Observations from the Road – Week One

by Carolyn L. Barkley

The first week of an extended road trip from Virginia to Portland, Oregon, and back has been completed. My several days in the car, traveling through states which I have never visited previously, have provided me with several interesting observations, while also posing some (possibly unanswerable) questions. I thought I’d share some of them with you here.

1.      When Horace Greeley said, “Go, West, young man,” no one in my family was listening. Apparently the voyage from England to the colonies had exorcised any desire to travel further, and they all remained tucked up snugly in their New England farm houses. Thus, as I traveled for my first time through Indiana, Iowa, South Dakota, Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho, I was clearly free of any genetic memory. I have lived in Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia, and now make my home in Virginia’s Blue Ridge. Nothing, however, prepared me for the amazing variations in landscape. encountered during this trip. I love living in the mountains where the land and the sky seem to enfold a person. I find that the vastness of mid-western farmlands, prairie grasslands and open plains where the land stretches endlessly to a very distant (and usually flat) horizon with a sky that seems impossibly high, is overwhelming. Instead of feeling a part of this large-scale landscape, I feel dwarfed by it.

2.      Why is it that all of the houses I could see from the interstate in Illinois and Iowa had some variation of brown siding? Is this the only color available? Isn’t there some rogue home owner who wants a blue or green – or even white – house? That being said, there is something intriguing about gazing across the seemingly endless fields of corn and soy beans and realizing that each clump of trees signifiedsa house, or that larger or longer groups of trees may outline a stream or riverbed. Each group of trees seems like an oasis amidst the never-ending fields. Does this perception of isolation create a different definition of community than in the more cheek-by-jowl living spaces of the East Coast – one somehow, not so effortless, but perhaps more valued?

3.      I think that is a major miracle that this country works geographically or politically. The folks who live, for example, in the wide open expanses of Buffalo, Fergus County, Montana, population 50, can’t possibly have anything in common with those folks living in the densely-populated, ocean-side city of Virginia Beach, Virginia, population 439,172. Does this disparity partly explain why Congress is less than effective? How can they possibly be expected to find common ground and agree on anything, when even the hay bales (rectangular and round) are stacked in different configurations in different states? And while I’m questioning things, why is the fine for not wearing a seatbelt in Washington State $97.00, but $94.00 in Oregon? Why not just round it up to $100?

4.      The United States has some really odd place names and attractions. For example, Gnaw Bone, located in Brown County, Indiana, caught my eye while navigating for my friend who was driving as we traveled through Indiana. Despite its rather gruesome sounding name, this unincorporated place is said to have been named for a French settlement in the area, “Narbonne,” which was, in turn, named for a city in southern France.1 I spent a night in Crawfordville, Montgomery County, Indiana, whose claim to fame is that in 1880 one of its citizens, Civil War Gen. Lew Wallace, wrote Ben-Hur, a Tale of the Christ. Thus, I was amused to see an advertisement for the Ben Hur Go-Kart Speedway and wondered how many individuals in younger generations even remember the movie with Charlton Heston. Then I read a road sign for Correctionville, Iowa. What we wondered was being corrected? Was there a prison nearby? It turns out that the name derives from its site on a surveyor’s correction line which adjusted for the convergence of meridian lines so that all public land sections would be the same size. If that explanation doesn’t completely satisfy your curiosity, perhaps you’d like to know that Correctionville is the longest single-word place name in the state of Iowa! 2 There is also La Mar, Iowa, which claims to be the ice cream capital of the world (and the home of Blue Bunny Ice Cream). Finally, my travelling companions and I were amused by Crazy Woman Creek in Johnson County, Wyoming.  There has to be a story behind the name, and sure enough, Travel-to-Wyoming.com provides several.

5.      Verizon cannot “hear me now” very well in many areas of Montana.

6.      Wind turbines are really huge, but oddly graceful, as these three-bladed “windmills” turn slowly on their ridgeline locations. In western Iowa, a west-bound rest stop on I-80, between Adair and Casey, features information about this method of power generation. Particularly compelling visually is the wind turbine blade sculpture that has been installed in front of the rest stop building. When you see wind turbines in the distance, you intuitively realize that they must be very large, but the immensity of their scale defies understanding. The single blade in this sculpture is standing on end and rises 148 feet into the air (that’s equivalent to a fifteen-story building). It is 11.2 feet wide and weighs 23,098 pounds. The rotor diameter of one turbine is 300 feet (the length of a football). These figures provide a new appreciation of the size of wind-mill farms. 3

7.      Why is it that in South Dakota regular gas costs more than middle grade or, sometimes, even more than premium?

8.      The Badlands of South Dakota present an otherworldly landscape which is quite beautiful, and an opportunity to ride through the area should not be missed. The day of our visit, the temperature outside the car registered 113 degrees, adding to the sense of unreality created by the landscape.

9.      Why are Americans such uncultured tourists? Overheard at Mount Rushmore (and I’m not making this up!): “Is that the big rock you were talking about?” “You know, the closer you get, the bigger it is!”

10.  On the day of our visit to Mount Rushmore we were reminded that Mother Nature has an interesting sense of humor.  Following our visit with the presidents, as well as to the Crazy Horse monument nearby, we enjoyed a wonderful lunch at the Alpine Inn in Hill City, South Dakota, and then headed for Devils Tower National Monument, north of Moorcroft. The sky turned an angry black ahead of us and we anticipated a downpour. What we got instead was a hail storm with nickel-sized hail (it may have been larger; it certainly sounded huge). We moved the car off the road under the trees in the hope of some protection. After the storm lessened we set out once again and a little further down the road, found a winter scape, with the ground completely white for some distance. We particularly felt badly for the many motorcyclists on the road. If the hail sounded that loud inside our car, imagine what it sounded like hitting a motorcycle helmet! For a brief time, the temperature dropped to almost 50 degrees less than the previous day in the Badlands. In addition, the Wyoming welcome center was “enjoying” a veritable plague of grasshoppers and it was difficult to dodge them at the entrance. Yuck!

11.  Why are all watercraft required to stop for inspection at a rest area between Hardin and Billings, Montana? Watercraft? Really? How many can there be?

12.  I found our visit to the Little Big Horn Battlefield to be a very moving experience. Unlike other battlefields, such as Gettysburg, where the dead were removed to a national cemetery, at Little Big Horn, both the soldiers and the Native Americans who died there were buried where they fell. Somehow, the white markers (soldiers) and brown markers scattered individually or in groups of two or three across the landscape poignantly illustrate the progress and outcome of this battle. The large number of grave markers at Last Stand Hill evokes the savagery and desperate loss that occurred there. (And for those of you who commented on Johnny Horton’s Battle of New Orleans recording mentioned in a previous article, you may also remember his Comanche, the Brave Horse (recorded in 1960) about a horse in Custer’s detachment of the 7th Cavalry who survived the battle). An exhibit in the visitor’s center included facial reconstructions of two of the soldiers killed there which  provided a fascinating insight.

13.  Why does the Wyoming/Montana border have a “Port of Entry?” Is this somehow related to the watercraft inspection?

14.  Our national forests are more fragile than we realize. It was disheartening to see the wide-spread destruction of pine trees caused by insects throughout the Black Hills (and indeed in other locations such as the Colorado Rockies) as well as the damage caused by forest fires in many of the areas through which we traveled.

15.  What is it about speed limits? In several of the states through which I traveled, the speed limit is 75. If I am going my standard five miles over the limit, why is everyone passing me and disappearing into the distance?

16.  We should all be in the irrigation equipment supply or repair business.

17.  The National Park Service provides a wide array of interesting books at its visitors’ centers (and I have several new purchases to prove it!). Another great service is the “senior pass.” This admissions pass, available to individuals sixty-two and older, costs a mere $10.00 and is valid for life! It can admit an entire carload of people for free, not a bad deal in this day and age. Finally, don’t miss out on the opportunity to obtain a “National Passport.” Since 1986, this program has provided a way to help you plan trips to national parks and monuments, as well as a place to record your visits. You can purchase a passport booklet at a National Parks visitor’s center. Each booklet has five pages for each of nine geographic regions. At each visitor’s center you visit, you can stamp (free of charge) the appropriate page of your passport with a date/place stamp readily available at the ranger’s information counter. You can also purchase annual regional stamps to add further information to the regional pages. This process can be addictive. I’ve had one friend tell me about sending her passport with friends to get a stamp from a park or monument which she had visited prior to obtaining the passport! A “kid’s companion” is also available with information and activities for younger family members. Finally, there is now a Passport to Your National Parks app, available from iTunes, which allows you to search for a specific park or monument site by name, region or state. Once you have located a desired site , a link is provided that will take you to the National Park Service’s official web site for that site. In addition, it provides you with the ability to create a list of parks to visit or those that have been visited. I have enjoyed using it over the past few days.

I am now in Gresham, Oregon, outside of Portland, for the next three days. Then I will be back on the road, headed to Salt Lake City to do some research, after which I will begin the trip home to Virginia. Stay tuned next week for the “rest of the story.”


1. Wikipedia, “Gnaw Bone, Indiana,” (http://www.en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gnaw_Bone,_Indiana : accessed 18 July 2012).

2. Wikipedia, “Correctionville, Iowa,” (http://www.en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Correctionville,_Iowa : accessed 19 July 2012).

3. Pat Curtis, “Wind Turbine to Serve as Sculpture at I-80 Rest Area, RadioIowa, 25 January 2012 (http://www.radioiowa.com/?s=Wind+turbine+sculpture : accessed 18 July 2012).


1 Comment

  1. They are inspecting boats for invasive snails, Washington, Idaho, Montana and I think Oregon are the only states that have not been infected. Lake Powell in Nevada is really infected and boats only have to stay there a little while before they carry the snails, and they have to have hot water to kill them.

    Charles in Spokane

    Quote | Posted July 20, 2012, 2:04 am

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