determined . . . with an uncertainty set at about 3 or 4 miles in any direction.”

What?  This is the first mention of any uncertainty factor.  If Hawaii’s is 3 or 4 miles in any direction and Alaska’s is 15 or 20, what would the factor be for the Lower 48?  But wait: It gets worse.

“The geographic center of the combination of Alaska (Ed’s note: And, later, Hawaii) and the 49 conterminous states is considered to be on the great circle connecting their geographic centers at a point where the two areas (Ed’s note: And, later, three areas) would “balance;” i.e., considering each having a weight, proportional to its area, concentrated at the corresponding geographic center (Ed’s note: Wherever those might be).”

You know, I hate to see scare quotes in a description of this sort.  I mean, do they balance, or not?

Time to sum up.  This activity:

  • Lacks a unique solution
  • Generates results with no scientific significance
  • Uses a method involving kindergarten skills
  • Has uncertainty factors ranging from 3 to 4 miles (for Hawaii) to 20 miles (for Alaska) to an unspecified mileage (for the contiguous 48 states)
  • Determines a combined balance point with an uncertainty “set at about 10 miles in any direction”

All right then.  The “center of the entire nation” doesn’t actually mean anything, but is around here somewhere.  Probably.  I’m doing a calculation of my own, and the cost of pursuing what might or, equally, might not be greater precision has just exceeded any imaginable benefit.

 

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Filed under Through Space

Go South and West, Old Photographer

Driving south along Interstate 29 from Emerson MB through North Dakota and then, sigh, South Dakota, is like driving through Wyoming along Interstate 80: the less said, the better.

But, like Wyoming, there is more to South Dakota than what can be seen from one unfortunate stretch of  Interstate, and it starts with crossing the Missouri River (water! bridges!), about two hours after turning west on Interstate 90.

“Go West, Young Man, Go West.”
John Babson Lane Soule
Popularized by Horace Greeley

The land – heretofore as flat as southern Wyoming in a pan – transforms into rolling hills, a promise of what is to come.  And the first of what comes, tackling this from the East, is the Badlands.

Badlands scene

Now, I get why someone trying to cross this unforgiving country on foot, or even on horse, might call it “bad land,” but in an air-conditioned SUV with ample bottled water, other adjectives come to mind.

Like “vast.”

Badlands scene

Badlands scene

And “varied.”

Badlands scene

Badlands scene

And “majestic.”

Badlands scene

And “colourful.”

Badlands scene

And “stunning.”

Badlands scene

Badlands scene

I’m not the first to be impressed with the aesthetics of the Badlands, of course.

“Let sculptors come to the Badlands.
Let painters come.
But first of all, the true architect should come.”
Frank Lloyd Wright
Quoted in the “Oh, Ranger!” park guide
for the Black Hills, Badlands & Mount Rushmore

Just one thing: Come to the Badlands from the East.  Trust me, you do not want to drive that Interstate in the other direction.


Interested in Frank Lloyd Wright?  Check out this Artsy site which provides a bio and showcases his work (among others).

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Filed under Photos of Landscapes, Through Space

On the Other Hand

Returning home from three months in a place warmer than home is always odd.  Three months is, it turns out, enough time to bond with a new place.  Did I mention that it was warmer?

So in reconciling myself to coming back to a place with ongoing snow flurries, I find it useful to think a bit on the things I liked as well as on the things that I didn’t like so much.  Because, you know, no place is perfect.

On the one hand . . .

sign - warm biscuits

On the other hand . . .

sign - livers and gizzards

On the other hand . . .

Sand dune with dark sky behind.

Huntington Beach State Park

 

“Hey!” I hear you objecting. “How many hands have you got?”

As many as it takes, I guess.  I figure that whatever works for Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof is good enough for me.  So let’s carry on, shall we?

On the other hand . . .

Sign on stairs - stairs! not steps! - to observation deck, Amicalola Falls

Sign on stairs – stairs! not steps! – to observation deck, Amicalola Falls

On the other hand . . .

Close-up of spring flower

On the other hand . . .

Snake repellent and fire ant killer

On the other hand . . .

Blue knobbed whelk embedded in sand

Knobbed whelk

On the other hand . . .

ag - grits

On the other hand . . .

Marshy area near beach in ealry morning light.

Bulls Island sand dunes, early morning

On the other hand . . .

Driftwood in surf; dark blue sunrise sky behind.

Bulls Island’s Boneyard Beach at sunrise

 

“Hey!” I hear you objecting again.  “Those last two were both good things!”

Yes, they were.  There were way more good things.  It may not be a perfect place, but it was a perfect winter.

 

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Billboards, Boots, and Beans

Billboards adorn a stretch of road between Myrtle Beach and Florence SC.

Billboard - Biker Boots

sign - booty bros

OK, maybe “adorn” is too strong: maybe “abut” is better.

Having travelled this stretch of road a few times on our sojourn in Myrtle Beach, I was ready with my camera as we left town at the end of March, homeward bound.  I figured that these billboards would make an interesting photo essay.

Actually, I figured that they would make a best-selling sociological study of 21st century America. You know the sort of thing, I’m sure . . .

Signs of the Times:
American Heartland, American Billboards

Unable to convince the Big Guy that this was my chance for fame and fortune, I was also unable to persuade him to add a day or two to our  journey to find me safe places to stand along this highway, unabutted by sidewalk or shoulder as it was, so that I could get coffee-table-book quality photos.

No, once again I was reduced to shooting out the car window and to hoping that, one day, curators would see my output as folk photography, its technical deficiencies bestowing an authenticity sadly lacking in so much of the merely superb photography littering the internet.

Boots aside, most of the billboards advertise canned food.  Now, you might be wondering whether “canned food” is an oxymoron, and I understand, but let’s just see what’s on offer, shall we, and what it might mean.

Yes You Can!

Encouragement and puns both seem to be essential to marketing here, even when the word play isn’t real clear.  As easy as cabbage?

yes you can collage3

Slide1

Unresolved Conflict

They seem conflicted about boiled peanuts: Do they represent treat, obsession, or danger?  I understand completely, and admire their willingness to acknowledge their confusion.

peanut collage

Strong Preferences

Yams, apparently, are big, especially in syrup.

yam collage

Inexplicable Preferences

Cooked leaves are popular, too:  mixed greens, turnip greens, and collard greens (regular and low-sodium).

greens collage

Completely Unacceptable Preferences

They like lima beans.

Billboard - Lima Beans

 

Honestly, there’s just nothing more to be said: They like lima beans.

I guess that’s it for my famous book.  Some cultural commentary evidently requires a cultural insider.

 

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