2,900 Miles 6 US States

June 2022

Day 1 Friday 3 June

Racking up these roadtrips. Determined to see as much of all 50 US States as we can whilst living here. Flew from LaGuardia New York to Minneapolis Minnesota and hit the ground running; landing mid-morning despite getting up at 4am to receive a text message telling us the flight was delayed 2 hours. First stop the ‘House of Balls’! Greeted by owner/artist/metal sculptor Alan who showed us around his huge sculptures, mechanical robots built from old American paraphernalia, large scale commissions…beautifully decorated security gates. His garden ‘planted’ with bowling balls and his fantastic truck featuring a perfectly manicured 6 fingered giant hand embracing the side of it. We seek these people out; their creativity a gift to the world.

Downtown Minneapolis to the new 100 feet tall Prince mural painted by Hiero Veiga and only unveiled the night before in time for the Prince Celebration Weekend; Minneapolis Prince’s hometown. Lunch by Lake Harriet and a drop in to the Electric Fetus record store, packed with one of the largest inventories we’ve seen. Talked with the staff, swapped stories of working in record shops and labels… leaving to explore more of downtown; street art, weathered paint flaked buildings with dated signs for Dreamgirls and Sneaky Pete’s. A bus drives by advertising “Expect the Best”…its bus-blind showing ‘not in service’. Driving between Minneapolis and it’s twin city St Paul highway seeing directions for the Vandalia-Cretin Highway and Cretin Avenue which made us laugh. Stopped by the former home of F.Scott Fitzgerald at 599 Summit Avenue in St Paul, faced with brownstone looking boldly New York among the neighbouring upscale Victorian houses. Drove by lines of people dressed for graduation filing in to the Cathedral of St Paul, flanked one side by pleasant residential homes and a heavily trafficked flyover on the other. Checked in to the Airbnb where the owner and his autistic teenage son are welcoming and give us fresh baked cookies…comfortable in the light filled basement of their home.

Day 2 Saturday 4 June Visited George Floyd memorial square; Floyd was murdered here by a police officer in May 2020 outside Cup Foods. Street murals depicting Floyd and historical black activists, powerful messages from Black Lives Matter painted on walls and roads. A nearby ‘Say Their Names’ art installation styled like a graveyard in a peaceful green pasture just off 37th Street and Park Avenue Minneapolis. Made up of temporary white ‘headstones’ for 100 black Americans killed in racist incidents, many of them children…we left feeling numb.

The Weisman Art Museum is the Frank Gehry creation built next to the Washington Avenue Bridge; a glittering abstraction of brushed steel; a typical Gehry juxtaposition of angles and curves hugging a bluff overlooking the Mississippi River. At the Minneapolis Sculpture Park we see ‘Spoonbridge and Cherry’ the stainless steel and aluminum sculpture designed by Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen…its impact diminished by our sobering start to the day.

At The Walker Arts Center the David Hockney show was a treat. A room filled with portraits of his muse (and our old next door neighbour) Celia Birtwell….his wonderful iPad paintings; landscapes with vanishing points leading in to richly saturated woodland lit up the room.

Dave’s colleague Zach was in town for the Prince weekend; he works for Sony Music, he gave us free VIP passes to Paisley Park. I’d expected it to be more elaborate but it’s functional…like a warehouse at the edge of a carpark, which makes sense when viewed as a workplace. Prince spent most of his time here in the studio writing and playing with other musicians. At the onsite concert hall we met Kirk Johnson New Power Generation drummer, waiting for his soundcheck, friendly and talkative. Zach’s contact Trevor who works at Paisley Park pointed to a landing above where a line of dovecotes stood. He invited us to the recording studio where 3 female musicians who backed Prince as 3rdeyegirl demonstrated how the different song parts, instruments and vocals, are pieced together and laid as a final track. Hannah Welton on drums huge energy, Donna Grantis (Trevor’s wife) super skilled on guitar and a vocalist walked us through the song ‘What If’…the studio engineers piped it through to our headphones. Die-hard fans were crying turning to look at each other in reverential disbelief. The atmosphere one of worship; somewhat unnerving. A Q&A wound up the session, great personal stories of Prince in the studio.

Leaving Zach and his daughter Rose we drove to the Northeast arts district for coffee, where the young staff couldn’t believe we are English, asking lots of questions. We’re used to it…it’s funny. Headed to Stone Arch Bridge a former railway bridge overlooking the Mill District, the only arched bridge made from stone spanning the Mississippi River. We walked over looking across to historical industrial buildings, the river once lined with flour mills utilising its water for power…now repurposed to condominiums revitalising a former industrial area. Talked with a homeless man on the bridge who introduced himself as a bard, dismissed Shakespeare, loved Emily Dickinson.

Met Zach and Rose for dinner at a small Ethiopian restaurant, the service slow but so friendly that we lost track of time. Hurrying back to Paisley Park for the evening concert, the New Power Generation performing in sync to previously unseen footage of Prince projected behind them. A fervently charged atmosphere fans dressed in purple tearing up the dance floor, infectious…we laughed and danced…Prince on the screen immaculate in a tight fitted turquoise suit and yellow tie, moving as only he could move…singing his hits…alive and in the room. Uplifting and emotional in a way I didn’t expect. Leaving on a high, the VIP service picked us up in a mini van, she’d been shuttling folks back and forth all day for 12 hour shifts but still had energy to chat as she drove us under a thick night sky back to the carpark, Paisley Park looming purple receding in the mirror.

Day 3 Sunday 5 June Early start driving route 10 up to Fargo in North Dakota. Passing Elk River feeding in to Lake Orono, the highway leading us between Big Lake one side Keller Lake the other. Rejoined I-94 seeing signs for Lake Woebegone trail, a wild bird centre next door to ‘Unique Nails’. Crossing Middle Spunk Creek (of course we laughed) stopping at Palmer House Hotel in Sauk Center for old school charm in an alleged haunted hotel. Meeting Squeaky real name Leymone. A retired farmer who worked 500 acres of soy cattle and corn…now owned by his sons. Had a 2,450 pound bull he used to scratch between the ears. Always wears a black hat so folks know who he is. Great character. I’d seen him earlier seated at a table with his wife.

Me: “See that older couple over there. That’ll be us one day.” Dave looked over.

Me: “They haven’t spoken to each other once since they’ve come in. “Dave: “No chance that will ever be us then.”

At Alexandria a return to ‘Dave Standing Under Giant Things.’ I cajoled him to pose with Big Ole allegedly the world’s largest viking standing off the Viking Trail Highway. I fail in Elbow Lake where Dave’s distracted talking to the interesting owner astride his lawnmower, telling us about his Dad who built a giant Jesus….oddly holding what looks like a hockey stick. I’m successful at Fergus Falls where we find Otto the giant Otter overlooking a river where large groups of large white birds hold court squawking on giant nests in dead trees. And in Rothsay a giant Prairie Chicken, a protected species, affectionately protects Dave.

Just before crossing the state border from Minnesota in to North Dakota we stop in Moorhead at the Hjemkomst Center to see the replica of an 8th century Viking burial ship…apparently Vikings were here; I need to research this because there’s no harbour or sea access. It was built in 1974 by Robert Asp who sadly died before fulfilling his dream of sailing it to Norway. Two years after his death Asp’s children finally did, departing New York City and arriving a month later in Bergen Norway. It was shipped back to Moorhead in 1983. Behind the museum stands Hopperstad Stave church, a replica of an 11th to 12th century Scandinavian church. Only accessible by guided tour, we arrived too late but online images show wonderful interior craftsmanship. Also closed and over the border in Fargo we stopped by the visitors centre to spy the original woodchipper infamously used in the movie ‘Fargo’.

Walking around Fargo’s Main Street we meet people eager to talk. Elisha age 15 was sitting on a step when he heard our English accents and politely interjected to ask where we’re from. Chatting for a while his mum Angela arrived, told us he’s one of her 9 kids and she’s brought them all up to be curious and learn as much as they can. She pointed out buildings telling us a brief history…she’d only moved here a few month before from a different state. I admire curious people, it’s a trait we all need. After we’d eaten at a small Thai place with deep wooden booths painted bright colours a steaming kitchen rattling pans and throwing noodles we wandered the streets where we met Mark. He saw my camera saying “I’m ready!” so I took his photo. He used to work commercial fishing sometimes 1,400 miles out on 98 foot long boats …around Florida, Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Windward Straits and in the North East off the coast of Massachusetts. “You wouldn’t want to be in Fargo in winter, sometimes it’s 40 below. Out of the top ten coldest US cities 8 of them are in North Dakota.” A tall man with a great voice…I told him he could have been a movie star.

Day 4 Monday 6 June Our end destination will be Murdo South Dakota. Left Fargo early after sleeping 9 hours straight. Ran out of steam last night but woke energised ready for the road. Drove over Wild Rice River…miles of wide flat open unreeling towards the horizon and the sound of asphalt ticking under our wheels. Hit 500 miles just before we crossed in to South Dakota between Hankinson and Effington. Road signs ‘Abortion stops a beating heart’. Passed through Fort Sissetown…nothing for miles other than scattered farm buildings. Drove over the Continental Divide and through Lake Traverse Reservation leaving route 29 at Summit taking route 12 to Webster on to route 25 heading for De Smet. Not much seems to be planted/growing yet; one farmer told us it’s been too wet and they’ve had a lot of storms. We drove by lakes and flooded land. At Ash-Moe Waterfowl Production Pelicans and cormorants were fishing both sides of the highway, the water jagged with dead silvered trees breaking the surface. On through Mankey Slough…hard to tell what’s a lake and what’s flooding.

De Smet was pretty, old redbrick buildings lining a main street…but deserted. I guess folks just get in their vehicles and drive miles to the out of town megastores. Depressing what highways did to small town America and previously vibrant communities.

The historical marker for the Laura Ingells Wilder homestead sits on the edge of prairie…in the town of De Smet we walked around a group of preserved buildings including a wooden schoolhouse where she taught, gaps between the clapperboard where the snow would blow in. A gift shop sold cotton bonnets and bags of lemon drops. The house she lived in whilst teaching has been restored.

It was overcast and raining by the time we reached Mitchell to visit the Corn Palace. Covered in murals made from natural corn kernels of different colours, the external panels are remade annually based on a different theme, this year’s being the circus. Inside there’s a gallery showing photos of the different designs dating back to the early 1800s. Sparrows were nesting in it, flying in and out, chirping. Back on the road, filling up with petrol again (the prices have jumped since the invasion of Ukraine)…we’re filling up every opportunity we get, miles of empty road across these states. Straight out of Mitchel we spot the first signs for Wall Drug, there are hundreds dotted across the landscape. A roadside sign reads ‘Connecting kids to Christ’ another for ‘Yankton Sioux Tribal HQ’. Driving through heavy rain it clears as we reach Chamberlain to see the Dignity statue. 50 feet tall on a bluff overlooking the Missouri River. Made of stainless steel by South Dakota artist Dale Claude Lamphere, the statue is of an indigenous woman in Plains-style dress receiving a star quilt.

At the statue we met Hilda and Eimar. They’d driven from Savannah Georgia through several States heading towards the Pacific Coast in California…a lot of miles on the road. Originally from Puerto Rico they were giving us travel trips. Just a little further up the road I persuaded Dave to stand with an oversized pheasant ingeniously crafted from railway spikes and various nuts, bolts and bits of scrap metal. A few miles further in Oacoma we arrived at Al’s Oasis, a line of shops modelled on a old wild west trading post with a giant bison out front and another ridiculous photo opportunity.

Wanting a drink we wandered in to a supermarket a full size stuffed bison greeting our entrance. A mountain lion prowled above racks of beef jerky and plasticy sticks of dyed pink pepperoni. Mountain goats, sheep and coyotes kept guard above refrigerated beers. Geese and gulls suspended in flight from polystyrene ceiling tiles; taxidermed wildlife frozen in the glare of 21st century fluorescent strip lighting. Once the novelty wears off it’s just a depressing spectacle of dead wildlife stripped of grace.

In Murdo South Dakota we checked in to the pleasant Murdo Range Country Lodging where the staff were friendly and the theme of dead stuffed wildlife decorated the wood-panelled entrance. Dinner at the nearby Rusty Spear was one of the best of the trip. The staff were mainly young black guys from Jamaica on a work exchange programme earning money and getting work experience. Teeno was our waiter was full of life, enthusiastic and thrilled we were English (not sure why). When learning of Dave’s job he chatted about music especially the UK Grime scene. Full of life he introduced us to Xavier. Who knows what went through their heads when they first arrived in Murdo to remote farmland, very little around, not able to legally drink under 21…their energy and humour must add a lot of personality to the town.

Day 5 Tuesday 7 June Amusing road signs leaving Murdo. ‘Mexican food is so good Donald Trump would build a wall around it’ and ‘We’re like a cult…with better Kool-Aid’. Store signs ‘Wobbly Bobby where real men wear kilts’ and ‘Red-ass Rhubarb wine’. On our way to the Badlands Loop and another Dave Standing Under Giant Things, or as our German friend Peter calls it ‘LDE’ – Little Dave Everywhere. Coming off the I-90 just off exit 131 on Highway 240 we pull in alongside a colony of prairie dog burrows dug in to some land near the Ranch Store Gift Shop; the animals popping in and out like a fairground game whilst cubs wrestled in the grass. Standing on hind legs similar to Meerkats, adult dogs took turns to keep watch for hawks. The shop sold small bags of peanuts which visitors hand-fed to the tiny mammals whilst overlooked by a 6-ton 12 foot tall concrete Prairie Dog in an unusual shade of dark pink and yellow.

And on to the Badlands Loop scenic drive. Entering on the I-90 at Cactus Flat we dropped south following the trail to the Northeast entrance, passing the Notch trailhead, Ben Reifel Visitor Centre up through Saddle Pass, stopping at Panorama point to stand on a bluff overlooking the most extraordinary landscape…stacked layers of rock; sandstone, siltstone, mudstone, claystone, limestone, volcanic ash, and shale…built up over millions of years (known as deposition) created by inland seas, wind and rivers.

Colour striations show a timeline; the bottom-most layer the Pierre Shale, deposited around 75 million years ago. Erosion here is comparatively rapid at an estimated 1 inch per year, beginning around 500,000 years ago when the Cheyenne and White Rivers started carving through the landscape…they reckon in another 500,000 this landscape will have disappeared.

Constantly changing colour as cloud passes overhead and the sun burns through. We gained an extra hour this morning passing in to Mountain Time. At Yellow Mounds Overlook the different minerals glow yellow, pink and grey…sugar-frosted.

We drove for around an hour through this dramatic scenery taking our exit after Pinnacle Overlook at Wall where we stopped for a (dry) doughnut at Wall Drug. After the thousands of billboards advertising Wall Drug we were underwhelmed by this behemoth of a themed western-styled storefront plot selling tons of stuff no-one really needs…jewelry, t-shirts, bags, rocks…you name it they sell it and most of it will wind up as landfill; the human obsession with accumulation. A jackelope photobombed Dave and we met a charming fellow traveller who’s name I’ve sadly forgotten. She was equally underwhelmed but had bought stickers, adding to those already on her car. She’d driven 48 States since September 2021..exploring her country. I told her not to hold back cover the entire car.

Back on I-90 we hit a ferocious hail storm. Came on suddenly, visibility dropping instantly and following the lead of other drivers we pulled over and waited it out….rejoining the highway to pull over 5 minutes later when another torrent of huge hailstones bulleted the car, bouncing off the tarmac…the sound inside the vehicle so loud we couldn’t hear each other. It cleared and an hour west under a leaden sky we pulled in to the city of Deadwood parked in a concrete multi-storey and helped a succession of baffled older men to figure out the parking meters…which ripped us all off at a flat ten dollar fee overriding the option to select increments of 1 hour. Amusingly outside in pouring rain, a flustered older gentlemen holding the remains of a broken umbrella asked us for help with a kerb-side parking meter. Deadwood parking services are creating a new gold rush. Wedged under his brolly another opportunity for me to persuade Dave to pose under something daft…Bigfoot chainsaw art.

A former Gold Rush town Deadwood’s done pretty well at maximising tourism and retaining its charm. Shootouts with actors dressed as cowboys and a cobbled main street lined with historic storefronts selling the usual tourist paraphernalia lead to a hill which is home to Mount Moriah Cemetery and the graves of Wild West icons Calamity Jane and Wild Bill Hickok. Dave’s a fan of ‘Deadwood’ the TV series so we climbed to the top of the cemetery to find the gravestone for Seth Bullock, the Sheriff who was played by Timothy Olyphant in the show.

We’d made good time, the sky had cleared and back in the blue we drove to Keystone to see Mount Rushmore. Gigantic 60 foot high sculptures of four Presidents; Washington, Jefferson, Roosevelt and Lincoln (respectively representing the birth of America, its growth, development and preservation) blasted out of the granite face of the mountain in the Black Hills of South Dakota. The Lakota Sioux knew the mountain as ‘The Six Grandfathers’ American settlers had other names for it; Sugarloaf, Slaughterhouse, Keystone Cliffs. To the Lakota leader Black Elk, the mountain was a spiritual journey culminating in Black Elk Peak…claims on the mountain still disputed today after settlers took control of the area in the 1870s. Led by sculptor Gutzon Gorblum work began in 1927 and ended in 1941. Designed entirely as a way to lure tourists to the area it attracts around 2 million people a year, entering through a wide avenue lined with world flags which culminate in viewing points and seats. It is an arresting sight, the tenacity, strength and skill to bring this into being is staggering. The son of Black Elk of the Lakota Sioux became one of the most photographed people in the world for 20 years; posing in traditional dress with tourists in front of the monument.

Hungry after a long day filled with wonders we found the restaurants full, takeaway not easy to find so wound up driving to a supermarket which gave us some basic food choices which we took back to eat in our least favourite hotel room of the trip…dated and dreary with cars parked immediately below our window, heavy dark furniture and old carpet; still fully booked because it’s less than a 15 minute drive to the monument. It didn’t matter, we’d seen so many incredible things over so many miles that we drifted in to sleep ear plugs firmly wedged in.

Day 6 Wednesday 8 June

Breakfast was abysmal so we skipped it (to be fair it was at almost every chain hotel); self service from a selection of over-sweet big brand cereals served in polystyrene, crumpled muffins, rubber eggs. More plastic cutlery. The planet limping along under the giant garbage mountain created by chain businesses and everyone else from not holding them accountable; depressing. Each time I questioned plastic utensils I was met with blank indifference. Leaving Hill City a roadsign ‘Drink til She’s Cute, Leave Before the Wedding’ rankled with me but our first stop blew my mind. Crazy Horse memorial.

The largest mountain monument in the world started in 1948 by sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski, commissioned by the Lakota elder Henry Standing Bear…progress so far shows the face and outstretched arm of Crazy Horse the infamous American Indian warrior. We watched the film documentary at the visitor centre theatre featuring Ziolkowski and his family; if you can find any video footage online it’s really worth seeing. He hand blasted the mountain, built a cabin at the foot of it to live in and built 700 wooden steps up the mountainside up which he’d haul his blasting gear and tools. He climbed those stairs every day to dynamite and sculpt by hand eventually marrying the incredible woman who helped him, Ruth Ziolkowski. They had 10 children….all of whom worked with them and continue his legacy today.

We chose not to take a tour bus right up to the head choosing instead to visit the onsite museum and gallery which includes a scale model of the vision for the completed monument. The sculpture’s final dimensions are planned to be 641 feet (195 metres) long and 563 feet (172 metres) high. The outstretched arm will be 263 feet (80 metres) long, the opening under the arm 70 feet (21 metres) wide and 100 feet (30 metres) high…and the finger 29 feet 6 inches (9 metres) long. It won’t be completed in my lifetime; the scale of this easily dwarfing Mount Rushmore… and there’s some sweet irony in that.

Following the jawdropping Peter Norbeck Scenic Byway it takes in the 14 mile section known as Needles Highway where Pine trees tower alongside granite ‘needles’. We drove through Hood Tunnel, down by the Sylvan lake Resort through Needle’s Eye Tunnel; a natural rock formation split with an eye formed by thousands of years of wind and water. Out of the car to walk part of the trail and overlook the Cathedral Spires. On through Iron Creek tunnel following route 87 in to Custer State Park and on to the Wildlife Loop Scenic Byway to ogle at huge Bison roaming open prairie.

Despite warning signs to beware of the Buffalo I am reliably informed that these are actually Bison. The heavy beasts lumbered across the highway, bringing traffic to a standstill…snorting and grunting winter fur shedding. Where the grassland opened wide I got out of the car taking photos from a safe distance, an older American man doing the same next to me…an open carry pistol sat snug to his belt. Over 4 years living in America and we’re still shocked by the obsession with guns; why does anyone need a handgun? Further into the park a group of wild donkeys, Burros… stood nonchalantly in the shade whilst tourists fed them carrots.

Leaving Custer State Park we cross in to our 4th State of this trip, Nebraska…Dave playing Springsteen as hundreds of miles of empty road unfold. Calling ahead and cancelling an overnight stay in Chadron as we’re ahead of time…driving an extra hour from Chadron to Alliance where we stop to see CarHenge.

Created by an English bloke called Jim Reinders as a memorial to his father and to England’s Stonehenge, old cars are sprayed the colour of granite stacked up and welded to form a replica of the ancient stone circle. In other parts of the grounds contributing artists have created car sculptures and graffiti murals. Tammy in the onsite gift shop is good fun, using a plastic t-shirt folder to stack up hundreds of CarHenge t-shirts cracking jokes and telling funny stories as she folds. Asking us what we’re doing there whilst Platinum Jubilee celebrations for the Queen are taking place in the UK.

Further in to Alliance we stop at Dobby’s Frontier Town a lovingly recreated late 1800’s town using original and repurposed buildings and hundreds of original relocated artefacts. Started by Dobby who’s since died but carried on by volunteers, 27 buildings can be visited for the price of a donation. An old school room, original soda counter, church, gas station…it’s well set up. We met Craig (pronounced Creg) cutting the grass, he stopped to show us around. Volunteering since 1999 he enjoyed “jawing’ with us…recounting his childhood when he asked his Dad where their family came from, his Dad’s reply: “Slop bucket Dutch!” Craig showed us the first black owned log built home in Nebraska of Robert Anderson, born in 1843 in Kentucky. Anderson ran away after brutal treatment and served 3 years in the Union Army. After moving around in different jobs and a few unsuccessful attempts with land, he finally settled in Box Butte County Nebraska which the government was giving away as part of timber homesteads. After several years he successfully wound up owning and farming 2,000 acres and lived to the great age of 87. Leaving Dobby’s we ate fried chicken in a nearby restaurant whilst other diners tuned in to our English accents; we are a novelty in Nebraska…people asking us why we are there. A young soldier sat with a friend in the booth behind us, sharp in his pressed uniform.

Day 7 Thursday 9 June Leaving the Holiday Inn Alliance where breakfast was better than most, a 7 year old showed me how to use the pancake machine (you press start) what a fabulous invention. Loaded up on free muffins a small carton of fresh milk for my tea (only huge family sizes available in most supermarkets) and set out driving by unfathomably long trains rolling slow through the landscape. Losing an hour as we’d left Mountain Time back in Central Time. Driving through miles and miles of farm land endless green dotted with cows, barns and the occasional deer. Back on the I-92 over 60 miles of rough road and only one other vehicle. Playing the Josh Rouse Nebraska album and Funkadelic’s Maggot Brain; Eddie Hazel’s sublime guitar solo filling the open spaces.

Stopped in North Platte to see another Muffler Man repurposed unrealistically as a Native American. Muffler Men were originally built to advertise mufflers (car exhausts); standing outside muffler shops across 1960s America the outstretched hands holding a car muffler. Made from fibreglass and up to 25 feet tall, many have been bought or rescued, repurposed by collectors and business owners. We wandered through a Buffalo Bill themed store/museum with charming circus automatons where tiny elephants jerkily lumbered and circus life mechanically ticked through scenes of a Big Top. We’d driven 1,750 miles…it will be our longest roadtrip to date. We drove on to Kearney (pronounced Carny) to visit the Great Platte River Road Archway Monument; covering the history of 350,000 pioneers who left the east heading for better climate and living in the west of America, roughly following the Great Platte River across Nebraska. Approximately 1 in 10 died making the journey of 800 miles in horse-pulled wagons through mud storms and snow. Lighting effects and skillfully recreated scenes were atmospheric and engaging, successfully bringing a grueling journey to life. Other exhibits included rail expansion across the US and the laying of the Lincoln Highway both opening up the first opportunities for Americans to explore the great landscapes of their country. We met Ken and newly nicknamed (by me) Stand Up Steve, greeters who welcomed you in to the museum in the garb and character of cowboy pioneers.

Another change of plan, we cancelled the Motel 6 in Kearney adding 4 hours and an additional 280 miles to our day…but there wasn’t much more to hold us in this part of Nebraska so we turned the car towards Omaha, excited about a hit of city life and more varied food choices. Checking in to an Airbnb we ate fantastic pizza in the Blackstone neighbourhood before crashing out for an early night. Long day.

Day 8 Friday 10 June

Lazy start in Omaha Nebraska. Breakfast at Archetype then on to the Union Pacific Railroad Museum a 15 minute drive away….took us a minute to realise we’d crossed the State border in Council Bluffs, Iowa. Loved these Union Pacific railroad padlocks.

Just behind the railroad museum Pottawattamie Jail known as the Squirrel Cage Jail (also in Council Bluffs) is a 3-storey rotary jail, one of only three where prisoners were kept in rotating cells 2 per tiny room. Built in 1885 cells are located around a central carousel which at the turn of a hand-crank would rotate so only one inmate’s cell could be accessed at a time via the single entryway.  Prisoners often stuck out an arm whilst it was rotating to get a limb broken and be admitted to the on-site hospital where there was more chance of escape. The most violent criminals were kept in the third-storey where the prison warden and his wife also had an apartment. By the 1960s the barbaric massive metal turntable would frequently become stuck but the jail remained in active use until it was closed in 1969.

Omaha Nebraska was an unexpected treat. Great places to eat, brick laid streets in the historic district, the Old Market building red brick filled with planters, old wooden covered walkways, the Bob Kerrey pedestrian bridge and friendly locals happy to chat with us…who can’t believe we’re here. It’s a recurring theme. We ate great food at Plank Seafood Provisions on Howard Street in a really good looking restaurant sat in orange booths.

Walking across the Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge to stand in two States, spanning the ‘Big Muddy’ Missouri River the dividing line between Nebraska and Iowa. The longest river in the US at 2,341 miles from Three Forks Montana to where it meets the Mississippi River in St Louis Missouri. Its watershed covers one-sixth of the United States encompassing 530,000 square miles of land. These mighty rivers were once powerhouses of industry.

Day 9 Saturday 11th June Leaving Nebraska driving in to more flat open farmland in Iowa populated by hundreds of wind turbines. Road sign: ‘Save the babies life begins at conception’. Coming off highway 80 alongside Pitzer Road…pretty farm buildings and grain silos. Driving in to Madison County to find the covered bridges.

To Winterset in Madison County Iowa where there are 6 remaining covered bridges made famous in the Clint Eastwood/Meryl Streep movie ‘The Bridges of Madison County’. Roseman covered bridge is the best remembered and the prettiest…they all look very similar but this is in a beautiful area. Built in 1883, it carried traffic for almost 100 years. There was an onsite gift shop set back unobtrusively in the trees.

We met (left to right) Debbie Sharon Nancy and Dawn at the Roseman bridge; a bowling group on a trip. They asked us lots of questions about England, we chatted for almost an hour and I took photos for them on their separate phones. Fun people, gave us lots of tips on travelling to Colorado, telling us they’d had a few feet of snow just a couple of weeks ago.

In to the small town of Winterset with a main street of attractive historic buildings. Bumped in to the bowling ladies in a store where we bought more lemon drops and liquorice sweets. 

In the Quilt Museum there was a contemporary exhibition. My highlights: Orange circle graduation by Amanda Nadig. Mustard/black by Kim Eichler-Messmer. Multicolour on orange by Nora Renick Rinehart. Red/white Drexel Tile by Rossie Hutchinson. Mustard with zigzag by Keyana Richardson.
My favourite a large blue quilt by Kim Eichler-Messmer called ‘Barn’; a box with paper and pens prompted visitors to vote. Dave’s favourite a tiny framed piece in greens and yellow called ‘Sunlight on a Camphor Tree’ by Heather Akerberg.

Winterset is John Wayne’s birthplace (when he was called Marion Robert Morrison), his family home doesn’t look big enough for him to fit in. There’s a statue outside the John Wayne Museum.

It was getting hotter and humid, we left Winterset for a 40 minute drive north to Des Moines where we’re staying for the night. Ate at Eatery A on Ingersoll Street…huge restaurant. Drove to the Pappajon Sculpture Park, open access straight from the roadside and free to walk around.  A Louise Bourgeois spider had a bird nesting in it. A beautiful horse resembling driftwood by Deborah Butterfield actually cast in bronze. Lots of big hitters; Richard Serra, Yayoi Kusama, Robert Indiana and an installation by one of my favourites, Olafur Eliasson where I photographed our reflections.

A drive through the posh bit of town, Sherman Hill. Mansions with landscaped gardens. Like most American cities Des Moines is a sprawl and you can’t get around without a car.

Checked in to the Wildwood Lodge, a chain hotel but with great interior design. Busy on a Saturday night but quiet in our room. We sank in to the huge bed tired from over 2,000 miles on the road.

Day 10 Sunday 12th June Our destination Avoca in Wisconsin where we looked forward to 4 nights chilling out in one place in an amazing Airbnb we found. But first we followed the Lincoln Highway (the subject of the recent book by Amor Towles), alongside the Wapsipinicon River stopping enroute at Anamosa in Jones County Iowa…birth and death place of the American artist Grant Wood. The museum dedicated to him closed on Sundays so we stood under the roadside 25 feet tall version of his iconic painting ‘American Gothic’. The faces of the farming couple uncannily true to the original painting but Seward Johnson adapted his the sculpture to full length and added a suitcase, most likely because it’s sponsored by a travel company. We saw the original painting in The Art Institute of Chicago a couple of years ago.

And over the border in to Wisconsin, driving along the Frank Lloyd Wright Memorial Highway to Dr Evermor’s Sculpture Park, passing a DeLorean car kitted out like ‘Back to the Future’ and a jacked up ‘New Leader’ fertiliser spreader looking like a prop from ‘District 9’. Things are boding well. Reaching Sumpter parking up and walking in to Dr Evermor’s…immediately gobsmacked by the ‘Forevertron’ standing 50 feet high and 120 feet wide, allegedly the largest scrap metal sculpture in the world. My photos can’t come close to showing the scale of this thing. A 300 ton giant which includes a decontamination chamber from the Apollo 11 spacecraft, lightning rods and 2 Thomas Edison dynamos dating back to the 1880s. It’s extraordinary.

Built by Tom Every who sadly died in 2020 the sculptures are looked after by his wife Lady Eleanor, his children…and volunteers who help to run the place. It’s free entry and it’s mind boggling, we were there 90 minutes trying to take it all in. A huge Jules Verne fan, Every carried the influence in to his creations. Giant insects, a giant dragon which can be played like a xylophone, the ‘Bird Band and Orchestra’ which is a field of around 70 scrap metal birds varying in size many incorporating musical instruments. The ‘Celestial Listening Ear’, the ‘Overlord Master Control Tower’… it’s utterly mad and totally fantastic.

We met Dr Evermor’s wife Lady Eleanor with her daughter Tya…and volunteer Mischa full of boundless energy and enthusiasm. The creative energy is joyful and it was a highlight of our roadtrip.

2,500 miles driven over 9 days…time for 4 nights in one place. We checked in to our beautiful Airbnb, a house built on boulders at the top of a very steep road in the middle of woods and fields. Acres of floor to ceiling windows with views across a natural wildflower meadow. A large mezzanine bed, a wrap around deck, outdoor fireplace and a bathroom looking out to trees.

Day 11 Monday 13th June Woken at 5am by sunrise and birdsong. This place is stunning. A leisurely healthy breakfast on the deck and blissful lower temperatures. A rare rainy day so we planned an indoor trip to ‘The House on the Rock’ a 20 minute drive away between the cities of Dodgeville and Spring Green Wisconsin. Alex Jordan Jnr bought a giant rock in a forest after enjoying picnics there with his family, then bought up several acres of land surrounding it. He built his Frank Lloyd Wright influenced house on top of ‘Deer Shelter Rock’, a maze of interconnecting rooms some going in to the rock itself…and the most bezerk fantasy you’ve ever seen. We entered first through a small museum dedicated to Jordan’s history and the creation of the house; a small theatre showed movie footage of him with interviews. We didn’t want to look at too much in the museum preferring the element of surprise walking in to the house. The route led us through Japanese gardens then above them to walkways leading to a cantilevered wooden structure called the ‘Infinity Room’ which narrows to a long point over the trees.

Inside the house is dark…low lighting low dark wooden ceilings, exposed rock, sunken lounges red velvet upholstery… a lot of Asian influences. Carved Buddhas, carved wood, deities hidden in niches or given prominent display. It’s a maze…out of the rock but still in low light, still following carpeted passageways… and that’s when the madness really begins. Because Alex Jordan collected absolutely everything with the zeal of a young boy needing to surround himself with toys. Musical calliopes the size of houses, old slot machines, loads of token operated automatons, walls covered with full size painted wagon wheels, English naval uniforms, Tiffany stained glass, circus costumes, hot air balloons…it’s endless, it’s fascinating and it’s absolutely BONKERS. Like walking through the mind of a mad kleptomaniac channelling Baron Munchausen. There’s little rhyme or reason to any of it to the point of being overwhelming but it’s one of the craziest places we’ve ever been and well worth the $33 admission fee. Over the decades the original structure has seen thousands of square feet of additions; built on…and up. ‘The Heritage of the Sea’ is home to a 200 foot high model of a whale being attacked by a giant squid whilst a nearby musical calliope fed tokens by tourists blared out a mad nautical theme-tune accompanied by dancing sea creatures. The Organ room is cavernous…and it goes on and on and on – with more and more stuff everywhere you look. We were here for over 4 hours…nowhere close to taking it in.

And the most jaw-dropping feature of all is what they claim to be the world’s largest indoor carousel…and it’s HUGE. Walking through a dark corridor we heard it before seeing it, traditional carousel music filled the room as it revolves under the weight of 269 eccentric animals and figures none of which is a horse, nearly 200 chandeliers and over 20,000 lights. As if that wasn’t spellbinding enough, hundreds of winged figures hung suspended from the ceiling and the walls filled with wooden fairground horses. Spellbinding yet no-one outside the Midwest seems to have heard of this place.

Day 12 Tuesday 14th June I want this Airbnb. It’s gorgeous. 33c degrees, back to hot and humid…so we did NOTHING all day which was perfect. Lounged around reading eating and getting some energy back. Invited to dinner at the owner’s other self build house 5 miles away where we met his girlfriend, their new pup and their fainting goats. Great food, great company and great cheese…Wisconsin is after all famous for its cheese.

Day 13 Wednesday 15th June Early morning walk around the fields. I love south-west Wisconsin. Apparently hardly any tourists visit this part of the State yet it’s glorious.

A food run to Walmart is high on sprawl low on food quality. Driving back through farmland dotted with towering grain silos and red barns. You’d expect tower silos to look like eyesores but they work in the landscape. An evening storm. From torrential rain thunder and even a tornado warning advising us to head underground into storm shelters (there’s one under the house)…to a frog’s chorus and beautiful sunset within 3 hours. 

Day 14 Thursday 16th June Left our temporary paradise with heavy hearts, loved this place. The storm had brought down a dead tree across the drive but Dave managed to move it so we could pass. Headed back in to Iowa winding our way back to Minnesota. To Decorah Iowa first through Muscosa, Boscobel, Prairie du Chien (meaning meadow of the dog). Following Wisconsin River alongside route 133. Near Wauzeka a horse tethered roadside alongside a cooler…no-one in sight. Driving by farms barns and more silos. Crossing the Mississippi River at Prairie du Chien back in to Iowa at Marquette, heading northwest to Waukon to see another muffler man accompanied by a longhorn steer outside the Village Farm and Home Store where men in work clothes slung sacks of gravel in to beaten pickups. Following tracks for a while; a Canadian Pacific train idling pulling a long line of black tankers, maybe oil. 

Arrived in Decorah county seat of Winneshiek County named after Waukon Decorah Chief of the Ho-Chunk; forced out in 1848 by the US Army opening the area to white settlers. Due to a number of Norwegian settlers Decorah has since become a centre for Norwegian-American culture and there’s plenty of it on display; Norwegian flags flap everywhere, a recreation of Norwegian homesteads, a church, (most were built in the Dakotas and moved here), a Norwegian museum a Nordic festival every July…but nothing much about the Ho-Chunks. As Europeans we find this American obsession with its ‘white’ past confusing, oppressive. Amidst Norwegian flags and pretty buildings in the midst of main street, a shop declared themselves proud Trump supporters…a man infamous for his rallying cry against immigrants. The irony sits heavy.

A walk in Phelps Park wandering narrow natural paths with long drops to one side. Ate at Rubiyat, cheese soup (delicious) with popcorn sprinkled on it. An odd addition. Beefburgers…good beef with maple bacon, onion….and strawberry jam. I scraped it off….sometimes a classic is better left as a classic. We stayed in a pretty Airbnb in an old brick building, beautiful details and perfectly furnished except for the squeaky iron bed which woke us every time we twitched a foot.

Day 15 Friday 17th June Breakfast at Magpie in Decorah where we chatted with a local teacher; she told us about the work the school has done to run on solar and wind power. Impressive. Leaving town we drive for Minneapolis through places called Chatfield, Marion. Ignorant highway signs ‘Thanks for the Kung fu virus China’ and ‘All Lives Matter’ (printed across a picture of an automatic weapon)…side by side photos of Biden/Harris with Dumb and Dumber. We drove through Oronoco. The signs keep coming  ‘Love God. Love Others. We’re working on it.’ and back in Minnesota near Inver Grove Heights a limited offer from Jesus is running out ‘The time of my mercy is ending! Repent now!’ At Hampton Minnesota we find two more Giant Things for Dave to stand under…the game’s worn thin…but he humoured me.

On the outskirts of Minneapolis we stopped at an outlet mall and in the city we walked the Warehouse district among handsome redbrick buildings some crazily expensive designer shops and ate a delicious late lunch.

Back at the same Airbnb where we started 15 days before, welcomed again with homemade cookies we kicked back for the evening, watched a movie and enjoyed the rest.

Day 16 Saturday 18th June And so another roadtrip ended. Our flight back to New York City landed 30 minutes early despite horror stories of 1,800 cancelled flights over the previous two days. We are counting down the US States planning the next to visit. This country is huge and filled with wonders.

Map of the Badlands Loop.

Minnesota Minneapolis House of Balls https://www.houseofballs.com

Minnesota Minneapolis Paisley Park https://www.paisleypark.com

Minnesota Minneapolis Walker Arts Center https://walkerart.org

North Dakota Fargo Woodchipper https://www.roadsideamerica.com/tip/28817

South Dakota Mitchell Corn Palace https://cornpalace.com

South Dakota Deadwood Mount Moriah Cemetery https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mount_Moriah_Cemetery_(South_Dakota)

Nebraska Alliance CarHenge https://carhenge.com

Nebraska Alliance Dobby’s Frontier Town https://dobbysfrontiertown.com

Nebraska North Platte Great Platte River Road Archway Monument https://archway.org

Iowa Council Bluffs Squirrel Cage Jail https://www.thehistoricalsociety.org/museums/squirrel-cage-jail-1.html

Iowa Decorah Quilt Museum https://www.iowaquiltmuseum.org

Wisconsin Spring Green House on the Rock https://www.thehouseontherock.com

Wisconsin Sumpter Dr Evermor’s Sculpture Park https://www.worldofdrevermor.com

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