A Journey Through the Red States
September - October, 2003
By Anstr Davidson
See Also: The Photos
Retirement! I have made it. So what to do to celebrate? The answer was a road trip to the West. This is a report of that trip.
[Viewing Note: The links in this report are of two kinds. The links in blue pop up photos that I took. Those links in red are links to off-site pages that relate to the subject but don't directly further the story. You may not want to take these links. The off-site links will open in new windows that are not full screen so you will know that there is a new window and so you can go back to the main window by clicking on any visible portion of it.]
I left Arlington on September 22 with the car packed for cold and camping. I didn't camp and there was no cold. Most of the daytime temperatures were in the seventies. It was t-shirt weather. I was very lucky.
On the Road: The trip to the Mississippi River was uneventful and not particularly interesting. Somewhere in Indiana, however, I realized that I was driving through the "red states" -- the states Bush won in 2000 that the networks displayed in red. Except for less than two hours combined in Iowa and Pennsylvania, the only blue state I spent any time in was Illinois -- a state very proud of the Republican president it gave the nation. (Ok, I drove through Maryland, but that does not count.)
So what is going on here? What is it about these states the makes them so different? That is part of my voyage of discovery. Maybe I can find this out at the Interstate rest stops and from the road signs.
(Of course, I live in a red state. There was no need to travel to experience that. But within that red state, I live in the Peoples Republic of Arlington County. I am in a blue county in a red state.)
The Show Me State: Stop one is St. Louis, the great gateway to the west. I am in the home state of John Ashcroft. Certainly, I will find out why they voted for Bush. I meet VHTRC transplant Gena Bonini, and we go to a Hash House Harriers run that she is the "co-hare" of. The experience of that Hash led to an idea for a new VHTRC motto -- "We may be crazy, but at least we are not Hashers." While waiting for the run to start, we drink a beer, or two. Several smoke cigarettes. The Hash starts. We run through back yards and court yards leaving innocent persons to wonder what hit them. It is time for the first "BS" -- beer stop. We have a beer and run on. After an irate land owner chases us off on his riding mower, we find the second BS. This one is at Gena's house. (Gena had one of these Molson packages that contains 55 beer cans. It's really bitchin. [Translation from the Californian, "cool."]) We run on. We find the finish somehow. Actually, Gena was with us and that helped. She knew the way, but we were supposed to find it on our own. It was like an Easter egg hunt where your mother knew where all the eggs were but couldn't tell you -- directly, anyway. At the end there is a surprise -- there is more beer.
I am a veteran of a prior Hash. (I have now done Hashes in two foreign locations -- Beijing, China and St. Louis, Missouri.) I know what is coming. The deal where you are "punished" and made to drink beer for any of a number of stupid reasons. So I waited to be punished. Just after I had to chug for being a newbie, the squad car drove up. I was very proud of Gena when she went to go talk to the policeman. The guy who went with her, gave me his cup of beer to hold. While they were off talking to the officer, I was helpfully consuming the evidence. The policeman, presumably, decided that it would be a pain for him to arrest all of us, so he let us go on the condition the we would repair to the nearby tavern. At least that is what Gena said happened. For all I know, he was a Hasher too.
You need to know what had been happening. The Hashers have songs for all occasions. Most songs use the F-word. Does John Ashcroft know about this? I receive my first clue about the red states. Yes, Missouri gave us John Ashcroft, but there are people there who certainly should have their library records checked out under the PATRIOT Act.
At the tavern, I have a feeling of deja vu all over again. The sports bar is replete with Rams posters. The Rams? They used to be the third best pro football team in Los Angeles after the USC Trojans and UCLA Bruins. It seems that St. Louis people, unlike anyone in Los Angeles, actually like the Rams. Wow. There was more, however. There were several Cardinal posters (baseball, their football Cardinals are in Arizona) with pictures of former USC Trojan, Mark McGwire! Hmm, do these people realize how their sports heritage is connected to godless southern California?
The next day, Gena takes me running in a park that has buffalo, elk, and wild turkey (the bird, Gary). A prelude of things to come. This is really the gateway to the west.
Bloody Kansas: I make the long ride across Kansas easier by staying overnight in the middle of the state in Junction City. The Civil War book that I am listening to on CD points out that hostilities in the War started in Kansas well before Fort Sumter. As a result of the Compromise of 1850, the territories would enter the Union as either slave or free, depending on the vote of their legislatures. Each side wanted more of its supporters in the state. They seem to have accomplished this by reducing the numbers of the opposition as much as they tried to increase their own.
From the Interstate, I find out that Russell, Kansas is the home of not just one U.S. Senator (Bob Dole) but two (Arlen Specter, also). Russell was settled after the Civil War by people from Wisconsin -- a blue state. Additionally, several Kansas towns were the "home of [astronaut you never heard of]." I-70 seems to be the home of astronauts beginning with John Glenn in Ohio.
Kansas, by the way, wins the Delaware Stupid Toll Road Award for having the only toll road in 5000 miles of driving. That seems out of character for a red state.
The road signs demonstrate yet another dichotomy in a red state. Right after the sign that says something like "Abortion takes a life" would often be a sign that says, "Adult Superstore XXX -- Open 24 Hours -- Next Exit."
Colorful Colorado: I make it to the Colorado border and yet another astronaut's home (Burlington). The speed limit is 75 mph -- the highest so far, but I see more traffic cops here than on the rest of the trip combined. I turn right off of I-70 at Limon and head to Fort Morgan.
Fort Morgan is the boyhood home of Glenn Miller and, more importantly to me, the ancestral home of my Bloedorn relatives. (Most don't live there any more.) Fort Morgan was incorporated in 1887, the same year as Pomona College, and is named after Colonel Christopher A. Morgan, a Civil War hero who was never in Colorado. Fort Morgan is also the home (or former home) of golfer Dale Douglass, and ultrarunner Marshall Ulrich. The Big Thing in Fort Morgan is the sugar beat plant.
I visit my cousin Corliss and her husband Gary. We drive out to the Pawnee Buttes. Corliss has lived in Fort Morgan most of her life but this is only the second or third time she has been here. It's a well kept secret. On this wind swept plain, I know I am not in Virginia any more. We drive back to conservative Fort Morgan and go to a Thai restaurant.
The next day, I go to the mile high city, Denver. I visit brother-in-law Steve and his wife. After a nice lunch, I drive north to Fort Collins to see cousin Carole and her husband, John. The weather is beautiful. The next day we climb the trail to the Horsetooth. It is a nice climb and we get good views of Fort Collins, the plains to the east, and Longs Peak and the rest of the Rockies to the west.
As I look at the map to plan my the next leg of my trip, I note that the road west out of Fort Collins has those green dots that indicate that it is scenic. John tells me that road is nice, though longer and slower. I decide to take it. It turns out to be a beautiful drive along the Poudre River. The aspens and cottonwoods have changed color for fall. Unlike the east, here the deciduous trees all turn yellow. The only fall red is in some low bushes. As I drive, I spot a trailhead and get out for a hike. I go up about a mile where there is a dense pine forest, a stream, and gorgeous views of the valley. I don't, however, see any animal.
As I get back into the car and drive on, I see bighorn sheep right along the road. Are these, by the way, really bighorns? I think so. Both sexes have horns, the males having the distinctive ram horns while the females have the much smaller ones seen here. The animals tend to hurd by sex. Also, the coloring seems correct, especially the white butts. (More Bighorn Information.) I was to see more bighorns, and the somewhat similar pronghorn in Wyoming.
At the Poudre River Valley, I come out to a high plain and drive through the town of Walden. Walden's elevation is 8099 feet and it has 890 inhabitants. What is it like to live here? What happens when a snow strom comes in? This is truly not Virginia.
Wyoming This high plain contains the beginning of the Platte River (or one of its forks, anyway). I drive north and finally arrive at my goal. Wyoming. Two words come to mind in relation to Wyoming -- big and few. Wyoming is a big state with vast empty spaces. But there are few people there. Wyoming is the 10th largest state in area, but its population is 493,000, the smallest in the country. The less-than-10-mile-square District of Columbia has 570,000 people. Wyoming's biggest city, Cheyenne, has just over 50,000 people. My destination, Jackson, has 6,000 people.
I drive though the open, empty plain and through the small town of Saratoga with its hot spring and then on to I-80. I see more history from rest stops when I visit Fort Steele, which is near a rest stop on I-80. There ain't much left of Fort Steele. (Check out some Fort Steele history.) It was probably pretty lonely as the only purpose for the fort was to protect the transcontinental railroad which still goes through, but no longer needs the U.S. Army to protect it. The peaceful ruins are quite beautiful along the Platte River.
I drive on a few more miles to Rawlings. The motel has a Monday Night Football special in the bar. I am disappointed that it's all guys, cigarettes, and cheap beer. The game sucks too. It's Green Bay at Chicago.
The next day, I take the last leg of the journey to Jackson. I drive through the Great Divide Basin in the middle of the state. There is really nothing here. I drive along the Sweetwater River following the immigrant trail. At Split Rock, one can see where the wagons would have gone. The immigrants must have been pretty tired when they got here. Did they know how much further they had to go? Did they know that the flat plain that had taken them all the way from Missouri would end and that they had the Wasatch, the great desert, and the Sierras ahead?
Part of my trip today is through the Wind River Indian Reservation. My radio channel surfing finds Indian public radio. When they aren't interviewing the "Indian Spike Lee," they play country music with titles like, "She's Acting Single, I'm Drinkin' Doubles":
She's acting single
Slowly the vast emptiness gives way to trees and the Wind River. I am driving to the Continental Divide and the east rim of Jackson Hole. Only a few yards from the top is a small lake whose water will be in New Orleans in a few days. It is beautiful. I eat a sandwich and walk around it. In a shady place, I see the only snow on the entire trip. I drive just a short way and the water is going west and there are the Tetons.
Jackson Hole: There is a view of the Tetons from the top, but for the rest of the ride down, you can't see them. Just more forest and yellow aspens. Near the bottom, you can see Mt. Moran and, after you turn left to go down the valley, the rest of the Teton Range comes into view. It is breathtaking.
After stopping to take the picture, I drive into the town of Jackson and find Fitzgerald's Bicycles where son Tom works. The bike shop is in the back of the Snake River Brewery. The temperature is in the 70's and the sun is bright. I start seven days of beautiful weather in Jackson. It rained for about 90 seconds the whole time.
I won't describe each detail of the stay in Jackson. The place was busier than I expected with a lot of old, retired folks like me there. I did a lot of hiking and running. Highlights were:
The Animals: It was a great time to be looking for animals. The ones I saw were no big deal, but it was still exciting. The apparent goshawk is, supposedly, rare. We came upon it on the trail as it was eating a bird it had killed. As usual the buffalo in Yellowstone were accommodating. They seem to have a duty roster to show up for the tourists! The animals at top right of the montage are, I am pretty sure, pronghorns. If you compare it to the bighorns in Colorado and the Wyoming bighorns (top left of montage) you will see the difference. The coolest sight was what I didn't get a picture of. The elk were in rut. Early one morning, we saw them prancing around and heard the males bugling. It was quite exciting. Oh, I did also see fish.
The Mountains: I had several good run/hikes in the mountains including going to the top of both the Jackson Hole and Snow King ski areas. Since it was hunting season, I tried hard not to look like a deer, moose, elk, or liberal. I was most impressed by the mountains that, in three or four months, people will ski down. On one 20 mile run in the national park, we saw no one on the trail until we got back to very near the trailhead.
Yellowstone: On the last full day in Jackson, we drove up to Yellowstone to see Old Faithful and the other geysers and hot springs. While almost trite, these features continue to amaze. We particularly noted the tiny ecosystems around the hot water where green, lush vegetation basks off the warm steam, like bums on a heating grate in downtown DC, seemed so out of place in the harsh environment. We saw Old Faithful, which was right on time. (You can see Old Faithful go off live on its web cam -- if it's day time.)
Good Bye to Jackson: It was hard to leave. The perfect weather, fresh air, great views, and nice people. Time to go back to reality. I stop on the way out of town to have two nicks in the car's front window fixed, and I am off. The trip home will be different. I go south from Jackson to Rock Springs from which I drive east on I-80, the more northern route than I-70 that I took out. I will go through several state capitals -- Cheyenne, Lincoln, Springfield, Indianapolis, and Columbus. I push on to Cheyenne. This largest town in Wyoming has many downtown intersections controlled only by stop signs. There are single family residences across the street from the state capitol building. On a run, I note that the conservative town has a street named after Martin Luther King.
Nebraska: The Cornhusker state is nothing if not big. It straddles two time zones so that the people on the radio say, "It's 3 o'clock central." I stop to see where the south fork of the Platte comes in from Colorado (and Fort Morgan). The Platte River brings I-76 from Denver which adds significantly to I-80's traffic.
At the suggestion of the nice lady in the Nebraska welcome center, I stop at Cabela's in Sidney. According to the Web site, "Cabela's Sidney Retail Showroom, just off I-80 at exit 59, is Nebraska's #1 tourist attraction..." That says a lot for Nebraska! In case you don't know, Cabela's is a mail order hunting supply shop. I have the only regular car in the parking lot. The rest of the parking lot is filled with pickups (big ones, not those fruity Hondas) and SUV's. Most have a trailer with an ORV on it. I presume that the ORV is to drag the carcass out of the woods. It is truly an amazing place.
As I travel further east, I see the "Tom Osborne Parkway." It is fascinating how important football is out here. Every convenience store has something to buy with a big red N on it, just as in Ohio you see grey baseball caps with big red zeros on them. The local television stations one-up each other on how much Nebraska (or Kansas, or Buckeye, or Missouri) football coverage they have.
At Lincoln, I leave I-80 and go straight to Nebraska City, cross the Missouri River, cut through a corner of Iowa, and enter Missouri.
Twain Country: I decide to get off the Interstate and cross Missouri to Hannibal. My interest in Twain is spurred not by intellectual curiosity but by having recently seen an old episode of Bonanza in which a young newspaper reporter named Sam Clemens comes to Virginia City and helps the Cartwrights expose a crooked judge who is helping the railroad steal the Ponderosa Ranch. Clemens decides that a good pen name would be "Mark Twain." (Twain, of course, really was in Virginia City. His experiences are recounted in Roughing It, whose description of boating on Lake Tahoe as "ballooning" I love.)
So, anyway, I visit Twain's boyhood home in Hannibal. It's interesting. But the bigger attractions, in my view, are the Norman Rockwell paintings that were illustrations for Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. Also, there is the Mississippi River. Quite impressive.
Finally a Blue State: I cross the Mississippi and enter Illinois. In this state that voted for Gore, I see many Burma Shave-like signs in farmer's fields that boil down to the point that if we all carried guns it would be a lot safer world. I spend most of my time in Illinois studying that Republican, Abraham Lincoln. In Springfield, there is quite a large reconstruction of not only Lincoln's home before he left to be President, but much of the surrounding neighborhood. The biggest impression I receive is how much Lincoln gave up personally to be President. Springfield looks nice. We all know that political Washington sucks and we also know by hindsight that Lincoln will never return to Springfield alive. Who would want to leave when you don't even get to use Air Force One or Camp David?
The site glosses over Lincoln's views on slavery. While he was against the expansion of slavery, he did not want to roll it back in the South and fought to make the war not about slavery but about the preservation of the Union. As he said in a 1859 speech in Cincinnati, "I say that we must not interfere with the institution of slavery in the states where it exists, because the constitution forbids it, and the general welfare does not require us to do so." ( More Lincoln quotations on slavery.)
Indiana--Back to Red: I drive across Indiana, not seeing any reason to stop. I do see a sign for the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame, but I assume that is all about Bobby Knight and Larry Bird. Oops! I remember belatedly in writing this report that there is one other great from Indiana -- John Wooden. If I had remembered that, I might have stopped!
The Buckeye State: I decide to stop at the Air Force Museum. Ohio is justly proud of its history in aviation. But its PR campaign is not too good. The Wright brothers were from Ohio, but the flight was in North Carolina. (In fact, North Carolina put the Wright brothers on its twenty-five cent piece. That's sad. No North Carolina resident did anything worthy of being on the quarter? The Wright brothers only went to North Carolina to get a soft landing!) Ohio needs to get off this Wright brothers crap and focus on aviation, not flight. Anyone can fly the plane. What Ohio did, and does, is design and build them. (Or they used to build them. Much of that is done in China now.)
Anyway, the Air Force museum is neat. Tons of old, and some new, planes. I notice that there is nothing about a plane landing on an aircraft carrier and no mention, other than the Doolittle Raid, that a plane ever has taken off or landed from a ship. Not surprising. But when I go to the IMAX movie, I am surprised that it is all about the Navy's Blue Angels.
The End: That's about it. I take US 40 from Washington, PA to I-68 in Maryland, thus avoiding another red state, West Virginia. (How did Gore ever lose West Virginia?) I pull into Arlington and home after 5094 miles. It was a good trip and a great luxury as a retirement gift to myself. I need to do it again some time.
To satisfy my anal streak, I kept track of my gas usage. I was pleased that I averaged just under 30 miles per gallon. That was in my Nisan Maxima with a big six cylinder engine. (Remember when a six was small and "big" engines were V-8s?) Here are the numbers in case anyone cares.
See Also: The Photos