Romancing the Boy

Nine months prior to me landing in Massachusetts, I had confidently prioritised the main, natural check points on my route. I was saddened that, on this trip to the USA I would not be visiting the area on earth which I considered to be the most nostalgic and certainly the most romantic of all places.

While on route, new plans were hatched almost daily, and the original road, east to west, had been moved in front of me numerous times. Western Montana, south of Glacier National Park was now in my path and even though the north had once again appealed to my naturalist senses, I was like a child running towards Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory, only showing a little more external, melancholic, British demeanour. I was however, lustfully feeling an adulterated surge, in the knowledge that I would be visiting my boyhood dream. It was rather like a blind date, only I already knew that I wanted to explore her…..and that she wasn’t blind.

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Prior to adolescence, I had dreamt of being surrounded by the landscape which Norman McClean describes in his book, “A River Runs Through It”. Later it became a film starring Tom Skerrit and Brad Pitt, which I watched as a young boy with my older cousin. We spent many fishing trips recreating the film’s scenes on the small trout rivers in the north west of England. I loved the shenanigans and mischief we managed to get up to outdoors; often fishing, river running, hiking through woods with big sticks, pretending we were in the army and carelessly sledging over rocky moguls in the snow in winter(following which, I received a similar punishment from my father as young Brad Pitt did in the movie). I often wondered what it would be like to be living the same childhood on the landscape alongside the treacherous rivers of western Montana. However, I guess I would have missed playing cricket.

Bigger mountains, bigger farms, bigger rivers and most importantly, bigger fish!
I thought about them all, yet I was never unappreciative, nor unhappy with the industrial hills and valleys of my moist, Lancashire lands. I still believe that some places in the grey, wet and cold north of England are some of the most beautiful and homely settings on earth, and even though I haven’t lived there for over twenty years, I still call it home. While growing up and learning of the wider world through books and film, and as my teachers would regularly comment to my mother about how much I day-dreamed out of the class window, I was clearly developing into somewhat of a dreamer, filled with wanderlust…and again, thoughts of bigger fish.

The experience through western Montana was maturely, as expected; not the same as I had dreamt it would be. The towns described in McCleans book were now busy, 21st century commercial hubs that I instantly had sympathy for, the roads catered for modern amounts of traffic, the people, even though in one of the less populated states, swarmed in great numbers, and the style, fashion, vibe, culture and buzz of both Missoula and Helena were most definitely not the romantic places which I had read about. I wasn’t naive enough to expect that they would be the same, war effected, speak-easy harbouring, lumbar communities that they had been 100 years ago. As nicely as I can describe them, the cities served a purpose.

One similarity does jump out every mile while journeying through western Montana; this IS fishing country! McClean described The Blackfoot, which I crossed a few times, and how it had been his play ground, his school and the river that carved through his life, being pivotal and so influential to who he was. I didn’t need to be part of the late Victorian lifestyle in Montana to see that this place was special. The poetry, the sentimentality, the beauty and the romantic rhythm of nature’s soul-massaging, aqueous flow over the picture-perfect country sparkled and danced past rocks and grasses in the sunshine in front of me. As I adventured through the landscape, I lived my childhood dream, merely by being here (although ideally, I would have had a fishing rod).

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Following a rapid tour of the populated areas mentioned in A River Runs Through It, my adventure turned south through a conveniently named village named Winston. After a little excursion over the Little Blackfoot and a few rickety but well used train tracks, off a tarmac road and along once again the swollen Missouri, it was time to dry a few items of camping equipment, cover myself in deet (the mosquitoes were out in force) and settle down for a night next to the familiar water source.

It was a warm evening and a couple of unexpected, but most welcome, exploratory pelicans were dining not too far away. A deer, a few rabbits and lots of bug-munching birds casually surrounded the camp spot. In the morning it was evident that even though human, I had been relocated much lower down the food chain than previously positioned. I clearly had been utilised as a blood bank for far too many buzzed locals and my hand was the size of a small balloon (bitten twice whilst holding the camera).

Seeing the Blackfoot was special. I didn’t think it would be as poignant as it was, but it reminded me of childhood, of good times with my cousin, of poetic notions of how, as a boy I had dreamt of Montana, and how a romantic landscape can be.

Though we travel the world over to find the beautiful, we must carry it with us or we find it not (Ralph Waldo Emerson). From the age of nine, I have carried with me a tender enchantment and a romantic infatuation of a beautiful Montana without ever having met her. I have now had the privilege, and she remains an ageing beauty.

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It’s nothing to do with McDonalds, but it’s exciting because I might die?

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KP gripped the steering wheel, repeated phrases to himself to keep his nerves on an even keel, and while attempting to avoid driving a tyre or two over the edge of the frozen cliff for which there was no barrier, I had my heart in my throat while I tried to admire the view. The immediate, deathly drop from the side of the passenger door was one which I both savoured and feared, especially as KP seemed so fixated on it. I calmed our nerves (I think), and embraced the fact that if I was going to die, I would at least try to have a few decent photos of it.

Very few of you will check a map if I regurgitate road numbers or mention trails, but for the industrious amongst you, taking route 89 and then the rather breathtaking 44 over the Rockies, in a long winter, in high winds, in a high sided truck, was possibly the first (but not the last) “exciting-because-I-might-die” expedition on the journey so far, at least while in a vehicle.

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When the moment comes to be informed by your pilot that he has an acute fear of falling, and that moment is precisely when a shaky, colourful bus of hippies, lacking driving confidence and the ability to keep their bus moving in a straight line, starts veering down the mountain towards you on a damp road, and you’re creeping up an incline which has no barrier, with a hard shoulder which quickly disintegrates towards a fatal fall, it becomes apparent that tripping over Montana’s snowy peaks is not going to be an walk in the park. The hippies also signalled to us that it was a relief that they had made it over the pass alive – not exactly a instant confidence boost for my fearful captain!

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The view was spectacular, I managed to grapple with my camera, and obviously after a test of stirling character, KP held his nerve: we didn’t die.

On entering National Parks, I have learnt that there are only two types of staff member who you are greeted by. The first is the more common of the two; the unnaturally personal, over-friendly, knowledgable, eager to make your day the happiest you’ve ever experienced in your life with a forced, trained smile, typically “American” customer service rep with a “have a nice day” catchphrase. They are assuming the position of a ranger-in-training, ending each sentence with “Sir” and excessively displaying their baking soda-brushed teeth in order to blind you with kindness.
There doesn’t appear to any middle ground, but the second type is a part timer, simply sat without any knowledge whatsoever of the park or attraction you’re about to encounter, and who’s sole purpose is to take your money and seemingly, as rapidly as possible, “welcome” the next vehicle to the window.

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At the east and west entrances of Glacier National Park, I met both. As a Englishman, the first welcomer makes my skin crawl and my inner monologue plays out a scene of wrapping, and turning their immaculate false manners into a well-folded, stern note of displeasing colourful language, before sliding it slowly through their letter box (oh how very British of me), that, or a fist into their probably over polite oesophagus.
The second welcome is real, from someone who genuinely has an unsavoury taste in their mouth over the position they are in. They are unhelpful, but at least it’s an authentic conversation. I’m yet decided on who I dislike meeting more at the gates.

The McDonald Lodge on Lake McDonald has nothing to do with McDonald’s. There wasn’t a popular “Scottish” restaurant in sight, nor was there much indication of other large commercial amenities throughout the park.

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Apart from the infamous red buses still running up and down the Road to the Sun for the pleasure of the park’s guests and staff, I heard that some commercial draws had been dismantled, to return the touristic blemishes on the landscape back to how nature intended. It may be a monumental, 21st century step in a forward direction, but that’s not to say that reduced amenities or accommodation is lessening the purse load for the new company that just acquired the concessions contract in Glacier: estimated to turn over $18.5 million this year. Overheads aren’t to be ignored however, and neither are logistical issues in the wilderness. Waste for example, is helicoptered out of the more remote chalet areas each autumn; not your usual or most cost effective service.

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Even though tourism in the park is huge business, 60% of the parks concessions and money spinners are outside the park itself – a partial testament to some positive thinking which goes on in these federal-run tourism outlets.
The national parks and everything in them are owned by the government, and run by the state. They dictate the legislation around everything that goes on in the parks, and this doesn’t sit too comfortably with me. Laws have put ownership on creatures. In fact, state laws outline that any wild animal within their borders belong to that state. Having a law which protects or allows hunting of animals is one thing, but declaring ownership is fundamentally wrong (I am aware that we have the same law when it comes to the swans of Her Royal Highness), but it’s a wild animal. I’m not sure how else to phrase that so that it outlines my argument more clearly. It is a WILD animal. I suppose its no different from a country “owning” it’s natives and giving them all social security numbers in order to be street-legal… Land of the free!

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However I choose to look at the set up of the national parks, and however I look to compare them to the British national trust-run sites, I struggle to see a majority in benefits of having federally-owned, natural places of interest. I could elaborate, but something’s can be saved for a much longer read.

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After waking up at Sprague camp ground in western Glacier, the long road back to my original route began. Although lacking the grandiose of Glacier National Park, there were other reasons why I had, for twenty years, romantically dreamt of delving deeper into my next neighbourhood of Montana.

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Pooh, and being alone in some sublime mountains

Let me directly, with my opinion, shoot passionately from the hip: Glacier National Park is the most impressive, most mawkish, grand and most romantic, mountainous setting I have ever been humbled enough to visit. Of the dozen or so refrigerated regions on the globe which I have taken in, Glacier was the least populated (at least while I was there) and was able to easily emphasise its natural beauty without man’s incorporated stamp on the landscape (other than a few footpaths). It is quite simply a kingdom of magnified, imposing and towering grandiose. It is sublime.

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The fluctuations in scope of environmental panoramas are inspiring. The seasonal changes allow for breathtaking variability and the volatile conditions create the most dramatic and unpredictable scenery. Being alone in the predator-rich mountains was lonely, yet it quickly became a haven for curiosity, of reflection, of self discovery, of finding ways to entertain oneself, and of song!

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In the garden of the grizzlies, it is important not to surprise any locals, not to stroll up to them and interrupt a picnic, not to disturb an afternoon nap and most of all, not to find a baby without its mother (because it won’t be without a concerned and over protective mother for long)! It is therefore customary to sing to the birds and the bees so they know you are there. The majority of predators should be so unimpressed with your singing that they make themselves scarce before you find yourself in full flow karaoke mode, in the face of a bear.

As if things couldn’t get any worse for the locals, I vocally broke out into a few Spandau Ballet numbers, mixed in a burst of Duran Duran and did my very best at remembering all of the Oliver Twist show tunes. I was also blessed, for it was also too early for other tourists and I was neither interrupting a teddy bear’s picnic, nor any holidaying, New Romantics fans.

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Rambling through miles of humanless landscape, I felt like I was trespassing through nature’s garden. I definitely felt far from home, yet I wasn’t so alone with the river running by, with sightings of raptors in the sky, deer on the skirts of the woods, weasels and grouse scuttling around in the spring sunshine and also giant, white bottomed elk. Attempting to be respectful of the possibility of annoying an American native, I toned down the 80’s tracks to enjoy a few wild and intimate moments.

At my camp, possibly the most beautiful and remote place I have found myself in while in America, it was hard not to feel alone. The nearest people were the Canadian border officials, ten miles north, across wilderness. The nearest road was impossible to reach, over the lake and the mountain to the east. There would be no phone call, no vehicle, no help or search for me should I have any accidents. At least a day would pass before anyone might come looking for me should I not turn up at my agreed checkpoint on exiting the park. I soon became accustomed to the isolation. Loneliness quickly manifests itself when I stop moving.

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When I sit and think, when I can shout or sing without disturbing anyone, when there’s nobody to talk with or listen to, or more poignantly, when I see or experience a wonder that nobody else can be a part of; loneliness is a sad and unfortunate part of travelling by myself. It is something to get used to, but it never quite sits comfortably on my social shoulders that love to be warmed by others. More importantly, loneliness reminds me how much I wish I could share the majority of my experiences on my adventure (and not just through some manipulation of words on a computer screen).

My trip has been likened to that of Christopher McCandless and his story in the book, “Into the Wild”. I do repeatedly tell people that my trip is one of constant travel and I don’t have a desire to disappear alone into the Alaskan wilderness, at least not forever anyway. However, the lone star did make one statement that rung true within me ever since I saw the film, and spending time alone on this trip, contemplating many things has reminded me of his words, “Happiness only real when shared”.

Time alone has been common on my journey, something which I was expecting, something which I was nervous about. Loneliness has been an emotional experience, both good and bad. Knowing that a coping mechanism can and normally does kick in, to keep the mind active is comforting. It stretches to curiosity, to problem solving, to education and to self exploration. However, it also delves into a pretty sad place. Not being able to share or discover together, not being able to discuss another point of view or an alternative idea, not have someone challenge me or to confirm what I think is right, and not having someone to understand anxieties, fears or relief is a constant misfortune.

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When it is cold, and you’re alone, it is painful. It is hard to stop a raw feeling of numb nothingness creep through every part of your soul, and because of the cold, no amount of reading, writing, bird spotting or solitaire helps lose the feeling of loneliness, or the chilling effect of the weather!
Listening to bears growl at each other not far from camp and overhearing coyotes discuss their next victim does however, seem to help change the mood…

Walking out in to a seemingly flat meadow, only to find large, dry, water-carved scars in the ground interests me. They become home to all kinds of creatures, and to my delight, on this occasion, a family of baby coyotes were out playing above their den. Invisible from forty yards away, three baby coyotes rolled around, growling and play fighting as their mother was away, hunting for dinner. I sat and watched the three cubs for half an hour, with a watchful eye over my shoulder in case mum thought I was a healthy snack as she approached from downwind.

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The cubs knew the rules, because as soon as one of them sensed my voyeurism and clicking camera, they scuffled underground. They didn’t even poke their noses out for a cheeky check. They waited for mum to come home. This kind of experience makes time away from home, away from people, less lonely and it also reminds me of the many reasons of why I’m on this journey.

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Canoodling Beavers and a morbid hypothesis

Following my transition along the sublime plains, through the buckling crevices and escalation through the foothills, I found my excited self ascended onto the side of Montana’s Rocky Mountains.

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Reminding myself that I had not planned on adventuring to this kingdom on this trip, or indeed this early in my life, (I still think I’ll come back as an elderly fisherman), each day I saw a new view around western Montana and had to take deep breaths to make sure I inhaled every last vapour, of fresh glacial splendour from the air. Avoiding the mountain towns made the snow covered Rockies a sensory experience to savour.

Since I began in March, each day has brought a new patience, a new wisdom and new struggle: not always pleasant, not always a joy, not always memorable, sometimes a physical challenge and not always emotionally easy: it has always, vitally, never been boring.

Just inside Glacier National Park, on the eastern side of the Rockies, I saw my first living beavers (unfortunately, the deceased ones from earlier in the trip didn’t count). At dusk, whilst watching two of the largest rodents North America is home to (not on the continent, that would be the mighty capybara in South America, big lads, they are), I quietly, voyeuristically spied on two dedicated lovers, canoodle and frolicking around the woody banks of the swollen Saint Mary River.

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Having not seen beavers before, and up to this point only checking their handy work on some rather impressively-large trunks, I marvelled at their relaxed demeanour, their unhurried approach to getting work done and their enjoyable, intimate behaviour towards each other as they shared the experience of peacefully completing a task.

They even found time to play, rolling around with each other, splashing in the shallows and almost sharing a joke. The male clearly wasn’t amused by his lovers playful attributes, but it was clearly why he desired her, the grumpy old man. I think I was romantically relating to their lifestyle in the sticks, off the grid, and making excellent use of their surroundings to make it their home.

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(sadly, not my beavers, but very similar) Photo courtesy Tongass Forest Service

The playful female shuffled along the river bank to check me out. After few cheeky peeks around the wooded bushes and calmly floating herself into the fast flowing melt water to see if I was a danger, she flipped her body into the current and was gone in a second. The male, lets call him Nigel, just continued with his dental work, tirelessly prepping wood to take home to his giddy Mrs, who had discreetly returned home to get dinner on with a romantic few candles, no doubt.

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It was also at this point that I realised how difficult it is to take awesome photos of wildlife, when I spend too much time watching, and forgetting to operate my camera!

I’m constantly reminded of the important lessons that nature provides. The repeating seasons which all bring their hardships and abundances, the circles of life that Mother Nature is so persistent at creating to bring a healthy balance to each ecosystem. It’s astonishing that even with all the natural lessons we can learn, it appears man continues to work against nature, solely for the self-destructive objective, of just growing.

It’s easy to dismiss the similarities between cancer the disease, and humans as a cancer (on the planet). It’s a metaphor rather than a solid hypothesis. However, a cancerous tumour continues to grow even as its nutrients deplete and the vital functions of its host cause its host to die. Similarly, human societies undermine their own long-term viability by depleting and polluting the environment. Civilisation’s growth continues, whilst the planet’s resources run dry. Only a cancer imitates this action, the reaction, is death.

Without being terribly morbid, and to avoid jumping feet first onto a “religious” bandwagon of the Church of Euthanasia – who’s slogan appears to be “Save the planet, Kill yourself”, here is what A. Macdougall had to say on humans as cancer:
“cancer cells proliferate rapidly and uncontrollably in the body; humans continue to proliferate rapidly and uncontrollably in the world. Crowded cancer cells harden into tumors; humans crowd into cities. Cancer cells infiltrate and destroy adjacent normal tissues; urban sprawl devours open land. Malignant tumors shed cells that migrate to distant parts of the body and set up secondary tumors; humans have colonized just about every habitable part of the globe. Cancer cells lose their natural appearance and distinctive functions; humans homogenize diverse natural ecosystems into artificial monocultures. Malignant tumors excrete enzymes and other chemicals that adversely affect remote parts of the body; humans’ motor vehicles, power plants, factories and farms emit toxins that pollute environments far from the point of origin.”

You get the picture. However MacDougall does make one final and important point. As much as I tend to agree with the cancer metaphor, cancer cells can’t think – humans can.

Humans have the capacity for planetary awareness, cancer cells do not have that power. Cancer cells can’t consciously modify their behaviour to spare their host’s life and prolong their own, however humans can adjust, adapt, innovate, change course and ultimately learn the vital lessons needed to at least slow down the planets natural cycle (the planet will, eventually do without humans). I only hope we can accelerate our learning to slow our cancerous development.

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Once again on the Canadian border, about a 45 minute drive north of St Mary, on the eastern side of the American Rockies, I headed out into the chilled fog, into the wilderness and grizzly country that was a peopleless, Glacier National Park.

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Lust, love and holding hands on a river bank

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Due to wild beasts crossing my path or invitations to the crack den corners of the US, I was sure that I would venture off my prepared course more than once. However, I had never proposed to lose myself quite so far from my checkpoints and while hitting the spots that were designed to mould my mind with lust for the American wilderness, I was finding wonderfully, that my route was becoming increasingly like Mr Tickle, and not Mr Funny. More and more land morsels than I had ever come close to imagining were now expanding my slightly weary, but oh so contented wanderlust.

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Ever since I was nine years old, I have dreamt about experiencing Montana, and with a two day drive across the longest stretch of big sky country that I think I could possibly find on the map, I travelled across the state which I had romanticised about for over twenty years.

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I knew it would hit me, at some point, soon, soonish, anytime now, just another hour or so…ok, so it was a slow burn and she was a girl that had to grow on me. Admittedly, the romantic spark and thunderbolt of first sight love which I was expecting with her, wasn’t quite there between Montana and I.

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Although beautiful and lush, it took two days to roam across her rather outstretched legs from the east and (similar to the Midwest) the cold, yet sun-drenched, flat stomach of her state. There was also a rather unfortunate evening of discomfort when I attempted to sleep in her in a rather unfortunate position, and woke up to her shouting at me.

It wasn’t until I reached west, further along her horizontal, to the areas of her majestic white mounds of bountiful mountainous peaks, which bolted up from the horizon and provided the jolting, breathtaking, soul piercing blow that I had so long been eager to feel.

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So prominent and definite was the change in her landscape, that I could almost walk straight up to her chilling peaks, and respectfully reach out and feel them (stop it, I’m talking about mountains).

I had arrived; I could see in front of me the landscape which I had been exposed to at the age of nine. By the pages of Norman Maclean’s book, and through the screen production of A River Runs Through It, my youthful heart was poetically reached into, and with a landscape which seemed so far from home, my boyish benevolence had immediately developed feelings for her.

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My excitement into the native peaks grew with every mile. Sometimes you expect things to be wonderful, to be deep and meaningful, to be more than just a kiss from a gregarious girl at a night club. Sometimes you expect to be in the middle of a school disco and hope that your expectations of your whole world will change in a moment when you leave the noise behind, and find a quiet spot next to a big oak tree with the enchantingly hypnotic girl who’s eyes sparkle as she looks deep into your soul. Forgive my analogies, but from nine, I honestly expected Montana to effect me like my girl would in a teenage moment outside an old country pub on a river bank. Stood together next to a rusty, rain-affected fire escape, with the sky’s stars lighting up the rickety metal and the silent water flowing by us; whilst feeling her hand slip into mine and having my whole being enveloped in humbleness, I would pluck up the courage to kiss her, but be oblivious to the fact that it had started raining. That, is how I expected my Montana moment to be. Quiet, peaceful and overwhelming.

I didn’t stand on the mountains and feel anyone kiss me, but I did feel something inside that I know nowhere else on earth will be able to replicate. Oddly, it was the simple persuasion of a film by Robert Redford, that influenced a boy who liked fishing and the great outdoors which was the catalyst of my desire to come here for so long. I hadn’t planned for this epic journey to take me any further north than Wyoming, yet with my expanding wanderlust taking over, I knew anywhere could be possible with just a little gregarious behaviour along any river bank, with the right landscape taking me by my hand.

Before the true dream could be realised, and to reach the part of Montana which I was so smitten with, I eloped into some new imagination, and into a new challenge. I wonderfully wandered into Glacier National Park…

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Indulging in Presidential views

Riding the long, laborious and straight route 85 was indeed just that: laborious, long and terribly straightforward. However, I was heading to North Dakota and intriguingly, part of the USA where I had not planned on exploring.

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On route, the highway was surrounded by flat, lush grassland, all the way to the horizon at this time of delayed spring. There was one rest bite, where breakfast was required. The spot was just a few hundred feet from a small river and it was quite impossible to miss noticing that swallows had been busy birds, making sweet, oh so sweet love during the winter, for there were swarms of them filling the skies around the river’s bridge. Humans aren’t the only creatures to cuddle up with a few whiskeys and make babies when it gets cold.

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Pulling off onto I94 and into the Painted Canyon, I took in the views which are extremely similar to, but much larger than Badlands. However, a few hundred miles north, and these badlands were covered in spotted camouflaged. Mother Nature had reached into her paint pot and splattered greens, reds and yellows all over the northern, muddy peaks.

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Blown away by the scale and also in the knowledge that with a land that shoulders so much variety; greenly decorated bushes and variable shrubs, songful birds and clearly rivers which run, submerged into the chasms of the deeply cut, gritty stacks: This “Badlands” was alive.

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At Modena, I found the southern entrance to Theodore Roosevelt National Park. The park stretches over 80 miles from north to south, with The Little Missouri River running through it, south to north. Socialising bison roam, and I also found that they love to barbecue and camp; rubbing and gruffling their way through the popular areas at early sunrise. It was at approximately 5am when the big boys decided it was time to let everyone know that they were awake, and very ready for a stretch, a good scrub down against the trees, and of course, some breakfast.

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Impossible to enjoy nature while your throat constantly explodes, you cough every twelve seconds and you’re itching repeatedly because you have been a test site for a spider with eager fangs; I sipped hot tea to sooth the sinuses, covered my arm in “anti-hysteric” cream and I tried to quietly watch the hairy chaps, nonchalantly amble through camp. Agreeably, I have been overjoyed to not be seriously ill at all on my trip so far, but a chesty cough and drizzling nostrils are not the best ailments to harbour, when attempting to spot wildlife during a peaceful sunrise.

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The scenic drive around the south end of the park was verbally, a political one. Sporadically distracted by the wonders of our environment, KP and I discussed the merits and pitfalls of our separate nations’ health care systems of which we have both had experience with. To avoid titanically mounting a bureaucratic horse, I have concluded two things: Both systems are arguably imperfect and neither system provides healthcare.
Health is what we strive for, prior to needing medicine. It’s what we do, what we eat, how we behave and how positively we interact with our environment. Neither system gives this to us, and neither system should have to. Medical care is needed when our health fails or if we have chosen to interacted negatively. Even though both countries conveniently frame their system, neither system offers “health”. It would be naive to rely upon either system to provide health or to ultimately “fix” the ongoing health of an individual. The system that we must implement ourselves is ultimately more important than the medical system that many rely on and I think the pitfalls of both the UK and the American medical care institutions, would be less of an issue if we all understood this.

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While camping on the Little Missouri in the northern section of the park, the over night electrical storm decimated parts of the river bank. Some campers were reluctantly encouraged by the weather to abandon their tents and seek refuge in their cars, as well as in the shelter of the drop toilet. I can’t comment on whether the storm was an actual catalyst for actually ushering through any defecation.

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Initially thinking the north section of the park was possibly just another area similar to the south, and unfortunately more open to the elements, I was pleasantly surprised and impressed when exploration began.

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On a stroll onto a grassy meadow, my eye was taken by a wandering coyote. Much closer than the first couple I had seen, it paraded right past me, only 30ft away. Thinking this was going to be the highlight of the trail, the view over the valley completely stole my breath.

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The majestic cliffs and rocks, the beautiful formation of various ancient lands and the fossilised wood sticking out of the multi-coloured earth layers simply wouldn’t fit into a single panoramic, least one that would do it justice. The lookouts begged to be described, but the view simply left me speechless.

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Theodore Roosevelt National Park is a completely awe inspiring place and I had never prepared to visit it on my planned route. Thoroughly inspired to see things that I had not proposed to, next on that list, would be one of only two places on the planet that I have craved to experience for the last twenty years. A boyhood dream was about to come true.

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Nature advances on my soul, Devilishly

Missing the sunrise after popping too many sleeping pills, meant for a lethargic start on top of Bear Lodge Mountain. After a rapid drop down to the valley’s bottom and a short trip bearing north west, the hazy shadow of Devils Tower appeared, and proudly standing in the vast, vibrant, spring-drenched valley.

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On entering the protected area where Devils Tower boastfully appears from the earth, the size of her ora grew and the shadow cast by the sunrise stretched over much of the old, sacred, Indian land.

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I always knew that seeing, touching, feeling and being surrounded by certain American landscapes would make me feel privileged, small, humbled and in awe of what powers created them. Solid in position above the pine trees, red cliffs and prairie, I was curiously overcome with emotion at how beautiful the postcard in front of me was.

I was reminded that the place was of high significance for the native Indians. There were signs asking people to not disturb or remove prayer blankets or bundles which were often tied into the trees, and rightly so.

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The monolith originally had many native indian names, amongst which some translated to Aloft on a Rock, Bear’s House, Home of Bears, Bear’s Tipi, Tree Rock and Grizzly Bear Lodge. It is a shame that we named it Devils Tower in the 1920’s due to a basic translation error, and in 2005 excuses over the possibility of poor tourism were made by the House of Representatives, in order to avoid changing its name to something more in line with its original, Bear Lodge status.
I enjoy names that originate from imagination, folklore, suspicion and outright craziness. It has such a cathedral reverence and feels like it should have a godly sense about it, but lets put creationism and geology aside, the massive rock was formed by a giant bear! Don’t shake your head in disbelief, it is true. A bear begins to chase a couple of young, tasty-looking girls while they are out playing. The girls run and sit on a rock, then pray to their Indian gods for help. Miraculously, (and maybe through a coincidental surge of molten lava millions of years ago) the children’s prayers are answered and the rock rises from the ground, with them on it. The bear claws at the rock, trying to climb and reach the girls so it can eat them. Thankfully for the girls, but unfortunately for the bear, he could not gain purchase on the tall, smooth granite face, and not for the lack of desperately trying, the bear missed out on his child-flavoured supper. The rock still has the giant bear’s claw markings down its sides and I assume the girls took a modern approach of abseiling down, of which many people still do. The details make perfect sense, and it also explains why Devils Tower’s original names are so, more appropriately accurate.

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Surrounded by lush grass, the rich sounds and colours of nature, the serene, peaceful breezes through the pine trees and the humbling connection to the earth through this ancient, molten rock structure; I felt at peace. It brought emotion to my encounter and reminded me that experiences on this planet are never, ever as satisfying, as when those experiences are shared with the people we’re close to. The first National Monument, but more the surrounding landscape, brought me to tears.

No amount of photography, video footage or explanation will do my adventure justice. I was possibly unprepared for the overwhelming feeling I would get from simply being in a wilderness, but I welcome nature’s advances upon my humbled soul.

Apart from telegraph poles and a few sporadic farmer’s fields, the scenic route east, back towards the Black Hills was possibly the longest and most idilic drive of my trip so far. It is exactly the type of Wild West landscape I had dreamt of and I marvelled at the rugged rocks, jutting out of the lush, winding sides of the shallow sandy valley, which create natural barriers and red cliff blockades. Journeying through the hills as they rolled around the whole area like the tensed muscles on a dynamic, vigorous horse; the shacks, cabins and wooden, cowboy homesteads dotted on the map, drummed up scenarios of the historic west. Notions of what the early wildlings really had to contend with, threw romance out of the window and replaced it with tobacco chewing, leather wearing, horse riding, moonshine-making communities that roughly worked all their interactions with an eye on their baggage and a hand on their gun. Actually….that is romantic! The scenery was raggedly beautiful, unpolished and currently rich, but knowing how dry and arid things become in the summer under the scorching sun and big blue sky, it wasn’t hard to imagine the tiny wooden towns blistering, along with the flesh of the leathery locals.
This WAS the west that I wanted to see and the historic ora of Devils Tower made it all the more special.

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Numerous Breakages, some Peaceful Solace and a Murder

Roughly four miles north of Custer in South Dakota, off a dirt, logging road, amongst the stumps of a raggedy pine forest in the Black Hills, was where I found a small pice of American solace.

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While exploring and foraging amongst the forested back roads for an interesting place to camp, my old friend KP reversed the truck over something which slashed a two inch gash into the side wall of one of our rear tyres. I have now exchanged multiple flat tyres on three different continents and have learnt one thing – when it is not your car, it is never a five minute job. It became interesting when the lever for the carjack bent, almost splitting into two pieces and we couldn’t raise the truck high enough to attach the spare wheel. Grateful for a local chap to drive by, who I flagged down by flashing my pasty legs at, I think I was thankful that he was blinded, rather than interested. Either way, he stopped to at my signalling.

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With his barely understandable thick American drawl, the maybe not-so- local chap got down on his hands and knees and helped jack up the truck with his more industrial-looking equipment.
Some sweaty moments later, after a mucky handshake and a grumbled exchange of gratitude, we were on our way in the knowledge that an extra day in the woods would be required, in order to locate and replace the broken rubber.

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A few miles north of the beautiful Custer National Park, the camp spot was quiet, the birds seemed absent and probably because it was too cold for mosquitoes and other bugs to be hatching out. There were deer and rabbits socialising around camp in the sunshine that speared through the pine canopy, I saw numerous long tailed weasels, turkey and what I assume were yellow bellied marmots shuffling their disco dance moves around the craggy rock formations. I didn’t manage to take a photo, but they were reddish brown in colour, about the length of a badger, too squat to be a fox and were constantly running around the large granite and quartz boulders on the outskirts of the forest. I only hesitate to say they were yellow bellies, because I thought they lived at much higher, colder altitudes. If they were weasels, they were bigger than your domestic cat!

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Not far from the seemingly small and nature-filled, Wind Cave National Park, the camp spot also had an aroma and eerie monotone from an old, leathery western movie.
Maybe it was the fresh dew each morning, the chocolate chip-like scat pellets of various critters, the freshness of the new green growth; or maybe it was all of that mixed with the decomposing deer carcasses near by, the burnt tree stumps, the composting carpet of needles or dead pine trunks sticking perfectly upwards towards a sun that no longer aids them, but the woods held an ora of quiet solace, of a mystical disposition and an eerily empty yard of nature for this time of early spring. It seemed a little too quiet. It was however comforting and even with the cries of coyote though the nights, it felt like a haven slowly awakening. As a result, I think I would like to buy some woodland.

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Around the Black Hills, on the outskirts of Wind Cave and the stretched, grassy slopes, dozens of buffalo, thousands of prairie dogs, a few pronghorn, quiet mule deer and minions of easily spooked, white tailed deer were common. Delighting my senses on an hourly basis as I sat, and strolled around the woodland edges, more nature wondered by. On my penultimate morning in the forest, I also spotted a magnificent sage grouse!

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Whilst we waited for a tyre to be delivered, as navigator I decided we go on a small 120mile road trip…without a spare tyre. Taking the “sensible” route, we drove from Custer, to the cowboy town of Deadwood, down Spearfish Canyon and through the motorcycle haven of Sturgis. Vanocker Canyon was a splendid road trip on our way back to the haven in the forest, and one recommended for any biker.

The final morning in the woods was a celebration – of completing two months of my travels in North America. I felt some serious partying had to be done…so I ordered a large ham and vegetable omelette breakfast in Custer, with unlimited coffee. I had forgotten how much coffee effected my bowels, and was repeatedly bursting for the bathroom for the rest of the morning!
As we waited for the tyre to be replaced and fitted, KP and I also celebrated reaching the Black Hills after covering a couple of thousand miles. As it had taken us a while, KP rejoiced and celebrated by changing his underwear, and the short-sleeved shirt he had ripped while we jacked up the truck just a few days before. It was quite a morning for us both and KP tallied up his little incidents since I had started navigating him through life…a broken rear window on the camper after reversing into a shady spot in Badlands, a broken rear tail light, a damaged camera, broken spectacles, a slashed tyre, a decimated passenger side mirror which he used to see the wide angles around his truck (my eyes were now his eyes, and had replaced this missing trinket), a ripped shirt, a dent in the camper bodywork and some shady wiring that needed to be done within the cockpit of the truck.
What’s a little adventure without a few breakages? Oddly, none of them were mine..

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On the last morning, I took a walk at sunrise and found a small deer carcass that had been ravaged and enjoyed by a few coyote the night before (there videos on YouTube). Licked clean of blood and fluid, all internal organs had vanished, the hyde and the remaining bones stripped of flesh and its spine and ribs ripped out and gnawed back to their pure white calcium. There wasn’t a single morsel wasted. If I was tanner, most of my work would have been done, I would have just stretched the hide.

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From Custer, over the border into Wyoming, the roads turned to long, slowly winding, climbing, single lane, big sky beauties. I navigated to a dirt road on Bear Lodge Mountain. The camp spot was remote and a few thousand feet up, over looking the scenery, almost 360degrees around. It smelt of pine, and of Greek islands in summer, with wild sage and maybe thyme growing near by. There was snow on the ground and amongst the thick, short aspen trees, ice blocks were still melting. Watching an electrical storm moving thirty miles from the east, over us and then thirty miles to west, dinner that evening was not only wet, loud and spectacular, it was a little worrying that were were one of the highest notable objects for miles, and we were camping in a metal box.

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Unexpectedly, the following morning I would be brought to tears…

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Every American Adventure has some Squeaky Dog Toys…and some unfortunate scars

The Missouri River became somewhat hard to leave. I followed it north into South Dakota, where I camped at Snake Creek camp ground, just west of Platte. At this run of river, the Missouri stretches itself wide, as if it needs a long, heavy, deep breath before carrying on down through the states. It is wide and it is deep, with high mud banks that it erodes with slow, methodical, almost invisible flow from annual, post winter swells.

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Snake creek is a boating haven and a fisherman’s escape. Many a chap disappeared onto the water, no doubt suggesting that once they left the shore, they had no phone signal for the wife to contact them…and rightly so.

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Following the currently bloated Missouri, was to follow the trail that Lewis and Clark took in the early 19th century. These two chaps were deployed by Washington to scale the Missouri, and hopefully find a way over the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific. They were the chosen western gentlemen to first elope up the river, to traverse across the country that no westerner had seen, to discover its wonders, and “welcome” what came to meet them on its banks.
According to Jefferson (President in 1804 when the mission was hatched), the goal was to find “the most direct and practicable water communication across this continent, for the purposes of commerce.” He also wished to declare U.S. sovereignty over the land occupied by the many different tribes of Native Indians along the river…typical.
The guys did finally find a way to the west, but they didn’t bank on the Missouri running out, and having to cross an extra set of mountains west of the Rockies, The Sierra. Together, they eventually they found themselves travelling down the Columbus River (which white man had already put to good use) on route to their desired location, The Pacific.
Lewis and Clark are now marked as important, pioneering adventurers. They discovered the lungs of America, that vital transportation could be achieved into the heart of the nation and beyond, they noted key environmental finds on their route as well as sending messages back to Washington that they were successful in meeting with the river locals, and they found out what the great interior had in store for new settlers.

Home to various national parks and monuments, South Dakota was always a state which I wanted to spend some time in. It didn’t disappoint a nature loving Englishman.

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On leaving Snake Creek and the Missouri, I headed further west. Finally, the corn fields turned to a mixture of rolling hills, creek valleys, cattle grazing land and cowboy country. It was a long journey across South Dakota, but I did finally make it, to what I considered my first, pure, American experience… in Badlands National Park.

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On entering the park, I had an impression of what the landscape was going to be like, and from the name, assumed it would be an inhospitable environment. I had seen the relatively tall peaks from a few miles away; they were obvious in their stature, sticking up like large, muddy stalagmites from the flat grasslands around them.
I was warmly greeted by goats, big, grey goats; politely staring at me from the muddy peaks. A mile further along, I encountered a coyote running off across the plain. There was a constant noise – over the top of the whiney mother who was asking her son not to go too near the edge of the muddy drop off; party pooper – much like the noise you get when you squeeze a dog toy repeatedly to annoy a child. The squeaky dog toy noise were thousands upon thousands of young and old, sandy-coloured, miniature handed, defensive little prairie dogs. Clearly happy that spring had arrived, whole families positioned themselves on their sun-drenched doorsteps, and seemingly, were having rowdy chats with their neighbours…no doubt informing each other of the wandering coyote.

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Another half mile, and I came face to face with the great American bison. These creatures ARE America to me. Sadly, also on the list of what makes America, are fast food joints, obese people and sandal and sock wearing elderly folk that parade around in their recreational vehicles all summer. To me, the great creatures of America instil inspiration and solidarity, passion and majesty of a nation that so much of the human world lacks (when I say “world” in the USA, I mean up to the border). They stand for nature’s hardships and are living proof that there are dominant, environmental forces that can withstand our ignorance (barely).

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Recently, seeing coyote, prairie dogs, chipmunks, bald eagles, the mighty bison and hopefully bear and moose to come (wolf and cougar may just be too difficult to spot), I felt like I had arrived in America.
I spent two nights in Badlands National Park, and because the landscape was like no other I had encountered on my trip, or seen anywhere else in the world, I felt like the serious business of checking out the American wilderness had begun.

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Not long after Badlands, I visited Mount Rushmore National Monument and the new, Crazy Horse Memorial. Not through lack of ignorance; I didn’t see the attraction of either.

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Rushmore used to just be an impressive, rocky mount. It was deliberately vandalised, sorry, sculptured for the sole purpose of creating a tourist attraction in South Dakota. It still stands today, albeit with some extensive maintenance work, solely as a tourist gift shop, sorry…attraction. I’m sure if Theodore Roosevelt could speak on the subject of how the natural landscape has been used to thrust his face and fame onto such an unnatural attraction, he would probably have some colourful language to say on the matter.

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Simply walking into national parks or monuments is a strange thing in the US. The ticket booth is for vehicles, and this is understandable, as most of the time the camp grounds (which must be used) are a twenty mile drive from the entrance of the park. Mount Rushmore is a short drive, but straight into a multi-story, concrete car park on the side of the mountain. You then walk from the multi story car park up a giant concrete walkway with steps and up further, past two concrete buildings, one the toilets and one the gift shop. A short walk again takes you on a concrete (sorry, its granite) corridor of state flags, a restaurant, serving school dinner-style burgers and chicken, and then on to the “concrete” viewing platform which conveniently holds approximately five bus loads of Japanese tourists, or any tourist bearing nation. There is a short trail around some trees directly under the “decorated” mount if you care to take it, and then you back track, back to your car. You are charged for parking, but apparently not for viewing or personal entry into the monument….again, everyone has a vehicle.

Crazy Horse Memorial stirred mixed emotions. Exactly the same vandalism of a natural rock face (the largest rock sculpture on the planet) is still under construction. It will depict Crazy Horse himself, riding a steed, staring back over the lands “where his ancestors are buried”. Very quickly I am told that the native Indians requested a similar historical celebration of their culture be carved into a mount for all to be aware that “the red man has his heroes too”. The land around Crazy Horse is being developed into a research centre and a college, covering a few hundred acres with its own aircraft runway. There are bus tours up the semi-completed, dynamited rock to see its progress. It is sarcastically, typically “native Indian”.

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People currently stood on Crazy Horse’s unfinished, outstretched arm.
From http://www.blackhillsbadlands.com google image

The only thing that made sense to me, was that the government was not funding this project. What made even more sense, was that funding was refused because it was believed that the government would not have the best interests of the natives or the sculptures in mind. Twenty million dollars had been turned down by the project leaders, and tourists who wanted to see the monument would pay for its construction.

On both monument accounts, I simply can’t get my head around why morally, people would make a mountain into a “gift shop”, and not purely the rock artists, but the “fans” that want to visit it. I wasn’t aware that Rushmore was constructed solely as a tourist attraction, and I’m sure that Crazy Horse would not have even been conceived, nor its restrooms, if it hadn’t been for the impressive examples at Rushmore.

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It is impressive masonry/sculpture. It is a money making tourist attraction.
It is also something that in other areas, the Americans are shameful of. Many of America’s national parks have, and are still dismantling and removing all traces of some of their iconic, human-constructed, historical tourist attractions and buildings which nowadays are seen as scars on the American landscape.

Following all my elation, my disappointment and confusion, I went to live in the woods…

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Cuddling up to a wet beast & being stalked by a couple of chicks

The American Midwest is simply one of the largest agricultural areas of land on earth. American farmers plant mainly corn, wheat, and since World War Two, soya bean to keep the country ticking over. If a child was to cross the Midwest on foot, they would be an adult by the time they were finished. It’s massive!

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I was travelling with KP (please keep up) and our first campsite was on the banks of the swollen Mississippi, which I was fairly excited about. Its the Mississippi, People! It has songs written about it! Nearby, there was a road which continued towards the waters edge for boat launching, but as I am travelling in an unusual year for America’s seasons (a long winter and a delayed spring), most areas around the riverbanks were blanketed by slow-flowing flood water.

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Short of a coracle, I wasn’t able navigate onto the Mississippi for possibly a mosquito-infested adventure…oh so sadly.

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The following morning, we awoke at dawn at hit the road before morning porridge.
Continuing on a similarly mundane, farmers track across the state we stopped only to find some fuel, have a cup of sentimental English tea and finally, hot oats for breakfast!

Iowa is home to the Amana Colonies, which suspiciously are linked to the Amish communities only through poorly-informed reputation. The colonies are a large, maybe twenty to thirty thousand acres of land, and are a group of seven “traditional” German communities. Much like the Amish, and for similar religious reasons, early-settling Germans set themselves apart from the rest of America and came here to practice their faith and homestead. I was told that the colonies were an insight into Amish culture, however on arrival something was not quite clicking into place. Although coincidentally from a similar region in Europe and well known for their wood craft, the Amana colonies was most definitely not Amish. It is more a community based on German traits: hearty, home cooked food, a hard work ethic and efficient, community living. Like the Amish, there was also great pride in the community’s rustic presentation. The colonies are now a tourist attraction with old fashioned skills still on show (skills such as woodcraft which the Amish are also famous for). There is everything you would expect from a small, thriving town – a cotton mill, a pottery, an iron mongers, a bakery, a carpenters workshop and now a large woodcraft shop with exceptional grandfather clocks for sale. What stood out and convinced me that it was not an Amish community, was that there was also a large restaurant catering for visitors, and most obviously not Amish, there was a brewery.
It was a pleasant trip. I ate a great value, monstrous breakfast in the Amana restaurant, where it felt like I was being served by some very British looking dinner ladies. Even in the rain, the traditional wood craftsmanship of the workers was definitely to be admired.

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Following the self guided tour around the small, historic German town, were seven hours of driving in a westerly direction, across again, more flat corn fields. Crossing that evening, the majestic Missouri River into the state of Nebraska, I navigated north on a lesser travelled scenic route, just before reaching the town of Blair. Following the Missouri north on its western bank, it would have been a delight to see a change in landscape….alas, the “scenic route” as described on the map, was alongside yes, more flat corn fields.

My map skills came in handy here, as not all roads across farmers fields are marked…
Making sure that the “No Trespassing” or the more appropriate “Trespassers will be shot” signs were noted, I finally “stretched” KP’s vehicle off the road; it had only taken me two days! I may have christened his beloved truck and I swear he almost cursed in my presence!

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Some mud splatterings and a good test of his suspension (as well as his sense of humour and adventure) and I had found us the most perfect spot to settle down for the night…albeit quietly and respectfully of the field owner that we thought we should avoid.
As KP calmed his nerves, he clearly was warming to the new mud-work which I had abstractly and artistically applied to his truck’s rather, factory-standard paint job. He began to take photos to prove to his friends back home that he was indeed, having a “proper adventure”. I rolled my eyes when he requested we find a car wash when we reach a town. Little did he know, that as navigator, towns with a carwash were not on our route…

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KP decided to relax after dinner and I went for a walk, as I do most evenings unless its raining table legs (it’s what the Greeks say). Nothing says “Welcome to ‘Merica” more than while on a walk at sunset, on the banks of the Missouri River, two bald eagles screech in your ear and then follow you for a hundred yards down the river bank, checking if you’re small enough to eat. At least, that was nature saying, “hey, look at this idiot, think we can eat him?”
No, you can’t, but its a much better welcome than I received at the airport…
I also realised that unless bald eagles are stationary, photographing them mid flight, together, is near on impossible!

It wasn’t the first time I had seen bald eagles, as a pair were nesting next to a highway that I had trekked along in Ohio, but it was definitely a more intimate and special moment and one which I’ll never forget. President, Benjamin Franklin once requested that the wild turkey be the national animal of the USA. Imagine one of those aloft, over every American Embassy across the world. It would really send a message…majestic, simply majestic, Mr President.

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