We had just spent the last two weeks working our way down South, but it was now time to go North again… straight up the middle of the USA!
From Louisiana, we headed across to Houston Texas to visit the infamous NASA Space Center. Having previously been to Kennedy Space Center in Florida, I had high expectations of the Space Center in Houston even though I knew little about it (apart from the famous “Houston – we have a problem” message). Unfortunately, it was no comparison to the Space Center in Florida. Kennedy’s rocket garden is more impressive, the presentation of Kennedy’s Saturn 5 rocket is vastly superior and the tram tour at Kennedy was way better organised. We did see a space shuttle mounted on a 747 shuttle carrier aircraft, which was impressive. We also saw Mission Control where the famous “Houston, we have a problem” message was received. And they had a large vehicle mock-up facility where we saw some of the latest rovers, robots, capsules and space suits designs. Other than that, I’m sorry to say that Kennedy wins this battle hands down.
Next stop, Fort Worth – to attend our first Texan rodeo! Good thing it was an indoor rodeo because it was pouring down outside. Before the show started we had some delicious ribs at H3 Ranch – a saloon down the road that is famous for its hickory and wood grilled meats. The drinks were served in large glass goblets, which made them very entertaining to drink but quite heavy to hold. We then attended the Stockyards Championship Rodeo, which is held in the “world-famous” Cowtown Coliseum. We witnessed A LOT of bull riders failing to stay on their bull for the required 8 seconds… and a number of other rodeo events including tie-down roping, break away roping, team roping and barrel racing. It was quite fun, even though you felt a bit for the animals involved in the show.
After Forth Worth we drove to Amarillo, which is famous for a couple things; Cadillac Ranch – an installation of graffiti-decorated cars partly buried in a field; and The Big Texan Steak Ranch – known for its 72 ounce (2.04 kg) steak, nicknamed “The Texas King.” The steak is free to anyone who, in one hour or less, can eat the entire meal, consisting of the steak itself, a bread roll with butter, a baked potato, shrimp cocktail, and a salad. Needless to say, we did not take on the challenge, but we did see someone attempting it as we finished our meals. Not sure if he made it or not though. The Cadilac Ranch was definitely a highlight. There were so many used spray can’s lying around and the spray paint on the Cadilac’s felt like rubber to the touch – who knows how many layers of paint had been applied over the years. In any case, it made for some great photos. We also checked out the nearby VW Bug Ranch and Palo Duro Canyon, just south of Amarillo, which was the first of many canyons that we would see in the days to come.
From Amarillo we made our way up to Colorado Springs. On the way there we visited Capulin Volcano National Monument, which is an extinct cinder cone volcano that you can drive up. After a short walk around the crater enjoying the panoramic views, we carried on to Colorado Springs and spent the afternoon exploring the Garden of the Gods. The Garden of the Gods has many impressive rock formations, including a balanced rock that looks like it is defying gravity. I am sure one day some tourists are going to get squashed.
The following day we drove up to Pikes Peak, which at 4.3km is the highest summit of the southern front range of the Rocky Mountains. There must have been a 20-degree Celsius temperature difference between the base and the summit. It was cold, so we quickly took some pictures, threw some snowballs and then made our way swiftly down the mountain and carried on driving to Denver. We even managed to pass through a massive hailstorm on the way down. In Denver we stopped off at the Red Rocks Amphitheater – a rock structure where concerts are played in the open-air. Unfortunately, there were no concerts on but it was an amazing amphitheater and it had stunning views overlooking Denver. We then drove into Denver, checked out 16th Street Mall and had a nice lunch at The Source – a bustling artisan food market located in a landmark 1880’s building.
Heading North out of Denver, we stopped at Chimney Rock – a national historic site. Native Americans used to refer to this formation by a term that meant Elk penis. European immigrants called it Chimney Rock. Not sure which is a more accurate description. On our approach, beautiful sunshine suddenly turned into a massive thunderstorm with torrential rain, so we only spent a brief amount of time there. Upon leaving Chimney Rock we learned on the radio that golf ball sized hailstones were coming down in the area, so we must have just missed them.
We stayed the night in Hill City which is right next to Mt Rushmore. That night we had dinner at the Alpine Inn, which had only two options on the menu; Fillet Mignon, or Kaes Spaetzle Primavera. Apparently, it has been like this for 30+ years. Each main came with a quarter wedge of lettuce with homemade ranch dressing. Quarter wedge salad was a first, but it was actually quite nice. The next morning we made a beeline for Mt Rushmore. It was an impressive sight to see but, as always with these things, it was smaller than we expected. We took a few obligatory photos and then drove 30 minutes through the mountains to see Crazy Horse. If you have never heard of this memorial then it is not your fault because it is still not finished. It was started in 1948 and depicts the Oglala Lakota warrior, Crazy Horse, riding a horse and pointing into the distance. It will eventually become the world’s largest sculpture when completed. Who knows when that will be though.
Next stop was the geographical center of the nation. Yes, there is a landmark depicting the exact geographical center of the USA. Well not actually the exact center – a couple miles from the actual center. The actual center is on a privately owned farm and the owner refused to allow the landmark to be built there. Lastly we visited Devil’s Tower – a rock formation that is aptly named. It reminded me of Giant’s Causeway in Ireland, but in mountain form rather than on the coast. The columnar basalt structure is very similar.
That ends our central USA adventure. Over to Brooke next to talk about our adventures through America’s National Parks!