My cousin emigrated to the United States from England more years ago than either of us might wish to dwell on. I haven’t clapped eyes on her for an age and so it’s always been a goal on our journey through the Americas to seek her out once we reached the US. She lives in the state of Iowa, which doesn’t feature on our map of The Western USA for the simple reason that it’s not in the Western USA. For once we must fold away the cherished paper and try a little modern technology, a thing called Maps.Me, which we download for free onto the ipad. I have to admit Maps.Me is actually rather handy, though holds none of the wonder or crispy feel of the real thing. Now that I can see the state of Iowa on the ipad, (plus the locations of Walmart, Burger King, McDonalds et al) a good deal of the mystery has been lost. Though we are definitely left pondering what we might find out there: every time we tell someone we’re heading to Iowa they look aghast, crying, ‘What you wanna go and do that for?’ What can they possibly mean? Do they play banjos and make you squeal like a pig in Iowa, or is that reserved for the swamps of Georgia? We have an address placing my cousin somewhere south of Des Moines, near a place called Decatur City. She might live out in the sticks but at least the “City” designation encourages us to believe there might be food and beer close by, running water from a tap and perhaps even a flushing toilet. There’s only one way to find out. We turn our back on Boulder, Colorado, the Flatirons of the Green Mountains shrinking in our wing mirrors, and set our course eastwards across the Great Plains.
15th June: We’ve just had our valve clearances checked (the car, not us) by Safari Ltd at Grand Junction. After 84, 000 kilometres they are out of tolerance in 11 of the 12 valves, requiring new shims to be fitted. Hugh, the owner of Safari Ltd, tells us we’ll get at least another couple of kilometres per hour out of the old boy once we hit the highway, which is a big deal for us. But our extra 2kph doesn’t impress the truckers: each time we hold them up they blast us with their air horns and flick the middle finger. They have a point, even if they don’t have to be so rude when making it. In the absence of any horse-drawn buggies, cyclists and tractors we are indeed the slowest thing on the road by a considerable margin. It gives us chance to study grasshoppers and butterflies. The highway cuts through vast plains of grassland. We’re following the River Platte, the route taken by many of the pioneers heading west in the old days. This used to be bison (also known as American buffalo) country. Some scientists estimate that as many as 60 million bison roamed North America. Before the Euro-Americans settled in the west in the early 1800s, Native Americans had depended on bison for thousands of years. Climate change, followed by diseases introduced through the domestic livestock herds began to impact on bison numbers. The greatest destruction to the bison, however, was the unchecked sport and commercial hide hunting by the new arrivals on the plains. By 1893 only about 300 bison remained.
‘There was once a Lakota holy man called Drinks Water. He dreamed what was to be, and this was long before the coming of the Wasichus (white men). He dreamed that the four-leggeds were going back into the earth, and that a strange race had woven a spider’s web all around the Lakota and he said, ” … when this happens, you shall live in square grey houses in a barren land, and beside those square, grey houses you shall starve.”‘ Black Elk. Oglala Lakota, 1931.
16th June: We take a break from the journey to visit a Pony Express station in Gothenburg. Gothengurg is located on what was the first transcontinental highway – the overland route to the west. The Oregon trail, the Overland Trail and the Route of the Mormons all passed through this valley, en-route to the west. Messrs Russell, Majors and Waddell began the Pony Express in April 1860. The line ran from St Joseph, Missouri to Sacramento, California, a distance of some 2,000 miles. Prior to the Pony Express, mail deliveries to California took a month or more. The young riders employed by the Pony Express could achieve this in 10 days. Although a perilous journey, only one mail delivery was ever lost, and one rider killed and scalped by the Indians. The first horses and ponies gave way to the hardy, wild mustangs from the far west, for the mustangs would last much longer than any other horse. Often the mustangs had to be thrown, staked down and held by two men to be shod. At its height the Pony Express had 100 stations, up to 500 hundred horses and employed 80 riders. However, with the Overland Telegraph rapidly gaining coverage across the US, the Pony Express was not profitable and the firm went bankrupt in July 1861. Tonight we make camp beside the Pawnee Lake, west of the city of Lincoln. The country is hilly and lush after unusually heavy rains.
17th June: We skirt south of Lincoln to Highway 2, crossing into Iowa state. In the small town of Clarinda a sign tells us this is the birthplace of noted trombonist and orchestra leader Glenn Miller. Not much later and we arrive at the flashing amber light indicating the start of Decatur City, though we are forced to look extremely hard to find the “City”. There are plenty of trees and a vista of corn fields. Turning off highway 2 it takes us about 55 seconds to make a full loop of down-town Decatur City. We make sure to miss nothing on the way. There are some houses, a grass square, a welding shop, a few pick-ups and a cute little eatery named Dinky Diner. We stop the car and mumble, ‘Where’s the liquor store?’ ‘Where do we buy groceries?’ ‘They call this a CITY?’ ‘Your cousin lives here?’ We drive south down a gravel track for a few miles. At the end of a long driveway we spy the farmhouse surrounded by outbuildings, woodland, corn fields and swathes of greenery. The numbers on the post-box match the address we’ve been given. This is beautiful country, the Yorkshire Dales transported to Iowa. At the farm a big brown dog wags his tail in greeting. I knock at the farmhouse door and Dennis, Susie’s partner, steps out. ‘Hi, I’m Dennis,’ he says. ‘That’s a relief,’ I tell him.
18th June: Our timing is perfect: today is Susie’s birthday. The day unfolds like all the days to come, in a whirl of activity. It’s magical to reminisce, to delve into the old stories, relive our childhood, laugh a lot. Christine and I are treated to some real Iowa hospitality. First up is the skeet shooting ground, more for my benefit than a treat for Susie’s birthday. In fact, when she hands me a 12 gauge shotgun and a box of buckshot cartridges, I suspect she’s not much into this clay shooting lark. Buckshot is the type of cartridge cops use to stop a car when they’re really angry. ‘Number 7s might be better,’ I tell her. The “Birthday Lunch” is crab at the Red Lobster in Des Moines – what a treat! I love my car, but I have to admit it’s wonderful to live in a house for a few days, to eat in a kitchen and catch a bit of TV news, to benefit from being taken places by a local, all the better for absorbing the scene. We make a visit to the local Amish market, where the farmers drive their wagons loaded with produce into the sales hall. I’ve been to a few auctions in my time but this one is special for the manner in which the auctioneer sells – more like a music-hall ditty than a commercial transaction. Check out the Youtube clip below to get an idea of an Amish auction (though an Amish auction is not usually accompanied by music). In the early eighteenth century, when William Penn opened up Pennsylvania as a haven for religious orders, the Amish, persecuted in Europe for their pacifist beliefs, flocked to the US. The Amish take their name from their spiritual founder, Jacob Amman of Switzerland and apparently still talk amongst themselves in Swiss-German. They separated from the Mennonite movement in 1693, believing the Mennonite had become too liberal. The Amish value pacifism, obedience to God and their church, humility in demeanour and simplicity in lifestyle. Whilst they reject most modern technology they have a limit. They may not own a car, though will travel in one when attending funerals or important errands. Most of the time they can be seen travelling the highways and byways in their horse-drawn wagons and buggies. They may use a telephone to conduct business but the phone will never be in the house. Much like cameras, they will not have the telephone intruding on family life. The Amish community can be found in 19 US states and Ontario Canada. One afternoon we visit Joe’s farm. The kids are reserved and watchful as we’re shown around the barn. Then Eli gives a tour of the back-roads in the family buggy.
21st June: With the clock ticking on our 90 day visa today we must return to the road. Our wonderful stay with Susie and Dennis comes to an end. Not far to the north-west of Decatur City is Winterset, the birthplace of Marion Robert Morrison, better known as the movie star John Wayne. He was born here 1907, the family moving to Los Angeles when the young Wayne was 9 years old. We also find ourselves in Madison County, famous for the Bridges of Madison County. Most of the fuel stations out here have a food store attached. They have such names as “Pump and Pantry” and “Kum and Go”. One of the most common signs we see is the one announcing “GAS, FOOD, LODGING”, the three essentials for those out on the highway.
23rd June: Our journey back to the Rockies takes us through Elk Horn, home to the largest Danish community in the US. In 1868 the first Danish settler, Christian Jensen, urged his family to come and join him in the Clay Township community named for the elk antlers found scattered on the prairie. In the mid-70s, during a moment of eccentric indulgence, the community of Elk Horn raised more than $ 100,000 to purchase a windmill in Denmark, ship it to the states and rebuild it. It stands in all its glory, and rather incongruously, at the southern entrance to the town. This is big farming country. Many Danish flags fly beside the Stars and Stripes. For lunch we stop at the supermarket and buy a battered cod sandwich.
25th June: We stop in Chadron to take advantage of the WiFi access, courtesy of McDonalds. Sitting outside in the shade I watch an Indian woman approach a guy sat in his car. She wants a light for her cigarette. The guy flicks his lighter and she bends to the flame. The guy’s features are lost to a sinister web of blue lines tattooed across his face. The lady thanks him and steps back on the pavement. ‘You guys in the white truck?’ she asks. I nod in response. A bandana is tied about her head and she wears a faded leather jacket. Tattoo face gazes at us from his car. ‘From Canada?’ she pursues. ‘Europe,’ I tell her. ‘And you?’ I ask. ‘Wounded knee, South Dakota. I came yesterday to see my relatives . But they ain’t here.’ She draws on the cigarette and blows a pall of smoke. ‘So I’m just cruisin’… waitin’.’ She raises her eyes to the thunder-heads, the stacked, white clouds approaching from the west and says, ‘Gonna rain some more, I reckon.’ ‘It rained hard last night,’ I say. ‘Oh, yeah. It surely did. I slept under that there bridge o’ yonder. It kept me pretty snug.’
Later in the day we cross the state line into South Dakota. On the horizon dark hills rise above the plains. The Sioux call them the Paha Sapa, or Black Hills. From a distance the forests of ponderosa pines make the hills look black: hence the name. To the Indians these are sacred hills. We stop to watch bison feeding, prairie dogs scampering between their burrows and a coyote trotting nonchalantly in the background. We camp at Custer’s Gulch, a camp-ground to the east of Custer City. General George Armstrong Custer came through here on his way to the Little Big Horn.
27th June: When we were in Grand Junction I’d gazed open-mouthed as a guy climbed out of his truck in the parking lot, adjusted the holstered Colt .45 at his side, patted his little blonde daughter on the head and strolled into the City Market supermarket. Did he really need to pack a Colt .45 to purchase his cornflakes and peanut butter. Who did he think was in there? But of course guns are a part of the American culture, especially so out here in the west. Packing a gun is like carrying a handkerchief. After travelling the plains and reading the stories of all these gunfighters, we’ve got the taste for a shoot-out ourselves. In Rapid City we make for the Smoking Gun indoor shooting range, so as to blow away a few paper baddies. It’s been twenty years since I picked up a handgun – I’ll be lucky if I can hit that proverbial barn door. The girl behind the counter puts a couple of .45s, a Glock 9mm and some boxes of shells into a thing akin to a shopping basket. ‘You’re good to go,’ she says.
28th June: The Devil’s Tower might be considered a beacon marking the transition from the plains to the foothills of the Rockies. We enter the state of Wyoming and from Sheridan we begin to climb back into the mountains and the Bighorn National Forest. At 2,500 metres altitude we find a secluded spot to camp in the forest. The air is cool and full of the scent of pine. The glade of grassland below us glows in the setting sun. All is silent.