Midwest memories

In mid-September I set off on a road trip to visit my family in Minnesota. I had two goals in mind for the road trip portion–exploring the Enchanted Highway in North Dakota, and, on the way home, following part of the route I took when I moved to Portland 50 years ago.

I spent the first night in one of my favorite places, Coeur d’Alene Idaho, in its beautiful setting on the lake. Just before Coeur d’Alene, a stop in Post Falls suggested the influence of climate change in the area. At Falls Park there is usually a ton of water flowing over the dam, but today all I saw were the bare rocks with an occasional puddle.  Next day I enjoyed the drive through the mountainous silver mining country on the way to Montana.

In Montana, just past where I-94 splits from I-90 and heads toward Minnesota, I stopped at Pompey’s Pillar National Monument.  This is one of the Lewis and Clark Trail sites that dot this part of Montana.  The explorers stopped here to get a good view of this area, near where the Yellowstone River branches off from the Missouri. Native tribes used the site for centuries, as a natural ford across the Yellowstone and a trading site.

The main attraction here is the view from the top of the rock, so I was determined to climb the 200 stairs to the top. I had to stop a few times to rest and drink lots of water but I made it all the way up! The view out over the Yellowstone valley is worth it. On the way down I took the side trip to the spot where William Clark registered the expedition’s visit to the area in July of 1806.  There used to be a lot of pictographs and other evidence of native culture but it’s mostly obscured by more recent graffiti carved into the rocks.

We don’t usually think of North Dakota as a land of scenic beauty, but western North Dakota is essentially eastern Montana, with an arbitrary line drawn down the middle.  The first place you reach is Theodore Roosevelt National Park with its brightly colored rock formations reminiscent of the Badlands of South Dakota.  Then just east of Dickinson, you see the first sign of the Enchanted Highway.

Geese in Flight is the largest metal sculpture in the world. It is the work of Gary Greff, the artist who built several other sculptures along this 32-mile stretch of rural highway leading to the town of Regent, ND. Greff was inspired by the movie Field of Dreams to try to keep his little town alive.  All the sculptures use scrap metal such as old oil tanks and pipe.  Each sculpture has a gravel pull-off area to keep people like me from stopping on the highway to take photos. Down the road a few miles from the geese is the next sculpture known as Deer Crossing.

As you can see, local wildlife features prominently. Fisherman’s Dream is my favorite sculpture. I love that the giant rainbow trout is leaping out of the water to catch a dragonfly. The others are Grasshoppers and Pheasants on the Prairie.

Teddy Roosevelt Rides Again is another favorite of mine. Teddy and his horse are made out of old oil drilling pipe.  Just before you get to Regent you’ll see the Tin Family, mom and dad and their son. For some reason the Tin dad reminds me of Woody in the Toy Story movies. Arriving in Regent you can enjoy the Gift Shop and Enchanted Castle Hotel, all created by the artist.  It was after Labor Day so everything was closed but Greff leaves his phone number at the front desk in case you want to shop for souvenirs or stay at the hotel.  He has other sculptures planned for the area and has a kickstarter campaign to finance the next one. He maintains everything here by himself, so he can definitely use the help.


Arriving in Minnesota I spent a fun weekend with my brother and sister and old friends.  We went to a couple of trivia nights (undefeated for the weekend!) and binge-watched the new Hulu series based on the movie Four Weddings and a Funeral.

My plan for the route home was to, at least in part, reproduce or at least reminisce about that original drive from Urbana, IL to Portland back in 1969. Of course, this time I would do it without the overloaded truck and trailer and the two infants, and staying at luxurious Super 8 motels instead of camping out in a tent.  That original route was along what today is I-70, which I decided was too far south, so I compromised and drove from Minneapolis to Des Moines, IA to take I-80 west. First stop out of Minneapolis is always the Top of Iowa rest area, which is probably one of the cutest rest areas anywhere.

Another interesting thing about Iowa these days…it’s covered with wind farms! From the local NPR station I learned that Iowa now gets around a third of its energy from wind. More importantly, the wind farms provide a steady income for local farmers whose livelihoods have been threatened by crazy weather and falling crop prices.  Wind turbines are credited with having saved many a family farm in Iowa!  Now on to Kearney, Nebraska to visit the Archway–thanks for the unique travel tip, Polly Gropen!!

The Archway celebrates the waves of migration that came through here, but there’s more here than the structure you can see from I-80. Inside the archway is a museum that describes the history of the route, known at various times as the Oregon Trail, the Mormon Trail, the California Gold Rush Trail, the Pony Express, the Great Platte River Road, and the Lincoln Highway. That last one stretched from New York to San Francisco and eventually became Interstate 80. There’s also a motel and some other features that remind me of similar ones along Route 66.

You can watch through the windows of the Pony Express station as a video shows a rider coming in and exchanging horses.  You can also see here a sad aspect of the old covered wagon trails, as the terrain got steeper and some of the heavier family possessions were jettisoned to lower the weight.

What looks like a framed photo, above right, is actually a window in the museum where you can watch the traffic go by below you on the interstate!  The metal buffalo are about the only ones you can see here anymore.  One of the displays mentioned that the horrible slaughter of the buffalo in the 19th century was encouraged by General Sheridan, who thought if their food supply was destroyed the native people would give up and leave the territory.

Just east of Laramie, WY is the Summit Rest Area.  This marks the highest spot (about 8600 ft.) on the old Lincoln Highway which is now I-80. Pretty nice view!

I’ve been thinking it would be fun to write a book about the best highway rest areas–hard to beat this one, in Echo, Utah just across the line from Wyoming. Besides the beautiful red rock formations, it includes a covered wagon with a Utah or Bust message, although it’s hard to see it except from the highway. The interesting white rock is on I-84 in an area called the Devils Slide.


After a short drive through Utah and southern Idaho, I finally entered Oregon. My 50-years-ago memory of Idaho was of huge billboards warning of “frequent blinding dust storms.”  My memory is all wrong, or things have changed since then–the message is still there but it appeared on one of those standard yellow diamond shaped signs. At any rate, I remembered thinking as I drove into Oregon that it was the most beautiful place I’d ever seen.  Taking NoDoz in Boise may have compromised my judgment on that, but not by much! The first Oregon rest area on US 26 has a great view of the Strawberry Mtns.

Of all the beautiful places I’ve visited in my 50 years in Oregon, the area around the town of John Day is one of my favorites.  After crossing three or four mountain passes, the land gets a lot greener around Prairie City and John Day.  Just west of John Day is one of the best Oregon scenic highways, OR 19 through the John Day Fossil Beds.  The road meanders along the John Day River to the town of Condon.


About 10 years ago a young couple from Portland bought the dilapidated Hotel Condon and restored it to its former glory.  On the left here is Main Street, and on the right, all the elements of the local economy…cattle, wheat, and wind! I love the undulating patterns on the rolling hills of mown wheat.

On a sunny day you can see five mountains from the Mountain Identifier pullout on OR 206 northwest of Condon (Jefferson, Hood, Adams, Rainier, and St. Helens). Mt. Adams was on display today, though the others were hidden in the clouds, except for an occasional peek at Rainier.  Adams is not as famous as Hood and Rainier because it is mostly on tribal land so it doesn’t have the hotels, ski areas, and other developments more common on National Park or Forest lands.


Last stop on the way home to Portland was Celilo Park. It’s a great rest stop on the Columbia River east of The Dalles. Before all the dams were built, there was a powerful waterfall coursing through a narrow place in the river here, where the native tribes built scaffolding across the river and used nets and spears to catch the salmon as they struggled upstream.


7 thoughts on “Midwest memories”

  1. Andre, again thanks for your interesting narrative on a road trip with so many unique stops. Have you ever stopped at the rest stop on I-5 at the Calif. Oregon border? We stopped in the Spring and the trees were outstanding.


  2. Good to hear from you, Donna–yes, that rest stop up on the Siskyou summit is wonderful! Thanks for the reminder. I used to stop every year when I drove back and forth to Texas and to visit my kids in CA.


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