There’s an old cast iron hand pump behind the tent this evening, broken, weather bitten and forgotten. To our right are the foundations of an old wooden house; the timbers lie amongst the tall golden grass where deer now sleep every night instead of the people who used to live here. We’ve seen half a dozen mule deer looking for a quiet spot already, only to be disappointed at the sight of a great orange tent, a dog called John and a blue Russian four-by-four. Several miles distant from this abandoned and long derelict homestead we can see lights, between us and them is the great Missouri River. No one is going to disturb us tonight, it’s just us, the deer and the seven wild turkeys who run and collide with each other every time we move. This is South Dakota.
New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Iowa and a slightly unplanned venture into Nebraska have finally led us to South Dakota, our first goal and the point where we will effectively turn left to head south. Just as well too, it’s getting cold at night. We added two more of Wal Mart’s finest cheap blankets to our collection of night-time insulation only yesterday as Iowa saw its fist frost of the year. Its been a long drive west, eating the miles up on anything but the Interstates and it has to be said, a Lada Niva is not the fastest vehicle on the road.
“I gotta ask you sir, what’s that you’re drivin’?” asked a thirty-something woman serving behind the counter of a gas station in a place called Sheffield, population 152. “You look like your doin’ some travelling there.”
“Oh, it’s a Lada Niva, its Russian. We’re going over to South Dakota and then heading south along the Rockies for a while.”
“That’s some trip. That thing looks pretty old, how’s it runin’?”
“Its going ok, its younger than it looks actually, its only three years old. Mind you, its like going back to the ‘70’s as soon as you’re behind the wheel though.” And it is too. There are few comforts in a Lada Niva and you feel more like you’re operating a piece of basic machinery than driving something. Just starting it is a three-stage process. “It really is like being back in the 70’s.” I reiterated just for emphasis.
“Yer, but I bet that’s kinda the point ain’t it.” She said with a smile as I paid $23.00 for a full tank of regular gas.
“That’s exactly the point.” I replied, thinking I like this girl. She gets it, she understands. The trip isn’t about comfort. It’s not about hardship either though. Its just about doing it in whatever we’ve got and we’ve got a Lada Niva. For better, for worse its getting us across the States and so far so good. The air conditioning works on the principle of the windows being up or down, the gear box springs vibrate against the gear housing at 3200 rpm in any gear and surprise surprise, 3200 rpm is exactly the point where the engine is most comfortable. We fitted a clock the other day as a clock doesn’t come as standard. It’s a nice little battery alarm clock with tinted green doors to the face which we bought in Argentina a good few years ago. With the aid of a bit for Velcro its sitting on the dash quite comfortably and most effectively. The only problem being we don’t know which time zone we’re in.
The three of us have been spending long days in the Niva, doing a steady 55 miles per hour, not too fast, not too slow. New Jersey was behind us in a flash, Pennsylvania was a revelation of verdant hill covered forest, winding roads and abundant rivers. It was so beautiful it made our eyes hurt. Ohio, Indiana, Illinois and Iowa became known to us as The Days of Corn. Mile upon mile of golden corn on the cob drying in the sun. The land was almost devoid of any interest, it was as though the character had been sucked out of the soil to make way for agricultural productivity. Fleets of combine harvesters trudged back and forth relentlessly. John Deere was to be seen everywhere. The only clues to the history of these states was the uniform distance between the farmsteads, it was a standard half-mile on all sides. Close enough for people to call each other neighbours, distant enough to be politely antisocial. We could almost picture lines of men on horseback waiting for the gun to go off and race out into the virgin prairie with their colours in hand to stake their claim when the mad land grabs were taking place. It seemed that those people had never moved since, only modernised their farming practices as the years ticked by.
As we travelled further west the farms and homesteads have become sparser and of those, the abandoned farms have become more numerous. Every abandoned place has its own story no doubt, wells running dry, harsh winters and poor yields, sickness and starvation claims, and perhaps, sometimes success. Maybe not every abandoned farm ends in a sad story, some may simply have been outgrown and a newer, bigger, even more productive farm established nearby. Whatever the story they invariably become our home for the night. And they’re perfect. Remote, free, peaceful and all ours. Now in South Dakota where the skies and prairies go on forever we’ve almost dispensed with the farms too. Often we turn onto a minor dirt road, keep on driving until it becomes even more minor, more dirt than road infact, and then we keep on going still further until we’re driving across grassland. Unlike the previous states, South Dakota is full of character, undulations and folds in the landscape. The late summer grass shimmers in the sun bringing the gentle wind to visual life as waves of air sweep over the panorama in soft movement. After a while we stop, turn off the engine, step out of the Niva and the three of us look at a world that feels like we’re the only people (and dog) in it. In these places we often dispense with the tent if its not too cold and just put the camp beds up along side the wheels and wait for the stars. Its what we came to South Dakota for. Seas of grass, heavens full of stars and a bit of piece.
Stay tuned for our next update, including subjects such as…….
- The Badlands,
- Unexpected encounters with buffalo and their poo,
- Men with crossbows, and,
- Going in search of isolation.