Last night both Rox and Sandy worked on my knees, one on either side as I lay prone on Rox’s massage table. At the end I rose and walked into the sitting room to cries of ‘A miracle!’, unless it was me speaking. I certainly was walking pretty well (I now couldn’t remember how it had felt before the laying on of hands) and went to bed with a cold compress and expressions of heartfelt gratefulness. By the end of today’s 275 miles on the road, however, my right knee had forgotten its good fortune. Rain returned, the weather had dropped more than 10 degrees, and we were faced with the prospect of putting up a tent in the rain and on sopping wet grass in Long Branch Park, followed by a very cold night, or a wonderfully inexpensive motel in Macon, Missouri, run by a very nice Indian lad called Jay. (A motel along Route 29, Audrey’s Motel, proclaims itself ‘American owned and operated’ in huge letters. To us, as experienced customers, this is not an incentive.) We’re planning to ride some longer days so as to get back to Woodstock earlier and, to accomplish this, a good night’s sleep is called for, no less for Joe than for me. We had another memorable off-highway experience in Hamburg, Iowa, one of the lost towns of the Midwest. (You’d never know it – our photo fails to reproduce its desolation – but it actually produces 52% of all the popcorn produced in the United States.) Joe maintains our meal in the town’s sole eatery was our worst so far. I feel this has something to do with his having ordered a side of gizzards. It’s all my fault: we were in an eatery with gizzards canceled on the menu and I pretended regret about this, a regret that Joe took seriously, and which even when I’d make it all clear left him curious – unlike me – to taste gizzards. Our gizzards were triple deep-fried, like some sort of chicken nugget from hell, so that by the time you reached the vile, chewy gizzard, you were throttled by brutally rusty batter an inch thick. Elsewhere the very limited menu offered ‘yellow cheese sauce,’ weirdly unappetizing. The rest of the day was spent speeding along interstates (with breaks at gas station offering diversions – left), through downpours and past similar small towns – each of them plentifully supplied with banks (Hamburg of course had one, in a spanking new building, to bank all the popcorn money). Banks for farmers? Ranchers? There seemed to be no visible manufacturing industry. (My mistake: Macon has a plant, visited supportively by President Obama, producing millions of gallons of ethanol every year.) But so many banks? Banks for the estimated 45 people working at the ethanol plant? Banks for the remaining 5,455 inhabitants to bank their welfare checks? Banks for nice young Indian chaps like Jay to obtain loans to purchase a motel – while local people lack the initiative to do it? No wonder ‘American owned and operated’ is deemed so noteworthy by the owners of Audrey’s Motel!
Much-needed rest, attended by Kami and Tim’s elderly cat, Casey (18), after a blessedly restful night with 3 ice packs. The USA national soccer team, as I write this, is about to kick off against Belgium. ‘Anti-Belgian feeling is at a new high in the US,’ said one TV commentator, apparently with a straight face. ‘The Belgians make great chocolate and great beer,’ protested his (female) partner. It felt like a Monty Python sketch. 11-year-old Stella, Tim and Kami’s youngest, made me fried chicken and potato crisps. The hospitality we’ve enjoyed on this trip has been humbling. Not to mention the generosity, the patience, and the quantity of work incurred by our absence, of our spouses – Joe’s and mine – both of them a Claire. To them our journey, and this blog, is gratefully dedicated. Tomorrow we head from Iowa into Missouri (State Park campsite), Illinois (likewise), Indiana and Ohio.
Yesterday was supposed to be a long, unremarkable day’s riding across Nebraska, but it turned out to be a remarkably long unremarkable ride, thanks to my failure to attend closely enough to my own directions. I do have to my credit 8000 miles of relatively error-free navigating, so far (on a bike it’s tempting to try and learn the route in advance, since pulling over to study maps is a lot less appealing a process than it is in a car), but this isn’t much consolation when you wind up 100 miles off course, a 270-mile day turns into a 400-mile day (393 to be exact), and after stopping to reboot your plans and contact your hosts for the night you arrive at the end of a 10-hour biking day instead of a five or six hour one. But we got to Omaha in the end, after a final 160-mile uninterrupted interstate blast. We usually try to pause for rest & coffee or a bite of food every 50 miles, although there have been 100-mile stretches without even a gas station, and 160 miles is probably as long as we’ve done in a single burst. On the interstate I tried to keep myself focused by attempting to recall every piece of Cockney rhyming slang I knew – no more than 20 or 30, but enough to distract me for two-and-a-half hours. The hardest part was coming into Omaha from the west and trying to guess which exit, among the myriad on offer, would take us to Rox and Dan’s house; this went gratifyingly well, and once I’d introduced Joe to the household, it was back on the bike and off to Council Bluffs, Iowa (not far – Omaha is on the state line, as is Council Bluffs), by 8:30 pm. There, Tim and Kami came up with some fine ice-packs for knees and elbows – the knees greatly improved by the last few days of nightly ice-packing – and I was just in time to watch the Germans sink the Algerians in the first knockout round of the World Cup. Earlier in the day, still hopeful and looking forward to reaching Omaha by suppertime, we stopped off at some outposts of Midwestern Americana. After an entire TV series’ worth of gossip at the table behind us in Sissi’s Cafe in Gregory, the next featured a town-shaking siren, seemingly at 11:00 – but we’d crossed into a new time zone, losing an hour, and it was the noon siren to bring everyone in from the field for lunch, which it promptly did. (To me the siren still evokes a coming air raid, as it does to all born within range of a bombing war.) Our next stop, in Greeley, led us to a new Irish ‘pub’ (no resemblance), the only eatery in town, run by a large deaf man with no Irish to him, offering some of the worst French fries you could hope to eat. At the gas station in Greeley, when Joe revealed his origins, the kindly storekeeper seized her phone to inform the local Irish mafia (she claimed Greeley as the heart of Irish Nebraska) and bring them running across the fields in excitement. To Joe’s relief we escaped without this re-baptism.
Today brought two of the most memorable experiences of our trip. We awoke in glorious Chadron State Park, one of the unsung jewels of America, here on the northern Nebraska/southern South Dakota border, not exactly a big tourist draw. Visitors to the Black Hills, to see Mt Rushmore and the wonderful mountain landscape, rarely come much south of Hot Springs. But they’re missing an amazing park, remarkable for its beauty, its amenities, spaciousness, and convenience for campers. Joe and I had hundreds of yards of creekside lawn and trees to ourselves. In the morning we went into Chadron seeking breakfast; the town seemed desolate on a Sunday morning. High Noon with Arby’s. Franchises; everything else closed. Then we chanced on the Bean Broker, a former bank renovated by owner Andrea Rising. She stripped everything back to its original floors and wainscoting, beneath as fine a tin ceiling as I’ve ever seen. The huge black walk-in safe is still there too, seemingly with tales of Bonnie & Clyde to tell. Besides the cafe where we had a fine frittata and latte, there’s now a separate bar, used as a music venue twice a week and for screenings of old movies. This was the kind of discovery that our trip was for, and the kind that no guide book will alert you to. (The similar venue in Fort Pierce, weeks and weeks ago now, had the same wonderful surprise value – secret America!) Of course none of this could exist in Chadron, Nebraska, were it not for the nearby Chadron State campus, with a fine music program and graduate MBA. There might be a few ranchers or farmers looking for a frittata and a latte, but probably not enough to sustain a Bean Broker, and allow someone with Andy Rising’s sophisticated taste and imagination to create a perfect refuge for cultured souls in need of solace and like-minded company. Back on the road amid the stunning sweet clover perfume (that’s the name of the plant I was waxing lyrical about yesterday, Andrea informed me) from the prairie verges. We were heading for the heart of the trip, for me: Wounded Knee, where I was able to pay my respects, at the monument erected there, to the victims of the 1890 massacre that marked the end of the Indian dreams of being treated with any vestige of honor and respect. Anyone unfamiliar with the story of Wounded Knee and its 20th century aftermaths – the book which, like Marlon Brando’s fine protest, helped to turn America towards its past and its truth, and the infamous, disputed and fatal 1973 ‘Wounded Knee incident’ – has been deluded by the denial which, ever since the shame brought to these shores by Europeans, has become America’s soul. I was proud to bring off a perilous Harley Sportster-borne ascent (the Road King would never have managed the steep and crumbling rutted mud) to the Wounded Knee hilltop graveyard. The only proper way is by foot or horse: on the hilltop I found myself surrounded by a dozen riders. On the way to Wounded Knee I felt the same involontary shuddering that approaching a site of human – oh to be able to say ‘inhuman’ – horror brings on. After the Pine Ridge reservation – the money the Sioux continue to refuse as compensation for their true Black Hills homelands, insisting that no money can compensate for their land, is said to be worth over a billion dollars, after 30 years of trust fund investments – it was back to the prairie straightaways of southern South Dakota. Few diversions; the occasional loose cow; a lonely store startlingly called Assman Implements (I searched to see the missing ‘P’ or ‘G’ that surely had gone missing, but no) which left me hoping in vain that the next store would be Titman Repairs; no campsite anywhere (nor on Rte 20, to the south) but an inexpensive motel – at last! – the Parkside Motel in Gregory, SD, clean, all the amenities in great working order. (Why is the West twice and even up to four or five times as pricey as the East, some motels asking $200 a night? – I know because of the sheer quantity of time on the phone spent seeking to verify accommodation of any kind – who can pay these prices? Are they richer in the West?). Quite a day. Long run to Omaha tomorrow, but the reward in store of friendly welcomes.
Many years ago my beloved late stepfather was admonished for doing a U-turn by a Zurich traffic cop, in words that he delighted in and which became family lore (apologies to my readers, since I stole this for my new novel): ‘Dis not de prairie!’ Well, dis – photo left – is de prairie. I love it. Huge skies, and in this photo alas you can barely seee the foreground (at this size), a long line of ancient rusted-up tractors, way past use. The Wyoming/South Dakota/northern Nebraska prairie smells gloriously at this season of a kind of apricot honey, thanks to a yellow-blooming plant that covers the prairie and lines the verges of the highway, bunching up as if yearning to cross. You’d barely know this aroma if you drove these long straight roads; but on two wheels the perfume is magnificent. As are the skies. We kept just ahead of the promised thunderstorms, shedding huge dark grey curtains of rain behind us, filling the rear-view mirrors. We went through Upton, population 1100, the hugely self-proclaimed ‘Best town on earth.’ Locals laugh hollowly at this. Hard to figure what might have led anyone to claim it; Upton has 3 bars, two of them thriving cowboy/biker bars, plus ‘Remy’s’, and the Weston Inn (the final ‘n’ has come loose and is falling into the previous one), a motel featuring a board which I thought would say ‘Wifi, Cable,’ or at least ‘Hot and Cold Running Water.’ It said ‘Only Through Christ Jesus.’ This might of course be their wifi password. Stopping in Newcastle, a fine old town, or once a fine old town, we sampled some of the most noxious sandwiches ever made, plus some chocolate-covered mini-bagels (Joe spat his out), and enquired about nearby Sturgis, World Capital of Riders and site of the world’s most celebrated biker rally – in August, so we were in no danger of being roped in – which produces a yearly newspaper. Excerpts are on left. Several pages were devoted to new admissions to the Biker Hall of Fame. Regarding the Ohio man buried sitting up on his Harley, enclosed in transparent fiber-glass or some such, I know how he feels (as it were). (In reality he was 82 and had been suffering from Alzheimers for some years, so he probably lost all sense of his impending fame.) After 5 hours of riding I’m ready for the fiberglass. More or less unable to de-bike without help. Wonder if Harley makes an Electra Glide with an ejector seat. Our destination, Chadron State Park, boasts magnificent camp sites. Under blue skies! Just what the doctor ordered.