Available Light: Prairie Rocket, by W. Scott Olsen

Prairie Rocket

Prose + Photographs by W. Scott Olsen

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Available Light: A Series on the Photography of Place

I can hear the NASA voice in my head.

Ignition sequence started.

We have go for main engine start.

Main engine started.

We have go for liftoff.

I back an old Jeep out of my garage, press a button to lower the door, put the machine in first gear.

Yes, the voice continues:

We have liftoff of the Carship Scott on its round trip voyage from Moorhead, Minnesota to Fort Morgan, Colorado, from Fort Morgan to Albuquerque, from Albuquerque back to Fort Morgan and then back to Fargo and Moorhead.

More than 3,000 miles of interstate highway and gravel backroad, too. Mountains and river crossings. The Front Range and the western slopes. Bright sun and hard storms, for no good reason other than there’s an event to attend and roads to be seen.

But I have to get there fast.

I imagine admiring and hopeful crowds a safe distance away, their cameras and telescopes watching my departure. From a console television, the voice of Walter Kronkite…

Photo by W. Scott Olsen

Six thirty in the morning on a cold, grey, low-overhang, cloudy, foggy, misty day, the noise in this capsule is a good bit quieter. There were storms in the area last night, but they dissipated before they got to Fargo. There were tornadoes down in South Dakota, wind in the valley. This morning, though, all that’s left are the aftermaths, bands and streaks of clouds, water in the ditches, ruffled crops.

Sixty miles an hour on what we call the Convent Road, I cross a bridge over the Red River of the North, drive west through the manicured suburbs of Fargo to I-29, then south. God willing, I’ll make it to Fort Morgan tonight. Albuquerque the evening after.

Once on the interstate and the Jeep up to speed, I watch the mist turn into a light rain. The headlamps of oncoming cars grow diffused yet bright in the fog. The grass in the median and on the sides is bright summertime green, all the trees leafed out. Not bad for the end of June. Just wet and a little cold. Can’t see very much.

Mozart on Minnesota Public Radio. Construction on the interstate, left lane closed, orange pylons and barrels. Everything slows. This is hardly a dramatic departure. But I am tremendously happy. The sky seems to rise a little bit then closes again. Road trip. Motion. New things to see. Old things to see in the new light of this day.

Photo by W. Scott Olsen.

Seven forty-five in the morning. 86.7 miles downrange.

Having crossed into South Dakota, the clouds begin to break into bands. I see sunlight on distant fields. I see the Cotes des Prairie to the right, a range of hills just high and strong enough to have split the advancing glaciers of the last ice age. The day begins to brighten.

There is no reason for me to be thinking about astronauts this morning and yet there is an image I cannot shake. The view from a space-born window, Earth underneath, moving fast under the speed of an orbit. How badly, I wonder, do astronauts want to get out, to linger over some site, to peer at the details?

It’s not very different from the view out my Jeep, the land moving fast because I have a destination. I have never been an astronaut but, like nearly every child on the planet, I have wondered and imagined what it must be like to gain that view. To see the sky change from blue to indigo to black. To see the curve of Earth and to watch the sun become a star.

I am blessed to be a private pilot. It would be wrong to say the world changes when the human eye gains some altitude; however, it would be true to say everything we felt we understood about how the land comes together gets unpacked and reordered. And there is always desire. On the ground, I desire the view from a hill, a small airplane, a rocket ship. In the air, I desire the feeling of dust on my boots. Location is simply the speed and position of the observer—looking outward.

There are lots of birds near the highway this morning. White pelicans. Egrets. Pheasants. Bald eagles. Red-winged blackbirds. Red-tailed hawks. Grackles. Sparrows. Lot of cows, too.

Astronauts don’t get these details. Two hundred and forty-nine miles above Earth, their speed is tremendous. The International Space Station has a maximum speed of 17,150 miles an hour. They go around the world in an hour and a half.

Astronauts get the details of scope. Nile delta. Gobi desert. Pacific Ocean. Typhoon. Baja peninsula. Greenland. It’s a completely different story. Or, better yet I think, it’s the story we know just told at a different pace. Grave instead of Allegro con fuoco. Geologic or astro time instead of who’s late for work.

Eight zero-seven in the morning and 112 miles downrange, I stop to take pictures of an abandoned farmstead north of Watertown. It’s an easy EVA, a simple pulling over on the highway shoulder, a press of the button to turn on the flashers, a release of the door handle. And the morning light is wonderful. As I take pictures, I do not hear CAPCOM in my headset, but I already know my time is limited, that I need to get back into the rocket. Standing some distance away from the Jeep I can hear Lang Lang on the radio, I don’t know what piece, the announcer telling the story of some time ago, when the artist was 17, playing at the Ravinia Festival as a substitute and stealing the show.

I use a wide lens, trying to put the very small, old, weathered wood home into some type of context. To show the humility. The vulnerability. I understand I am taking a picture of history, that there is a narrative here we will think over the image. I am taking a picture of nostalgia, transition, perhaps defeat. And at the same time, hope. We are always David facing Goliath.

Back up to speed, it occurs to me again that one of the real benefits of travel is to understand a sense of scale. How big the prairie is. How big the country, the continent, the hemisphere, the planet. If there is any real fascination with settling in with speed, it’s the notion of scope.

One hundred and fifty-seven miles downrange, we have first stage separation, booster separation, orbit achieved. I am no longer home. I am no longer stationary. I pass a monastery then a house with a Yamaha flag out front. Speed so fast it seems transcendent.

Photo by W. Scott Olsen

I leave the interstate. Highway 81 now, heading south in South Dakota. Green fields of corn, what looks to be soybeans. Lakes all around. The sky is almost clear, just whiffs of clouds.

One hundred and seventy-two miles downrange, I pass within four miles of the South Dakota Amateur Baseball Hall of Fame.

I pass Lake Poinsett on my left. Powerboats cut the surface. Everyone seems to be out having fun. One boat pushes a dock. There are RVs on the shore, interesting little cabins. Light glistens on the water. It’s fairly windy but the lake does not look more than lightly ruffled. I pass a place called the Motorboat Beachy Bar.

I pass Lake Albert on my right. Cars at the public access ramp. Fishermen and women out on the lake.

I don’t know these lakes, nor a soul upon them. But then again, I know this moment as well as I know any other. Home in a place I’ve never been. A Midwestern summer day, warm on the way to hot, and time on the water.

On a long straight stretch of the highway, I smile as I pass over tire marks. Dark black parallel stripes, fading as they go on. This is where someone lit up their tires, burned some rubber. Drag race? Just showing off to some pretty girl in the moonlight of a late summer night?

I already know. I wish I knew.

Photo by W. Scott Olsen

Ten minutes before noon, 351 miles downrange, I cross the Missouri River and Lake Francis Case. Trestle bridge off to the side, concrete bridge for the road, I’ve been on I-90 for a long time now. The endless signs for the Corn Palace in Mitchell, S.D., are behind me. The endless signs for Wall Drug, still some many miles in front of me, have replaced them.

I wonder what Lewis and Clark and the Corps of Discovery would have thought of Wall Drug.

Immediately west of the Missouri River, the landscape changes. There are hills! Not just rises and mounds. Real hills. Rolling grasslands, mostly green with a tinge of yellow. This is something you can see from space.

I find myself wishing I could unroll a map I have tucked in a corner of my office, a map that shows biological and geographic regions. I wonder what names I have just crossed. What evidence of glaciation. What watershed. I know enough about where I am to know my ignorance is profound.

And then it hits me, a whispered wash of the obvious in the wind-noise of my rocket ship Jeep. For me, at least, the joy of the road trip is just the wondering about context, about connections, about stories I can see in the ground but have yet to hear. Every corner reveals a new detail to wonder about.

Three-hundred and sixty-three miles downrange, straight up noon, I pass a survey crew. Orange sign, flashing lights about a half mile before the actual truck and crew. I don’t know what this survey crew does, but I’d love to be a part of that team. Spend the day out on the prairie, surveying. Looking around. Taking measure.

According to a road sign, today’s fire danger is high.

I want to get out. I want to slow. I want to introduce myself, find good coffee, and listen to a thousand stories I do not know. I also want to press on the gas, to see what’s over that next rise, to follow a river. I imagine the astronauts see the lights of base camp at Everest and wish they could stop in for a chat about altitude. I imagine they see the lights of distant stars and wish they could hit the rockets, to see what news they might bring, too.

This is just the first day on the road. In front of me, the railyards of North Platte, Nebraska. Sage. Heat. Center pivot irrigation. Wind power generators. Long-distance bicycle riders in wind-shedding clothing. Mountains. Aeromotor windmills. A roadside animal warning where the picture is bear instead of deer. Flash flood and slickrock. Snow at Independence Pass, elevation 12,095 feet above sea level. Rainstorm, dense fog and hail will keep me from Mt. Evans, the highest paved roadway in North America, pavement elevation of 14,130 feet.

Heading home on the summer solstice, on the radio I will learn I am looking at a strawberry moon. There hasn’t been one since 1948 and there won’t be another until 2062. I will learn the convective outlook is for storms. Some possibly severe.

Photo by W. Scott Olsen

There is always the danger of re-entry. For a spacecraft, hit the atmosphere too shallow and you bounce back out. Hit it too steep and you burn. The trajectory math is commonplace now, easy though it has to be precise. And there is that heat shield. Even now, the tiles come off and astronauts die. A parachute may not open. A hatch may blow while you’re bobbing in the ocean. All sorts of things can go wrong when you’re going home, not least of which is the desire to stay in space, even though your bones will wither in the microgravity.

I gather my photographs, as dear to me as moon rocks. Pictures of highways and hills, they will remind me where I have been and what it was like. And I gather the moments of unexplainable combination. Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto Number 6 will play as I cross Hospital Road in eastern Colorado, beautiful and remote high desert. An antelope will rush to the side of the road and then pause, just to watch me pass.

I will pass through Sturgis, as empty as a ghost town, and I will pass the odd sculptures of the North Dakota Enchanted Highway. Back on I-94, heading toward home, the radio will play Strauss, The Blue Danube Waltz, and I will believe it’s not so far to the docking scene from 2001.

Available Light | Prairie Rocket
Gallery by W. Scott Olsen

Images in this gallery may not be copied or otherwise used without express written consent of the artist. Click image to view in larger size or to begin slideshow:



W. Scott OlsenW. Scott Olsen is a professor of English at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota, where is also edits the literary journal Ascent.  His most recent book is A Moment with Strangers: Photographs and Essays at Home and Abroad (NDSU Press, 2016).  A previous contributor to Terrain.org, his individual essays have appeared recently in journals such Kenyon Review Online, North Dakota Quarterly, Utne Reader, Lensculture.com, The Forum, Plane & Pilot, AOPA Pilot, and elsewhere.
View additional prose and photography by W. Scott Olsen appearing in Terrain.org: On Seeing New York: A Photo Essay, Chasing Clouds, and River Flying in Winter: The Sheyenne River.

All photographs by W. Scott Olsen.

Terrain.org is the world’s first online journal of place, publishing a rich mix of literature, art, commentary, and design since 1998.