The U.S. countryside offers a glimpse into the heart of the matter
Stunning skylines, perfectly manicured cityscapes, brightly lit shops and restaurants, bustling streets — a familiar sight in most American cities, especially on the East and West coasts. So it was that a friend and I decided to leave the Wall Street financiers and bankers to fight out their pecuniary wars and the tech freaks in Silicon Valley to bring the nth iPhone into the world and go into the heart of the matter, as it were, to discover what the great continent has to offer outside its cities. We set off from New Jersey on a 6000-mile road trip, putting my friend’s Range Rover to best use.
After the jostling crowds, Galena, a small town in Iowa, seemed almost European in its prettiness. It is part of the National Historic Register and has maintained an old-world charm untouched by anything crudely modern. The Galena River, an offshoot of the mighty Mississippi, flows through the town. We began our tour with a wine-tasting session at one of the many galleries that dot Main Street, fed by the numerous vineyards in this region. The Galena Canning Co. is a large store that sells fresh jams, dips, olive oil and salsa made from locally grown produce. The friendly shopkeepers double up as guides when needed. Our visit ended with a hearty lunch at Otto’s Place by the river — fresh salad with spinach, mandarins and nuts, and a portabella mushroom sandwich.
As we drove westward from Iowa into the setting sun, we headed to a family-run ranch called Uncle Buck’s Lodge in a tiny county named Brewster, nestled in the Sandhills of Central Nebraska. The region is an undulating sea of windswept, grassy sand dunes spread across 20,000 square miles. With crisscrossing streams, it’s an area of vast spaces, clean air and pure water. Only 17 families, mostly ranchers and farmers, live here.
This is corn and cattle country, land of the cowboy and rodeo, the real Wild West. The Lodge is a sprawling affair with interiors that reflect the spirit of the land — cowboy artefacts, antiques and photographs of the first immigrants. Visitors gather to read or chat in the Great Room, with its huge windows overlooking the river. The 78-year old Walter, our host, tells us that little has changed here from when he was herding cattle with his father as a boy of four.
Visitors get a taste of ranch life, with activities such as cattle herding, fence mending and cow roping. We spent two days hurtling about in Walt’s pick-up over endless dunes, rounding up cows, opening and closing gates, and walking miles, in a timeless schedule that followed the sun rather than the clock. Dinners were long and relaxed with animated conversations.
Another high point was the barrel-racing event, where young cowgirls raced to get their steeds around three barrels placed in a wide triangle. So inspiring was the sight that when our neighbour offered a horse-riding lesson, I readily agreed. One look at his tall horses the next morning and I felt a shiver down my spine. Luckily, my horse was patient and I managed a few trots around the pen without landing on my back!
From Nebraska, we went further west to the Grand Teton National Park in North West Wyoming. A solitary log cabin in the picturesque Jackson Valley at the foot of the Tetons made a perfect base camp. The valley is filled with sagebrush and wild grass and is home to bison, elk, moose, coyote, fox and wolf. But the most awe-inspiring sight was the Grand Teton range itself, towering majestically over the valley and disappearing into the clouds. Goldsmith’s words came alive — “as some tall cliff that lifts its awful form, swells from the vale and midway leaves the storm…” Lakes, pine forests, wild flower meadows and the Snake River literally snaking its way through the valley, it was idyllic.
We spent the days exploring the park and nights inside the cosy cabin, cooking dinners in the well-equipped kitchen with the fireplace slowly warming us. We woke in the wee hours to the cries of coyotes and wolves. One dusky evening, we spied two bull elks fighting over their lady, their huge antlers clashing.
Across the border to Montana’s Yellowstone National Park took us into the land of countless geysers — a region with the highest concentration of hydrothermal activity in the world. Old Faithful remained true to its name and dutifully erupted to its fullest, much to the thrill of the expectant crowds.
We stopped next at Salt Lake City to visit the Mormon Church of the Latter Day Saints, where we heard a mesmerising recital at the famous Tabernacle, played on the largest active church organ in the world. Driving further South on the western fringes of the Rockies through hillsides aglow with fall colours and stopping to pluck apples at the many apple farms along the way, we arrived at Zion National Park, which along with Bryce Canyon, is Utah’s answer to Arizona’s Grand Canyon.
Our hosts were Henry Landau and wife Mariangela, who run The Centre for True North, a retreat tucked away in the Kolob plateau, located at the intersection of the Mojave desert and the Colorado plateau, making it a glorious mix of canyon and desert. The retreat is completely in sync with the land on which it sits. Even the colours on the exteriors echo the red sandstone of the rock around. From the patio, we see magnificent views of the surrounding canyons, especially stunning at sunrise and sunset. The park itself is a delightful mix of tall canyons and deep gorges carved by the Virgin River, filled with Junipers, Ponderosa pines and sagebrush. It’s a camper and hiker’s paradise, and home to mountain goat, deer and elk.
Thoroughly rejuvenated, we headed further south, to more canyon country, Arizona. Our interest was in the numerous native Indian reservations that dot this area. Tuba City proved an ideal base with its proximity to the Navajo and Hopi Reservations, as well as to the southern rim of the Grand Canyon. We drove into the villages to meet the natives and watch them at work. At Old Oraibi, which has no electricity or water, the villagers maintain century-old customs, to the extent of depending on a neighbouring village for essentials. Photography and videos are strictly prohibited because these nature worshippers believe that every stone and tree has a soul that ought not to be tampered with. Their pottery is nothing short of exquisite, with intricate geometric patterns and nature symbols painstakingly hand-painted with colours brewed from wild flowers and roots. The hand-woven baskets and carved kachinas or dolls made from a single piece of wood are equally beautiful.
Finally, we headed west to California, and finished our journey with the breathtaking drive from Los Angeles to San Francisco along the scenic Route 1.