Bird’s eye view of a wildfowl state – Brookings

The weekend was fast approaching and I had one more day of work on the Monday to finalise everything before I caught the overnighter back to London from Dallas.  Gray kindly invited me to join him for the Saturday and he would show me some of the countryside.  He lived not in Sioux Falls but in the town of Brookings, about a 50 mile drive up the I29 to the north.  I drove steadily up the Interstate; I always do despite the roads being huge and empty, the troopers have little else to do but find an excuse to book a foreigner for speeding.  I29 ran along  ground which was higher than that to the west, and I began to realise the humpy bumpy terrain around EROS was part of a fat ridge, barely 100m above the rest of the plain, but enough to make a difference in an area of little relief. Only the Sioux River cut through it.

I took the Brookings exit and drove along a main road into town; it was the usual anonymous mix of gas stations, eateries and motels.  Then they dissolved away and I was in a pleasant urban landscape.  Gray met me at his favourite coffee shop and, since I had skipped breakfast that morning,  we had a muffin and cappuccino.  Gray was a calm, thoughtful guy, and he looked totally at ease here; this was his usual habitat.  He said he preferred the small town feel of Brookings to Sioux Falls, but it was no hick town.  Brookings was the seat of the State University of South Dakota so had a sizeable student body, as well as the staff, and had attracted in a wide range of people, including several of Gray’s colleagues from USGS.  It also had a number of art galleries and museums; more than you would expect for a town of barely 20,000 permanent residents.  We visited one, the Agricultural Heritage Museum.  When I had been a schoolkid in Liverpool we had spent a couple of terms learning about American history which included a big part about the enclosure of the Great Plains and the life of the homesteader.  The grainy old black and white photos gave a rather bleak picture of life out here, and there was no denying it was tough, but this museum had brought it to life with full colour exhibits.  Everything was here from the life of a South Dakotan from the 1850s to the Second World War.   As well as scrupulously restored farm equipment, from mammoth traction engines and tractors to ploughs and harvesters, there were all the domestic items; mangles, cleaning brushes, preserving jars, beds, chairs, and most revealing, photographs, letters and mementoes of the people who had lived through this period.  As well as the glass cabinets and mounted exhibits, rooms had been set up as an example of how all these pieces came together in the draughty old log cabins that people lived in out on the plain.  Apart from the fact the artefacts were in pristine polished conditioned, you could imagine the family had just stepped out for a moment for a walk.


As if the family were still there

Bird’s eye view of a wildfowl state – working out the city

For the next few days life became surprisingly routine.  For someone who either works from home or travels with a suitcase, the idea of commuting to an office every day is anathema.  But for a week it was a change for me, and while I took the same route up to EROS in the mornings, I tried to vary my route home and orientate myself around Sioux Falls a bit more.

It is not a massive city by American standards, the city itself has a population of about 150,000 but given the rural nature of South Dakota, the metropolitan area is about 1/3 of the entire population of the state.  And like all American cities, especially those set in the wide open spaces of the Great Plains, it sprawls.  The original settlement grew up around the falls, and the railroad had a large depot on the east bank from which several lines converged.  Warehouses and Main Street grew up on more on the west bank, but at the start of the 20th century the town was laid out in a typical grid iron section, thrown out only by the various rivers and railroads that curved unplanned.

Higher class suburbs were perched up on the bluffs above the Sioux River, and the grand Cathedral towers over the falls.  Although only 90 years old it looks like it has commanded the city since Medieval times.  Only the crispness and lack of wear of the masonry belies its 20th Century roots.  Many other grand houses cluster around the cathedral in tree lined streets, but those lovely avenues, mature and settled stretch many streets west of the small downtown area.  The downtown too has been through a regeneration and a couple of streets are now form the hub of nightlife in the city – at least for the young and/or groovy.  For the more suburban or small town amongst the population, the big boulevards and the junctions around the interstates provide all they need; those chain restaurants and fast food joints which I have little time for.  I was advised that there was the best place for me to eat near the hotel was a shopping mall, the Empire.  I did spend an evening or two wandering round and yes the food was cheap but the place was soulless.  The only one of the chains that offered me something a bit more special was the Olive Garden.  I got strange stares from the drivers who passed by as I walked to this restaurant; it was only about half a mile, just across the Sioux River where it started bending round towards the Falls and the downtown area.  Although the nights were freezing, I would pause on the bridge looking at the icy water barely discernible in the blackness, and think of its journey.  It came from the north into Sioux Falls, does a huge S bend which means in the downtown area it is heading north once more, then becomes the state boundary between South Dakota and Iowa down to Sioux City, where it joins with the Missouri and on to merge with the Mississippi just north of St Louis.  I’d seen the Mississippi when I had travelled to Mardi Gras, first crossing the massive iron bridge at Baton Rouge and then on the waterfront of New Orleans.  From there the waters head a further 100 miles in a “Crow’s Foot” Delta, so called because of the shape of all the tiny channels spreading like the toes of a bird into the Gulf of Mexico.  Looking down from the bridge I could not help to marvel at where all those little molecules of water had ahead of them.



Then I was startled by  a Harley Davison, felt how cold it was and hurried back to my centrally heated suite.

Bird’s eye view of a wildfowl state – At the Falls

I thought my first port of call should be the Sioux Falls themselves.  The city grew up around them and now they are protected by an extensive park system along the Sioux River.  While settlement had grown up from the native American period and then the first settlers, the city dramatically expanded with the coming of the railroad, but using the water power from the cascades in the vicinity allowed industrial plants to grow up.  I could see the Falls Park would have probably looked pretty derelict and run down about 30 years back when those industries started to fail, but some inner city regeneration and some good landscaping around the river has now turned this once more into the historical heart of the city.

The falls are a phenomena from the ice age, which deposited huge amounts of the lumpy lands I had driven through earlier, but here eroded the bedrock, a shockingly pink form of quartzite, over which the Sioux River now fell.  The river was very slowly cutting back making a small gorge and a number of cascades, the water splitting in to several channels that dance over the rocks with varying force.  I parked up and wandered around the various viewpoints, then clambered over some of the rocks, but it was a cold day and the light was fading, I gave up and headed back towards the hotel, stopping off at a couple of stores to pick up what I hoped were my supplies for the week, and then collapsing on my very comfy bed to hope that the jetlag was receding.

Bird’s eye view of a wildfowl state – Cold start

Gray had suggested not to rush in on the first day, so I planned to head to the EROS data centre around nine.  One of the reasons I had my car was the centre is in the middle of nowhere, about 10 miles north of Sioux Falls city.  Gray lived in another town altogether, and Matt lived out the opposite side of Sioux Falls so I could not rely on lifts.

The hotel had a certain culture.  It was another one of these universal brands that once you had decided you could stay in it you had the system worked out wherever you travelled.   There was no dining room, no breakfast service, you were in a motel and the “suites” element was less it was a number or rooms, but more you could cook for yourself.  Having arrived near midnight the night before, I had not managed to get anything, so had a few cups of filter coffee from the complimentary drinks selection in my room and hoped that lunch was not too far away.  I saw there were machines and a small shop to buy things from the hotel but they looked horribly overpriced and I decided I would wait to do a supermarket shop when I got back from work.

I stepped out of the hotel to icy blasts.  The snow was lying but thin on the ground but the roads had been well gritted.  I carefully drove up I29 to its junction with one of the great routes of the US, the I90 which goes from Seattle to Boston and at over 3000 miles is the longest Interstate in the US.  I followed this for just a few miles before coming off at my junction.  There is very little else down this road so I was not too surprised to see the turning signed to the EROS data centre itself.

I now headed north on this ordinary tarmacced road, it rose steeply from the Interstate.  I was a little surprised to see how undulating the country was.  My impression was the plains were flatter than this.  Gray would of course explain this to me later.

The road bounced over several hillocks and although it was still snowing I could make out just how rural this landscape was.  There were just a handful of farms, a couple of other homesteads or houses along the route.  Every mile I came to a junction where a road would go off at right angles; sometimes I stopped at the junction, sometimes the incoming road gave way.  I saw a few cars coming towards me, there seemed to be a few more heading my direction.  The sky was grey and still full of snow and I wondered whether I had arrived on the first day of winter and my trip to Sioux Falls was to be completely snow bound.  I looked down this straight road with the snow starting to gather on each verge, a long wire fence reaching off into the distance, and I could not help thinking of Fargo.  This was the film not the place, but the city from which the film took its title was only about 200 miles north of where I was driving.


Just that hint of “Fargo”