As we travelled down I-70 in a rented Dodge Challenger, I had to wonder how many foreigners like myself have driven the entirety of this road through Kansas.
Towns passed us by — Salina, Russell, Homer, Oakley. Each place smaller than the last and getting smaller.
I felt as though I was heading into the Wild, Wild West.
It was the kind of road made for cross-country lorry drivers, Kansas-ians heading to the nearest Walmart and the occasional campervanners going somewhere more exciting.
Despite the sheer feeling of remoteness along that 9 hour drive, it wasn’t difficult to find the beauty in the beast. This meant a lot of stops along the way to explore this, and photograph that.
At Wray it was a cliff edge, a sheer drop hanging over the town, with a rafter of turkeys picking its way through the long grass below. After feeling compelled to climb to the top of that cliff, I was rewarded for views for miles. At Abilene, the husband insisted we stopped off at the Eisenhower Presidential Library. 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, “Cherry Creek Valley” — it turned out to be the exact location upon which stood the surviving Native Americans after they managed to flee a horrific massacre in 1864.
It was an incredibly moving place. 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 overwhelming sense of fear and hopelessness overhung us as we thought back on the barbaric histories of settlers worldwide. There were very few names in that guestbook — I couldn’t decide whether that meant very few people stopped at the site, or if there was a kindly volunteer nearby who would regularly stop by and replace the visitor book. Perhaps an old timer within a 10 mile radius had a collection of these books in their living room, being cherished but ultimately collecting dust. Out of the 20-or-so names signed, there wasn’t a single visitor from outside the US. As I signed, I put “from England” in extra large letters, so whoever read this saw how far and wide the message was being spread.
America is one big road trip. And there is so much to see along the way. For instance, if you travel south on Highway 71 in Colorado, there is an amazing little town called Last Chance (what a name!). Further on this road is an incredible natural open space called the Paint Mines — a series of clay and rock formations that sit in bands of blue, red, pink and yellow, from where the iron has been oxidized over thousands of years. Native Americans used the colourful clays to make paint. And just west of this is the town of Calhan. A place that could easily be the filming location of A Million Ways to Die in the West. I expected a woman to step out from one of the houses wearing a saloon dress. Tucked away from the main road, between Cheyenne Street and Boulder Street, you’ll find the tiniest gun shop (and visiting gun shops is on my bucket list of American activities!). Inside you’ll find the friendlist bloke in the world and an insanely excitable labrador (who does appreciate it if you get down on the floor with him for cuddles), and hanging outside on a rusty hook is this sign
PLEASE KEEP ALL WEAPONS
IN SUCH CASE,
The shop is quite bare of guns, though floor to ceiling full of niknaks and random collectables. It is an enriching place full of old school American culture, from an outsider’s perspective.
As we shuttled around the prairie land and seeing real-life tumbleweed, I wondered how many tourists there were in America who would never experience the real earthy, rural, enriching America I was seeing. My friends who’ve visited the States go to Disneyland, Las Vegas and New York City. We seemed world’s apart.
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 no hot water (and successfully didn’t find myself in the middle of a horror film). I’ve been fishing (and caught nothing) in the middle of nowhere during a thunderstorm. I’ve legally fired pistols, shotguns and even an AK-47. I’ve gotten up close and personal to a huge buffalo that was grazing by itself in a large farmer’s field. I watched a rattlesnake get captured by a park warden, who subsequently safely took it away from the crowds. 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 freezer is full of now? Quorn. And other vegetarian and vegan options.
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, 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.