Category Archives: 2022 Landscape Tour

A Partial Survey of American Landscapes, Part 2

St. Lawrence Valley to the Great Plains

Potsdam to Sewickley, PA

As I noted in the Overview, I started noticing landscapes from the beginning. Routes I’ve driven hundreds of times suddenly revealed themselves. The colors of the fields in May, the play of water on rock, and the mud in the Salmon River all stood out.

Passing through Montezuma Wildlife Refuge, I remembered witnessing a miracle. A dog jumped out of the back of a truck, rolled, and got up dazed in the median. The driver hadn’t seen what happened, so he didn’t stop, but I pulled over on the right shoulder. The dog was a little dazed but saw my car and was able to run safely across from the median. I opened the back door, and he jumped into the car. Speeding down the road, I found the truck about four miles down, pulled over, and a distraught young man and his father were looking around for the dog. They were amazed and relieved when I pulled over with the dog. He was bleeding from road rash and limping but seemed otherwise healthy, considering the circumstances. I regret that I didn’t get their number to find out how the dog made out. The young man was a police officer, and the dog, his K-9 in training.

The trip to Rochester was another familiar one, as I grew up in Geneseo, and my parents lived there until their passing. Buffalo wasn’t new, either, and I’d made the trip to Pittsburgh numerous times. Still, leaving the shores of Lake Erie and heading south into the Appalachian Mountains stirred something. Unlike some places where the mountains rise abruptly from the plain, here the plains turn to hills and finally to gentle, eastern mountains.

I stayed the night with a friend in Sewickley, a suburb of Pittsburgh with a character all its own. The houses were modest and clean, but the legacy of river-as-industrial-resource meant that the banks of the Ohio River that runs through it aren’t easy to access for recreation. There was a boat launch, but it was a concrete affair, and even the park a few blocks down didn’t have access. In fact, both sides of the river were bounded by roadways, leaving little space on the banks.

Sewickley to Ottawa, IL

Leaving Sewickley, the route backtracked from the day before, then cut west through Ohio—Youngstown, and Cleveland—and onto the very flat plains of northern Indiana and Illinois. After the rolling hills, the flat plain left more room for sky. The horizon was near and very low. I remember a rainy Thanksgiving Day in Wisconsin, riding south from Madison to Springfield, IL, to join a friend’s family. I was pretty hungover and periodically, I would look out, and the view stretched for miles. It finally dawned on me that these were the views from the Interstate overpasses, the highest point for miles.


The trip from Ottawa to Davenport, on the Mississippi River that forms the border between Iowa and Illinois, was about 100 miles. Once into Iowa, the land began to gently undulate. Instead of being dead flat, it rolled a little and had creeks and sloughs running through it. Something about this change was mesmerizing, but I can’t seem to find words to describe it.

There were also smoothly bordered oblong grass patches. They were clearly deliberate in the planted fields, and it was a mystery how the ends, which had a radius of about 4 feet, were created with the huge modern machinery. Their purpose was also puzzling. They didn’t seem to divert water, as they often ran up and down the grade. (Anyone who can shed any light on this, please comment.)

The day ended in Omaha, where I would spend the next four days at a workshop. I’m not good at describing cities, even though I get a different feel from each. Chain restaurants and stores aside, they still seem homogeneous. Or maybe the subtleties of urbanity are lost on me.

Omaha to New Mexico

One of the things that changed across Iowa and Nebraska was how the land was used. In Iowa, the square fields were uniform, as you can see from this shot from Google Maps, with roads running along the section lines. (Unlike the east, where boundaries followed natural features like creeks and hills, human structures like the rock walls farmers built, or in the case of Boston streets, cow paths; land in the Midwest was taken from the Indigenous owners who held it without borders, and divided up into squares that were sold to Europeans, who believed land could be owned.)

Once across the Mississippi, there was a change. First, to differences in the use of the fields.

And then, from rectangles to circles where the land is irrigated with center pivots.

Moving southeast, the land goes from cultivation

to pasture.

Throughout these posts, I will apologize for the quality of the photos. They were only meant as notes for writing these essays, but sometimes even bad photos are more effective than words.

The change across this section of the country—from green, rectangular fields, to green circles in brown fields, to brown pasture—is indicative of water availability. As a child of the Great Lakes region, I am used to water. Sure, yesterday and today, the humidity made me want to curl up in a ball and sleep until October, but I appreciate the abundance and respect the gift. In the western plains, water isn’t abundant, and irrigation has become essential to the agricultural economy. Water has become scarcer throughout the west, including the Mississippi basin. It’s clear that there has to be a change…but that’s another topic.

There are a couple of things that aren’t related to the landscape worth noting. First, the speed limit increased as I went west, from 65 to 70, then 75, and finally 80. I was driving long distances and feared the higher speeds would be daunting. Ironically, the actual speed wasn’t very different. Sure, some people were going 85 in an 80 MPH zone, but there were also people doing 75, the speed I usually go in the 65 MPH zones on eastern Interstates. And in the places where people were going fast, there was very little traffic and long sight distances.

Second, there aren’t many people on the western plains. I took most of these photos out the car window and cropped the road out of some of them. Note, though, in the first photo that I’m on a major two-lane highway, and there are no cars in sight. For every car I saw on the Interstates in the western plains, there were 5 tractor-trailers. In the 250 miles across western KS and southeastern CO, half a dozen cars passed me, and I passed one or two.

Part of this lack of people is due to the reduction in people required to farm in the Midwest. One of the most iconic scenes in this area is the tiny hamlets around the grain elevators.

They appear like castles on the horizon, miles before you can see the town around them. They reflect the economy of the place—an elevator with peeling paint; a gas station, store, and restaurant all closed down. There are usually about 30 – 50 houses, and many are vacant. I thought I had some photos of one of the hamlets, but I don’t.

One of the most impressive things in big sky country is the clouds.

By now, the plains have become very dry, as any moisture in the prevailing west winds has been rained out as the air rose over the Rockies and other western ranges. Finally, those mountains appeared.

Before long, I would be in the New Mexico desert.

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A Partial Survey of American Landscapes, Part 1


For short periods in my life, I have been without a dog. While I have been fortunate that many people have taken care of my dogs when I’m gone, I find the intercanum period (my term for the period between dogs, from interregnum) a good time to travel. When Angus passed last November, I figured it was time for a road trip. I had a workshop scheduled for early June in Omaha, and that seemed like a good place to start. The map below is an overview of where I went.

A map of my stops, thanks to Google Timeline.

I call this my “Partial Survey of American Landscapes” because the focus is on geography. There were plenty of interesting people and human constructions along the way, but it was the land that fascinated me this time. It started when I pulled out of my driveway and started down Route 11 towards Potsdam. It’s a trip so familiar that I take it for granted. This time, I really noticed things: The pale-yellow green of spring foliage, the wetlands between Potsdam Village and the Potsdam-Morley Rd, and the long view southeast from Windy Acres almost to the Cowan Rd.

I am a voracious listener of books and usually have one playing while driving. It wasn’t until leaving the Appalachians and starting across the plains of Indiana that it occurred to me that it was distracting me from really seeing the landscape. Perhaps it was because the plains of Indiana and Illinois are so flat that more concentration was needed to take them in, but I didn’t listen to anything for the rest of the trip.

Some of the realizations I came to were:

  • There are no uninteresting landscapes except those desecrated by humans: The gentle roll of the ranges of Kansas may require viewing at a finer scale than the grand vistas of the western mountains, but I found myself mesmerized by them;
  • Landscapes cannot be viewed independently of the weather, light, and people;
  • Photographs (particularly mine) cannot capture the place, but I took a thousand as notes about where I was;
  • 28 days is a long time to be away from my roots;
  • I can drive over 700 miles in a day, but just because I don’t feel fatigued, I am; and
  • The biggest lie I tell myself (and the one I always forget is a lie) is, “I’ll remember that.”

This is the first of a series of essays about my journey. I hope you enjoy it and the rest of the series. Please feel free to post comments and share anecdotes here. I’ve chosen to post these writings on my blog and link them to Facebook to maintain an illusion of control over their fate.


The sections that follow aren’t a travelogue but are about the landscapes. I would be remiss, though, if I didn’t acknowledge the people who made the trip complete by providing human joy: Tyler and Liz, whose hospitality and conversation set the tone for the journey. My mentors at the building controls workshop in Omaha fed me four semesters’ worth of information in four days and tolerated my wisecracks and digressions while at the same time encouraging me in the Quixotic task of developing a program in something I know very little about. Louise and John who shared their home, life, dogs, and food with me in the shadow of the Hermit’s Peak fire in New Mexico. Gordon who opened his home to me (even though he wasn’t there) and introduced me, through others sharing his home, to the culture of fishing guides. Emma who shared her apartment, life, and love of the wilds with me, making me feel both young and old at the same time. Nina who gave me dinner with two of her lovely children, a bed in her cool basement (it was 100 F when I arrived), and stories of our time as teenagers in Quebec. Catherine and her family who gave us lunch and welcome in Denver. Betsy and Bruce who hosted us for three days and took us into the Garden of the Gods in Colorado Springs. William who put us up for four days in Boring, OR (near Portland and sister city of Dull, Scotland), and extracted very little work (a quick roofing job) in return. My high school partner in crime, Mike, whose home in Pleasant Hill, OR, has beautiful gardens and orchards, and soon will sport a performance stage. And, of course, Veigh, who joined me in Denver and tolerated my idiosyncrasies for two weeks.

Copyright 2022 Robin McClellan

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