In search of Buddy Holly

Day 10: Sunday 31st July 2011 – St. Paul/Minneapolis, Minnesota to Carroll, Iowa (Click for route)

It was still 5 days before I was planning to be in Sturgis, and my route to get there was still undefined. I was thinking I might as well head down into Iowa and then across into Nebraska, although there was nothing in particular I was planning to see until I got to Scotts Bluff in north-western Nebraska.

The night before, Thomas and I had talked about my next move. When I told him I was thinking of going down to Iowa, he told me to check out Clear Lake. This is the place that Buddy Holly, Richie Valens and the Big Bopper died in a plane crash on February 3rd 1959. Thomas mentioned that there was a memorial on the site. I had no specific agenda for Iowa, so it seemed worth a visit.

Image courtesy of Neil Pfeffier at gowalla.com/spots/1235925

I made an early start, heading south on I-35 (the real one this time!) Clear Lake is just off I-35, so it wasn’t much of a detour. Thomas had mentioned that a big pair of Buddy Holly-style glasses marked the entrance to the site. I spent a good half hour riding around Clear Lake looking for those glasses, but couldn’t see any sign of them – perhaps I needed a new pair of my own. But I had miles to clock up and decided to leave vaguely disappointed. I lesson that I was learning was that better preparation was required in the US because trying to follow road signs sucked.

I continued down the I-35 to the south of Story City, and then joined Hwy-30 – the Lincoln Highway. The Lincoln Highway was the first coast-to-coast road across the USA. It was built in 1913 and starts at Times Square in New York and runs all the way to Lincoln Park in San Francisco. It’s journey through Iowa isn’t especially inspiring.

Iowa is extremely flat, with cornfield after cornfield stretching to the horizon. Every so often there’s a small town – the main feature all these towns to share in common is the massive grain silos that dominate the horizon.

This silo is actually in Nebraska, but it gives the idea. It was only when I got to Nebraska that I remembered that I could use my iPod for photos since my camera was dead until Doreen arrived with the plug adaptor From Nebraska

The Lincoln Highway is largely long and straight, and I guess could have gotten fairly monotonous if I hadn’t still been relishing been on the open road so much. The sun was shining. Life was good.

In fact the sun was shining a tad too much. The central areas of North America were in the grip of a heat wave and had been for some weeks. The temperatures in Texas were well over 100F. In Iowa, they were in the 90s – a wee bit too hot for my biker apparel. Showers two or three times a day it would have to be.

I guess the absence of many striking features in the Iowa landscape, except for the towering grain silos, made me notice a couple of other features of riding the American highways.

The first was the massive backdraft from the 18-wheel semi’s that hurtled past in the opposite direction. It doesn’t happen every time, and I guess depends on the speed of the truck and the prevailing wind conditions, but when it does you certainly notice it. The almost solid-feeling wall of air that comes behind some of these babies is like nothing I’ve experienced in the UK. I don’t think their semi’s are that much bigger than our lorries, so I suspect the real difference is the speed they go past you at. On a single carriageway highway, they could be tanking along at 70 or 80 mph – believe me, I’ve followed behind a good few now, whereas on a single carriageway in Britain, a lorry is unlikely to be doing more than 50 mph.

The other notable thing I started to notice was the huge length of the trains. A track runs parallel with Hwy-30 for a lot of the way in Iowa and Nebraska and the freight trains running along it must have been a mile or more long and stretch as far as the eye can see.

I took no photo’s during my nearly two days passing through Iowa. My UK mobile phone wasn’t the only thing that had run out of juice in the absence of a UK-US plug adaptor – so had my digital camera. This was perhaps mildly disappointing, in Iowa, but it was going to get an awful lot more disappointing not having a camera when I got to places like Scotts Bluff, before the adaptor arrived with Doreen. It wasn’t until I got to Nebraska that I remembered I could take photos on my iPod.

When I’d come into Iowa, I’d made sure I called into the visitor centre to pick up a free state map. The visitor centre sold coffee, so I fuelled up on caffeine, and whilst drinking my coffee and perusing the state map, an overly helpful “welcomer” decided that I looked like I needed help – I guess he may have been bored. He offered me all sorts of guides and brochures on Iowa. I explained I couldn’t carry them on a bike, and that in any case, I was just passing through and was aiming to follow Hwy-30 all the way to Nebraska. He helpfully told me that I wouldn’t be able to do that as the Missouri river had flooded and Hwy-30 was impassable. I thanked him, but decided to carry on anyway, it wouldn’t be a long detour to Omaha to pick up I-80 even if it was.

That night I didn’t make it as far as the Missouri. I stopped in Carroll, Iowa. At dinner, I chatted a little with my waitress. She had a sister that lived near the Missouri and she thought that Hwy-30 was passable. Apparently the reason for the flooding was because South Dakota had opened a dam, after the unusually heavy snow melt.

Onward to the twin cities

Day 9: Saturday 30th July 2011 – Ironwood, Michigan to St. Paul/Minneapolis, Minnesota (Click for route)

A big grin was becoming a prominent feature on my face. I’d had it all day on the ride up to Ironwood. I woke with it at the Classic Motor Inn and still had it as I crossed the car park to reception for a cup of complimentary weak coffee. I was really doing it. I was living the dream. The only thing that could have made it any better was if my partner in crime had been with me, but it was only 7 days before she flew into Montana, and that was certainly something worth waiting for.

The ride I had planned for the day shouldn’t have been too taxing. 270 miles to the twin cities of Minneapolis and St Paul, and then meeting Thomas in the evening. I’d already booked a room at the Days Inn in St Paul, so only had the ride to think of that day. After coffee and the load of the bike, I set off to see Lake Superior and call in at the Northern Great Lakes Visitor Center at Ashland.

Lake Superior viewed from Ashland, Wisconsin From ChicagoMilwaukee

The rest of my planned route for the day took me down Hwy-53 and then Hwy-35 all the way into the twin cities. Near Spooner, I stopped for fuel at a gas station, and was so glad that I was off-road as the heavens opened – lightning and vertical sheets of rain bouncing back feet in the air. I had no intention of riding in those conditions and decided to try to wait it out in the hope that it would stop before too long. It was time for an early lunch at the attached Subway. The only trouble was it seemed that all the boy scouts in Wisconsin had also decided it was time for lunch at Subway. The line of uniformed teenagers nearly snaked out the door and every table was full of scouts. I’m not sure what all these scouts were up to, perhaps there was a jamboree somewhere, but I had time to kill, and something that I would normally not bother with – queuing – now seemed an almost welcome distraction from the torrential rain outside.

Lunch took well over an hour, a long time for a Subway sandwich, but by then, the rain had petered out. I wasn’t going to take any chances, and decided to pull my waterproofs on anyway – and I was glad I did as a mile down the road I rode straight into the tail end of the shower. A few miles further and the shower had blown through and the temperature started to climb again.

I’d had one too many sodas in Subway waiting for the shower to pass, and I’d only gone maybe another 30 or 40 miles down the road when a comfort break was needed. I pulled into one of the infrequent rest areas to find 3 other bikers in residence.

One of the cool things about being a biker is the fraternity with other bikers – this goes double in the US, where bar room conversations can be struck up even easier than in Scotland – and Scotland tends to be head and shoulders above England in this respect.

Chuck, Cindy and Fred were local bikers just out for an afternoon ride. Cindy was the first girl I’d seen in the states riding her own bike – a late model Sportster Nightster – but she was far from the last I saw. They’d conveniently missed the earlier downpour having ridden up from the south. I advised against continuing north. Like everyone I’ve met in the states, they thought it was really awesome that I’d flown my bike over from Scotland and wanted to really see their country. They were envious that I was going to Sturgis, and said that one day they’d like to make it there. So far I hadn’t met a biker that had actually been to Sturgis, but everyone seemed to want to go sometime. We chatted some more over a couple of smokes, and then set off on our separate journeys, with me taking what I thought was I-35.

By now the day was really heating up. I’d taken my waterproofs off during my stop, but I was beginning to sweat buckets under my leather jacket even with the wind chill at 70 mph. My back was also starting to ache badly. I had a messenger bag in which I carried my important documents across my back, and it now had the added weight of the laptop. All the muscles around my right shoulder blade felt like they were on fire.

The approach to the twin cities from the north takes you passed field after field of sweetcorn. I’d had the impression that a lot of American agriculture was done by large corporations with mega fields, but there fields of sweetcorn weren’t that big – no bigger than some of the bigger fields I was familiar with in Worcestershire. And I doubted whether larger corporations would be putting hand-painted signs on the roadside advertising fresh sweetcorn for sale. There was also a lot of trees and woodland breaking up the fields. I commented on this later to Thomas and he said that the trees were necessary as wind breaks, so it still might have been big corporations doing some of the farming.

As I’d had so much trouble with the lack of American road signs, I’d planned and memorised my route to the hotel in St Paul. I knew I needed to take I-35, which should split into I-35E and I-35W. I had to take I-35E and then I-694 to join I-94.

When I got to the end of the road I was on (what I thought was I-34), I was puzzled. It hadn’t split into I-35E and I-35W, and there was no sign of the I-694. I was straight on the I-94. I knew this wasn’t right and managed to get myself heading the wrong way on the I-94. Some miles down the road I realised that it was taking me further away from St Paul. As you enter most states, at least on the interstate, you’ll find a visitor information centre which gives out free road maps for the state and other tourist information. I hadn’t come across a visitor centre for Minnesota yet, so I had no map to consult. My map of the whole of the USA didn’t have enough detail to navigate anything but major interstates and national highways. I carried on until I found the next gas station and then bought myself a map of Minnesota. My mistake was glaring evident – before getting to I-35, there was a state highway 35, which I turned down thinking it was the interstate. In my planning I hadn’t looked out for all the roads I shoudn’t take. I was further east than I expected to be, but not by a long way. I worked out what I needed to do to get back on course, but time was now getting short after the delays waiting out the rain. I was due to meet Thomas at the hotel within the hour. The ache in my back was becoming almost unbearable. What I really needed was to stop and rest up for a while, but I couldn’t and still have any hope of meeting Thomas on time. I gritted my teeth and pressed on.

The rest of the journey went good until I pulled off the interstate. I was sure I took the exit I’d intended to, but I’d pulled off straight into roadworks and there was no sign for the right turn I was supposed to take into University Avenue. It all looked wrong – this had warehouses and roadworks, not hotels. I was now late and out of time to dick around trying to ride around and work it out. In despair, I pulled up in front of a plumbing supplies warehouse, sat on the floor and called Thomas. “Thomas I’m lost!”

It turned out, I’d been spot on with my exit. The sign for University Avenue had either been removed or obscured by the roadworks. One left and one right and I was at the hotel. Thomas was waiting for me.

The American-made Trooper with British licence plates, next to Thomas’ British-made Lotus Elize with American licence plates, amused Thomas enough to take a photo which he posted on Facebook.

Thomas’ car next to the Trooper at the Days Inn, St Paul From Minnesota

The neighbourhood the Days Inn was in didn’t look great, and the burnt out car in the car park didn’t help to instil confidence in security around these parts. I decided to move the Trooper right outside my room. There’s definite advantages to motels.

Posted by Thomas on Facebook with the comment “Trevor’s accommodation” From Minnesota

Having sweated like a pig in my leather on the way down, I needed a shower and a change of clothes before an evening out with Thomas. While I was taking a shower, Thomas’ car was attracting admirers.

As we were setting off, a young guy staying at the Days Inn almost begged Thomas to take him for a spin in the Lotus. Thomas is a nice guy and obliged by taking him around the block. As we finally set off for downtown, I teased Thomas for owning such a guy magnet!

Thomas had a couple of options for places to eat and gave me the choice. One of them was called Hell’s Kitchen in downtown Minneapolis. With a name like that how could I resist.

Downtown Minneapolis From Minnesota

Before going to eat, Thomas gave me a short walking tour of downtown Minneapolis, including his old neighbourhood. Minneapolis looked like a clean, vibrant place to live. I could see why Thomas liked it.

Thomas the “tourist” From Minnesota

The evening was still sticky hot and the “dandelion” fountain near Thomas’ old neighbourhood was a welcome sight. We both tried to stand for a few minutes where we would catch some cold spray from it.

The “dandelion” fountain From Minnesota

As we walked back toward’s Hell’s Kitchen, we saw a couple of hen parties out on the town for the evening which was a sight very reminiscent of home. Edinburgh seems to be a popular destination with hen and stag parties, and the Grassmarket area in Edinburgh is best avoided on a Saturday night because of them. I hadn’t realised American’s did almost the exact same thing – the hens even decorated in condom packets.

Hen night Minnesota style From Minnesota

For my Edinburgh buddies, I could describe Hell’s Kitchen as being like an upmarket Jerkyll and Hyde. Where the Jerkyll and Hyde is decorated with murals from classic horror movies, and fitted out to look like a cross between a gothic church and Victorian laboratory; Hell’s Kitchen is more subtle, but still has that faintly sinister edge to it’s decor – which includes lots of framed paintings of off-centre and slightly disturbing images. Hell’s Kitchen, like most American bars, is also table-service and it had a good menu. I managed to get the Walleye that had alluded me in Ironwood – parmesan coated with fries and a homemade tartar sauce – good eating. Thomas also generously picked up the tab for dinner.

Hell’s Kitchen, Minneapolis From Minnesota

Over dinner, Thomas told me that Hell’s Kitchen also does good breakfasts – ideal for that 2nd date – and that during the breakfast service, the staff all wear pyjamas. He also mentioned the Brit Pub – a British “theme” pub not far away. I’ve seen so many plastic Irish “theme” pubs all over the world, that after he mentioned it, I just had to pop in for one to see how bad it was.

So what can I say about the Brit Pub? Well tt’s a big theme bar which bears very little resemblance to anything which is good about a traditional British pub, although they do seem to be catering to some extent to an ex-pat customer base. On the way in, they have a counter selling “home comforts” such as English Tea and the like – although I don’t recall them having Marmite. They also apparently show a lot of the English Premier League and Thomas assures me that they are popular with the ex-pats. The food menu certainly has some Britsh pub favourites – fish and chips, bangers and mash, steak and ale pie, shepherd’s pie, etc. The beer menu isn’t too bad, although mainly big commercial names – Boddington’s, Bass, Fuller’s, Newcastle Brown and the like. But with all the great beers in America, I can’t understand why you’d want to import British beer. Overall, the Brit Pub does a better job than most of the Irish “theme” bars I’ve seen, but it ain’t at all like my local and I doubt I would bother drinking there very often if I lived in Minneapolis.

While we were in the Brit Pub, Thomas noticed a weather warning about a major thunderstorm heading our way. We managed to get back to the car before it started, but not to the hotel. I haven’t seen many downpours as heavy as that one. The road was like a lake, and there was a real danger of aqua-planing (or hydro-planing in native speak). Thomas did a sterling job of keeping the low Elize under control, but decided to wait out the worst of it in the hotel bar (with soda rather than the Blue Moon I was drinking).

Let the real riding begin…

Day 8: Friday 29th July 2011 – Milwaukee, Wisconsin to Ironwood, Michigan (Click for route)

My introduction to riding in the US had so far been fairly gentle. I’d spent 3 nights in Chicago, immediately followed by 2 nights in Milwaukee. I’d hardly ridden the Trooper at all during that time. The time I spent in each had been awesome, but that wasn’t really what this adventure was all about – it was about riding Americana. It was time to hit the road properly.

During my stay in Milwaukee, I’d arranged to met Thomas again on Saturday evening on his home turf in the twin cities of Minneapolis and St Paul. That ride from Milwaukee wouldn’t take 2 days, so I decided to head north for a day to the Ottawa National Forest, and to see other great lakes, Lake Superior, before cutting south again to meet up with Thomas.

Out of Milwaukee, I headed north to Green Bay on I-43, but I wanted to get off the interstates and see more the countryside, so after Green Bay I looked for smaller roads to take, ending up on the state highway 139 heading for Iron River.

One of the things that was beginning to strike me was the vastness of this country. I’d heard that said many times before, but never experienced it for myself. The Ottawa National Forest is a massive forest, with mile after mile of woodland and trees, intersected by long, straight roads with the occasional sweeping bend, and every so often a small town or hamlet.

From ChicagoMilwaukee

One of the things that stuck me then, and has stuck me more and more almost every day since, is that photos, no matter how good, will never do this place justice, and will never be able to convey the sheer enormity and vastness of the landscape.

The riding that day was hot, but good. I felt free and I was enjoying myself. Like so many times on this trip, I was riding along with a big grin on my face.

After hitting Iron River, I took US Hwy-2, going west. This was a road I was going to see a lot more of in the weeks to come.

I had to stop a lot during the day. The heat was making frequent water and rest breaks necessary. I was cursing my heavy leather jacket.

The day was drawing in when I reached Ironwood, and around 350 miles was a reasonably respectable tally for the day. I started looking for somewhere to stop the night. Once I’d parked up for the night, a beer and food would be high on the agenda, and I had no intention of riding once I’d had a few beers, so somewhere to stay near a bar and restaurant was what I really needed.

I was delighted to find the Classic Motor Inn right next to Don and GG’s Food and Spirits. Doubly so because the Classic Motor Inn was a true 1950’s vintage roadside motel – the kind of place I’d seen so often in American movies. I couldn’t come all this way without experiencing one. And at a cost of only around $50, this was half the price of the everywhere I had stayed so far with big chain hotels.

Photos of Classic Motor Inn, Ironwood
This photo of Classic Motor Inn is courtesy of TripAdvisor
My verdict on my first classic motel? A clean, big room which showed it’s 1950’s vintage but everything was in good repair, so that was just an added bonus. The folks that run the motel are real friendly too. The only downside for me was no wifi.

Don and GGs next door also seemed like a true local place. With the weather so warm, the outside garden area was packed, so I took a seat in the almost empty inside. The Great Lakes have a native white fish called the Walleye – so named because it’s eyes reflect light which fishermen look out for at night. I love trying new foods, so this is something I wanted to try while I was here. It was on the menu, but had unfortunately sold out that evening, and I had to settle for Poor Man’s Lobster – chunks of Halibut cooked in a buttery sauce. But it hit the spot, especially with a couple of glasses of local brew.

An audience with Clive

When I’d booked my hotel in Milwaukee, I’d booked two nights, expecting to hang-out with Thomas and Travis both evenings, but Travis was heading back to LA on the Thursday and Thomas was getting ready to move house at the weekend, but I did arrange to meet up with him in his home town of St Paul when I went through there on Saturday.

So the evening after the Harley-Davidson museum trip, I found myself at a loose end. I decided to go and explore the city solo. On the surface, Milwaukee appears a nice relaxed city with leafy sidewalks. It’s much smaller (and lower) than Chicago, but still seemed a cool town. Before heading out, I checked on the internet for a few bars that sounded as if they might be my kind of place – i.e. with rock and/or local real beer. The Bad Genie looked like my kind of place, so I headed over there.

On the way, I could hear music playing – it sounded live and close. Rounding the corner into Cathedral Square, I found Jazz in the Park in full swing. A stage full of musicians was at the south end of the park. At the north end there were food and drink stalls aplenty. The rest of the park was full of people sitting, standing and dancing.

From ChicagoMilwaukee

Usually, it’s illegal to drink alcohol in public streets and parks in most of the USA (except for New Orleans as far as I know), but these restrictions are relaxed for these street “parties” – as they had been at Wicker Park Fest in Chicago and in Ann Arbor. I heard later that Milwaukee had these kind of events on all summer at numerous locations – as apparently do many cities in the US (I’d seen 3 within a week). Clive, who told me this, suggested that it had a lot to do with an excuse to get drunk. Perhaps the US has more in common with the UK than I’d thought.

Jazz really isn’t my thing, but I got myself a beer so I could spend at least a little while soaking up some of the ambience of the mixed crowd. It looked as if everyone was having a great time.

With my fill of jazz for the year, I continued on my quest to find the Bad Genie. It was still early evening when I found it, and it’s not far from Jazz in the Park, so the place wasn’t exactly buzzing. I grabbed a beer and settled myself at a table outside where I could scribble in my notebook. I hadn’t been there more than 10 minutes when I heard a South London accent ask what I was writing. I hadn’t expected that in downtown Milwaukee.

The London accent came from Clive, an ex-pat artist who’d been living in the States for over 20 years. He had a studio in Milwaukee which was hosting an exhibition of his work in a day or two’s time.

After telling Clive what I was scribbling about, he decided to join me, pulling up a chair to my table and ordering himself a drink from the passing server. I’m glad he did – he certainly made my evening more interesting. He’s a fascinating guy who could talk for England.

One of the first things Clive asked was whether I was Scottish. That floored me. I know I’d been telling people who asked that I was from Scotland (see An English ambassador for Scotland?), but I still think my accent is pure English. I was born and raised near Bedford about 50 miles north of London, and despite living in the West Midlands for nearly 15 years, I think I still sound very South East. Perhaps my Scottish biker chick is rubbing off on me in more ways than I thought – if she is that would be no bad thing. Perhaps one of my friends will tell me what I really sound like.

I spent about 2 hours in Clive’s company, and in that time I don’t think I spoke for more than about 10 minutes. But I’m not complaining, the rest of the time was filled with Clive telling me about his very eventful and interesting life.

He’d been born and raised in Peckham, South London and contrasted growing up in mult-cultural South London in the 1970’s, where he used to hang-out at the homes of black friends, with the racial segregation he felt was rife in Milwaukee today. I saw none of that – the crowd at Jazz in the Park had looked pretty mixed and integrated, but later in Sturgis, I heard that the week after I left Milwaukee there had been a mob of black youths attacking people on the first day of the State Fair. But then I also heard of riots in England and Vancouver, another of my intended destinations. I’m not sure what it is really like in Milwaukee – certainly conservative groups are playing it up as a “race riot” and Clive, who grew up with black friends in a multi-cultural area of London, certainly thought Milwaukee had race problems. I remember thinking that I hoped my friend Travis didn’t encounter any racist problems during his time working in Milwaukee. I know he won’t travel to the South unless he really has to for work, because of similar issues.

Clive also felt that Milwaukee was a great place for artists right now and that it was destined to be one of the next happening places – they do say that if you are looking for the next happening place in property, you should follow the artists and the gays. Perhaps Milwaukee is in the process of a painful change right now.

Clive had been to a faith school in London, but had managed to get himself expelled after bringing stuff he’d learned in a physics class to his next RE class and upset his RE teacher (a priest) by having the temerity to question the infallibility of god. He’d had a stint as a motorcycle courier around London, and then joined the French Foreign Legion.

Somehow he’d managed to end up working in Miami in a nightclub owned by Rolling Stone Ronnie Wood in the late 1980s, and he told some great stories of friends of Ronnie’s that had played at the club. Perhaps it was Ronnie that got Clive into art, since Ronnie himself is quite a renowned artist in his own right. For at least some of his time in the US, Clive had been an illegal alien, and told a tale of having to sneak back across the border on a railway bridge from Canada.

Clive had moved up to Illinois, and then Wisconsin, for a woman, and had established himself as an artist in Milwaukee. He seemed very well-known locally. Lots of people said “Hello Clive” and stopped to chat for a while. Clive had done all the artwork at the Bad Genie, some of the more memorable pieces were a picture of Mick Jagger, and another of Johnny Rotten, which had more than a passing resemblance to Clive, except Clive was a bleach blond and had better teeth.

After a couple of hours, and many drinks and smokes, Clive suggested a change of venue. I’d come out with my messenger bag, which contained all my important documents and my notebooks. At this point in the evening I still had my sensible head on, despite the drinks and smokes. I knew if we carried on the way we were going, I would lose the bag before the night was done. So I said I’d drop my bag off at the hotel and then take a cab over to the next bar. Clive wrote the name of the bar on the back of his business card, and we went our separate ways.

Somewhere between the Bad Genie and the hotel, I managed to lose Clive’s card, and I couldn’t for the life of me remember the name of the bar we were supposed to meet at. Without the name of the bar or Clive’s phone number, there was little I could do, which is a shame as I think a night on the town with Clive would have been far from dull.