Nola Peshkin (PitP)

Midwestern High Plains Program - 2018

PitP Wind Cave National Park group photo 2018

Have you ever been in a 12-passenger van, holding your breath for fear that a snorting mother buffalo is about to charge? No? Given recent first-hand experience, I can say you’re really missing out.

Growing up around the mountains and wilderness of the Pacific Northwest, I never felt a particular draw to the middle of the United States. While I appreciated what the Midwest has to offer, I didn’t see much excitement value in flatland recreation. I owe a lot of gratitude to my Midwestern High Plains Partners in the Park trip for proving me wrong each and every day of our week together.

PitP Wind Cave National Park group photo 2018

The miles and miles of wheat fields and cattle ranges in Nebraska and South Dakota was a shock to the system, a lot in part to discovering so much unexpected beauty in the vastness of America’s heartland. The Midwestern plains stirred in me a “classic Americana” nostalgia that I think all Americans relate to on some level – not to mention the fierce re-kindling of my Little House on the Prairie childhood obsession.

PitP Wind Cave National Park group photo 2018

We began the trip with a three-hour drive from the Denver Airport to Ogallala, Nebraska, where we spent the first night getting to know each other at a University of Nebraska biological research station. I was very privileged to share the week with five other honors students from California, Arkansas, Virginia, and Florida, with equally diverse backgrounds and interests. We spent countless hours in the car throughout the week, but the time never felt wasted or boring. Talking with them reminded me what it means to be an honors student, and what is so powerful and uniting about the drive and love for knowledge and learning – both in and out of the classroom. I felt like I left every conversation having learned something, whether it be the importance of an oxford comma in supreme court cases, or the intricacies of entomology. To be an honors student is a real gift, and I’m happy to say that I left this Partners in the Park trip with a whole group of new friends!

PitP Wind Cave National Park group photo 2018

Our exploration started in Nebraska where we camped at Smith Falls State Park, which at 80 feet high is the tallest waterfall in Nebraska! We then visited the Fort Niobrara Wildlife Refuge and kayaked the Niobrara River. We spent the next five days exploring South Dakota including the Badlands, Mount Rushmore, Crazy Horse, and going caving in Wind Cave National Park. At every location, we had a park ranger give us a personal introduction, and often a private tour of the park. The Badlands especially took my breath away because the gorgeous alien-like geology felt like being in some extraterrestrial landscape. Our ranger guide had an inexhaustible passion and overwhelming knowledge of the Badlands ecosystem and geology; We affectionately called him “Wikipedia Ed” as a result. Throughout the trip, park authorities like Ed reminded me what it’s like to be proud of the country you live in, passionate about the work you’re doing, and why education about the importance of public lands is so impactful and necessary.

PitP WCNP buffalo

One of my favorite memories from the trip was a run-in with a buffalo herd while driving through Custer State Park. We were five days into the trip, and everyone was itching to see a buffalo from closer than 500 feet away. Custer State Park is in the Black Hills of South Dakota and provided a stunning scenic drive from Mount Rushmore to Wind Cave National Park. Driving down the winding main road we marveled at the beauty of this forest in the middle of the flat and arid high plains. Suddenly, around a corner we came upon an enormous herd of female bison and their young! We could only see about a quarter of a mile ahead because of the curves in the road, but as far as the eye could see was blocked by buffalo. Come to find out, as we crawled through the herd, moving slowly to avoid angering mother buffalos (sometimes unsuccessfully), around every turn was more of the herd! It took us almost two hours to go a mile and a half, and there must have been close to 300 bison total. Stumbling upon them was amazing luck, and a moment I’ll never forget. Being close enough to reach out and touch such powerful and beautiful creatures was frightening, thrilling, and unbelievable.

PitP Nola Peshkin 2018

I chose this Partners in the Park trip because I wanted to explore a portion of the United States that is vastly different from my Pacific Northwest home, and I couldn’t have been happier with all that we learned, saw, and did. It’s important to remember how diverse our country’s land is, and how deserving all areas are of protection and preservation. Leaving this trip, I have a new appreciation for flat heartland, prairie ecosystems, and the honors community. (And I vow never to use the term “fly over states” again!!)