ROAD TRIP USA 2011: PORK CHOP JOHN'S TO MOUNT RUSHMORE
A crack of dawn alarm the next morning, gave us the chance to catch a cracking view of the sun rising over the fields of Idaho.
I had persuaded Neal to make such an early start as one of the few food destinations I had marked out in these “flyover states” Pork Chop John's announced on its website that it closed at 3pm. As it turned out, it didn’t, but we were not aware of this as we set off from Cottonwood a little after 6.30am and pointed our rental car towards our next stopover at Butte, Montana.
Butte is a city whose fortunes rose and fell along with the fortunes of copper mining and, as we pulled into the parking lot of our lunchtime destination, the deserted downtown spoke to the fact that it is probably now on the lower end of the curve. Interestingly enough, one of the local food staples is a Cornish style pasty, brought over in the late 1800’s by Cornish miners looking for work after the decline of the tin mining industry back in the UK.
We were not there for this taste of home, however. John Burklund first started to serve his famous sandwiches in 1924 from a street cart before opening his first shop a few years later. They became an instant hit and are obviously still just as popular. As we walked up to the entrance, a long line of kids from the local high school was forming at the take out window and more of their classmates were already occupying all of the stools at the counter inside the small restaurant area.
We forced our way through the gaggle of squealing youngsters and waited until they began to drift back to their classroom about twenty minutes later, before squeezing ourselves into two available seats and placing our order. The menu is small and we had overheard most of the throng ordering “Double Loaded” so, without knowing what it was, we did the same. What arrived was a gargantuan sandwich prominently featuring two pounded pork sirloins that had been battered and deep fried, served in a hamburger bun with onions, pickles and cheese.
It was hot and freshly prepared. It was also pretty delicious and made the ridiculously early start worthwhile. As we ate, we chatted with the Eddie, the current owner, who had started making the sandwiches as a small child when his grandfather and then father were in charge of the business. As chains continue to proliferate, it is really rather special to enjoy a local “delicacy” at a place that has been doing what it does for the best part of a century. Long may they prosper.
There is not much else to report about Butte, Montana. We spent the rest of the day wandering around the slightly bleak downtown area and, after an unmemorable supper at a local bar, we retired to our hotel to prepare for another early start the next morning.
On Neal’s list of things to see & do in between meals driving through Yellowstone Park and, of course, stopping off to see one of the most famous natural wonders in the United States, Old Faithful. The famous old geyser received its name in the late 1800’s and was often used by travellers as a laundry. Apparently, they would stuff their clothes down the hole and wait until it erupted, during which time, the stench from their clothes would be removed by the heat and sulphur.
We were, unsurprisingly, not the only ones to have the idea of watching one of the country’s most famous landmarks do its thing. We took our seat on some small hard benches surrounding the geyser, along with lots and lots of other people from around the globe, like us, holding cameras and video recorders in quivering anticipation. Then we waited and waited and waited some more. The Sun had risen high in the sky by now and I was beginning to regret that I had chosen to wear a sweatshirt as rivulets of sweat began to stream down my bonce and my back. Thankfully after an hour, Old Faithful did what it has been doing for thousands of years, for all of three minutes and we could leave. I could easily have lived without the experience, but Neal seemed pretty pleased, so that’s all right then.
We spent the next few hours driving around the national park, getting out of the car every now and again to gaze into the sulphurous pools and allow Neal time to fall on his arse for my amusement. However, by late afternoon we were done and turned the car towards one of the main exits to the park and our overnight destination of Gardiner, Montana.
I had marked out a well recommended steak restaurant for our evening’s dining pleasure, so was particularly depressed to be told, by the owner of our smart little guesthouse, that it had actually been closed for some years. Seeing the crestfallen look on my face, he told us that the best steak in town was at the unlikely location of the Best Western Hotel on the edge of town. He warned us that “everything else on the menu is not very good, but the steaks are great”.
Despite my reservations, it turned out that he knew his stuff. The rest of the meal at the restaurant may have been a bit crappy, but the steaks were really very good indeed. Neal’s rib eye was good enough to keep him quiet for a blissful few moments, while my slab of medium rare prime rib was good enough to make me wonder why I don’t indulge in this most primal of cuts more often. It is, at its best a glorious thing, at least an inch thick, pink and juicy and perfect when served with a dollop of horseradish and a silly amount of mashed potatoes with which to soak up its natural juices. British steak restaurants take note.
Our next port of call was the infamous town of Deadwood, Montana, made notorious by the likes of Calamity Jane, Doc Holliday and Wild Bill Hickok and made famous more recently by the TV show of the same name. It’s actually a fairly ghastly little place filled with tourist casinos and bad bars and restaurants (one of which, Diamond Lil’s is owned by Kevin Costner) but it proved harmless enough for one night and did give us the chance to boast that we had downed a few shots of sippin’ whiskey in one of the wild west’s most famous locations.
We booked ended the night’s stay in Deadwood with four of the most interesting tourist sights of the whole trip. En route there, we stopped to pay our respects at the site of the Battle of Little Big Horn, where we were pleased to see that modern sensitivities had won out over traditional prejudices allowing a monument to be erected to the members of Native American tribes who had also fallen in the bloody skirmish. And, just before we arrived in Deadwood, we stopped for half an hour to walk around the base of the Devil’s Tower, a 900ft high rock formation that will be instantly recognizable to anyone who is a fan of the films of Richard Dreyfuss.
After we left Deadwood, suffering somewhat from the effects of the whiskey the night before, we visited two more monuments, this time across the border in South Dakota. One of them is already amongst the most famous in the United States, while the other will be once it is finished in a little matter of some 200 more years. The Crazy Horse Memorial is a testimony to the stubbornness of one man called Korczak Ziolkowski, who decided in 1948 to build a monument to the Native Americans that would over shadow Mount Rushmore which he had helped create.
With the help of Native American leaders, Crazy Horse was chosen as the subject and since then, the image of the legendary leader has begun to emerge from the rock little by little through the efforts of the Ziolkowski family and a handful of helpers. They accept no Federal money and see this as a gift for future generations that will be completed when it is completed. I may not be around to see the finished result, but what has been achieved so far is mighty impressive.
By comparison, Mount Rushmore itself is a little underwhelming. It is still an interesting diversion, but much smaller than you anticipate, particularly if you have seen Hitchcock's classic North by Northwest. It kept our attention for, oh all of twenty minutes before we looked at each other and said, “are we done then?” and headed back to our SUV.
Next stop North Dakota.