It’s Hard to Photograph a Prairie

Especially when a certain someone is wearing a ginormous hat to ward off mosquitos and insists on getting in the middle of the photo. It’s also hard because there’s something about the whole of the prairie, with all the different flowers and grasses, that I can’t capture on my phone. You’ll just have to see it for yourself.

Tracy grew up in Iowa for the most part (also Mexico—I’ll tell you about that when we drive there!), and he spent a few summers in Wisconsin with grandparents. So I hear a lot about things that are totally foreign to me, like squeaky cheese curds, meat lockers, Iowa corn, and loose meat sandwiches from Maid-Rite. 

We talk about food a lot.  

Des Moines

Des Moines is a handy hub for visiting, so we’re here for a week, seeing a few friends (at six feet) and running errands we need a big city for. 

I’ve been here several times recently—it’s a city like most others—no need to describe it.  But I do think fondly of the Library bar near the former location of the tattoo shop now run by Tracy’s best friend’s little sister, Molly. (Are you following? Keep up!). 

Quick back story. Tracy used to save up his vacation days so he could spend every September kayaking a segment of the upper Mississippi. He’d do it by himself and camp along the river at night. Pretty damned cool.

He’d always begin the trip in Iowa catching up with friends, and I started to tag along as soon as I met him. I’d ride up with him and do that visiting, then fly back once he got on the water. 

The reason we’d make Des Moines part of that trip is that Molly’s shop is in Des Moines, so I’d get some tattoo work done each September (and one April) and then fly out of the airport here.  

All this is to explain why I’m surprised by the stark contrast of urban Des Moines and the lush county park we’re camped in right on the outskirts. 

Thomas Mitchell County Park

First off, we arrived on a Tuesday thinking there would be plenty of campsites to choose from, but the place was full—all but one site, which turns out to be a decent one right at the entrance. This means our outdoor living room has a view of all the people coming and going instead of just the side of some brown RV.  

The people here are doing the usual campground things: adults sit by the firepit while kids circle the loop endlessly, riding bikes, scooters, skateboards, anything with loud wheels, and walking dogs. Thank god there is no giant public drunkenness, though, and no nightly golf cart parade. Although the week is young.

(There is one kid who thought he was slyly playing his ukulele barely on my periphery while I was playing—this kid clearly wants to play together but won’t ask. I’ll see if he has a mask.)

The grounds are really beautiful here. Lots of mown-grass fields and pathways among picnic tables and around a pond, plus those recreated prairies I keep mentioning.  Iowa used to have something like 12 inches of rich topsoil, and flowering prairies were everywhere. It’s the thing to do among nature conservationists to recreate these prairies and educate the public about them. 

Tracy says they pale in comparison to one he once saw that was an original prairie, never plowed under. It was so thick with tall plants that you couldn’t walk through it.  Maybe we’ll visit it.

Back to the park: we were walking Banjo and found this statue of a morel carved from a huge tree trunk. I think it tops the giant Strohs can, right? 

There are a couple of trails through the woods right by the campground that groups of kids must be taken on against their wills. We haven’t seen the groups, but we did get caught up in the Scooby Doo book posted along the trail, a page every few yards as incentive to keep walking. 

In the book, the Scooby gang is out camping, and they send Scooby and Shaggy into the woods to find firewood. Roh roh! Everywhere they turn is a spooky forest monster, which of course turns out to be not the usual evil land developer wearing a mask, but squirrels and owls and shadows of the gang by the campfire. 

It so reminded me of a book I used to read to Finn over and over and over when he was little that seemed super scary but ended with a hug and a laugh.  Sigh. 


Speaking of the real world, we have a list as long as your arm of things to get done, and amazingly we did nearly all of them yesterday thanks to stellar planning.  Phone fixed, bike tire fixed (maybe), laundry, groceries, REI pick-up, all punctuated with a take-out Thai picnic in a park on the other side of Des Moines. 

We took Banjo along because it was a long long day, and she’s such a Good Dog.  Slept in the truck, jumped out for the picnic and lay beside us as we ate, and jumped back in for more stoplights, strip malls, Tracy or me getting in and out of the truck, hand sanitizing, mask finding, list-checking-offing, on and on.  Done! 

Campground at Night

This wildlife TV-special thing happens at the campground each night, and it blows my mind. bBut you guys tell me if it isn’t unusual. 

As soon as dusk darkens the campground under the large trees here, a family of juvenile barred owls descends on us. They land on the ground, on the ground! and stay there as we walk up to take pictures.

They call out a squeak that’s a hunger call; their parents are still feeding them some, and we can hear the adults off in the woods nearby sounding much more like you’d expect owls to sound like. 

The juveniles fly from the ground to the low tree branches to the tops of tents, and even to the top of the Airstream, all the while calling out that they’re hungry. Should there be a sign at the entrance saying, “Please don’t feed the owls”?

Have you ever witnessed this? Or are we in some kind of barred owl vortex?

Okay, onward to the rest of our week in Des Moines, visiting friends and prairies. Be prepared for lots of pictures and me saying the photos don’t do the prairies justice.

(I took this one on my first trip here at a prairie we’ll visit again later in the week. Be prepared.)

5 thoughts to “It’s Hard to Photograph a Prairie”

  1. I grew up on the edge of the prairies so I get the beauty but these look much more lush. I actually have no idea what they would have looked like originally, more grass I suspect, due to the bison. I will have to investigate!

    1. I read today that bison eat only grass, so that opened up the prairies for more flowering plants. 🌸🌼

      1. From what I can tell you are in Tall Grass Prairie at the moment, heading into Mixed Grass with Short Grass in the West. Alberta seems to be Mixed and Short but since I’ve never seen original Mixed Grass Prairie I don’t know what it looks like! Presumably shorter than what you’re seeing 😁

  2. A friend told me to look at prairie through the seasons. To watch colors and blooms come, blossom, fade. The gift of a prairie is continual. It means you two need to come back and check on the patch here! 🙂 Frequently!