On the road from Chicago

Mike Cowling is one hotel’s coolest customer as he explores the sweltering Midwest in the height of summer.

Devil's Tower in Wyoming was used in the filming of Close Encounters of the Third Kind
Devil's Tower in Wyoming was used in the filming of Close Encounters of the Third Kind

It would make a good quiz question. How many matchsticks did Patrick Acton use to make a model of the US Capitol in Washington?

Patrick has a small museum, called Matchstick Marvels, in Gladbrook, Iowa, where he shows some of his creations. Although not high on the “must do” list, a break was needed from the endless maize and soya bean fields that line the roads in this part of the world and the air-conditioned interior of the museum was an added enticement as the thermometer was pushing 40C. Gladbrook is in the middle of nowhere but within five minutes of the doors opening there were a dozen or so visitors wondering over his creations.

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The first night of our 14-day road trip was spent in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, the noise of distant evocative train whistles reminding us that we were in America. We aimed to use the straight country roads that provide a glimpse of rural communities west of Chicago. First port of call was the National Motorcycle Museum in Anamosa. Its rather plain entrance gives way to a Tardis- like interior featuring dozens of examples of American bikes with a good display of European and Japanese machines.

Westwards to Sioux City and over the Missouri River and into Nebraska using a narrow iron toll bridge that made the tyres on the hire car sing in harmony. This area of Nebraska is a surprisingly green and pleasant land with plenty of full-leaved trees edging the road. Sioux City is built on the border of three states, Iowa, Nebraska and South Dakota and it was the latter that would keep our attention for a few days.

We walked along in the same footsteps as explorers Lewis and Clark as we hiked the short path to the summit of Spirit Mound, a geological hillock in the vast grass farmlands of the state. The site is a religious place for Native Americans and visitors are asked to respect the area.

Historic Prairie Village, outside Madison, South Dakota, is a collection of old Midwest buildings laid out in streets on a grid pattern. Dark, wooden hotels with creaking floors and churches with hard pews provided shelter from the sweltering midday heat.

The air-conditioned car became a refuge as we headed to South Dakota’s state capital, Pierre. In the late afternoon sun we found the motel and received a warm welcome from the receptionist who was incredulous that anybody from England would stay and what were we doing in Pierre (pronounced Peer)?

One reason we were in South Dakota was Badlands. Two hours are needed to visit Badlands National Park, dynamic rock formations set in a sea of grassland, as you will be getting out of the car to walk short trails to explore. Entrance is $15 per car and the National Park Service fee offers good value for money as there is plenty to see and photograph.

After South Dakota our route took us to Devil’s Tower, a strange formation of igneous rock standing tall in the rolling grasslands of Wyoming on the Belle Fourche River. Used as a backdrop for Hollywood’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind, the site was the first declared United States National Monument, established in 1906 by President Theodore Roosevelt. It’s a spectacular piece of geology and the gentle rolling path around the base gives you an ever-changing view.

Driving through Colorado and south to the Lone Star state brought us to Amarillo and Cadillac Ranch, an art installation of half-buried cars. Visitors are encouraged to spray-paint the vehicles, set in a field alongside Interstate 40.

Halfway through the road trip and the sun was in our faces first thing in the morning as we headed back east through Oklahoma, crossing paths with Route 66. Passing through Arkansas, travelling by small towns that seem to be teetering on the edge of extinction we reached Missouri.

A list of famous resorts under the letter B might include Blackpool, Benidorm and Branson. What’s that I hear you say, Branson? Missouri’s resort town, Branson, is not quite on the Las Vegas level, but it does aim high. Attractions started with a country music show in the late 1960s and nowadays visitors have the choice of 50 shows to visit. Branson is in the Ozark Mountains and the town clings to hillsides with the bulk of attractions running along Highway 76, best viewed when the sun goes down and the lights come on.

Leaving Branson behind us we stopped for lunch at a giant truck stop as our route crossed a freeway. As the waitress led us to our booth in the restaurant we passed by a painting of Winston Churchill. We had stopped on the outskirts of Fulton, Missouri, scene of the British leader’s famous “Iron Curtain” speech. There is a museum dedicated to Churchill on the campus of the local university.

Nearly back in Chicago, any trip to Illinois should include Springfield, home to Abraham Lincoln. His house is carefully preserved by the National Park Service and a guided walk, led by a ranger, is free. His tomb, closed for the season when we visited, is across town in a sprawling cemetery.

The road trip was coming to an end with a day in Chicago to spend before heading back to Yorkshire. We were staying in the suburbs of the “windy city” and travelled into downtown’s Union Station on a double-deck commuter train after parking our car at the station in Itasca for a very reasonable $1.50 all day. The return fare for three was around $30 and to me, the driver, it was well spent. Chicago is easy to walk around and we had the art gallery, Millennium Park and a cruise on the river as our priorities. It all went well and we were back on the train slightly ahead of the commuter rush and back at our hotel by 6pm.

The journey took us over 4,000 miles of American highways, mainly side roads with the occasional stretch of four-lane freeway. It’s on the side roads that you find the real America, the Matchstick Marvels Museum, for instance, and in case you were wondering, the answer is 478,000.

Getting there

United Airlines operates three daily non-stop services from London Heathrow to Chicago, with onward connections to more than 300 cities throughout the Americas. Return fares in economy from London Heathrow to Chicago start from £504.45 including taxes. For latest prices, visit www.united.com or call 0845 8444 777.