nature,  USA

Halloween in the Midwest – part 1

When we were driving across New England in May and June this year, little did we know that it’s not our only time in the US in 2022. In August, I have decided to participate in the SIETAR USA conference which was held in Omaha, Nebraska. There were some deliberations about fitting it in our schedules; we normally have some holidays planned in November when London is grey and gloomy; this would make it either/or situation. At the end we made up our minds, we’re having beach holidays in January instead.

Nebraska is part of the Midwest, the area of the United States which is kind of in the middle of nowhere. It’s like Poland in Europe, a flat land you cross, or in our Polish case “acquire” if you are Russian or German trying to expand your territory. You don’t stop there, you are using it to get to your final destination, a more interesting place frankly saying. And don’t get me wrong, I knew that it’s where the Badlands or Mt Rushmore are located, places I have always wanted to visit, but the shortest flight from London takes over 13 ours and includes 2 hours layover somewhere along the way. It also means it is very expensive. When you have limited time available, even if you’re lucky enough that money would not have been your problem, you do not want to spend so much time just on getting there and back only to stay over the weekend.

There was solution, though. A direct flight to Chicago is less than 7 hours and half of the price, so we could rent a car and have a road trip. We might even visit Cahokia Mounds, a place we’ve learnt about when playing Civilization VI, our favourite computer game, it would only add 2 more hours to Omaha – Chicago route. And that’s how it all started. Then, every single day we included another location to stop by and visit. What was at the beginning a relatively short drive and a 2-day conference, ended up to be a 12-day road trip and an amazing adventure. We decided to spend Halloween in the Midwest, since nowhere in the world this holiday is celebrated the way it is in the US (even the wall sockets are spooky!). And we do not regret a thing.

the heat map made from location of the pictures we took during this road trip, by Google photos

Because of our London life, we decided to skip big cities. I’m sure Chicago is great and full of interesting sites, but we are tired of crowds. We want to relax and clear our minds. There are so many places in the area we wanted to visit and I simply miss driving since I have moved to London. We did over 4500 kilometres (almost 2900 miles), once I even drove 1100km (a bit less than 700 miles) in one day, visited 10 states, 6 National and State Parks, several museums and 2 zoological gardens, something we will not forget.

the Midwest

Before I start discussing my trip, it’s crucial to understand the idea of the American Midwest. To complicate it a bit, there are different opinions on which states it includes. At the very beginning of the British colonization, anything beyond Appalachia was considered western. Obviously, with time, the line has moved farther west until it reached the Mississippi, which “conveniently” splits, both geographically and culturally, the continent in an almost straight North – South line.

The states we’re talking about were then part of the Northwest Territory, but with the expansion of the Union, the former West is now right in the middle, so to differentiate it from the Wild West and the West Coast, the term Midwestern United States has been coined instead and that is what is officially used by the United States Census Bureau. By the way, because of its geographical location, traditional and conservative values, it is often called the American Heartland.

Chicago skyline seen when approaching the airport

The region consists of 12 states: Ohio, Michigan, Indiana – the 3 that we haven’t visited this time, and 9 more, in order of our travel, Illinois (with Chicago, the third most populous city in the US), Wisconsin, Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas, Missouri (between the Dakotas we’ve also drove to Montana). What’s worth to mention, especially if you follow the US leagues, the term Midwest may still be perceived a little bit vague and should never be treated as given. Also, for those who are accustomed to time zones following national or regional borders, it may be surprising to learn that the westernmost parts of both Dakotas, as well as parts of Kansas and Nebraska observe MT (Mountain Time Zone) together with more western states, while the rest of the Midwest I visited is in CT (Central Time Zone). For the sake of clarity, I will not confuse my readers more than I have already done. I decided to keep the Census Bureau division, because it is almost identical (with the addition of Arkansas) to how the National Park Service divided the US for their purposes. And I love the NPS!

the welcome signs of the States we visited this time

the Great Plains

Majority of our destinations are located in the Great Plains which spread between the Mississippi and the Rockies and are covered with grass and shrubs, not trees. In this part of the world, instead of being called a steppe (like in borderlands of Europe and Asia) or savanna (like in Africa), they are the prairies, which was the name given by the first European settlers of this area (and which literally means meadow in French, unsurprisingly the settlers were the French and the area was part of the Louisiana Purchase).

The prairies extend over the horizon and that was the main reason for the trip, apart from the conference of course. It is one of the few relatively easily reachable places in the world which give everyone the sense of how little we are and how short our life on Earth is compared to the age of our globe. The geological structures in this area dates back to millions of years when the shallow inland sea covered the plains and when it receded the grasslands started to take over. And where the grass was, the herbivores came to forage followed by the carnivores feeding on them. The megafauna may be long extinct, but there is still a number of significant fossil sites discovered in the prairies.

The midwestern states are located within vast flat area of lowlands which is perfect for agriculture. With the decreasing levels of rainfall going westwards, crops are replaced with pastures. And what pastures are they! These are the areas with the lowest population density in contiguous USA – less than 5 people per km² (11 per mi²) in the Dakotas. The only states with lower results are Wyoming, Montana and, obviously, Alaska. There is almost 5 times more cattle than people in South Dakota and more than 3 times in Nebraska. No surprise that the people living there are meat-eaters, which bring us to the next subject…

the food

Unlike the last time in May and June, when we enjoyed food, this trip was a huge disappointment. I admit, the expectations were high, since we’ve learnt that Midwest states, especially the part we travelled to, were famous for their steaks. My husband, who normally considers veggies to be part of the decoration only, not the actual food, got prepared. He was crazy excited, I suppose mainly because of my everyday whining about cutting down on meat for environmental and/or health reasons. He said that Nebraska beef is the best in the US and it’s a “cultural thing” to try it there. He knows that I couldn’t resist this point since I do not argue with culture, when in Rome…

Speaking from my experience – simple burgers served in the most mediocre place in the US are better than the ones served in supposedly good place anywhere in Europe. Maybe it’s because the Americans invented them, maybe because Europeans consider them wrongly as cheap fast food, I don’t know. We don’t make them right, I’m afraid; proper burger is always delicious and juicy with lots of flavours. And it doesn’t matter what kind of meat is used. This time we had buffalo (for my non-American readers – bison), elk (again, for my non-American English speakers, elk in the US English is not a moose, it’s a wapiti deer) and beef; we had steaks, burgers and hot dogs. All of them were perfect and I can truly state, as a flexitarian who would rather eat something vegalicious then passable meat just for the sake of flesh consuming, I want more!

And the meat was good, if only it was the single ingredient of every dish. Apart from tasty meat there were “things”, and I would not dare to call them any other names. Some of them used to be potatoes, some beans or carrots. It didn’t really matter if they were fried or cooked, they were BAD! On the scale of 10 from raw to done, they were at least 12. On the colour wheel, they were right at the grey middle. My aunt who lost her smell and taste to Covid 2 years ago can still make scrumptious meals where the flavours and fragrance mingle together in a perfect harmony. No surprise that the American kids hate vegetables and there were campaigns involving celebrities and even the First Lady Michelle Obama, to inspire kids, and then the adults, to eat more veggies.

I don’t know why, maybe because the area is scarcely populated, there were not that many places to eat along the way. Maybe hardworking farmers or miners prefer to eat at home. Apart from a few bigger locations, like Rapid City, Omaha, St. Louis, the options were normally limited to fast food or gas stations with warmed up munchies. In May we usually ate in small diners located on the outskirts of towns we passed by and the food was homemade delicious. This time we once found a nice Mexican restaurant with tasty dishes somewhere in South Dakota and that’s all. And even the American chocolate bars were sweeter and heavier than their European counterparts (like Milky Way in the US which is a Mars bar in Europe) so grabbing something quick when driving was a tough thing to do.

By the way, when you drive the whole day, you normally need coffee. And this is something I can really complain about. Previously, there were plenty of Dunkin Donuts or Tim Hortons, at least. This part of the world is not the most densely populated so I understand that there will be not too many places for fussy customers from Europe. Americans simply drink drip coffee, or go for French Vanilla when they feel fancy (and that’s basically 1:1 sugar and coffee ratio). The only places with Old World style coffee are the chain businesses mentioned above. Good news is that if you like the flavour, but do not want the caffeine kick – decaf is everywhere. But keep in mind that the word flavour may be overstatement. Well, beggars can’t be choosers.

One more thing to not finish the post while being so negative – I love American pizza. And I do not care what my Italian friends will say. I don’t know what’s the case. The dough stands somewhere right in the middle between the thin and the thick, there is no cheating on toppings and there’s always cheese, lots of cheese (they often use provolone instead of mozzarella, which incorporates different amount of liquid, therefore the dough is always drier, I like it better this way). And I’m obviously talking about the New York way of making it. Thankfully, even though we were in the Midwest, there was no Chicago style deep-dish pizza forced upon us.

In the next post I will write more about the actual trip. Get ready for lots of pictures! In the meantime, have a look at the few very short time lapse videos of our drive.

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