Friday, August 9, 2019

Prairie Landmarks

A while back I sent a picture of my normal work environment to one of my friends who lives in the Rockies. His first reaction was “How do you navigate without landmarks?” Living near the Missouri river, we have flat plains where the riverbed once was centuries ago, with low hills on either side. Those flat plains are fertile cropland and can stretch up to 30 miles between the hills, making for a landscape almost as flat as a calm ocean. When you factor in the curvature of the Earth, it is easy to find yourself in a sea of green with very few prominent landmarks to orient yourself by. Add in 10 foot tall corn fields on both sides of a road and getting lost can be an issue. Bugging out or just traveling through this terrain wouldn't seem like much of a hassle, but without knowing the landmarks it could be a challenge.

Roads are sometimes laid out in a square grid, but with the reduction in funding for maintenance over the last 40 years many of the roads have been abandoned or dropped to Minimum Maintenance Road (MMR) status. MMR means they get no gravel and the ruts will get scraped out as the maintenance crews have spare time. The only thing that will save a road from being reclassified as MMR is an occupied house on the road, and even then the county will only maintain the road up to the house if it is the only one. Many of the well-placed MMRs around here are known as good places for kids to party, but it's been that way for decades.

We have a few major railroad lines that cut through the county. Constant maintenance and rail traffic makes them a dependable route of travel, if not always the safest. Many of the smaller companies have gone bankrupt and the lines abandoned, creating “dead” rail that connect small towns. Some of these dead lines have been repurposed as biking/hiking trails and depending on the funding available may be paved and well-maintained. Bridges seem to be the most costly feature to maintain, but even an old rail bridge will hold more foot traffic than you can physically fit on it. Several groups are combining their efforts to make an interconnected system of paved bike trails stretching more than 100 miles through the hills, which will create an easy path for foot traffic out of the cities.

I'm lucky in that I live in an area with abundant water. It's hard to go more than a mile in any direction without finding some form of river, stream, drainage ditch, or well in my home county. Waterways and bridges are common landmarks for giving directions and easy to find.

Traveling along a waterway is usually easy because of the use of levees for flood control. Levees tend to be wide enough to drive on, but you may encounter fences and gates placed to keep normal traffic off of them. Unless there is levee maintenance in progress, the tops of the levees don't get mowed so expect tall grass and limited visibility near the edges. We lose a drunk every couple of years when they try driving on a levee and get too close to an edge.

The only real landmarks that we have out here in farm country that can be seen for any distance is the grain silos. Originally placed along the railroad lines as a way to store grain for future shipment, every small town used to have an “elevator” or Co-op with silos that stand between 50 and 120 feet tall. Most of the wooden ones have been torn down recently, but the concrete and steel silos can still be found scattered throughout the Midwest. On the flatlands they're spaced out about 10 miles apart, so if you're standing at one you can usually see the nest one up the line on the horizon. When the small towns and elevators were originally placed close to a century ago, 10 miles was about all the further anyone wanted to haul their crop. About 20 years ago the railroads stopped picking up grain from the small towns around here, it wasn't cost-effective for them, so a lot of grain companies and Co-ops have gone out of business.

Several large farming families have built their own elevators. I've got a couple of private facilities nearby that have more capacity than our smallest elevator, but they tend to build larger diameter and shorter silos. These operations tend to be close to major roads, whereas you'll see small clusters of much smaller grain bins out in the fields. Small is relative when talking about bulk storage- a bin that can “only” hold 10-20 semi-trailer loads of corn is small. You have to get into the 300-500 truck capacity range before they're considered large. For perspective, a standard semi-trailer holds close to 1000 bushels (55,000 pounds) of grain.

Even though we don't have mountain peaks to navigate by, we still have local landmarks. Knowing your local area is key to being able to travel safely through it, so get out and explore a bit. Dust off the paper maps and see how much has changed since it was printed, making notes for yourself as you go.

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