Traveling west? Go slow and stop often
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Driving across the country on two-lane back roads, talking to people in local restaurants and bars, always reveals the incredible diversity of our country and its people.
Traveling 2,786 miles to Walla Walla, Wash., our daughter Katharine and I passed through huge green fields of corn and soybeans, often next to cornfields turned brown from the lack of rain and irrigation water. We were on the road for seven days, between Aug. 19 and 25.
We drove along beautiful little streams, crossed the Mississippi and Missouri rivers, wandered onto cliffs in South Dakota's Badlands, crossed spectacular mountains in the Rockies, saw hundreds of wind turbines and were especially intrigued by colorful geothermal waters boiling in high grounds at Yellowstone National Park near Old Faithful.
We visited mining towns, old stores, local bookstores, coffee shops, historic buildings and unusual attractions like the Corn Palace in Mitchell, S.D.
Katharine was on her way to work for AmeriCorps in Walla Walla for the next year. We both knew several places we wanted to see, but had no detailed itinerary. We never planned our route in detail nor booked any motel in advance -- the best way to travel.
The high points of our wanderings came along rural roads in Iowa, South Dakota, Wyoming and Montana.
In Dyersville, Iowa, we visited the "Field of Dreams" -- site of the iconic 1989 film starring James Earl Jones and Kevin Costner. After a local farmer builds a baseball diamond in his cornfields, Shoeless Joe Jackson and seven other players banned after the 1919 Black Sox scandal show up to play baseball.
That evening, we stayed in Worthington, Minn. In the hotel bar, Eric Vande Kolk, a man with a college degree in environmental studies and now a truck driver based in Oshkosh, Wis., spoke about how recent changes in agriculture disturb him.
Most local farms, and crops, have transformed dramatically over the past 40 years, Kolk said. I remember beautiful fields of sunflowers from several trips I made throughout the area during the early 1970s. Today they are gone.
Most farms in the grain belts of Iowa, Minnesota, South Dakota, Nebraska and Kansas, Kolk said, now grow only corn and soybeans -- at the insistence of Hormel, IBP (now Tyson) and other agriculture monopolies. Natural prairie greens and local pheasants have also disappeared.
Wages for farm workers have dropped, Kolk added, and grain-belt jobs are routinely advertised along the Mexican border, urging immigrants to come north to find work.
Just over the Minnesota border, the waterfalls in Sioux Falls, S.D., were beautiful, in their appearance and their sounds.
Not far from the falls, we watched tractor-trailers hauling large live pigs out of a large building, where they are apparently housed before slaughter.
Just across the street was a low wooden complex that also housed pigs. During our visit, the only pig we saw there was dead, lying on a platform part of the way up a short staircase. Smells engulfing the complex were somewhat less than attractive.
The 412-mile trek along Interstate 90 in South Dakota, from Minnesota to Wyoming, features a host of fascinating natural and historic sites.
Not far from Sioux Falls is the Corn Palace, in Mitchell, an unusual structure built to honor South Dakota agriculture. It attracts more than 500,000 visitors annually.
Every year, the outside walls of "the world's only corn palace" are redesigned and redecorated with new ears of corn, cut in half, often of different colors, as well as other grains.
The first Corn Palace was built in 1892. The current palace, constructed and modified between 1905 and 1937, has an engaging museum and hosts a variety of events, from concerts to basketball games.
More rolling landscapes and fewer cornfields lie west of the Missouri River.
Murdo, a town another 75 miles west along I-90, features the reconstructed 1880 Town and Longhorn Ranch, which has hosted scenes for several westerns, including "Dances With Wolves," starring Kevin Costner.
A museum at the entrance to the reconstructed 1880 Town features engaging photographs, arrowheads, dolls, boots and ranch memorabilia from cowboy days, including relics from Buffalo Bill.
The town displays more than 30 historic buildings moved in from various old ranch towns, including a very impressive saloon and hotel. The reconstructed town also features a post office, church, barn, school, bank, jewelry store, newspaper office and windmill -- all built in the late 1800s and early 1900s.
A wooden sign at the town's entrance reveals that its residents include 170 ghosts, nine cats, three dogs and 3,905 rabbits.
The historic Wall Drug Store, opened in 1931, is advertised by hundreds of signs and billboards along the roads leading to Wall, another small town 82 miles west of Murdo.
The pharmacy is a tiny part of today's Wall Drug Store complex, whose corridors feature stuffed animal heads, totem poles, animated characters, carved statues and a mini Mount Rushmore.
The Wall Drug shopping complex also features one of many fine bookstores we visited in small towns throughout our trip, offering scores of volumes about American Indian history.
Bookstores -- like the ones in 1880 Town, in Wall and the Book Peddler in West Yellowstone -- all sell many volumes written from the perspective of American Indians featuring events like the Wounded Knee Massacre, the Battle of Little Bighorn -- "Custer's Last Stand" -- and the ongoing deadly wars against Plains Indians.
In "Black Cowboys of the Old West," author Tricia Martineau Wagner estimates that the 35,000 cowboys working ranches and riding trails in the late 1800s included between 5,000 and 9,000 blacks.
Twisting roads lead up to Mount Rushmore National Memorial, featuring the iconic sculptured faces of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt. Visitors first glimpse the famous mountaintop sculpture when passing through tunnels along the mountain road approach.
At the park, we learned that 90 percent of the faces were crafted with dynamite blasting, not chiseling.
Mount Rushmore is in the Black Hills and Badlands Wilderness Area of western South Dakota. Sculpted by natural floods long ago, the Badlands feature spectacular colorful hills and valleys of rock.
Beautiful layers of pink and yellow run through compressed sandstones and Pierre shale. No one should miss the Badlands.
Before Mount Rushmore, we stopped by stopped by a field in Custer State Park filled with dozens of American bison.
Later, we saw a herd of nearly 50 bison, some of which were so close we could have reached out the car window and patted them. But doing so would be very dangerous. Some bison walked slowly across the roads, blocking traffic.
Outside Otto, Wyo., a town of 50 people, we saw a big field of sunflowers for the first time on the trip. We were on the way to Yellowstone National Park across the Bighorn Mountains.
Along the roads to Old Faithful, boiling hot springs and colorful geyser basins -- with red, blue, green, white and brown waters -- send steam into the air.
We also saw a bobcat perched on a ledge 30 feet above the road. It's rare to see bobcats during the day because they typically live alone and come out at night to capture small mammals and birds.
Because it is very difficult to rent rooms overnight in Yellowstone, the towns of Cody, on the park's east border, and West Yellowstone, on the west border, are packed with restaurants, bars, stores and motels.
After spending a night at the Pioneer Hotel in West Yellowstone, we drove north along the Gallatin River, a beautiful area for fishing and rafting. Some roads in this area of Montana and Idaho follow the historic Lewis and Clark Trail.
Butte, the historic mining town in southwest Montana, was a highlight of the trip. On top of valuable copper, gold and silver veins, Butte began as a collection of mining camps back in the 1870s.
By the late 1800s and early 1900s, Butte -- the "Richest Hill on Earth" -- produced one-third of all copper used in the United States. By 1910, Butte had 100,000 residents.
Downtown Butte is still filled with impressive brick and stone buildings, many built in the 1880s. Old company houses still sit on hilltops overlooking the town, in walking distance of the tall black mining rigs that once lowered miners down into copper seams, then lifted them up at the end of their shifts. Many rigs are still standing.
For decades, beginning in 1889, Anaconda Mining ran Butte's mining operations. In the 1950s, Anaconda began strip mining for copper, removing entire hillsides and destroying two towns on the hill.
In 1977, Anaconda merged into Arco, which continued mining operations until 1983, when Montana Resources took over.
Butte has also become the nation's largest Superfund environmental cleanup site.
Today, Montana Resources employs 350 workers at an open pit copper and molybdenum mine. With nearly 40,000 residents, Butte is still very vibrant.
After driving along a maze of curving back roads across Idaho, we finally reached Walla Walla, a town of nearly 60,000 people and home to Walton College.
Its attractive downtown is filled with quality restaurants. Brasserie Four served us the best meal on our trip: Katharine had mussels and I ate yellow trout.
Walla Walla often features musical groups informally performing along its sidewalks. One downtown park has high-quality speakers that regularly play Italian opera. Beautiful farms, wine fields and wineries surround the town in rural southeastern Washington.
My flight from Walla Walla back to Charleston on Sunday was not nearly as scenic as the road trip.
Reach Paul J. Nyden at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-5164.