Living West of the 100th Meridian

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Western prairie

“When Dorothy stood in the doorway and looked around, she could see nothing but the great gray prairie on every side. Not a tree nor a house broke the broad sweep of flat country that reached to the edge of the sky in all directions. The sun had baked the plowed land into a gray mass, with little cracks running through it.”  – The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum

“The caravan seemed a miserably frail and Lilliputian thing as it crept over the boundless prairie toward the sky line. Of road or trail there lay not a trace ahead; as soon as the grass had straightened up again behind, no one could have told the direction from which it had come or whither it was bound. The whole train–Per Hansa with his wife and children, the oxen, the wagons, the cow, and all–might just as well have dropped down out of the sky.”  – Giants in the Earth by O.E. Rolvaag

“It became impossible to find tracks in this country, because the grass straightened up again as soon as it was trodden down. “ – from the Journal of Francisco Vasquez de Coronado y Lujan

……………………………………………………………….

Growing up on the Llano Estacado, west of the 100th meridian, I never understood the description of my native country as “the treeless prairie”.  Of course there were no trees; trees grow only where they are planted and tended by people, or on the high western mountains.  Out west, the sky is the most fascinating; rarely overcast, many days pure blue and uninterrupted, the entertainment is watching the clouds in their endless variety grow and contract and march across the blue and endless sky.  No limits there.

It wasn’t until later in my life that I traveled to places where the trees grow . . . naturally.  Places where the land is not . . . flat.  Places where hills and dales and forests block out the broad expanse of the sky.  To this day I get a little . . . nervous . . . hemmed in . . . when I travel through the piney woods forests of the South, or the hardwood forests of the Midwest.  Rolling hills don’t enchant me.  You can’t see the horizon there.  It all seems so . . . constraining.  It’s not what I’m used to.

The 100th meridian west marks the a change in the ecosystem of North America where the precipitation no longer supports large forests; or even scattered trees.  The geography from there to the Rocky Mountains is dominated by . . . flatness.

The earliest explorers came, saw the plains, were frightened by it, and proclaimed it uninhabitable and left.  Later others, hardier souls, came and flourished there.  My grandparents came; and so the prairie is my earliest memory.

As I have lived many years on the coastal plains of Texas, I enjoy the flatlands here, but there are just too many trees blocking the sky to be comfortable.  In recent months I have been traveling a extensively by car: across central and western Texas; across central and western Oklahoma, across eastern New Mexico, across eastern Colorado; across eastern Wyoming and even across Kansas and Nebraska.  They are all alike to me:  comfortable; like home.  No trees; just flat country where you can rest your eyes and see the full dome of the sky all at one glance.  Home.

People joke about the lack of scenery.  I don’t get the joke. It is full of scenery to me.

Does that sound crazy?  But think about it:  where you grow up – what you experienced as a child – that place will always be home to you.  If you grew up on the seashore, or in the mountains, or in a great city – that would always be familiar and comforting to you. 

The early pioneers thought that they would go crazy living in “the great American desert”.  Some of them truly did.  Read any of the works of Willa Cather, or of Laura Ingalls Wilder, or any author who grew up on the prairie and you will see how the wide open spaces affected those from the wooded, hilly east.  How much more impact was there for the immigrants from Scandinavia who populate O. E. Rolvaag’s masterpiece.  The only sound they heard was the grass bending in the wind:  “tish-ah”.

A couple of years ago the National Geographic featured North America’s Great Plains and I was struck by how few of us there are: some sections between the 100th meridian and the Rockies have a population density lower than that of Greenland. 

But we, the children of the prairie pioneers, think of it as home, and always will.  Nothing is strange there for us, just the familiar sky and wind and grassland.

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Magnificent Desolation

So, will our great grandchildren someday think of Aldrin’s “magnificent desolation” as home?  Will they be uncomfortable with places that have trees and . . . air? 

Is it too much to imagine that somewhere west of another 100th meridian, the great great grandchildren of our grandchildren will look west at the shining peaks in the distance and feel that there is nothing strange with the rusty appearance of Olympus Mons and its neighboring peaks?

Human beings are infinitely adaptable.  The most extreme places on this planet have their admirers, those who wish to live there.  Just because it is not your home, don’t imagine that your great great grandchildren won’t live there – and love it.

ImageTish-ah

About waynehale

Wayne Hale is retired from NASA after 32 years. In his career he was the Space Shuttle Program Manager or Deputy for 5 years, a Space Shuttle Flight Director for 40 missions, and is currently a consultant and full time grandpa. He is available for speaking engagements through Special Aerospace Services.
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14 Responses to Living West of the 100th Meridian

  1. Beth Webber says:

    A wonderful and thoughtful post, Wayne. Thank you.

  2. Andrew W says:

    Heh, a few months ago I wrote this: So rather than the boring flat geography we usually see depicted, perhaps the inside of space colonies will be steep, with lots of nooks and crannies, with winding paths through a landscape covered with wild vegetation to hide the engineers suspension cables.
    http://futurespaceprofiles.blogspot.co.nz/2011/07/hanging-gardens-of-space.html
    So you can guess I’m not from the plains!

  3. As I think about this post, I think of the Mojave desert, and all the aerospace work that was done there. Many would say that the desert floor between Palmdale and Tehachapi is bland and boring. Yet how many work and live there and produce some the the most amazing aircraft and spacecraft in the world. If humans are the most adaptable species on the planet, then we need to continue to explore the outer reaches of not only our planet, but the others in our solar system.

  4. Dan Adamo says:

    Fine reading, Wayne. Larry McMurtry got me hooked on the Llano Estacado, and I’ve enjoyed maybe half a dozen drives through it since then despite my Yankee upbringing.

    There’s much to be learned about human reproduction’s adaptability before our (perhaps distant) descendants actually inhabit worlds other than Earth. Unless these worlds are so small their ambient microgravity permits a spinning habitat to furnish something close to 1 Earth gravity, I have to wonder if these descendants will be true homo-spiens or perhaps a genetically engineered offshoot species in their own right. If our real aim is to settle space, I’d advocate a reduced gravity facility in LEO to determine if the Moon and Mars can be homesteaded by humans as we currently are. What we find might make NEOs and other small bodies a lot more appealing. Raising a family on Mars may take more than psychological adjustment to the environment.

  5. In “Harsh Mistress” Heinlein wrote of this adaptability, and how to return to “mother earth” was a horrible experience to one raised on the moon. I think you nail it with your comparison to the great plains and your discomfort with trees and foothills.

    Great post Mr. Hale. Thank you!

  6. Steve Pemberton says:

    One day I am going to do the math on this, but I know that if your view of the horizon is blocked by trees you only see a certain percentage of sky. However if you have a clear view of a flat horizon in all directions, your view of the sky, and the resulting emotional impact increases with geometric proportion. Then again I don’t really need to do the math, I know it’s true.

    I love seeing clouds on the far horizon and knowing that they are over a place that is hundreds of miles away and below the visible horizon. A place that I can’t see but that I know is there because the horizon is telling me that it is.

    A horizon, a real horizon where the earth meets the sky, seems to be always beckoning, always welcoming. Perhaps that is part of what drew people across the great ocean to another world. My great-great-grandparents came from Eastern Europe to a part of Texas that no one else wanted because the land was made of hard, gray clay and was difficult to farm. But it was just like the land back home and they found it to be not only welcoming but also literally dirt cheap. Interestingly two hundred years later and just fifteen miles east of the 96th meridian location where my great-great-grandparents landed exists a university where several people have gone on to important roles in the space program including several astronauts, and where the Shuttle Motion Simulator will be located. I am speaking of course of Texas A&M University.

    I am not sure why my great-great-grandparents crossed that imposing ocean. For many of that day it was for religious freedom. That is no longer a PC topic and seems to be rarely cited anymore as a historical reason for why many people moved to new frontiers. But the fact is that humans are not just animals seeking food (which unfortunately we are) but also spiritual beings seeking purpose. Most likely that is what draws us to the stars. The first people to colonize another world will in many ways be spiritual descendents of the people of the plains. People who find challenging locations to be familiar and welcoming. People who are looking for a place of limitless horizons.

  7. Thanks for a beautiful and thought-provoking post.
    But I have one negative comment. I’m afraid that our grandchildren who are born and raised in the gravity of Mars or the Moon will never have the bone and muscle strength to EVER visit the Earth.
    That’s one of the reasons I so strongly support orbiting settlements. There we can have Earth-normal gravity, and raise normal children, who WILL be able to visit the Earth, or Mars, or the Moon in order to see the horizon, experience the forests, and walk the ocean’s beaches.
    After all, the moons of Mars alone have sufficient resources to build orbiting habitats for approximately the Earth’s entire current population. So while I strongly believe and support permanent, manned, scientific outposts on Mars, I don’t think we’ll be raising children there, unless we’re willing to condemn them to a life on that planet.

  8. You’d stimulate more progress in space as a writer & philosopher than spending your life in airport security for a board of directors.

    • waynehale says:

      Wish I had one of those cushy board of director jobs. Nope, I do spend too much time in airport security lines but it is generally on my way to some technical company who needs advice on how to balance safety and cost, schedule and reliability. I do a little management and engineering consulting. Not nearly enough writing, but then I have grandchildren to teach . . .

  9. nooneofconsequence says:

    Interesting post, especially given today’s conversation with my daughter as I dropped her off at a NASA center. She works on Mars as a planetary scientist for two institutions. Loves it. And is about to field test a novel sensor she designed at university.

    Never one for the cold, I was surprised at her enthusiasm for visiting the Mars like places on earth – basically frozen deserts. So I asked her about what she’d think about testing her work … on Mars itself. Like any planetary scientist I’ve ever met – “kid in a candy store”. But unlike older ones, she was embracing the whole challenge of life getting there, being there, getting back, as the kind of lifetime “extreme sport” experience of a lifetime. A million little items.

    I talked with her about all her “unfavorite things” she’d have to face to do so. She didn’t blink but hit each of these dead on. It was a very challenging discussion – probably made her a little late.

    But by the end I knew she was committed. And, she last said “I can see if it really does work the way I designed it, to find what I know is there”.

    Yes there are kids that look at things quite differently than we do.

  10. David Buchner says:

    I really enjoyed that. There’s poetry lurking in that engineer’s heart.
    I grew up and still live in a hilly, woodsy area of Minnesota, but I promise I will never make another joke about flat, treeless North Dakota or Iowa or Nebraska again.

  11. Charley S McCue says:

    I didn’t grow up west of the 100th but a bit east of it. Here, huge lines of trees stand monuments to the fight against the dust bowl days.

    But the sky, oh yes, the sky. Days when you feel that space is within an arms reach, that you could be swallowed in those depths, horizons to explore.

  12. Jerry Pfleeger says:

    Enjoyable reading — typical Wayne Hale. Growing up in central Illinois, I came to love those never ending vistas of corn fields in late summer. Later I lived in the Mojave Desert (Edwards AFB) and found another beauty – the desert in full bloom following a wet winter. I still have mental pictures of the the miles and miles of bright California Poppies from West of Palmdale and stretching up to Death Valley.

  13. Scott Shea says:

    I grew up in Eugene, OR at the end of the Willamette Valley. Mountains to the South, West and East with hills occasionally up north. I then moved to Waco, TX and felt just a bit exposed. It would weigh on me even in a building.

    I love different geographical areas but still have to battle my fear occasionally.

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