Arm Chair Road Trip Days 46-48: We’re On a Road Through Nowhere

May 29, 2021 — Leave a comment
89 Midwest Hiway

Somewhere in the Midwest… from my 1989 road trip. Not much has changed.

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Borrowing from the Talking Heads, the title of this post perfectly describes the next few days of our trip. They don’t call it flyover country for nothing — because there ain’t much to see along the ground. We didn’t even take one photo!

Still, we did have experiences and memories, though nothing mind-blowing. And so, a collection of moments from nowhere…

Before taking off from Laramie, I needed to find a copy shop. Driving through the funky little college downtown with its Gunsmoke vibe, I thought of Matthew Shepard. As beautiful as Wyoming is, it seems like a lonesome, isolated place to be gay. I sent a silent hello up to him as we headed out.

We rolled across Wyoming and into Nebraska. It’s monotonous … just flat flat flat. No sense of mystery and magic like in the Southwest. We pulled into a motel in North Platte in late afternoon. The parking lot was empty. For the first time in our nonstop weeks of traveling, we both needed a nap. The hours of nothingness had drained the energy out of us. We were stunned to wake up in a dark room: we’d slept for two hours! The parking lot was full; I never heard a thing.

There weren’t many options for dinner. We went to a little Italian place that looked like a converted Arby’s. The food was okay; I wasn’t expecting Florence. I was shocked to see that beers were only a few bucks. I’m used to paying over ten in Boston. But what killed me was the house wine: Riunite Lambrusco. I didn’t even know they still made it! This was my sister’s drink of choice when I’d cross over into New Hampshire with my fake ID and we’d cruise around and crank tunes and party in my Camaro. Riunite…. wow. Maybe it’s still 1980 in North Platte.

The next day, still grinding across Nebraska, my oil change light came on. I Googled for a Jiffy Lube and headed off I-80 to Grand Island. I don’t know why it’s called that; we didn’t see any water around. Talking to the mechanic, he told me that the city had been nearly flattened by an epic tornado years ago — and that there’s a mountain of debris on the outskirts of town. I said tornados scared me, since they seem inescapable. He said that when the warning sirens go off, he grabs a beer and stands outside to watch the twisters move across the plains. Life in Nebraska, I guess.

In Iowa the scenery got a little more interesting. It was still farmland and barns, but I was surprised to see rolling hills. It lowered the monotony level a bit, but not much. My New Mexico friend Kelly grew up in Iowa. I don’t know how she did it — and I’m glad she got out.

Iowa has the distinction of my worst hotel for the entire trip. Why on earth did I pick a place that was an indoor water resort? I must have been delirious from weeks of driving. The rooms encircled a garishly lit indoor courtyard with pools and water slides. The entire place smelled of chlorine and felt more humid than Atlanta in August. It was disgusting. And loud. Two families with 37 kids next to our room banged their doors nonstop. Even Mtuseni, who can sleep through anything, was like, “WTF?”

The next morning we went to Perkins, a regional chain that felt nice and homey. I liked it, just simple eggs-and-toast breakfast — though it didn’t have the same hold on me as Waffle House. Sitting in the next booth were four hefty gay guys. One of them wore a “Pete for President” t-shirt. I was psyched. We were in Iowa, the first election of the upcoming 2020 primaries, so I thought the shirt was a good omen. I was Team Pete from the beginning, believing the country needed generational change. I even thought about working for the campaign, maybe in South Bend, after the trip was over.

On the second leg through Iowa, the rolling hills faded away — replaced by flat, agri-industrial land. The quiet rural beauty of the Midwest plains was fading away.

In the early afternoon we crossed the Mississippi for the last time. We’d seen it in New Orleans, then in Memphis, and now here, way up north. We stopped at a strange, deserted rest stop on a bluff overlooking the river. The trees and bushes, the scents and hints of fall color, all felt like home to me. It’s like we crossed the river and suddenly were in the Northeast. It brought a sense of comfort. I’d been missing that true feel of autumn as we got deep into October. Yet at the same time it made me feel a little sad. All those wild landscapes, the big skies, that indescribable Western vibration — it was all behind us. And the end of the trip felt very close.

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