Road America Blitz – There and Back

It has been my habit for these road trips to give some details of my route and the sights and points of interest along the way in a more or less chronological fashion. We’ll go about it a slightly different way this time.

I spent two days driving, each way, for my day of driving in circles in rural Wisconsin. The terrain between Denver and Elkhart Lake is not the least interesting that can be crossed in these United States (the caprock of west Texas is both boring and desolate, while Nebraska and Iowa are just boring), but it’s close. So we won’t go into excruciating detail of the trip.

I laid out my route a few weeks in advance, keeping in mind my two rules: no Interstates and no night driving. I’m splitting the trip almost exactly in half by staying with Frank in the suburbs of Omaha, so avoiding night driving is trivial. But I did do some pondering as to whether I should break Rule #1. In the end, I stuck to it, and I’m happy I did.

I’m not always able to entirely eliminate Interstate travel, but I do try to minimize it. On this trip, I began with about an hour on I-76 and had another hour or so navigating around Des Moines. But that was it. That first hour was not a problem; it was a holiday and traffic was light. However, both passes through the Des Moines area were no fun.

On Thursday I found myself two cars behind a truck. The truck was periodically dropping clods of dirt which broke up when bouncing down the road. These clods could have rocks in them for all I know, and even if they’re just hard dirt I didn’t want to run into any of it. I managed to avoid him, for a while at least. I’d almost forgotten about him until about thirty miles later. I was in the left lane and in heavy traffic. People started moving out of the left lane, which became increasingly covered by tire debris. My clod dropping friend was half off the left side of the road with a blown left front tire.

In contrast to the traffic and peril of the Interstate, on the first two hundred miles of US 34 starting in Ft. Morgan, I was passed by a motorcycle and passed one truck. I encountered no other traffic going my direction. And passing through those first few small towns I got to see men in pickup trucks putting up flags along the main streets in preparation for the celebration of Independence Day. I may not go quite as fast on the back roads, but there’s a lot less tension and traffic and I see a lot more real life.

Both Nebraska and Iowa are wall-to-wall corn. People call it “America’s bread basket”, but that connotes wheat to me and I saw none. Two sections of road in Iowa stand out, though. First is the Covered Bridges Scenic Byway which goes through Madison county. I didn’t make any of the side trips as I was feeling short of time and besides, all these bridges were three or four miles down dirt roads.

The other interesting stretch of Iowa is the Iowa River Bluffs Scenic Byway. For the most part, everything east and north of Des Moines is flat. I always remember Iowa as rolling hills, but not this part. It’s the tyranny of straight, flat roads. Except for the Bluffs, where grids of corn farms are replaced by forested bluffs with rolling, curvy roads. A nice interlude.

I entered Wisconsin at Prairie du Chien. This looks like a place that deserves more exploration. Effigy Mounds National Monument sounds interesting. I also noticed a sign for Pikes Peak State Park. I can’t help but be curious about that, given that it’s along the banks of the Mississippi River at an elevation of roughly 650′ above sea level.

On these trips I prefer to do a loop rather than retrace my steps. On this one, though, Saturday was the reverse of Thursday with only a few miles variance. Part of that variance was through Amish country where I passed a few horse-drawn buggies on the roads and even saw one tied to a hitching post in front of a general store.

On Sunday, though, I managed to improvise a variation in route. Rather than returning the way I came (along US 34 and US 6), I decided to head south into Kansas and follow US 36. It provided a bit more variety than I was expecting. As I said, Nebraska is unbroken cornfields. Kansas at least has a variety of crops. The road was straight as an arrow for the most part, but it offered something other than corn to look at.

My only real excitement on my four days travel was once I got back to Colorado. US 36 passes through a number of small towns. It turns out that none of them has a gas station. And the highway department didn’t see fit to warn travelers that they would be unable to refuel until they reached Byers. I was about forty miles east of HPR when the low fuel indicator illuminated. I was thinking it was touch-and-go making it to the track. Being a weekend, I figured it was near certainty that the track would be open and I could grab a half gallon of race fuel to get me to Byers. I made it without incident, but I was pretty tense and nervous for half an hour.

So I put seven tenths of a gallon in the tank (for seven dollars) and when I filled up in Byers I was able to pump only 8.9 gallons of gas. I have a ten gallon tank, so that means I had plenty of sufficient fuel to get me there without the splash of 98 octane. But it was probably worth the seven bucks saving my nerves.

Frank and Mary kindly put me up both Wednesday night and Saturday night. Frank is an old family friend who is also passionate about cars. He has quite the collection of old English cars and used to do quite a bit of SCCA club racing. He doesn’t have any Lotus, but does have a variety of Triumphs, Minis, MGs, and Jaguars. He has an interesting TVR, a couple of Alfas, and the occasional American car thrown in for good measure. It was a pleasure visiting with them.

Now, on to the reason for all this driving across America’s heartland…