Ep 8 – 2017 ‘Big Birthday’ World Tour 

Rails, road and sweet, sweet music 🎶 

2790 km by train – Amtrak Empire Builder

8817 km by car

Amtrak – Seattle to Chicago

Getting to the Amtrak station in Seattle was a piece of amazing logistics by J. We headed to the car rental return to drop the car off and loaded our luggage onto the airport transfer shuttle which dropped us, naturally, at the airport. Right next to the train line that would take us to Union Station right next to King Street Station which is Seattle’s Amtrak station. Such a beautiful building, over 100 years olds and recently ‘repaired’ to undo the travesty of ‘modernisation’ that it had been subjected to.  Checked in our luggage, holding our breath re weight (just under, phew!). J did some reorganisation with his 70+ CD collection in his carry-on luggage and then we headed across the road for some amazing Thai. It was one of the first real sunny days in Seattle and everyone was in an excellent mood, with strangers passing us on the street commenting to us on the weather.  

Eventually we boarded, found our ‘sleeperette’ and settled in for the two night trip across the country. Our conductor was lovely, but a little nonplussed that we didn’t need her help to organise our space or make up the beds.

All meals were included with the cost of the sleeper (which J had booked at awesomely cheap rates, as you would expect!) He had calculated that if we ate $100 in meals we would break even as we were not incurring costs for accommodation, meals, car hire and fuel while travelling by train. 

So we headed down to the dining car for dinner where to our delight the special was Surf & Turf at $35 each! Woohoo, we had that both nights, totally getting our money’s worth 😊 And the steak was cooked perfectly. 

Dining was communal so you were seated at booths of 4. That first afternoon we had met some Australians so had dinner with them both nights, sharing travel histories and stories. One of the most interesting couples we ate with was a retired American volcanist and his Japanese wife. He had spent years studying volcanoes and was a wealth of knowledge on the landscape around us.

J sorting out his 70+ CDs – decided to take them out of the cases and keep the booklet and backing page. Now they fit into a shoe box in a duty free bag, so have easily become carry on/hand luggage.

The train

The sleeperette by day and night. J took the top bunk and had the webbing connect to the ceiling to stop him tumbling out. Not much room up there! 

Change of Plans

Arriving in Chicago at Union Station on Wednesday afternoon (which was under ‘refurbishment’ so no pretty photos 🙁) we picked up our new hire car, set the GPS and headed to our hotel. We had tentatively planned to head back west and drive out to Montana aiming to be in South Dakota for the ‘big walk weekend’. However, after being unimpressed by the scenery in Montana as spied from the train window we decided to forego that adventure this time. Wanting an alternative especially with the Memorial Day long weekend coming up, J looked to the internet. And it delivered. In two days time, starting Friday night, New Orleans  had a two and a half day music festival – specifically the New Orleans Bayou Country Music Festival.

So early Thursday morning we headed South! We stopped overnight in Memphis and had amazing smoky Memphis style ribs. Headed off early in the morning to our hotel in New Orleans.

Friday night was the pre-festival open air concert, with some lesser known, but still talented, singers entertaining the crowd. Beer was plentiful and spontaneous line dancing broke out amongst the audience at times. 

The festival the next two nights started at 5pm, with the doors to the Superdome opening at 3pm. We managed to find free street parking close by, rather than pay  $20/night. New Orleans was hot and humid, and the stadium was airconditioned so we got in early and headed to our seats – which were up in the altitude sickness, nose bleed level. I figured with the huge screens they had about the place we would still get a good view, and at $45 per ticket per day I wasn’t expecting much more anyway. 

So the concert nights went like this: In J’s words

Headline acts include Miranda Lambert, Brooks & Dunn, Rascal Flatts, Jon Pardi, Blake Shelton along with Thomas Rhett, Old Dominion, Dan + Shay, Maddie & Tae plus others. All for $90 each.

Looking forward to a musical weekend.

Update from Bayou country superfest, New Orleans. Free upgrade from nose bleed seats to main floor seats. Then managed to accidentally make my way into the Golden Horseshoe (stage area) – while you see a chance take it.

Fingers crossed I have the same “luck” tomorrow.

By the way, Miranda is just as gorgeous in real life as her photos are, Brooks and Dunn absolutely rocked the house, eardrums still reverberating from Rascal Flatts and Jon Pardi was fantastic.

Still have Blake Shelton, Hank Williams Jnr, Old Dominion plus more to go tomorrow.

Final night at the Bayou Country Superfest In New Orleans. Got free upgrades to even better seats than yesterday’s upgrade. Woohoo.

Old Dominion, Thomas Rhett, Dan + Shay and Maddie and Tae were good, Blake Shelton was fantastic but Hank Williams Jnr had the whole place on their feet. Raw and powerful country music – a must see.

Yep, we got upgraded. If you check out the seating plan we were originally in 607, in the blue level @ $45 per seat per day. 

Saturday night we were given complimentary tickets to the purple section L, on the floor back right hand side which sold for $85 per seat per day.

Sunday night, same thing except this time we ended up in the light blue B section left hand front which sold for $150 per seat per day. Excellent seats, great view of the stage.

The golden horseshoe where J spent part of Saturday night sold for $200 per person, per day.

Were we happy?  We were ecstatic! 

Wall drug
Driving from New Orleans to South Dakota we started seeing road signs – # of miles to Wall drug! Intrigued I asked J what is was about, he said he didn’t want to spoil the surprise and wouldn’t tell me. Next day were more signs, and more signs – eventually we arrived at Wall, a town in the middle of South Dakota which was famous for: having signs directing you to the local drug store. It started in 1936 with a sign on the highway advertising free ice water at Wall drug to entice passing motorists to turn into rather than bypass the town. Now the signs extend for hundreds of miles on the roads leading into the town, and the drug store is a huge tourist attraction with restaurants, shops, museum, more shops and weird stuff to entertain. Large stickers are free and you are encouraged to return home and put them up, further increasing the mystery of ‘Where the heck is Wall drug?’

J upon a jackalope in the Wall drug premises.

Crazy Horse Monument – South Dakota

In 1948, a mountain in the Black Hills, South Dakota started being transformed into the largest statue in the world. The final design, which is far from finished, will depict Crazy Horse (a Native American war leader) upon his horse, arm outstretched pointing to where his people lay buried.

The statue is being blasted from the rock in increments. So far his face and the beginning of his arm have been revealed. 

Twice a year the statue itself is open to the public, where as normally the visitor centre is as close as you are able to get.

This was one of those weekends and the only thing on this part of the trip that we had planned.  The Volksmarch involves following a track through the bushland winding its way across to the road used to move equipment to and from the blasting area.

While the walk is mostly a meandering wander at the beginning it eventually begins to climb, as obviously the only way you can get to something on top of the mountain is to go up, up, up, up and then up! So up we went, I was pretty impressed with myself when I eventually stood up there in front of that huge face. This was the second time J had completed the march. 

Half way

Almost there?  Steepest part was just around the corner! 

Made it!

So did he, and looking much fresher than me! 😊

Looking down! We started our walk in the carpark at the top of the photo. 

Looking up! Outside the visitor centre  (green roof in the previous photo)

Living dangerously! No blasting on Volksmarch day. 

We started our ‘march’ at 8.30 am, made it to the top by 10, and had walked back down the road to the visitor centre by 11 after stopping to take photos, drink some water (and take deep breaths!). Our reward was the medallion we bought to commemorate the event and a huge sense of achievement.

We then got in the car and headed east, for we now had another goal in mind.

Mid afternoon we got to Canisota in South Dakota. This is a small mid western town without a proper restaurant and only a small deli type supermarket. It may have been small but it sold the essentials required to recover from our adventure.

The reason this location rates a mention is two fold:

1. People drive from miles away (we spoke to an elderly couple from California) to visit the chiropractor for what they termed ‘a tune up’. They would then get in their cars and drive back home – wouldn’t this undo all the work done by the chiropractor? The Amish community would also come into town for a week at a time, just to visit the chiropractic clinic too. Must have been good!

2. This was the only time/place in our entire trip where we made a mistake. Due to the dodginess of the town, J put his bumbag containing Foreign Exchange under the bed before we went to dinner. Next morning in our haste to get on the road for a long driving day, we forgot it. Two and a half hours down the road J realises this. We turn around, find a hotel, borrow (with permission) their WiFi to Skype call the hotel. They had already cleaned the room, but hadn’t looked under the bed. They went, found the bumbag, and we headed back to Canisota to pick it up. Turning around again we continued on our way, getting to our next hotel after 10pm having added an extra 5 hours driving to our day.      

Evansville, Indiana – Willie Nelson concert 

Yes, we drove across 4 states in a couple of days to witness the legend that is Willie Nelson in concert. There is no way I expect to ever get the opportunity again, especially at $50, to sit in the third row back in the stands in a small ice hockey stadium. Even if you’re not a country music fan, you have to respect this 83 year old hippie who sang and entertained for 90 minutes. He performed his classics and a few from his latest album, including the tongue in cheek ‘Still not Dead’. The demographics of the crowd ranged from teenagers to grandparents, all of whom were on their feet for the final songs. There were even the groupie types hanging out at the front of the stage hoping to score one of his bandanas that he periodically tossed into the crowd.  

Again I’ll use J’s words to describe the event:

We can confirm like the track from his latest album, that Willie Nelson is “Still not dead”.
Fantastic concert in Evansville, Indiana.

Played a lot of his classics with nice covers from some of his old mates – just two songs off his latest album.

Support act was Robert Earl Keen who along with his band joined Willie and his family band on stage for a great standing ovation finale.

That’s a huge tick of the musical bucket list.

Dyersville, Iowa – Field of Dreams movie site

I cannot imagine a time that we would be in this part of the USA and not drop into the Field of Dreams movie site, putting truth into the tag line “If you build it, they will come”. The opportunity to walk the bases, throw a ball and hang out in the bleachers is just awesome. This was my second visit, J has been here four times, and I’m sure this won’t be our last visit. 

Just passing, thought we’d drop in 

The deadly drama underlying the Cold War is relived at Minuteman Missile National Historic Site near Wall where visitors can see how the end of the world could have begun. The site is the first national park in the world dedicated to commemorating the events of the Cold War. 

Ref: http://www.blackhillsbadlands.com/parks-monuments/minuteman-missile-national-historic-site

Prairie dog feeding centre, Black Hills,  South Dakota 

Didn’t go in, been here before – the views from the road were spectacular but very hard to photograph 

Weird things from the road 

At state borders there were signs along the lines of ‘615 road fatalities in ☆ this year, 65% not wearing seat belts’ . Then there were amusing, eye catching signs designed to make drivers and passengers aware. I really liked this one  😊

I don’t know! 

Found him!

Oh dear, how do they come up with these town names?

Scary to see, but luckily just a truck being towed backwards!

We didn’t drop in to test the truth in advertising claim

We’re not from around here….

In New York, LA, Dallas, Seattle it’s not unusual for the locals to meet and chat to Australians. However in the mid west ‘fly over’ states we were a rarity, and once people heard our accents they initiated conversations. Main topics:

1. Do you have kangaroos in your street/town? Can you see them in the city or do you have to go to the outback?   

2. I’d like to visit Australia but it’s so dangerous. All those animals that can kill you!

At one supermarket checkout, the young dark boy serving us was really excited, telling us that Crocodile Dundee was his mum’s favourite movie and she would be so happy that he’d met real Australians. He was going home that night to rewatch the movie and remember us. 

At a hotel pool/hot tub we met a pair of brothers aged 45+ who spent hours talking about all aspects of life, travel and various topics, even touching on politics (haven’t yet met an American who openly supports the Trump administration). One of them had a son who wanted to go back to his room and also wanted his dad to stay with him. Dad told him he’d take him back to  his mum, but would be heading straight back to the pool because “when am I ever going to get the chance to talk to Australians again?”

Our hotel receptionist demanded that J teach her to say ‘G’day mate’ correctly. Travelling back that way we stayed for another two nights, and she was excited to show him how she had been practicing. 

Finishing touch – below is a photo that the young lady with us insisted we take so she could prove to her friends back home in Mississippi and on social media that she really had met Australians at the New Orleans concert  (I’m not sure how this photo proves this, but she was pretty naive in a lot of ways). She asked the usual questions and was amazed we had heard of the performers all the way in Australia, and that we listen to American country music and therefore could sing a long with the lyrics. “How do you know this song?”

Mindi from Mississippi with a backdrop of phone lights being waved in time to the music 

Until next time ❤ xx


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