|The Ballards - Western USA|
Whilst living in Illinois I tried to visit as much as possible of the USA.
A two week break was allowed, so I asked my American
fellow workers what I should see?
Following Genesis' advice I would "Go
West, Young Man" all the way to the Pacific at San
Francisco, turn South along the coast road to LA, then turn back East
and return through Arizona, Colorado and Nebraska.
I didn't want to go alone.
As dawn broke one Saturday morning in mid-August 1987, armed with a full tank of petrol, a heavily-annotated Rand McNally Travel USA map and a sheaf of notes, a back seat with 300 music cassettes (none of which I listened to, local FM radio being much more interesting), $1,500 in cash, a credit card and a vague promise to meet some friends in Fremont, I left Peoria headed for Iowa and the way West.
The road West left Illinois to enter Iowa via the "Quad"
Cities: Davenport, Rock Island, Bettendorf, and Moline.
The Interstate crossed the mighty Mississippi on a typical
red box-girder Interstate bridge with a thrumming steel mesh roadbed [they
turn these bridges out by the thousand in Meccano-like sets somewhere
near Bethlehem, PA], and joined I-80, the main East-West transcontinental
The landscape remained unchanged: the lack of hills on
the horizon giving the false impression of driving across a huge impossible
plateau like some early-70s
"Yes" album cover.
Shortly before Iowa City was the first sight-seeing detour:
At West Branch is Herbert
Also on display is most of the rest of the village: the US Park Service is expert at creating and maintaining these sites without too many "Keep off the grass" exclusion zones. National Trust take note.
The well-preserved church has an interesting twist: there is intentionally no pulpit. Anyone who wanted to talk stood up from wherever they were sitting. A much more ecumenically democratic arrangement than the norm.
The freeway arrowed past Des Moines and West towards
Omaha, the long uneventful hours allowing exploration of the FM dial.
Eventually reaching I-29 (must be a North-South one, that...) at the Missouri River, the map indicated a detour North to join I-90 at Sioux Falls, then West to Mitchell, South Dakota, to spend the night.
Mitchell SD has one claim to fame: maize
cobs are so commonplace they can afford to decorate a building every year
with them in different patterns. In 1987 it was to be "The
Grapes of Wrath" by John Steinbeck.
For the first few hours an attempt was made to drive
at something resembling the speed limit, but the third time I nearly nodded
off I realised this was futile: I was never going to drive at 65 like
Eastern South Dakota looked like Iowa but bigger: slowly the corn and hogs gave way to grassland with no apparent use. The grass was cropped short by something, but what? There was no livestock or horses evident.
Signs appeared counting down the miles and occasionally,
bizarrely, the Kilometres to the Missouri River
crossing at Oacoma.
A detour to attempt to photograph the river crossing
from a more interesting angle revealed abandoned trams up on the hillside.
It was a shame to see these venerable transports reduced to sun-scorched
wood and peeling paint by the march of the motor car.
From partway through Iowa and increasingly as the freeway
headed West were semi-trailers parked in fields next to the Freeway counting
down the number of miles to Wall Drug.
A detour to visit the Badlands
announced the start of the "interesting stuff" that would mean
leaving the freeways for the minor roads. But the average speed would
The Badlands resembled nothing more than colourful abandoned gravel workings. Like so many things, the reality rarely lived up to the expectation...
Wall Drug has an interesting history, quite apart from
the bizarre marketing.
The next stop was Mount
Rushmore, to take the inevitable photo of the first 4 Presidents of
Also at the site was the beginnings of the Crazy
Horse Memorial, with a plaster cast of how it will look in 100 years'
The road West led through Custer (tourist tat) and towards Newcastle in Wyoming.
The route back to the freeway led through Newcastle and
some forgettable countryside. I-90 led further West to Buffalo where we
parted company. I-90 would continue to Seattle but it would be Salt Lake
City before the Grand Am hit a freeway again.
After 40 miles of this
I estimated we were 3 miles below sea level, and the brakes, without the
benefit of engine braking to balance the retardant load, gave up.
I cursed the American fixation with the automatic gearbox
that had done it's best to kill me for the second time.
The hill eventually bottomed out at about the lowest
level of a South African gold mine and the road headed for Tensleep.
Ever since I was small and Yogi
Bear gambolled in Jellystone Park I had wanted to see Yellowstone
Falls and the Old
Yellowstone was amazing, despite having to whisk through it to make up the miles. Old Faithful was not as faithful as it had been but eventually it erupted and was well worth the wait.
West Yellowstone is a dreadful, parasitic, expensive tourist life-support machine for Yellowstone Park. The motel was awful.
South of Yellowstone the Grand Tetons National Park is spectacular, although you can't drive up in to the mountains, which is a shame.
Further South the road passed through Afton and across the border in to Idaho.
The road dropped suddenly in to paradise: a lush valley
full of pretty little villages with French names: Montpelier, Geneva,
The road through the valley was dead straight, with a
town in the middle at the bottom of a bowl.
In Idaho I had begun to wonder when I would feel warm:
this was August, after all.
As Idaho turns in to Utah you emerge from the rocky hills and canyons to the Great Salt Lake, and Salt Lake City.
Brigham Young brought The Church of The Latter Day Saints to the Great Salt Lake (then Mexican Territory) in 1847, declaring "And it shall come to pass in the last days, that the mountain of the Lord's house shall be established in the top of the mountains, and shall be exalted above the hills; and all nations shall flow unto it" (Isaiah 2:2). And so they set to and built Salt Lake City, which is still a quiet, peaceful and law-abiding, though not entirely Mormon, community.
Most Brits (and, I suspect, many Americans) don't quite
know what to make of the Mormons. They claim to be Christians, and yet
they aren't the gentle, peacable Church of England summer-fete-and-church-roof-fund
In practice, it's like any other small American city: lots of traffic, some very grand public buildings, good roads, unsynchronised traffic lights. The people were no more clean-cut than anywhere else.
Travelling does terrible things to the mind. Awakening in the morning, the motel bedroom was so generic it took 10 minutes to remember the name of the city...
Salt Lake City does have a problem with the rising level of the Great Salt Lake. The route of I-80 along the South side of the lake had to be moved twice between 1975 and 1987. A shopping mall built beside the lake is now marooned, with its car park being used as a marina.
I-80 West, once clear of the Salt Lake, was straight as an arrow and hot. The Bonneville Salt Flats were like another planet, but it wasn't that hot, even in August. I was told there were people "out there" planning motorbike speed runs, but like most things you couldn't get anywhere near the action.
The temperature rose once in to Nevada. The road was straight and boring. We were advised to stop for petrol if our tank was below half full to ensure we didn't run out of petrol.
In Britain the lack of traffic on this route would have ensured it remained a 2-lane rabbit track with half-mile stretches of dual-carriageway every 20 miles, all ending in speed cameras to ensure no one actually got any enjoyment out of the road, but this was America, where engineering projects get done properly.
A lot of the traffic was mineral lorries: drawbar trailers with extra drawbar trailers on the back making an unreversible combination: illegal in Britain but evidently not in America and certainly not in Australia, where they call them road-trains.
Crossing a range of hills a train became visible: it was so long that despite a good mile of it being embedded in a tunnel both ends were visible and nearly a mile long. The tractive effort rquired to start that load must be truly vast.
Driving most of the day from an early start meant a midday
transition to the most interesting State in the Union - California.
In the great American exodus from England, all the ones
that kept going West ended up here in California.
All along the long downhill run from Truckee in to California
were official signs in Trucker language, saying things like "ease
up on those brakes, buddy", "10-4, looks like we're clean clear
to FlagTown" and other such "Convoy" material.
After several hours of going downhill to what felt like a mile or so below sea level, the route flattened out and headed for the Pacific.
San Francisco is the one American city I could live in.
The people are not as parochial as many parts of America, the ethnic population
is mainly Chinese and they are very cosmopolitan.
Everyone of my age can remember the Streets
of San Francisco TV series, a Quinn Martin Production (weren't they
all?), with Karl Malden and Michael Douglas.
The various bridges around the bay are spectacular, but
none so spectacular as the Golden
Gate Bridge, widely considered to be one of the most beautiful bridges
in the world.
Lombard Street, the street they always drive down in 60s comedy films like Herbie, was good fun to drive down (dodgy brakes and lack of engine braking notwithstanding!).
The cablecars were great fun - until I got thrown off one for failing to realise you had to pay!
In Chinatown even the McDonalds is in Chinese. A much more satisfying Chinatown than in London.
Finally, and reluctantly, I left San Francisco, vowing to return (I did, in 2000 and twice in 2001 - all visits confirmed my initial reaction), and drove to Carmel-By-The-Sea, hoping to meet Clint Eastwood the Mayor, but instead finding a tourist trap with the most expensive English sweet shop in the world.
This would be the furthest West section of the journey, so to celebrate a paddle in the Pacific Ocean was in order, before rejoining Route 1 and heading to Big Sur.
The road wound in and out of the bays, up and down and
around. Enjoyment was only briefly marred by some crazy American in an
Audi who thought he could drive like a European but 10mph slower, and
was very reluctant to allow passing.
At length the road straightened out and became a freeway,
allowing the speed to rise, which was nearly my undoing.
A few miles later, whilst passing a sign saying "You are now entering Los Angeles" the freeway traffic ground to a complete halt. I was in LA.
LA is not a city: it's a collection of communities connected
by 7-11 stores.
Disneyland on a cool Tuesday morning in August was packed
half an hour before opening time. It was expensive, fake, and definitely
not for adults.
The desert was a breath of fresh air. Everything was reinvigorating and real again, blowing away the cobwebs. And we were headed East.
Death Valley was colourful and 120°.
We were so far below sea level they had a marker up on the cliff showing where sea level was (just visible above top right)
Exiting Death Valley and heading for Vegas, the temperature dropped but the strange noises continued and got steadily worse.
Las Vegas is indescribable.
As a result, Nevada is gambling mad. Slot machines between the petrol pumps, in the lobbies, in the loos...
I'm not what Vegas wants: I'm just not a gambler.
But I had to see it: the lights, the Hells Grannies with
perfect perms playing the acres of slot machines, wheeling up and down
on little wheeled stools with huge buckets of quarters.
The evening was a good time to take some long-exposure photographs of the strip. Of course everybody thought I was mad, lugging a tripod around: "Hey, this is Vegas, get gambling!".
In the end Vegas won, and I did gamble, but $100 in quarters in assorted slot machines yielded no mortgage-busting Jackpot, so an early (and surprisingly cheap) motel bed was in order.
The other thing Vegas is famous for is "Quickie"
weddings, so there are naff wedding chapels all along the strip. In England
marriage is taken seriously; here it's "Out of State checks OK"
and "Wee Kirk o'the Heather" wedding chapel, open 24 hours.
Like having a system that encourages learning to drive
(16) before learning to drink (21) - doh!
Like the 55mph limit.
I could only stand one night in Vegas, cheap though it was, as Vegas motels are subsidised by the casinos, and there is no Sales Tax (paid for by the casinos!).
Hoover Dam can only be described as a working Art Deco
museum: fluted columns, unpainted concrete, flat roofs.
The road East from Hoover led across the most spectacularly
uninteresting scenery for many hundreds of miles, until reaching the Southern
lip of the Grand Canyon.
U2 were affected by this view: this was the site of the
famous Joshua Tree, inspiration for the album of the same name, and at
the time being played to death on every radio station.
Further up the course of the Colorado River from the Grand Canyon is Page, where the river is again dammed creating Glen Canyon Recreational Area. The scenery was greening up again towards Colorado, so a final visit was called for: to an Indian Reservation.
On the road between Kaibito and Tonolea is an Indian
Reservation, full of lacklustre shacks and trailers, tumbleweed blowing
through, the smell of alcohol and marijuana on the air, men and women
lying about doing nothing, scrap cars and household appliances.
Four Corners is an entirely artificial administrative structure: the corners of Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico and Utah meet here but there is nothing else. It all seemed a little pointless (and in 2009 GPS surveys discovered it's in the wrong place anyway!)
Colorado took far longer than expected, partly because there were few Interstates and partly because there was no much interesting stuff in the state.
From Four Corners the road crossed the San Juan Mountains
to Montrose then up in to the Sawatch Range to Salida then on to the Royal
Gorge suspension bridge, built in 1929.
At Monarch strange contraptions appeared at the roadside
heading off up in to the hills. Strange, until you realise Monarch is
a ski resort in the winter.
North of I-80 was the final bit of scenery on the agenda:
the Rocky Mountain National Park. Here (and probably long overdue, with
hindsight), accelerating hard in to the Park, in a hurry as usual, I passed
a Park Ranger coming in the opposite direction with his radar on, too
late to slow down.
Out came the large, foldout, green English license.
Off goes Mr Ranger back to his cruiser.
Trail Ridge Pass was pretty, with a few lumps of snow
remaining, even in August. The wildlife was tame, and I only saw two other
cars in the whole Park. If this is what it is like in August, it must
be completely dead for the rest of the year.
The way out lead through Thompson Canyon and out to Fort Collins. The sightseeing was over.
Lack of time and slow progress had finally caught up with me: it was time to go home.
900 miles of driving got the increasingly noisy and erratic
Grand Am back to Peoria across the endless expanse of flat grassland that
is the MidWest.
Near the Quad Cities the engine refused to go back to idle and the last 40 miles was spent riding the brakes to keep the speed below 90. Home was finally reached at sunset. I'd driven about 8,500 miles in 15 days.
Exhausted, I slept for 24 hours.
The Grand Am was terminally ill and had to be replaced. I had to look innocent at the rental car desk. Death Valley had done for it...
The photo service thought they'd died and gone to Heaven when they saw my huge bag of films for processing...
I learned that America is not a country - each state is a country, with it's own identity. America is a continent.
If Europe all spoke one language, it would be a much easier place to transact business. If it was as easy to transact business across Europe as it is across America, with it's common language, coherent laws, lack of cross-border petty bureaucracy and good communications links, Europe would be a richer place.
McDonalds make the best fries, Burger King the best burgers.
One day I'll do it again, with more time, a better car and a companion.