This from John Steinbeck’s Travels With Charley In Search of America. I was in North Dakota two years ago seeing the Bakken oil fields. I noticed on a map a road that goes straight down the country from the Canadian border north of Minot to Brownsville, Texas. I knew a heartland American road trip was in order. Last month I did it. It was quite a journey.
U.S. Route 83 is one of the longest North/South highways in the U.S. at nearly 1900 miles. Unlike Route 66 no part of the road has been de-commissioned. The two-lane road is just about the same as when it was built starting in the 1920s. What did I come away with from this trip? Three big observations.
First, the U.S. is big – really big. Back in 1970 Joni Mitchell sang in Big Yellow Taxi – “they paved paradise to put up a parking lot.” Well, not on Route 83. The U.S. is still a country of wide expanses. Route 83 goes through no large cities and no National parks. Some call it ‘the road to nowhere.’ But the scenery is powerful nonetheless. The rolling prairie and grasslands of North and South Dakota, the Sand Hills of Nebraska, the dust bowl remembrances of Oklahoma and the Hill Country of West Texas make for a surprisingly interesting ride.
A second observation is that American agriculture is incredible. Mid-summer on Route 83 shows off one of the great food baskets of the world. The sunflowers of South Dakota are out as is the winter and summer wheat. The combines are moving north. Fields have already been cut in the south. Now the equipment is moving into the Dakotas. The corn fields of Kansas are almost mind numbing. Mile after mile as far as you can see, it is corn fence row to fence row. And then there is Cherry County, Nebraska in the Sand Hills with more beef cattle than any county in America. Further south in West Texas, Route 83 skirts the edge of the Permian basin oil field. North Platte, Nebraska is where the Union Pacific maintains the largest train yard in the world. Ten thousand Wyoming coal and West Coast container cars pass through the yard every day.
A final observation is that this part of the country is made up of hearty stock. Strasburg, North Dakota is the birthplace of Lawrence Welk. Ludwig Welk and his wife emigrated from Russia in 1893. They turned over the wagon when they arrived, covered it with a tent and this is how they spent their first winter. Then came a sod house and eventually a traditional wooden farmhouse. As they say about the original Western settlers, “The cowards never started and the weak died along the way.” The cemeteries along Route 83 are dotted with German, Russian, Czech and Norwegian names among many others. It was a hard life and no paradise.
The food along Route 83 reflects the immigrant population. There is a great German bakery in Linton, North Dakota serving traditional Kuchen and there is Runzas, the Czech fast food chain in Nebraska serving ‘cabbage burgers.’ And then there is the official entrée of Route 83, Chicken Fried Steak. Bill Mares, author, educator and former Vermont Legislator and my very congenial travelling companion is seen here tucking into a chicken fried steak at the Cattleman’s Café in Liberal, Kansas. It is difficult to determine exactly what is in chicken fried steak (the gravy is a major barrier) but suffice it to say, Route 83 is not heart healthy, vegan country. Still, a great ride.