Grass

Today, the sun shone all day and the birds came out and it was great.

I occasionally renewed my friendship with I90 heading West but mostly I stuck to smaller parallel roads that took me out of the homely and friendly Sioux Falls and through a mainly arable, mainly flat landscape broken up with wetlands and woods.

Having done little birding for a few days I suddenly picked up a bunch of new species – many of them Western species.  Birds such as Western Meadowlarks were now sitting on fence posts and Western Kingbirds were on the fencelines.  Amazing Red-winged Blackbirds were joined in the marshes by lovelyand gorgeous Yellow-headed Blackbirds.

The marshes had familiar Shoveler, Mallard, Pintail and Gadwall alongside slightly less familiar Green Heron, American Coot, Blue-winged Teal, White Pelicans, Marbled Godwit, Black Duck and American Avocet.

It was good birding and lovely weather.  I stopped at a place marked on the map which you could miss if you blinked – Aurora.  The Central Store sold a few candy bars and drinks so I bought a Mound Bar – as similar to a British Bounty as the Great Blue Heron is to the Grey Heron – pretty similar but noticeably different.  This Mound Bar was different though – it was covered in dust and when I came to bite into it I realised it was past its best – probably by a year or two, or more.  How many customers did the Aurora Central Store have?  And do they all know to swerve the ancient Mound Bars?  Have they been waiting for a stranger like me to stop by so that the 5-year old Mound Bars can be brought out to replace the 10-year old ones?

I didn’ t ask the old man behind the counter that, after all the purchase was just an excuse for a break and a talk.  He wanted to know where I came from and when I said, he wanted to know why I was in South Dakota.  Mount Rushmore always seems a better answer than Yellow-headed Blackbirds so that was what he got.  I said how great the weather was and he agreed, but told me there were three days rain ahead – oh no! We talked about tornadoes and he said there hadn’t been one here since the 1940s – but then the new Mound Bars may have arrived about the same time.

I got on with my travel towards the Missouri River and he got on with cutting his lawn.

I really like my sunglasses that I bought in Charleston an age ago.  I have once or twice thought of writing that it is unusual for me to keep a pair of sunglasses for this long without breaking, losing or scratching them.  Today I almost lost them – in fact I did for a while, but then just as a smiley farmer’s wife was asking me what was wrong – I was parked by her gateway – I found them.  I moved my tank of a car as her husband drove an enormous tractor over where my sunglasses had just been found – I told you it was close.  She wanted to know where I was from and was amazed that anyone from England would turn up here, and she, too, wanted to know why I was here.  My explanation of birdwatching – you can lie to the old men but not to the young women – was received with polite surprise but she probably put it down to the English being a bit odd.  I checked the way to the Missouri River and then turned down the offer of a soda.  I’ve been kicking myself ever since as the chance to talk farming would have been really interesting.  It’s that English politeness – I didn’t want to intrude.

Americans do not show some of the outward signs of politeness that would be expected in the UK – it’s just their way.  I noticed at breakfast in Sioux Falls this morning that two well-dressed men in the diner ordered and received their meals with no pleases and no thank yous.  It’s just their way.

I stopped at the Missouri River to look at the view and to put back my timepieces by another hour.  If anything, crossing the Missouri was more impressive than crossing the Mississippi – maybe the better weather had something to do with it but also the Missouri marks more of a natural barrier.

The land changes quite abruptly to rolling hills with cattle and some deep gorges.  There is a lot of grass.  Many say this is where the West really begins so I am now scratching its surface.

I am now hotelled-up in the Stroppel Inn in Midland, SD.  A spa hotel where you run the hot tap for minutes to allow the naturally occurring hot water to find its way through the plumbing.  The owners were out and grandpa,  sporting a WWII Veteran’s baseball cap (and it is Memorial Day on Monday) wasn’t totally au fait with how things work.  The light bulb on the stairs doesn’t work, we tried one bedroon but found it already occupied by Frank and he’s trusting me to pay tomorrow morning rather than cash in advance.  But it’s a friendly tacky place with lots of things with stars and stripes on them, messages written on the wooden walls (eg Delighted you are here), natural hot water at 110F in the basement and, most of all, a very genuine and warm welcome.

Chimney Swifts and Killdeers called over head as I walked across the street to Just Tammy’s bar which does food.  I would have had steak or maybe fish but each is seasonal and is only available June-August – I couldn’t wait that long so I had a burger with fries, salad and my first alcohol for a week – a cold Coors beer.

Tammy’s was large, and largely empty apart from Tammy and her daughters.  Two elderly ladies came in,  had a Coke each, had a chat and then left looking at me slightly suspiciously.  I headed back to the Stroppel – this time in the pouring rain.  Maybe I won’t need those sunglasses after all – but I have enjoyed my day in the sun.

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I love I90

I’m in South Dakota – only just over the border from Minnesota, but in Sioux Falls.  I started in Wisconsin, drove right across Minnesota and arrived here in South Dakota.  This is the West – although Sioux Falls doesn’t seem very wild at the moment.

And that mammal from yesterday – thank you to those suggesting it is probably the Groundhog – it probably is.  One of the Marmot family.

It has rained most of today but it cleared 100 miles shy of my destination.  I had expected this drive West to be marked by the sun pushing me from behind in the mornings and sucking me towards the sunset as evening came – but mostly it has rained for the last few days.

But many places I have been, and some places I am going, have tornado warnings at present and clearly further South in the Great Plains things have been rough.  Fingers crossed for those affected and a little for me too.

Today I crossed the Mississippi River and tomorrow I will pass the Missouri River.  Most of the rain falling on the Northern USA flows through these great veins.

I covered more than 500 miles today on Interstate 90 – which is quite a road – and we have become mates.  I90 doesn’t mind my singing along with Green Day and I don’t mind I90 having a noisy carriageway in places.

I didn’t stop much today, except for lunch in Wisconsin – the USA capital of cheese.  For West Wing fans, Donna Moss comes from Wisconsin.  I had to have cheese curds as part of my lunch – fried cheese (can aid slimming if taken as part of a calorie-controlled diet).

And I didn’t add many birds today – the rain was torrential.  I passed plenty of interesting looking places but nowhere is that good for birding in a deluge.

However, I did add one species to my trip list, in Minnesota, even though it is, bizarrely, the State Bird of South Dakota.  Why did they choose this species?  Click here to find out what it was.

I90 heads straight West.  I like that in a road. West, West, West, West, West.  I seem to have come a long way West but apparently I am now poised equidistant between the Atlantic and Pacific.  There is a lot more West to come and I’m really looking forward to it – it would help if the rain kept off though.

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Happy Birthday Bob!

Robert Allen Zimmerman is 70 today.  Happy Birthday Bob Dylan!

And today I did something that I have never done before, but I am going to do it again fairly soon.  That probably makes it sound much, much more interesting than it was.  But I enjoyed it – one often does the first time.

And that mammal from yesterday – thank you to those suggesting it is probably the Groundhog – it probably is.  One of the Marmot family.

I did see a new bird today – Sandhill Crane – a couple of times.

And because it is Bob’s birthday then it had to be my favourite Dylan album as soundtrack today – Blood on the Tracks (harking back to yesterday’s roadkill blog, perhaps?).

And in Shelter from the Storm we hear ‘I’ve heard newborn babies wailin’ like a mournin’ dove’ and in You’re a Big Girl Now we hear ‘Bird on the horizon, sittin’ on a fence, And I’m just like that bird’, and in Tangled Up in Blue there is ‘Was to keep on keepin’ on like a bird that flew.’ and in Meet Me in the Morning we get ‘The birds are flyin’ low babe, honey I feel so exposed’ which must make BotT the most birdy of all Bob’s albums – surely?

Today I started in Indiana and am now in Wisconsin – didn’t make as much progress as I would have liked today.  But Bob kept me happy – and the cranes helped too.

And that thing I did for the first time?  You might be disappointed.  I drove into a new time zone.  I’ve only ever changed time zones by crossing the English Channel or getting off a plane in a new country.  Today, for a brief instant, the back end of my tank-like car was in Indiana and the front end was already in Illinois but one hour earlier – work that out?

And I am further West in the world than I have ever been before too.

Maybe it’s been quite an exciting day really.  Happy Birthday Bob!

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Five states of mind, two films

Today was a driving day.  I started off somewhere south of Pittsburgh and ended up somewhere east of Chicago.  So that’s Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Ohio, a short detour into Michigan just to say I’ve ‘been’ there and now in Indiana.

My journey today started where the opening and closing scenes of the film The Deerhunter were supposed to be based – industrial Pennsylvania.  I didn’t see Robert de Niro but I saw an awful lot of deer – road kills.

As one drives along at a brisk pace (though always inside the speed limit) the number of birds one sees is small but there are splattered mammals every now and then.

White-tailed Deer corpses are common along the roadside (and fairly easily identified) but also there are Racoons and the odd Porcupine.  I have yet to figure out what is the occasional large rodent in the grass by the roadside.

But I am mostly driving at the moment and here are my tips for safe driving over long distances:

  1. Keep the car a bit too cool for comfort
  2. Drive in bare feet – it means you can wiggle your toes more which is very refreshing
  3. Play music sometimes on the CD or radio and sing out loud with your favourite tunes
  4. Adjust your seat position several times a day – even small changes in height, uprightness and distance from the pedals make you sit in a different position which helps freshen you up
  5. Wear sunglasses quite a lot – it’s surprising how much you squint even if the sun is not bright and sunglasses

Well, they seem to work for me.

And today I crossed over my route of 10 days ago in Ohio, and drove past the turn-off to Crane Creek.

I am now in Amish country in Indiana and have seen quite a lot of the bearded men in straw hats and the long-dressed ladies with their hair covered – some riding in horse-drawn buggies.  This is like another film, Witness, but I haven’t seen Harrison Ford yet, nor Kelly McGillis.

But I probably will see lots of Turkey Vultures – all that road-kill is good for them, I guess.

It’s windy, but tomorrow I hope to drive right past the Windy City and head for Iowa through Illinois.

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Audubon, PA

I might have been keen to shake the dust of New York City from my shoes if there were any dust, but the sidewalks are hosed down each morning and it was a bit of a drizzly morning.  But this was the start of my drive West and I was keen to see the miles ticking by, but there was just one more thing to do before I really put the right pedal to good use.  I wanted to get to see something of Audubon.

Heading through the Lincoln Tunnel into New Jersey there was only one choice of music – Springsteen, a New Jersey boy, himself.

My journey would take a couple of hours according to the journey planner and it probably would have done if it weren’t for the difficultyof reading a map as a sole driver and spotting the signs and having a feel for the route.  But it took more like 5 hours to get to where I intended.

Admittedly I stopped for gas and tried to stop at Vera’s Family Restaurant for breakfast – but Vera’s was clearly a great place for breakfast and there was a long queue.  So I carried on down the road to the Chalfont Family Restaurant which also was busy – but had space for me.  I wonder what I missed at Vera’s?  After my country omelette I was pointed in the direction of Ralph and asked him to point me in the direction of Audubon, PA where John James Audubon had once lived.  Ralph pointed me helpfully in the right direction.

John James Audubon was sent to live in Pennsylvania by his father – probably to avoid having to fight for Napoleon against our own Duke of Wellington.  He arrived in PA at the age of 18 and stayed for a few years – farming, sketching and studying the local wildlife.

If he hadn’t been a draft-dodger maybe he would have died at Waterloo, bayonetted by a Coldstream Guard, and the world’s most expensive book would never have been produced.

Audubon’s Birds of America is a priceless work of life-sized prints – although you have a chance of purchasing a copy if you have a spare $11.5m on you – the price one sold at last December.

The admission to the Audubon Centre in Audubon PA is, by contrast, a very reasonable $4 (and I could have got in for $3 if I had been prepared to lie about my age – upwards!).  There is an exhibition of the great man’s work in various forms including a quarter-sized, four volume copy of the work.  I looked at all the warblers.

The plates are very beautiful even if not a patch on Sibley or Peterson for accuracy.  This work was at the time a stupendous achievement and Audubon sent far and wide for skins of birds which he then painted.

I looked at the Bachman’s Warbler carefully as I am never going to see one in the flesh – it’s a gorgeous rendition of what I assume was a gorgeous bird.  The Passenger Pigeon, Carolina Parakeet (which we will get to, eventually) and other extinct American species are illustrated.  At the time of his work Audubon could not possibly have predicted which of these species would by now have exited the planet.  I imagine Passenger Pigeon, present in its billions and well-known to Audubon himself, would have been way down his list of threatened species if he had had such a list.

The Museum is small but intimate.  You can sit and draw from stuffed birds as Audubon himself did if you care to, and looking out of the upstairs window I wondered how often this great artist had looked out of the same pane.

At 39 ” by 26″ the Birds of America is no pocket guide – but the plates are stunning in their beauty and breathtaking in their vividness considering that the artist was dealing with skins and bodies for the most part.

If you are in the area, do go visit.  But do your research as to how to get there – it’s very near the historic site of Valley Forge but not well-signposted at all.

I took away a little book of postcards of the warblers – for far less than $11.5m.  But I also took away a great deal of pleasure in finding out a little more about one of the world’s finest artists and most admirable draft-dodgers.

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