Every time I drive across the country I think about the vast differences in water availability that exist from one side of the country to the other. It’s especially noticeable when driving west on Interstates 10, 20 and 40. These routes begin in the well-watered Deep South, cutting through dense forests as they head west to the Mississippi River and into the plains states beyond.
Once Texas, Oklahoma, or Kansas are reached, the forest is quickly left behind. The pine trees change over to treeless plains in little over 50 miles. I-20 shows this the most dramatically in northeastern Texas where it emerges from the hilly Piney Woods into the tallgrass prairies just each of Dallas.
On the other side of the Dallas-Fort Worth area, another dramatic change occurs. The prairie quickly gives way to mesquite country – a landscape dominated by that thorny tree and littered with prickly pear cactus. Creeks become washes, and green becomes brown by the time you get to Abilene.
I created this map to better understand this transition that I have wondered about so many times before. It is clearly shown in the center of the map – rainfall averages plunge from the mid-50s in the lower Mississippi Valley to around 20 inches in central Texas. 20 inches seems to mark the start of the “dry country,” the West.
Through the process, I found that this east-west transition wasn’t actually the steepest change on the map. Both sides of the country have areas with widely varying rainfall rates within a few short miles of one another.
Notice the border area of Georgia and North Carolina. Rainfall increases from 40 inches in the Carolina Piedmont to almost 90 inches in the southern Blue Ridge Mountains, barely 50 miles away. Similar transitions occur in the New England Mountains of Vermont and New Hampshire.
Most dramatically, the West has the steepest variations between really wet and really dry areas to be found in the Lower 48.
Look at Southern California. Home to the driest desert areas in the country with around 3 inches (or less) per year, areas with around 40 inches of rainfall are found just a short 15 miles away. The Southwest has a lot of areas that illustrate the mountain lifting and rain shadow effects well.
The Pacific Northwest has the highest rainfall in the Lower 48 and also some of the most unbelievable transitions.
The Coast Ranges in Oregon, Washington, and California receive upwards of 190 inches in areas. The Cascades are similarly rainy. Move from Cannon Beach, Oregon to Portland to Baker City and the rainfall goes from the high 100s down to 43 at Portland, then up to the lower 100s around Mount Hood, and then it plunges to around 10 as you head east of the Cascades. All of this happens in 125 miles.
While driving back home to Fort Collins from Kansas on Independence Day, we stopped off I-70 in Burlington, Colorado to see the regionally-famous Kit Carson County Carousel. Fortunately, we were able to catch the last ride of the day before it closed around 6 pm.
This carousel is a surprisingly fun experience. In a time of high-tech games and sophisticated electronic entertainment choices, this old-fashioned carousel was refreshing and different.
I really enjoyed the ornate paintings on the circular interior wall as well as the beautiful wooden animals that patrons get to ride. The Wurlitzer Military Band organ is rare and fascinating as well. Check out the video below to hear the music from the organ as we rode on the carousel.
The carousel dates back to 1905 when it
was installed at Denver’s Elitch Gardens amusement park. It was acquired by Kit Carson County in 1928 and relocated to the fairgrounds on the north side of Burlington. It spent a number of years in storage and restoration over the next 80
years, but it’s now fully-restored and protected and will hopefully be running for many more years to come.
For a more detailed history of the carousel, see the History Colorado page.
I occasionally hear stories told about traveling across the country in the pre-Civil Rights Act years and the odd manifestations of racial segregation that would be encountered.
My family, always frequent travelers between our home bases in Iowa, Arizona, and Texas, has lots of these observations. Just recently, my uncle told me about his a trip through Texas as a kid. While stopping for a bathroom break at a gas station, he found the nearest restroom in an outbuilding, but missed the “colored only” sign at the entrance. Using the toilet before checking for toilet paper was a mistake. He went inside the building to ask for the paper, but was met with a chuckling clerk. “These restrooms over here are for you,” he informed as he pointed to the white-only men’s room which were found to have no shortage of toilet paper.
At Brown v Board of Education National Historic Site in Topeka Kansas, I found a map which showed racial segregation laws by state. It is a fascinating map, and I have re-created it below.
The map shows the states which had mandated segregation – mostly in the Deep South, as well as permissible segregation (Kansas, among several others).
Some states were progressive enough to have outlawed any segregation (northeast, Midwest, some western states), but many others had no laws addressing it at all.
Do you have any personal stories about encounters with racial segregation that you could share?
While visiting family in Kansas over Independence Day weekend his year I had the chance to visit two national park sites that were important in the struggle for racial equality and economic survival for African Americans. Kansas seems an odd place for these sites since it is a predominately white Midwestern state, but important events in the Civil Rights battle occurred here too.
In Topeka, we found Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site. The park is housed in one of Topeka’s old elementary schools just south of downtown. Inside, the story of the struggle for African American civil rights is told through videos and displays tracing events from slavery through the 1960s demonstrations and court battles.
The museum gives a good overview of the topic. The wall displays are high-quality and graphically interesting, and the multimedia presentations are great for providing a more impactful presentation. In one room, we walked through a hall of large video monitors running film clips of police beating demonstrators, white people screaming racial slurs while children are led into a newly-desegregated school, among other distressing images.
While serving well as a national civil rights museum, the park falls short by not weaving its local story in to the broader tale. Little is provided about the actual Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court case other than a series of five minute videos covering the five cases that were concurrently argued before the court. And we saw nothing that explained why the school building we were walking through was important and why it was selected to house this museum.
Later, while on our trip back across the Great Plains of western Kansas to Colorado, we stopped to visit Nicodemus National Historic Site, a historic black farming settlement on the western Kansas high plains. Nicodemus was promoted in the late 1870s to recently freed slaves in the South (Kentucky mostly) who were stuck in the sharecropping trap. For five dollars, those who settled here could have 160 acres and a mule in the “Promised Land.”
Those who followed the promoters west were usually disappointed upon arriving to find the barren and dry high plains on which their new town was being raised. Adding to disappointment was the realization that they would be living in sod houses made from patches of grass and dirt.
Some kept moving on to other places, but most stayed and learned how to farm and live on the plains. The town grew steadily until being passed by the railroad which was built five miles to the south.
Nicodemus has been in a slow decline since that time. There are only thirty people remaining here in 2011. The National Park Service is trying to preserve some of the more important buildings in town – the St Francis Hotel, the A.M.E. and Baptist churches, the grammar school, and the Township Hall – as parts of this newish national park site.
I look forward to seeing more of the structures open and more tours available on a future visit.
For more information:
Brown v. Board of Education NHS
John McPhee’s 2006 book “Uncommon Carriers” is about mundane transportation networks that we rarely think about. When is the last time you have considered how many gears are in an eighteen wheeler tractor? Have you ever considered how a package sent via UPS gets to you?
In this latest of his works, McPhee delves into transportation networks from interstate trucking to inland barges to freight trains, explaining how they work through a writing style that is engaging and hard to pull away from.
The first chapter has McPhee riding along with a tanker trucker on a run from Atlanta to Tacoma. He learns how trucks deal with oblivious “four-wheeler” drivers, how they negotiate steep mountain grades, and how they stay on their time tables to avoid financial penalty. While not exceptionally varied, we find out how challenging the job of a professional driver tends to be.
In another chapter, we follow along with a ship pilot visiting a mariner training center in France where mariners guide scale-model vessels ranging from barges to oil tankers through challenging navigation situations including cyclonic storms and the very constricted Suez Canal channel, all within a small lake near the French Alps. Even the best ship captains come away from this program having learned much about avoiding emergencies at sea through this rigorous training program.
Other chapters cover guiding a mile long barge up the “skinny ass” Illinois River to Chicago; and the path a live Nova Scotian lobster takes through the UPS system to Thanksgiving dinner plates in Europe, oddly including a stopover near the Louisville, KY airport to recharge in lobster ponds created just for these creatures.
The most fascinating story for me was the journey of a coal train from the vast strip mines of northeastern Wyoming to the largest coal fired power plant in the US, near Macon, GA.
This train has a nearly week-long trip across the country, being handed off to dozens of train crews along the route, working its way through a complicated system of busy railroads before arriving at a massive pile of coal outside Georgia Power’s Plant Scherer. The coal that this mile-long train brings in is shockingly consumed by the plant’s furnaces in just a few hours. The train immediately heads back to Wyoming to start the process over again.
If you have any interest in how things work, especially big, mechanical ones – you will probably love this book.
Interested in this book? Buy it.
Click on the book image or title to be taken to the Tattered Cover, an independent bookseller from Denver, Colorado.
The list of the top 10 city populations is an often-discussed topic among many of the people I know. Since the 2010 Census figures were released recently, I figured I would post the updated lists of top cities and metros here. These graphics are directly from a US Census Bureau fact sheet.
Top 10 Cities:
- It still impresses me that Phoenix, San Antonio and San Diego have grown as large as they are (over 1.3 million).
- I am surprised that San Jose is still less than one million.
- Houston may overtake Chicago as the country’s 3rd largest city by the 2020 Census if these trends continue.
- What is going on in San Antonio? With a 16% jump, they must have annexed another county!
Top 10 Metro Areas:
- Philadelphia may be at the bottom of the list, just above Boston, by the 2020 Census.
- I find it odd that New York and Los Angeles have such large individual metros covering large regions with other primary cities, but the San Francisco Bay area is split into three metros, none of which are listed here.
I plan to post some other observations as separate posts over the next few weeks.
The Flood of 2011 on the Lower Mississippi this spring has fascinated me to no end. I’ve been reading lots of news and blogs on the subject as well as digging into other websites of the US Army Corps of Engineers to learn more about this complicated, engineered river system.
Through this I came upon a diagram of the river that is really informative. It visually describes how floodwaters move through the lower Mississippi basin by depicting the river and its tributaries as a tree – with branches sized in scale with the amount of flood flow they are able to carry.
Here are some of the things I find surprising:
- The flood flow of the Mississippi above Cairo, Illinois is TINY. Most of the flow comes from the Ohio River. Even the Tennessee River carries more flood flow than the middle Mississippi.
- The bulk of the capacity of the river is in the middle section between Helena, Arkansas and Vicksburg, Miss rather than at the bottom of the system.
- The river sheds half of its water into the Atchafalaya River Basin through the Old River and Morganza Spillways leaving a much smaller amount of water to continue past Baton Rouge and New Orleans.
Each June, Rocky Mountain rivers and streams experience what is referred to as the “June Rise” as the snowpack rapidly melts and swells watercourses from Canada to New Mexico.
This year, Northern Colorado has an exceptionally large snowpack that has persisted late into the spring due to colder than normal temperatures. Since temperatures here have become much warmer in a short amount of time, the snow is finally melting – and melting fast.
This weekend, Bobby and I hiked up the Big South Trail in the Poudre Canyon west of Fort Collins to see the Cache La Poudre River rampaging through its upper canyon. It was quite a sight. The entire stretch of river was a boiling cauldron of water, bubbling over giant boulders and smashing against granite cliffs on its way out of the steep and rugged canyon it is contained within.
The Big South Trail follows the upper reaches of the Cache La Poudre River as it spits off from Hwy 14 several miles below Cameron Pass. It follows the river through the rugged Comanche Peak Wilderness Area before entering the northwestern boundary of Rocky Mountain National Park ten miles from the trailhead.
The Larimer County Sheriff’s office has ordered the river closed to tubers and small inflatable craft due to conditions on the river. It appears that our local authorities are tiring of rescuing people who get carried down the river and trapped in “strainer” trees or other obstacles.
While working on a GIS project for Backpacker Magazine I had the opportunity to construct a schematic map of airline routes to and from U.S. airports. The result is a very fascinating map which dramatically shows how busy our skies are, especially across the eastern and southern sections of our country. What other patterns do you see?
Thanks for visiting the geography blog. The plan is to share maps, aerial or satellite images, or other documents which are notable for illuminating aspects of our physical and human world. Your comments and additional material are welcome.