Winds roaring across the Dakota hills are rocking our tiny camper at sunset. We're back in central South Dakota for two weeks of pheasant hunting (pheasant spotting in my case), but I consider the 1,900-mile drive a tour of bigger gardens — the cornfields of Ohio and Iowa, the sunflower, milo and sorghum crops in this area, which provide commercial bird seed as well as feed for the Chinese ring-necked pheasants that attract hunters from all over the country. Even driving the interstates, as we must to cover such distances, there's a lot of country to be seen and decoded. Who attends the Bar None Cowboy Church? Why is there a new town arising in what appears to be a random spot among the cornfields? And which comes first? Do the cookie-cutter garden apartment complexes precede the mall that supports them, or do the Targets, Walmarts and Ralph Lauren Outlets spring up simultaneously? In the early years of this country's settlement, towns predictably grew up around a port on the river or along the railroad lines; workers and goods would come ashore or step down from the train and they'd need a barber, a drink, music, women, a place to eat and sleep. Now it would appear a town can spring up wherever a developer can acquire land and a town offers infrastructure support. Throw in a conference center or a local attraction (Visit the biggest Danish settlement in America! See Our Lady of Fatima Shrine!) and you add tourists and a reason for a Quality Inn.

It's big-sky country here - big everything, actually. Sunsets leak and spread from the west all across the bowl of the sky, fields are divided into sections that encompass 640 acres, and you can see the water tower and lights of towns 10 miles ahead on the highway. As we drive the back roads where the pheasants are found, along the borders of the Fort Pierre National Grasslands, we see so much wildlife: geese, ducks and swans bob at the edges of glacial ponds and manmade lakes. Pronghorn antelope and buffalo graze the tan hills. One hot afternoon, as temperatures climb into the 80s, we stop to give water to the hard-working Brittany spaniel who points and retrieves (sometimes) the birds. In the field next to us we see a 10-point buck leaping through the grass, ringnecks flying where his heels hit the ground. Another day, we bounce along the dirt road, leaving a plume of dust in our wake, and come upon a flock of hundreds of pheasants, cocks and hens roosting in trees, milling about in the road and flying up from the ditches.

I never tire of seeing shiny new silos and grain elevators, gigantic combines and seeders, but my Little-House-on-the-Prairie inner self feasts on the softer profiles of rusting and slumping abandoned silos and windowless farmhouses, gap-toothed windmills that no longer pump water to fill stock tanks. Crops make multi-colored patterns on the land: yellow corn, the pale rust of milo, tan of wheat and hay, and green where newly seeded crops have already sprouted. We stop where a workman is mending a fence and ask about the green crop in the field beside him and he says he doesn't know; he's just a hired hand. The farmer who owns the field has no time to care for his fences because he's out guiding gangs of hunters. This is a big business in these parts. Grow a crop and, before you cut it, allow groups of pheasant hunters into the field. A gang of hunters working a field can sound like the onset of World War III, dozens of rounds shot as they advance in a line, birds flying before them. You can't blame the farmers for operating a pay-to-hunt operation; crop prices are down this season and they can charge $300 a day per gun. Groups of executives from large corporations like to offer their young Turks a weekend pheasant shoot. They line up in crispy new blaze-orange hats and vests and blast away until there are enough birds to give each their three-bird daily limit, then return to a lodge where amenities include saunas and gourmet meals. It's a far cry from our ditch-hunting, but we've met some of the friendliest people in the world, and every day brings new wonders that confirm that this is still, in part, a land of spacious skies and amber waves of grain.