Twins, Brewers and Cubs

Minneapolis was the first major city we’d visited since leaving Salt Lake City over a week earlier. Armed with a list of recommendations from a few midwestern friends, we headed to Psycho Suzi’s bar in the north of the city. From the front, it looked like a Baptist church and inside it looked like a generic wine bar. The back patio, though, was themed like a Hawaiian tiki bar, facing out over the Mississippi.

We ordered a Pu Pu platter. In hindsight, we could’ve inferred from its name that it wouldn’t be the nicest of meals. One of the items was ‘Minnesotan sushi’, which was a pickle wrapped in a bit of ham.

From Psycho Suzi’s we headed to a speakeasy in the uptown district. Speakeasies in post-21st amendment America are just hipster-filled bars that don’t put a sign up outside. This particular bar involved going down a sketchy back alley and finding a doorway with a red light over it. The door was locked, so we knocked and were led to a booth table in the basement.

A fake fireplace occasionally opened to allow waiters into and out of the kitchen, but it wasn’t clear how to order a drink. Then, without warning, a mirror on the wall in our booth opened and a man’s face appeared to take our cocktail order. This happened several times through the evening, and did not get any less alarming.

***

In the morning, we headed east across Minnesota and Wisconsin, taking a detour via Green Bay because I thought it might be nice to drive down Lake Michigan. In reality, the interstate was as dull as ever and didn’t even pass that close to the lake. In search of something interesting, we drove past Mannitowac county jail, famous for being at the centre of Netflix’s ‘Making a Murderer’ documentary. It was, unsurprisingly, not interesting either.

We spent the night in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, a pleasant city on the edge of Lake Michigan. It was pouring with rain, so we took an Uber to a downtown bar for dinner. Every time I order a meal in the US, I am accompanied by an anxiety about ever finishing it. I hate to leave good food on a plate, but the portion sizes are almost always ridiculous. A couple of nights later we would share a Chicago deep pan pizza that, even in its smallest size, could happily feed three people and even then they would probably stagger out, clutching their bellies.

***

Our final day of driving was also our shortest: under 100 miles from Milwaukee to Chicago, but we had some important business to attend to first. Six Flags Great America is a theme park and water park with something like 14 different roller coasters. We rode some of them, paid $10 extra to go into the water park (followed by $15 for a towel and $14 to rent a locker) and then rode some water slides too.

Chicago is the first US city I ever visited, back in 2007. It remains one of my favourites because it just looks like an American city should, with skyscraper-lined streets, cast iron fire escapes and ornate wooden train platforms overhead. It is architecturally far more interesting than New York City, it is compact and flat, and it has some excellent blues.

On the way into the city we drove by the Home Alone house, slowly enough that I could snap some photos, then parked up at the same hostel that I’d stayed in last summer and headed out to a nearby blues bar. It was indescribably good.

Over the next couple of days, we went up the Willis (formerly Sears) Tower, ate an excessive amount of deep-pan pizza (see above), spent hours in the air conditioned Art Institute to escape the absurdly hot and humid weather outside, then watched the Chicago Cubs play baseball.

I’m not sure I’ve ever experienced weather as humid as Friday in Chicago. After a dinner of too much barbecue meat, we took an Uber back to the hostel. The car was covered in stars ‘n’ stripes streamers, banners and hats, and the driver gave us an unusual safety briefing at the start of the journey, before then talking non-stop for the 12 minute journey. When I stepped from the air conditioned car, my glasses instantly steamed up.

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Too much meat

***

I type this from JFK airport in New York, from where I will take my final flight home in a few hours. In the two years I have lived in the USA (plus a previous trip 11 years ago), I have visited 42 states + DC, visited 24 of America’s 59 national parks (and countless national monuments, historic sites and landmarks). I escaped the UK just after the Brexit vote and inadvertently found myself in a country flirting with fascism (although I tried to do my bit to prevent it).

In August 2016, I travelled to the other side of the world to a city where I knew nobody, and then I made some friends. I taught some amazing students and had the privilege of taking them on trips to India and Thailand, as well as to Oregon to observe a total solar eclipse.

I learned pretty quickly that we Brits culturally probably have more in common with our European neighbours than with our former North American colonies. I also learned that saying my own name in my own accent causes confusion to American ears: “Rope?” “Romain?” “Ropp?”

San Francisco is a beautiful city. Having visited most of the others, I can say with confidence that it is the most beautiful city in the USA. On a sunny day, I will never get bored of seeing the Golden Gate bridge peeping over the horizon, but it is the less expected sights that win it for me. Walk 10 minutes in any direction in San Francisco and you will stumble upon a magnificent old church, or a colourful house, or a surprise view of Alcatraz.

SF (never “San Fran” or “Frisco”) is welcoming, friendly and very liberal, but one of my earliest memories is of a strong smell of urine. Homelessness, frequently linked to serious untreated mental illness, pervades this city, and the problem seems to be getting worse. Somehow a city so progressive is unable to figure out how to humanely help these people. Meanwhile, the booming tech sector’s six-figure-earning millennials have pushed rents for those of us who aren’t homeless to eye-watering levels.

The western United States in general, but particularly California, has the most incredible countryside. On my first drive down the coastal road to Santa Cruz, I caught myself grinning in disbelief that I could live somewhere so stunning. The national parks of Utah and Arizona are like alien landscapes, with colours and distances that my little English brain could not comprehend. Yosemite, Yellowstone, Grand Teton: every one of these parks is utterly beautiful in totally different ways.

I leave the USA delighted by how much I’ve had the privilege to see and do over the last couple of years. I look forward to family, friends, British food, British TV and not paying nearly $2000/month in rent for a tiny studio in the suburbs. But I will miss my San Franciscan friends, the Californian weather and the great American road trips. Will I return? I think there’s too much that annoys me about American life for it ever to be my permanent home, but enough to draw me back to this diverse land from time to time.

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Corn. Mostly just corn.

South Dakota is roadside sign country. They are the only distraction along the straight cornfield-lined highways and fall into one of three categories. You have the political adverts, usually in opposition to abortion, though rarely in agreement about how many weeks it takes for a foetus to develop a heartbeat. Then you have the adverts for attorneys, usually promising to get you out of a traffic ticket; my favourite of this genre was Motorcycle Attorneys, though it wasn’t entirely clear if they are attorneys that help motorcyclists, or attorneys that will arrive to meetings on motorcycles.

The final type is for specific businesses located up to 100 miles in the distance. Often these were for firework superstores, the prevalence of which seemed to be far in excess of the needs of this sparsely-populated area. Heading east on I-90 from Rapid City, the signs are almost all for Wall Drug, apparently a drug store that offers “5 cent coffee”, “Western wear” and a “Shootin’ range”. After about 50 miles of this, you’re worn down to such an extent that you pull off the interstate, if only to figure out where a pharmacy can find space for a gun range.

Wall Drug, it turns out, is a sprawling 70,000 square feet of shops, cafes and gimmicks, all themed like the old west, plus a large animatronic dinosaur. It was, in a word, crap.

Wall Drug

A better reason to exit the interstate at the town of Wall is to visit Badlands National Park. Many of America’s national parks have the delightful quality of hiding their greatest treasures until you’re inside the park. Badlands does exactly this: the surrounding area and the approach roads are a continuation of the dull plain state scenery of flat cornfields. But, upon passing the entry booth into the national park, a ridiculous scenery of striped rocky mounds stretches for miles, before vanishing just as quickly as you exit.

Somehow, in such an otherwise empty landscape, this corner of South Dakota is not only home to Mount Rushmore, Crazy Horse and Badlands (and, lest we forget, Wall Drug), but also Minuteman Missile National Historic Site. During the Cold War, over 1000 Minuteman intercontinental ballistic missiles were spread across the plain states, ready to launch nuclear devastation on the Soviet Union at a moment’s notice. The logic was that by spacing them out so much (and also maintaining nuclear bombers and submarines), the US would always be able to respond to a first attack by the USSR. Since the 90s, these sites have largely been dismantled, but a couple have been preserved and converted into this interesting museum.

Our route between Badlands and Minuteman was plotted by Google Maps but, as can happen in places like this, turned out to be along cut up, muddy, unpaved tracks through farmland. More than once we had to stare down a bull in order to proceed, and the car ended up covered in mud.

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This was to be our longest day, and we were still 250 miles from our penultimate stop: Monowi, Nebraska. I had stumbled upon this article on the BBC website a few months ago, and we decided immediately that we should visit. Monowi is the only incorporated city in the US with a population of one. In the 1950s there were 150 people, but since her husband died in 2004 Elsie Eiler has been the only resident. She serves as mayor, clerk and secretary, as well as running the Monowi Tavern, that opened exactly 47 years ago, to the day.

Despite her isolation, she receives daily visits from both regulars and tourists alike. In the guest book, I counted 14 other visitors on that day alone, from across the US and the world. We had a quick drink with Elsie and then headed across the Missouri and back into South Dakota for the night.

***

After a night in the bustling metropolis of Wagner, South Dakota (population 1,566), we started out on what would be the dullest day of driving on this trip. The most exciting (and I use the term very loosely) stop was the World’s Only Corn Palace in Mitchell, SD. This is a basketball and music events arena, decorated with annually-changing ‘crop art’. Inside, it stinks of popcorn and the café mostly just sells corn. Across the street is a gift shop dedicated to the Corn Palace and to corn in general.

Typing about the Corn Palace is deeply tedious, and I’m sure reading about it is worse, but just imagine how dull the landscape is that this is a popular tourist attraction, drawing half a million people a year. Across the street from the Corn Palace is Bible Land, a large stone castle containing a biblical gift shop. We didn’t go in but, according to the TripAdvisor reviews, you can get a discount if you correctly answer biblical questions. So, if you are into corn and/or god, Mitchell is the town for you. Otherwise, drop a little paint onto your steering wheel and watch that dry instead.

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Next time: Mid-western cities

Revolvers to Rushmore

In my previous post I mentioned there was a gun range across the street from our motel. Now, one of my biggest problems with this country is its weird fascination with firearms and its refusal to implement even the most sensible limits on the apparently inalienable right to possess anything up to and including a tactical nuclear bomb. If I could build a time machine, I’d pop back to the 18th century and suggest they clarify exactly what they mean about “a right to bear arms” and “a well-organised militia”, just to save some hassle down the line.

But, for $39 I could fire an 1873 Colt revolver, just like a real cowboy. Who knows when I’ll get a chance like that again?

It was fun. The revolver made a satisfying bang and punched neat holes in a target 20 feet away. When we first arrived, the shooting instructor asked us where we’d come from. She was perfectly happy with the ‘England’ bit, but visibly flinched at ‘San Francisco’. Bloody coastal liberals, coming over here and shooting our antique guns.

After an underwhelming breakfast featuring biscuits and gravy (for the benefit of British readers, biscuits are not biscuits and gravy is not gravy), we headed northeast into Montana, stopping en route at Pompey’s Pillar National Monument, a great big rock in an otherwise quite empty landscape that was visited by Lewis and Clark on their westward expedition. It apparently contains etched drawings from Native Americans, as well as the signature of Captain Clark: the only surviving evidence of their journey west in the early 19th century.

It is possible to climb Pompey’s Pillar to get views over the area, but as we arrived a thunderstorm drew in and climbing to the highest point for miles (in torrential rain) did not sound like a good idea. In the visitor centre, an old man spontaneously quizzed me on the colonial ownership of various tracts of American land. I passed the test and we moved on.

We checked into a motel in the town of Glendive, Montana. In the lobby, the front page of a local newspaper described how an escaped zoo kangaroo had caused a car crash.

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***

In the morning, we popped across the border into North Dakota to visit Theodore Roosevelt National Park. It was so forgettable that, as I type this 24 hours later, I can remember nothing of particular interest about it, apart from the presence of lots of prairie dogs. The name suggests these are something like coyotes, roaming the plains looking to feast on British tourists on national park trails. They are, in fact, cute little herbivorous rodents who burrow little holes all over the prairies.

We travelled south, back across Montana and Wyoming to Devil’s Tower National Monument. I’ve never watched Close Encounters of the Third Kind, but this 265m high rock column was apparently the scene of an alien invasion. It is an extraordinary sight, like nothing else in the surrounding area. As the Anglo-American travel writer Bill Bryson noted in the Lost Continent, it’s impossible to imagine what else Steven Spielberg could have used if Devil’s Tower was not available.

Our destination for the day was Rapid City, South Dakota, which I had assumed would be a tacky town purely devoted to providing cheap accommodation and fast food to Mount Rushmore visitors. It definitely did do both of those things, but also had a pleasant downtown where we could eat pizza in a craft ale bar. Along the main street were a series of statues of American presidents on each street corner, like a Hollywood Walk of Fame for history nerds.

The 20 mile drive to Mount Rushmore was an entertaining case study in just how tenuously someone could attempt to profit from geographical proximity to this carved rockface. National Presidential Wax Museum? Check. Mount Rushmore Rollercoaster? Check. The American dream is truly the inalienable freedom to surround nice things with utter crap.

When you read about Mount Rushmore, reviews evenly split between “Wow, it’s everything I ever dreamed about and more, I will die happy” and “Smaller than I thought”. Our enjoyment was damped a little by the torrential rain, which gave Washington, Jefferson, Roosevelt and Lincoln the appearance of crying big salty tears at the state of the union.

Which Roosevelt is it, did you just ask? Theodore, since work began before FDR took office. And since you asked, here’s a fun fact about the Roosevelt presidents. They are related, but quite distantly (fifth cousins), but are much more closely related through marriage. FDR married Eleanor Roosevelt, Theodore’s niece, making her married name technically Eleanor Roosevelt née Roosevelt.

The carving itself is very impressive. Though it’s difficult to get a sense of scale from the viewing area, each head is 60ft tall, so one of their presidential eyeballs would be about the height of a person. You could probably climb into Jefferson’s nostril and have a root around. Birds could nest underneath Roosevelt’s moustache.

Of course, the gift shop is filled with a dazzling array of utter crap, carved into the shape of something approximating Mount Rushmore by somebody who didn’t actually have a picture of it to hand. I bought a 3D fridge magnet and a block of shaped chocolate, which neither looked like each other nor Mount Rushmore.

About 15 miles away from Mount Rushmore is the Crazy Horse Memorial. In the 1940s, as Rushmore was being completed, one of its sculptors, Korczak Ziolkowski, was commissioned by Chief Henry Standing Bear of the Oglala Lakota to carve a statue of Crazy Horse. In the more than 70 years since, only the face has been completed. Ziolkowski died in the 1980s, but his children and grandchildren continue the work. One day, it will be the largest statue in the world; the eyes alone are 5m wide.

For the next few decades at least, it will remain a building site. Visitors can ordinarily take a bus tour to get a closer view, though the wet weather meant that we had to make do with the view from the visitor centre. It’s impossible to get a sense of scale from that distance, but against the backdrop of a stormy sky, Sitting Bull’s disembodied face gazed serenely into the distance. The statue could have been completed long ago if they’d accepted the millions in federal dollars, but I think there’s something far more impressive about multiple generations working on a project that may never be completed in their own lifetimes.

Next time… the plain states.