Iowa City, Iowa: I am surprised at the number of hills here. In fact, this goes for the entire state. I thought the Midwest was supposed to be a long straight stretch of flat land covered with grass or corn or something. Someone has been spreading untruths back east.
The landscape is still scarred from the flooding a few months ago. There are stretches along the riverbank that are still swampy and covered in mud. Up the hill, and there is not a sign of the crisis this town faced a short while ago. I think this is a good sign, all things considered. The only thing that seems out of sorts is the inordinate amounts of trash that are out on the streets. I assume that students must have been moving, chucking last years couch instead of trying to move it across town.
I am driving alone on a long trip for the first time in my life. I will go where the wind takes me. This will be very nice.
Omaha, Nebraska: This state smells like rusting metal and dust. I am slinking in under the cover of darkness, so I cannot see what is off on either side of me, but I assume that it is some kind of smelter or something. I'm always a little bit happy when I come across parts of this country that are still attached to industry, and the whirring and banging of machines at work.
Finding a hotel this late turns out to be more of an adventure than I thought it would be. I end up stopping at three or four before I actually find one that has a smoking room available. I once again curse my self-afflicted nicotine addiction. The room is nice enough, but in my opinion the price is way too high. I spend the night watching shark week, while munching on ice and granola and ignoring the couple in the room next to me.
I manage to sleep, despite the pitch black dead silence that descends into the room when I finally turn in. The stark light of morning reveals that the hotel is across an access road from a large mall. In fact, there are three hotels around the mall. Is this mall some kind of tourist attraction that I am unaware of? Or, perhaps, coming here to the mall from further west necessitates an overnight stay? Has consumption really become such a travel destination?
I drive down Dodge Street into the heart of the city, looking for breakfast of some sort. In my head, I'm looking for a Denny's or a Perkins or something of the sort so I can load up on an omelet and coffee, and then be on my merry way. Instead, I spot a Breugger's out of the corner of my eye. Afraid I'm having a stroke or an LSD flashback, I weave across three lanes of early morning traffic on the off chance that this store is not some major lapse in my sense of reality. Sure enough, there is a motherfucking Breugger's in the middle of the Midwest.
My approach to the counter scared the employees. I must have looked wild-eyed and rabid, running into the counter. "Why the hell is there a Breugger's all the way out here?" I ask, perhaps frothing at the mouth. "Sir, we have three locations in Omaha."
Three locations. I spend thirty seconds contemplating leaving my old life behind me, and beginning my new life as the crazy homeless guy that lives the in the Breugger's parking lot. Instead, I promise myself that I will look up franchise information when I get back home. I just may have found my calling in life.
They do not have salt bagels, which as a true bagel connoisseur knows is the pinnacle of bagel evolution. I forgive them based solely on the fact that I am, in a very real way, standing in a Breugger's that has no earthly right to exist. I order a blueberry, and egg, and a plain instead, and I eat them much, much too quickly. I call Ann, nearly in tears, and explain to her my situation. She laughs at me.
Fairmont, Nebraska: There is a gas station. It's open and everything, no problem. The thing is, I'm not allowed to buy gas here.
The gas station is a co-op, and I am obviously not a member. The guy inside the station is about seventy years old, and must have been running the place for a very long stretch of his life. I do not think that I am going to win an argument with him, regardless of how much gas may or may not have remaining in my car.
"Is there somewhere around here where I can actually buy gas?" I inquire.
"Go back the way you came in and go south. You'll see it."
After another five miles on US 81, it dawns on me that, perhaps, that grumpy old man might have been fucking with me. I spend five seconds dreaming of going back and running over his tanks, but I'd probably end up running out of gas before I got back anyway. Thankfully, I am able to push on an stop at the next town without a problem.
Glen Elder, Kansas: This town is both comforting and incredibly scary at the same time. First off, any semblance of cell phone reception magically disappeared about twenty miles ago. I figure I am about as far away from anywhere as I could possibly be without being up in the mountains. Secondly, there is a huge lake right in front of me. In the middle of Kansas there is a large body of water. Again, someone has been telling lies back east.
Turns out, the lake is man-made. There is a very large dam on the southern edge of town; part of a flood prevention system that was built back in the 60's. The lake serves as a reservoir and as a tourist trap for fisherman. The dam itself looks like a miniature version of the Oosterscheldekering, but I doubt inundation by the North Sea is much of a concern out here on the plains. An impressive looking construction nonetheless.
I notice as I'm circling the village that I have attracted the attention of a half dozen or so children on bikes, and they are following me. They are trying to be sneaky about it, but they are doing a very poor job. I wonder if they are following the funny-looking car, or if they are following the car with the funny flag on the back, or if they are following the car with the funny Illinois license plates. Wouldn't surprise me if it was all three at once. I pull off to the side of the road for a minute, and the children vanish back into the rest of the village as quickly as they appeared.
I stop at the town square for a little bit, and walk around. There is a little monument in the middle of the square, complete with a miniature Statue of Liberty. Some kind of World War II monument. I am disappointed by the lack of a DAR cannon. Instead, a playhouse decorated like a church, for the little kids to play in for Jesus. Welcome to north-central Kansas.
Looking at the map, I see all of these little gray roads around the town, and decide to try and drive around the lake using only back roads. I take the main road a little bit out of town, and take a right down a long dirt road. I then take a left and head up a hill, noticing that the road is more overgrown than the one I was just on. As I drive, I'm also noticing that the grass and debris is starting to hit the undercarriage of the car. It is then that I realize that, perhaps, the xB is not the best car for tooling around in corn fields. But do I do the smart thing and turn back before I get stuck? Hell no! I'm on an adventure!
And, sure enough, the farther I go, the more the weeds begin to surround the car. I begin to turn a lighter and lighter shade of pale with every noise I hear coming from beneath the car. The weeds in the center of the road are now furiously thrashing at the undercarriage, pinging as they hit the bumper and the exhaust. I begin to worry about setting my car on fire, and approach the road so that one of the ruts is directly underneath the car, and the driver side tires are going over the growth on the side of the road.
That plan worked great, until I came to the washout. I promptly begin to hyperventilate.
I put the car in reverse, and ever so slowly begin backing down the road I had just boldly driven down. I nearly ditch the thing in a soy field a few times before I get the technique down right. I do this for about a mile before I reach what I deem to be a suitable patch for me to make a three point turn. That plan might have worked if I had noticed the drainage ditch off to the right before I put the front end of the car directly into it. The front wheels refuse to get any kind of grip, as the ditch is covered in a tangle of weeds.
I spend twenty minutes or so trying to think of how I am going to explain this to Ann. I think about how I am going to get someone with a tractor to come out here and drag the city boy's car out of the field, and how much damage that will cause to my poor little car. Better yet, I am thinking about the walk I am going to have to make back to town. I decide that I'm already fucked, and in an ill-advised fit of frustration, throw the car into drive and floor it.
Miraculously, the car jumps out of the ditch and up into the field. They must have heard me screaming with joy back in town. I throw a bunch of dirt and rocks into the ditch, put the car in reverse, and floor it once more to get the car back on the road. I then promise myself that I will not off-road in the xB ever again once I get out of this death trap of a field.
I can see the dam from where I am, so I aim the car back into town. Twenty minutes later, I am on the side of an actual road, looking underneath to see how much plant material I have jammed up in there. Looking good, but I don't want to take any chances. Back into Glen Elder, and I manage to find a manual car wash as well as the six quarters I need to use it. I pressure wash the underside of the car first, and then rinse the whole car to get the dust and muck off of it. My car is once again black instead of a burnt orange.
Ellsworth, Kansas: There are at least forty wind turbines sticking up out of a hill near the highway. It looks to me like they are assembling even more a few miles further west. I whiz down the back road at ninety, looking out at the turbines the entire time. There is something magical in them that I can't put my finger on.
I don't know who or what is building these turbines, but I like the idea that they are building something majestic and awe-inspiring out here on the plains. Even on my way back easterly, I see a bunch more of them shooting up out of the landscape. Maybe this is what the future looks like out here. Fields of cows and fields of windmills, stretching over the flat earth as far as the eye can see.
I get onto a highway for the first time in the last few hundred miles, and pull off at a rest area to look at the windmills and to stretch for a while. There is the usual collection of highway travelers here: truck drivers getting some sleep, minivans full of children, a random guy walking a dog. I wonder to myself how many of them have been out in the dust on their trip; how many of them have almost lost their car down a dirt road today. Then I think about all the times I have been just like them, passing my places at unwise speeds, obvious to the treasures that lie only a mile or two from every exit. I am lucky to be able to take a trip like this.
Olathe, Kansas: This hotel has comes in a close second for "shittiest hotel I've ever stayed in." The price is pretty much the only redeeming feature of this room. The walls are cracked, the bathroom is covered in cigarette burns, the carpets are wrinkled and threadbare, and there is a suspicious stain on the doorknob that I will be quite happy never to think about again. After maybe five minutes I decide to get out of there and get some air. On my way out, I see a bunch of teenagers throwing a television out the first floor window. Yup, it will certainly be a great night.
I take the fifteen minute drive into Kansas City, and just kind of troll around for a while. The city is much bigger than I thought it would be. While the downtown core is tightly packed, the ring of suburbs and sub-suburbs extends for miles out in any direction. I guess if you have the room, using it as much as possible makes some sense. I would hate to have to pay for all of that gas though.
On my way back down to Olathe, I get stuck behind this numbnut doing five below the speed limit. I floor the accelerator, pull into the left lane, and pass the guy doing about eighty-five. Right in front of the cop sitting in the median.
The cop is on the other side of the median, but I see him pull out a few seconds after I pass him. I frantically try and remember the last median crossing I saw while speeding up in a desperate search for the next exit. It's two miles up, and I make it to the ramp just as I see flashing lights in my rear view about two miles back.
I get off the ramp and duck into a residential neighborhood. Making a few more random left and right turns in the subdivision, I pull up on the side of the street under a tree, turn off the car, and wait. I take this opportunity to whip out the map and see just where the hell my dumb ass has landed me this time. I'm actually not that far from the hotel, but I don't see any really direct route that isn't the highway where the cop is looking for me. I pull out the big guns and bring up the GPS on that fancy cell phone a got a few months ago. Twenty minutes of suburban driving later, and I pull up to the hotel.
The hotel has three cop cars out front. Goodie.
Trying to remember my Reservoir Dogs lines as best as I can ("They don't know shit. You're not gonna get hurt. You're fucking Baretta. You're supercool."), I casually stroll into the lobby of the hotel. I nod at them. They nod at me. And they go back to asking the hotel clerk about the television that got tossed out the window.
Marceline, Missouri: Instead of taking the highway route back to Chicago, I throw myself north and out onto the back roads. My justification for back roads is rather simple: I'm never going to have a good reason to come out here, so I might as well do it for no reason.
There's not much to miss back here. Every once in a while a town will spring up between a few hills, and then a Walmart or Target will be settled along the main road. Besides that, it looks like much of the rest of the terrain out here: corn field, soy field, pasture, corn field, soy field, pasture, wash, rinse, repeat.
I stop for gas in Marceline simply because I was there when the low gas light went on, and I didn't know off the top of my head how much further on the next town was. It is quiet here too, but not as quiet as it was out on the plains themselves. The world starts to wake up with noise and people for every mile I head east. It gives me a slight uneasy feeling to know that the noise will only increase, that the open land will only decrease, with a loud crescendo before the ocean. But back behind me the land remains, relatively untouched except for windmills and a new tractor or two. Part of me thinks that I am heading in the wrong direction.
But by the time that I'm done with the gas pump, I am resettled. Everything for me is east. It's the way I've built my life, and I'm okay with that. And I'm also okay with knowing that those plains will still be there, years from now. Folks will still be tending the fields and building their lives out under the big sky, living lives I will never understand but work for them just well enough. It's a comfort, and I will think of them often.