THE LAST DITCH An Englishman returned after twenty years abroad blogs about liberty in Britain
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May 2013

I am going to miss Montana

Speranza feminising the Montana scenery
Tonight is my last in this ruggedly beautiful state. I am spending it - for no particular reason other than that it's on my route - in Missoula. Tomorrow morning I shall head for the nearby state line with Idaho.

I had a wonderful scenic run from the rather tacky, but very well-located, tourist trap of West Yellowstone this morning. I am still at altitude and it was cool and intermittently rainy, so the roof had to remain up. I averaged a very respectable speed for my 275 mile run, which meant that I was in Missoula by just after 2pm. After taking my bags to my room, I headed off for a splendid late lunch, washed down with excellent cocktails.

I must have seemed supremely decadent to the well-dressed locals discussing business over their tables, but the waiting staff treated my order of afternoon booze as if it were perfectly normal, which I am pretty sure it wasn't.

I have had some bad food days of late. If West Yellowstone is capable of distinguishing itself culinarily, I didn't find where that goes on. You may recall that to get there I had endured a bad breakfast-and-nothing-else day.

The "complimentary" breakfasts in the roadside "inns" I am mostly using are self-served on plastic dishes. I am beginning to think the term means it's a "compliment" to call it breakfast, rather than that it's included in the price. So I was determined to eat a real meal today, prepared by a real chef and served on real plates. It was a delight and I feel much more myself for having eaten it.

I am sure Missoula has its attractions but I shall leave them to the morning. Life on the road is brilliant, but I am getting tired again. I think I shall spend this evening watching TV and generally behaving as if I were relaxing at home, the better to get back into motorised Lewis & Clark mode tomorrow.

A park so big it has gas stations

The beauties of Yellowstone today
Buffalo fords the river
Speranza by the hot springs
if you ignore the insects, the first - and I hope last - casualty of our tour
Old Faithful does her thing against a cloudy sky
Geyser Basin at West Thumb 1
Geyser Basin at West Thumb 2
Geyser Basin at West Thumb 3
How to make healthy choices look as unappetising as burgers
My plan yesterday casually to take in Yellowstone en route to my hotel was - I now know - absurd. As Londoners say it was Dagenham (i.e. two stops beyond Barking). This is a park so big it needs gas stations! I drove more than 130 miles today on park roads alone and - unlike yesterday - I don't regret any of them. I took almost 200 photographs, scarcely knowing which way to point my lens next.

The weather was not good. The sun didn't shine. At one point it snowed. From my hotel in West Yellowstone I ascended more than 2,000 feet to the Continental Divide, which I crossed several times in my travels. The temperature was chilly and when it wasn't raining it was about to.

I encountered more elk, a herd or two of bison (buffalo) and marvelled at the natural beauties of a park so vast it takes in lakes, canyons, rivers and entire mountain ranges as well as sitting on a supervolcano that powers more than half the geothermal features on the planet.

Old Faithful is the most famous of these features. She lived up to her name by delivering at the precise time predicted by the park rangers. Leah, a charming young rangerette, told me they are correct within 10 minutes either way 90% of the time. The "timer" for the feature is the period it takes for water to refill the underground chambers beneath the geyser after an eruption, apparently. It has worked consistently for recorded American history but even that is remarkable stability in a violent location where change is usually the only constant.

I saw a quote today from some Indian chief that the Earth is more alive in Yellowstone than anywhere else. He went on to draw some mystical point or other, but he was not wrong in his basic observation.

To be sure of my photographic position for Old Faithful I waited a full 50 minutes in place. This brought lots of tourists over to talk to me. They assumed, given that I had set all my camera kit up, that I knew what I was doing and was expecting an eruption sooner than the park rangers.

I passed most of the waiting time however chatting to two Californians on a similarly ambitious tour to mine. They had actually been on the road longer than me. Mr & Mrs Jim Cooper proved the truth of my repeated assertion that Americans are supremely friendly. From a cold start (my asking them "Where are you guys from?") to our parting we achieved a rapport that would have taken years in Britain. They invited me to their home in Oakdale and Jim, a retired police officer, offered to ensure that I miss nothing important during my visit to San Francisco by being my guide. Thanks, guys. I will call, I promise.

My least favourite part of the day was picking Speranza's teeth with a stick to remove a small bird she had ingested. Especially as the stick only got me so far and I actually had to get hold of the damn thing. I am no naturalist, as you may have noticed from earlier posts. I like my nature at a comfortable viewing distance. In fact, I persuaded my High School to run a Latin course largely for the opportunity to rewrite my timetable to exclude the dissections coming up in my "O" level biology class. I am squeamish and therefore, pathetically, proud of myself for overcoming my qualms today to attend to Speranza's welfare. No damage was done to the car, you will be relieved to hear, but the bird, I am afraid, has ceased to be.

My second least favourite part of the day was the standard of the catering at the Old Faithful visitors centre. The concessionaires know they have a captive audience, I guess, and the experience was sub-optimal. After a terrible food day yesterday and an typically uninspiring "complimentary" breakfast at my hotel, I had hoped for better. I was much amused by an imposing lady from a party of Chinese tourists berating the waitresses for the dirty tables in sign language and grunts. She seemed accustomed to command and I speculated on how senior a cadre she might be back home. On the other hand, she got the tables cleaned, for which I was grateful.

My favourite part of the day was visiting the geyser basin at West Thumb on the shores of Lake Yellowstone. My only disappointment was that - despite spending the day very much "bear aware" as urged by the park signs - I saw none. No Yogi. No Boo Boo. This, although I spent all day trying not to call the park "Jellystone."

Worse things happen than seeing too few bears. Too many bears, for example, or one bear far too close. They kill about one human a year in Yellowstone, but that's not the greatest danger in the park. I experienced some of the worst driving conditions I have encountered on my trip. Despite sensible advice from the rangers and very logical park regulations, people who spied an elk or bison stopped immediately rather than parking in a safe place. I lengthened my following distance considerably to account for this and then suffered from being tailgated by enormous RVs and pickup trucks whose sense of invulnerability is as understable - given the scale of their monstrous vehicles - as it is inaccurate. 

I loved driving Speranza around, especially for the limited periods when I could have the roof down, but if I ever drive through Yellowstone again, it will be in a Hummer with bull bars!

Ganging Agley in Yellowstone

The markers of the fallen at the last stand. The one with the black shield is that for Custer
Our guide explains the first skirmish of the battle
Souvenir keychain
Speranza at the battlefield
The Sioux rubric on the monument
Part of the new monument to the winners
The original monument to the fallen of the Seventh Cavalry
I am not sure my plans for today were among my best-laid. Anyway, agley they ganged. All started well with a pleasant two hour run through Montana to the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument. I arrived just in time to join a bus tour organised by the Crow Nation, on whose reservation - though it was Sioux territory at the time - much of the battlefield now lies.

After that was done, I drove the tour route through the battlefield with the roof down in the sunshine, stopping to read the markers at each of the key sites along the way. It was all very agreeable and interesting. I then headed to a nearby Crow Nation store to buy a beaded horsehair keyring to add to my collection swinging from Speranza's key. I have no cargo room for more substantial souvenirs and even this modest idea is now getting out of hand!

I had planned to "do" Yellowstone National Park today as well. This involved driving to Cody in Wyoming, home to Buffalo Bill of that ilk and taking US-20 West through the park to my reserved hotel in West Yellowstone. I had spent far longer than I had optimistically expected at Little Bighorn, however, so by the time I got to Cody it was too late to do anything more there than drive through the main drag and recognise another Dodge City or Deadwood for what it was.

I hastily consulted Google Maps to check how long the next stage would take. It offered two options; one on US-20 as planned and another that involved retracing my steps and taking an interstate. One was two hours and a bit. Another was four hours and a bit. I confused the two and reluctantly changed my plan thinking that it was too late to spend so long driving through the park in what would be darkness anyway. D'oh!

I didn't realise my mistake until I had passed the point of no return so irritably wasted a couple of hours (and the best part of a tank of petrol) going back through towns I had never planned to see again. The final run to West Yellowstone was along twisty forest roads (usually my favourite) but in bad light and worse weather. I narrowly avoided one elk (who was far less flustered by the encounter than I was) and spend fifty miles anxiously watching out for his brethren.

The Montana Department of Transport, I discovered, has a rather slapdash approach to roadworks. In that last fifty miles I also had to drive over a very rough surface caused by their ripping up the whole road to repair it, rather than fixing one carriageway at a time in the usual way. The temporary surface was not even the small pebbles of a gravel road; it was rubble! They had lowered the speed limit from 55mph to 35mph in recognition of this but to protect Speranza's "running shoes" and prevent throwing up rocks onto her bodywork, I had to drive much more slowly. Locals in their big pick-up trucks with foot-thick tyres could not see my problem and got a bit irritated, alas.

I arrived at my hotel, tired and grumpy, at 0930pm - too late to eat. Food stops had been my first sacrifice on realising the time problem caused by my stupid mistake. On the positive side, however, I have solved my timing issue for the run to Vancouver. I knew I was going to have to slow my pace in order to arrive on Sunday afternoon in time to deliver Speranza to the Ferrari dealer there on Monday morning. Now I have simply booked a second night in Yellowstone and will give the famous park the attention it probably always deserved.

From the Dakotas to Montana

Speranza in North Dakota
Relics of Wild Bill in Deadwood, where he was murdered and is buried
For a moment they had me thinking the Boondocks were a real place, but - no - it's just a joking reference to their middle of nowhere location
My "John Wayne Special" meal in preparation at the Boondocks period diner
Driving the Black Hills National Forest
Screen Shot 2013-05-27 at 21.26.31
My route for the next week. I am going to have to go slower than planned in order to arrive in Vancouver on a weekday for Speranza's appointment with Ferrari Service
Deadwood's tribute to its most famous inhabitant
I had a great evening yesterday at a Western style saloon in Keystone, SD with good country music and some rather feeble attempts at period raunchiness. The waitresses, despite being clad in risqué outfits and red garters, managed still to radiate down-home innocence. They are probably all solid churchgoers. Still, they were politely attentive at serving drinks, which was all I was looking for. Four margaritas slipped down very pleasantly as I tapped my feet to the Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard and (appropriately, given my tipple) Jimmy Buffett covers. The other clientèle consisted of a couple of chaps from Nebraska trying to get off with three local girls and elderly "regulars" who were disturbingly good dancers.

I really liked South Dakota. The Black Hills National Park is beautiful and I loved driving through it this morning (apart from a worrying few minutes wondering if the hail bouncing off the car was of the "damaging" variety). The forest roads were great fun, even though the weather was atrocious.

I took an early lunch break in the pouring rain at an attraction called the "Boondocks". It's a little tourism complex themed around the 1950s with a period diner, several old cars and the quirkiest little gift shop I ever saw. I broke my "no desserts" rule finally to find out what a "malt" is. It seems to be just a thicker than usual milk shake flavoured with stuff that could more usefully have been made into Scotch. Delicious, but very fattening. I liked it but suspect my first will also have to be my last.

Then it was on to Deadwood, another little former frontier town trying to live on its past infamies. Unlike Dodge City, which was keen to point out how respectable it has been for so long, Deadwood's tourism gurus have persuaded it to claim that it is still a wild town. Hmm. It obtained special permission from the state to have limited stake gambling in order to promote its tourism, but it seemed respectable enough to me. Modern Americans - at least out in the rural parts - don't seem to "do" decadence very well, as witness the saloon girls in Keystone. Or maybe I am just not hitting the right night spots. Deadwood did have quite a good museum, however, with displays about Wild Bill Hickok, Calamity Jane and other local luminaries, as well as more serious stuff like Native American artefacts.

I didn't do North Dakota justice. I am sure, from the little I saw of it, that it's a beautiful state too, but I stuck firmly to my plan just to clip a corner of it on my way to Montana. It was one of the adjustments I had to make to get my originally-planned route down from 20,000+ miles to about 14,000. The longer route would have meant a break to service the car and replace tyres. I did stop to take a picture of Speranza with a North Dakotan "butte" behind her, which I think is one of the best of her so far. I apologise particularly to my North Dakota reader who invited me to meet him upstate. I was just too far over my miles budget to do it. I would have loved to, but I couldn't. Email me your address and I will mail you a mug as the failure was entirely mine.

Just when I thought my fantasy home in America would definitely be in North Dakota, I arrived in Montana. I am not very far in yet, but I am impressed. Sadly, it's no longer true that it's the state without speed limits. That all ended in the 90's (although various Americans I have chatted to en route have not heard this news so it's as well I checked). I progressed well however, on good roads with spectacular views. They would have been even better if it were not pouring with rain the whole way to my overnight stop in Miles City.

Speranza is booked into the Ferrari dealers in Vancouver next Monday so they can confirm the reason for the spurious "engine management failure" warning light and, I hope, make it go away. She continues to perform beautifully, is running cool and delivering better fuel economy than I expected. That may be because I am adapting my driving style to American norms, however. The trip computer never promised me 340 miles on a small tank of fuel in Europe, as it did when I filled up today.

All this clean living is getting to me - and not just in terms of my driving style. I am getting up earlier, have stopped swearing and am hitting the hay much earlier than I did back home. I am planning a particularly early start tomorrow to execute an ambitious plan to "do" both the Little Bighorn and Yellowstone in one long drive through Montana and Wyoming, ending back in Montana at West Yellowstone. I have so far committed to it as to book my hotel on a non-refundable basis, so let's hope it all works.

National Figures

Driving through the Black Hills, before the weather finally cleared
One helluva sculptor
One helluva sculpture
Up close and personal
The artist's never-to-be-finished concept
Americans enjoying the Memorial Day weekend sun

I rose early full of beans and looking forward immensely to today's short drive. The day promised the fabled Black HIlls of Dakota, followed by the carved mountain called Rushmore. I ate my "complimentary" breakfast and hit the road.

I had the misfortune to overtake a slow vehicle at just the point where a Nebraska state trooper had cannily positioned his car. I was executing the most dangerous manoeuvre in driving with my usual gusto - the better to get it over with and return to safety - and was convinced he would pull me over. Thankfully he didn't and I left that fair state unmolested.

South Dakota, from what I have seen of it so far, is such a very pretty state that I may have to revise the location of my fantasy American home. The Black Hills are beautiful and force the landscape into shapes that required road builders to throw away their rulers and set squares. Roads rising and falling and curving left and right led me through beautiful scenery.

I had an unpleasant passage through severe fog at one point. Locals more confident of the road ahead became impatient with my caution and one nearly got us both killed by overtaking when he had no visibility and narrowly missing an oncoming car. The fog cleared shortly after that and soon I was keeping up with the flow again and enjoying myself.

My hotel for the night is in the South Dakota village of Keystone, a busy tourist resort this Memorial Day weekend. I saw it on my way to Mount Rushmore, just a couple of miles up the road.

The park itself was heavily attended and I was in line to pay for my parking pass for a little while. An amiable attendant came over to chat while I waited and told me he loved working there because he is a car enthusiast and gets to see all kinds of wonderful examples.

The original commission for the statues dynamited, hammered and carved out of Mount Rushmore was for legends of the Old West. How different a monument that would have been! The sculptor though, wanted national figures more worthy (as he thought) of his endeavours. Those of you who read this blog when it's not in travelogue mode will not be surprised that I wish he had done what was asked of him.

The guy was a brilliant artist and the statues - though incomplete - are a masterpiece. There is no question of that. What Mr Borglum, with hundreds of assistants, achieved at Mount Rushmore is magnificent and well worth a visit - particularly as the surrounding countryside is so beautiful. I don't know enough about the other two to venture a guess, but I suspect Presidents Washington and Lincoln would not have approved of such godlike portrayals, verging as they do on idolatry. 

Still, it's done now. I might have preferred a mountainous likeness of Wyatt Earp, but Americans like what they have - and so, reluctantly, do I. Despite the inexplicable omission of my hero Tom Paine from the group, I enjoyed my time there immensely. 

A remarkable incident happened as I left the car park. A family flagged me down and told me they had seen me at Lake Itasca, at the headwaters of the Mississipi. The German au pair in the group had pointed me out as being the same guy and they had immediately recognised Speranza, of course. I stopped for a brief chat with them before heading off wondering at such an enormous coincidence. In a country this size, what are the odds?

Rocking on

Chimney Rock
Chimney Rock
Chimney Rock visitor center
Walk discouragement
View from Scotts Bluff

I don't know how many miles I did today because I forgot to reset my trip computer. Let's just call the last two days an average of about 250 miles each - a little below my target. On the other hand, I am comfortably exceeding my target average speed of 50mph. I forget to reset the trip this morning because I was a little flustered. It took almost an hour to liberate Speranza from her overnight place of safety. The receptionist in my hotel didn't know how the barn door worked and neither did I. Many phone calls later the owner turned up and freed us.

I remain grateful to him for providing shelter. The feared hail storm did not materialise, but the risk was real. I have seen disturbing examples on my travels of what the hail in these parts can do to carrosserie, as well as having noted just how many "hail damage repair" body shops there are along the roads I travel. I have spent altogether too much time picturing the effect on carbon fibre.

I set off a bit later than planned, therefore, initially targetting Sidney in Nebraska. Nebraska has the best tourism website of any state I have visited so far. Most presume a level of knowledge that I certainly don't have; the worst make up silly new names for their regions and require you to use them to navigate the site. Nebraska, sensibly, has a map. I clicked on it to show the area I was passing through (known as the panhandle) and it presented me with all my options. 

I visited the Chimney Rock National Historic Site and took some pictures. I would have liked to venture closer to the landmark itself, but the rattlesnake warning signs deterred me. I am as fond of the natural world as the next man, but not when it slithers and secretes venom. Give me an alligator any day, as long as I have a knife and some prior training with my Louisiana guide to the swamps.

Nebraskans are fond of Chimney Rock, apparently, and it sometimes stands as an emblem for the state. I was more interested in its context. This was beginning to look satisfyingly like the backdrop to a Western.

As, even more so, did Scotts Bluff, another distinctive rocky outcrop used by native Americans and, later, settlers for navigation. I was preparing myself for another earnest photo session when the park ranger remarked it was possible to drive to the top, adding that the 1.6 mile track features "the only road tunnels in Nebraska". Colour me sold. There is nothing nicer than the sound of "tunnelling", in the automotive sense; dropping a couple of gears while driving through a hole in a mountain in order to savour the sound of a beautiful engine. Nebraska's engineers might not have known it, but I had arrived with the very machine they had been designing for.

It was a short and twisty drive. Though the speed limit was low, it was a joy to have bends to drive around. No wonder American racing fans think NASCAR ovals are challenging. Most American roads -at least this side of the Mississippi - are drawn onto the landscape with long rulers, and set at right angles to each other with set squares. The chance to move the steering wheel twice or more a minute was delightful. The tunnels were short but enjoyable and at the top I was able to wipe the silly smile off my face and look suitably serious about the beauties of nature.

From there, I drove about fifty miles to my rest stop for the night; Alliance, Nebraska. Another tiny little town laid out with lavish spaces between the unimposing buildings as if it lived in hope of one day being Chicago. That's what cheap land does to urban design, apparently. It had the virtue, after a long day in the saddle, of providing a long walk across two enormous empty parking lots and a wide highway (and back) to get something to eat.

I have messed up my planning a bit for this stage. I am now just far enough from Mount Rushmore to be unable to visit it and move on, but too close to have a long run towards it. I shall figure this out in the morning. For now, full of strip mall Eye-talian food served - as usual - more attentively than if it were gourmet fare, I am exhausted and ready for my bed.

From Little Houses on the Prairie to the High Plains

My first stop of the day
A "soddie". The original little house on the prairie for most starting-out homesteaders
The comfortable, if rather cramped interior of the sod house
Can you picture John Wayne as Wil Andersen in here?
These schools only provided primary eduction, but they did get to Shakespeare.
Detective's wife, Mrs Bair in Yuma, CO today
As recommended by the Bairs, my Mexican supper

I woke early, full of anticipation for the road. I set off westwards towards Colorado, pausing at the town of Colby, KS to visit the Prairie Museum of Art and History. Kansas doesn't have a lot of history. It only celebrated its centennial in 1961. The museum, organised by a local history society with private funding, is interesting nonetheless.

One of my favourite exhibits was the map showing Kansas (largely acquired through the Louisiana Purchase at $0.03 an acre - one of history's great real estate deals) parcelled up into plots. These were offered, free, to anyone who came forward to claim them as homesteaders on condition that they would improve the land. These claims are the basis of legal title to much of the state (pace the Native Americans).

My other favourite was a startling photo of a dust storm in the centre of Colby in the "dirty Thirties". The Western part of Kansas was caught up in the agrarian catastrophe of the dustbowl. I could only admire the presence of mind of the photographer, who must have assembled his complicated 1930's equipment (probably even older as he was a professional in a small, poor town) under some time pressure.

More impressive though were the buildings from around the state assembled in the museum grounds. Particularly touching was the "soddie" - a house made of dried sods, which was the typical house of the early homesteaders - probably the first "improvement" necessary to complete their claim. This was the real "little house on the prairie". There was a more impressive later version which, though presented as an example of poverty, was actually rather more commodious than my London apartment! Americans - having land to spare - have a much different sense of space.

There was also a church and, most touching of all a one room frontier school house familiar to anyone who has enjoyed Western movies. The scene that sprang to mind immediately for me was John Wayne recruiting his young trail hands in "The Cowboys", his best performance in my opinion and perhaps my favourite cowboy film.

These schools sprang up as soon as a group of farmers could afford to pay a teacher for their children. They were small because the transport infrastructure didn't allow for more children than could walk to them. If the children of a locality grew up, then the school was simply moved. The list of a teacher's duties on the wall rather amused me. I fear the NUT would do its nut and the NAS/UWT get quite nasty about it.

From Colby, I set off toward Colorado again. Diagonals are difficult to do in this part of the world, so I progressed North-West by moving West, then North. The roads were just as I like them - some 75mph interstate to burn a few miles but mostly two lane blacktops through open country at 65mph, slowing to 25mph to pass through the occasional country town. The sun shone. I had my roof down for much of the journey. There were ranches, farms and nodding donkey oil installations to look at. It was bliss.

I thought I had bagged my first speeding ticket when a Kansas State Trooper's car suddenly caught my eye. I was accelerating, at perhaps the merest tad over the limit, past a couple of trucks. He was sneakily parked on the wide grassy central reservation, which sank lower than the carriageways it divided so he was as far below my line of sight as I often am of the drivers of enormous pick up trucks. I slowed rapidly and watched my mirrors anxiously until I crossed the State line. Perhaps he was too slow with his radar? Or perhaps he simply realised that I was so far "out of state" as to be not worth pursuing. I overtook with even more caution thereafter, apart from one wonderful "Ferrari moment" that I shall not detail here for reasons that will become apparent.

I paused at Wray, CO to refuel and asked some youthful Ferrari enthusiasts at the gas station if they could recommend a car wash. Speranza was in need of a good clean. They sent me to one behind the Riverside Cafe, which was conveniently on my route. She was caked with dead insects (those in Louisiana were particularly plump and splatworthy I had noticed) and it was satisfying to reveal her gleaming loveliness in all its full glory again. It was also cooling to mess about with the water sprays in the shade afforded by the car wash enclosure. By then it was 33º Celsius.

I pressed on to my tentative destination, Yuma, CO, arriving in the late afternoon. I had been unable to find any promising hotels there online and had decided to take a look before committing. If the establishments in town were unsuitable, I reasoned I could press on. I stopped first at a launderette in the centre of town. Speranza's many virtues do not include much storage so I am limited (in order to make room for computer and photographic equipment and to be able to drive with the roof down, occupying much of the boot/trunk space) to one carry-on bag for my clothes. This means I have to do laundry every ten days and my time was up. It's a job I hate, but it had to be done and there were some amusing signs to make me smile. You know you are in the West when the laundrette needs to prohibit the washing of saddle cloths, for example.

As I was busying myself with this task a police car screeched to an alarming halt outside the window and its driver came inside. I thought it was another document check (or a deportation order to Kansas!) but no, it was Investigator Bair, a local detective (CID guy, in British terms) and a Ferrari enthusiast. He could scarcely believe that one was really present in his little community of 3,500 souls. I gave him the tour and we chatted happily. It passed the time for me while I waited for my washing cycle to finish. He went away and returned with his wife and daughter and it is the charming Mrs Bair who is pictured here. I gave them the blog address when obtaining Mrs Bair's permission to publish the photo, which is why I plead the 5th about my "Ferrari moment." I don't want to embarrass my detective friend with his colleagues in traffic.

The Bairs told me the Nelson Inn was more comfortable than it looked from the outside and recommended it to me. They also sent me to La Cabana del Amigo, a simple but charming little Mexican restaurant full of local families with their children, where a local waitress took me in hand selected my food for me and kept refilling my Diet Coke. I shall miss the endless drink one glass buys you in the States when I return to stingy Europe. They also tipped me off that there was a storm warning for tonight and that there was a possibility of the dreaded "damaging hail". They said the proprietor of the Nelson Inn has a big garage and that I should ask to shelter my car there tonight. I did and he courteously agreed. She is in an enormous barn with a couple of trucks and his Corvette, so the storm is no longer a worry.

As you see, though many thought me nuts to bring her here and take her places so far from Ferrari dealers and valet parkers, Speranza continues to work her charm. She is allowing me to overcome my natural English reserve (which seems happily to be fading in the face of American openness) and make enjoyable contact with the people I meet on my tour. All in all - and I know you must be bored with this by now and waiting for it all to go interestingly pear-shaped - another splendid day.

Boot Hill and beyond

Local signage
A contemporary ad for the relocated saloon where I tasted my first sarsaparilla today
Fights on one often led to the other
A retired locomotive of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad
Shopping in the General Outfitting Store
Front Street, as reconstructed in the Boot Hill Museum
The Barkeep in the Long Branch Saloon
One of the street plaques on the "Trail of Fame"
Dodge City's most famous member of the law enforcement community
In the tracks of the pioneers
I am not sure I would have believed it without this
Speranza's admirers in Garden City, Kansas
Let that be a lesson to us all

Dodge City did not disappoint me. This place of my childhood imaginings, this scene of a thousand cowboy shows, has made a good fist of preserving its brief moments of infamy. The truth is the Dodge we all "remember" did not exist for very long at all. Bodies were buried in Boot Hill for just six years. The dangerous place of gunfights and debauchery was calmed in one violent year by Wyatt Earp and his "committee". 

For most of its history, Dodge City has been what it is now; a little rural town. I am not sure many of its inhabitants think much about its history. Many of them are quite recent arrivals. The lawyers in town all seem to specialise in immigration and advertise their services in Spanish. More than half the population is Hispanic and there seemed to be more shop signs in Spanish than English.

The reconstructed Front Street in the private "Boot HIll Museum" is good. The introductory movie gave me a start as it explained, quite uncritically, how the US Government had ordered the slaughter of all the buffaloes - millions of them - in order to starve the native Americans into submission. Of course it wasn't news but I suppose I am accustomed to hearing more sensitive accounts. In fairness, the narrator was in historic character. History can't be unwritten and I am not in favour of sentimental nonsense about restitution by people who had nothing to do with the barbarities to people who happen to be descended from the victims. The best things those descendants can do is what many of them are doing; pitch in and profit as best they can from the way things turned out.

There are interesting exhibits to be seen. There's not a lot left of the Boot HIll cemetery, but enough to give an idea. The whole museum is well-organised in a folksy, easy-going way. The saloon and some of the other buildings are the real deal, relocated to the current position. It amused me immensely to have a sarsaparilla in the bar, having walked through the swing doors. I even dressed up as a cowboy to have my portrait taken in the photographic studio. If you have taken the trouble to drive all the way to Dodge City, why hold back?

The Trail of Fame is a bit lame, to be honest. There are few actual relics to see. The town's tourism boosters have installed plaques in the sidewalks to commemorate real historical figures, like Wyatt Earp and Bat Masterson but also the actors from the long-running TV series "Gunsmoke". Marshall Matt Dillon never existed, but he seems to mean every bit as much to some tourists as Earp. I followed the trail, dutifully though, if only because the nice lady in the Visitor Center seemed pleased that I wanted to. It made me smile. I reflected that it has a greater connection with reality than, say, the Loch Ness Monster and people make a living from that "attraction" too.

I liked the people I met during my day in Dodge. The town needs a break and, in my small way, I was it. So I did my best and spent money in the General Store on the museum's Front Street on souvenirs to ship home to my mum and my Western-loving dad. I only wish English law would permit me to buy one of the fund-raising specials for the town; a special edition Ruger Vaquero revolver "in Deep Blue with gold lettering and white grips". It would look great in a display cabinet, but even with the firing pin removed it would be illegal back in the home of the Great Nanny.

If the history of the Old West means anything to you, Dodge City is worth a visit. I am certainly glad I went. I spent so much time there that driving to Colorado was not really on today. There are not many significant places en route, so I settled for moving just 50 miles West and staying for the night in Garden City, KS.

On the way, I visited another attraction slightly more historical than the Loch Ness monster, but almost as difficult to discern; the remaining tracks of prairie schooners on the Santa Fe Trail, nine miles west of Dodge. There's precious little, if anything, to see and I am not sure without the authority of the experts who badged the site I would have believed that the tracks are what they are said to be. Still it was something to stand in the cold Kansas air, with a slight rain falling, and think of ancestors risking all to make a new nation - and of the natives they so ruthlessly displaced to do so.

I was about to head out to dinner when I noticed a group of people admiring my car, parked just outside my window. I waved to them and went out to chat. I opened her up, fired up the engine and showed them her party trick (coupe to convertible in 14 seconds). As I went back to my room I ran into another of her admirers who told me that while he had been standing there smoking a succession of people had come to take a look. I am happy for people to take an interest and am becoming accustomed to answering their questions. Speranza has started a lot of conversations here, and I am learning a lot from them, once she has broken the ice.

To "the wickedest city in America"

The guys who restored order to the wickedest city in America, including Messrs Masterson and Earp
Almost there...
Ray Artis, with whom I chatted at the Big Basin historical marker today
At a truck stop in Englewood, KS
No Welcome Center on my little route, but a welcome nonetheless
The brilliant Stables Cafe, where I dined in Guthrie, OK last night

I liked Oklahoma very much. I saw the local people at their best in a crisis and it was impressive. Over breakfast at my hotel in Guthrie this morning, I heard two locals, a hotel guest and a lady who worked there, discussing how the tornado will be old news in a few weeks and worrying about whether the help to their distressed neighbours will continue.

The lady said the tornadoes (a regular occurence in Oklahoma, but rarely so damaging) had always skirted around her but her parents had been hit by one. It had taken them two years to straighten themselves out and they had "learned a lot about insurance." I gathered what they learned had not been very much to the credit of their insurer. The ex-lawyer in me smiled as they told each other how important it was to read and understand the terms of your policy.

I watched the morning news programme, very local in its scope as is usual here where every major town has its own TV station. The morning rush hour was a bit of a disaster, with so many ramps closed on I-35 because of the tornado damage. I had planned to go back into Oklahoma City to visit a museum, but decided that it would be selfish to contribute to their congestion problems for mere pleasure. So I set off straight to Dodge City, KS, once known as "the wickedest city in America" at a time when the title was more hotly contested than today.

Today's drive was up there with the best of them. Changing my next destination to Dodge City took me off the interstates and onto excellent, but more quiet routes. The truckers and I had only to contend with a few local farmers in their pickups. Progress was brisk but I was in no great rush. I had the roof down and was happy to take in the local scenery. I knew there would be no Welcome Center on so quiet a route so I stopped (interfering with precisely no traffic at that point) to photograph the "Welcome to Kansas" sign. There was nothing to be heard but the low thrum of Speranza's idling V8 and the songs of local birds.

I blasted past a truck at one point, before pulling in to look at an historical marker a mile or so down the road. He saw me there and pulled in to find out precisely what had just passed him. He was a nice guy, ex-military with service in Germany, and originally from New York State. We chatted in the Kansas sunshine and I took a picture with Speranza to email to him and warned him it might feature here. He took the details of my blog and said he would check it out and follow my progress. Hello Ray, welcome. It was good to meet you. Drive safely, my friend.

Speranza is issuing warnings about her "engine management system". I have seen this before and am not too worried. Very little carbon build up on her catalytic converters can cause it. She's performing very well and there are no other indications of difficulty. I am exchanging emails about it (drat that time difference) with the guys who service her in London and unless I hear from them to the contrary, I am proposing to press on until I actually pass a Ferrari dealer, rather then diverting to Denver, CO - where the nearest one is right now. 

I arrived in Dodge City late afternoon and checked into my hotel too late to take in the sights. I will do that in the morning before heading off to whatever proves to be my next destination. This trip is proving better (touch wood) even than I imagined.

Moore, OK

Inside Oklahoma's welcome center on I-35
A glimpse of the havoc nature wrought in Moore, OK

My Texan B&B redeemed itself this morning with an excellent breakfast prepared by a friendly, personable chef. I was beginning to think everyone in Texas was a bit cold, by American standards at least, so thank goodness for her.

I had checked the weather forecasts and the heaviest storms were predicted to be centred on my starting point, so I decided to make haste northwards on my planned route towards Wichita, KS via Oklahoma City, OK.

I called the Oklahoma highway information line and was told that the key highway, I-35 was open but that delays "of several hours" were to be expected. I decided to regroup when I arrived at the Oklahoma Welcome Center.

The welcome was genuine. There were two mature and friendly members of staff on duty and one of them assured me that, while there might be slight delays due to rubberneckers, I would be able to get to Oklahoma City without problems. He regaled me with that city's charms and after sitting with the maps he supplied over a complimentary coffee, I decided that I would visit the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum. I booked an hotel north of Oklahoma City and off I duly set.

My plan to avoid the storm by driving north ran into the obvious problem that the storm was moving south. I met it. It was spectacular with high winds, driving rain and lightning, but it was nothing compared to what it had been. My main problem was to drive slowly enough to be able to stop within my visibility, without ending up with even less visibility because I was in the spray from the trucks barrelling along. Just as I was thinking I might have to pull over and let it pass, the skies cleared. Then it proved that the highway information line was more accurate than the gentleman at the Welcome Center, though the delay was just over one hour, not "several".

I didn't see any rubberneckers, but I can understand how the idea might get into circulation. We processed at 3-6 miles per hour past the devastated community of Moore. Highway I-35 runs right through it. Before we came upon the tornado damage, there was the poignant sight of signs advertising the town's attractions. While standing still alongside damaged housing, I took a snapshot. It wasn't why I was there. Indeed I had told the guy at the Welcome Center, while expressing my sympathy for his fellow-Oklahomans that had suffered, that I would rather take another route than cause any delays to the work being done. Still, I guess a passing "first responder" might have seen me do it and thought that was why I came.

I tuned into a local radio station and was mightily impressed. It was broadcasting appeals from the Red Cross and the Salvation Army, reporting on the aid that was already being supplied. One local church had set up a restaurant that was capable of serving 3,000 sit-down meals to affected families tonight and had laid on flat screen TVs for them to watch after their meal. The representative who called in to invite people over told us the name of a company in Arkansas that was donating food and sending it in its own trucks to make this all possible. I wish I could remember the name.

Local farmers called in to offer pasture for horses and cattle displaced by the tornado. Others offered to house domestic animals. Call after call came in from people offering to assist the victims one way or another. Local schools and the local university student union were organising collections of donated food, clothes and other necessaries. The announcer was reporting an incredible response to the appeals for donations. Meanwhile, the state and federal employees were doing their jobs in clearing the roads, policing the situation and so on. 

Americans are an impressive bunch when situations like this arise. I was in tears to hear of selfless act after selfless act. This is what David Cameron vainly hopes for when he speaks of "the Big Society." It's a concept that's lost in Britain - along with the churches and other private institutions that have been driven out by the all-powerful social democratic state with its ersatz "caring". Partly to prove myself wrong, I have made an online donation to American Red Cross Disaster Relief and I hope you will consider doing so too.

When the road cleared, it was already too late for my museum visit so I headed straight for the hotel I had booked. Not that I am complaining. Compared to the people of Moore, I have no problems at all and was feeling blessed tonight as I set out to find something to eat. Now I am feeling blessed and jolly, although I had to drive to my restaurant so only drank iced tea. I had hearty fare in a quirky local cafe, waited on by a lady who could not get enough of my accent.

To crown the evening, two young men from Texas were arriving as I left and dispelled the cold impression left by my Arlington B&B. They were interested in Speranza and my trip. They asked me about my route and wished me all the best. As two of my favourite clients in my career were from Texas, I knew yesterday's impression was wrong. It was good to have it put straight though. Darn straight, as you might say.