America the beautifulPublished 10:40am Thursday, August 30, 2012
I turned the ignition. Tick, tick, tick, tick. Nothing. I tried again. Tick, tick, tick. Nothing. The engine wouldn’t start. Adam (my brother) and I couldn’t believe this was happening, especially at the beginning of our trip. Befuddled, I popped the hood and checked the battery connections, everything looked OK. I tried the ignition again, but to no avail. Luckily the man at the pump next to us gave my car a jump and we set forth across the “Heartland of America.”
The car battery was dying; we were in bumper-to-bumper Chicago traffic and still had 2,200 miles until we reached our destination — Portland, Ore. We knew this was the trip of a lifetime. Driving through Chicago, Wisconsin, Minnesota, North Dakota, Montana, Idaho, Washington and Oregon was a daunting task. Neither of us had logged this much distance driving in a single trip. It would take us four days to get there and only four hours to fly back.
Before reaching the North Dakota border, along I-94, the landscape was similar to that of western and northern Michigan. The topography consisted of grassy, rolling hills with rocky variations, lots of lakes and plenty of green vegetation. In retrospect, the first nine hours of our trip was a good ‘warm-up’ for the larger than life images to come.
Driving into North Dakota from Minnesota was something akin to falling asleep and waking up in a dream. The earth suddenly became flat, like a sheet of ice. Rows from plowed fields created grooves on the surface that ran as far as we could see. Occasionally in the distance, we would spot the lone farmer, steady behind the wheel of a giant combine tractor, dust billowing behind him. His mission appeared overwhelming and yet he continued on his path to the edge of the earth.
Farming on such a large scale had been incomprehensible. I had never seen that much “country” in a single gaze. Grains from these fields find their ways into the far corners of the Earth and I am happy to have some perspective of that process. As we passed mile after mile of farm land a great pride took hold of us as we knew we were traveling through the “Heartland of America.”
Our day of travel came to an end once we reached Bismarck, N.D. As we came over top of a hill on I-94 we saw a dynamic city, busting at the seams with economic prosperity and diversity. It was rather nostalgic of a modern age frontier town. Bright lights and people fill the roadway on State Street. Businesses were operating at maximum capacity and action seemed to be everywhere. Bismarck, N.D., lit up the night sky with life and culture that seems non-existent for a thousand miles.
As we hustled to secure the last available room in town (with exception only to the bridal and Jacuzzi suites), we noticed what seemed like a hundred signs up and down State Street reading, “Hiring All Positions” and “Hiring Full/Part Time, Apply Inside Today.” We were shocked by the huge demand for workers. Our visit to Best Buy was similar. Immediately upon entering the store, we saw a desk with advertisements seeking full- and part-time workers. Coming from Michigan where the economy has been less than robust, this was a welcomed surprise. I was aware of the regional oil boom, but had never experienced this kind of economic growth.
We left Bismarck the following morning and made our way west. Terrain west of the capital is much different than that to the east. The land is much bolder and expressive of its powerful contents. Shapes take form in swooping hills and rugged buttes that again capture the nostalgic visions of the old West. At about the one-hour mark, west of Bismarck, my brother and I proclaimed North Dakota “Big Country” (a play-on-words with Montana’s slogan, “Big Sky Country”).
My brother had been video recording much of the North Dakota countryside when we came to the Badlands. Over time, harsh rains and weather conditions have chipped away at the soft soil creating beautiful canyons and gullies. In addition to the physical beauty of the area, the canyon walls contain color stratifications ranging from dark reds to pinks to oranges and blues. Although physically imposing, I find myself drawn to this part of the country. I would love the opportunity to visit the area for an extended period in the future.
Montana began much the same as North Dakota, infinitely flat. In place of farmland were endless pastures and grassland. From time to time, we would spot a solitary tree, resting picturesque amongst the empty sky. Their shade seemed like a refuge oasis in the vast and desolate prairie.
We knew the “Bread Basket of America” had officially passed when foothills and valleys rose from the ground in leaps and bounds. The hills overlapped each other creating a continuous flow of over-arching horizons, which I had never seen before. Houses dotted the hillsides randomly with no rhyme or reason, generally in the open with little if any cover from the weather.
As the road twisted and turned, it also began to rise and fall congruently. We came around a sharp bend and peering over top of gentle, wispy clouds were the Rocky Mountains. They were truly magnificent. Our excitement subtly changed to nervousness as the inclines and declines of I-94 became much steeper. This part of the drive could have been much more enjoyable with its mountainous views and arboreal coverage, but semis driving as if it were the last lap of the Indy 500 kept me plenty occupied. Their trailers and over-size loads danced from side to side, ensuring a good amount of anxiety that accompanied our sense of adventure. Adam and I drove through the Rocky Mountains of Montana and Idaho enthralled by our surroundings.
Oregon was much more temperate than (eastern) Washington, where we left behind a dry, dusty desert for a system of lush, green gorges. The Columbia River sliced through the land bringing cool, refreshing water down from the mountain tops and is home to the infamous steelhead salmon. The walls of the gorges rose in a tier-like fashion that made them aesthetically pleasing. Further into the depths of the gorges the trees became mythic in size and blooming ferns were as plentiful as changes in elevation. This was the Pacific Northwest we had always imagined. We arrived in Portland after a 10-hour day of driving through mountains, desert and the lush gorges. I was exhausted, Adam was exhausted and I’m sure my wee little Honda Civic must’ve been exhausted as well.
From our disastrous beginning, to the bright lights of Bismarck, to the Rocky Mountains of Montana, our trip was unforgettable. As we drove across our wondrous country, I imagined each place at different times throughout history. North Dakota and the Badlands are still strikingly similar to images from the 1800s. Montana, with its Rocky Mountains and giant foothills stirred up images of buffalo herds and soaring eagles. And as we came into the gorges of Oregon, scenes of dinosaurs from the movie “Jurassic Park” seemed fitting.
Today, I find myself more interested in U.S. history than ever before. The experience of driving across America has resonated deeply with me.
My interest in visiting all 50 states has been renewed and I got to cross a few things off my bucket list.
All in all, it was a pretty good week.
Written by Ryan Horn