Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Sailing down the roads of America: the end of our road trip

Leaving the Manistee National Forest in our wake, we navigated through islands of civilization in Lower Michigan: Saginaw, Flint, Ann Arbor, and Detroit on our port side; Muskegon, Grand Rapids, and Kalamazoo to starboard; Lansing and Jackson menacing shoals ahead of us. We found a channel down the middle and settled in Custer State Park, near Battle Creek.

Traveling with a small camping trailer is a lot like gunkholing in a sailboat. You wake up in the morning, cook some hash browns and eggs, do the dishes, get organized, and pull the metaphorical anchor. You travel down lonely country roads. It’s an advantage that we don’t have to worry about headwinds, but we nevertheless tack left and right to avoid the interstates with their wide pavement and trucks. By mid-afternoon we look for a safe anchorage: in this case, this means quiet, near a lake or stream with shade. Potable water and a shower facility are a bonus.

Like good anchorages in sailing, secure and desirable campgrounds are scarce. Travelers congregate in the best spots. Once settled in, we relax and look around at who is nearby. We don’t have to worry about dragging anchors, the relative position of boats, or changing wind and tides, but the layout of a campground matters. We try to stay away from generators, away from loud and partying sorts. And we find boom-boxes and loudmouths are rare. The forest, the streams, lakes, and our self-sufficiency serve as equalizing agents. We are subject to the whims of the same weather, and the same bugs. We wind up speaking with fellow travelers from a common place. We have conversations with people from very different walks of life, without pre-judgment; we are all peers.

At Custer we were next to a family who comes regularly. They use the park as their trusty nearby anchorage. They invited us to share their camp-fire. Mother was a teacher, about to begin another school year. Father works as a splicer for a cable company. Their grown up son was along to share a weekend, and to do some bike-riding with dad; he works in a plastics factory nearby. “We make all sorts of parts: for cars, computers, and machinery,” he said. The next morning we shoved off early, towards Indiana.

Indiana (total state pop. 6.6 million) is like the spoke of a square wheel with Indianapolis (metro pop. 2 million) as its hub. The industrial center around Gary (metro pop. of 700,000), South Bend (metro pop. 320,000), Fort Wayne (metro pop. 410,000), the Louisville, Kentucky suburbs, Evansville, and Terra Haute define its rim. An inner circle of Kokomo, Muncie/Anderson, Columbus, Bloomington and Lafayette are like rim reflectors on a kid’s bike. We stayed away from all those places (except for Bloomington) and navigated through beautiful, tabletop flat fields of corn, accented by stands of trees and well kept farmsteads. We set up camp at Salamonie Reservoir and played tunes to the delight of nearby campers and a 20 years young park ranger. “I’ve worked here three season and never heard a fiddle before,” he said. He is studying law enforcement at a local college. Someone offered him a beer. “No thank you. I’m only twenty, and I’m studying law-enforcement,” he said. Indiana is building integrity from the ground up, while DC burns, and Trump fiddles. I took it as a sign of hope.

The park ranger steered us to McCormick state park outside Bloomington for our next night. There we walked up a limestone canyon and frolicked in the creek and waterfall. A mixed-race college couple joined us, with a beautiful young husky. She was Indiana white, he dark complexioned from India. “What are you studying?” I asked. “Coding for analyzing big data,” he said. He is on the seven-year plan. The young couple looks like a good investment for parental support.

Bloomington is a university town: 40,000 college kids and some ancillary services around the edges (total population 85,000). There are good coffee shops near campus. The place was full of nervous energy from returning students, moving vans, and parents eating a farewell and good luck meal in restaurants. A leggy young woman in tight jeans, classy, loose fitting sweater, and subtle, skilled use of make-up, walked up to the counter to order coffee. “Don’t touch” said her look, a little cold. Forty years ago I would have found her intimidating. Now, the insecurity shines through. There’s a big difference between—what the hell am I going to do next year when I graduate—and sitting in the cat-bird’s seat at the end of a successful career. Age has its perks.

We kept heading south, through the gentle rounded hills of Southern Indiana, crossed the Ohio River at Evansville to dip into Kentucky, and turned west towards Southern Illinois and the Shawnee National Forest. Southern Illinois, bounded by the Ohio River on the south, and the Mississippi River on the west is full of verdant rolling hills and beautiful forests.

Mississippi River marks western boundary of Illinois,
the Ohio river marks the southern  boundary

After a stretch of staying in state parks (cost $22-$28/night) I was looking forward to a night of dispersed camping in the national forest. Instead we found ourselves at the Double M Shawnee Campground. It is owned and operated by Amy and Heath, who offer a bar, restaurant, a charming porch, and cater to horsemen and horsewomen who come to ride the ample trails of the Shawnees. “I bought a hundred acres with my dad when I was seventeen years old,” said Heath. “We built it up together, and I bought him out back in 2000.” We played some tunes on the porch and Heath bought us a beer. “You guys need to stay,” they said. “We’ll have music every night.”

Amy and Heath have a son in the army, working as an airplane mechanic. He is being deployed to Afghanistan next month. They expressed pride and happiness at the adventure that lay ahead for their son. In the meantime, they were expecting a full house for the eclipse. Two days before the event there was no sign of it. “Everybody says we’ll be swamped. . .,” they said. Although the Double M was on the path of totality, they weren’t quite sure. “Have you got your viewing goggles?” we asked. It had not occurred to them. “I might take a peak, but I’m not really planning to watch,” said Heath. “We could live here,” we said. And we meant it. They have internet access. One of our baseline requirements.

Finally heading west, we passed through Carbondale, the geographic center of the eclipse—the place where totality lasted 2 minutes 40 seconds, longer than anywhere else. In the Garden of the Gods we ran into a couple from North London. “Have you heard, Bannon is out,” we said. We were excited, reading the news bulletin. “Ah, you have Trump; we have Brexit! We were strong remainers,” they commiserated. They booked a house in Carbondale for the eclipse a year ago. They flew to Chicago and rode the train down.

We crossed the Mississippi at Chester, the only crossing between Cape Giradeau and the outskirts of St. Louis. E. C. Seger (1894-1938), the creator of Popeye, was from Chester. No one is agitating to tear down the six foot statue of Popeye at the east entrance to the Mississippi bridge. The bridge was built in 1941, and like the Tacoma Narrows bridge of the same era, it collapsed soon thereafter in a storm and had to be rebuilt.
Safe and sound: Popeye statue, Chester, IL/Nikles
“You should stop by St. Genevieve. It’s a town that dates back to the mid-18th century,” said a fellow traveler from Boston. And we did. We visited the Louis Bolduc house, built in 1792, and we stopped in at the St. Genevieve Herald, a venerable local newspaper dating to 1882. Mary Pryor invited us in. She had just moved from Oklahoma to take a job at the Herald. “Don’t worry about going to Oklahoma,” she said. She seemed happy to have landed in St. Genevieve. We also spoke to Mark Evans, a columnist at the Herald who has also written a book describing 95 of St. Genevieve’s historic houses (“The Commandant’s Last Ride” 2001). The town was strangely quiet at 5:00 p.m., for a tourist destination two days before a total eclipse. High school kids training for cross-country were running through town. “While the general consensus seemed to be ‘prepare for something’,” said Mary Pryor in her article about “Counting Down to the Eclipse with Music, “no one really knew if they were preparing for a few dozen people, a few thousand, or something in the middle.” And it’s true, the whole eclipse fever we found everywhere along the path of totality from Southern Illinois to northwest Missouri had a certain Y2K quality about it. We didn’t sample any of the ample restaurants in St. Genevieve, but this looks like a place worth returning to.

Jour de Fete in St. Genevieve, MO, at the Jacob Phillipson House
The eclipse found us in Higginsville, just east of Kansas City. The sky clouded up all morning and by 11:00 a.m. it was covered with black storm clouds. Miraculously, at noon, it cleared and we witnessed the unobstructed eclipse with awe and wonder. “It’s like the dilated eye of God,” said Don Shearn. Sharon Rosenzweig captured it in her spirals series. “The mechanism predicts and explains the eclipse,” she said, “but it looks like the tip of the hat from that which we don’t understand.” I think that captures the emotion perfectly.

A Beautiful Coincidence, Sharon Rosenzweig
HERE is Sharon speaking about her spirals process; you can follow her work HERE.

We headed north and crossed the Missouri River at St. Joseph, west bound, briefly tied down in post-eclipse traffic. But not for long. We crossed the broad, northern expanse of Kansas on the lonely Pony Express Highway. The Pony Express relayed letters from St. Joseph to Sacramento on horses at full gallop from April 3, 1860 to October 1861, soon replaced by the telegraph (1861) and the first transcontinental railroad (1869). The pony express could deliver a letter from St. Joseph to Sacramento in 10 days, a vast improvement from the 110 days it took for news of the death of President William Henry Harrison to reach Los Angeles. [Harrison died of pneumonia on April 4, 1841, just 41 days into his term] “Flat enough for you?” quipped my sister-in-law in a text. But northern Kansas is no more flat than the Pacific mid-way between Santa Barbara and Hilo. The ground moves, like the ocean swell. When sailing I always felt “if purgatory is sitting at the helm of a sailboat in the trade winds forever,” I’m O.K. with that. Driving through the plains of Kansas evokes that feeling.

Route of the Pony Express, 1860-61
We stopped for breakfast at a cafĂ© on the outskirts of Marysville. At 9:00 a.m. the place was filled with gossiping weathered old farmers, waited on by a young pregnant woman. Fox News blared softly in the background. Talk was filled with politics, friendly banter, and gossip. By our third re-fill of coffee a second young woman was pouring. “I thought you had to be pregnant to work here?” said one to general good natured amusement. These men wear their leathered skin like a badge. “How large are their farms?” we ask a neighbor at the next table. “About 1,500 acres is the norm,” he said. “I used to be the police chief. My daughter is now the prosecuting attorney in town,” he elaborated. “But I also have 250 acres of farmland. My son-in-law is operating it now with his spread,” he said. And I imagine that most of these men have sons and daughters working the land. They are resting on well-deserved laurels, gossiping along with Fox News in the coffee shop.

At Washington, Kansas, we turned south and stayed in a lovely City Park in Cheyenne-Wells, Colorado. We had the place to ourselves.

The eastern plains of Colorado, no buffalo/Nikles

Eastern Colorado is like sailing across the primordial prairie. Only the delicate balance between the buffalo and nomadic Indian bands is absent. And suddenly, there they were majestically rising in front of us out of the prairie: the Rocky Mountains. Colorado Springs. . . . We had 1,400 miles to travel, but we felt like we were home.

Follow me on Twitter @RolandNikles

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Into the North Woods

North Woods/photographer unknown.
We left our city friends behind and headed back north along Lake Michigan, into the North Woods. The sparsely populated North Woods extend from northern Minnesota across northern Wisconsin and into northern Michigan.

The combination of long, snowy winters and relatively wet warm summers makes this a transitional zone between the broadleaf deciduous zones further south, and the great Canadian boreal forests further north. The region is also known as the Laurentian Mixed Forest Province. The areas we observed were generously spaced with some pine and more ample deciduous species (mainly yellow birch, sugar maple, and American beech). There are numerous lakes and the region is well suited for mushroom gathering, hiking, hunting, fishing, and bird watching. Conifers predominate in areas of poor soil, and deciduous species predominate in areas of richer soil.
North Woods from Minnesota to Wisconsin and Michigan
The North Woods generate $40 billion of economic activity ($12 billion in Michigan, $18 billion in Wisconsin, and $10 billion in Minnesota); 260,000 workers are employed in forest based industries (150,000 in Michigan, 70,000 in Wisconsin, and 40,000 in Minnesota).

The Toledo Compromise.

As we left the Nicolette National forest (named after Jean Nicolette, an early explorer of Wisconsin) we wondered “why does the peninsula jutting out from Wisconsin between Lake Superior and the top of Lake Michigan belong to Michigan and not Wisconsin?” The answer is that Wisconsin came along too late to claim it. Michigan was admitted as a state on January 26, 1837 as the 26th state of the union after a border dispute between the territory of Michigan and the state of Ohio (admitted 1803)—both claimed the area at the mouth of the Moumee river at Toledo. This “Toledo War” was resolved through a compromise where Congress offered the Upper Peninsula to Michigan in exchange for giving up its claim to Toledo. Wisconsin did not become a state until 1848.

From Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac to General Motors

The first Europeans to push into the area of Lake Michigan in 1622 (Etienne Brulee’ expedition) were French. They established trading relationships with the three main Algonquin tribes in the area (Chippewa, Ottawa, and Potawatomi), numbering likely less than 70,000 at that time. By 1668 the missionaries followed: Pere Marquette, a Jesuit priest, established the first missions at Sault St. Marie (1668), St. Ignace (on the Straits of Mackinac, 1671), and La Pointe (on Madeline Island in Lake Superior, 1672). In 1673 Pere Marquette joined explorer Louis Jolliet to explore up the Fox River from Green Bay, to the Wisconsin River, and down the Mississippi as far as the Arkansas River. 

In 1701 French army officer Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac founded Fort Ponchetrain, on the Detroit River, as the southern end of a thriving French fur trading and shipping empire in the 18th century. By 1763 the French goverment offered free land to French citizens in an effort to consolidate the area around Detroit. But the end of French rule was near.

1756 saw outbreak of world war, the Seven Year’s War. A friendly, low key affair by 20th century standards: Great Britain, Portugal, Prussia, and Hanover squared off against France, Spain, Russia, the Austrian Holy Roman Empire, and Sweden. Fighting occurred in Europe, North and South America, India, and West Africa. In North America the French didn’t have a chance: British settlers in North America outnumbered the French twenty to one, and British forces and militia outnumbered the French 4:1 (42,000/10,000). The final defeat of the French on the Plains of Abraham resulted in France ceding Michigan and the rest of New France on the east side of the Mississippi river to Great Britain.

The Indians in the Michigan region had been partial to the French and did not much like British rule. War broke out anew, led by chief Pontiac. A short ten years after the conclusion of Pontiac’s war, the British were under assault by the American colonists and their revolutionary war. The Treaty of Paris (1783) ceded the lower Michigan peninsula to the newly formed United States, but the upper Michigan peninsula, Wisconsin and parts of Illinois along the Mississippi River continued to be disputed by Britain. The United States did not have undisputed control over the Michigan territory until after the war of 1812.

General Motors purchased the Cadillac motor car division in 1909. Cadillac is still going strong, selling 308,692 vehicles in 2016. The Pontiac division was started in 1926 and produced cars through 2010. Today Michigan continues to produce more cars than any other state in the Union (2.3 million cars and trucks in 2014), and the car industry continues to play a major role in the Michigan economy ($36.9 billion in 2014; nearly 10 percent of the total SGP of $445 billion).

Birds, Mushrooms, and Jazz

Inland from Ludington, on the Lower Michigan Peninsula, where the ferries arrive from Manitowoc, Wisconsin, we visited friends in the Huron-Manastee National forest. Jeffrey is a professor of mathematics at the University of Michigan and Geraldine is a travel writer, translator, and naturalist. For decades their seasons have moved from a fall term at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, a winter term at the University of Paris, a Spring term at the University of Pisa, and summers at their cabin on the Pere-Marquette River in the Huron-Manistee forest.

Their cabin is next to the community of Idelwild, where Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, and many others once played for hip black audiences, when Jim Crow reigned. Check out Geraldine’s blog post.  Many of the houses have been handed down through the generations in the best country cabin tradition, and Idelwild remains a vibrant black summer retreat today.

The nearby town of Baldwin has taken up some of the slack with summer jazz productions. For the past 25 years, at the Wenger Pavilion they have hosted top flight jazz talent all summer long. Geraldine runs their website, check it out if you are planning a visit to the Michigan Peninsula. We were lucky to hear the wonderfully melodic drummer, Rudy Petschauer from New York city with bass, piano, and Melanie Marod on vocals.

When in Michigan, do as the locals do. We wandered the woods and helped our friends gather chanterelles, we tried to identify birds, we swam in the lakes, and we enjoyed the sweetest peaches I’ve ever tasted. 

A modest haul, we were assured
Michigan voted for Trump over Clinton 47.6% to 47.3%. The North Woods favored Trump heavily, and another percent plus went for Jill Stein (ugh!). But the North Woods are alright.

Follow me on Twitter @RolandNikles

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Stephen Bannon is out: Good Riddance, it's Democracy over Fascist Advisors 5-0

White Nationalist Richard Spencer thanking Trump
after Charlottesville/AP David J. Phillip
Timothy Snyder, the Yale historian, has contended  that "it's pretty much inevitable" that Trump will at some point attempt to stage a coup and try to overthrow democracy.  The ouster of Bannon makes this seem very unrealistic. Trump has oligarchic, anti-demoratic instincts, but it seems like democracy will keep him in check.

Bannon is gone from the White House and back at Breitbart News. "The Trump presidency that we fought for, and won, is over," Bannon ruefully told the Weekly Standard in his first public interview after his ouster.

It turns out that this administration, like any other, is susceptible to democratic pressure.   The decision to remove Bannon was apparently made before the tumultuous events in Charlottesville last weekend.  Charlottesville merely delayed implementation, but it reinforced why it happened.  "Bannon played to my father-in-law's worst instincts," Jared Kushner is reported to have said (Maggie Haberman of the New York Times). General John Kelly, Trump's still new Chief of Staff, was visibly uncomfortable during Trump's outrageous news conference on Tuesday in which he gave his support to the alt-right. Bannon, said Haberman, was the main voice egging the president on.

The reaction to Trump's poorly handled response to Charlottsville has been widespread and negative.  Criticism has come from many prominent Republicans, including Mitt Romney, Paul Ryan, and Arnold Schwartzenegger. It puts the lie to Snyder's pessimistic scenario. Democracy has asserted itself and Bannon is out.

Tone comes from the top, of course. Before Bannon, there was Roger Stone, and Roy Cohn, and Paul Manafort, and Michael Flynn. Steven Miller (mentored by white nationalist Richard Spencer at Duke) and Sebastian Gorka (Hungarian neo-Nazi party member) remain in the White House.  There is no very good reason to think that Trump's next go-to advisor won't play to his worst instincts.  Yet, Roger Stone, Roy Cohn, Paul Manafort, Michael Flynn, and Steve Bannon have all been pushed aside through democratic pressure--pressure applied by the public, the press, and the political establishment.

It's democracy five, advisors with fascist tendencies zero. If you're going to institute a  coup and overthrow democracy you need people like Stone,  Cohn, Manafort, Flynn, and Bannon at your side. All signs are that despite Trump's worst instincts, democracy will keep him in check.

In the meantime, Jeff Flake's book "Conscience of a Conservative: a Rejection of Destructive Politics and a Return to Principle" is a best seller (currently 9th place on NYT best seller list).

Today, we spoke with the owners of a book shop in Hermann Missouri, Jack and Pat Wendleton. They report that half of their neighbors who voted for Trump are expressing regrets.

I'm not ready to write off democracy or free speech yet.

Follow me on Twitter @RolandNikles

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Populism in small doses can be productive if the center holds

A Trump rally in Huntington W.VA this month/Carlos Barria, Reuters

Our dysfunctional politics aside, we are not the Middle East. The Middle East is a petri dish of political dysfunction: from Syria’s Hobbesian state of nature, to the theocracy of Iran, the military junta led state of Egypt, the failed state of Lybia, and the Kingdom of Jordan; from the petro-princeling, theocratic compromise state that is Saudi Arabia, to the corrupted strong-man rule of Turkey, to the deeply flawed democracies of Israel and Lebanon. By paying attention to these negative examples we can appreciate what we have and must never let go of.

Take the recent essay by Hussein Agha and Ahmad Samih Khalidi (The end of this Road: the Decline of the Palestinian National Movement) in the New Yorker, describing the political plight of the Palestinians. In their essay, Agha and Khalidi say a curious thing: “The post-Abbas era will launch an uncharted and unpredictable course,” they say. “The institutional failures of the P.A. all point to an increasingly narrow and more tenuous form of leadership, one that is based more on formal elections [rather than recognized moral authority] and, consequently and paradoxically, on less solid and genuinely representative grounds” (emphasis added).

The fact that formal democratic elections should result in leaders with less genuinely representative grounds is indeed paradoxical. Yet, the legitimacy of the founding fathers of the Palestinian National movement, most prominently Yasser Arafat, was not based on democracy. The remaining legitimacy and moral authority of Mahmoud Abbas is also not based on democracy: any democratic mandate he once may have had has long expired. He last stood for elections in January 2005, and the following year—together with Israel and the United States—he pointedly ignored the democratic legislative assembly victory of Hamas. So how is it that formal democratic elections will result in less legitimacy?

After Abbas there is no consensus leader who might be able to lead the Palestinians to a compromise political settlement with Israel, say Agha and Khalidi. A new leader may emerge from formal elections, but such a leader will lack the moral authority for leadership of the Palestinian national movement, presumably because the Palestinians lack a cohesive and coherent vision of what the Palestinian nationalist movement should be, and what kind of society they should have.

Because the Palestinians do not have sufficient established political structures, and because they lack a consensus around such structures, they need a strong, universally accepted leader, a charismatic strong leader like Arafat. Winning the most votes in an election is not sufficient.

What can we Learn from the Palestinian’s Plight?

In the United States we can relate. We have been more and more divided in our politics. We have the feeling that our elected officials are exercising leadership based on merely formal electoral victories. Merely formal electoral victories are not satisfying. Nearly half the country did not feel that Barack Obama was “their” president. More than half the country does not feel that Donald Trump is “their” president. Like with the Palestinians, mere formal electoral victories do not confer moral authority to speak for the entire country.

But we have something the Palestinians lack. We have a democratic consensus around institutions and political norms. Particular elected leaders are secondary. Driving around the country this past month and speaking with many Trump voters, I have the strong impression that their support for Trump is not about cult of personality, or because they are racists. There is a non-rational belief that “maybe he’ll shake things up!” The non-college educated, previously Democratic voting whites who put Trump over the top want to be noticed. They want someone addressing their concerns. They feel the Democratic Party has taken them for granted. They did not identify with Hillary Clinton as their champion. But these people are not rejecting our political consensus: a free, democratic society, rule of law, free enterprise, social security, Medicare, Medicaid, National Parks, National Forests, apple pie and baseball.

Indeed, as the Republicans in Congress are learning, “repeal and replace Obamacare” does not mean Trump voters don’t care about actual solutions for improving our healthcare system. Trump voters don’t believe the government has no role to play in providing affordable healthcare, they just think the established politics has not delivered. Obamacare was a first step to expand coverage, but it did nothing about making medical insurance more affordable. And these voters are not wrong to be dissatisfied. They recognized that “repeal for the hell of it,” as McConnell, Ryan, and Trump were set to do, would not have served their purpose. And so, despite seven years of using “repeal and replace” as a war-cry, when it came down to it, GOP voters wanted something productive done about health care, and when Ryan and McConnell offered nothing productive, there was not enough support for repeal to get it done.

In the wake of their 2016 defeat, Democrats are adjusting their politics to deal with the new reality. The next Democratic campaign, starting in 2018, won’t make the mistake of ignoring Michigan voters, or belittling non-college educated voters. Populism in moderate doses can be useful.

Populism is dangerous only if the populists are successful in undermining our institutions to such an extent that they can’t be thrown out of office in the next election when they don’t accomplish what they promised. Do Bannon, Miller, Gorka, Sessions, Trump, et al, want to undermine our political consensus and institutions, and our right and ability to “vote the bastards out?” There is concern that’s what they aim to do. But there is cause of optimism. The path to replacing our political consensus with a cult of personality would run through events like we witnessed in Charlottesville this weekend. But the country has rejected this march of a few hundred hate filled white nationalists. Trump, who initially bent over backwards not to criticize this hateful, pathetic mob of neo-Nazi marchers, has had to back-track. Just like GOP senators and representatives have learned these past six months, Trump is finding that the center is holding. We want our presidents and Congress to get positive things done. . ., and if they fail to, we will vote them out of office. 

2018 and 2020 can’t come soon enough!

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Tuesday, August 1, 2017

The Farm States of South Dakota, Minnesota, and Wisconsin

The areas suitable for plow agriculture in the Great Plains is affected by past glaciation.  Great glaciers covered much of North America during the Pleistocene (~2.8 million years ago to 10,000 years ago), and as they they receded they left behind a deep and fertile soil covering. The glaciers did not reach everywhere.  In the Dakotas, they traced a diagonal line from midway on the western border of North Dakota toward the northeastern corner of Kansas. South of the glacial line, the top soil today consists primarily of thin layers of windblown loess not suitable for plow agriculture. 

Physical divisions of U.S. and maximum extent of
glaciation/USGS map

South Dakota

We followed the Bad River Valley east along highway 14 from Wells, South Dakota, towards Pierre (pronounced Pier by the locals) the state capitol, on the Missouri River. This area, south of the line of glaciation, is dominated by cattle ranching and small irrigated crops over an undulating western landscape.
Bad River drainage, South Dakota/Platek
In Pierre we swam in the Missouri River and hobnobbed with local Trump voters. Three young city employees tended a well kept river-front park with weed-whackers. Others were setting up for a local hog farm's annual barbecue in the park. "I'm 24 years old, and I have to pay $400.00/month to add my two year old to my health plan," complained one of the city workers. "I still support Trump. Perhaps he'll make a difference." He was a friendly young man. He sounded less than adamant. Perhaps he'll be receptive to a pitch for universal health care from Bernie?

Pierre, South Dakota/s3.amazonaws.com
The Missouri River forms a distinct boundary line between ranching and plow agriculture. Moving east from Pierre along highway 14 we drive over glacial till next to fields of alfalfa, canola, corn, sugar beets, sunflowers, and wheat. The terrain is flat, treeless, and the crops stretch wide across the horizon.

South Dakota has a small population of 865,000, but it has 32,000 farms. There are 4,075 farms between 1,000 acres and 2,000 acres; 3,667 farms between 2,000 and 5,000 acres; and 1,970 farms with more than 5,000 acres. The average farm size is 1,366 acres (fifth place behind the large cattle ranching states of Montana, Wyoming, New Mexico, and Nevada).


Although we cross no discernible natural border, there is an unmistakeable transition as we cross into Minnesota on our way to Minneapolis: the farms are more numerous, smaller, and they are nestled among stands of trees. 
Minnesota farmland/Robert Mizrahi 
Minnesota, just 11% larger, has twice as many farms as South Dakota (74,542), but the farms are smaller: only 205 farms exceed 5,000 acres; there are only 1,960 farms between 2,000 and 5,000 acres; and only 4,003 farms between 1,000 and 2,000 acres.  

Minnesota has a population of 5.5 million. Hillary Clinton eked out a 1.5% victory in Minnesota over Donald Trump in 2016 (46.9% vs. 45.4%). The "never Trump" Evan McMullin (1.8%) and the libertarian Gary Johnson (3.9%) were the spoilers for Trump in Minnesota. 

Minnesota is represented by five Democrats in the House of Representatives (Tim Walz, Betty McCollum, Keith Ellison, Collin Peterson, and Rick Nolan) and three Republicans (Jason Lewis, Erik Paulsen, Tom Emmer) and by two Democrats in the Senate (Amy Klobucher and Al Franken). 


From Minneapolis we drove south on Highway 52 into Amish country. At Cannon Falls, home of Pachyderm Studio, we turned left towards the Mississippi River, and entered Wisconsin at La Crosse, the largest city in Western Wisconsin. [Yes, the name is derived from the Indian game] Wisconsin is only slightly smaller than South Dakota and Minnesota, yet it has nearly the same number of farms as Minnesota (69,754); but its farms are much smaller. Only 74 farms are larger than 5,000 acres; there are only 587 farms between 2,000 to 5,000 acres; and only 1,580 farms from 1,000 to 2,000 acres. 

Forty-six percent of Wisconsin is covered by forest. It has been gaining, not losing, forest acreage as marginal crop and pasture land has been planted with trees, or reforested naturally. Today the state  has more forestland than at any time since inventories began in 1936.

The stereotype is true: Wisconsin is a heavy hitter in the production of milk (30 billion pounds annually) and cheese (3 billion pounds annually).  Wisconsin, just forty percent the size of California, produces nearly as much milk as California and produces more cheese than California. 

Glaciers largely bypassed the western uplands region of Wisconsin. Erosion in this "Driftless Area" was accelerated when ice dams, backing up large lakes, suddenly gave way as the ice receded. Rivers draining into the Mississippi have carved shallow east-west trending valleys in this region.

Regions of Wisconsin
In the fertile central plain soft hills were formed by glacial moraines. 

Drumlins formed by glacial moraines west of Milwaukee
Wisconsin has a population of 5.8 million. They gave the nod to Trump by 1 percentage point (47.9 vs. 46.9) in the last election. The lefty, Jill Stein, received 1.1 percent of the vote, and the libertarian Gary Johnson received 3.6 percent of the vote.  

Wisconsin is represented by five Republicans in the House (Paul Ryan, Jim Sensenbrenner, Glenn Grothman, Sean Duffy, and Mike Gallagher) and three Democrats (Marc Pocan, Ron Kind, and Gwen Moore) and by a Democrat (Tammy Baldwin) and a Republican (Ron Johnson) in the Senate. 

Follow me on Twitter @RolandNikles