As we travelled down I-70 in a rented Dodge Challenger, I had to wonder how many non-Americans have driven the entirety of this road, right from one side of Kansas through the other. East to West. (and yes I’m aware it goes on a long ways further than Kansas!). Towns passed us by – Salina, Russell, Homer, Oakley. Each were smaller than the previous and I felt as though I was heading into the Wild, Wild West.
Every town on our 9 hour drive, I saw something I needed to stop for and take a photo. At Wray it was a cliff edge, a sheer drop hanging over the town. After a small climb up, I marvelled as I looked down upon perfect three story mansions (I’m English ok? Every US house looks like a mansion). After driving past a tiny town called Detroit, we came upon Abilene, where The Yank insisted on stopping off at the Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum. I saw the house where Dwight D. Eisenhower, 34th President of the United States, grew up as a child. In St. Francis, there was a sign for a historical landmark on the side of the road. We sped past it not realising it was there, but I suggested we turn back. Here I learnt about a massacre of the Cheyenne and other Indians at Sand Creek, Colorado. There were survivors, who fled to the Cherry Creek Valley – this exact location which we stood upon. Almost 3,000 Indians gathered here in 1864.
Taken from www.kansastravel.org: “Cherry Creek Encampment near St. Francis is where the Plains War between the Indians and Whites began; a war that lasted twelve years and culminated at the Battle of the Little Big Horn in Montana in 1876.”
We didn’t stay long. A guestbook inside an old metal mailbox was waiting to be signed – I scribbled our names awkwardly, not wanting to balance the book on the box in case it toppled, and jumped back in the car. An amazing sense of wellbeing and gratitude overcame me as I realised how few names there were in the guestbook – though someone probably looked after the area and frequently would change the books over I’d imagine – but also how few there were from outside of America. Everyone signed their name alongside their home state. I proudly wrote “England” with a smiley face. This is how far I had travelled to visit this little site. In this little town.
We took another road trip later on in the week. This time travelling South on Highway 71, through Woodrow and an amazing little town called Last Chance (dammit, why the hell was there no sign?! I needed a sign selfie with Last Chance!). Through Limon, then West towards Calhan where we stopped off at the incredible Paint Mines Interpretive Park. A blog post will appear on this later, don’t you worry. Continuing West for a bit longer, we slowed as we approached the town of Calhan that looked like a street out of A Million Ways to Die in the West. I almost expected a woman to step out from one of the houses wearing a saloon dress. And we weren’t even in the West. Tucked away from the main road, between Cheyenne Street and Boulder Street, I spotted a gun shop. Visiting gun shops in America is on my bucket list of American activities. I later discovered it, Liberty Shooting Sports, on Facebook but was disappointed to see the page not in use. As we approached I chuckled at the outside decor: a sign hanging on the fence outside labelled Men’s Room with what looked like a drain at the bottom amongst the grass, and a sign hanging on the shop door itself
PLEASE KEEP ALL WEAPONS
IN SUCH CASE,
I was thrilled at such a find – an incredibly rural gun shop, likely owned by what my idea of a Redneck or Hillbilly is. What we did find inside was a very nice man with a VERY overexcitable Labrador. I instantly had to get on the floor and roll him around, he was clearly very happy to have visitors (the dog, though I bet the owner was too). The shop was quite bare of guns, though full of niknaks and random collectables, and I marvelled at the few rifles and shotguns hung on the walls, and the display of knives. I bade farewell to the beautiful black lab and we carried on.
As we nearly reached our destination, I wondered how many tourists there were in America who would never experience the real earthy, rural, enriching America I was seeing. I cannot even provide a comparison, because I’ve never seen anything OTHER than rural America. Ok, I once had a trip into Denver to see the Rockies play, alongside a trip to the very packed city centre Cheesecake Factory. (FYI – I didn’t have a clue what was going on during that game).
The rest of my experience of America has been seeing small town Colorado. I’ve eaten in more than two tiny diners run by Mexicans. I’ve stayed the night in a roadside motel that had barely any hot water (and successfully didn’t find myself in the middle of a horror film). I’ve been fishing (and caught nothing) in a lake that you’d have never guessed was there as it was so far out of the way. I’ve legally fired pistols, shotguns and even an AK-47 on vast, empty prairie. I’ve stalked a huge buffalo, solo in a large farmer’s field, wondering if the farmer was going to come out and shoot me. I’ve seen up close and personal a rattlesnake, and then later on almost saw a different rattlesnake get in a fight with a rabbit. I’ve sat in a truckstop diner and marvelled at a small boy, who was literally the spitting image of the Milkybar Kid, round glasses and cowboy hat and neckerchief and all, come in to fetch a load of pack lunches for the farm he works at when school is out for summer.
Is this what American life is like? It’s so vastly different to my own. We don’t have prairie. We don’t have vast fields that you can see for hundreds of miles around – too many trees get in the way. We don’t eat dumplings and sausage gravy as a breakfast option. Do you know how difficult it is to find a cappuccino in small town America? Waiting staff either can’t understand me when I say it or laugh at me for thinking they’d have anything fancier than drip coffee.
My worst American experience so far? Being taken to a cattle drive. A cow auction. At first I was excited to go. I saw all of these cows outside in pens, some rolling in mud, and thought we’d get to wander around them, watching farmers make their bids to purchase the cows and take them off to their cattle trucks. Big nope. Cows are individually pushed into a tiny ring and swatted with metal flags to force them to run in circles, over and over, so farmers sitting around the mini arena can see the ‘meat’. The cows pant and snort and fume, looking terrified and stumbling in an agitated way. The auctioneer speaks so fast you cannot understand a word he says, and suddenly within seconds it is over. The cow is forced through a metal gate which slams shut with a loud CRASH, as the cow scurries away petrified, they bring in another cow. And this goes on and on. I’ve a pretty strong stomach but this haunted me. You know what my fridge is full of now? Organic meat. Meat that I trust has come from cows managed properly and fairly and nicely. Happy cows. (y’know, until they get slaughtered… but one step at a time). I had to put on a brave face to impress my father-in-law, who sat in his seat chuckling at how quickly the auctioneer spoke, pleased he could now fully understand after so many years attending these drives. I was afraid to show weakness, and I passed the test. Despite wanting to rush down, jump into the shit-filled pit and hug that white cow that stopped and looked at me for what felt like an eternity (despite being whipped, it just kept looking straight at me), staring and burning into my soul with the kind of desperate look that my Labrador has when it’s Fireworks Night and he’s scared. This is small town America. This is Middle America. This is the America that voted in Trump, that wants it’s working industry back. That wants to keep the coal burning rather than using wind turbines and solar. That spends its days driving and driving and driving so many miles because you live so far away from anything. A hard working backbone of the country that doesn’t know much of life outside of the prairie, because why the hell would anyone want to go anywhere else – here we be growing our own crops, farming our own meat and poultry, shooting and fishing and hunting, and being raw and real. Why would you want to leave?
This is a world I don’t know and will never understand. But I sure as hell will be back. Just maybe no cattle drives this time.