Into the badlands

Paul Willis follows the trail of Custer and Crazy Horse on a drive along the country's loneliest road.

At the heart of Nevada, in an ascetic wilderness of bald mountain summits and arid desert, is the old silver mining town of Austin. If you came this way a century ago you'd have hit a 10,000-strong Wild West boom town, thick with profiteers drunk on their success and the libations served up at the International Bar. But those days have long since vanished into memory.

It is late when I get in to town and I need a drink. The past five hours of empty desert along Route 50, the US's so-called “loneliest road”, have left me a little spooked. At one point I stopped to look up at the night sky but was back in the car in no time, intimidated by the intense festival of stars overhead and the vast nothingness pressing around me.

As I pull over I see the lights at the International and the door swings open to the warm summer night. The bar was the first building to go up in Austin. It was carried brick by brick from Virginia City, 260 kilometres west, and reassembled a year after the discovery of silver in 1862, three years before the first church.

Victor is an acolyte of that old world. He is not American but a wild-eyed, white-haired Serb who came to the US in the 1960s and over the years has retreated further into the interior of the country and further into his own Wild West fantasies.

He runs the International, a mostly solitary vocation since the population has shrunk to 350.

Like all true believers, Victor wears his faith like a badge of honour. When I walk in to the empty bar he's watching a cowboy film on a TV in the corner. On the wall opposite hangs a garish portrait of a red-haired woman reclining on a divan. “A hooker I knew in Carson City. A fine lady,” he tells me with no irony, in a voice still strongly Slavic but tinged with a thick cowboy drawl.

“Ye git to have a gun in this town. I seen shoot-outs in the street. Folks still settle things the old way here,” he says, a smile on his wizened old face, glad to see he is shocking me.

I'm shocked but not surprised.

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At this moment in history the US is surely the most talked-about culture on the planet. Yet for all the glare of attention focused on it from outside and inside the country, there are still parts of this vast land that remain obscured in shadow.

For the past three weeks I have been crossing the country, tracking these last outposts of a forgotten US.

Some 1600 kilometres east of Austin in the Badlands of South Dakota is the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. It is a scar on the conscience of the US every bit as searing as Hurricane Katrina and gives the lie to Victor's romantic delusions of the old west.

Its population of 30,000 – mostly Native Americans or their descendants from the Sioux tribe – are one of the most deprived communities in the Western world. Unemployment hovers around 80 per cent and life expectancy is among the shortest for any group in the western hemisphere – just 47 for men, early 50s for women. In the '70s the murder rate was nearly nine times higher than Detroit, then considered the US murder capital.

Driving south from Interstate 90 through the weird baked earth mounds of the Badlands National Park I pass the ironically named town of Scenic, just a few clapboard houses and a one-pump petrol station with cattle skulls lined across its facade.

Weather-battered caravans litter the route and in Pine Ridge town an overweight Sioux is selling Indian souvenirs outside Yellow Bird's Store. On the walls inside the store next to the toy cowboy guns a sign warns expectant mothers of the dangers of drinking alcohol during pregnancy.

At the centre of the reservation is Wounded Knee, the site of an 1890 massacre by the US cavalry of more than 300 Sioux. By the time of the massacre the Sioux were a broken people. To find the last footnote in the story of Sioux resistance you must follow the I-90 west a few hundred kilometres to where it meets the Little Bighorn River.

It was here on the undulating prairie of southern Montana in 1876 that the Sioux leader Crazy Horse defeated General Custer, a pioneer whose thirst for gold led him to prospect illegally on Indian land. He was made to rue his greed and at Custer's Last Stand the general and every one of his troops were killed.

Before Little Bighorn the I-90 passes through Wyoming. It is the least populated US state, 250,000 people in 260,000 square kilometres. Under sagging clouds I drive past miles of emptiness with only the radio for company. The country and western tunes of the Buffalo County radio station greet me like conspiratorial drinking buddies. “God is great, beer is good, people are crazy,” one song sighs wearily.

The wilderness is suddenly broken by an eerie sight. East of the road a trailer park lies abandoned on a ridge. A tornado must have come through because the tops of the trailers have been ripped off like sardine tins and flipped-over cars lie rusting in a field.

I stop for fuel in the town of Moorcroft. A coal train moves slowly on the tracks opposite the petrol station. Wyoming is the biggest provider of coal in the country. The freight train is hundreds of metres long.

In the station forecourt a pick-up pulls away, the baseball-capped driver drawing on a cigarette through a ragged beard. On his license plates it reads: 2CRZY.

I find myself talking to Vern (his name is written on his cap in case you forget). He's from Montana but on his way to central Nevada (near Austin as it turns out). He's on the scent of gold. There's not much of the shiny stuff left in the US these days but Vern isn't bothered. He's contracted by a Canadian company that owns the deeds and sends him to drill wherever it thinks propitious. “If I hit a seam or hit diddly-squat, it's all the same to me. I git paid whatever,” he says with a grin.

After long enough on the road the silent highways of the American heartland lure you into a trance. Everyday concerns get forgotten and in a kind of road-trip-soma you wonder dreamingly what day it might be and whether life should ever be more complicated than finding food and a place to lay your head.

It's in this frame of mind I find myself as I drive through Minnesota near the end of my loop through the heart of the US. I've been in South Dakota, Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, Nevada and Utah and I don't want it to end.

The spell is broken by the need for fuel. I pull off the I-90, which feels by now like an old friend, and follow a sign to a petrol station sitting alone in the cornfields. The single gas pump is manned by an old man called Rich. “There used to be a town surrounding this station. A church, school, a bunch of farms,” he says. What happened to it?

He gives a vague wave of the hand to denote progress, the promise of a better life, the lure of the bright lights – all those things that have seen agricultural communities around the world drained of their populations.

I pay for the gas and leave. I heard once that anyone can love the mountains or the sea but that it takes a real soul to love the prairie. In the rear-view mirror Rich is standing by the pump, a small outline against the huge expanse of land and sky, and then he is gone.

FAST FACTS

Getting there

United Airlines has a fare to Milwaukee for about $1424 low season return from Melbourne and Sydney, including tax. Australians must apply for US travel authorisation before departure on the secure website https://esta.cbp.dhs.gov.

The route

The author followed Interstate 90 west from Milwaukee on the shores of Lake Michigan to Butte, Montana. Traversing the Mississippi River at La Crosse, Wisconsin, he drove through the prairie land of Minnesota, South Dakota and Wyoming. At Butte, he turned south on to Interstate 15 through Idaho and Salt Lake City, Utah, turning west at Santaquin into Nevada along US Route 50. From there, he joined Interstate 80 to San Francisco, a total distance of 4345 kilometres.

Car rental

Enterprise offers an economy car for $US27.50 ($30) a day if you pick up and return in Milwaukee. Thrifty charges $US88 a day one-way to San Francisco.

Places to stay

All major towns, and most small towns, located near interstates offer motels starting at about $US45 for a double. All the national parks (including the Badlands and Yellowstone) have well-maintained camp grounds costing from $US11 a night for a tent.

Things to see

South Dakota: As well as the Badlands National Park, the Black Hills are worth a visit. Home to herds of roaming bison, the hills contain Mount Rushmore, a sculpture featuring the faces of four former presidents.

Wyoming: Yellowstone is the oldest national park in the world.

Nevada: Get lost in the desert as you travel through ghost towns and tumbleweed on Route 50.