Tag Archives: Bismarck

State Capitols

State Capitols are really fascinating. To be honest, I never really planned to visit them, but then, during my visit to Salt Lake City in 2009, I found myself with some spare time to kill. So I decided to see the state capitol of Utah. From the outside it looked like most of the capitols do, a dome, some columns, resembling a Roman or Greek temple. However what really surprised me was the interior. The décor had much in common with the art of eastern European socrealizm, with its muscular sculptures and paintings of workers and farmers. For example there was painting showing happy workers building the first ski jumping hill in Utah. Or how about sculptures with the names like “Immigration & Settlement” or “Science & Technology” Isn’t that cool? These sort of sculptures wouldn’t be out of place in the Polish Communist Party headquarters. I joined tour led by a enthusiastic capitol guide who filled us with numerous facts, trivia and stories about the building and its history. Of course I forgot most of what she said apart from the story about the seismic retrofitting which they did few years ago. What can I say, I’m a bit of a geek.

The next capitol I visited was the Oregon State Capitol in Salem. It was during the same trip but this time it was much more conscious decision to go there specifically to see it. It actually doesn’t look like a classic capitol building at all. There is no dome, no pillars, and the whole building resembles some strange Hindu temple or giant wedding cake. The reason for that is that it was built in the Art Deco style in 1938, after previous capitol (with the dome) burned down in 1935. Its shape and the white marble exterior of the modern structure really do make it look like a giant wedding cake. On the top of the cake, I mean the rotunda, there is a 5 meter statue of The Oregon Pioneer. He is holding an axe, (which makes him look more like a lumberjack if you ask me) and is covered with real gold, so looks especially splendid on a sunny day. The interior offered similar mix of the settlers themes like in the Utah capitol. There is for example a mural of the Lewis & Clark expedition as well as rather bizarre one of the first women who crossed continent by the covered wagon. One of the best moments of my visit was climbing to the top of the rotunda, right to the base of the statue of the pioneer, as it offers excellent views of Salem.

I had to wait for over a year to see another capitol. This time it was the North Dakota one in Bismarck which happened to be convenient place to stop and break the journey from Minneapolis to the badlands of the Theodore Rosevelt National Park. There are many similarities with the Oregon capitol. The North Dakota Capitol, completed just 4 years before the Oregon one, was also build in the Art Deco style after previous building burned down, and it also doesn’t look like a classic capitol. The nineteen storeys tall skyscraper has very little external decoration, partly due to the fact it was built during the great depression and some of the planned features were abandoned, and partly due to the minimalistic design. Because there is little decoration you can easily spot interesting details like for example the small statues of farmers and workers above the revolving doors. I definitely like it that way. It is simple and clean from the outside as well as inside. Especially the legislative hall, which is tall and narrow, with dark wooden panels on the walls, giving it an impressive interior. I visited it on Sunday and there was no one to check my bag, no one asking questions, not a single person in sight. I was surprised it was open at all. The whole building was totally deserted which make the whole experience a bit like visiting some ancient temple or abandoned space station. Really, really cool.

A few days later I drove into downtown Lincoln, to visit probably one of the strangest capitols I have seen so far. Here for change I saw plenty of people, the whole place was buzzing. Before I even entered the building, a charming old gentleman approached me and introduced himself as one of the state senators (even if the Nebraska legislature is unicameral). I have to admit it was the first lawmaker I met in my life. He was very friendly and strongly recommended a visit to the capitol tower. And that’s what I did. Views from the top are quite nice and make you realize how flat and featureless this part of Nebraska is. Don’t take me wrong dear readers, particularly good folks from Lincoln, it’s a nice, quiet and green town, but I probably wouldn’t even stop there if not for the capitol, as by then I had started developing kind of passion for them.

Now onto the building itself, which is a strange mix of styles and themes. Built between 1922 and 1932, like a medieval cathedral on the plan of cross, it resembles in parts a Greek (or Roman or Babylonian or even Egyptian) temple. Sculptures of Hammurabi, Moses, Solon, Solomon, Socrates, Julius Caesar and other famous ancient blokes only add to that feel. Then there is 15 storeys tower which could look like one of the NYC skyscrapers but they are not usually topped by a blue and golden dome with the statue on top. Yes, yet another five meter statue. Oregon has its pioneer; Nebraska has “The Sower”. He is, rather bizarrely, based on an Egyptian farmer.Interior has much more design connected to the Native American art and culture than any previous capitol. For example the balustrade flanking the main stairway is ornamented with bison and inscribed with American Indian poems. It is definitely an interesting building, well worth a visit if you are somewhere around central Nebraska.

Another capitol with a clear connection to Native American art and design is the one of the state of New Mexico. Finished in 1966, it is one of the newest state legislature buildings and was designed to resemble the Zia Sun Symbol when viewed from above. I have to admit, I was seriously unimpressed by the whole complex. The best aspect of it was actually the free parking in close walking distance to the Santa Fe historic plaza. The building itself, the only round capitol in the nation, is quite boring on the outside as well as inside. It hosts apparently great modern art collection but I’m not really into these sort of things. I the missed impressive murals of pioneers and explorers or sculptures resembling those in ancient temples, which are plentiful in the older capitol buildings.

So, after all the capitols without domes (or with small ones like in Nebraska) the Iowa State Capitol in Des Moines was a journey back to the tried and tested design. It has an impressive and shiny dome which is visible from miles around as the building is located on a hill dominating the downtown. It actually has five domes in total, a real treat for the domes aficionados. The central one, covered with pure 23-karat gold, is 275 feet (84m) tall and really is a great sight. The exterior of the building, (finished in 1886), is entirely made of stone with elaborate columns and handsomely designed cornices and capitals. Inside it is one of the most heavily decorated buildings I have visited in recent years, with plenty of murals, paintings and sculptures. Twenty nine types of marble were used during its construction, along with plenty of wood. One room you definitely shouldn’t miss is the Iowa State Library featuring four ornamental balconies with spiralled, wrought-iron railings and circular staircases at each end. Its look wouldn’t be out of place somewhere in the old colleges of Oxford or Cambridge. An absolutely fantastic place. As usual, there are monuments scattered around the capitol grounds. One particularly worth a closer look is the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument, built in 1896 to commemorate those who fought the Civil War.

Now, time for two of my favourites. First, the Wisconsin State Capitol. Only three feet shorter than the National Capitol in Washington DC it was completed in 1917 and is fifth home for the Wisconsin lawmakers. The exterior stone is white granite from Vermont, making the exterior dome the largest granite dome in the world, and the four wings of the building face the four diagonal streets of the City of Madison. Its interior is richly decorated with paintings, mosaics and sculptures. I especially liked the four mosaics, high on the rotunda walls, representing; Legislation, Government, Justice and Liberty. They are all designed to look seriously ancient and could be easily fitted into the ruins of Pompeii. The fun part of my visit was getting into the observation deck, which involved a lift ride, 23 marble stairs and, the best of all, a metal spiral staircase. All of this leading into an absolutely fantastic view over Madison. The Wisconsin State Capitol is located in the heart of downtown on an isthmus formed by Lake Mendota to the north and Lake Monona to the south. From the top you can see how great location it is. Unfortunately, the coming storm made my visit on the viewing platform rather short. Damn health & safety regulations.

My second favourite is the Minnesota State Capitol in Saint Paul. Built in 1905 it was apparently modelled after the Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome and is topped by the second largest unsupported marble dome in the world. The first one is on top of the Saint Peter’s Basilica itself, if you didn’t know. Apart from the dome the most impressive feature of the building is the gilded quadriga above the southern entrance. I strongly recommend joining a guide led tour of the capitol building as it is the only way of getting up close to the quadriga. The four horses represent the power of nature: earth, wind, fire and water. The women riding in the back of the chariot symbolize civilization while the man standing at the front of the chariot represents prosperity. I love all the symbolism in state capitols. Apart from getting close to the quadriga during the tour you will have great views over downtown Saint Paul and as far as downtown Minneapolis with its quite substantial skyscrapers.Interior offers the usual mix of allegoric paintings, sculptures and mosaics, including a large star, symbolizing Minnesota’s motto, “The Star of the North”, which is located directly beneath the dome. The Minnesota capitol is truly amazing building, especially on a glorious sunny day.

During my last visit in the states I added three more capitols to my list. Unfortunately none of them are as interesting as those mentioned above. The Arkansas State Capitol in Little Rock is a neo-classical building which from the outside is so similar to the National Capitol it was used by film crews as a replacement. The Kansas State Capitol in Topeka has dome taller than capitol in Washington DC but unfortunately, during my visit, the dome was closed to visitors because of renovation, which seriously spoiled my time in Topeka. Finally the Oklahoma State Capitol in Oklahoma City is the only capitol with an active oil well on its grounds. Interestingly it was finished in 1919 but the dome was added only in 2002. Inside you can see some very interesting murals depicting the early history of Oklahoma territory and state.

I can’t really explain why I keep visiting state capitols. I guess I like all the strange symbolism and allegories so plentiful in the paintings, sculptures and mosaics as well as the architecture of the buildings themselves. With all the domes, towers, columns, made of granite or marbles they are usually great sights. I also like the fact they are little visited with no crowds whatsoever. I love wondering by myself in large interesting buildings. I have to say I’m seriously surprised how much freedom one has once inside. No one bothers you and it’s possible to peep in into most of the offices. It’s unbelievable in these tense times.

So I guess I’ll keep visiting them whenever I’m close to some state capital. I think, I can even change my route just to get to one if it’s not to far. Of course I don’t expect anyone to follow my crazy steps but if you are close to some state capitol please spare some time for a visit. You might be positively surprised.

Great Plains.

For most Americans, and visitors alike, North and South Dakota or Nebraska and Iowa are often seen as, so called, flyover states. Places on a way from somewhere to elsewhere, boring flatness between the excitements of the east and west coasts. It is deeply unjust for these great places. Having said that I have to admit I wasn’t initially planning to go there this summer. I was planning, for a long time, to visit spectacular western Canada. But, on one of the quiet afternoons, somewhere in February or March 2009, I was walking by the USA section in Stanfords (which I take care of) when map of the North and South Dakota caught my attention. And that was it, after just few minutes of studying it, I knew that Canada plans were gone and Great Plains was my next destination.

I started my trip in Minneapolis as it is big transportation hub (with direct flights from London) on the edge of otherwise sparsely populated region I wanted to visit. I didn’t spend much time there. First because I wanted to explore it at the end of my trip, and second because it was raining like a hell. So, after night in some random chain motel, I drove straight west to North Dakota. And boy, what a long drive it was. 420 miles (about six hours), of the often dead straight interstate 94. Was I disappointed or bored? Absolutely not. After leaving busy metropolitan region of Twin Cities it was just relaxing cruising along the quiet and excellent quality highway. Accompanied by lots of country music I had a great day. That’s what I like in America.

Anyway, eventually I arrived to quite small city of Bismarck which is the capital of North Dakota. The biggest attraction there, (and possibly the only one), is the state capitol. Surprisingly, everyone can enter it without any questions or security checks. I haven’t seen even a single CCTV camera in, or around it. What a difference from London, where even public toilets will soon require full, airport style, security checks. It is one of the only few state capitols without a dome. It is actually quite spectacular art deco skyscraper, which, with its 19 floors, is also the tallest building in the state of North Dakota. Well, to be honest it is not that great achievement if you consider that population of the state is less than a million (650 thousands to be precise) stretched on a territory larger than England and Wales combined.

Following day I left major interstate behind and followed local state highways on my way to Theodore Roosevelt National Park. Travelling these smaller roads you can really appreciate size and emptiness of North Dakota. There were long moments when I couldn’t see a single vehicle in front or in the rear view mirror, all the way until distant horizon.Theodore Roosevelt NP is one of the least visited parks in the whole national parks system (apart from Alaska), which means no crowds whatsoever. This park offers great opportunity to see wildlife (bison, prairie dogs, feral horses, elk, white tailed deer and more) in really great unspoiled landscape of amazing badlands formations. There are maybe not as spectacular as those in Badlands National Park (about which later) but lack of crowds makes it great place to relax and soak the atmosphere of the Wild West. The only thing you can hear, when you switch off the engine of you car, is wind. Wind, which actually never stops blowing on the Great Plains. I spent a night in the southern unit of the park at the camp-ground located on the banks of the Little Missouri River. Nice, quiet, well protected from wind, location, right off the scenic drive.

From T.R.N.P. I drove south towards the Black Hills region in South Dakota. It involved more hours on the empty highways cutting in straight lines through the very vast open spaces. With more country music on the radio (by then I even started recognizing some songs) it was great time indeed.Black Hills were named as such by Native Americans because they are covered by pine forests which appear black when seen from the distance. And in relatively flat South Dakota they are visible from far away. Word hills is rather understatement because this huge granite outcrop has definitely more mountain feel than some proper mountain chains. With area over 4800 square miles and elevation reaching 7242 feet above the sea level, (which is the highest point between Rocky Mountains and The Alps) this varied region offers plenty of outdoor opportunities. Camping, hiking, fishing, mountain biking, you name it.

But the biggest tourist attraction there is actually a man made one. The world famous Mount Rushmore. Probably most people are familiar with the image of four president’s heads sculpted into the mountain face. The whole place has a bit of Disneyland-ish feel (including huge gift shop and plenty of toilets) but you definitely shouldn’t skip it. It is, at the end, an unique American icon. The most annoying about it is fact that although there is free entrance you have to pay 10$ for annual parking permit. Why on earth would anyone need annual parking there is beyond me.

Another interesting attraction in the Black Hills is Crazy Horse Memorial. Not finished yet, but already quite impressive, it is another mountain carving but much, much bigger than Mount Rushmore. In fact when finished it’s going to be the largest sculpture in the world. The whole project commemorates great chief Crazy Horse and also includes cultural and educational center dedicated to Native American culture and history. In the gift shop you can buy some authentic native craft. It is also possible to join tours of the monument itself and there are laser shows after dark.

Interior of the Black Hills is criss-crossed by some spectacular scenic roads. And I really mean spectacular. Let’s take the Peter Norbeck Scenic Byway. It is loop, over 68 miles long, which follows four different local highways. So, good map is essential. Forget the stereotypical American road. Wide, straight, designed for comfortable driving. This road is curvy and narrow, actually very curvy and very narrow. In some places it is just ribbon of tarmac, wide enough for one and half car, squeezed between the rock walls and sheer drop on the other side. There are tunnels where you have to honk before entering, so you won’t have a head on collision with some oversized pick-up truck, and pigtail bridges where you make full 360 degrees circles. In general this scenic byway is more like Spanish or Italian mountain roads than American highway. I really had fun driving it.

During the few days I spent in the Black Hills weather wasn’t absolutely cooperative. Rainy afternoons and evenings meant that I didn’t camp (even if I was tempted by some nicely located camp-grounds) but used motels in Rapid City as my base. Still, I managed to hike a bit. One of the trails I do recommend is one leading to the Cathedral Spires. It starts from the small parking lot just off the SD highway 87 (part of the scenic byway) and leads to the top of some spectacular rock formations. From the top you can see even more rocky madness (spires, boulders, domes, etc.) It is short but rather steep hike, especially in the final section, where you climb some exposed rocks. If you prefer something easier just few miles down the road lays Sylvan Lake which offers flat trail encircling it. Perfect for a half an hour stroll. And you can still enjoy rocky scenery.

When weather got really bad (it was raining all day long) I used my time to visit Wind Cave National Park. Major attraction there is one of the longest cave systems in the world. Based on the air movement, scientist estimate that over 200 km of corridors explored so far, represents only 5-10% of the whole cave. Park rangers lead various tours throughout the underground maze. Although those tours cover only fraction of the explored corridors they are long enough to let you understand the sheer size and beauty of the cave and also make you tired end disoriented. It is really good way of escaping rain, as you still stay close to the nature but dry.

From the Black Hills it was time to turn back east. On my way to Badlands National Park I decided to stop at the Ellsworth Air Force Base. It might sound as a strange destination but it is one of the few places around the world where you can visit a missile silo from the Cold War era. After visiting small museum you will be driven through the active military base into the disused Minuteman rocket silo. It is surprisingly small and cramped place, and the whole experience is quite chilly. Not so many years ago thousands of similar rockets were waiting for a launch command, ready to wipe out humankind from the face of planet in matters of minutes. Around the base museum you can see some disused planes, among them the B1 bomber.

Fifty miles east of Ellsworth AFB, I finally got to probably the most spectacular destination during my entire trip, Badlands National Park. It is not a huge park by American standards but offers some great scenery. The main attractions there are multicoloured rock buttes eroded by wind and water out of the soft rocks. And I mean really soft. Sometimes you can feel rocks eroding around you while you walk some of the trails. Unfortunately, changing weather caused shortening of my hiking experience. Fortunately even on a cloudy day you can still see how the rock formations change colours depending from the light. Apart from the geological wonders Badlands NP also protects one of the largest remaining tracts of the mixed-grass prairie which once covered most of the Great Plains. It is great contrast between deep green of the prairie (at least in spring) and red, brown, yellow or grey colours of the rocks. Scenic drive and strategically located viewpoints make exploration of the park easy. You can really see it in a day. And if you are tired, hungry and thirsty you can always pop in to the world famous Wall Drug Store, just outside the park in a small town of Wall. You will see billboards advertising the free ice water there for hundreds of miles in each direction. It started as a small local store but developed into a major tourist trap, including few restaurants and huge shopping emporium. Yes, it is kitschy but offers some surprisingly entertaining and interesting shopping experience.

One of the common misconceptions about the Great Plains is that it is totally flat region. Nothing more wrong. Of course there are some flat places but most of the region contains rolling hills scenery. Nowhere is it more apparent than in Sand Hills region in Nebraska. If you look at the map of Nebraska (in Stanfords for example), you can notice big empty space in the middle, which is cut by really just one road, Nebraska Hwy 2, also called Sand Hills Scenic Byway. It is not an extreme road like some in the Black Hills region, more of relaxing, gently curving one. The scenic part of the highway starts in town of Alliance where you can visit Carhange which is one of these peculiar roadside attractions common in the US but rare in Europe. In this case it is reconstruction of the Stonehenge but made of old cars. Weird and funny.

From Alliance the scenic byway continues for almost 300 miles in east – south east direction to Grand Island, crossing through the middle of the Sand Hills region. What makes scenery of this part of state so interesting is one of the world largest sand dunes systems. It is probably the largest dune area in the western hemisphere. Most people think desert when they hear word dune but they are wrong. Dunes in Nebraska are actually covered by grass which also stabilises them and creates green and hilly pastoral landscape. Highway 2 winds peacefully between these dunes crossing small towns from time to time. One of them is Mullen in Hooker County. No, it is not me who stole the road signs with that county name, even if I have though about it. It was one of the most relaxing days during my trip. Lazy drive, not going anywhere in particular, just sort of floating in space. Day when I saw more cows than people. Such days, for me are the highlights of holiday in America.

I really recommend visiting Great Plains for anyone who is looking for something more than just coastal America. In no other region you can really appreciate how huge and sparsely populated this country really is. Simple task of moving from town to town may involve hours of driving through the middle of nowhere. I absolutely love it. I love the big sky and open horizon which better than anything else describe the region. And if you see it yourself you will fall in love too.