Images of the High Plains: a Forgotten Part of America

Ranch in eastern Wyoming

Ranch in eastern Wyoming

The West of American myths is the High Plains. The early explorers and settlers had to cross it on their way to better-known destinations. Many tried to settle there and failed. The bison massacre occurred largely on the High Plains, and Indian wars spanned decades in the 1800s.

Cowboys and cattle drives live on in John Wayne movies and Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove. Extreme weather is common; huge panoramas of rolling or flat country are constantly available to the eye. And of course, the wind, there is always the wind.

Now at home in Athens, Georgia, with dogwoods blooming and temperatures into the 70s, I’m remembering the cold, piercing wind of early March on the High Plains.

High Plains Region

Having traveled across the South, experienced late winter weather at Carlsbad Caverns, and spent four days at Our Lady of Guadalupe Monastery, I was finally heading toward the primary reason for being so far from home: to amble through parts of the High Plains.

The size and extent of the High Plains is unclear because different sources define it differently. By my rough reckoning, the High Plains are a little more than half of the Great Plains, the western half, from eastern Montana and western North Dakota down through New Mexico and Texas. It’s a huge region of between 174,000 square miles, and about 500,000 square miles (my estimate from linked source). Those estimates put the region at a size between California (164,000 sq. mi.) and Alaska (665,000 sq. mi.).

The High Plains have about the lowest population density of any recognized multi-state region in the U.S. The towns are small and far apart, leaving huge expanses of open country. 

Maybe because the environment is unforgiving, the region suffers few loafers or layabouts. The dominant impression is that everyone works. They work in mining (oil, gas, coal), ranching, farming, and transportation, along with typical support activities like schools, retail stores and professional services.

Rail lines and major highways tend to parallel one another. Farms and ranches dot the landscape. Blue jeans and boots are the fashion of the day. Throughout the region, common sights on the highways include pickup trucks, tractor trailers, and farm implements. 

The Journey Ends

I traveled north on I-25 to Denver, then had dinner with Brian Barney, a high school classmate, and Eileen, his wife. Next came Cheyenne, WY, then north and east to Scottsbluff and Alliance, NE, which are charming western towns. The next day I visited the Crescent Lake Wildlife Refuge, then drove through North Platte to McCook, NE. Then I headed south through Kansas to Dodge City, then into western Oklahoma to join I-40, to Memphis; finally I drove across northern Mississippi and Alabama to home.

Back in February I wrote, “For me, being alone is good.” After 17 days away, being home is good too. Barbara was happy to see me and glad that I had a good trip.

So far this year, my wife and I visited Florida where we toured The Villages (see here for the story and here for photos), and now I’m home from a solo trip through parts of the West. The two places could not be more different and still in the U.S.:  one small and densely packed with people who spend their time at leisure, the other large, open, windy and sparsely populated with people at work.

Perhaps Wikipedia is a good measure of the forgotten nature of the High Plains: The Southern United States, the region I live in, merits about 6,500 words in Wikipedia, The Villages earns about 5,400 words, yet the High Plains article has about 1,100.

Here’s a gallery of photos that show things everyone might see when touring the High Plains. Hope you enjoy them.

(Click on the first photo to enter the gallery, then press “esc” to exit.)