Day 50: Monday 1st May
It was finally time for the inevitable part of our trip where we were to spend two days driving across the flat cornfields of the Midwest. Whenever we had mentioned driving through Iowa and Nebraska, people had wrinkled their noses, groaned or made other signs to demonstrate how distasteful they found the idea. Yes, the Midwest is largely boring flat farmland, they grow a lot of corn, and we were assured that these two days would suck.
The thing is, when you build something up in your head to be awful, it often means you can only be pleasantly surprised when things aren’t as bad as you expected. We loaded up the car with books, audiobooks, podcasts, and good music, plenty of food and water, and set off on our merry way on Monday morning.
We had originally considered heading to South Dakota. The main thing there is Mount Rushmore, but in the end we decided that we didn’t fancy driving eight hours into the middle of nowhere to see it. As time went on, more and more people told us about the Badlands, a very cool National Park area. It does look pretty amazing, but also not too dissimilar from other things we later saw (yes, all the National Parks are coming up soon, eager readers!).
We routed ourselves through Des Moines, Iowa, for two reasons. Firstly, Anna had a friend there – a girl she went to university with in London. Secondly, Bill Bryson is from Des Moines (in his own words – “someone has to be”), and if you haven’t already noticed, we are both pretty big fans of old Bill.
We stopped just outside Des Moines to meet Anna’s friend, Madi, at a Panera Bread. Panera is a pretty nice lunchtime chain with salads, soups, paninis, coffee etc, which I had been to last time I was in the US and had been quite impressed when they’d given me the wrong salad and then let me keep both the wrong and the right one for the price of one when I awkwardly mentioned it. That was actually my first introduction to just how customer-centric American customer service can be; in the Czech Republic (where I live) I would be afraid to mention a mistake, not only because of the language barrier, but because I would probably be greeted with a reaction akin to, “Well, what do you want me to do about it?”
Lunch and Anna’s friend were lovely, and then we drove past Des Moines but sadly failed to take any photos. So here’s one I found online:
In fairness to Des Moines, it seems that there are plenty of things to do – a quick search showed me that they have a botanical garden, a zoo and the Iowa State Fair every August. Sadly, we barely grazed it as we continued onwards, keen to get through to Colorado as soon as possible.
We continued onwards to Lincoln, Nebraska, where Anna had another friend – Carrie, who used to live in Prague and I met once at a Scavenger Hunt. We actually made good time and rocked up around dinner time, so Carrie was able to take us to downtown Nebraska for some dinner.
It was actually pretty cool down there. We had dinner at Lazlo’s Brewery & Grill, where we shared one steak between us as we’d been told that steak was the thing to have in the Midwest due to all the cattle farming, but neither of us are big meat-eaters, especially not beef. We also shared a lahvosh, which is similar to a pizza but served on some sort of cracker. It was pretty good, but as you can see it was MASSIVE so we ended up taking some as leftovers.
After that, we wandered around the streets a little, which were quite pretty:
Then, we found an ice-cream place called Ivanna Cone. From the name alone, I was already smitten:
Then, we went inside. There were disco lights, music pumping, and ice-cream served until 10pm. For $6, I think, we were able to get a tasting platter of 6 flavours. They had loads of interesting, original flavours – all home-made – and we tried a few exciting things, which I can’t quite remember now but I think involved salted caramel for sure. Here are some photos from inside:
OK, that’s probably enough about ice-cream.
Day 51: Tuesday 2nd May
We woke up, ready for a day of driving – it was estimated that we’d be in the car for at least 8 hours, so we got ready. Originally, we had thought about heading to Wilber, Nebraska – the official Czech Capital of the USA. Nebraska has the highest population of Czech Americans (i.e. Americans of Czech heritage) in the entire United States in terms of percentage of total population. (The biggest in terms of absolute numbers is Texas – you remember the Czech Stop in West, TX, from our Dallas post – but apparently the Nebraska Czech-Americans have a bit of a rivalry with the Texas Czech-Americans.) The Czech-American community in Nebraska (and other states with high Czech-American populations such as Texas, Illinois, and North and South Dakota) are very proud of their folk traditions – most of which aren’t very authentic, but never mind that. Wilber holds an annual Czech festival every year in August, as well as a Miss Czech-Slovak US Pageant (which a couple of our friends participated in! But why you have to be single to participate is beyond me.) It used to be called Miss Czech-Slovak USA but a certain Mr Trump wasn’t so happy with that name (Anna: I think he actually tried to sue them) so they had to change it. Sadly, Wilbur was too far off our route in the end so we gave it a miss.
People aren’t kidding – Nebraska is pretty flat. I now realise that we didn’t take any pictures, but I did take one video, so here’s a screenshot:
And here’s what you find if you search “Nebraska road” online:
What you can’t tell from the pictures is the awful stench of farm that started to seep into the car after an hour or so. I’m not just talking the smell of manure, which I’m quite used to from growing up in rural North Wales and actually quite like as it’s nostalgic and makes me think of pony rides at local farm-cum-theme parks. I’m talking slurry, one of the worst smells there is. There was no escape from the permeating stench.
Also, as you may know, it’s quite hard to keep track of your speed when you don’t have landmarks like hills, buildings, trees etc to go by. So I may have been going a little over the speed limit. Like, 20 miles or so over the speed limit.
Around midday, I noticed that there was a car behind me with flashing lights on the roof.
“Oh, $%#@, is that a cop?” I asked, quickly having images of a Thelma and Louise scenario.
I’m pretty sure that if the police want you to pull over in the UK, they indicate towards the side of the road to signal you to stop. Not so in the USA, it seems. I probably carried on driving for a good five minutes before deciding I should probably pull over, just in case.
I knew that I had to stay in the car and leave both hands on the wheel – I’ve spoken to a British guy who once got out of his car and regretted it. I’ve also seen enough TV. I rolled down my window and put on my most British accent. I was shaking like a leaf, but I don’t know if it showed.
The officer asked me whether I had seen him trying to pull me over.
“Oh, I didn’t realise that you wanted me to pull over, I was thinking like – does this mean I’m supposed to pull over? – but I didn’t know,” I rambled like an idiot, while the voice in my head was screaming oh my God shut up he’s going to shoot you in the face!!
He asked for my license and registration, and I thanked my lucky stars that the UK no longer uses that stupid piece of paper to go along with your driving license card, because if this guy wasn’t familiar with the UK it would have looked really suspicious. I got out my little pink card, and then we had to rifle through the glove compartment for a moment to find the car rental agreements. He disappeared into his car for what felt like twenty minutes with the paperwork (and I really needed to go to the toilet, which made the time drag out much more slowly).
The guy was actually pretty friendly, and I didn’t even see a gun (maybe I didn’t look on purpose). When he finally came back to the car, he told me that I was just going to get a warning this time. Whew! Here it is – with the personal details blanked out of course:
It’s wrong, I know, but I felt a little surge of excitement when I looked at this piece of paper. Speeding isn’t cool, of course. Neither is breaking the law. But it still made me feel a little bit… dangerous. However, take a look at the details on that sheet, and tell me if you notice anything strange.
Yes, in the middle of all the other information, is “Race : W”. Why? Why is this necessary? But there we go. My race = W. And I sadly admit that this piece of information may just have been why I only received a warning, and why the officer was friendly to us.
It wasn’t too easy to drive after that; I was quite shaky for a while, so we went to switch drivers and to find lunch at a trusty Denny’s (near North Platte). We were starting to get quite addicted to Denny’s at this point. What can I say? They have value menus and they’re really pretty good…
As we drove into Colorado, the landscape started to get a little more exciting – look! The ground isn’t 100% flat! 😉
And, on top of that, we saw this, meaning that good things were surely to come: