As I was driving the Yellowstone Trail, I wanted to stop just outside of Selby, SD to take a picture of the 100th meridian marker, where, as all discerning music listeners know, the Great Plains begin. The marker has disappeared, and this photo, taken in 2012, doesn’t match my childhood memory of the marker: I remember a large circle which helped me imagine the longitude line that passed through that otherwise empty and unremarkable location.
The Yellowstone Trail was a coast-to-coast highway first proposed by J.W. Parmley of Ipswitch, SD, about 50 miles east of the 100th meridian. Parmley’s initial goal was simply to get a decent highway between Ipswitch and Aberdeen, a distance of 25 miles. How that morphed into a cross-country road is a tribute to the boosterism of Parmley and others. The Yellowstone Trail Society exists to keep the history of the road alive, and there’s still a 650-mile stretch of U.S. Highway 12 from just outside Minneapolis to Miles City, MT that is mostly two-lane road, not hugely different from what a tourist in the 50’s or 60’s would have seen.
Everything between the Rocky Mountains and, say, Pittsburgh, is lumped into the “Midwest” by coastal media, but the Great Plains are far different from both the Midwest and the Rocky Mountain West. They’re flat and dry, colder than a well digger’s ass in the Winter, and hotter than broiled fuck in the Summer. It is not good land. As you travel west from this marker, you soon enter land that is best suited for cattle or sheep, maybe wheat, and certainly not corn. Around 230 miles west, near Marmath, ND or Terry, MT, you are squarely in the inhospitable land documented in Jonathan Raban’s excellent book Bad Land: An American Romance. Raban chronicles the plight of settlers who started homesteads there during a couple of wet years, and who did not prosper (to put it mildly) when the inevitable and more usual dry years came.
The events of Raban’s book are roughly contemporaneous with Parmley’s effort to start the Yellowstone Trail. Parmley is the type of good government, growth-oriented politician who helped settle and grow the Great Plains. Parmley’s great passion was road building, but he also advocated for the International Peace Garden, soil conservation, hydroelectric power and Mount Rushmore.
Parmley’s home and land office in Ipswitch are now museums, and certainly the attitudes he embodied are as little seen as most of the artifacts in those two buildings. When I was growing up in a small town on the Yellowstone Trail, there were many efforts to boost the community’s economic development, most of them instigated by local independent business owners. Most of that is gone. When I was a teenager, I attended a Rotary meeting with almost a hundred members. Forty years later, the same meeting is lucky to get more than a dozen to show up. Those hundred business owners from my forty-year-old memory were mostly white, male Republicans, and certainly their boosterism was for their benefit, but it was a hell of a lot more positive than the current white, male Republican efforts to ban CRT and vaccination mandates.
My point, if I have one, is that it takes a lot of positive energy to live on marginal land and make a living. Most towns along the Highway 12 portion of the Yellowstone Trail once had a group of local businessmen and allied boosters who got funding for hospitals, roads, festivals, rodeos, museums, rest areas and historical markers in their towns, to make them places where people wanted to settle, or at least visit and spend their money. Now all that’s left is a critical access hospital — if you’re lucky — a Dollar General and a grocery store.