Dreams of a Roadside Dreamer

Something interesting happened in the midst of my tunnel vision of non-stop driving. That “vision” had become  somewhat narrowed thanks to driving some 560 miles from Minnesota through the East River landscape of South Dakota and most of western Iowa before cutting cross state to Des Moines, where we cut south toward my home country of Missouri. For whatever reason my eyes were suddenly caught by the colors along the highway road banks ­– colors that covered much of an artist’s smeared palette.

At the first narrow field approach we pulled over for a closer look. As distant as I could see on either side and direction of the highway I was met with an impressive array of wildflowers. Daisies. A coneflower or two. Some yellow, others pink. Orange tiger lillies and tall stalks of mullein, the latter of which was said to be dipped in beeswax and turned into nighttime torches by the Biblical Romans. There were way too many blossoms to count, with a wide variation of colors. Blues. Yellows. Oranges. Reds. A few whites adding to the mix.

All of which took me back to a much earlier time, back when I had finished an assigned story for the National Woolgrowers Association on a San Angelo, TX, sheepman, which led to an unexpected set of pictures and an interview with a neighboring rancher who specialized in javelina guiding and hunting in his dense mesquite brush. I was then off across the state to Nacogdoches for an assigned story for a corporate account. I don’t recall the highway(s), although I do remember the flowers. On both sides of the four lane highway and within the median strip. Curated in beds, neat and tidy, especially in the median. More kemp, much more blue, and totally unlike the wild and “organic” Iowa roadside prairie nestled within the steep banks.

Typical of the native plantings found along the highways and byways of Iowa, a cost-savings program started in the 1970s as a step toward highway beautification.

Much like my moment in Iowa, in what should have been a boring trip across Texas became one that was both unforgettable and enchanting. Completely mood altering. Later when I mentioned this beauty to the farm wife outside of Nacogdoches, she said, “Oh, that’s Lady Bird’s doing. Her highway beautification project.”

Lady Bird was the wife of former President Lyndon B. Johnson, and was a champion for conservation efforts including the beautifications of the highways, particularly in their home state. Some 57 years ago Johnson, with the urgings of his wife, pushed through a law known as the Highway Beautification Act. It was an effort to limit billboards and other forms of outdoor advertising, as well as junkyards and other unsightly roadside messes along America’s interstate highways. Yes, flowers were intended. It was a move that has since spread beyond the interstates as evidenced by the number of junk yards sporting tall, oblique fencing to hide the hideous, and highways like those in Iowa.

Lady Bird’s reasoning was that such legislation would make the nation a better place not only to look at but to live. “The subject of beautification is like a tangled skein of wool,” she reportedly wrote in her diary. “All the threads are interwoven — recreation and pollution and mental health and the crime rate and rapid transit and highway beautification and the war on poverty and parks … everything leads to something else.”

Yellows were prominent along the highway, although nearly all the basic colors were evident.

Welcome to Iowa, and to a part of the state secluded from the hum and haw of the interstates that crisscross further northwest in Des Moines. Highway 63, between Ottumwa and Bloomfield, with uphill passing lanes and wildflowers paving the way, was just a small sample of statewide policy. In all, more than 50,000 acres of federal, state, county and city roadways that have been planted in a native ecosystem across the state since the 1970s. Later, on the way home I paid much more attention to the shoulders of the interstates, and yes, wildflowers, shrubs and picturesque trees greeted the travelers. 

To help in the beautification effort the state’s Department of Transportation published a beautiful, four-color, 134 page booklet called the “Iowa’s Living Roadway … Ecological Transportation.” The booklet provides tips on creating workable roadside habitat for beauty, birds and bees. Besides the tips on planting, the guide has specific sections on native wildflowers, shrubs and trees and is perhaps the “bible” for Iowa’s Integrated Roadside Vegetation Management (IRVM).

Oh, yes, there were blues and purples …

According to their website, the goal of IRVM is to provide an alternative to conventional roadside management practices, which were common before IRVM was adopted. These conventional practices, including the extensive use of mowing and herbicides, were often too costly to implement on a regular basis, were frequently ineffective, and contributed to an increased potential for surface water contamination.

“Having native plantings not only controls some of the erosion that is happening, but also having those deep root systems to be able to not only hold the soil in place, but not require as intensive herbicide application as would normally happen with a warm season grass planting that takes a different type of maintenance — a little more intensely mowed, and in some cases fertilizers too,” said Rebecca Kauten, who helped manage the program back in the early stages.

After the experience in Iowa I began noticing the shoulders of the highways and roadways on our recent trip to hang with family over the Fourth of July weekend. Much of Missouri roadways seemed to have followed suit, particularly on the state and federal highways. Not so true in Minnesota. I can name a few areas where wildflowers flourish on a couple of state highways — a small section of unmowable sections of both Highway 7 near the Watson Sag, and portions of Highway 34 between Detroit Lakes and Park Rapids. A few county roads have proven too risky for mowers and maintenance in places along the Minnesota River Valley, although the burly try. 

And on a hilltop, an entire halo of orange tiger lillies!

Near the Sag is a marshy stretch that boasts the rare white lady’s slippers, among other perhaps unique if not rare prairie plants, and in spots along 34 too boggy to maintain numerous wildflowers survive gleefully, including the state’s iconic showy lady’s slipper. While it seems the federal interstates host native plantings within much of Minnesota’s borders, it’s perhaps an archaic policy for the state and county highway systems that seems content if not intent to continue with the mow and spray cycles. Perhaps a change is warranted, especially now when pollinators are threatened, when deeply rooted perennials can aid in the fight against global warming and when our tax dollars could be put to much better use.

Although my trip was long and arduous at times, being surrounded for at least part of the journey with an ever changing bouquet of native flora was an unexpected joy. Even if I added to my highway hours by pulling off into a couple of field accesses to grab my camera. In the end I guess I’m a dreamer, and my dream is of walking down my little county graveled road seeing an “Iowa-scape” full of prairie grasses and seasonal native flowers, lush and colorful, scented and humming with bees, and perhaps even dancing with the prairie winds. 

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About John G. White

Somewhat retired after a long award-winning career in newspapers (Wisconsin State Journal, Dubuque Telegraph-Herald, Denver Post and a country weekly, the Clara City Herald). Free lance photographer and writer with credits in more than 70 magazines. Editor with various Webb Publishing magazines in St. Paul, and a five year stint as editorial director at Miller Meester Advertising.

1 thought on “Dreams of a Roadside Dreamer

  1. Really a beautiful and informative piece. Thank you. This brings to mind the public access areas I find across highway 34 from Corning to Council Bluffs. I can pull over and walk the dog for an hour if I want; relax in nature outside riding in the car. Hunters are allowed access. I imagine the wildflowers in those areas are equally beautiful this time of year. Makes me want to get on the road again. Thanks, Leslie

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