A tourist on the High Plains

September 30th, 2011 by Ken

Write what you know an old scribe told me one time. OK, he wasn’t so old, but the advice still has merit.

I just finished spending two weeks driving around Montana, Wyoming and South Dakota, the High Plains, so I thought I’d tell you a little of what I found out.

There’s a lot of space. Montana is the fourth largest state by area but the 43rd by population. Wyoming is 10th largest in area but ranks at the bottom – in 50th place by population. And South Dakota is the 17th largest state but ranks 47th in population. So, there’s a lot of space.

And, because of all that space, there’s plenty of room to roam. Distances in the High Plains is not measured by miles but by how long it takes to get from one place to another. The speed limit on most four-lane roads is 75 and most people drive even faster. Montana, at one time, had no speed limit until the Feds threatened to withhold federal highway funds until they adopted one.

Driving at 80 along I-90 is a real kick. Because there are few trees and even fewer structures, it’s difficult to gauge speed. Going 80 seems like going 40, and it’s not until you look down at your speedometer that you realize you’re going 80. And, the fact that there are no other cars on the road, also helps in the isolation of speed.

Along the major interstate runs railroad tracks, and on those tracks are railcars full of coal. Car after car after car, as many as a hundred or more in each train. Coal is the driver of the high plains economy. And, while coal is still king, it is rapidly being overtaken by oil shale exploration, and new pipelines are being constructed.

Small towns, and there are few of them, have started to experience new growth. Small housing developments are going up and the new is definitely distinctive from the old housing which still makes up the bulk of the towns.

The growth in energy production can be seen by the unemployment rates. Montana is highest with 7.8 percent, while Wyoming’s rate is 5.8 and South Dakota stands at 4.7 percent.

And, while energy is a big economic driver, it is really tourism which provides the incentive for businesses to hire. Montana has natural beauty and is divided into two distinct zones – western and eastern. Most of the tourism centers around the western part and encompasses the national forests and parks.

Wyoming has a natural beauty of its own but invokes the old west as its draw. The state’s new motto is The Real West. And, while the mountains and the national parks are a tourist draw, it is the idea and concept of the Old West which draws visitors. None has taken advantage of this more than Cody, Wyoming. Drawing on its relationship to Buffalo Bill Cody, the town of Cody is a tourist’s dream. With five different museums and as a gateway to Yellowstone National Park, Cody is a major tourist stop, and well worth it. If you go, expecting the Old West, you’ll be disappointed. But, if you go expecting to learn more about that time of American history, you’ll be rewarded.

South Dakota depends on tourism as well. The Black Hills of South Dakota and the Badlands of South Dakota (about an hour apart) are the tourism center. The Black Hills have Deadwood, which has casino gambling, Mt. Rushmore, Crazy Horse and bison herds. They are all worthwhile stops.

But, the biggest draw each year for South Dakota tourism is the Sturgis Motorcycle rally. This past July, more than 400,000 bikers descended on the area. And, that was down from previous years when as many as 800,000 bikers made the trip. For nearly a month, in areas as far away as 100 miles, the bikers spend their time and money.

We went at the end of September, after the tourist season, and were blessed with good weather the whole time. Last year in September, the area had snow.

But, while tourism is a major economic event for the High Plains, it is energy, coal, oil shale and natural gas, which will be the driver to keep those states at the forefront of a national economic recovery.

Posted in Business, Informational, The Real News

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