Sure, you can blow through the Plains on the Interstate. Most of the region is flat as a board and known to induce curses of ‘enough wheat already!’ But turn up your nose and you’ll miss hearty bits of America such as South Dakota’s ear-bedecked Corn Palace, the inimitable outsider art in Lucas, Bobby Vinton crooning in Branson and the stony faces of Mt Rushmore. The Plains’ remote and wild parks top most must-see lists, offering eerie Badlands, bold Black Hills and the wildflower-carpeted Washita Mountains. The region is also the USA’s best place to learn about Native America: here you can make arrowheads and shoot a blow gun at Oklahoma’s Cherokee Heritage Center, or take in the sobering history of massacre sites like Wounded Knee.
The area retains its raw, frontier edge. This is, after all, the land where cowboys became cowboys, 60 million bison ran wild, covered wagon trains blazed trails west and the heroic Plains Indians fought overpowering forces. These days the mantle’s been passed to Stetson-hatted locals lassoing steers, cowgirls cursing over football and farmers grimacing at the sky (More rain? Another tornado?) when they’re not rattling along in their pickup trucks.
Though the weather can be cause for concern for locals, it’s one of the region’s hidden charms for visitors. Summer storms roll in on short notice, instantly darkening the sky and painting drama all over previously unimpressive landscapes.
St Louis, Kansas City and Oklahoma City slake visitors’ big-city fix, but it’s the anonymous dinky towns where you can truly take the country’s pulse. Pull up a plate of chicken-fried steak and a slice of pie along Route 66 or any other twisting two-lane and you’ll probably make a new friend before the check comes. Locals here may tell you they prefer their land wide and open so they can ‘see if anyone’s coming.’ Why not let that someone be you?