A 4,971 km (3,089 miles) road trip across the United States of America with some very special people – my daughter, Embo; my friend, BC and her daughter, Toots.
Our mission? To move Toots across the country to Providence, Rhode Island where she would spend 5-7 years completing a PhD in Political Science. We thus hired a car from Enterprise Car Hire and got ready for the adventure.
So, BLUF (Bottom Line Up Front), this was a driving trip first, with sightseeing, second. We traversed the following 13 states: Oregon, Idaho, Wyoming, South Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York State, Connecticut and Rhode Island in 7 days.
What does a road trip like that feel like?
A bit like … lots of sitting, stretching, lots of conversation, podcasts, naps, moments of marvel as something breathtaking flashed past, many fuel stops, coffee stops, wee stops, picnic lunches, yawns, aching hip bones, sitting bones and knee bones, headaches, music and crocheting (in my case). Oh, and driving.
How did it feel? Frustrating. It was kinda like ‘look but don’t touch’. As the sites passed by, we all wished at different times that we could stop and take in the site, the event or the new and sometimes strange experience we happened upon for just a bit longer. But instead, we pushed on. Always driving for the day’s destination, having to give up on the desire and urge to explore more. “Something to see next time”, we’d say to each other and push on. For example, we drove past the Cody Rodeo – one every night of the week <www.codystampederodeo.com>. We drove past the biggest motorbike rally in the USA, in Sturgis, South Dakota <www.sturgismotorcyclerally.com>. But thousands of the drove past us …. Like noisy ants, so it wasn’t really disappointing after all. We sailed past the world’s only Corn Palace in Mitchell, South Dakota <cornpalace.com>. Yep, you guessed it. A palace made of corn. Corn on the cob and corn fibre. That’s right, you got it. And we missed it, dang it. Oh, well. I wasn’t too upset. Corny, if you ask me.
But we did see some pretty special things. We played, had fun, laughed at the absurd and marveled at the majesty and scale of natural America. So I’ve recorded the highlights of our journey as it unfolded every day.
Day 1: 4th August, 2019
Eugene, Oregon to Idaho Falls, Idaho – 1,131 kms (703 miles)
Anticipated drive time: 12hrs; actual drive time: 15 hrs.
Today was to be a big driving day. With BC and Toots coming from the Pacific Northwest, they were familiar with the terrain. No need to stop and look. It was known country. It was familiar for me, too. Embo, on the other hand, was pretty awed with the tall trees, the pines, the lichen and mosses. It is a magical landscape of pine forest bowers reaching out towards you as they encircle their trunks to compete for sunlight. Apparently, ponderosa pine bark smells like butterscotch when you peel it back.
We stopped at Salt Creek Falls for two things: the Falls and the toilet;
had lunch in Riley;
and then afternoon break at the Starlite Café in Vale, Oregon for homemade pie. I sampled my beloved, all-American pumpkin pie. It didn’t disappoint.
We left in 40 degrees C (104 F). We were glad for the aircon after that.
Driving, driving, driving…
Conversation turned to podcasts and so we listened to our first of many – the Q-anon conspiracy theory https://gimletmedia.com/shows/reply-all/n8homa/122-the-qanon-code. Apt, as America seems to be the home of conspiracy theories. This one is about Trump and Mueller conspiring together to take on the deep state and win. Seems, the investigator and the investigated can align and work together for the common good. Who’d have thought. But believe me, it is more complicated than described.
Other comments related to the aggressively kind driving behavior of Oregonians. They stop mid highway to let a driver onto the road. Thanks, Toots for your great braking.
We weren’t going to get to Idaho Falls in time for dinner, so we stopped in a gorgeous little town called Glenns Ferry in Idaho, beside the Snake River, surrounded by vineyards and farms. With the sun setting we indulged in local trout and local Rose. Very, very nice. Saw this number plate as we left…
Puta is Russian for bitch, I believe.
Driving, driving, driving.
Finally, bedtime was midnight in our first AirBnB in Idaho Falls. Embo and I had the pink and blue, mermaid and dolphin wall-papered room. A little scary, but once we turned the lights out, we were OK.
Day 2, 5th August, 2019
Idaho Falls, Idaho to Cody, Wyoming via Swan Valley, Jackson, Grand Tetons, Yellowstone Park and the Wapiti Valley (Absoroka Range of the Rocky Mountains)
5hr drive, 240 miles but it was 7.30-11pm (15.5hrs on the road)
This was the day of the big outdoors. Our comments all day sounded a bit like this, … “It’s so beautiful’, ‘I love that ….’ , ‘This is absolutely stunning’!
We drove through the Swan Valley which was a Morman community, through to Jackson, in Jackson Hole Park, and then beside the Grand Tetons range which is a massive fault line, and on up into Yellowstone National Park. We moved through a valley floor and climbed steadily up into the mountains. The Parks were high plateaus with still higher peaks above.
Winding up towards Yellowstone, I noticed lots of eagles nests perched on power poles. They were given a helping hand to build their nests as the top of each pole had a neat wooden platform on it on which they could stabilize and build their nests. We saw birds in most of them, scanning their environment, looking for prey and tending their families. It was a hopeful sign of future, safe, healthy eagle populations.
Coffee stop at Jackson, a playground of the very wealthy. Then, lunch at the Visitor’s Centre in Yellowstone on Yellowstone Lake before making our way to the famous geyser, Old Faithfull. She goes off every 90 mins. We missed her by 5 mins. Bummer. But we saw the steam from the road. Close enough. We got the idea. Then onto hot springs, most notably, the Sapphire Pool.
The second half of the day was punctuated by animal sitings. The first was elk. Earlier in the day, we had seen a herd from the distance. Then in the Park, we saw one very large loner elk beside the road. This was soon followed by an even very larger, lone bison bull. We couldn’t stop to observe it but I certainly immediately respected the size and majesty of the beast. As we started to drive out of the Park, we were stopped by a long, snaking traffic jam. Why? A herd of bison meandering near and across the road. Oh, my goodness. We saw bison charging, playing, nursing and just grazing all right beside us. Bisons being bisons in the wild (at Alum Creek, Hayden Valley). I imagined how the original Indians would have relied on these herds for food and shelter and recalled the movie, Dances with Wolves and the edgy bison hunt scenes that it depicted. And then once the cars started to pick up speed, we went up and over a hill, only to find ourselves in another mess of traffic. This time it was two black bears playing in the meadow beside a river. I kid you not, it was special. One of the bears was running along like a monster puppy, skin wobbling from its lumbering gait as it mucked around with the other more sedate bear. So beautiful to see. And all the while, as our day unfolded, we were watched and entertained by eagles on the thermals, scanning and observing us.
As we left Yellowstone Park, we settled in for a long 4 hr drive to Cody, Wyoming – the home of Rodeo. What we weren’t ready for was the beauty of the drive. We drove through the North Absaroka Wilderness, breathtaking red mountains, outcrops, valleys, peaks, plateaus and windy road. You didn’t know where to look. Another ‘look but don’t touch’ experience. And once we made it to Cody, it was as flat as a tack.
Dinner in Cody will remain with me for some time. We found the famous Irma’s Restaurant (by chance) and stepped in for a meal.
I wanted prime rib – the American steak to die for! Ordered it straight away. It was Tony’s birthday and the time difference was favourable, so I sat down and called him to wish him happy birthday. We were then baled up by a cowboy in full regalia. He locked onto me, stared at me, said nothing, just looked and waited. Confused by his behavior and intimidated, I stopped talking and gave him my attention. He wanted a conversation. So I couldn’t get back to the phone call easily. I was feeling more and more weirded out, until BC distracted him, gave him the attention he wanted so that I could get back to Tony. It wasn’t pleasant. It felt like I had broken a rule…. no talking on the phone in this restaurant. What annoyed me about the incident was my compliance. I was stared down. Consequently, I stopped what I was doing and gave the man my attention. Viscerally, I felt dominated. I wished I had just got up, walked away and continued my conversation with Tony. Instead our brief moment celebrating his special day was taken away by a man in a cowboy costume. I resented that.
That night, we slept in a tent under a big sky with stars and the sounds of nature all around us. A fitting end to a big day.
Day 3 6thAugust, 2019
Cody, Wyoming to Rapid City, South Dakota, 628 kms (390 miles),
An estimated 6.5hrs drive, but the drive took 15hrs, arriving about 10.30pm
Before I get into the details of the day, I want to list the podcasts that we listened to along the way throughout the trip. It was great listening, covering politics and feminism. Embo had a wealth of podcasts in her phone, so we were totally up for her suggestions. They included:
- The Daily Crackdown on Kashmir
- The Daily. Why Hong Kong is still protesting
- ABC Big Ideas: Why Scott Morrison defeated Bill Shorten
- Revisionist History: The Lady Vanishes
- The Cut on Tuesday – Elizabeth Warren
- This Land – Native American Tribe
- 99% Invisible – invisible women
- More Perfect Album episode 1: The Gun Show Reprise
- Trump Inc. Emoluments
- Ladies we need to talk: Discharge, the gooey taboo
- Ladies we need to talk: Body image — why do we hate our bodies?
We would listen. One of us would be prompted to respond either with fierce agreement or fierce outrage. Whatever reaction we had, it was always fierce. After animated conversation, we would then return to the podcast until the next need for a discussion. Interruptions also occurred when the google map Voice interrupted us with her directions. This would prompt discussion, questions, itinerary checking and laughter. Then back to the podcast…. until…. around the next corner came something that totally took us out of our heads and into the now, the environment and majesty of natural America.
So to return to the trip, we got up on Day 3, stiffly; untangled ourselves out of our tent to be greeted by the most beautiful morning sun and vistas of plains and mountains in the distance. Uplifted, we started the morning with some yoga stretching and headed off to find breakfast and coffee. We found an early opener in Powell and energetically entered the diner. The few locals just looked at us in silence. So we quietened down, ordered breakfast and built a tower of charging mobile phones while we waited. By the time we had finished, the locals had thawed, had found out where we’d come from, had warmed up, had shared their stories of Aaas–tralia and had even poured our coffee. We left with the entire diner saying, ‘goodbye’ and ‘best of luck’! Fabulous. International diplomacy at its best.
Little did we know that we were heading across the Big Horn Basin, only to climb up to Big Horn National Park. The drive was spectacular and mesmerising. Lots of stops for photos, coffee and wee wees. Up and over the elevated plateau to Sheridan. It was that this point that I decided it was time to drive.
Got in the car, started the engine, then … our Dodge Caravan’s Check Engine Light came on. O, oh…..
- Calls to the hire company, ‘Carship Enterprise in trouble, HQ’;
- advised to go the office in Sheridan;
- waited for three hours for a car check;
- gave up waiting;
- requested a car swap. Nothing suitable just a pickup truck;
- Gave up pickup truck. Waited longer;
- Decided the unsuitable pickup was looking mighty suitable;
- Decided to take it….;
- Rapid unpack then repack of all the gear into the open tray;
- Secured it;
- Stuffed ourselves into the right cabin;
- Drove off to Gillette to pick up a bigger van waiting for us there;
- Rapid unpack then repack into a 10 seater bus. Forgot to buy razors.
On the road again…. Driver seated high, big engine, smooth ride, very comfortable experience. We came to love our bus.We got a recommendation to drop by Devil’s Tower, a massive, vertical volcanic plug, on the way to Rapid City. It didn’t disappoint.
We got in very late to Rapid City, but not before we stopped to do some food shopping and snapped the Trump Shop. I kid you not, a Trump merchandising shop. Never have I seen a politician sell their own merchandise – hats, flags, photos, posters…. You name it. POTUS is a brand; voters are purchasers of a fiction based on fear. Chilling.
We had roast chicken for dinner and some wine after an action packed day.
Day 4, 7thAugust, 2019
Rapid City, South Dakoto to Sioux Falls, South Dakota via Crazy Horse Memorial, Mt Rushmore and the Badlands, 1,050 kms (653 miles)
Estimated 4.5hrs drive but we took at least 12 hrs.
This was another day of grandeur. We were expecting fabulous vistas, super famous, grand sites and then flat driving to our destination. All came to pass. Also, we spent the day dodging and gawking at the thousands of big-touring-bike bikers, all gathering in Sturgis for the biggest biker rally in the US. Bikers on all the roads, in groups, as singles, with and without pillions, men and women all expressing themselves through their bikes and their affiliated clothing. On the road to the national parks they were spooky and eventually annoying as they took corners too close, veering onto our side of the road, leaving our big rig with nowhere to go. We just had to hope and drive carefully.
We were on our way to the Mt Rushmore https://www.nps.gov/moru/index.htm via the opposing Crazy Horse Memorial crazyhorsememorial.org. Crazy Horse was unexpectedly ginormous. In the 40’s, the local Indian chief, Henry Standing Bear commissioned a well known sculptor, Korczak Ziolkowski (and his wife and family of 8 children) to design and carve the mountain. OMG…. the whole mountain. He has since died but the project is ongoing. We arrived and sat through a video explaining the project, the vision, and the positive impact on the Lokata nation. It was a fascinating experience, if not a tad vexing as the memorial and the facilities have all been funded and developed by the white man on behalf of the Lokata nation. Seemed to contradict the messaging of autonomy and indigenous development. One thing that was without a doubt was the size and grandeur of the carving. It dwarfs Mt Rushmore and the presidential heads. It spoke to me: ‘Our head is bigger than your heads’ ; ‘We were here first’; ‘And don’t forget it’.
Then onto Mt Rushmore via a street walk in Custer City.
Yep, we were in the land of Cluster’s Last Stand.
The town was chokers with bikers. There was even a bike with ANZAC (Australia and New Zealand Army Corps) memorialising all over it.
We stopped for lunch beside a mountain stream, chatted up some lunching bikers and headed to Mt. Rushmore.
In a phrase, Mt. Rushmore was ‘the Temple of POTUS (President of the United States of America)’. Presidents Washington, Jefferson, Roosevelt and Lincoln were all looming above us. We were directed to move through a valley-like, outdoor cathedral-like structure towards the alter of POTUS rising above us: Something to worship, to be in awe of, to be understood as sacred. Very interesting, I thought.
But Crazy Horse was bigger.
We were pretty tired by this time in the afternoon, but we still had Badlands to see and a long straight drive to Sioux Falls. We mulled over whether or not to take the detour to Badlands, but we decided to tough it out and go and see it. It was breathtaking. Way more than anyone expected. Miles and miles of wind eroded, hardened and striped volcanic ash mountains, peaks, mesas, valleys, gullies, on and on. We drove around and between the sentinels of endless shapes and towers. I was awestruck. So glad we took the detour.
With the sightseeing behind us… literally … we hunkered down for some straight driving with podcasts. We listened to the one on Gun control and the 2nd Amendment which states,
A well-regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.
The Supreme Court of the US has had to rule on the interpretation of this grammatically incorrect amendment. The commas and the verbs are the problem.
Can’t help myself. Here’s my grammatical analysis:
- The clause ‘being necessary to the security of a free state,’ can be interpreted as either
- a modifying clause which qualifies a well regulated militia, as in, A well-regulated militia which is necessary to the security of a free state…..is or does something. But the ‘is or does something’, that is, the rest of the clause is not stated, so I rule out being necessary to the security of a free state as a modifying clause, or
- an included clause which is adding an additional process in the clause complex. Again what is the process/doing or being? Seems there isn’t one. If you assume it is the verb, shall not be infringed, I suggest that an militia can’t be infringed. Rights can be infringed but not collective nouns of people such as militia or group.
However, neither work logically, suggesting ungrammaticality. To make the clause grammatical, I propose:
- That being necessary to the security of a free state be expressed using the finite verb, ‘is’ and the comma after militiabe deleted and the comma after …state be maintained as follows:
A well-regulated militia is necessary to the security of a free state,
- In the second half of the sentence, I would delete the comma after arms; and insert a logical conjunction between the two, new finite clauses, adding either and or but to the start of the clause. The choice of conjuction will depend on what relationship was originally intended by the author.
but/and the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.
- I like but as it sets up an ‘replacive’ relationship with the not in not be infringed Essentially this means that saying a well-regulated (implying armed under command/supervision) militia is needed for state security doesn’t negate the rights of individuals to be armed. My version of the 2ndamendment clause would read:
A well-regulated militia is necessary to the security of a free state, butthe right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.
On was in my head for most of the drive to Sioux Falls. Yep, slept well in our own cute little AirBnB abode.
Day 5, 8th August, 2019
Sioux Falls, South Dakota to Madison, Wisconsin via the state of Minnesota.
699 km (434.5 miles), estimated 6.5hrs, actual drive time 9hrs.
Our stay in our own place was very nice. I think we needed the time with just ourselves. So I decided that it was time I had a go at driving. It was Day 5 with only two days to go. I had to give it a try, at least. So I took the first leg and drove for 2.5 hrs on the interstate. No dramas. It was fine. The speed limit fluctuated between 55 and 80 miles per hour, that is 88 – 130 kph! 130 kph isn’t a speed limit you find in Australia. I was driving the fastest I had ever driven. We stopped to get fuel, and change drivers. BC had the privilege of watching TV while she pumped fuel. Yep, the petrol bowser had a TV screen on the front.
We basically drove across Minnesota on I90 without stopping. We then had a picnic lunch on the banks of the Mississippi just prior to crossing the border into Wisconsin.
The drive concluded as we found our hosts Karen and Larry nestled in diary farming land on the edge of Lake Mendota, in Madison. We were introduced to Moscow Mule cocktail, then went for a walk, a merry walk (!), and then started chatting (at speed and at volume) until dinner, then through dinner and after dinner. Traditional American home cooked meal: fried chicken, corn on the cob and home made cherry pie. OMG. Lots of laughter. We fell into bed grateful for a good mattress and great pillows. BC even had a bath!
Day 6, 9th August, 2019
Madison, Wisconsin to Pittsburgh via Interstate 90 through the states of Illinois, Indiana, Ohio into Pennsylvania. 976 kms (606 miles)
Estimated drive time: 9.5 hrs, actual drive time 15 hrs, arriving 11.30pm.
Embo and I got up early for a walk. And breakfast consisted of politics and Karen’s classroom stories. It was a great start to the day. Great catching up with our Camino friends.
We headed out of Madison but not before we hunted down Embo’s father’s childhood home. It hadn’t changed a bit. Still the same but now occupied by a new family.
As we prepared to head off, I announced that this was going to be our hardest day. We still had a sizeable chunk of the US to drive across; we were all tired and there wasn’t going to be lots of wonderful sites along the way to distract us from the reality of driving, driving, driving. We were getting tired of being cooped up in the van and all of us were wanting some down time. But instead, as I anticipated, we would all feel the stress of the second last day. To add to the stress, we also were warned that the traffic would be heavy as we drove around the edge of Chicago. “Better than driving straight through it”, we were told. This proved to be precisely the case. But it was hours in gridlock. Thank God for aircon.
The day was punctuated by state boundary signs. We traversed five states in one day. Recorded the state border signs – but that was about it. However, we stumbled across the Indiana Dunes, a beach on the shores of Lake Michigan, where we had a picnic lunch and could see Chicago city skyline looming out of the distance. The Lake was like an inland sea. I had never seen a lake of such proportions…. as far as the eye could see.
Getting into Pittsburgh seemed never to arrive. In the dark we picked our way through the city freeways, on and off ramps, and noted that we were probably driving through a valley with a “The Burgh’s” city skyline moving in and out of view as we wound along and up and down the valley and its walls. We pulled into our quaint AirBnB, exhausted. Toots did all the hard driving in the dark, in a complete state of tiredness yet patient with all of us. I doff my hat to her.
Lesson for the day? It would have been a good day for a day off!
Day 7, 10th August, 2019
Pittsburg,Pennsylvania to Providence, Rhode Island via New York State and Connecticut 885 kms (550 miles)
Estimated drive time: 9hrs, actual drive time 9.5hrs!
We had arrived at our final day of driving. Now we were excited. After a restless sleep, we left at the crack of dawn, ready to finish our road trip. We were now well and truly close to the east coast. There was more traffic, the geography was rich and green, there was more traffic and the drivers were more determined, drove faster and with more unexpected driving behavior which was edgy and precise. We stopped for lunch in a cute little diner in Newfoundland, Somewhere (I lost track of which state we were in, but I know it wasn’t Canada). So as we drove along I wondered why Providence was called Providence. It was founded by a preacher man who was escaping persecution from other emancipated, persecuted puritans! Providence meaning, guardianship of God’s creatures, was established on the basis of religious and political freedom but not before it was negotiated away from the Narragansett Indians. It is a very old city with buildings dating back to the mid 1600s. We were anxious to arrive and feel the satisfaction of having driven across America from west to east. We made terrific time and arrived in time to meet Embo’s friends and have a seafood dinner of local fresh prawns and scallops.
We all slept like babies. All that remained was for us to unpack the van, drop off toot’s belongings at her new apartment and return the Carship Enterprise. Enterprise had served us well. She was comfortable, reliable and we were grateful for her easy driving. She was the first (and still for the moment only) car/van that I have ever driven in the US.
Game, Set, Match. Thank you Drivers, thank you Special Friends.