US 83 - The Road to Nowhere

Its nickname "The Road to Nowhere" probably won't win it many new fans, but few other stretches of road show off rural America like US Highway 83. It's true, the "nowhere" moniker is very well deserved at times, yet the route is unique, serving as the first paved highway between Mexico and Canada. It was no doubt a godsend to countless travelers who had become familiar with the earlier road's rutted and uneven surface. To this day, Highway 83 remains the shortest path between the two countries. Its interior is filled with some pleasant American locales, too. At this point, the geographical and philosophical convergence of the Great Plains and the rugged west, we say the "Road to Nowhere" leads to an introspective look at what these parts of America were, and what they still are. Care to find out? Starting at the Canadian border, US 83 rushes headlong south through North Dakota. We consider the town of Minot an ideal place to start, if for no other reason than to visit the Scandinavian Heritage Park and, in October, the continent's largest Scandinavian festival which honors their regional heritage. In addition to the Scandinavian set, Minot, like the rest of the state, also shows its pride in native son Teddy Roosevelt with a lively namesake park complete with a zoo, skate ramps, pool, and waterslides. Is the temperature getting hot? There aren't too many better places to cool off than along the monstrous shoreline (more than 1,500 miles worth) of Lake Sakakawea, near the town of Garrison. Just head a bit south from Minot and you can't miss it. North Dakota warmly embraces its Native American legacy, and few places do it justice any better than the Knife River Indian Village, along the Missouri River, just north of Bismarck. The site features a nice assortment of early Native American structures, including a reconstructed, 50-foot tall Earth Lodge. Though small by most standards, the state capital of Bismarck (pop. 55,000) seems positively metropolitan after a steady diet of tiny towns along the highway. Regardless, this is a great chance to see a little architecture, like the capital building, and find some untraditional places to eat, such as the Space Aliens Café, as you make your way south. Lawrence Welk fans should keep their eyes open for the small town of Strasburg, a short detour west of US 83, to see the bandleader's birthplace. Don't be confused by the name of the musician's boyhood home, though, known as the "Ludwig Welk Farmstead." Yeah, that's the one. US 83 cuts a fairly direct route through the state of South Dakota. If you're looking to speed things up, this state is a great way to do it. Still, might we recommend a brief western detour on US 12 to the town of Mobridge for the Sitting Bull Memorial? The site beautifully commemorates the heroic Sioux chief. Back on 83, travelers soon encounter the South Dakota capital of Pierre, with a small-town population of 15,000. Like many stops in the region, it won't exactly overload your itinerary with tourist fare, but it does deliver a couple of museums and a Discovery Center and Aquarium with lots of exhibits. The route speeds up as it shares a westward leg with Interstate 90. We recommend a stop at the town of Murdo along the way, home to an interesting doll museum and well-known Pioneer Auto Museum, an historic collection of antique vehicles. The first thing you'll learn as you take US 83 into Nebraska is that it's cattle country. Of course, this means it won't always smell great, but we should give the meat-producing capitol some slack nonetheless. One of the benefits of this portion of the drive is that it won't require too much effort to find some high-quality steak or prime rib. Valentine is the first noteworthy stop on 83, with the Sawyer's Sand Hills Museum arguably the best spot in town. The museum is a great way to learn about the history of Sand Hills. Nearby, those needing to stretch their legs can enjoy doing so at both Snake River Falls and the 60-foot high Smith Falls, northeast of Valentine along Hwy. 12. Keep pointing southward along Hwy. 83 until you hit the town of North Platte, which provides a microcosm of both Nebraska's past and present. The engineering marvel of Bailey Yard makes a fun tour for train-lovers. There are an abundance of trains coming and going, with a high platform providing a great way to observe them moving about the enormous yard. Those looking to see an "old-school" locomotive should check out "Big Boy," an enormous steam engine kept in nearby Cody Park. While train aficionados are obviously drawn here, anyone who's ever played cowboy should make time to tour Buffalo Bill's Scout's Rest Ranch, a historic state park and museum celebrating the town's best known resident, Buffalo Bill. (Don't miss the namesake Rodeo every June). Those who might be convinced Kansas is nothing but wheat fields and flat lands are in for a shock. Expect a rapid conversion of perspective upon laying eyes on the Chalk Pyramids, south of the town of Oakley. Despite their name, these rock formations had no help from man, rather they were reputedly formed more than 70 million years ago. Travelers are treated to the 70-foot marvels towering high above the plains. Nearby Lake Scott State Park along Hwy. 83 is a nice place for a stroll among the cottonwoods. It's also home to a Pueblo community known as El Cuartelejo. Stay the course on the "nowhere express" for a sight of Garden City, one of the biggest towns around and a much-welcomed reunion with civilization. The town's well-known (and quite large) public pool and drive-thru zoo provide the best incentives to stop. The Mid-America Air Museum, near the Oklahoma border in the town of Liberal, is a must for aviation and history enthusiasts. The collection of vintage warplanes is one of the best in the country. And you didn't expect to get out of Kansas without some Wizard of Oz stops, did you? Liberal also has worked hard to capture the spirit of the movie with its annual "Ozfest" celebration and a spot they call Dorothy's House, which attempts to re-create the set from the film. Give the heels a click and see if it holds true to the original. US 83 nearly manages to avoid Oklahoma altogether, only nipping the northwest corner of the state as it wends its way to Texas. The 37-mile segment through the home of the "Sooners" only offers a couple of small, drive-by towns along the way before you quietly cross the border. Texas, on the other hand, welcomes you heartily. We always prefer to have a little luck on any journey, which is why you should stop to rub the Blarney Stone in the town of Shamrock. A brief westward detour on I-40, this small town claims to have a piece of the actual stone, on display in the downtown Elmore Park. If this doesn't somehow capture your imagination, we recommend a visit to the town's Pioneer West Museum with lots of cool items, tales, and displays from the Old West era. Those looking for more fun should visit Abilene, at this point in the journey the biggest city on "The Road to Nowhere." Proudly proclaimed as the "Buckle of the Bible Belt," the city sports several impressive museums including the Grace Museum. It's three museums in one building (talk about convenience!). The Art Museum exhibits of some of the world's finest art, the Historical Museum presents the story of life in West Texas from 1910 to 1945, and the Children's Museum offers little RVers hands-on art, science and technology exhibits. Buffalo Gap Historic Village is another worthwhile stop while in Abilene. It features 19 buildings from the founding of the area: 1875 one-room log cabin, train depot, Original Taylor County Courthouse and jail, 1926 Texaco Service Station, two-room school house and more! West of town sits numerous vintage and newer warplanes at Linear Air Park. Now, since you're already in this part of Texas, you might as well take a day trip or two to the neighboring towns of Midland and Odessa. It's less than a couple hours drive west on I-20 out of Abilene, but well worth it. For you WWII vintage airplane fans, no visit to Midland can be considered complete without spending some hours at the national headquarters of the Commemorative Air Force and their American Airpower History Museum. Located at Midland Int'l. Airport, the CAF promotes the education of America's WWII heritage and honors the memory of our greatest generation by restoring and flying their large collection of WWII aircraft. The collection includes the world's last flying Boeing B-29 Superfortress. The Museum hangar complex also houses many interesting exhibits including a fascinating collection of preserved aircraft nose art. Once in the town of Odessa, you can learn much more about President George W. Bush and his predecessors when you visit the Presidential Museum and Leadership Library. The George H.W. Bush family arrived here in the Permian Basin in 1948 and has been involved in the development of the local oil industry, and politics, ever since. Another local attraction can be found ten miles southwest of town at the Odessa Meteor Crater. Approximately 550 feet in diameter, this is the second largest such crater in the nation. The crater is the result of a barrage of meteors crashing to the earth some 20,000 to 30,000 years ago. Enjoy a self-guided tour and Museum and Visitor Center on site. For thrills of the more prehistoric variety, you'll need to make your way south of the town of Ballinger to see an amazing collection of prehistoric drawings. More than 1,500 such images can be found on limestone walls at the Paint Rock Pictographs. Continue a fairly long drive south on Hwy 83 until you reach the town of Uvalde, which offers two excellent reasons to stop and visit. The first is the town's venerable, 390-seat Grand Opera House, which opened in 1891. Even if you can't catch a show, definitely take the tour. The second highlight is the Rexall Drug Store, home to a bona fide working soda fountain, and the spot for a milk or ice cream sundae. Is there a better way to beat the heat? Probably not. Spinach-lovers (and we know you're out there) should plan a visit to the "Spinach Capital of the World" of Crystal City. That would explain the giant statue of Popeye downtown. This point of Highway 83 rounds the "boot" of Texas, with Mexico just miles away. We won't blame you if you're anxious to hop the border, but those staying on the U.S. leg of the route are rewarded with a nice drive though the Rio Grande Valley, home to such engaging border towns as Rio Grande City and McAllen. With a surging population of more than 100,000, McAllen covets its curious title as the "Killer Bee Capital of the USA." We recommend the 172-acre Sabal Palm Grove Sanctuary outside the town of Brownsville for its beauty and natural importance as one of the last refuges of the endangered trees. Run by the National Audubon Society, the massive palms can reach up more than 45 feet high. While "The Road to Nowhere" technically ends here, we say it's time to disprove the name by taking a quick jaunt east on Highway 48 to fun-loving South Padre Island, a terrific barrier island along the Gulf of Mexico. A raucous stop on the college Spring Break circuit, the island features sandy beaches, engaging nightlife, and a chance to frolic in the waves of the gulf's bathwater-like temperatures. Road to nowhere? We hardly think so.