Day #3   Robert Leverett
  Aug 16, 2006 12:35 PDT 

Day #3:

The morning of July 23rd found us heading southward at a leisurely
pace from our resting place near Mishawaka, Indiana. But before
launching into the events of the new day, I should first relate a
slightly amusing incident from the evening before. On approaching
Mishawaka Indiana, we had gotten lost trying to thread our way through
on U.S. Route 20. I missed a turn somewhere and the next thing we knew
we were following streets with no federal or state route numbers. We
were in one of those partly residential, partly commercial, partly old
neighborhood, partly new sprawl areas where all the streets look like
federal or state routes, but go absolutely nowhere. I'm sure all of you
know what I'm describing. The wide streets suddenly narrow and end at
the railroad tracks, in someone's parking lot, or lead you into a
neighborhood where you don't want to be - particularly at night. Now, I
should point out that our new car as the Onstar system. At any location
where we can get a signal, we are at liberty to simply call Onstar and
they will locate us on their maps and tell us what roads to take to get
to any specified destination. Simple, right? Using her head, Monica
sagaciously suggested that we call Onstar. Did I do that? What, and
bruise my male pride? Not on your life. After all, I knew which way was
west. We'll follow the setting sun, I explained to Monica. Ah, one of
these roads has to connect to another road and it to another and another
until we re-connect to good old U.S. 20. All roads lead to Chicago,
don't they? Her fear, of course, was that the sun would set long before
we could find our way out of the maze. But providence smiled on us as we
encountered route numbers for roads that were actually on our map and
actually led somewhere. Spared the humiliation of having to call Onstar,
my reputation was saved.

Our objective for the morning of the 23rd was to skirt Gary Indiana and
Chicago Illinois - a perpetual traffic snarl on the I80-I90 corridor
leading from Cleveland to Chicago. The Gary-Chicago traffic mess had
left us exhausted the year before when we had been unceremoniously
dumped off I80 and onto a route headed directly for downtown Chicago
with no early chance of reversing our direction. We were in the extreme
left lane, which seemed right for going west. Then without warning,
construction barriers shunted us up and over the other lanes, off I80,
and onto I94. Neither of us will forget that experience. The temperature
that day was in the high 90s as we inched along at a snail's pace,
stopping completely for minutes at a time. We watched the car's engine
temperature creep up. We'd already had problems with the thermostat. We
were increasingly worried about the car overheating. I was also worried
about the state of my bladder, which was crying out for me to empty it.
So there we were, caught in impossible traffic with a car that was
overheating, sandwiched between irritable drivers who were fighting each
other and us for every inch of space, and with me desperately needing to
pee, we vowed then and there never again to travel through the
Gary-Chicago mega-traffic nightmare. We actually turned on the car's
heater to drain as much heat from the system as possible. It was at that
point that I decided to put the curse of the Arab world on all the
aggressive drivers around me, the state of Indiana, and the state of
Illinois. I thought to myself, may you all have the camel's itch. I was
once told by a friend in college that wishing the camel's itch onto
someone was the ancient curse of the Arab world. Well, I've invoked that
curse on other occasions. I don't know if it works, but I always feel
better afterwards. So, with our 2005 ordeal in mind, on the 23rd, we
took to the cool countryside and skirted around Chicago. It was

After a relaxing, uneventful trip across the remainder of Indiana, we
reached the Illinois border by mid-morning. Crossing the state line had
an immediate benefit for us. We entered the central time zone where the
official time was instantly an hour earlier. It felt good. I like
traveling west for the time changes and always feel cheated on the
return journey. It is as if some time thief suddenly robs of you of what
is rightfully yours - control of your time. The switch of time zones
reminded me of my paternal grandmother's dilemma. She lived in
northwestern Georgia and as a girl that region was in the central time
zone. The state legislature moved the central time zone to the border
with Alabama, but my grandmother never could adjust. There were two sets
of clocks in her house. Her clocks remained on central time and my
uncle's on eastern. As you might imagine, there were lively debates on
issues regarding the time. I vaguely recall some of those debates when
visiting as a young boy. My grandmother was quite convinced that some
law of the Almighty had been broken and someone was sure to roast in
firey punishment.   

In the case of our westward travel on day #3, the extra time gained
from the time zone change was a blessing for our overall schedule. We
had planned an intermediate destination stop at the Midewin National
Tallgrass Prairie south of Joliet Illinois. The property is co-managed
by the U.S. Forest Service and the state of Illinois. The preserve is a
relatively new one. It was established in 1996 and today encompasses
19,000 acres of what was turned into Illinois farmland between 1830 and
1900 and established as a military reservation in 1940 as the Joliet
Army Ammunition Plant. It became the Joliet Arsenal in 1945. The imprint
of the Army, to include ammunition bunkers is still there, but the
landscape is gradually being reworked. Despite the prairie focus of
Midewin, the introduction one gets at the visitor's center is steeped in
the Army's role. You are invited to inspect the ammunition bunkers if
you wish. We declined. We were interested in the natural features of the
land and most importantly whatever prairie remnant that we could see. We
assumed there was some. But the property is deep into restoration.
According to what we were told by a Forest.Service employee, the
restoration effort will require 25 to 30 years or more. I suppose that
is the time they believe they need to thoroughly eliminate the
entrenched invasive plants. The long run objective is to bring back
buffalo and elk. All in all, it is massive restoration project that aims
to reintroduce all component parts of the original prairie system except
the large predators. Re-introduction of fire is an essential part of the
restoration and they are using fire now. Fire gives native plants an
advantage over the invasives.

We began our visit at the Midewin Visitor Center, which is superbly
organized, with excellent displays and an extensive selection of books
on the prairie. We bought books on the fauna, flora, and geology of
Illinois and thoroughly enjoyed the displays. But we wanted wind in our
hair and grass waving in front of our faces. We wanted the real thing.
So, we exited the Visitor Center for a walk on a recommended trail. We
took a 1.5-mile saunter though a tall grassy field loaded mostly with
forbs and supporting tree belts lined with walnut, cherry, and
hackberry. It was the most hackberry that I had ever seen. I was equally
impressed with the abundance of black walnut. Nothing tall or
spectacular with any of those species, but mightily abundant. Although,
I didn't see the grasses that I had hoped for, the walk whetted my
appetite for more. I knew then that I was hooked on tallgrass prairie,
and unbeknownst to either of us, by far the best of the tallgrass
experiences was yet to come. That experience would occur on our return
trip. Despite the lack of a truly inspiring prairie experience at
Midewin, I will always remember Midewin as the location. It represented
the beginning of a serious educational process for me, learning about
the nature of tallgrass prairies.

[Wilkipedia says:  A forb is a non-woody flowering plant that is not a
grass. Since it is non-woody, it is not a shrub or tree either. Thus most
wild and garden flowers, herbs and vegetables are forbs.]

Looking back now, before Midewin, I realize just how little I knew
about our grasslands, not that I thought I knew a lot. As principally a
tree person, my prior familiarity with that grassland ecosystem was
skimpy. I held tidbits of information in my head and had read a few
limited historical accounts. But at Midewin, that shallow understanding
began to change. There is a lot to learn about grasslands once you get
into them. The experience goes far deeper than the mesmerizing effects
of tall grass waving in a wind. One must eventually meet each grass on
its terms without ever losing the feeling of being in a magical place.
So, I established a two-pronged approach to improving my knowledge base.
I always need to establish a big picture approach at the same time I'm
dabbling in the details. I knew that part of Illinois had once been
tallgrass prairie. But I think I believed it to be about 30%. However,
according to the accounts, at one time, up to 60% of Illinois was
tallgrass prairie. Considering that Illinois covers over 57,000 square
miles, that amounts to a whopping 34,000 square miles of tallgrass
prairie in Illinois alone. By size comparison, Massachusetts
incorporates a little over 8,000 square miles - if you include the
internal acreages of water. The extensiveness of the original Illinois
grasslands is all the more amazing when you consider that Illinois has
an annual precipitation ranging from around 32 inches in the northern
part of the state to as much as 48 in the south. Illinois must have had
a lot of well watered grass. But sadly, today less than one hundredth of
one percent of true tallgrass prairie remains in Illinois and according
to those who have added up the acreages, pristine tallgrass prairie is
the rarest of North America's major biomes. BTW, I can't vouch for the
accuracy of that claim. It is what the Midewin literature states.

One of the first, totally fascinating bits of information that I
learned about the tallgrass prairie is that most of the living material
of the tallgrass prairie system lies below ground. Standing in middle of
thick grasses and forbs that exceed the height of one's head, this
underground organic sink can be difficult to imagine. There is a lot of
biomass above ground. But, if the vastness of the below ground network
came as a surprise to me, I have since come to appreciate the fact that
the underground storehouse of organic matter is the reason for the
unsurpassed fertility of prairie soils. "Prairy earth" is far richer
than forest soils. It was the fertility of the prairie soils that made
it worthwhile for the settlers to pick up, lock, stock, and barrel and
move westward to convert the Mid-western prairies to agricultural lands.

I am pleased to say that despite my skimpy knowledge of tallgrass
prairie plants, I did know that many of the field flowers with which I
have familiarity in the East are constituents of the tallgrass prairie.
A few examples include Wild Bergamot, Blue-eyed Grass, New England
Aster, Shooting-star, Golden Alexander, Tall Coreopsis, Black-eyed
Susan. The field flowers in New England give one an idea of a lot of
what follows farther west, and consequently, when one sees familair
plants, a feeling of comfort and familiarity is established. However,
one also faced with an abundance of wild flowers that one cannot
identify. That can be an intimidating experience. In one instant, you
feel that you are among old friends and in the next, you are presented
with a host of new acquaintances that you can ill afford to shun. And
then there are the actual grasses. If one visits a prairie, one feels
obligated to pay homage to the grasses, but my grasses vocabulary was
embarrassingly limited. My list consisted of a mix of grasses belonging
to different ecosystems. For me, there was big bluestem, little
bluestem, gamma, Kentucky bluegrass, buffalo grass, and Indian grass.
But according to the literature we collected, the original tallgrass
prairie supported at least 150 varieties. If I hoped to become
knowledgeable on this trip, I was in big trouble. And then there are the
forbs. The big flowering plants of the prairies are predominately forbs
to include goldenrods, milkweeds, ragweed, coneflowers, the vetches, the
clovers, sunflowers, daisies, etc. To become even crudely sensitized to
prairie flora, one needs to quickly understand the difference between
the narrow-leaved grasses and the broad-leaved forbs (I think that's the
main difference), which to many people are the weeds. But most forbs are
not weeds. On the other hand, most weeds are forbs.

Looking at the display of forbs and grasses at Midewin, I thought back
to Stafford Meadow in Mohawk Trail State Forest and similar fields in
New England and elsewhere in the East. From the modest-sized fields and
meadows that we can enjoy in current-day New England, what changes when
moving from east to west is the scale of the fields. The East is forest
with a few fields. The proportions reverse as one moves into the domain
of the grasses which dominate in the western half of Oklahoma, Kansas,
Nebraska, and the Dakotas. But by the time one gets past the area of
original tallgrass prairie, one enters the domain of the mixed
grasslands. The mixed grasslands are an entirely different ecosystem.
And finally one enters the immense shortgrass prairies. These are what
most people remember on an east-west jaunt. It is what was previously
set in my mind, but no longer. There are three distinct zones. On day
#3, we wanted to experience tallgrass prairies and what we saw at
Midewin was an impressive and promising restoration effort - not true
tallgrass prairie yet. But we are both thankful for the effort being

From Midewin, we connected with I80 west of Joliet and shortly hit one
of our favorite rest stops on the north side of the Interstate. The rest
stop is loaded with old bur oaks. I estimate some to be 250 years old,
if not older. The site also has an old basswood, a scattering of green
ash trees, and believe it or not, a large hop hornbeam. Monica had
connected spiritually to the spot on our prior year visit. I have made
it an annual stopover for years. While at the rest stop, we ambled
around and took some digital images. If they came out well enough, we'll
share them. We also took stock of what we saw. Beyond the perimeter
fence of the rest stop is an area of tallgrass prairie being restored by
the state of Illinois. The small restoration area quickly gives way to a
cornfield that stretches to the horizon in one direction but is stopped
in its tracks by an intrusive housing development. Monica sees the
development as an intrusion that changes the energy dynamic of the
struggling trees. She may be right. The spot no longer fields vibrant as
it once did. More on this line of thought in future e-mails.

Leaving the rest stop, we continued westward toward Iowa and a
rendezvous with Pamela Briggs. We planned to me her at a truck stop a
few miles into Iowa just off I80 on the north side of the Interstate. We
were both anxious to meet up with Pamela. Despite just having an
Internet friendship, we felt connected, like we were all old friends.
But we had one stop to make first. After crossing the mighty
Mississippi, we briefly stopped at Le Claire, Iowa to visit the Buffalo
Bill Museum. Buffalo Bill (William Cody) was born in Le Claire, but
until relatively recently, the local folks had not figured out a way to
capitalize on their most famous citizen. The museum concentrates mainly
on the early life of Cody. BTW, Cody, Wyoming was founded by Buffalo
Bill. He also had a ranch near North Platte, Nebraska. He is a legend in
the West and legitimately so. The museum has a long way to go, but their
cause is worthwhile and we supported it financially going and coming.
Its location on the banks of the Mississippi is idyllic and close by
there is a little establishment that makes excellent ice cream sodas. No
messes this time.

Leaving Le Claire, we sped westward to rendezvous with Pamela at what
is billed as the world's largest truck stop. It may well be that, but
size does not translate to quality. The sheer ugliness of the place
causes one to ignore most of the surroundings, but for a truck stop, its
food is passable. That is saying a lot. Most truck stops have horrible
food. But we had not agreed to meet at the truck stop to ogle at parked
trucks or buy trinkets. We went there to meet Pamela. And there she was,
waiting for us. She graciously had a fine wedding present waiting for
us. The three of us had a thoroughly delightful visit and it was good to
connect with a mid-western Ent. I ordered spaghetti. Big mistake! Later
in the evening, I told Monica that unlike love, spaghetti was not better
the second time around, or the third, or fourth. I had spaghetti all
through the night. So, my dear Ent friends, if you are traveling west on
I80 in Iowa and you see signs for the world's largest truck stop and
stop there for lunch or dinner, you've been forewarned.

At our meal, we discussed ENTS, my prior familiarity with the Quad-city
area when I was a brash second lieutenant in the Air Force attending a
military school at the Rock Island Arsenal. We discussed Pamela's
writing career and our trip. Pamela is great. We are hoping that she can
make it to Massachusetts in October. Her creativity is boundless and
Iowa folks will be all the richer if she decides to turn her creativity
toward the history and natural treasures of her home state.

      After we said our goodbyes with Pamela, Monica and I rolled on
westward. We didn't go too far before deciding to reign it in for the
evening. I had come to accept that Monica needs ample rest on our
cross-country hauls if she is to have any chance of enjoying the trip,
and beside, with our crossing of the mighty Mississippi, we had reached
that separation of west from east. It felt different. It felt good. It
was time to stop for the evening.

     I will end this day’s accounting with a humorous passage from a
book Monica bought in Wyoming. It communicates the feelings that true
prairie and Great Plains people have about the dominion of the
grasslands. To most hustle and bustle easterners, the Mid-west is
thought to be boring, but Texan Stanley Marsh III sees it differently.
Of the mid-western and western grasslands, Stanley says “The horizon is
enormous! It is impressive! It is wonderful and it is what makes men
free!” More on Stanley’s opinions in a future installment.


Robert T. Leverett
Cofounder, Eastern Native Tree Society

Re: Day #3   Lee Frelich
  Aug 16, 2006 15:49 PDT 


Didn't anyone ever the first rule of driving in the Midwest? Always stop
at a rest stop before entering the Chicago Metro Area.

Too bad you turned around once headed for downtown. Chicago turns
everything upside down. The bad part of Chicago is the suburbs. The good
part is downtown. It is easily the most beautiful downtown in the world,
but it is well defended by miles of slums in the suburbs.

Regarding prairies, I grew up in a prairie area that gives new meaning to
tall grass (big bluestem about 12 feet).

Did you see any compass plants (Silphium laciniatum) on your trip? Compass
plants have a huge basal leaf up to half a meter long, which has the
texture of sand paper, and points north and south, since the flat part of
the blade faces east and west. How about Silphium terebinthinaceum
(prairie dock)? It reaches 9-12 feet high with a huge basal heart shaped
leaf that takes up one whole herbarium sheet all by itself.

BTW Minnesota once had more than 20 million acres of prairie. We still have
a large area of prairie about 50,000 acres in size, where you can see grass
all the way to the horizon on gently rolling hills. Nearby is al Gneiss
outcrops, one of the oldest rock outcrops at the surface of the earth (I
think 3 billion years--Ed correct me if you have the actual age). Gneiss
outcrops has stunted little bur oaks, two species of cactus and short
grasses a foot tall that cover most of the ground.

Prairie Filed Guide   Edward Frank
  Aug 17, 2006 19:28 PDT 


There is a nice guide to the Prairie from Peterson's:

Peterson Field Guide
The North American Prairie
by Stephen R. Jones and Ruth Carol Cushman

RE: Prairie Field Guide   Robert Leverett
  Aug 18, 2006 06:19 PDT 


Thanks. I'll be discussing a number of guides throughout the trip
chronicles. But, Ed, if you don't have John Madson's "where the sky
began", ya just gotta get it! It is fabulous. The book title is in lower
case as shown above.