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The Great Plains

Stretching west of the Mississippi through Missouri, Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, Iowa, South Dakota and North Dakota, THE GREAT PLAINS are often lumped together in the popular imagination as an expanse of unvaryingly flat prairies, conservative “Middle American” values and boredom – a place to either drive through or escape from. Once, however, this was the West, an empty canvas on which outlaws, fur trappers, buffalo hunters and cowboys painted their dreams. In the 1870s, the wide-open range of the lone prairie, which had originally been known as the Great American Desert, was suddenly promoted as a bountiful Garden of Eden, inspiring such fascination that famed US Army officer George Custer was moved to call it “the fairest and richest portion of the national domain”.

Nonetheless, the Plains share a troubled history. The systematic destruction by white settlers of the awesome herds of bison presaged the virtual eradication of the Plains Indians. Reservations, agencies and “assigned lands” dwindled as the natural resources of the area attracted white settlement; after 1874, when gold was discovered in the Black Hills, the fate of the Native Americans was practically sealed. However, thanks to warriors like Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull, the struggle for control of the Plains was by no means easy.

The Plains are most comfortable glorying in a romantic myth of the Wild West and flaunting sanitized versions of wicked old cowtowns like Deadwood in South Dakota, Dodge City (once trumpeted as the Beautiful, Bibulous Babylon of the Frontier) in Kansas, and St Joseph, Missouri, the birthplace of the Pony Express. Calamity Jane, Wild Bill Hickok, Billy the Kid and Annie Oakley all left their marks when this was truly the wild frontier, and today, in the sandy scrublands of the Plains, working ranches and cattle drives are as common as the region’s inevitable summer thunderstorms.

Defining the geographical limits of the Plains is difficult, and the term itself is almost a misnomer – just as there are vast flat expanses and long uninterrupted roads, there are also canyons, forests and splashes of unexpected colour, as well as two of the nation’s mightiest rivers: the Missouri, which begins in Montana and follows a winding southeasterly course through the Dakotas; and the Mississippi, the headwaters of which are found in northern Minnesota. The two mammoth rivers eventually meet just north of St Louis.

The woods, caves and springs of the Ozarks, the lunar landscapes of South Dakota’s Badlands and stately Mount Rushmore are the region’s most visited areas. Drama comes in the form of such unpredictable weather as freak blizzards, dust devils, lightning storms and, most notoriously, “twister” tornadoes. Images of the devastating 1930s “Dustbowl” – when topsoil was whisked as far as Washington DC – remain as potent as the fantasy of Dorothy and Toto being swept up from Kansas by a tornado to the land of Oz.

Still, the Plains are called the “breadbasket of the world” for a good reason, providing the nation with much of its wheat and corn, seas of which wave over flat fields from Kansas up to North Dakota. The region’s economy has also long been dependent on oil, especially in Oklahoma, and gold in the Dakotas.

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