For five weeks in August and September, my wife Sally and I drove across the country in her Prius, complete with Obama sticker and roof rack. We got as far west as Coeur d’Alene, Idaho before turning east to Montana and Yellowstone National Park and then back across North Dakota, Minnesota, Chicago and points East. We did not see another Maine license plate until we got to Route 495 in Massachusetts. Here are a few observations from our trip notes.
* The United States is such a vast country away from the cities. We knew this on one level but seeing it up close is quite another. Going the Northern Route, avoiding the Interstates, the country just unrolls; vast plains (North Dakota), well-kept farms (Minnesota), rolling prairie (South Dakota, Eastern Wyoming, Eastern Montana).
* Many small towns still have downtowns with a center, almost with a Main Street look. However, more than half those we saw as we drove the blue highways were not prosperous , rather there were lots of bars, a few small businesses – not much there anymore.
o Then there were towns like Ashby, Minnesota – rural, agricultural: wheat, but clean, friendly and doing well.
o The most discouraging small town was Midland, population 63, in Eastern South Dakota. Really poor and hardscrabble – only one café and that doubled as a bar. The woman who owned the place had a For Sale sign out- probably for several years. She held down three jobs and didn’t look happy, and who could blame her.
* From the Interstates, America is absolutely homogeneous. At junctions near towns and cities there are clusters of hotels, motels, and restaurants. You can exit an Interstate at Fargo, North Dakota and it is virtually identical to an Interstate exit in rural Illinois, Wyoming, or Montana. One thing we need less of on these interchanges is MacDonald’s Arches. If there is one awful representation of all that is over commercial in America, it is the ubiquitous “Golden Arches”
o The only good part of this is one can get a clean, decent hotel room from Best Western, Country Inns, of Hampton Inns – at a good price.
o As we sometimes cooked in our room for dinner, we preferred to stay at one of these chains where there was no problem getting all our gear to our room without having to explain to the desk clerk what all of it was for.
* Highlights of the trip: the four days in Steamboat with good friends the Cooks and the Gayers ; the sparkling day at Coeur D’Alene when we played the Resort course with the famous floating green; Medora, North Dakota, a lovely small town in the Dakota Badlands where a young Teddy Roosevelt became a Westerner; Montana, particularly Western Montana, with vast mountain ranges and mighty rivers like the Yellowstone, the Madison and the Missouri – and with its reminders of Lewis and Clark. Also the lovely two days we spent in Stanley, Idaho with Sally’s cousin Ann and her husband Paul – whom we hadn’t seen in 30 or so years. And Yellowstone Park! Of course .
* What was disappointing? Nothing was really disappointing. The trip had a nice rhythm and we both enjoyed it – each and every day. I would have liked to have more quality fishing in Montana. For various reasons that didn’t work out. Also, I didn’t find the country east of Chicago all that interesting – the real draw for me (and us) was the West.
* We really didn’t do big cities much. This was about hiking, fishing, golf, and the delights of the outdoors.
* Next time it would be nice to get all the way to Seattle and the West Coast. We have talked about an encore that would focus 5 – 7 days on a city or an area. Also flying to Denver and then going for a month from there – who knows?
Note: Sally’s special sleeping pad turned out to be really helpful – given the mix of beds we found on the road.
Also we only saw one other political bumper sticker, except for our own. We were approached by a fellow in Bozeman, Montana who allowed that there were not many Obama stickers in Montana. He thought it quite a novelty.
So here is to that wanderlust that is such a part of American history. We are happy that we had a small part in keeping that special feeling alive.