Towards Chicago it was Merlot, mountains,
motorcycles and the Mississippi. (August 2015)


Given the distance we had to cover, moving towards Chicago, we knew we were in for a few long days of driving.

Lytton to Cawston, British Columbia.

We travelled along the Fraser River, stopping for breakfast at Hope, another town that developed as part of the Canadian gold rush. Given its history, it’s not hard to imagine how Hope got its name.

Descending from the Rockies we had another break in Princeton, not the university city but a small community on Highway 3. Mining was the main industry but now timber and sawmills dominate the economy.

Cawston is just a hamlet, about 7km from Keremeos. This is in a rich, fertile valley that sits adjacent to Canada’s only desert and is regarded as the ‘Fruit Stand Capital’ of Canada.

Keremeos is also near the site of a reported massacre of Spanish soldiers by Similkameen Natives nearly 200 years ago.

The attraction of Cawston was the Crowsnest Vineyards Guest House. This is a small family owned winery, run by the Heinecke family who were originally from Leipzig, Germany.

In fact the wine maker, Ann, was our waitress and her brother is the chef and local baker.

It’s a very small concern and everyone multitasks.

Their wines and food were excellent and very much in the European style. They only have one beer and that’s a draught Warsteiner Pilsener from Germany.

This was also very pleasant.

Cawston to Missoula, Montana.

Apart from a coffee stop in Oroville, which unfortunately was at a Starbucks, we only had one other stop. That was to look at the Coulee Dam and Franklin Delano Roosevelt Lake. The damming of the Columbia River, which was completed in 1942 created the largest hydro scheme in North America. The lake named after FDR, who promoted its construction resulted in the relocation of over 3,000, included many Native Americans. It also stopped salmon from swimming up the Columbia River to spawn.

The rest of the day was driving.

There are many differences between the USA and Canada.

The Canadians seemed to have adopted a far more European approach to the layout of their cities, their cuisine and their driving habits.

Driving is most evident in their approach to pedestrians.

You get the feeling that you are back in Italy or France when you cross the street in Vancouver. In Canada you avoid the cars while in the States they look out for you.

Missoula is a university town and as a result there are plenty of eating options, cafés and brewpubs.

We found the Flathead Lake Brewing Company, another fine craft brewer and restaurant.

The food, like many of these establishments, was innovative, tasty, not super-sized and sourced from local suppliers.

There were also 16 craft brews on tap.

Missoula to Sheridan, Wyoming.

Montana is known as Big Sky Country and you can understand why, as you head east along Highway 90. Unfortunately our ‘Big Sky’ was rather cloudy, yet still impressive.

Heading along the Rockies we stopped at Butte for our morning coffee.

An old mining town, Butte was full of late nineteenth and early twentieth century architecture.

Most of it was in red brick and reminiscent of the Gold Rush era buildings of Ballarat and Bendigo.

Just out of Butte we crossed the Continental Divide. Watershed on this side was now flowing eastward towards the Atlantic. Previously it had been flowing westward towards the Pacific. The ‘Great Divide’ runs from Alaska, in the north and almost reaches Cape Horn in South America.

Not far out of Sheridan and just off Highway 90 is the Little Bighorn Battlefield Monument.

Little Bighorn or ‘Custer’s Last Stand’ was a decisive win for the Indians but a very hollow victory in the course of history. On June 25 and 26, 1876, General George Armstrong Custer and 700 men went up against a combined force of Lakota, Northern Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes. Custer lost his life as did another 268 soldiers. They had little chance as their foes numbered somewhere between 900-2,500. The Native Americans led by the likes of Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse had a emphatic win. This gave the US government the impetus it needed to force the remaining native warriors back onto the reservations.

Little Bighorn is in the Black Hills region, which is regarded by the Lakota Indians as sacred ground. They were given to them under the Treaty of Fort Laramie in 1868. When gold was discovered in the Black Hills in 1874, the treaty was ignored by the prospectors, resulting in the Black Hills War. The Battle of Little Bighorn was a part of the Black Hills War and gave the US Government even more incentive to take back the Black Hills.

The move broke the Native American’s spirit and took away their independence.

There were thousands of bikes and bikers on the road around South Dakota. Harley Davidson was by far the most popular brand of bike, occasionally I did see another brand but not many. They were all there for the 75th Anniversary of the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally. It was originally started as an event for stunts and races, but has since developed into a meeting place for motorcycle enthusiasts.

There were bikers from all over the globe. We sighted bikes from Canada, Italy, Germany and Great Britain. There was even a group of Aussies in a Rapid City.

Bikers and their bikes come to Sturgis in many ways. Some ride there, some bring their RVs with their bikes in tow, while other fly there and have their bikes shipped in. There are even a well healed few who fly both themselves and their bike to the rally.

On the whole they were a very well behaved group of riders, with a mixture of ages and gender, happy to cruise the highways at well under the speed limit.

The official attendance was 739,000 however the South Dakota Department of Transport put the number at over 1,000,000.

There is a dark side to the rally with 13 road deaths. This is not surprising considering that most of the rider we saw weren’t wearing helmets.

Sheridan to Rapid City, South Dakota.

We had our morning coffee break at Gillette and the number of Bikers were increasing. They were now thick on the roads and outnumbered the other vehicles.

The Devil’s Tower was our next destination and it appeared that it was also high on the agenda for the Sturgis bikers.

The Devil’s Tower is an eroded laccolith in the Bear Lodge Mountains, part of the Black Hills of Wyoming. In 1906 it was made a United States National Monument by President Theodore Roosevelt.

In more recent times it was featured in the 1977 movie, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, that was written and directed by Stephen Spielberg.

Next was Crazy Horse Mountain. This an ongoing project to carve an image of Chief Crazy Horse into a mountain side, similar to Mount Rushmore.

The project was the idea of Henry Standing Bear and started by sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski in 1948. Work continued until Ziolkowski’s death in 1982 and is now being continued by his family.

We viewed from a distance as the bikes and bikers were even thicker on the roads and in the car parks.

Mount Rushmore is another concocted tourist attraction in South Dakota. The sculpture of US Presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln was started by Gutzon Borglum in 1927 and completed by his son Lincoln Borglum in 1939. The initial design was to have the presidents depicted from head to waist, but with lack of funds the Borglums  could only manage the heads.

Mount Rushmore was featured in the Alfred Hitchcock movie North by Northwest.

Even though we viewed the Devil’s Tower, Crazy Horse Mountain and Mount Rushmore, the day must go to Harley Davidson and the Sturgis Rally bikers. They added another dimension to these well known sites.

We found yet another brew pub and restaurant in Rapid City. And, as with every establishment in the area, it was full of bikers.

The Firehouse Brewery was, as you would expect, in an old fire station. The beer was great, as was the food, wine and atmosphere.

Bottles of Heinz Tomato Ketchup sat unwanted and untouched on the table. A great sign for US cuisine and just maybe the death knell for fast food.

We were entertained by ‘Broken Radio’ a Country, Blues and Classic Rock band. This was a conventional four piece band, but being Country, had a fiddle player.

About the only music I recognised was from ‘The Eagles’ but it was all great entertainment, especially given the environment of the Firehouse Brewery

Rapid City to Murdo, South Dakota.

The motorcycles were still dominant on the road as we drove east of Rapid City towards Wall and their famous drug store.

Wall Drug was started by Dorothy and Ted Hustead in 1931. It’s now a US$10 million business, with over 2 million visitors per year. It was built on giving away water and with catchy billboard advertising.

It’s crass and touristy but they did sell espresso, of sorts.

The walls of this vast retail outlet are full of all things Western. Especially interesting were the shots of the Hustead family, brandishing guns or proudly showing off their latest kill.

There were also many stuffed animals adorning the place to verify their hunting skills.

I couldn’t help but think of Walter Palmer, the dentist from Minnesota, who has now been made a pariah by social media for murdering Cecil the lion.

Wall Drug is one of those places that you wish you’d never gone to, but glad you did.

A bit like Las Vegas.

Badlands National Park is 242,750 acres of eroded buttes, pinnacles and spires in South Dakota. This is all set within the largest area of undisturbed mixed prairie grasses in the USA.

It was named by French trappers, “Les mauvaises terres á traverser” or bad lands to travel across.

The Badlands are also one of the most popular rides for the Sturgis bikers. I guess bikers and the Badlands seem to be a good fit.

Murdo is a small town on the edge of the Prairies and what we had come to the US to experience. We had dinner in the Rusty Spur, a strange combination of saloon and steak house. The food was palatable but just didn’t have the style and substance of the Brew Pubs we had been frequenting. One of the servers (waitresses) was only 14 and had no idea about what beer and wine was on offer. In fact she had to get an 18 year old to take our order and a 21 year old to server us the drinks.

Life for servers is very complicated in Murdo.

Again there were dead animals adorning the walls. ‘Huntn’, ‘shootn’ and taxidermy seem to go hand in hand in South Dakota.

Murdo to La Crosse, Wisconsin.

It was an early start as this was a long day of driving across the prairies of South Dakota, Minnesota and into La Crosse, Wisconsin, on the mighty Mississippi.

Our first stop was at Mitchell to see the Corn Palace, now the world’s last remaining corn palace. There were originally corn palaces in Gregory, South Dakota and  Sioux City and Creston both in Iowa.

My initial thought was, why?

But once I’d read the history, put everything in context and mixed with the other tourists, I realised why.

This, like Wall Drug, was as much about putting these small prairie towns on the map and attracting tourists. Between 200,000 and 500,000 people visit the Corn palace every year.

The original Mitchell Corn Palace was built in 1892 as The Corn Belt Exposition and designed to entice farmers to settle in Mitchell.

The current corn palace is a strange fusion of Russian onion domes and Moorish minarets that are covered each year with new designs made entirely out of that season’s corn.

Our motel in La Crosse was a few kilometres out of town. The walk was needed after a long day’s drive. We were surrounded by fast food restaurants but weren’t tempted.

We found a wine bar and restaurant, named Four Sisters. It had good food and a great terrace overlooking the Mississippi River.

Despite the pretense of being a developed, sophisticated country, the US fails in many ways.

Public transport, outside of the major cities, is woeful and in many places just non existent. Telecommunications is at its best patchy, with whopping great black holes between the major towns.

Then there’s the internet.

Most hotels provide a limited service, via a WiFi network, but come 5pm, when the guest numbers swell, if buckles under the weight of use.

It’s also a country of paradoxes.

Gridiron players wear helmets and protective clothing to play football. While Bikers, wearing nothing more than a T-shirt and shorts, can ride a 1,800 cc Harley Davidson, weighing up to 410kg, as fast as they like.

The Sturgis Rally bore testament to this.

La Crosse, to Chicago, Illinois.

It was just over 450 km from La Crosse, on the Mississippi, to Chicago on Lake Michigan. On the way we passed hundreds of typical North American farm houses and their accompanying barns, all painted in matching color schemes.

We had heard about one of Frank Lloyd Wright’s building, the AD German Warehouse in Richland Center, Wright’s hometown. This elegant construction, in the Mayan Revival style was completed in 1921 for a local commodity wholesaler, Albert Dell German.

It’s currently being renovated and only open on Sundays. We were in luck as it was Sunday when we passed briefly through Richland Centre, Wisconsin.

The design was an experiment in reinforced concrete columns that was a pre curser for the Johnson’s Wax Factory built for the company’s president, Herbert F. ‘Hib’ Johnson and completed 18 years later.

It was now on to Chicago, our first large city in quite some time.

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