Discovering the Driftless

What if you lived in the middle of a geological curiosity and didn’t even know it?

Well, maybe not the middle, but just beyond the western edge? That was me, growing up in Austin, Minnesota. Austin is on the eastern edge of the prairie, flat and surrounded by corn and soybean fields. It’s a small company town, headquarters of Hormel Foods. A union town. And as a kid, the only thing I knew about the area that was noteworthy was that we invented Spam.

But I did also know that just a bit farther to the east, the terrain got… weird. Flat cornfields turned into rolling hills, and then into steep bluffs as you approached the Mississippi River. On the other side of the river, in Wisconsin, things got even weirder, with strange rock formations dotting the hilly landscape, until eventually farther to the east things flattened out again. And I knew the place was weird below the surface too, with caves and underground streams.

I often wondered what made the areas just to the east of my hometown so much different than where I lived, or anywhere else I had ever seen, for that matter. But not enough to really explore or investigate it. Even as an adult. After all, the Midwest is boring. If you want interesting landscapes, you go to Utah or Arizona or really anywhere besides what feels like the least exotic place on the planet.

Catch My Drift

Last year, while working on the Land Stewardship Project website, I encountered a term I had never heard before: “Driftless.” Specifically, the “Driftless Area,” a name applied to that “weird” part of southeastern Minnesota and southwestern Wisconsin near where I had grown up.

I wondered why it was called “Driftless.” I assumed it had to do with drifting snow. That would seem to be a logical assumption: from Austin west to the South Dakota border, snow drifting across the windswept prairie is such a problem that there are permanent gates at most entrances to I-90, so the road can be shut down easily during big winter storms. Drifting snow is not as much of a problem farther to the east, where the hilly terrain keeps it (somewhat) in check.

But I found it a bit strange that the area would be called “Driftless” for that reason. And it’s not.

Drift, in geological terms, refers to sediment and rocks left behind by retreating glaciers, which in addition to leaving behind drift, tend to flatten out and otherwise disrupt whatever landscapes had previously existed before them.

It’s no surprise to anyone who understands even the most basic principles of geology that most of the Upper Midwest was covered by glaciers in the last ice age. But, strangely, a large area was completely untouched by the glaciers, bounded roughly by the cities of Eau Claire, Wisconsin on the north; Rochester, Minnesota on the west; Madison, Wisconsin on the east; and the Quad Cities of Iowa and Illinois on the south. This is the Driftless Area, so named because it was untouched by the drift left behind as the glaciers of the most recent ice age retreated.

The Driftless Area is so different, then, primarily for two reasons: first, its landscape and features were not flattened and transformed by the glaciers themselves; and second, because the runoff from the melting glaciers further carved and shaped the already odd landscape. Where the retreating glaciers had left behind prairies dotted with lakes, the untouched Driftless Area was left with deep river gorges, sinkholes, bluffs and monadnocks. The Mississippi River runs right through the middle of the Driftless Area, and its gorge and present course were formed during the melting period.

“That Sounds Like a Desert or Something”

The biggest question I have now is not how did this place get the way it is, but why had I never heard of it before? I’m still just beginning to explore the answer to this new question, but I suspect partly it’s because the geology and geography of the area are still being studied, just beginning to be understood.

A documentary film project is underway, exploring Mysteries of the Driftless Zone. The filmmakers are exploring the area both above and below the surface, studying its strange topography, rock formations, caves and unique life forms that survived the ice age and now exist here and nowhere else.

As this clip shows, they’re also touching on the other mystery of the Driftless Area: how people who live in it (and La Crosse, Wisconsin is as “in it” as you can get) don’t even know it exists.

It’s fascinating how giving something a name can give it importance and meaning. Although I’ve always liked and been interested in this area, I find it much more compelling now that I can think of it as a distinct thing with a name. Why is that?


As another final curiosity, and harkening back to a blog post I wrote after the 2008 election — discussing the fact that the curious distribution of votes for President Obama in the Deep South in that year’s election closely followed the contours of the Atlantic coastline from the Cretaceous Period, 85 million years ago — we have this blog post by Scott Sumner.

While Mitt Romney carried most rural parts of the country except those that have a specific historical or demographic reason to favor the Democrats (African-American voters in the Deep South, non-whites in the Southwest, miners in northern Minnesota’s Iron Range), there was one fairly large, weird blob in the rural Upper Midwest, an area populated largely by white farmers, that is uniformly blue on the 2012 election map… the Driftless Area.

Sumner gives no explanation or theory for why the Driftless Area favored Obama — simply noting that it did. The county I grew up in is on the edge of that blob. It’s always gone for the Democrats as far back as I can remember, but that’s always been primarily because of the strong union presence in Austin. And I’ve always felt that farmers in Minnesota might favor the Democrats more than their counterparts in other states because of our state’s peculiar political history: we don’t have the Democratic Party. We have the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party, or DFL, resulting from the 1944 merger of the Democrats with the Farmer-Labor Party, a left-wing third party that was fairly successful in the early 20th century and was a key to the enduring progressive populist bent of the state’s politics to the present day.

But that’s a bit of a tangent here… I still don’t really know or even have a theory as to why the Driftless Area — all of it, not just the part in Minnesota — went for Obama. (Especially when you consider that Romney’s running mate, Paul Ryan, is from the Driftless Area, or just east of it.) I just think it’s interesting and… weird, like the place itself.

Apparently there is now a sprawling metropolis in northwestern North Dakota, or… something

As any regular reader of this irregularly-updated blog knows, I love maps. That I didn’t become a cartographer is mainly a result of the times in which we live, although given the tech geekery of GIS, it’s still not a convincing explanation.

Anyway, as a map lover, I geeked out today when The Atlantic Wire had a post about new nighttime satellite imagery released by NASA, including this amazing “map” of the US, with its major metropolitan areas aglow with artificial luminescence.

Knowing the US map as well as I do, I was immediately able to pick out most of the major cities. Starting with my home in Minneapolis, I proceeded to identify Chicago, Des Moines, Omaha, Kansas City, etc.

And that’s when it hit me. I know there’s no major US metropolitan area between Minneapolis and Seattle. So… what is that huge glowing area in what appears to be northwestern North Dakota? I wondered. Atlantic Wire’s Dashiell Bennett wondered the same thing, and came to the same conclusion as I did:

One thing that sticks out for us is the surprisingly large bright spot in what appears to be an otherwise dark North Dakota. Could that be the state’s exploding oil industry working overtime?

I’ve created an animated GIF illustrating the situation. Using the NASA photo published on the Atlantic Wire post, I overlaid a map outlining the state boundaries, dropped in markers for some recognizable cities in the western US and Canada, and then… that big weird area in North Dakota.

I decided to take a closer look at just what is around that huge glowing area in North Dakota. I zoomed the satellite photo and overlaid it on another map outlining counties and rivers in North Dakota to try to make sense of it. Surely North Dakota’s population centers must be near all of that light, right?

Not so.

At this level of zoom, on Google Maps, only four towns in the entire western half of the state are populous enough to be identified: Williston, Minot, Dickinson and Bismarck. And of those four, only Williston (population 14,716, according to the 2010 census) is in the glowing area.

So… yeah. This light is not coming from a city. At least, not a well-planned, livable city densely populated with humans. I’m no expert on the topic, but I am well aware of North Dakota’s current shale oil boom and the controversies of the hydraulic fracking techniques that must be used to extract it from the earth. It’s just kind of interesting, I think, to see yet another consequence of fracking: light pollution.

For further reading… well, just Google “Williston fracking”.

The walled city of Kowloon

Today Boing Boing linked to a Dark Roasted Blend feature on three 20th century Asian urban ruins: Hashima Island (or “Battleship Island”) in Japan; the legendary futuristic resort that never quite was, San Zhi, in Taiwan; and perhaps the ultimate unnatural disaster: the walled city of Kowloon.

From this angle, it’s a SimCity player’s worst nightmare. (Or perhaps just a dystopian arcology.) But the reality of the place was (since it no longer exists) beyond anything I could dream up. Wikipedia offers a good overview, but essentially, due to some quirks of history (followed by a period of domination by crime syndicates), this 6.5-acre portion of Kowloon (adjacent to Hong Kong) was, for much of the 20th century, almost entirely unregulated and unpoliced by either the British or the Chinese. Over time it was built up into a giant, dense maze of shops, factories and apartments (not to mention brothels and opium dens), with (in some parts, at least) stunningly squalid living conditions and as many as 50,000 residents.

Eventually the entire thing was leveled in the early 1990s and converted into a park, but the bizarre history remains… told best, perhaps, in a German documentary that is available in its entirety in four parts on YouTube. I don’t speak German, but it’s fascinating to watch even with no sound. And so, here it is…

I was surprised by some of the street-level exterior shots at how colorful and almost seemingly normal (if still insanely dense) the place seemed, but then the camera turned down one of the dark, narrow passageways leading into the heart of the walled city. It was amazing to see these alleys wind left and right (and up and down), fetid water dripping from above, rats’ nests of electrical wiring and water pipes leading off in every direction (not to mention, well, rats’ nests), and then, suddenly, an open doorway leading into a blindingly lit, miniature factory cranking out wonton wrappers or woven fabric or… whatever. I cannot comprehend how this place hadn’t burned down already years earlier, taking most of its residents with it (since there was nothing even remotely resembling a fire escape in the completely unregulated, ad hoc construction).

There’s only one thing in my experience that in any way prepared me for what I saw here: Terry Gilliam’s Brazil. Maybe with a bit of Blade Runner thrown in for good measure.

I’m struck by the sheer chaos of this place. It’s jarring to see the elements of a modern structure — electricity, running water, modern building materials, and other technology — assembled with no overall plan, no regulation. In some ways it’s surprising that it’s as orderly — as functional — as it is. In a strange way it’s a testament to the human spirit. Populated largely by refugees, outlaws, and the forgotten (or those the outside world would just as soon forget), it’s amazing how industrious and ambitious (or at least resilient) most of its residents remain despite their living conditions.

Tiny apartments, I expected. Unsanitary markets, I expected. Even the forest of TV antennas and clotheslines on the rooftops didn’t surprise me. All manner of crime wouldn’t surprise me. The thing that totally shocked me about this place was the proliferation of industry in it. There are factories making food; factories making plastics; factories making clothes; metalworks. I can only imagine the miserable heat and stench inside most of these spaces.

And then, a school.

And a church.

As I mentioned, I don’t speak German, but I’m able to pick up enough cognates to make some sense of the narration. Certainly I know what das labyrinth means. And yet, the more I see, and the more I become desensitized to the squalor of the alleyways, the more surprisingly familiar, surprisingly unsuprising, the interiors of the homes and the businesses seem. Everything is incomprehensibly crowded and cluttered, but it’s unmistakably human. But the marginal comforts of home can’t make up for the suffering of the old man lying in a pile of blankets in an alleyway, next to a dead rat, or the profound resignation on many of the silent, pensive faces.

The rooftop, and the courtyard deep inside the heart of the labyrinth, offer a rare glimpse of sunshine, and they make me wonder how often, if ever, the residents of the walled city would venture forth from their anarchic, cyberpunk quasi-prison. Many people in the walled city were (somewhat ironically) there to escape punishment, but most, presumably, had committed no crime. But were they free to leave? Were they stigmatized (or worse) if they dared venture out into the rest of Hong Kong? Answers to these questions may lie in the narration, which I regret I do not understand better.

Unlicensed, unregulated dentists and doctors. When I think of places like this, and practitioners like them, I typically think of unscrupulous hucksters and grotesque, unpunished malpractice. But seeing it in action, after all I’ve seen already, I have a different take. Sure, it may not be approved by the medical establishment, and there may be no recourse for patients who have been treated improperly, but it’s still a practice undertaken with care and effort, genuinely striving to relieve suffering. At least, it can be that.

As evening settles in, a shopkeeper sweeps trash from the alley outside her door. And I realize as my somewhat voyeuristic, entirely vicarious journey into the walled city comes to an end, and as much as I may lay misguided sympathy upon its former residents as I objectify and dehumanize their experience, that they are (or were) real people too, living a life in some ways unimaginably different from my own, and yet in other, deeper ways, strikingly similar. They have families, they work, they eat (even if much of it is stuff I’m too afraid to touch), they create, they perform. Who am I to judge their way of being, especially when I know so little about it, or how it came to be?

But there is one thing in the lives of the former residents of the now disappeared walled city of Kowloon with which I absolutely can relate: its absence.

For all of its wild, chaotic life, its teeming throngs of residents, engaged in every activity imaginable in human existence, all within the space of a few acres, now it is all gone. Open space. Air. And a park.

I can relate to this because it reminds me of a strange place in my own past: Wahlstrom Hall. While no walled city of Kowloon, Walhstrom Hall was quite possibly the strangest, most chaotically architected dormitory in the history of American colleges. I lived there for four years. And now it is gone, leveled just like the walled city, replaced with little more than grass and air. I can’t say that my quadrennium in Wahlstrom really gives me any insight into life in Kowloon’s walled city, but it certainly does contribute to my strange affinity towards this incomparably strange place in Hong Kong that once was, and is no more.

Note: If you’d like a more informed opinion on the Kowloon walled city, here’s a post from a blogger whose dad lived there for 14 years. There’s also an excellent (if somewhat antiquated in its design… and regrettable use of Papyrus font) website devoted to the history of Kowloon Walled City with informative articles and a number of photographs.

What does Route 66 sound like?

Much of it is probably pretty quiet these days. I know the remnant of the once great U.S. Route 66 running through the Cajon Pass in Southern California is an all-but-forgotten back road now: Interstate 15 roars with 8-plus lanes of cars and trucks 24 hours a day, while less than a mile away, the former divided 4-lane Route 66 has been reduced to a single 2-lane blacktop county road, with the abandoned southbound lanes left overgrown with weeds and populated intermittently with parked cars, their occupants wistfully dreaming of the glory days of the erstwhile “Main Street of America.”

My latest music project, entitled simply 66, is a 21-minute, 10-part suite that seeks to capture, in my own quasi-prog-rock fashion, some of the experience of cruising along the “Mother Road” from its origin at Lake Michigan in Chicago, through St. Louis, across the American Southwest (following, roughly, the path of current Interstate 40), past the Grand Canyon, into the California High Desert and on to the Pacific shore in Santa Monica.

Route 66 is in many ways a symbol of America, from its optimistic (if never so simple and wholesome as some prefer to remember) origins in westward expansion, to its decommissioning in the 1970s with the advent of bigger and better freeways, and its subsequent haphazard mix of abandonment and preservation. Route 66 represents the best and worst of the American prospect. It’s a fitting inspiration for an extended, varied, and ultimately unpredictable piece of music.

You can listen to the entire album online or download it for free at my official 66 album page. I hope you enjoy listening to it as much as I enjoyed making it.

Looking ahead at the future of LRT in Minneapolis

Honestly, I have to admit that I’ve been fairly apathetic about the process of determining a route for the proposed southwest light rail line in Minneapolis. I love the Hiawatha Line: it’s the biggest reason why we moved to the house we live in. At the time I was working downtown, and our house is within walking distance of two stations. I commuted on the light rail every day for 3 1/2 years. I also take a keen interest in the extension of the Hiawatha line to the new Twins stadium, and I’m mildly interested in the next light rail project: the Central Corridor, because it connects to the U of M campus and downtown St. Paul, other places I am interested in traveling to.

But Eden Prairie? Not so much. All of the talk I have heard about the southwest line has been focused on Eden Prairie. Who cares? It’s the same reason I haven’t been clamoring for a ride on the new Northstar commuter line. I don’t need to go to Big Lake. I wouldn’t even know where the hell Big Lake was if not for the Northstar line teaching me that it’s obviously somewhere in between Minneapolis and St. Cloud (which, no offense to Michele Bachmann’s constituents, I also don’t need to go to).

Of course, I forget that in getting to Eden Prairie, the southwest line might just go through other interesting parts of the city along the way, such as Uptown. Or, maybe not. (Read on… I’ll get to it.)

Tonight has been a strange night of web browsing for me. I started off with a Daring Fireball post about Gary Hustwit’s (of Helvetica fame) new documentary Objectified. Then led me to start thinking about geography, which is usually what carries me off on flights of link-clicking fancy. Even better, Kottke also linked to a fascinating post on oobject with before-and-after photos of cities, some good, like reconstruction of bombed-out European cities post-WWII, and others, well… pretty much the opposite. (Perhaps the eeriest thing about the exhibit was the similarity between Kabul and Detroit.)

After pondering urban decay, I was uplifted a bit by a series of photoblog entries by Alex Block, a Minneapolis native now living in DC, capturing his experiences on a return visit to our city this past summer. He had valid, if slightly stinging, criticisms of our Skyway system, but he also gave the LRT some attention. Most compelling for me, however, was his coverage of the proposed southwest LRT line, including the potent map below:

Minneapolis southwest LRT line alternatives

Block’s source for that map provides excellent background on the situation, and why federal cost-effectiveness guidelines may dictate that the comparatively worthless green line will probably get built, instead of the more expensive — but also immeasurably more useful — blue line. It’s not just population density; a pair of related maps show that poverty levels and current public transit use also heavily favor the Uptown route over the Kenilworth route.

Don’t get me wrong… the green line runs through some very nice parts of town, and I suppose in many ways it does make sense, at least from the perspective of construction costs, to follow existing rail right-of-way as much as possible. But “some very nice parts of town” don’t really need mass transit in the way that, oh, you know, densely-populated parts of town do, especially densely-populated parts of town with much higher poverty and transit ridership levels.

On the other hand, I suspect many people were initially critical of the route of the Hiawatha Line. I think I was myself, but of course back then I wasn’t familiar enough with this part of town to care very much. (And by now it should be obvious that I only care about what I care about.) It seemed that the primary selling point for the Hiawatha Line was that it directly connected the two heaviest-traffic parts of the metro area: downtown Minneapolis and the airport/Mall of America cluster in Bloomington. That in so doing, it could also be built relatively cheaply along available right-of-way next to Hiawatha Avenue — land originally intended for a freeway (source) that was never built — was a nice bonus for getting the plan through the funding process, despite the fact that that also meant that between the VA Hospital and Lake Street it would mostly run through a mildly-blighted stretch of abandoned grain elevators and former department store warehouses converted into self-storage units.

That mildly-blighted area is notably less blighted (the boarding up of Hiawatha Joe notwithstanding) today than it was a few years ago, thanks almost entirely to the presence of the LRT line running through it.

Perhaps there’s a lesson in this for the southwest line as well. Perhaps I should not be so quick to dismiss the potential for a light rail line to transform the ugliness around I-394 between the Dunwoody Institute and Penn Avenue. On the other hand, it’s not just the light rail that breathed new life into the area around Hiawatha Avenue. Hiawatha Avenue itself had to be there, and there’s nothing like it in the area of the proposed Kenilworth version of the southwest line. Nor does the majority of that part of the city need the kind of boost the light rail has given the Longfellow neighborhood. Phillips, Lyn-Lake, and Uptown, however, do need the benefits high-capacity rail transit would offer. They’re among the most densely-populated parts of the city, with some of the worst street traffic. Uptown is also one of the biggest destinations in the city, besides downtown itself, and for a southwest line to achieve the kind of success the Hiawatha Line has in its five years of operation, it’s going to need more riders than just Eden Prairie’s weekday commuters.

And so, much like my meandering links across the Internet earlier this evening, and my meandering reasoning here, it seems to me that there’s little question that if we think about the long term objectives of the line… the reason for building the damn thing in the first place, it makes sense to build it where it will actually be used, not just where it’s cheapest to do so.

Addendum: Lest you think I’ve gotten too swept up in my grand visions of freeway systems planned in the 1950s and ’60s, finished or not, and forgotten that they splintered and destroyed (disproportionately African-American) communities; or in this century’s counterparts in light rail projects and related work that lead to things like rerouting highways through sacred Native American land… I haven’t.