The YouTube video above shows what it’s like to drive a road based line around the red shaded area on the US map below. Beep Beep!
The YouTube video above shows what it’s like to drive a road based line around the red shaded area on the US map below. Beep Beep!
I awoke as an extra in a B movie set at the Axe Murder Inn. I edged open my door to check the ‘pool. It didn’t have a body in it. Another azure Midwest sky, much bigger than we get in Britain. (Austerity I expect.) No FBI SWAT teams in the car park, although I’ve seen its like on any number of cop shows. Deciding that any corpses around the dumpster area can wait I head for the restaurant feeling peckish.
Well, whaddya know? The buffet is inhabited by local food enthusiasts. I settle for a bagel like a life buoy ring from an ocean liner and a banana that would seat a dozen Club 18-30 punters.
Replete I settle the bill – have definitely seen her in a zombie flick – and slip away. Downtown Cheyenne is busy with workaday drivers who drift away as I head East on the I80: the Lincoln Highway. Not for long though as that heads into – whisper it – Nebraska. Instead I peel off south onto State Route 214 which sends me pleasingly over a cattle grid and almost immediately onto the set of the 1958 Hitchcock classic, North by North West. Specifically, that spectacular scene with the crop-duster.
Imagine my dismay to discover afterwards that I was fooled again by Hollywood.
Still, slavishly following the cut-out section of SW Nebraska meant that I got to traverse some proper down-home farm roads which were a joy on this bright, warm, still September day. Pausing outside the peaceful/apocalyptically dead hamlet of Grover, I took a moment to note the passing of “pavement” – by which our American cousins actually mean “tarmac.” I even made a gravel-tastic short film to record the event. In the context of my trip? A worthy visual piece. Otherwise? If you are an avid YouTube viewer you’ll spend two minutes wondering WTF? (Although @ 1.24 a large mammal has a brief walk on part, so stay sharp.)
The morning was spent on the back roads – Raymer, Stoneham, Snyder, Brush – before a cuppa in the grain-silos-and-a-street “City” of Akron.
Now in cattle country where the landmarks are vast industrial steer feed stations the roads are endless I pass by Otis, Yuma and “make” a right turn in Wray onto the 385 South (before I run into Nebraska again).
As Wray filled my mirrors I passed a conspicuously parked grey car which I couldn’t help noticing span round and raced after me. As the penny dropped it lit up like a blue and red Christmas tree so I pulled over. Dear reader, I considered doing a runner, albeit for a nanosecond. (And I do mean runner.)
The arm of the law may be long, but this officer was as dumpy as a serial doughnut connoisseur. (So much so that I fancied my chances in a Will Ferrell homage foot race.)
Of course, I did no such thing as a) I was guilty, b) am respectful of Colorado’s finest and c) he had a gun.
I won’t recant the conversation in full as he let me off with a warning. But I did start if off in full Carry On mode: “Air hair lair office-ah” and shamelessly continued using phrases including “I’m so terribly sorry” and “dear me”. I might even have dropped in a “splendid!”
Of course I drove less hastily thereafter. Of course I did. Although the state line was a few scant miles south and pretty soon I was pegging it again wondering if his “juris-goddam-diction” expired at the border with Kansas.
At this point I’d made the classic mistake of forgetting how big continental North America is. It was only when I crossed a time zone and saw a sign saying “Kansas City 400” that I knew I was in for a long afternoon. Pausing at Hays/Colby/Russell to buy a Mom’n’Pop cheeseburger – where they also ran a butchers, I bought a random pack of bacon for my hosts – and yet another fuel stop it was only the I70 between me and my goal: Leavenworth, KS.
Jeezus, there’s a lot of Hallelujah FM in the Midwest. As the Kansas landscape drifted past, I amused myself by occasionally shouting at the radio: “Praise BE!” Then I paused for a comedy photo stop at Abilene, KS – an in-joke you’ll have to ask me about – and sang loudly to Divine Comedy songs.
Then I started to become aware that the weather was changing. To the north the sky seemed to be getting awfully cross. To the south it was as clear as a bell. As if t’were a forbearer of bad news as traffic suddenly stopped for a “wreck.” Time for the Dirk Gently Navigation Method. Following a chap in purposefully driven pickup truck I hustled off the Freeway and straight into an Army base guarded by men with red necks and big guns. Wide eyed, I sighed audibly as Mr Pickup veered off the military approach and onto the frontage road parallel to the highway. Momentarily we passed mangled metal that used to be a truck, several battered cars and all of the emergency services. (Sobering.) As the road turned to (now familiar) gravel I followed the pickup for about 10 minutes before wondering if he was going my way at all.
It was getting dark.
In his dust trail I could see approximately zilch. So it was with considerable relief that we emerged from a small valley at a freeway junction. “Praise BE!” He headed off north on a minor road, I joined the now spectacularly empty freeway to head east and nailed it.
The road into Kansas City passing Topeka was uneventful enough, but the sky!? The darkness brought a light show that elicited oohs, ahhs, and then HELLS BELLSs as the lightning made multiple ground strikes seemingly just outside the Jeep. (My word Midwest weather is BRUTAL when it wants to be. Although, weirdly, it stayed dry. I was thankful.)
Then, after a shade over 1,700 miles and 27 hours in the saddle I was “home.” Home being a house on Fort Leavenworth proudly occupied by the most British folk for thousands of miles.
By sitting down with your pals to have a cup of tea and several rounds of cheese on toast, that’s how.
Spoiler alert! Day two of the circumnavigation was a touristy cop out. [Hangs head in shame]
Rapid City is the north-eastern gateway to the Black Hills of Dakota. It’s a designated “scenic drive” kinduva place. With a tinge of regret I turned my back on the Badlands to head onwards. The town of Keystone prompted a snort and then a minor guffaw because it was so impossibly chinzy and frontier theme park-esque. Travel snob? Moi?! Happily I wasn’t stopping because nearby was the prime objective: Mount Rushmore.
I’m no photographer so feel free to Google all the images you can eat. I’ll content myself with a few snaps, observations and answer some (imagined) Mt Rushmore questions.
Yes, it’s impressive.
No, it’s not free because you’ll be paying $11 to park your car. Although the state has adopted the monument, they didn’t legislate for parking so it’s private enterprise fleecing the hapless tourist. That said, the National Parks do a great line in informing and educating. So the boardwalk to the base of the scree below the Presidents is good. The exhibits in the visitor centre helped convey the scale and scope of the task.
Was it cut by hand? Only the last 10%. 90% dynamite sculpting. Very American: why chisel when you can BANG!
Want more FAQs? Click here.
My favourite element was the answer to the fundamental: why buil;d it in the first place?
And that’s the good ol’ long and short of it folks. A lifetime later and it’s still drawing in the punters. Admirable gumption, vision and, well, balls.
Side note: I especially like the way that this element of proceeding has been de-emphasised in the name of grandeur and patriotic fervour.
About an hour. That’s how long you can marvel at it before looking at your watch and heading back to your car.
It’s a short drive to the Crazy Horse monument which – clue in the title – is altogether more bonkers. Where to start? Well, you can fit all four Rushmore Presidents behind “his” ear. His head is 13 stories high. The family who have been blasting/chipping/chiselling/bulldozing away at it for over 50 years (in)bred like rabbits: they’re quite the spectacle. The video in the visitor centre is a study in eccentricity, self-aggrandisement, ambition and epic scale. It was unintentionally funny.The “fella on a rampant horse” sculpture they are aiming to produce is OTT and that’s just the scale model.
Perhaps this is sour grapes as it’s another $11 to basically have access to a quarry and tacky gift shop. Save your cash and view it from the road. Or for $49, fly over it in a chopper. (More of which later.) Disappointed and not a little bemused I wend my way down into Custer in search of lunch. A town of the old west, it has its share of tat, but happily I nose the car up outside the Burger & Bun which was very busy indeed. Instead of a table for one, I sit at a long central bar. Opposite a ruggedly handsome chap in Guinness baseball cap draws up a stool. Clearly known to the staff he orders the special without consulting the menu. “I’ll have the same.” We fall in to conversation.
Jim learned to fly in the military and moved to SD to fly tourists around the monuments. Do they get lairy? “Oh yes. We had radio code-words which meant make sure the Sheriff is there when we land.” Crikey. Drunks and nutters enjoy a helicopter trip then? “Yeah. And the complainers.” No pleasing some I expect. Nowadays Jim is an EMS pilot – that’s Emergency Medical Services – and works two weeks on, two off. “I fly less, but it’s more rewarding.” He commends the cheap – it’s only 6 minutes! – tour and we talk about my road ahead and the beauty of New Zealand. I leave a very flattering, accurate, Trip Advisor report.
The rest of the Black Hills are a lovely drive only to be followed up by the wide open grasslands of – new state – Wyoming. Did I read that it’s the least populous state? It seemed pretty bloody sparse to me in a see-a-gas-station-fill-up-just-in-case sense. The sky was huge, the air warm and the colours pleasing. The miles rolled under the car effortlessly.
Arriving in Cheyenne nearing sunset the milometer showed a weedy 309 miles. I am a lightweight. (A rather heavy one actually with all the calories road-trips involve.) The Rodeway Inn appears like a backdrop for a True Detective murder investigation. The temperature was still in the 70s when I checked in, as was the décor. Still, for $49 + tax? Wifi was good but the pool was closed. (A body floating in it I expect.) Against the odds I am peckish from an afternoon in the saddle. The word on the street is the Wyoming Rib & Chop House was worthy of my custom. Situated in charming downtown Cheyenne, the restaurant was heaving. So taking a seat at the bar I settled in with a craft beer – they all are now – to peruse a menu of dead things.
Settling on a New York strip I made some notes in my log and eyed the patrons. Next to me was a wee chap in a baseball cap – “am from Denver, come here workin’ once a month. This place is AWESOME.” – whose Rib Eye cut would’ve attracted its own postcode at home. Every time the barmaid came by she ribbed him [sorry] for his lack of progress and he tried to chat her up. Badly. Meanwhile to my left herself got a box “to go” and scooped half a cow into a styrene coffin. She also got 10% military discount I noted. My steak was succulent and satisfying although I noted I was wheezing a bit as I walked it off.
Must be the altitude eh?
Bring on Day 3.
At 09.23 wheels roll. At 09.24 I steer the Jeep across the Centennial Bridge, Leavenworth and at a stroke add another State to the roadtrip: first Kansas, now Missouri. Ha! This is going to be a cinch. Shortly thereafter I am charging up the ramp to join the I29 North and stick with that road until Iowa – another state! – has passed under my tyres and, within an hour or three, we’re into South Dakota. Four states in as many hours. At Sioux Falls that I peel off onto the I90 West to my proposed overnighter at Rapid City, SD.
Sounds straightforward don’t it? Er, yes. Was it? So far, pretty much. But then short paragraph above negates the seven hundred miles driven in one day. That’s a personal best by quite some margin.
It was aided by several factors:
Highlights en route?
The radio. Oh my days! Country music stations. Bible bashers. An excellent documentary about “local foods” by some folk who march under the banner of Binoeers.
iPod. Whole albums are the way to go people. Donald Fagen, The Beatles, Ben Folds, Billy Joel, The Cinematic Orchestra, Jamie Cullum and Gregory Porter.
Roadside signs. Apparently to be a reputatble business with “trusted advisor” status in the US your billboard must have a gurning, child-frightening mugshot on it. Also, feel free to express strident views. Such as, “Abortion is a choice, you are choosing DEATH.” Then “Wear Fur, Hunt, Keep your guns!” And these alongside the freeways in the middle-of-bloody-nowhere.
The locals. At Walgreens (Pharmacy) in Sioux City. “Are you German?” asked Deborah who surely wasn’t a day over 110. Assuring her I was most certainly not and identifying my Britishness she asked to shake my hand. “Nice to meet you Ian. [Pauses after letting go] Built like a brick shithouse too!” she observed aloud.
I mean, German?
At La Quinta Inn, Rapid City. “Oh my, that is the best surname since, like… EVER.” Why thank you, it works for me.
SIDE NOTE: I may not be the paragon of verbal clarity that might bag me a job reading the news on Radio 4, but I oft find our American cousins can’t understand a word I say. Curious.
The landscape. Much of the Iowa/South Dakota stretches were samey, requiring in-car entertainment – see iPod & radio above – but this gave way to more aesthetically pleasing rolling hills until The Badlands were reached. At sunset – which happened to be when I arrived – the scenery was spectacular. It was 30C warm, the sky was the clearest, azure blue and the light striking the other worldly rock formations gave them real presence.
As I drew into Rapid City, priority one was a bed. The giant-scrolling-screen advertised fifty-nine bucks was lying through it’s neon teeth because it was $209 at reception. I frown. “I can do it for $109?” I am motionless. “Lemme call. [Dials number] $89?” I am too tired to persist and my ongoing silence elicits a discount meal ticket and brace of vouchers for free beer.
Rule #1 in negotiation? Flinch when they say a number. Rule #2? Then stay quiet. Or just be really tired.
Sleep wasn’t difficult that evening. Even if the chemical-cheese Nachos/Coors combo made for musical burps.
I know. You can take a boy out of Wales….
I wonder what Day 2 will bring?
PS: Videos to follow once I get a moment to edit and upload.
In the canon of stoopid ideas that I’ve had, many have not borne fruit. Probably a good thing bearing in mind their stoopidity. Naturally, some slipped through to prototype before good sense intervened, but mercifully few make it into production.
Not this time.
If I choose to see myself as an, ahem, adventurer, then that means I have to have the occasional adventure, right? Since I am also a total scaredy-cat, the definition of the word “adventure” needs to be toned down and broadened somewhat to give the appearance of peril, bravery and general derring-do whilst providing almost total safety. After all I’ve a family to support and did I mention I am a scaredy-cat? Call me Mr Midlife/Ongoing Crisis.
So when I say adventurer, we can tap our noses in a conspiratorial fashion as you know what it means.
Eccentric tourist? Muppet? Fool? Oddball? Loner? Eejit? Possibly all. (Be kind.)
In order to tell you more, we must go back to 2010. Whilst in the Antarctic were warming ourselves with some Vodka recklessly purchased ludicrously cheaply from moonlighting Ukranian Scientists at the world’s most sourthly bar: Verdansky Station. Fellow passengers, I mean adventurers got chatting about some the kind of adventures we might undertake. Venturing south of the Antarctic Circle we marvelled at those heroic journeys that Shackelton et al undertook across the brutal Southern Ocean yto the icy wilderness capping our south pole. As our “expedition” included my Mum in the party, you can see how “brave” we were being by comparison. We could only imagine what it must have been like to suffer the unexplored, unknown, unremittingly harsh, no safety-net savagery of the Antarctic.
Shivering with the prospect, sipping vodka conversation turned to how we were mere tourists compared to those pioneers. This then evolved into a booze-fuelled discussion as to our own capacity for adventure. Specifically, considering our calibre as pioneers/explorers/go-getters, what kind of stretch goal adventures might we tackle given the chance?
Mining a theme, we discussed how the legendary figures of yesteryear were always conquering, taming, discovering, mapping and generally heroically kicking-the-arse-out-of some extreme objective. So what, the thinking went, would we get ourselves into?
That’s when the idea found it’s way out. I would circumnavigate a Mid-West state. What’s not to like? It’s surely never been done before? (At least not in a deliberate, “just because” sense.) It’s got an exciting word in it; circumnavigate. That pushes all the right buttons in itself. There were other ideas that night, better ideas, but this one had legs. It seemed so perfectly obscure, ridiculous, doable and [whisper it] safe.
Naturally, I immediately forgot about it, came home, went back to work and got on with my life.
Fast forward to spring 2015 and some very good friends drop a bombshell. “No we can’t come to the Edinburgh Festival with you this year, because we’re moving to KANSAS.” (I know what you’re thinking. Are they really friends if they cook up such an elaborate excuse instead of just enduring the Beers company at an arts festival for a few days? Then, what have you done to those poor folk? Well, my cynical friend, they didn’t make it up. They really were moving.)
Once we’d got to grips with this news, my memory automatically recalled that foolish idea. Except this time, it wouldn’t go away. Before long I dug out my US road atlas. (A favourite book to idly thumb through and trace routes in daydreamy moments when I should be working/am on a conference call.) Pages 42-43. Kansas. Leavenworth, top right corner of the state. When you look at the USA as a whole you’ll see the peculiar – to us British – rectangular divvying up of territories. At a Midwest scale, Leavenworth is a perfect departure point for a circumnavigation of a state. But which one?
Within a few minutes of tracing roads, flicking through pages and chin rubbing the answer seemed obvious.
I was going to circumnavigate Nebraska.
(And check to see if our friends had really moved to Kansas, obviously.)
To read how I got on…. click here.