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5 Postcards from a US-34 Roadtrip

ON THE ROAD IN 1962

As I mentioned on another reading Roadtrip-'62 ™ journey, my favorite thing to do in Chicago is to go directly downtown, park in the underground Grant Park garage and walk the city. In 1962, a bunch of US-numbered routes passed by or began near that point: US-12, US-14, US-30ALT, US-41, US-45, US-54, US-66, business routes US-12BUS and US-20BUS, and today’s highway of interest: US-34. Within walking distance of the garage are shopping on Michigan Avenue’s Magnificent Mile, the Shedd Aquarium, Field Museum of Natural History, the Buckingham Fountain Flower Gardens, Lake Michigan shore, more shopping in the State Street area, festivals at Millennium Park, and the Art Institute of Chicago. The Art Institute of Chicago is large enough you can spend the entire day if you are really interested. They have some of absolutely everything in art, ranging from Tiffany’s lovely Hartwell Memorial Window, to African art, to Medieval armor and art, to works by Edward Hopper, Claude Monet, and outdoor sculpture by Chicago’s own Richard Hunt. If you stay the day, the McKinlock Court looks like a comfortable place for a lunch from the Museum Café. It may not currently be open, but it was in 1962.

 
McKinlock Court, Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago Illinois, ca. 1960
McKinlock Court, Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago Illinois, ca. 1960 (postcard from an online auction)

Highway US-34 runs 1,122 miles today from Berwyn, Illinois to Granby, Colorado. Back in 1962, it began 17 miles further east in downtown Chicago. Through Rocky Mountain National Park it is known as Trail Ridge Road because it runs atop some of the mountain ridges, reaching an elevation of 12,183 feet. This makes US-34 the highest paved through highway in the United States. It’s so high that snows force it to close entirely from mid-October to Memorial Day in May! Our US-6 trip crossed US-34 from Princeton to Sheffield, Illinois, and in Lincoln, Nebraska, then ran together with it from Hastings, to Culbertson, Nebraska, and again from Brush to Wiggins, Colorado. So much of it is redundant to our US-6 trip. But let’s make a few more scenic stops along the way, in places where US-34 is on it’s own!

Heading west, after we leave Sheffield, Illinois and our first encounter with US-6, highway US-34 drops southerly and crosses the Mississippi River at Burlington, Iowa. We arrive in Burlington today on the Great River Bridge, a 5-lane, asymmetrical, single tower cable-stayed bridge that replaced the MacArthur Bridge over the river in 1993. The MacArthur Bridge was a two-lane, cantilevered steel toll bridge built in 1917, that we would have crossed in 1962. At the time of replacement, the bridge was in obvious need of repair or replacement, as it swayed whenever two semi trucks crossed it at the same time.

 
MacArthur Bridge and US-34, Mississippi River, Burlington, Iowa
MacArthur Bridge carrying US-34 over the Mississippi River Burlington, Iowa, with toll booth, ca. 1970. (Public domain photo from the Historic American Engineering Record, US Library of Congress.)

Highway US-34 crosses southern Iowa through rolling farm country, and every county along the way has a fair in July. Traveling east to west according to the Association of Iowa Fairs, here are the fairs and dates:

  • Des Moines County Fair, July 28-August 3, 2021, in West Burlington, Iowa, right at an interchange of modern US-34
  • Henry County Fair, July 14-19, 2021, in Mt. Pleasant, Iowa, just a few blocks south of US-34 in town
  • Jefferson County Fair, June 20-27, 2022, in Fairfield, Iowa, on US-34BUS (or old US-34) on west side of town
  • Wapello County Fair, June 16-20, 2021, in Eldon, Iowa, 6 miles south of US-34 and almost out of the county
  • Monroe County Fair, July 29-August 2, 2021, in Albia, Iowa, 3 miles north of US-34
  • Lucas County Fair, July 23-29, 2021, in Chariton, Iowa, just a few blocks north of US-34
  • Clarke County Fair, July 12-19, 2021, in Osceola, Iowa, west of town on US-34
  • Union County Fair, July 21-27, 2022, in Afton, Iowa, across the railroad tracks from US-34
  • Adams County Fair, July 9-14, 2021, in Corning, Iowa, downtown, north of modern US-34
  • Montgomery County Fair, July 13-18, 2021, in Red Oak, Iowa, just off US-34
  • Mills County Fair, July 8-12, 2022, in Malvern, Iowa, 2.5 miles south of US-34

These fairs typically have events such as tractor or truck pulls, demolition derbies, carnivals, livestock shows and judging, 4-H exhibits, antique farm equipment exhibits, queen or princess contests, rodeos, horse racing, and of course great food! They also have live concerts, typically headlined by major country music stars that have included Loretta Lynn, Joe Diffie, Sawyer Brown, and Lonestar in recent years.

 
Prize corncobs, 1946 Iowa State Fair, Des Moines, Iowa
Prize corncobs inside the 4-H pavilion at the 1946 Iowa State Fair, Des Moines, Iowa (Public domain photo by Carol M. Highsmith, from US Library of Congress.)

After crossing the Missouri River at Plattsmouth, Nebraska US-34 crosses US-6 again at Nebraska’s capital, Lincoln. Running parallel to I-80, we come to the Missouri River again at Grand Island, Nebraska. Each March, a sandbar in the Platte River becomes the largest sandhill crane roost in the world during their spring migration. About 1,000,000 cranes congregate here and can be seen all along the river and nearby. The Crane Trust is home to a beautiful Nature and Visitor Center that welcomes guests year round. The property also includes a 35-foot observation tower, 10 miles of nature trails along the Platte River, and guided viewing blind tours. In addition to viewing the cranes, you can see whooping cranes and prairie chickens, a butterfly garden, and a small herd of American bison on the Crane Trust property. The sandhill cranes are also visible all around the area, including from a public viewing in River Park on the Platte River, along Platte River Road, and just feeding in cornfields!

 
Sandhill cranes in cornfield along Platte River, Nebraska, postcard
Sandhill cranes in cornfield along Platte River, Nebraska (postcard from an online auction)

We meet up with US-6 again at Hastings, Nebraska, home of Harold Warp’s Pioneer Village, which I discussed on Day 28 of our US-6 roadtrip. From there, we overlap with US-6 all the way to Culbertson, Nebraska, travel on our own for just miles, and hit US-6 again at Brush, Colorado! Just after we leave US-6 for the last time, this final non-redundant section of US-34 leading to Rocky Mountain National Park becomes spectacular! From about Wiggins, Colorado west, the snow-capped Rockies are visible. The first time I came upon this view I found it amazing. The mountains reminded me a bit of large hills because I had no experience with real, snow-capped mountains. But the haze associated with the view told me there was something different. On that trip, my wife and I were heading west on US-34 and as we continued, the mountains steadily loomed larger. Eventually, you could see how huge they really were compared to the flat prairie we were crossing.

 
Mummy Range from Trail Ridge Road, Rocky Mountain National Park, ca. 1970, postcard
Mummy Range from Trail Ridge Road, Rocky Mountain National Park, ca. 1970 (postcard from author’s collection)

Rocky Mountain National Park sits atop the highest part of the Rocky Mountains in Colorado. It encompasses sixty mountain peaks over 12,000 feet high, with the Mummy Range on the north side of the park containing several over 13,000 feet high and one area in the south of the park including Longs Peak, at over 14,000 feet high. The park was established in 1915, after a history that included gold mining. The Civilian Conservation Corps built the main automobile route, Trail Ridge Road, in the 1930s to replace Fall River Road, which needed a severe series of switchbacks to cross the highest pass. Trail Ridge Road is 48 miles of mountain driving, but that doesn’t keep the crowds down. Rocky Mountain National Park was the third most visited national park in 2015. To further enhance the feeling of wilderness if you get off onto any of the 300 miles of hiking trails, the park is surrounded on all sides by National Forest lands. There is plenty of wildlife in the park: I have seen elk, coyotes, eagles, bighorn sheep, and smaller animals. There are even a few small glaciers still active, though retreating. And you can see waterfalls in the back country and from the Alpine Visitor Center and at the end of Bear Lake Road. Recently, the National Park Service began requiring reservations to enter the park from May 28 through October 11, so plan ahead.

 

When I last went to Rocky Mountain National Park, I drove straight through on Trail Ridge Road and stopped frequently, spending over half the day. I continued west on US-34 to Granby, Colorado, its end point. Though I went in August, the highest mountain passes on the west side still had snow and we saw a couple of cattle ranging freely in the area that had been frozen stiff! A reminder from Roadtrip-'62 ™ to be prepared for anything when you get out on the road.

 

All photos by the author and Copyright © 2021 - Donald Dale Milne, except as noted.

All other content Copyright © 2021 - Donald Dale Milne.

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