Original posted in London to New York blog, June 16, 2010
New Ulm, Minnesota
WARNING: This entry is long and contains some explicit references to cheese.
THIS entry was supposed to be extolling the delights of America’s National Parks and looking ahead to the final run through Chicago, Niagara Falls and on to New York.
It may, in the best tradition of this blog, have started with a quote from Blackadder about the final push.
Instead, there is little option than to open up with the latest in an occasional series of valuable travel tips which this blog feels necessary for anyone involved in a similar trip (particularly if that trip is led by a 6ft 4in snoring Kiwi with a penchant for smelly cheese).
This tip is useful for anybody, no matter if they are travelling or not (particularly if they know a 6ft 4in snoring New Zealander… well, you get the drift).
And the tip is: Never agree to share a load of washing with anybody who has a penchant for smelly cheese (particularly if they are from New Zealand).
How different today’s recharge our batteries day in New Ulm, Minnesota might have been if somebody had bothered to pass on that advice beforehand.
For starters, we could have… hang on, let’s just consult the visitors’ guide.
Right, the 10 things to see and do in New Ulm, suggests dancing with a gnome; going cuckoo; dining like the Deutsche; sleeping late… but instead, the last few hours have been in the launderette.
That’s a touch unfair on New Ulm which seems a very pleasant place. Nick apparently wants to live here, but he has had a chance to get out and about.
Since we rolled in at Flandrau State Park in the early hours, it has exerted a certain charm – helped by perfect blue skies and sweltering heat, as well as some refreshing (ie cold) showers at the outdoor pool which dragged in crowds of screaming kids as we went about the task of tossing everything off the bus and repacking ahead of that final push.
Which is where it all started to go wrong as a plan was hatched to throw my half load of washing in with Nick’s T-shirt, Phoebe’s jeans and Phil’s… well, let’s just say some of his stuff.
Little did anyone realise the packet of blue cheese which Phil has been fermenting in the sun at the front of the bus for the last couple of days was in among his washing pile – until opening the machine at the end of the cycle found it all over various items of clothing (Nick’s Mighty Mighty Bosstones T-shirt and one of Phil’s socks were the worst hit) and its scent over everything else.
Hence the delay in getting out to see the town as we wait for the second wash to end and it all to come out the dryer. We’ve even had to put the original machine through an empty cycle to get rid of some particularly offensive residue.
This is not the first time Phil’s cheese obsession has betrayed him.
In Riga, as we geared up for life on the Trans-Siberian train, he was particularly proud of his market purchases, which included a packet of containers into which he put some particularly stinky cheese and a pile of fresh coffee.
He was less than complimentary about our efforts in stocking up for the trip, prompting Nick, Mike and I to dash around the markets and get as much as we could before they closed.
And a successful trip it was too with our magic pepper rescuing many a meal and still adding that little bit of extra spice to dinner on the Green Tortoise.
It was made even sweeter when Phil left his precious cheese and coffee in the hostel in Riga and has been reduced to begging for our pepper ever since.
Whatever happened to that cheese remains a mystery. If anyone found it in Riga, hope you enjoyed it, along with a nice cup of coffee. The cheese in New Ulm is still making its mark in the launderette with a lingering smell – we are still here, courtesy of the need to send the wash through the dryer a second time to add a fresher fragrance. And dry it.
Ahead of us tonight is another drive which will see us awake in the suburbs of Chicago, our first big city since San Francisco 10 days earlier.
Since then we have been rattling through the American National Parks and those of you who have been paying attention will recall the mention of National Park Overdose Syndrome.
However, something of an epiphany means the prospect of hiking around these remarkable bits of countryside is met with enthusiasim (despite opting for the bus ahead of yesterday’s six-mile yomp through the sun-baked Badlands of South Dakota) and whiling away the evenings around the campsite – although we are all chomping at the bit to be let loose on the Windy City tomorrow.
The epiphany came at some point during our hike along the rim of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone.
Having spurned the first day in Yellowstone in favour of watching football, inspiration was high on the shopping list and it certainly arrived – following a quick stop to watch bison and argue about the difference between them and buffalo – as we walked through meadows and barren moonscapes of the thermal springs and onto the dramatic sheer valley carved out by ancient volcanoes and the Yellowstone River.
Take a look at the picture and you will notice there is plenty of the path between me and the edge of the cliff in the pictures.
That was partially due to the discovery of a new fear – the sight of other people on the edge of big drops. While no great fan of heights, evidently seeing somebody else on the edge really puts the fear of God into me.
But the walk along the rim, overlooking the Yellowstone Falls, is pretty spectacular and worth the odd wobbly moment when you look down.
As is the walk through the Mammoth Falls Hot Springs which provides a cool, if slightly other-worldly, landscape of bubbling water, calcified cliffs and multi-coloured rocks, all set amid some spectacular Wyoming scenery.
The day was rounded off in the small town of Pray, Montana, where we passed a hugely enjoyable evening with hot springs, basketball, beer and live bluegrass before climbing aboard the bus.
We awoke in South Dakota for one of the finest ways to start a Monday morning, in the shadow of Devils Tower (pedants beware: the apostrophe was left off the proclamation when it was made the USA’s first National Monument in 1906 and has never been added).
For those of us of a certain age, Devils Tower is the place where the aliens landed in Close Encounters of the Third Kind (and which Richard Dreyfus kept sculpting out of mashed potato), but for Native Americans it is a sacred site and for geologists it is a volcanic plug of huge interest.
For those of us who know very little about any of that, it is a spectacular, slightly eerie place and a walk round it provides a string of wondrous sights.
Via a short stop at a Prairie Dog Town – honest, that’s what they call the field where the cute little critters, or pests depending on who you listen to, hang out – we headed to South Dakota’s top tourist attraction.
And my verdict of Mt Rushmore – once we had driven through endless miles of signs for tawdry tourist cash-ins and the tacky, coach load-friendly town of Keystone – was largely ‘is that it?’.
Yes they are a collection of quite impressive big heads on a mountain, but it really is a case of walk up (past the gift shop, the museum, the ice cream parlour and through the patriotic overkill of the corridor of flags, informing you when the US ‘acquired‘ the likes of American Samoa and Guam), take a picture, turn around and go home. And it is all surrounded by tawdry tourist traps and that over-the-top ‘America-the-Great’ propaganda.
When the time comes to compile the list of great things we have seen on this trip, Mt Rushmore will not be featuring too high – certainly well below some of the other amazing things we have encountered in the last few days.
It did provide a moment of amusement when Duncan gathered a group together for the customary shot with his charity (RMHC) T-shirts and the mist rolled over the cliff top to obscure all four of the presidents.
There was no such problems the next day, which we spent in the Badlands of South Dakota.
Remote, tough and desolate they may be, but bad? Never.
They are strikingly gorgeous and provide some excellent walks through both the prairies and the cliffs which rise out of the ground like teeth.
One such lengthy set of cliffs gave its name to the town of Wall, where we whiled away a few hours in the baking sun.
There’s not much in Wall except the Wall Drug store, which has taken on epic proportions since its founders started putting up signs for free ice water to pull in passing motorists during the Great Depression in 1936.
Since then the store has ballooned from one shop to an entire block and the signs for Wall Drug now crop up all over the world (and on the variety of T-shirts we walked away with).
It also now includes a café, an array of amusements (tacky, but funny in a strange type of way) and a variety of shops selling just about everything you never thought you might want from a small town in South Dakota. You can even still get free ice water.
The Badlands Bar at least charges for its beer, but the World Cup (Brazil v North Korea) was free on ESPN, even with the annoyance of Ally McCoist as the excellent Martin Tyler’s co-commentator.
Why do television stations insist on saddling Tyler with irritating Scotsmen?
All irritations, except maybe the odd lost jumper, were forgotten as sunset in the Badlands saw Lukas guide a group of us out into the cliffs, via a climb up a wobbly ladder, to witness a spectacular view over the prairies.
A perfect end to the day.
NB If you were wondering about the things to do in New Ulm, and why wouldn’t you?, you can dance with the gnomes at all major festivals as they act as the city’s ambassadors; they appear to have a lot of cuckoo clocks on sale; there is a strong German heritage which is still reflected in the restaurants and there are comfortable beds in the B&Bs to sleep in (yes, that is one of their 10 things to do).