Footnotes from a road trip (part i)

I promised @alice-mccoy that I would keep some notes on my recent travels, as she suspected there would be some hair – or at least eyebrow – raising moments on a trip that would see us drive the breadth of Wyoming and South Dakota, the Colorado plateau, and a fair chunk of Iowa and Utah. She wasn’t wrong.

It wasn’t that I thought our plan was in any way sensible, you understand. Unlike my boy, I had a firm grasp of the mileage planned and a solid notion that wiser folk might not try to go quite so far in just two weeks (let alone consider it a holiday). What I didn’t have was any real idea of the territory we would be covering (other than Arizona, which I recall from a trip 20 years ago). Landing in Denver on a cold Wednesday night, a surly customs officer asked where we were going. ‘Cheyenne,’ I replied with my best British accent and a smile. ‘Cheyenne?’ he barked. ‘What you all going to Cheyenne for?’ I blinked at what sounded like suspicion in his tone and – unsurprisingly – told the truth. ‘We’re just passing through on our way to Iowa for a wedding.’ Turns out this is a great way to discombobulate the surliest border guard, as he couldn’t help but burst out laughing, his suspicion (or in retrospect, sheer disbelief) transformed by a new conviction. ‘Y’all are crazy,’ he said, waving us through.

Cheyenne is the capital of Wyoming, the least populated of the 50 states. It isn’t much to look at, and is (as I initially suspected from our cross-examination) the home of a military base. Other than that, the most notable thing about it was the ambition of its advertising promotions on the billboards along the highway: Collect ALL 2 of the free giveaways with your Doritos. Don’t get too worried, Pokemon.

We stayed long enough to get a night’s sleep and Best Western’s approximation of a breakfast (deduct points for Fox News, and things that were almost but not quite entirely unlike juice and coffee; add a point for having peanut butter), then bravely headed north into light snow, past the first billboard for WallDrug and it’s 5c hot coffee. Given what had passed for coffee at breakfast, the price was far from comforting.

Our first day included cultural highlights such as lunch with a cowboy (real cowboys don’t take their hats off to have lunch) at Dairy Queen (a fast food chain does count as a cultural experience, stop sneering), where the shakes are so thick that ‘if we can’t serve it upside down, it’s free!’. Let’s not think about that too hard, or what it might mean for your digestion. I didn’t have the courage to give one a go, although listening to the waitresses wonder how they were supposed to serve the autumn pumpkin spice shake upside down (‘What about all those sprinkles on the top? Surely they’ll fall off?’) was entertaining.

It was this first day that the distances began to sink in. In theory we knew how far we were going, and how long it would take us – what we hadn’t realised was how little there was in between. Don’t get me wrong – the country itself is glorious and at times overpoweringly beautiful (especially when you’re on the clock with a long way to go) – but when you really need some petrol, the distances and the emptiness start to get scary. We realised that first morning that a town on a map could translate to a railway siding with four derelict houses, and that we never again wanted to get to a point where we had under 100 miles range on our fuel tank without certainty of where the next gas station would be.

We covered 1200 miles in our first two days, and approximately the same number of roadside ads for WallDrug. Imagine my excitement when I realised we would in fact be passing through Wall (no crossing point to a magical Gaiman kingdom, sadly) – and my flicker of disappointment when it became obvious we didn’t have time to stop. What could be so enticing, I hear you ask? The ads had done their work. Cheyenne is 350 miles from Wall; for the last 50 miles or so, the ads are literally every 100 yards. It’s not just cheap coffee, oh no. There’s free coffee and donuts for veterans. And a 6 foot giant rabbit. And a new dinosaur! Everything you could ever dream of can be found in WallDrug* – and every road leads to it (or at least features ads for it). The curiosity was killing me.

However, we were both quite, quite clear that nothing WallDrug had to offer could possibly beat seeing the Badlands of South Dakota at sunset with a full moon rising:

Badlands National Park, South Dakota

One thing I have to say about the US: they get much better sunsets than we do. Every day. After a day that had included hours of wild country, the glorious Black Hills (and more wild animals than you can shake a stick at, including some sleepy buffalo at a watering hole and wolves lolling on the roadside) and the quirky statement that is Mount Rushmore, it was our first sunset that really had us fall in love.

We finished our evening in a hotel on the banks of the Missouri, who kindly upgraded us and would next day give us possibly the best breakfast of the trip (breakfast became incredibly important as it was the meal that could be so generous and interesting you simply didn’t need to eat again, which was useful given the options in the desert. Or it could be chemical juices and sugar).

Day two of the drive was pure Midwest: rolling hills, flatlands, and endless hours of grain fields and siloes. I could have sat in the South Dakota gas station all morning listening to the local conversation puncture my previous suspicion that various film and television portrayals were perhaps exaggerating just how lovely Dakotans can be to each other (seriously, it’s all true. Marge and Norm Gunderson and their Fargo compatriots are all alive and well). We accidentally found the town of Pocahontas, Iowa (no link to the historical figure whatsoever, although there is a large fibreglass statue representing her), but no espresso-based coffee in either South Dakota or Iowa.

The fear began to trickle in: do Americans only drink filter coffee? Thankfully not – on arrival in Grinnell, Iowa, we were directed to a local deli that gave us our much-needed rocket fuel the next morning (and pumpkin spice syrup, although the sugar content literally gave me palpitations – hello corn syrup!) to prepare us for a long evening of celebration at our friends’ wedding.

*licence may have been taken. Hyperbole guaranteed.