Fill the Dust Bowl

I posted an article last August about five marathons in five states in five days planned for March 2013. I didn’t intend to run, rather my goal was to convince my favorite runner to participate (in the half-marathon option). That would allow me to tag along to give moral support while pursuing various geo-oddity adventures. Later I announced that the plan was on, airline tickets had been booked, hotel rooms had been reserved, and training was underway.

Now I turn to the wise and all-knowing Twelve Mile Circle audience for a most difficult challenge, an opportunity to shape my Dust Bowl experience, and truly I will be traveling through the very heart of the 1930’s Dust Bowl territory. Readers have helped me design geo-adventures before, suggesting odd stopping point I never would have discovered on my own, and hopefully you can do the same again. The special problem with this corner of the nation is its vast emptiness: few people; few towns; few geographic variances. It’s a veritable Sea of Grass, as represented by the Comanche, Cimarron, Kiowa and Rita Blanca National Grasslands.

View Dust Bowl Destinations in a larger map

There are other constraints, most significantly the Dust Bowl Marathon Series race schedule, March 18-22, 2013.

  • March 18 – Dalhart, Texas
  • March 19 – Guymon, Oklahoma
  • March 20 – Ulysses, Kansas
  • March 21 – Lamar, Colorado
  • March 22 – Clayton, New Mexico

Races will take place each morning. Then the whole traveling circus will pack its bags and migrate to the next town a couple of hours away. I’ll need to pursue activities that correlate with the prescribed route each afternoon.

It’s hard for me to wrap my head around the financial impact that this roving band of runners will have upon these sparsely-settled plains, a one-day windfall for hotels and restaurants in each little town during a quiet time of the year. The tourism council in Ulysses, Kansas, is even planning a pasta dinner for the group. I’ll be sure to remember Mr. Burns’ earlier advice to me, to "be sure to pronounce Ulysses as ‘You-liss-us, never as ‘You-liss-eez’. The latter pronunciation peeves the locals." I’d hate cause an interstate incident and ruin the pasta dinner.

There may be little geographic variation, however there are numerous arbitrary human-drawn lines that create interesting situations. Visiting these spots appear to be completely feasible. There is a trifecta of tripoints, as an example, all with passable roads running in close proximity to them.

  • Colorado – Kansas – Oklahoma
  • Colorado – New Mexico – Oklahoma
  • New Mexico – Oklahoma – Texas

The Oklahoma highpoint on Black Mesa falls tantalizingly close to CONMOK, as an added bonus. I’m not sure whether an 8-mile roundtrip to the highpoint will be feasible given other physical activities so a decision will need to be made in real-time. I’d also like to take the self-guided auto tour of the Cimarron National Grassland. It promises a prairie dog town, historical remnants of the famous Santa Fe trail, and scenic views of the Cimarron River watershed.

This plan is similar to the off-the-cuff list I developed last August albeit with a few additions, all marked on the map I developed above. The primary difference today is that each point has been researched and validated.

The Dust Bowl was an ecological disaster of immense proportions, a setting for John Steinbeck’s "The Grapes of Wrath” and more recently a focus of Ken Burns’ documentary on the Public Broadcasting Service – PBS. I’d also like to explore some of those historical dimensions further on the ground and through several museums and heritage centers sprinkled throughout the territory.

Finally one can assume that I’ll consult Roadside America for other oddities and curiosities, albeit even that source doesn’t seem to have much available in my target area.

The weather may be the wildcard. I’m hoping we’re able to thread-the-needle between blizzard and thunderstorm season. Either would impact our ability to reach some of these features (not to mention the races). Some of these spots are found along dirt roads best navigated when dry. Late March historically brings decent weather in the Dust Bowl although late-Spring snowstorms are not out of the question. I’ll continue to think positive thoughts.

That’s what I’ve discovered so far. I know this is a tough one. Is there anything else along the route that shouldn’t be missed?

10 Replies to “Fill the Dust Bowl”

  1. I have driven through the Clayton, NM area several times during my pilgrimages to Colorado. Your grand tour ends in that area so you might as well visit the Capulin volcano. I also like driving by Sierra Grande.

    My inlaws have driven up the volcano and enjoyed it. I need to visit the next time by.

    Some info:

    If you are flying into/out of Albuquerque or similar, you might as well visit Los Alamos so you can bag that county (if you haven’t). That’s a hard county to bag but I did it. There is a huge caldera nearby that is very scenic. The rim road is a fun drive.

    If you’re flying out of Amarillo or similar, there is always Palo Duro canyon. See . I have not visited but my geologist dad likes it. My knowledge of the Amarillo area is limited. Dad has seen a lot of it looking for the oil underneath it.

    If the kids are travelling with you, this trip could give them good exposure to geology. It’s a good way to expand imagination beyond whatever game or book their nose is in at that moment.

  2. Thanks Mike and Katy! I’ve added your suggestions to the map as potential waypoints. Capulin will fall directly on our return route so that’s practically a definite. Palo Duro will be a bit of a detour so I’ll keep it on the list and see if it might be a possibility.

  3. I’m struggling to come up with Geo-oddities in that part of the world. It shouldn’t be so hard. I’ve lived in Kansas my whole life, and my ancestral roots are in that half of the state.

    I note that the first three races will be in the Central Time Zone, and the last two in Mountain Time. Using the route you’ve plotted, you will cross the Time Zone boundary driving straight north. Does that count? OK, that’s pretty lame when it comes to Geo-oddities, so never mind.

    This is just north of Johnson City, a place I’ve visited a number of times. I’ve often said that it’s not the end of the world, but I’m pretty sure you can see it from there.

    The only suggestion I have is that you try to find a bottle or two of something delightful from the Tallgrass Brewing Company.
    Technically, you won’t be in tallgrass country, but hey, any excuse to try a new microbrew, right?

    If I think of anything else, I’ll let you know.

  4. Doh! It’s not a Geo-oddity, but more like Geo-trivia. Once you reach Syracuse, Kansas, and turn west, you’ll be travelling along the Arkansas River. You’ll follow it all the way to Lamar, Colorado. It will probably have little or no water in it, but it’s still a “River” in these parts. The oddity is that the name of the river changes at the state line. Well, OK, not the name, but the pronunciation. When it’s in Kansas, we pronounce it like the name of our state with “Arr” in front: Arr-Kan-Zus. When it’s in Colorado, Oklahoma or Arkansas, they pronounce it like the name of the state: Arr-Kan-Saw.

    Yeah, it’s quirky.

  5. I don’t know if this does anything for you, but to add a little something to going out to the OK high point, just nearly across the road from it are some preserved dinosaur tracks. Have a look here:

    Make sure you ask at in town or get a gps pinpoint when you go out there though, as the time I went a few years ago, there was no sign pointing you to where they were. Apparently it was frequently stolen or vandalized so they just quit replacing it (not much else to do out there I guess!)

  6. Maybe do some investigation re: why Oklahoma’s western border is offset several miles east of Texas panhandle’s western border. It’s almost unnoticeable from a zoomed out scale, but it is a slight geo-oddity

    1. It’s all too likely he’ll follow Texas State Line Road either way (it’s the obvious way between the NM-OK-TX tripoint and the listed route).
      On the oddity: it basically has to do with how the borders were defined by unrelated surveys (which basically attempted to find the same meridian – but the later one was better).
      Unrelatedly: would you attempt to cross the lines between Cimarron County and all five states surrounding it? Then again, between all these tripoint, it could well happen either way 🙂

  7. Interesting my grandparents had a farm in KS lost during the dust storms in the 1930’s, I will be running OK, KS and CO..from New Jersey 40 miles west of New York City.

  8. Looking forward to racing as part of the Half Fanatics to running three Halfs in OK, KS and CO. My mother is from Lucas KS and my grandparents lost there farm due to the dust storms in the mid to late 1930’s, My grandfather worked for WPA in a limestone guary.

    kansas is known throughout the world for Wizard of OZ and when in Northern Ireland saw a play by a middle school, interesting hearing children act like Kansas Farmers with the Irish accents.

    Unfortunately Lucas is not too close to the race area it is 200 miles away from the KS race site, maybe go to Dodge City KS.

    I live in Rockaway New Jersey, 40 miles west of New York City lived in NJ my entire life yet used to live closer to NYC.

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