In the mean time the sun had dipped over the horizon and the temperature was less dipping, more plummeting past freezing. We headed back to the car park, loaded the dog in the trunk and drove back to Brookings. Gray’s house was cosy and warm; him and his wife had a wide range of hobbies and their home reflected various aspects in piles of papers, books, craftwork and pictures; a clutter of sorts but one of richness rather than laze. I settled in a chair with a cup of tea and soaked up this atmosphere. When you have been away from your own home for any period and staying in a comfortable but sterile lodgings you feel privileged to be brought into someone’s own space like this and realise the world over, home is home.
Gray offered me a choice of restaurants; I soon eliminated the chains; I’d had Applebees elsewhere and although one or two of the chain eateries in Sioux Falls had been perfectly pleasant I thought, Brookings being a little more Bohemian, that I’d like to taste something with local flavour. Gray and his wife suggested somewhere they loved, but he warned me not to expect cordon bleu.
We drove a few blocks back to the main strip out to the Interstate, and pulled in at a very ordinary little building, with the large lit sign declaring we were at the Back Yard Grill. It was a 70’s diner, a precursor to the fast food joints and from the outside looked slightly warn, even though lit only from street lights. I found out although the building might be old, the business was a new one. Inside were plain benches and tables, and you ordered up at the counter. Behind you could make out the kitchen, dominated by a series of grills permeating all sorts of woodsmoke. I went for some pulled pork on cherry, with a host of sides including cornbread and beans, washed down with a coke. It was all very basic. But it tasted amazing. The meat had been smoked for hours and was so tender it melted in the mouth. Cornbread is not usually my favourite dish; it has a tendency to dry up my mouth, but with the mixture of sauce on the pork and the beans soaked into its pores, it was a useful offset of all the riches of the other ingredients. Unlike so many American dining experiences, I did not feel bloated by the time I stepped outside again.
I said my farewells to Gray and his wife in the car park and thanked him profusely for a rich and wonderful day out. I scurried into my car out of the cold northerly wind and headed back to the Interstate. As I drove south I reflected on this little town; real home town America. Not the chintzy or oversanitized versions shown by Hollywood or the advertisers, but a demonstration of fairly simple living. No huge dramas, no massive throbbings of people commuting or gathering. Just a place where you can make a living, but more importantly make a home and keep your family and friends around you. I’d seen the civil defence sheds near the airfield earlier on and had joked to Gray; who is going to invade here – the Canadians? But it was an interesting angle – it was essential to have the Civil Defence force but they would be taken up with community activities, particularly when the winter storms hit. The rest of the time it was a relaxed and in some ways easy living.
Having another geographer flying the glider meant we could focus on things which interested our geeky selves. Gray described the layout of Brookings city, and the planes. I tried to orientate myself; I could see a long line of wind turbines to the east. I wondered if they were just over the state line in Minnesota. To the west there were no other features to determine. South Dakota is known for the Black Hills and the famous carvings of US Presidents on a rock face, but they were nearly 350 miles to the west; well over the horizon even at this altitude. All I could discern were just fields.
But I noticed that within the regular grid iron pattern of fields and roads there were anomalies. The river channels and creeks that have existed for millennia across the whole of the Plains have no respect for human regularity. Either the rivers are still bending this way or the other, or where they have been covered of rerouted, the ghosts of former channels are still present in the shadows from the low fall sun, or changes in soil and vegetation colour in the fields.
The regularity of the fields is a common feature of so much of the US. While it is monotonous or boring, it is the legacy of an amazing principle that was put in motion as early as the 1780’s, a few years after the declaration of independence. The Public Land Survey System was a plan to subdivide the new territories west of the Appalachian Mountains for sale and planning purposes. The result was you see the squares of the fields and plots, and the roads which have to obey the lines drawn up which makes so much of the central part of the US have such a regular land pattern. If people wonder why the most advanced nation on the surface of the earth still insists on using the Imperial System of measurement, the PLSS is one of the largest reasons for this. Plots were marked off in miles, and the distances between road junctions are multiples of miles. Any use of kilometres would be nonsensical in this rigid framework.
Gray climbed into the back seat and closed up the windows – all but one which he used to signal to his ground crew. He had a brief word to the control tower on his portable radio, then, all signals given, the tow plane started to move forward and the rope took up the slack. All at once we were moving forward and the glider, which had been tilted to one side so a wing was touching the runway, levelled off and picked up some speed. The aircraft rose gently in front of us and we followed a few seconds later. Losing the noise of the wheels on the ground, all we had with us was the engine noise in the plane up front. Our ascent was shallow and we circled several times over the runway to gain altitude. I could start to appreciate the land below, both the tight urban landscape of Brookings itself, and then the never ending prospect of fields stretching out over the Great Plains.
Onwards and upwards we went for many minutes. Eventually, Gray spoke to me through the headphones and asked me to get ready to detach the tow rope. On his command I pulled the big wooden knob towards me, and we felt a sharp jolt as the glider was sent off on its own trajectory and the plane dropped away quickly, retracting its rope and heading for the runway.
We were there on our own and the only accompanying noise came from the roar of the wind and my quickened breathing. It was spectacular. For a geographer to have the opportunity to glide like a bird of prey over the country, and to help identify where to go next, was fantastic. Yes, we can all look at Google Earth these days, but it does not give you that experience of being in the atmosphere above the areas you are observing. Yes we can fly in planes, but they are on set routes, often above the clouds, and pushy stewardesses insist on you closing the blinds to allow others to watch fantasy films when the majesty of real life is passing below you.
Having never worked in a hangar, I hung back while Gray cleaned his windscreens, tested the flaps, ensured all the wires and controls were operating, and then he released the cables that were holding the glider still in the hangar and asked me to help guide the vehicle out into the open.
I took hold on one wing while Gray steered from the middle. I was amazed just how light and controllable the glider was. We steered it gently through the doorway and out onto the road. A friend of Gray’s turned up – he was a research assistant at the university and often helped Gray out as groundcrew. Then from an aircraft parked up behind us, another guy stepped out and as we shook hands, Gray explained that this was to be our pilot and he had just emerged from our tow plane. We worked together to run the glider over to the main runway at Brookings. At least it was the main runway (12) when we used it. The usual main runway was being completely dug up, extended and resurfaced.
It took a while to sort out the tow plane so Gray decided the best place for me was in the cockpit. He allowed me to sit in the front seat, strapped me in, closed the windows then returned to the tow plane to walk a rope back to the glider and attach it to the nose. I took the opportunity to recce the instruments in front of me. It all looked remarkably simple. A basic altimeter on the left, some gauges to measure how quickly the glider is rising or falling, the variometer, the airspeed indicator, and something to monitor the banking and rolling and tilting that the glider might do. Taking centre stage in the middle of the dashboard was a large wooden knob. I avoided touching anything and sat patiently but totally excited waiting for this new experience.
Preparing for take off
We also had a wander around the botanical gardens. Although small, it was in full colour – the fall was probably in its finest week before the snow which had threatened earlier in the week finally took hold and made the leaves drop. It was getting close to lunch time by now and Gray had a surprise for me, but first we decided to eat and met up with his wife at the town library. The strip we had spent most time on so far was in fact just the main road out of town and because it was close to the university campus, had a range of cafes and boutique shops. The real down town was that one Main Street with the bank and hotel and all the other important buildings. The library was tucked at the back of this. When we emerged, Gray looked up at the sky; which was almost completely blue, and said “I think we are going to get a good view.”
We drove a mile or so past a small industrial estate south west of town and drew up at the entrance to Brookings Airfield. No commercial flights come in and out but it had a bustle of industry which you do not see in small airfields in the UK. Plenty of small two-seater planes, a helicopter or two, and many large hangers were scattered around. Gray drove to one of these hangars and unlocked a small door, stepping inside to start up the mechanism to open the larger hangar doors, which rolled up into the roof. Inside were a bunch of boys’ toys. Several antique and vintage cars, another biplane and, taking up most of the central space, a fixed wing glider. This was Gray’s pride and joy – he had been a pilot for many years. In fact he had told me of a trip once to the UK where he had flown – turned out he had been at a gliding club on the North Downs less than 20 miles from my home.
We’d chatted to a couple of guys dressed up in old leathers who were looking at their own valued toy at the other end of the hangar. It was an old fighter plane – I was never told whether it was an original refurbished one or a modern remake, but it looked the part. It was apparently one of the US Marine Fighter Squadron, and it roared into life and was taxied out into the open air, round several hangars before taking off. A second biplane went up in the air while Gray prepared his glider.
Gray’s pride and joy