Tuesday, 12 August 2014

Days 487 to 490: The Midwest Mini Roadtrip

Mount Rushmore is 939 miles from Chicago. I know this because Google Maps tells me so. And because I drove there.

Drove there, and back, on a four-day road-trip across the American Midwest. The car above is a Chevy White (or something like that) and we hired it from Chicago's airport. I've driven on the right-hand side before, in France earlier this year, so I wasn't too phased about that, but this was my first ever experience driving an automatic. Americans seem to like automatic cars and I can see why: it's a lot easier. Instead of gears, there was a pretend gear stick which put the car into four modes: Parking Mode, Reverse Mode, Driving Mode, and Weird Mode. I'm not sure what Weird Mode is, but when I first set off I mistakenly used it instead of Driving Mode. It still made the car drive, but in a weird, slow-ish kind of way. I was too scared to try it again.

Here is a day-by-day account of our four-day road-trip extravaganza.

Day 1: Drove.
Day 2: Drove. Saw Mount Rushmore.
Day 3: Saw Mount Rushmore.
Day 4: Drove. A lot.

Ok, I guess I could give a little more detail.

Day 1: Chicago to Sioux Falls.

Picking the car up around 11am, Danielle and I drove to Sioux Falls. Well, I did, Danielle sat in the front seat, either sleeping or complaining she was bored. We had my iPod and a USB cable, but couldn't for the life of us figure out where to plug it in. So we drove in silence for 9 hours. We ate McDonalds, and I think that was the only highlight during 9 hours of driving along a very flat, very straight road.

We stayed at a motel on the outskirts of Sioux Falls. As we didn't go into the heart of Sioux Falls, it would be difficult to give a critical analysis of it, but I can assure you that the outskirts are dire. Roads, car parks, fast food places, Wal Mart. Utterly drab, utterly generic: it could have been anywhere in America. Zero soul - Sioux Falls' outskirts is one of the worst places on earth. The locals seemed to agree. Drained of life force, imprisoned by their surroundings and their sparkless minds, they were dim, chunky objects that looked heavily inbred. Most sealed themselves inside their vehicles, driving through McDonalds for another XL coke, but some made it into Wal Mart to buy vast cases of doughnuts and suchlike. What an existence. Nobody looked happy, they barely seemed alive: a walk in the outskirts of Sioux Falls was one of the most sorry experiences of my life. Life in Sioux Falls must feel like drowning in a vat of your own mucus - an odd, pointless, peculiarly bleak scenario that, had you to time to ponder it, would make you wonder how you ever reached such a stage.

We tried and failed to buy alcohol in Wal Mart. On our first attempt, the cashier couldn't accept my "European" driving licence - fair enough, I thought. We tried again, this time with both our passports. They were pawed in the manner one might examine a fossilised turd. No. Wal Mart, so we were told, only accept American ID. Non-Americans cannot buy alcohol in Wal Mart. Weird, and slightly offensive. Instead, we popped to a local garage and bought some, no ID required.

Day 2: Sioux Falls to Rapid City, and Mount Rushmore.

A mere five-hour drive, we arrived at Rapid City about mid-afternoon. The road was even flatter and even straighter than before.

Fortunately, Rapid City was a little nicer than Sioux Falls. It still wasn't very nice, but it didn't feel as destitute and forgotten. Again, we were on the outskirts, which was basically a busy road surrounded by chain fast food places. It was very conveniently located for Mount Rushmore though - just get in the car and drive for 20 minutes. And it had a non-chain restaurant just across the road from the motel we were in. We ate there both nights. There wasn't really much option, unless we wanted more McDonalds. They had something called a "Snickered Frozen Pie" on the menu, with Oreo cookie crust, ice-cream, Snicker bars, caramel sauce and fudge sauce - sadly it wasn't available that day.

We duly visited Mount Rushmore, as will be recorded in my review, and in the evening didn't really have much else to do. Rapid City's outskirts are not a cultural hub.

Day 3: Mount Rushmore and Crazy Horse.

The day without driving! Well, a little, but no epic journeys. We celebrated by sleeping in till noon, then went to visit Mount Rushmore again. First off, we stopped by the neighbouring tourist village of Keystone, population 337. It used to be a mining town, now it's a kind of parody of itself, with vaguely Wild West Disney-style buildings and loads of tacky gift shops and restaurants. Danielle and I found it oddly appealing, perhaps due to the dearth of cultural stimuli over the previous two days.

After our second trip to Mount Rushmore, we still had plenty of time on our hands. I'd noticed that another gigantic mountain carving was nearby, that of Crazy Horse. This is even bigger than Mount Rushmore, and has been in progress, often very slow progress, since 1948. It still has a long way to go. This is how it looks right now.

"Crazy Horse" was a 19th Century Native Indian heroic war leader, who was killed by American troops. After Mount Rushmore had been finished, an elder from Crazy Horse's tribe had written to a man called Korczak Ziolkowski, saying that the Natives had heroes too. Ziolkowski was a sculptor and had been an assistant to Gutzon Borlgum, the sculptor of Mount Rushmore. He spoke to the elder and agreed: he would build an even bigger mountain sculpture, to Crazy Horse.

66 years later, it's still being built. Ziolkowski died in 1982, but his family have continued his work. Everything is privately funded, all government funding has been steadfastly refused. At first, it was pretty much just Ziolkowski and a pneumatic drill, but these days there is a large and comprehensive visitor's centre, and it's clear that funding is more reliable.

It's an interesting work, although except for the face still looks rather like a large quarry, so it's difficult to be wowed by it as yet. Likely, there are decades more work to go, and perhaps I won't live long enough to see it finished. Displays inside the visitor's centre give an idea of how it will one day look.

It will be big - 195 metres long and 172 metres tall, which will make it the biggest statue or sculpture in the world (unless something bigger is built in the meantime). Here's Mount Rushmore in comparison:

We ate at our favourite - the only - restaurant again that evening. We were stuffed. To our delight, the Snickered Frozen Pie was available, so we took it back to the room with us. It was truly vile in the most gross and absolutely wonderful way.

Day 4: Back to Chicago.

900+ miles, 13 hours of driving, sunrise to sunset. But, the good news was - we finally found the USB port for our iPod! We had music! Nothing notable happened, just lots and lots of driving. Except, near the end we took a turn-off to get Danielle a Starbucks, and we found ourselves in some garish theme resort town. Much of it appeared to be themed along ancient Greek and Roman lines, including an actually quite well done Colosseum hotel.

It was a relief to return the car to the airport, and get a shuttle bus to our airport hotel. It was not a relief to remember that we had to be up before 7am the following morning, to get into Chicago city centre to get a six hour Megabus to St Louis. At least somebody else would be doing the driving.


  1. Alas, is sounds like you didn't stop at one of the most odd long-running tourist establishments of the area: Wall Drug. I'm sure it was not for lack of knowledge of its existence, since the billboards start appearing about 500 miles out. I would have been very interested to hear your take on it...

    1. Although Danielle would very strenuously disagree, I would quite like to go back and do a road trip like that over a much longer period of time. Four days was nothing. I was fully aware of Wall Drug - how can you not be? - and would have loved to have popped in. Just giving it a quick Google and I realise it was the place Bill Bryson talked about in one of his books, saying "It's an awful place, one of the world's worst tourist traps, but I loved it and I won't have a word said against it." I can think of no better endorsement.


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