I woke up at 6AM in Iowa City to the glorious roaring of a thunderstorm that swept in overnight, blowing curtains of rain sideways and lighting up the sky with forking tails of lightning. With several hours to Omaha - or substantially more hours to Denver - I should have gotten up. There was something comforting, though, in pretending, for a moment, that I could stay longer, burrow down under the covers, and be someplace like home.
With Stephen and Caroline already busy with family affairs on Sunday, I packed everything up and threw my things into Natasha around 10AM. By this time, the rain had slacked, and by the time I got to the Hamburg Inn for breakfast, the clouds were parting. By the time I left, fingers of light were shining down through blue and purple clouds, and the highway was wet, but passable.
Sunlight gilded I-80 as I struck out towards Omaha, and the fields to either side looked less grey, and more golden. This persisted out over the state line into Nebraska, where the sun broke free.
Iowa in the wake of a thunderstorm is a vivid memory for me. I can still see the shining stretch of road, the purple walls of cloud, the vivid green of the fields on every side. I-80 was a nearly empty drive, a comfortable flatness underneath my wheels.
I remember only one other thing aside from the scenery. At one point, I pulled off to go looking for a gas station. Somewhere west of Des Moines, I saw two plazas off the road. I and a pair of semis pulled off, circled both, noted the grass growing up between the cracked and broken parking lots, and booked it.
There was graffiti all over the boarded up service stations, and I remember looking around for anything - farms, signs to nearby towns, anything - and finding nothing.
I can't say much about Nebraska aside from it being a great stretch of empty interrupted by small communities. It blurred together, and I continued driving. Around five or six in the evening, I spotted the SAC Museum, but figured that it being Sunday (and rather late on Sunday), it would be closed.
Onwards through Nebraska. And on, and on. Evening became night. There are very, very few towns out that way, and fewer truck stops. I blew through it doing 80-90MPH, uninterrupted by state troopers or much of anything aside from trucks.
And finally, I hit I-76 and came southwest, up into Colorado.
If I'd thought Nebraska was abandoned property, northeastern Colorado was downright spooky. Towns were even sparser: gas stations were a rarity. So it was that I found myself chasing a nonexistent Flying J down a side road in the dark away from I-76, following my GPS into dark, unlit roads.
Somewhere outside Ovid, it sent me left onto what turned out to be a dimly lit road punctuated by only occasional trailers hauled up next to wide fields. "Turn right here," the GPS chirped.
I looked right. There was indeed a road. An unmarked, unlit road going through a cornfield.
"How about no?"
So, I followed the GPS a little while further. Things it tried to direct me through: another two cornfields. A gated industrial complex. Three or four things that might have been towns (but probably weren't). Off of the top of a cliff.
On down the road I went to the end at a pasture. A narrow road cut right, wandering onto a slightly paved road. I smacked GPS and requested a gas station. It churned a few seconds, spat out the address of a Sinclair, and obediently took me into a single-stoplight town with a 24-hour pump.
But no working bathroom, which by this point was concerning. I had to go find a rest stop. The closest one had no travelers stopped over (always unnerving), and bullet holes in the signs.
I did my business and left as soon as I possibly could.
Back on I-76, backtracking an hour back down to the original exit taken in pursuit of the Flying J. I hit the outskirts of Denver, and their airport, and continued on through and around town. The sky got gradually lighter as I approached Golden, promising civilization. Instead, I turned off the interstate into a town nestled in the crack of mountains. Above, a sullen, ruddy glow permeated what I'd thought was a cloudy sky. The mountain was burning high above, polluting the sky with smoke and light.
An address glinted on the GPS. "Turn left," it chirped, and I did, pulling off on a short, dead-end street in the shadow of the mountains. As I shut Natasha down and got out, the fire on high continued on and on, and a dark figure trudged down the unlit sidewalk towards my truck...