I saw the sign off for the EROS data centre for the next turning up ahead, and even in the gloom I could tell I was in the right place. I could see the huge water tower of the complex that had the letters E.R.O.S written across it. I turned up this road for about a mile and then turned into the complex itself. Gray had warned me that I was going to get the third degree of security. I had my passport ready. I was asked to open the bonnet and trunk and step outside the vehicle, so I hurriedly put on my fleece and stood out in the biting wind. I tried to stand behind the booth out of this gale but it swirled round me nevertheless. I was handed a pass to get in the car park and kindly directed down to the reception. I parked up and hurried over to the entrance and found myself in a huge space that looked like an underused airport. I was given a pass and asked to wait for Gray to arrive. I was a bit surprised it was my other colleague Matt who came up the corridor to find me.
The building was huge and mainly on two levels above ground. The central corridor contained an amazing array of spacecraft, all shiny metal and foil just like in the movies, and the walls were adorned with the most colourful and patterned satellite imagery of every sort from around the world. We passed by the canteen at the far end of this gallery and Matt led me off to one side to his office. He did have his own office, it was not particularly open plan in this part, but it was in the central part of the building so he had no window. He just sat there with huge computer resources, a window on to the rest of the world, as it were. It was useful to start my work with him as he was running searches for all the imagery I might need for the job in Sierra Leone. Whereas I had some access to free imagery from outside, he could access the whole archive and because I was working for the US government, hand it over for free.
Gray walked in and we greeted each other like old friends. The previous times I had met the both of them had been out in Freetown, and it was so nice to find them in their own habitat. We chatted about the times we had had, started to work out my schedule for the week and what Gray had to show me to get me up to speed. Gray also said he didn’t want to tax me too much on my first day, especially with the jetlag, but was arranging a tour of the EROS centre.
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”
Only problem was, the week I was due to go, the USA went broke. Well the Federal Government went broke. What that meant effectively was that the budget for the next year had not been agreed. US financial years start in October and if the numbers are not agreed, all non essential services are put on hold. Money is found for defence, health care, emergencies, but anything else the staff are told to go home, do not answer emails, do not do any work. This is punishing for people in research or development who may have ongoing projects which straddle financial years, and it has knock on effects for those who work for them… such as me. I had signed my contract and had got my plane tickets and now was told I had to sit it out till the budget problems at Capitol Hill had been sorted out.
The shutdown lasted a couple of weeks, past the time I was due to travel , but eventually the problem was solved and a very helpful lady at American Airlines managed to find a way of switching my ticket with minimal penalty. Unfortunately it meant travelling all the way down to Dallas before coming north again, but as long as I was on my way I was happy.
I had hoped to enjoy a balmy fall in Sioux Falls but the delay meant I was coming up towards the Halloween holiday and the weather was starting to turn nasty in the northern states. I arrived late at night in the small airport terminal with snow falling on the ground. After some 18 hours of travel and a six hour time difference, I was already pretty shattered. I’d arranged to rent a car from the airport and thankfully that process was very quick, and I was able to walk under cover to the car park and get myself to my motel. I was staying in the Candlewood Suites for a week, right next to I29 and it was all I could do to stay awake and on the icy road to reach the motel. Check in was US efficient – kinda friendly but not really sincere. But it was so nice to have a business trip where the arrangements fell in to place and I got what I was expecting. So different from so many trips to Africa, Asia or the Caribbean.
My rooms were well appointed; I emptied out my suitcase as I always do if I stay more than a couple of nights and flumped into bed, knowing with the time difference I was likely to be awake again in a couple of hours. However, it was actually about 5 am when I woke up and I was able to watch several iterations of the early morning news on the TV before I needed to get up and head out to the office.
Delays meant the snow had started
And yet, I went to one place in the States where I came to the conclusion its residents really did have no need to travel further. At one time they had struggled to make their landscape inhabitable and productive, and now they had got it just right there was no need to go spoiling the balance. Once home there you would be happy.
The location of this Shangri-La may surprise you. It is South Dakota.
I never dreamed I would go to South Dakota, but the opportunity arose out of the work I had been conducting in, of all places, Sierra Leone. I’d worked with the US Forest Service out there who were interested in measuring the impact of my project in terms of the land use changes over a period of time since the project had started. The whole point of the project was to protect the forest there that was being decimated by logging, charcoal burning, shifting cultivation and climate change. They wanted me to map various parts of the region to see the different effects, look for trends and see whether protection had improved the forest, or at least decreased the rate of decline. To do this I was to use similar techniques similar to a great colleague of mine who had also worked with me out in West Africa, Gray Tappan.
Gray, and his colleague Matt Cushing worked for the US Geological Survey, one of those huge federal monoliths that even to many laymen in the US would be a household names. They made so may maps people used, recorded earthquakes, mapped the vegetation, rivers, geology, climate and all sorts. I knew of them from the time I started as a geographer at Durham University at the age of 18, and when I was working for NRI and started using satellite imagery, I found myself ordering data from the USGS Center for Earth Resources Observation and Science, or the EROS Data Center, in Sioux Falls. Now I was being asked to go there to learn Gray’s techniques and start my work on Sierra Leone in their offices. As a geographical geek it was like going to the Vatican, the Taj Mahal, the Forbidden Palace. This was my Mecca.