Day Eight, Saturday 6th May 2017.
"Calling my Reservation, so long, hey thanks my friend"
All good things must come to an end and sadly this was my last day in the Midwest.
What a week, what a hell of a week!
By Saturday morning I was absolutely knackered and in a way, ready to leave this beautiful part of America and return to my own beautiful part of the UK. I had a 14:40 flight out of Rapid City to make and I wanted to go see the Geographic Centre of the US (you have to say that in a ‘Frank Zappa Announces' kind of voice) some 16 miles north of Belle Fourche, then drive over to Devils Tower to say farewell, and then head east on the I90 to Rapid City for the flight to MSP.
Now you’ll remember my abortive quest on Thursday where I tried to find the Geographic Centre of the US and found Montana instead? Well that’s because I made the mistake of thinking I knew where I was, rather than actually CHECKING where I was and watching the GPS! So this morning before checking out I had a good talk with Stacey – my hotel manager - and she gave me the low down on how to ‘locate’ the Geographic Centre of the US, rather than sticking a zip code in the gps and getting lost again. Turns out it is easy to find when you know where it is but it’s not all that obvious if you don’t watch what you’re doing. So I headed north out of Belle Fourche on Highway 85 and kept going for about 16 miles. There is not a lot to see on that road, it literally heads off into the wild blue yonder and keeps on going, I was told to wait until I went past Camp Crook Road on the left and then slow down as the road starts to swing east and then look out for the marker for Old highway 85. Now, for me a highway was a paved marked road with lines and lights.
No. No they aren’t.
Not Old Hwy85, it was literally a dusty dirt track in between two fields which were bigger than your average county back in the UK. So I drove, slowly, worried about the tyres and undercarriage of the mule and eventually made progress along the dusty brown old highway.
Now with a title such as the Geographic centre of the US! One would think there would be a cool sign post or a small museum to check out.
No. No there wasn’t.
You have to keep your eye out for a barn on the left of the road and a flag in a field opposite the barn on your right. That’s the Geographic centre of the US.
After seven, slow, tourist speed miles, I eventually saw the lonely barn in the middle of nowhere on the right hand side and there was as little boulder on my left with a hand painted sign saying Geographic centre of the US. So I ditched the mule, took my bearings: barn, tick, field, tick, flag, tick, no one else for fecking miles, tick. I was here.
So I disembarked from the mule and headed through the gate and across the open field to the small US flag blowing wildly on a pole in what was a very VERY windy location. Thank god it was sunny and bright as this place would be a crappy place to be in heavy rain or snow…..
I took a few snaps…kind of like Amundsen did over 100 years ago further south but probably just as lonely. Snapped a few wind buffeted vids. Then climbed back on the mule and tore back down the dusty highway wondering what the hell I’d do if the mule gave out and I had no signal. Man I’d be fecked out there! It was long way to go for such a short stop but to be honest there is literally nothing to do there other than try to visualise yourself in the precise middle of the US and that’s pretty much it. Honest guv. Great to tick off the bucket list and add another place to my bonkers busy week of travelling- but really – it was perhaps the least dramatic place to go, unless you like real solitude and isolation. To think it was on the old Highway 85 is in itself a testament to the unbelievably hostile and desolate distances people used to travel in the Dakotas.
Just amazing and I think you probably needed a set of balls to travel around at night in such massive spaces. Those early pioneers must have REALLY wanted that Gold!
I cruised through Belle Fourche, waved adieu to the very nice hotel I called home for three days, turned right onto the h24/h34 and headed west, one last time, toward Devils Tower for a final goodbye.
I have to say again, this road, H24 that goes through Hulett (named after Lewis Morgan Hulett) is a lovely highway to drive along, hardly anyone on the road, beautiful views and amazing history in the surround hills.
Lt. Col. George A. Custer's 1874 expedition into the Black Hills passed through this area and there are still remnants of his passing by way of rutted roads created by his troops and carriages near the town of Aladdin en route to Hulett. Custer is famous, even in the UK, for the Battle of Little Big Horn some 255 miles away in Montana and his eventual death there, forever known as Custer’s last stand in 1876.
I was lucky with the weather again as it was a stunningly hot day and since leaving Belle, it got a lot warmer as the day progressed. To be fair, I knew this because the weather forecast for Hulett showed temps up in the 80’s for the weekend and beyond so I was looking forward to a lovely summer’s day hightailing it across Wyoming and South Dakota before flying home. Sure enough by the time I hit Hulett it was 83deg and man could you feel it. Even with the A/c on it was not exactly cold in the car. I wondered how it must be in July or August when the summer truly kicks in and how the hell the pioneers and gold diggers managed to stay cool in the late 19th century.
I arrived at Devils Tower mid-morning and knew I had to be quick with my goodbyes so I tied up the mule outside the Trading Post, hit the wallet and went crazy on souvenirs… I knew the chances of me coming here again were very slim so I went for it. I think my best buy was a WY number plate made of the numbers for the last day of filming on the tower on 26th May 1976. I bought a bunch of Tees and slightly less touristy souvenirs that meant something and then grabbed a few postcards to send to friends and family.
I sat on the porch of the Trading Post in the shade as it was really hot and wrote out my post cards. Whilst I was sitting there three bikers pulled up and went in for food. They had gorgeous bikes and they were glinting in the sunlight with all the polished chrome. I’d seen quite a few bikes out on the highways and realised that this was the way to truly see the Midwest. But like in Sundance I knew not to just fire off some pics for the hell of it so I asked the owners if they minded and they were totally cool. I learned pretty quickly that as rough and desolate and hard it looked out here, the people were some of the nicest I’ve met, I don’t know if it’s my British politeness or accent or whatever, but they all seemed truly happy to oblige with photos, help, directions, anecdotes etc….I’ll say this , if you go to the Midwest you’ll have no problem conversating with anyone….they are really good people and didn’t take the piss when I asked dumbassed questions that a non-local just wouldn’t know.
In fact when I passed through Hulett earlier that week and stopped to get some supplies, I parked by a big tent on main street. I saw a stall out front with some hats and tees on it so I went in the tent and asked what was going on? It was a competition turkey shoot. They were really kind, showed me some of the weapons, how it all worked, even if I’d like to have go….but I passed. I sling a guitar, not a rifle and to be honest, it’s pretty intimidating seeing all those amazing guns in one place….the true Midwest ha-ha…too rich for my blood! I’d have never survived Deadwood in 1876!
So I snapped a few cool shots of these glorious machines outside the Trading Post, finished my postcards and headed over to the DT Post office. The lady heard my accent and asked why I was there so I told her the background about the movie and she brought out a special stamp that she smacked each card with that gave it a cool DT Post Office print and I handed them over. Good times.
It was quiet on the mountain but I didn’t have time to go all the way to the top again, it was was still 130 miles to the Airport and I had to feed and wash the mule in that time and I wasn’t sure of traffic etc. so I headed up the mountain and pulled off onto Joyner Trail.
Once again, there was no one there. I guess everyone just heads up the mountain to the visitor parking lot and hikes from there but I can assure you, this little trail and the view back toward the mountain is truly fantastic. So with not a soul around I parked the mule, grabbed my cameras and tripod and took some final shots of the tower.
I don’t do selfish much. Can’t think who would want to see me but I did take some shots with me and the mountain as I wanted one or two shots that said’ I was here’
It was so quiet. Literally almost silent apart from the occasional car heading up the mountain but apart from that it was a really nice way to say goodbye to Devils Tower and the beautiful surrounding countryside.
This rock, this mound, this iconic setting, this huge monolithic throwback to my childhood long ago represented a tangible dream for me to actually see and touch, and that I did. It was 100 times more impressive than I imagined it to be and when I left the dirt track and began heading down to the highway I knew it was much more than a movie location. It was a unique geological formation, like nothing else on earth. It was a sacred place for the native population for thousands of years before some upstart American filmmaker committed it to celluloid, forever linked to aliens and 5 note musical motifs. It was a place of adventure, of spirituality, of timeless yet ever evolving erosion and exposure. But most of all, and above all else, it is a place of wonder. I was as wonderstruck the day I drove away as the day I arrived and despite perhaps some reality filtering in, I will still watch Close Encounters of the Third Kind with wonder, with a side order of respect and acknowledgement for what it represents in real life: A place to dream and a place to wonder.
Thanks Devils Tower.
It was real. It really, really was.
So with a mixed bag of emotions I head back down the H24 to join the I90 at Sundance, fed the mule, fed myself, hit cruise control and headed to Rapid City Airport.
The great thing about the US, especially WY and SD is the speed limit. 80mph and almost no traffic. You can literally do 100 miles in 100 mins on a freeway. Just slap cruise on and admire the drive. Love it.
I arrived on the outskirts of RAP in good time but had to locate a car wash to rinse the mule and fill it up one last time. This was a funny experience. After 8 days of traipsing through dirt, driving rain, dust, snow, sleet, hale, baking sun, prairie grass and puddles my trusty mule was a little less shiny that when I collected it haha….it was a f*cking mess.
So I stuck it on one of those car washes that drags you through the building in neutral and yanks you through about 15 different cycles and essentially tries to strip your paint off. But the fun part was that they spray your car with a jet of multi-coloured foam which smelled like Hubba Bubba bubblegum from 1978! Cool!
So with a spotless mule fed and watered, cleaned and smelling uber fresh I left him in the corral and checked in for the flight back to MSP.
The journey back on the hopper flight was uneventful but it was in the daylight and I can tell you it was jaw dropping from up there. The view across the prairies and farmland is stunning. You can see the valleys and arroyos with towns clinging to the sides for dear life, stretching for hundreds of miles across the plains. You can see where life has collected along the natural water ways for miles and miles heading south towards Nebraska and Iowa….quite something to see for a non-local. It literally goes for miles in every direction. The only clue your near MSP is the terrain starts to feature lakes, a lot of them.
As with all journeys of discovery, the way back is always faster than the way there and I was sitting in MSP having dinner before I knew it. It was getting dark by now so there was no point heading out of the terminal at that point so I watched a movie and waited for the flight home to LHR.
It was not a good flight….nothing like the outbound trip. For a start it was freeeeezing cold and I simply could not sleep no matter how many blankets they threw at me and for some reason the air con vent was down on my right side blowing cold air straight at me so I kept shifting around for almost ten hours. But I didn’t really care, it was all part of the adventure and I arrived back safe and sound to LHR.
I didn’t know this but the arrival gate was/ is the same one used in the 2003 movie ‘Love Actually’ (a small plaque in the wall explained it for gathered folks). I love this film so it was pretty cool when my girlfriend jumped the barrier and gave me a big fat welcome hug as I passed into the arrivals hall. Fantastic. What a sweetie and what a perfect ending to a movie drenched trip!
Journey’s end. A trip of a life time bookended by the love of a lifetime. What a week. What a fantastic, unbelievable and totally overwhelming week.
Thanks for reading, I really hope you enjoyed my memories as much as I enjoyed sharing them with you.
Wyoming, South Dakota, Minnesota, Leicestershire.