A year and a half ago, I read Dan Flores’s American Serengeti, a book that discusses at length the natural history of several prominent, charismatic species that roamed North America’s Great Plains region. Not only does it highlight the wildlife, but in true Flores style, it dives deeper into the historical and changing ecosystem of the prairies, the impact of human presence on this vast ocean of grasses, as well as into the cultures of these peoples. I don’t assume the book is a page-turner for everyone, but I couldn’t put the book down. Flores had me hooked, and in a way, he was priming me for a deeper engagement with his text’s subject.
I’ve lived on the southern high plains, a relatively flat, elevated portion of the Great Plains stretching from the Texas Panhandle north into Nebraska and South Dakota, for seventeen years. It’s an expansive area iconically known as the Llano Estacado, translated as the staked plains, and although I call this place home and have spent a great deal of time photographically investing in the region, Dan Flores made me feel more unfamiliar with it than I’m comfortable. I know this area, have spent years and miles traveling over the flatlands, and enjoyed conversations with everyone from artists to farmers here. I’ve spent time enjoying the quietness at the edge of the Caprock Escarpment, and I’ve marveled at 1,000-feet-tall dust storms rolling over the land from the west. Yet, American Serengeti had me humbled and wanting to learn more about this impressive, intimidatingly large swatch of North America that lies between the notable Rockies and Appalachians. Simply put, I became infatuated with the Great Plains.
I’m a travel and conservation photographer. I’m also a cyclist. It’s something I picked up in earnest about six years ago for exercise, and I quickly developed an…obsession is the word my wife would use…for mountain biking and long rides on the dirt roads that checkerboard our part of the plains. Cycling is physically intense and rewarding, mentally therapeutic, fun as hell, and it’s a great way to see the country. It lends itself to move at a pace that both allows the rider to cover some ground and distance, but also be immersed in the environment. Over the years, I started carrying a camera with me occasionally on rides with my brother, especially bikepacking and dirt tour trips, and I began seeing the bike as a storytelling vehicle. I’ve traveled down paths and roads on a bike I never would have noticed in a vehicle, all along the way discovering for myself parts and characteristics of place that would otherwise go unnoticed, particularly here on the plains. I started to consider how I could continue to feed this desire to blend my photography with exploring on a bike. Shortly after reading American Serengeti, I had an idea.
The Great Plains Project is the working title for a large bike adventure that celebrates the Great Plains, its places and people, its history and current status, its wild ecology and its agricultural prominence. The project points a lens toward a fascinating region of the world, one of the most important in my opinion for the world, but one that is largely considered flyover country by many. Likewise, it does so via those veins of rural byways that thread the farms, ranches, grasslands and plains towns and cities together. Ultimately, the Great Plains Project will establish an off-pavement touring route (tentative route above) from Texas to Alberta for like-minded cyclists, as well as a documentary project produced from the bike. It’s a massive undertaking, but it’s one fueled by a passion for being active outdoors and using cycling as a way to better explore and understand place—this place—the Great Plains.
Moving forward, this portion of my website will be a repository for the experiences I and others will have both establishing and riding the route, and simply riding/documenting various areas of what was once known as the “Great American Desert.” I hope you follow along on this endeavor, share it with your friends and colleagues, and even come along for the ride. I’ll update the page with upcoming rides on the planned route, and if you’re ever on the South Plains, get in touch! I’d love to show you some local roads!