Butcher Road

This past Monday, my mother-in-law drove Erin and I from Vermillion, South Dakota back to Des Moines via some back roads. Among other things, she wanted to show us the Loess Hills of Iowa, a strip of rugged terrain left behind by the ice-age. This terrain is actually quite unique in terms of its features, and this site explains the special way that they were formed:

Although early geologists assumed loess was either fluvial (deposited by a river) or lacustrine (formed in a lake), today we know that loess was eolian (deposited by the wind). During the Ice Age, glaciers advanced down into the mid-continent of North America, grinding underlying rock into a fine powderlike sediment called “glacial flour.” As temperatures warmed, the glaciers melted and enormous amounts of water and sediment rushed down the Missouri River valley. The sediment was eventually deposited on flood plains downstream, creating huge mud flats.

During the winters the meltwaters would recede, leaving the mud flats exposed. As they dried, fine-grained mud material called silt was picked up and carried by strong winds. These large dust clouds were moved eastward by prevailing westerly winds and were redeposited over broad areas. Heavier, coarser silt, deposited closest to its Missouri River flood plain source, formed sharp, high bluffs on the western margin of the Loess Hills. Finer, lighter silt, deposited farther east, created gently sloping hills on the eastern margin. This process repeated for thousands of years, building layer upon layer until the loess reached thicknesses of 60 feet or more and became the dominant feature of the terrain.

The result is some rather difficult terrain to farm, though the original settlers tried. The area erodes extremely easy (this erosion is what’s given it its distinctive shape), leading to even some road and bridge collapses. Some farmers have taken to terracing their land, while other parts of the territory have now been preserved, partly due to government buy-outs, but also homestead donations.

It is impressive territory, as our car struggled up the winding gravel road that, for some reason, appeared to have been built on the ridge of one of these long hills. The land dropped off on either side of us, providing a strange contrast of rural or prairie vistas within a rugged landscape more suited to something mountainous. But I think the fact that we could still see homes, that we could see terraced farmlands, and roads (albeit gravel ones) criss-crossing the landscape that surprised me. These roads even included street signs.

So when we stopped at the top of one of the tallest hills, which also happened to be the intersection of North Ridge Road and Butcher Road, I had to snap this picture. The street signs and the houses in the distance all suggested human habitation, but we were the only ones around, in the midst of preserved prairie grassland humming with insects and twittering with birds. And we could see for miles around.

My mother-in-law mentioned that her father called this intersection/summit, “Butcher Hollar” — a joke, but still an evocative statement. It is an excellent place to stand and shout. You could be heard for miles.

Here’s a Google hybrid map of the area.

We then went to the nearby town of Elk Point and had ice cream sundaes at a Drug Store soda stand that traced its lineage right back to the good old days when this sort of thing was common, and we made a stop in the larger town of Denison, Iowa — as middle a middle American town as you could find in Iowa. We ate a clapped together dinner in the parking lot of the local Hy-Vee as twilight set in on the downtown. Vivian watched all the people smiling at her and, in the distance, the train whistles called.

The picture above is looking north-east, I believe. This shot is looking north.

Looking northwest.

The whole intersection (as seen, looking northwest)

Vivian laughing at the wildflowers.

Vivian enjoying ice cream in Elk Point.

(Below): Downtown Denison in Dark.

blog comments powered by Disqus