Destination North Dakota

IMG_20151023_145706272I received quizzical looks when I announced to my New England colleagues that I was going to North Dakota for a vacation. One even asked—“Now remind me—where is North Dakota?”

On the other hand, I can still hear my Minnesota Grandmother refer to North and South Dakota collectively as “Dakota,” as in “we are going to Dakota,” perhaps hearkening back to the Dakota territory prior to the formation of the states of North and South Dakota.

IMG_20151021_112108719Geographer John Borchert, who studied the regional patterns of the upper Midwest, placed the Dakotas in the functional region of Minneapolis/St. Paul. A functional region is an area of circulation with a central node. The functional region of Minneapolis/St. Paul extends a very small distance east of the Twin Cities, where it encounters the pull of Chicago, but then extends hundreds of miles to the west incorporating North and South Dakota and much of Montana. I have family who grew up in the far reaches of this functional region and many have migrated to the Twin Cities.

Reflecting this pull of this regional central node, my Grandmother would say—“We are going to the cities,” as in the Twin Cities of Minneapolis/St. Paul. I began my journey to North Dakota in the Twin Cities where various members of my extended family live.

I decided to approach the journey through addressing questions that those from the Northeast might ask, as well as viewing the region through the lenses of comparing and contrasting New England and this upper Midwest region, including North Dakota, in hopes of educating my New England friends and reducing stereotypes of this region:

I suppose the first question is—do they have stores with food there? We packed our van with supplies before heading out from the Twin Cities. Someone from New England might have thought this was out of a concern over the availability of food. Actually it was because we wanted to eat some apples along the way. And drive-through espresso was found in all places, though at different scales.IMG_20151023_105411584

Clearly trees diminish as you go west from the Twin Cities to the Dakotas. New England has big trees. The Dakotas have big sky. This illuminates another difference. As you drive across the open land of the Dakotas, trees are planted in shelter belts on the west and north sides of homesteads. This is because winds primarily come from those directions. In New England, the strongest winds come from the northeast during a Nor’easter. IMG_20151021_170725271_HDR

Transportation is modern in both regions. North Dakotans do not use horses for transportation. They may be more likely to drive a truck or larger car than a New Englander because of the straight open roads that are all aligned North/South and East/West. We drove one 45 miles stretch with no curves and few vehicles. It was beautiful.


Railroads are prominent in both New England and the Dakotas. They are primarily used to transport people in New England. In North Dakota they are primarily used to transport grain for export to world markets. Or used to transport oil from North Dakota oil fracking fields to population centers. Dakotans and New Englanders are economically tied to global markets.IMG_20151021_115706361

Both New England and the Dakotas have buildings. In New England you might find the church as the tallest building in a town. In the Dakotas, grain elevators dominate the landscape. And in the fall, soybean or corn piles can be seen adjacent to the elevators waiting to be loaded onto trains. You can also see water towers in the Dakotas. I have never seen one in New England—how do they create water pressure in New England?

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In spite of the image of the Wild West, county courthouses exist in both places. And the police give tickets in both places. However, in New England you can get a $35 ticket for just parking your car to go to a restaurant if you fail to notice the “only local resident parking sticker” sign. In North Dakota, you may get a speeding ticket for going 35 in a 25 mile an hour zone and be charged only $10. It is hard to go slow when there is such a low population and the roads are straight. But it is easy to pay the $10. And parking is always free.

Regretfully, guns are part of American life in both places. In the Dakotas everyone knows that fall is hunting season. Communal groups of hunters are out with rifles enjoying company and the great outdoors to shoot pheasants, ducks or geese. Home décor reflects this autumn obsession. In New England, guns tend to be used against people rather than for gaining food and fellowship.










Dogs are loved in both New England and the Dakotas. In both places they are often allowed to sit on couches with those they love. However, in North Dakota they have a variety of dogs that are in camouflage to disappear once they are on the furniture.










Along with dogs come children. Children are found and loved the world around. Like children in New England, North Dakota preschoolers know how to use i-pads and TV remotes. The children of the upper Midwest, including the Dakotas tend to be blonde, reflecting the Scandinavian heritage of the region. Perhaps this same background makes them especially clean. They like to dust the furniture.

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I found two elements of the Upper Midwest that are absent from New England. Upper Midwest towns are often known by the phrase—Home of the… (fill in the blank). An example, is the town that is home to the largest ball of twine collected by one person.

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The other element of the Dakotas that is absent from New England is something called a “cell phone tower.” This amazing invention allows you to get cell phone coverage anywhere. I could only wish that my Boston suburb could be this progressive and up-to-date.

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Nashville: Cultural Crossroads

If anything is “American,” it is the rich range of music genres that come out of the mixing of culture groups and regions. I once attended an international meeting in Scotland where we gathered the last evening for a Ceilidh with dancing and music. Each national delegation was asked to provide some music from their home country and the American group discussed their options for several days in anticipation. In the end we had someone do a blues number, we sang a gospel song, and then ended with, “You Picked a Fine Time to Leave Me, Lucille.” When other delegations presented their musical gifts to us, I have to say, I was struck by the lack of variety within the individual offerings. What was lacking to my American ears was either a beat or a twang.

NashvilleIf any city is at the center of this musical mix, it is Nashville. It is a music recording and production center, the headquarters of the Gibson guitar company, and of course, the home of the Grand Ole Opry. If you want to make it as a song writer, you go to Nashville. But more than just a music-mixing center, Nashville sits at a geographic crossroads. The Bible Belt of the Deep South is to the south and east of Nashville. The cowboy country of the Great Plains lies to the west. Appalachian storytelling culture is to the East and the heartland of the Midwest is to the north. This leads to interesting cultural elements—Nashville is the home to Bible and hymnal publishing. Cowboy hats and boots are fashion elements (not real work clothes). Beer is the drink of choice. And it is the city where people come from everywhere to write the stories of their rising fame—often in musical form.


The Nashville Look






Hoping for Fame:  Live Music



Drinking Beer While Not Driving




 Popular Culture of Nashville:  Music, Beer, and Boots


NASHTRASH Tours:  Behind the scenes

Off the main street is the heart of the music industry in nondescript buildings along Music Row



Pip, with NASHTRASH tours is one of those who has been able to create a life in the music industry in Nashville, and share his experiences with visitors.

Empty Spaces and Identity: Roots in Montana

I have always been drawn to Great Plains–It could be the wide open spaces, and its long views.  I remember as a child, my father pointing out that those streaks in the sky far ahead of us were actually rain falling.  We were driving toward the Rocky Mountains someplace in the Great Plains.

It is specifically Montana that draws me, though. I can’t remember when I learned about my connection to Montana. Was it tied to asking my mother’s about her agate ring with what looked like a grove of trees in the stone?  My grandfather homesteaded in Montana from 1913-1919 with several of his sisters, and brought the ring back to Minnesota as a ring for what became a failed engagement. He did marry and have two daughters.  But in 1939, when my mother was 9 years old, the family was in a car accident that led to his death.  So what I know of my grandfather is through my mother’s memories.  He loved his daughters.  He would have them jump in bed with him in the morning and recite the names of Roosevelt’s cabinet.  He valued education and had a teaching license so that he could teach in the winters in town when he lived in Montana.  And he had a deep Christian faith. He was part of the Sunday School movement.

My mother and aunt, in his absence, or because of it, put themselves through college.  They passed on both his deep faith and his desire for education to all of us, especially all the granddaughters and great granddaughters.  The open space of Montana has come to represent my grandfather’s absence from much of our family’s history.  It is the empty space that always yearned to be filled and known.

When I went to graduate school I studied public land history including the settlement of the Great Plains.  A part of the empty space was filled through seeing the larger story of my grandfather’s time in Montana.  During that time, on a trip west, I stopped  to visit my mother’s cousins who became scattered westward from the Great Plains after abandoning their farms during the depression.  One took me to the top of a butte, 18 miles north of Terry, Montana and pointed to the remnants of his farm, describing all the farms that once populated the valley.  I walked down to hill and found his stove out in a field along with other remnants of his life in Montana–part of that empty space that always yearned to be filled.



When I had my own daughters, I once took them to stay overnight in a sod house just to help them imagine what his life had been like, before he built a wooden house.  And when they studied American History and the settlement of the Great Plains, I talked about my grandfather and how this was their history–it was not an empty space but a space that was filled with their own lives.

The long views that my grandfather had were shared by Evelyn Cameron (1868-1928), a British-born photographer who live in Terry, Montana at the same time as my grandfather.  I discovered the work of Cameron when I read the book, Bad Land, by Jonathan Raban.  The book centers on the history of Prairie County and Terry, Montana during the era when my grandfather and Cameron were living there.  I read it with interest as I tried to fill in the empty spaces of his life and experience.

Bad LandIn the past month, when I was again in Montana, I searched book stores for more of Cameron’s work.  I want to know if the photos I have of my grandfather in Montana were taken by Cameron.  Did Evelyn Cameron meet him as he got off the train with his two sisters and walked into a spring snow storm?  Did she take the photo of the sod house?

SC Groves and Florence Groves sod house in MTSamuel Clayton Groves and sisters Venita & Florence March 1913I’m still working on trying to bring closure to this story.  It has now been 100 years since my grandfather homesteaded on the Great Plains.  It has been 75 years since his car accident.  It seems like so long ago, yet not too long ago, my mother and I had dinner in Hong Kong with one of her cousin’s sons, a peer of my generation who we had not really met before.  Afterward my mother said–“He is like my father–quiet and gentle.”

I continue to yearn to fill in the empty spaces of place and identify.



Three Images of the National or State Park

Americans associate the great national park experience with the west. The reason for this is that the national park movement and our desire to preserve other public lands came at a time when the west was not yet settled (by Europeans). The only lands left to reserve were western lands. Thus we associate the national park experience with large expanses of relatively untouched natural beauty. The irony is that we had to kick the Native Americans out of Yellowstone Park in order to create this experience for ourselves—Americans know that parks do not include people.



I once attended a British geography meeting that stretched my imagination when it came to a national park. Several of my American colleagues and I joined a fieldtrip to a national park near Sheffield. The British guide drove us up into a beautiful area of higher elevation of heather, sheep, and a quaint and perfect village. Parks are essentially regions with land-use restrictions in Britain. They include people, economic activities, and are privately owned but restricted in uses. Since it was January, and gale-force winds were blowing, we longingly looked out the window of the bus as we passed the local pub in the picture perfect village.

Exhibiting typical British scorn for anything even close to central heat, our guide took us up a hillside to view the landscape. We held on to each other in order to keep our footing against the wind. The sheep were nowhere to be seen and the heather would not bloom until August. We three Americans managed to convince the guide to let a small group cut their hike short and meet the rest of the group in the village later on. We walked through the stone-buildings of the village and my two American colleagues stopped and bought Blue John Stone jewelry for their wives, a specialty of the area, before going into the pub to warm up. Once we rejoined the larger group and were on the bus, the guide looked directly at us and made a comment on how utterly tacky the village was (we were thinking—have you ever seen Mammoth Cave or Wall Drug???). And then with distain the guide said, “And I hope that none of you bought Blue John Stone!” I pursed my lips and shook my head while my colleagues pushed their packages lower on the seat—the British know that you don’t go to a park to shop or stay warm.


Today I went to a Maudslay State Park on the Merrimack River, near me in Massachusetts. I also walk at Bradley Palmer State Park just down the road from my house on a regular basis. With my sample of two of two state parks, I would say that Massachusetts state parks are old estates. Clearly there were no extensive tracks of public land to be set aside for parks so this makes sense. As I was walking along the hiking trail in the woods this morning, several people stopped me and asked—do you know where the formal gardens are? Residents of Massachusetts know that state parks have abandoned carriage houses, lanes lined by rhododendrons and perhaps what is left of a formal garden.

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Chicago: Like a Distant Relative


I have lived most of my life within a day’s drive of Chicago—Northwest, West, Southwest, and Northeast. I’ve come to see the city as a distant relative that you visit very occasionally. You recall visiting as a child, then as a young adult, and then you finally visit as an adult, perhaps taking your own children along to be introduced.

My earliest memories of Chicago were in early grade school. We lived within an hour and visited the museums. I can still picture the large pendulum that swung with the earth rotating underneath it, and the coal mine and submarine. I believe that the travel to one of these museums might have involved my father stopping the car on the side of the road to intervene in a fight between my brother and myself. It was always my brother’s fault.

IMG_20150424_130028704By upper grade school I was living further away but tied to Chicago through media. I listened to Larry Lujack on WLS Chicago ALL of the time. The Chicago Sun Times was our daily newspaper. I heard daily about the Dan Ryan expressway traffic, and Richard Daley was always the mayor… In fact, in Hong Kong there is the Dan Ryan Restaurant where speeches by Daley are piped into the men’s bathroom. I get the joke entirely.






My middle school years brought images of riots through media and personal encounters by members of our church when they went to Chicago to a specialized hospital for their daughter. I had become politicized by 1968 when the protests against the Vietnam War broke out in Grant Park during the Democratic Party convention. Chicago as a site with museums had been replaced with Chicago as a place of social conflict.


By early high school, I would occasionally have a chance to go to Chicago. My youth group took a trip to the Windy City and visited the John Hancock building, one of the highest in the world at that time. We, of course, visited WLS where I was highly disappointed when I saw Larry Lujack in person. Another time I went with a school group to take a Russian exam at the University of Illinois, Circle Campus. By then I was less interested in museums and more interested in seeing the place where Jane Addams started Hull House, and in reading the materials that the members of the Black Panthers handed out on the street corners.


In high school we read the poetry of Carl Sandburg and his description of the city became indelibly linked to my images of Chicago:

Hog Butcher for the World,
Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat,
Player with Railroads and the Nation’s Freight Handler;
Stormy, husky, brawling,
City of the Big Shoulders:
They tell me you are wicked and I believe them…
And they tell me you are crooked and I answer: Yes, it is true…
And having answered so I turn once more to those who sneer at this my city…
Come and show me another city with lifted head singing so proud to be alive and coarse and strong and cunning…
Fierce as a dog with tongue lapping for action, cunning as a savage pitted against the wilderness,
Building, breaking, rebuilding…
Laughing the stormy, husky, brawling laughter of Youth, half-naked, sweating, proud to be Hog Butcher, Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat, Player with Railroads and Freight Handler to the Nation.

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As an adult and geographer I encountered Chicago in a new way. I began to associate it with the history of skyscrapers, the architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright, and ethnic neighborhoods. It became more differentiated. And it became more historically situated as I tied the museums and the layout of Chicago with the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893, and with names of Frederick Law Olmstead and Daniel Burnham, who have both left their imprint on this city, as well as others, initiating modern city planning.


From Millennium Park to the site of the World’s Fair


But then again, I encountered Chicago through the eyes of my daughters as I introduced them to this distant relative of mine. We went there several times with family and friends when they were growing up. On one trip, given the choice among the Field Museum, the Museum of Science and Industry, or Art Institute of Chicago (with a Van Gogh exhibit), they chose the Art Institute. We looked for a Picasso and a Georgia O’Keefe to see what they looked like up close and personal. And we went to the top of the John Hancock building even though the Sears Tower was now the taller building. This was a Thanksgiving weekend so on Black Friday we found ourselves on Michigan Avenue among the horde of wall to wall shoppers. To my daughter’s embarrassment, my father, who was with us, quietly joined a PITA march that was protesting the purchase of furs.

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We shared Chicago with our New Zealand friends one December. The Christmas lights lit up Michigan Avenue and the skating rink was busy in Millennium Park. I couldn’t wait to see their reaction to the faces of Chicago in the glass towers in Millennium Park, as the figures came alive and winked at the viewers.


Most recently I went to Chicago for a geography meeting.  I was joined by a childhood friend and our mothers.  We recalled our visits with Chicago over time.


Self portrait of author and childhood friend.

Antiques Road Trip Revisited


I just got back from Minnesota.  While I was there I visited my Aunt and Uncle who took Grandma Minnie’s china back with them from Michigan at Christmas.  Remember?  My cousin from South Dakota was supposed to pick them up en route back from Pennsylvania in order to be able to save them for her daughter who is living in Paris–but she forgot to put them in her car when she stopped by.

Luckily my cousin also came to visit while I am in Minnesota and I reminded all of them of the china.  They were pleased with my prompting.  My Uncle quickly got the china out of their storage bin to give to my cousin.  Of course, since the china began their trip last summer from Massachusetts back to Michigan, and then to Minnesota at Christmas, and now to South Dakota this spring, my cousin’s daughter got accepted into graduate school.  She will be in Connecticut starting in the fall and my cousin thinks she will love having the china when she moves there…

Like her china, Grandma Minnie never stayed in one place too long–there were too many people to visit and places to go.

Learning New Tricks

I had evidence that I need to continually learn new things this past week.

Until I moved into my house in Massachusetts, I had lived my life with heat coming through natural gas pipes or electric wires to my place of residence.  Maybe when I was 0-5 we had coal, but that is a vague memory and I wasn’t responsible for ordering the coal.

My daughter called me at work this week and asked:  Did you know they were coming to fill the oil tank today?

My response was:  No.  I don’t have to call them.  They just fill it when they need to.  They track the temperature and know when it needs to be filled.

Her response was:  OK.  I went out and asked the man what he was doing.  He didn’t seem real happy because he had to wade through 4 feet of snow to the back of the house with the long hose and dig out the place where the hose attaches.  He said he would appreciate it if we dug it out next time.

Mmmmm.  I hadn’t even thought about this when we got buried in snow again and again.  I didn’t even know where the valve was on the back of the house!

I immediately went and asked my colleagues about cultural protocols.  As it turns out, often those that deliver oil will not fill your tank if you haven’t gotten the path and valve dug out for them.

Bless the man who delivered the oil this last week while I was on a learning curve.  He showed us grace (and warmth).



Snow Farm

IMG_20150128_103619077 IMG_20150208_140134008_HDRSnow is part of my imagination. I grew up, and have lived, primarily in places that get snow storms. This means that when I visit a place in the spring, summer, or fall, I am always imagining how people navigate in the environment in the winter.

I lived for a short time in Louisiana and saw how people had house lots that were long and narrow—a reflection of the French long lot survey system. Houses were at the back ends of these lots with long driveways leading to the road. I immediately wondered—doesn’t this make it difficult to clear the snow in the winter? I also saw sugar cane grown in strips with fallow blocks in between. My mind quickly moved to interpreting this as a strategy for creating snow shelters. I had to stop and remind myself—Louisiana does not get snow storms…

Likewise, when I lived in New Zealand I kept looking at incredibly steep driveways and worry about the ice and snow in the winter. I had to get my anxiety under control, remembering that I was living in a temperate climate.

Snow has always been part of my life, or at least my winter life. I don’t remember much inconvenience related to snow when I was growing up. I only recall cancelled school—snow days—and sledding down the hill behind our house on our toboggan while launching a saucer off the back. Somebody else must have been dealing with the inconvenience.

IMG_20150208_140056473_HDRThe challenge of big snows began to impinge on my imagination when I had my first car and was living in an apartment with on-street parking only. After a huge storm, the city snow removal plan went into effect where they cleared and plowed north-south or east-west streets on alternative days. I had to first dig my car out on my north-south street, and then dig through the mountain of snow left by the plow as it went down the east-west street, in order to move my car around the corner and on to that street. Public frustration (and tickets) were directed to those who did not comply. You also could end up with a car even more deeply buried if the plow went around it.

Getting off-street parking at my next apartment was a huge step up. I had to dig out and drive to work. When I returned, the parking lot would have been plowed.

At some point in my life I moved up to new heights—I had a garage. Of course, it was a long and wide driveway with the garage door facing west. Huge drifts of snow would be up against the garage door, sometimes 4 feet deep, with other parts of the driveway swept clean by the wind.

IMG_20150208_140116901When I moved to Michigan I had a list of non-negotiables for a house purchase, including a short driveway. I didn’t get a short driveway, but it was a narrow driveway that did not face west. In spite of my life experience, I still was a bit mystified that first fall when I saw four-foot stakes show up at the end of everyone’s driveway and city workers attaching six-foot high flags to fire hydrants. After a winter where the mound on either side of my driveway was piled six feet high I hired a plow service. That fall, stakes showed up at the end of my driveway.

IMG_20150208_140008694_HDRWhen searching for a permanent place to live in Massachusetts, I found that off street parking seemed to be the measure of luxury. But I held out for a minimum of a single car garage. As I drove around old settlements like Salem and Boston, I kept driving to figure out where they would put the snow in the winter. The streets where narrow, there were no yards, and no garages. As attractive as gentile urban living was to me, my imagining snow kept me from pursuing that option.

This winter, with snow coming in feet rather than inches, I have found out the secret around snow in places like Boston and Salem. Snow goes to snow farms. As a geographer, I have to say that I am upset that this is the first time in my life that I have heard of snow farms. Even in graduate school, while taking meteorology and climatology courses I was not informed of this phenomenon. I was taught that snow formed in the atmosphere under certain conditions.

Now I find it is grown in New England.


CaptureA nor’easter is a storm that forms in a low pressure area that is associated primarily with the Northeast part of North America where polar cold air masses converge with warm ocean air over the Gulf Stream.  Winds swirl around in a counterclockwise direction around a low pressure zone, constantly blowing from the northeast off the ocean onto the land. Winds in a nor’easter can sometimes reach hurricane force and bring anything from rain to snow.  I’ve seen rain coming in through the edges of windows, or through ceiling after having been blown up under the eaves or shingles of the roof.  Everything blows sideways, trees come down, coastal areas flood, and many lose power.

Nor’easter storms were made famous in the book and movie, The Perfect Storm.  This week we got a decent nor’easter.  I have been looking at two feet of snow and still falling.  The drift in front of my garage is much higher yet.  In anticipation of the storm, I left my bright yellow shovel by my front door.  This was a good decision since I had to shove the door open because of the snow piles in front of it.  I would have had a four foot snow drift to get through to retrieve the shovel from the garage.  This way I could dig my way to the garage.  But then, I’m not going anywhere.

Nor’easterlies.  It is why I have a back-up generator for my house.  We remain safe and warm.  And the bread is baking in the oven.


My guard owl is almost buried.


The entryway after several rounds of shoveling.


Yet more fell after this…

Where in the World? (This Christmas)

This is the time of the Chinese New Year’s celebration.  Everyone goes back to home villages to visit family during this time of year.  This is not an easy trip to plan since you can only buy train tickets two weeks ahead of time, you can only buy them from the place of your origin, and you are competing with millions of other travelers.  Having seen the lines of people trying to get home for the holiday in China, I once foolishly wondered why they put so much effort into going home given the barriers.  I merely had to think about my own family to put it in perspective.  Take the movements and placement of members of my family this Christmas for example…

From Shanghai, where they live, to the Middle East for a reunion with fellow teachers, and a visit with a father on a kibbutz, taking a cloth Christmas tree in their suitcase.

Swaziland doing voluntary service.

Paris serving as a nannie.

Going from northern Minnesota to Florida, leaving winter behind, to have fun with the grandchildren.

San Diego Cluster:  Where Daisy the pug received steps to enable her to get up on the couch.

North Dakota Cluster:  Where everyone primarily spent Christmas with the individual outlaws this year.  A quiet day at home with turkey.

Phoenix Cluster:  From NYC to Phoenix to join family and extended family snowbirds for the holidays and see how much Taylor loved her new chair.

From Michigan to NYC to explore the Big Apple.