We often associate certain areas of America with specific types of landscapes. Thinking of Colorado conjures up images of soaring mountains, Louisiana is synonymous with swamplands, and Arizona brings to mind endless stretches of cactus-spotted desert. I know that in my personal experience, I usually enter a state with certain expectations about the type of environment I’ll be seeing. But every once in a while, I’ll stumble across something that shatters my expectations. Let’s take a look at a few places that break their geographic area’s stereotype.
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The Desert of Maine
Maine is a rugged state, known for its rocky Atlantic coastline and its deep northern woods. What it’s absolutely not known for is a dry, warm, climate. So why the heck is there a desert hidden in the pine trees just north of Portland?
That’s right. The Desert of Maine, located appropriately off of Desert Road in Freeport (see map), is a 40-acre tract of barren sand that appears out of nowhere and extends right to the border of the surrounding forest, where it swallows trees unlucky enough to be caught in its path.
photo by daveynin on Flickr (cc)
You would think that the wet, cold climate of coastal Maine would make the formation of a desert impossible. And, despite the dunes staring you in the face, you’d be correct. The Desert of Maine is actually a large exposed deposit of glacial silt; when glaciers passed through this area thousands of years ago, they acted as a huge blender, grinding rocks below them into a fine sand-like powder. Most of this silt has been covered by topsoil, allowing the forests that surround the desert to grow. However, in this specific area poor farming practices led to topsoil erosion, allowing the silt underneath to break through. Once the initial exposure occurred, the growth of the desert was inevitable. To this day, the “desert” fights to gain ground against the forest, where it sandblasts trees and continues to blow away more soil.
Of course, any oddity of this magnitude is bound to attract curious eyes, and the Desert of Maine is no exception. It’s been a tourist attraction since the 1920s, and offers hiking trails as well as a tram ride through its most desolate sections. Not a bad way to get a change of scenery during your beach vacation!
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We move from the northeastern corner of the country to the dead center of it, about 10 miles north of the town of Weskan, Kansas. Here in this notoriously flat state, there is a peak that rises above any other. At 4,039 feet of elevation, and at nearly 3,000 feet above Kansas’ lowest point, it towers over the plains. Behold, the majestic Mount Sunflower!
It only takes one glance to realize that Mount Sunflower is no Denali or Pike’s Peak. Nearly even with the surrounding landscape, I don’t know if I could even call it a hill. Although you can see for miles in any direction as though from a summit, this corner of the country is certainly more “amber waves of grain” than “purple mountains majesty”. And yet this random spot in the middle of a ranch is indeed the high point of Kansas.
The reason for this is simple: location, location, location. While Kansas seems pancake-flat to the naked eye, the reality is that the entirety of the state slopes gently upwards as you move west. By the time you hit the high plains at the Colorado border, the average elevation hovers just under 4,000 feet. Mount Sunflower, which is located less than a mile east of this border, is simply lucky enough to be placed at the apex of this slope. This far west, all it takes is a tiny bump in the landscape to claim the title of highest point, and to crown this patch of dirt as a mountain. Of course, it’s all relative. If you travel almost due north, losing only a few hundred feet of elevation on the way, you’ll bump into neighboring Colorado’s lowest point.
Mount Sunflower lies on a dirt road that becomes impassable in wet weather. Visitors are greeted by a decorated gate marking the highpoint, as well as a log where they can document their arduous trek to the summit.
I find it funny that when I searched for Mount Sunflower on Google Maps, the featured image showed the Rocky Mountains. Setting expectations high!
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Tellico Plains, TN
After covering a “mountain” in a Plains state, it’s fitting that we shift the lens to plains in a mountainous state. The small town of Tellico Plains, Tennessee sits in the eastern part of the state, about 60 miles south of Knoxville.
Tellico Plains is nestled in the Appalachian Mountains, and much of its economy revolves around mountain-related tourism. It serves as the western gateway to the twisting Cherohala Skyway, and offers easy access to the Cherokee National Forest. So where did its Plains name come from?
Unlike the previous two entries in this article, Tellico Plains’ name accurately represents the geographic feature it calls home. It is situated in a valley created by the Tellico River, where it emerges from the taller Appalachian Mountains that form the North Carolina/Tennessee border and flows towards the smaller ridges that extend towards Chattanooga. The sudden expanse of flat land surrounded by some of the tallest peaks in the east gives the impression of a plain to anyone entering from the east.
This area has had many names, and Tellico Plains is only the most recent iteration. The history of this little town is fascinating. It’s been populated by various groups for up to 10,000 years, and has had previous lives as a major Cherokee city, a trading post, and a wealthy lumber town before arriving at its current condition as a primarily tourism-driven hamlet.
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