This is the second post about my Midwestern road trip; the first one is here. There are plenty of pictures and all are clickable if you want to see the bigger version.
the road trip
As I mentioned in the previous post, travelling to Chicago seemed to be the best option. We got the first flight of the day westwards from London Heathrow operated by the American Airlines which was probably not even 1/3 full. And flying aboard the Dreamliner makes a difference. During long-haul flights, even the mid-day ones, the cabin crew forces people to shut the blinds and increases the temperature so passengers would sleep instead of bothering them. I don’t like it at all. Thankfully this plane has dimmable windows which were on with a blue tint, but still made it possible to look outside. The Atlantic may be boring, but as soon as we approached Canada I was staring at the intact landforms of the Newfoundland and Labrador. It never stops amusing me.
I don’t think I will be the biggest fan of the O’Hare; the lines were enormous and everything was moving in a snail’s pace. The signs of upcoming Halloween, our excuse to visit the US after all, were everywhere, but something else was much more disturbing than plastic spiders. These were the omnipresent shelters to use in case of the inclement weather conditions. This part of the country makes section of the Tornado Alley. It may be hard to personally experience one when visiting, thankfully, but severe thunderstorms, hail and strong winds are common. The northern parts can be susceptible to blizzards and snowfalls may start earlier. During our stay in Medora, North Dakota, there were plenty of snow patches at the end of October, even though on the days we spent there it was warm enough during the day to wear t-shirts only. When we were watching the weather forecast, the snowstorms were announced on the following days. I think we were very lucky; generally the end of October may not be the best time for a visit.
After passing the immigration check, we went straight to the rental cars. ORD is one of the biggest airports in the world and nothing is close. Because we had our destination for the day already set and it was an 8 hours drive, we got the car and hit the road. A real American road trip requires a real American vehicle. We got Lincoln MKZ, a very comfortable mid-size sedan with the amount of electronics which intimidated me at first, but it was perfect at the end. It made the whole journey smooth and enjoyable.
This part of northern Illinois is densely populated and a bit boring. The Wisconsin state line is nearby, so I focused on the drive to get to where we wanted. It wasn’t long when we were greeted by one of two nicest looking, at least in my opinion, state welcome signs. The reason for our route was that, apart from the fact that Wisconsin was on the way to the Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota, it is also the state where Lublin is located which made it a must see destination for me.
You see, I was born in Lublin, Poland obviously, the city which is hundreds years old. And when I was a kid in a communist country, the only way to travel was looking at maps. I somehow got the road map of the Midwest and when studying thoroughly road by road, I discovered that there is another Lublin in Wisconsin. I even decided to write a letter to learn about this place, unfortunately never got the response. Maybe because of my English at the time, or maybe because I just addressed it to Lublin Town Hall, Wisconsin, USA. It’s hard to say, but visiting this place was on my bucket list since then. When I realised that it is only a short detour from the straight road to North Dakota, I wondered no more. I knew I needed to see it.
It is a tiny settlement with a bit more than 100 people living there. Apparently the land owner was a Polish migrant from my home town and he sold the area to Easter European pioneers in 1915. It shows how young a country the USA is. Those were the times my grandparents were telling me stories about from their teenage years, not a distant past. Our visit in Lublin was quick, it was late evening so everything was closed. We headed west to find a place to sleep, the next day was supposed to be the hardest with the longest distance to drive.
The Wisconsin/Minnesota border follows the middle of the St. Croix River – a tributary of the Mississippi, those two combine a little southeast of the Twin Cities (Minneapolis – St. Paul metropolitan area). It forms a lake there, looking much more impressive than Mighty Mississippi, which we actually missed the first time we crossed it. We had a short stop along the road later on so I could have a proper look at one of the longest rivers in the world. The Minnesota welcome sign, in my opinion, was second of the best two mentioned earlier. At least it looked like someone did their best.
These two states are quite similar, for a tourist at least – huge farms along the way, majority with different crops, also some meadows. I probably would not be able to say which picture was taken where if they wouldn’t be geotagged. Their economy relies heavily on agriculture, and they are not greatly urbanized which calls for a special postal service to be used – a Rural Free Delivery. It has been created in 1896 to deliver postal services to non-urban areas of the US. Previously, their inhabitants had to collect their post personally which in many cases was not feasible. Imagine being a farmer whose work is weather dependant; would you rather drive an hour or more to the nearest town to check if there is any mail for you or work hard on your fields to keep your family provided for? That’s what the first farmers’ organisations thought so too and because their lobbying actions, the postal service, after 33 years it started in the metropolitan areas of the USA, finally commenced to reach every American homestead.
Riding in the Midwest, no matter how comfortable the journey is, takes time. As I mentioned before, that day I was supposed to drive the longest distance, more than 1100 kilometres (almost 700 miles). At some point, after few hours had already passed, I looked at the navigation and saw something which is not really possible to see in Europe. There was still an over 7 hour drive using the same road, then just one turn right and after additional 3 kilometres I was expected to reach my destination.
When we traversed another river which also meant another state line, and entered North Dakota, I was pleasantly surprised. Clearly this state cannot be as “empty” as I’ve learnt before the trip. Fargo may not necessarily be a metropolis, but, especially with the adjusting communities on the Minnesotan side, it is definitely a place big enough to feel you’re in urban area. We quickly passed the city and then it all became so different. There are clearly more animals in this state than people. Unfortunately, also dead animals. Even though we didn’t really see much traffic, apart from long road trains and farm trucks, not too often anyway, there were at least 7 animal carcasses along the road. I have no idea where these animals came from. It looked like there were no wild areas anywhere in sight, and we could see as far as the horizon since the land was rather flat.
It felt like ages to drive in North Dakota. The surroundings haven’t changed for quite some time, riding on the same wide and straight Interstate, passing by the occasional gas station. It was Sunday, so maybe that was the reason behind the lack of traffic. And it looks like this is a special day in the whole Midwest. There are plenty of religious billboards, there are radio stations playing only Christian music and faith is present basically everywhere. For someone from Europe, where usually, religion is considered private, it may cause a culture shock. We Europeans do not think openly about anyone’s beliefs. Anyway, right after the only more significant town on our way from Fargo to Medora, Bismarck, which is also a state capital of North Dakota, we made our way across the Missouri River, for the first, but not the last time. And you could feel it in the air that something has changed. The air become a bit more crispy and the area a bit more hilly.
Driving through North Dakota felt almost endless, the road was wide and straight. We were listening to the radio, because that’s what we always do. Lots of people have a special road trip playlist, for us, listening to what the locals can hear is part of the experience. And the received image of the American Midwest was quite disheartening. I already mentioned the religious ads and it is a well-known fact that in the times of distress people turn to higher beings trying to find sense in what is happening to them. Apart from those there were plenty of charity pledges to help the farmers or miners in need of food or medical coverage. Life there is hard, but it’s not what should ever happen in the most powerful country in the world. Normally that would mean the change in politics, interestingly, the locals still support the same Republican party and oppose universal health ideas. Something what in Europe is considered a basic human right, for many in the US is a communist hoax. Trump aside, but supporting any of the political parties, either it’s on the right or left of the scene, is always good for democracy; I’m surprised though, in this case it’s more like turkeys voting for Christmas.
The Sun started to set and we still had 2 more hours ahead of us. At first I was thinking of spending a night somewhere on the way, Dickinson probably, but we decided to go another 40 minutes to Medora, the gateway to the national park we wanted to visit. And it was a perfect idea.
Medora and the Theodore Roosevelt National Park
Medora may not be your chosen destination when planning holidays and checking its Wikipedia page – population 121 and a picture of a few tiny buildings described as a business district. Combined with the town’s motto – North Dakota’s #1 Destination, if true, promises you a Podunk experience and makes you amend your plans immediately. Thankfully, you think, a national park entrance is next door and there’s no need to spend in Medora more time than you have to. Please reassess, nothing could be further from the truth. This beautiful place and its kind, cheerful and helpful people is probably our most favourite of the whole trip and we would go back there with no hesitation. I know it sounds sacrilegious, but we actually preferred the town to the park (which we loved, by the way).
There, it’s a perfect time to appreciate the saying that for the Europeans 100 miles is far away, but for the Americans it’s 100 years which is a lot. Medora was founded in 1883 by French marquis who named the settlement after his wife. The marquis’s house, called Chateau de Mores is now a museum and it’s one of the places everyone should visit when in town. The city is quaint and charming; a small frontier town vibe can be sensed everywhere around. It is, thankfully, not spoiled with bad architecture. All the buildings, regardless of age, nicely fit into their surroundings, and no, I didn’t see the business district mentioned earlier.
It was already after the tourist season so most of the places were unfortunately closed. When it comes to anything but nature, Medora is particularly famous of the Medora Musical – a country-western variety show which I’ve only seen on YouTube and it looks really interesting. I would love to experience it in person one day, the shows start again in Spring. There was a limited number of places where visitors can eat; the Little Missouri saloon definitely serves the best, ok the only, bison and elk burgers I have ever eaten. I’d say elk tastes better for me, bison needs some sauces because it’s not juicy enough.
Naturally, the main “selling point” of Medora is the entrance to the Theodore Roosevelt National Park and its visitor centre is the only place where you can buy any memorabilia that time of year. The Park is made up of 3 separated units – The North, the South (the one next to Medora) and the Elkhorne Ranch in between the former two. This part of Badlands is where Theodore Roosevelt became enamoured in the area and devoted to nature conservation. He came there to hunt bison and bought the Maltese Cross Ranch where he stayed before he became president. The cabin he used to live is now located next to the park’s visitor centre and contains some of the artefacts which used to belong to the Bull Moose. After devastating day of February 14, 1884, when Roosevelt’s wife and mother died only few hours apart, he got depressed and came back to North Dakota longing for solitude. He bought another ranch, Elkhorn, which turned into his base every time when he was coming back to the Badlands.
A proper visit in the Theodore Roosevelt National Park takes much more than we could spend; its 3 parts are not next to each other. We only had enough time for checking out the Southern Unit so we benefitted from the “American” way of doing things – if there is a place worth paying a visit, there’s a huge chance there will be a road leading there and a parking site not more than a 15-minute walk away. That was the case here, as well. There is a 36-mile (60 kilometres) Scenic Loop Drive (currently last few miles are redone, so it’s not really a loop anymore) with parkings and overlooks set every few miles in interesting areas including every single crowded prairie dog town which you can observe from just few feet away from you. Other animals you will surely see either from your car or just stepping outside for a moment, will be bison, bighorn sheep, feral horses and, my favourite, pronghorns. All of it being surrounded by pristine nature, tranquillity, peace and stillness. You also will be able to spot some of almost 200 species of birds living in the area, and listen to their songs.
If you are not a car person, life in the USA is definitely not for you. But it doesn’t mean you have to use your car constantly. The Maah Daah Hey Trail which connects all three units of the park is the longest continuous single-track mountain biking trail in America, also open to horseback riders and hikers, obviously. And hiking is always promoted so there is a proper infrastructure for everyone, not necessarily drivers only.
This post is long enough already so I will finish here with some pictures from the Southern Unit of the T.R.N.P., I hope you will visit one day.
After spending half of the day in the park we headed straight towards South Dakota, with one exception, though. Because Medora is very close to the border with Montana, I just needed to check its welcome sign too.