Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Rocking Horse Road (3)

I suppose it’s totally debatable as to whether the decisions I make concerning my life and well being are based in a deep sense of adventure or an incredible lack of responsibility. I certainly don’t know, though I gravitate to the latter; yet that could be as much my penchant for self vilification as “the truth”. I understand they can be one and the same; but not in this case. Were I an adventurer, I’d probably be long since dead by now.

I “know” the mountains well enough as regards their pleasures and pains, and I know motorcycling. I even know how they work together, in the summer months. I was a little ahead of schedule this time, and rather than play it safe, bear south to the high plains and relative warmth of New Mexico, I decided to face the monster I’d never met. My only caveat was that I’d take it slow and easy, pay close attention to the locals as well as my instincts, and carefully make a go/no go determination before it was too late to have it matter. I ignored the caveat of course, but it’s always good to have one as a certain reassurance.

The Rockies are somewhat in or out; once you’ve passed the threshold between foothills and their parents, the rest of the world ceases to exist. It took less than 30 minutes to have the mass that is Colorado Springs vanish behind a corner, and the 60’s that had baked me in the valley turn to a nippy 45 degrees. Snow cover began to encroach upon the edge of the highway, and though it was patchy at best it looked to be well deep enough in spots to house a grizzly and cubs.

I hadn’t to this point even pulled my camera from its bag. There’d been almost nothing to shoot and I have a thing about only freezing my fingers if the uniqueness of the shot I’m about to take will guarantee its being published in National Geographic. But I was fatigued with pounding pavement mile after mile, only stopping for more piston juice so as to pound some more. So I pulled off the main drags in search of amazement during the first few hours.

Royal Gorge is found just past Canon City, the first real town I passed through that morning. The story is that a bridge was built over one of the deepest cuts in the Rockies purely as a tourist attraction to act as a cash machine for the nearby town. It worked. Though the bridge doesn’t actually “go” anywhere, it is one of the most visited tourist sites in the US. That nearly kept me from going. I am loath to partake in particularly popular culture, lest I lose my “entirely unique curmudgeon” status. But I relented this one time, again, because I was by then bored to tears with constant forward progress. It is truly an amazing place, and one that’s well documented if one wants to look it up online.

I spent perhaps an hour there. I would have stayed longer but I did have a meager plan to the day, all of which entailed making sure I was well out of snow country before sunset. So I wound my way back down to highway 50 and headed for the mettle testing grounds, Monarch Pass.

Salida is the last town of reasonable size before the road shoots upward 4000 feet, so even though it was still early I took the opportunity to get lunch and check out the gossip. As it turned out, I was in luck. It had snowed in the direction I was going just the night before, but as far as anyone knew, the road had been cleared along its entire length and was open for business. That stop turned out to be a smart move, as I was 20 miles into the climb before I ran across the two large red and white poles that would have been lowered across the tarmac had the highway been closed to traffic, and I’d have had to back up an hour before either waiting out the department of transportation or choosing another, much longer route.

Going up on a mountain road never seems to be an issue. You face the same chance for avalanche and rockslide, the same possibility of being smothered in a sudden storm, yet it’s a sway in a porch swing for some reason, compared to the frightening roller coaster of going back down the same mountain. It must be another of the many mind fucks one faces in life, another illusion created by watching too many movies or listening to too many campfire tales of eighteen wheelers careening off a cliff at a thousand miles an hour and crushing the 60 school kids traveling in a bus a thousand feet below just before the entire wreckage is vaporized by the biggest fireball ever witnessed…. or something like that. The fact is, on a bike, as in most cars, no matter how steep the roadway is, if you want to stop, get off the freaking gas! Driving a locomotive? Sure; big problem! A six hundred pound motorcycle, even while bearing a 230 pound passenger? Dig your heels in like Fred Flintstone would; it’s not that big a deal. Still…. it seems so scary!!!

Physically it was a snap going up. Emotionally it was astonishing. It was cold, but I was well dressed. It was icy here and there, but I was well versed in defensive driving. It was just me and my teeny weeny machine driving over one of the tallest passes in North America in what was still winter, on the mountain calendar of course. It was the first of many experiences that made this trip the most exciting journey I’ve ever taken.

After 20 years most of my photos are missing, probably still with me in some squishy cardboard box buried under layers of Christmas tree lights deep in a blackened corner in the garage; but I do have the photo that proves the trip did indeed exist, posted below.

Not only was the trip down uneventful, it was anticlimactic. Around each corner I sweated the sight of a freshly collapsed boulderama preventing my escape, yet all I saw was yet another fabulous view of conifer forests, leaning ground ward, bearing the weight of a dozen inches of new fallen snow.

It’s a long, winding drive from Monarch to Gunnison, about 45 miles of heart pounding scenery. Had it not been for my fear of finding a much shorter way to the bottom of the hill I’d have seen a lot more of it, but in fact I was busy most of the time, anticipating, performing, re-anticipating, reacting.

Gunnison Colorado is where I’d live had I any true sense of self. It could have been the location for the television show Everwood, had that not been a Utah town masquerading as one in Colorado. It’s one of those places that radiates instant calm, a village in a valley, a population at the time of 4000, swelling to 10k when the state college is in session. I stopped, but only for coffee and a rapid thaw. The day was moving along quickly, the weather was turning slightly and I had a lot of switchbacks to untwist before I’d left the land of instant and unexpected doom.  

Within a few miles was the Black Canyon of the Gunnison, a fascinating gorge that I’d loved to have toured a bit save the road up is two lane without shoulders and would be trickling with melt water. In retrospect it was really of no consequence as the little scene I was wrapped in just roaming the state highway was every bit as wondrous as one on a much larger scale.

Half an hour later I had popped out of the crags and onto a high plain where the riding was a bit easier and the air was just a tad toastier.  I turned south and headed toward what would be the second major decision of the trip; a this way-that way quandary that would determine both distance to destination and percentage chance of my getting there at all. The decision was made for me at my next fuel stop in Ridgeway, when the owner told me that Red Mountain pass had suffered a number of rock slides in the last few days, and both of us could see the clouds were thickening atop the peaks. I had to make some time though as even the detour would take me into very tall territory, and not all that much further west of the storm that was brewing.

It was a tough slog for the next hour or so. Being alone forces one to be cautious in blind corners, and the road I was on was 90% blind corner and 10% partially obstructed view. Then I met an angel unawares. A woman in a sporty red banker’s car crossed my path, turning in front of me at the entrance to the ski able mountains of Telluride. She smiled and waved as she cut me off. Another time I might have been enraged, or at least slightly miffed, but I welcomed the company.

I hadn’t seen a car for what seemed like hours, and it was good to remember there were more of my species. Besides, she offered me an opportunity. I could follow her at her speed, without all that stress I’d suffered for most of the day. If there were a rock slide ahead, I would surely hear the squealing of tires, the shrill screams and the fiery crash well before I made the corner, and so could both stop safely and perhaps save a damsel in distress without gnashing a single tooth. The only issue was, the woman was a freaking race car driver.

We were in a deep river valley on a narrow ledge. The road followed the river which was one of the most serpentine I’d ever seen. On the left was a hundred foot ditch ending in rushing water and boulders the size of the Reichstag, on the right was a sandstone cliff 25 feet high, followed by a 6% grade to a ridge a few hundred feet higher. She’d obviously been there and had memorized every inch of the byway, as she was doing 85 all the way. I paid hell to keep up, yet I still thought my logic was as good at that speed as it was at a more reasonable pace. I would just have to strain my ears a bit more, and expect a shorter tire squeal and scream before her impact. I grit my teeth, leaned in and rocketed down the road as if tethered to her bumper.

It worked. By the time I had suffered enough close calls to know fear, we’d suddenly leapt out of the canyon and onto the top of a wide ridge, where she took her leave on a crossroad to the northwest, (at a town named Stoner-wouldn’t it figure) waving and smiling all the way. Before I knew it I was essentially out of the Rockies and onto the high desert, heaving a loud sigh of relief. I believe it was in the next stretch, just short of the town of Cortez that I had an experience I’ve written about in detail; the running of the ground squirrels.

The road before me stretched like a world straddling piece of black licorice. The horizon sported a lovely rise of reddish stone that turned out to be a couple hundred feet tall, but at that distance it was about the height of book of matches. The surface was endlessly cracked and patched, making it appear as if a giant spider web, spun by a creature who also painted double yellow lines on her property in order to discourage web rustlers. And the surrounding countryside was parched, littered with the refuse of plants long dead, and obviously tamped repeatedly by the proverbial ugly stick. It was the perfect place to not be, a marvelous excuse to try and create a wormhole. But as the speedometer buried itself in the rightward position, intimating I might be traveling close to the speed of sound, a gazillion prairie dogs decided it was time to do the Dance of the Tarmac, and started racing across the path before me as if daring me to run them over.

I laughed at first. “What luck” I thought, how funny would it be if I had escaped certain death in the snowy mountains just to be killed by smashing to the ground at 120 mph after squishing a rodent. I figured it would only last a mile or so and then I’d be back in nothing and nowheresville, so I held onto the throttle and tried to continue blinking the tears from my eyes. It didn’t stop after a mile. It didn’t stop after two miles. There must be a rathole in that desert that connects to every rathole on the planet, because I believe every rodent from here to Timbuktu found that road and raced across it so as to win their little rodent bravery badge. Scared the crap out of me. Wouldn’t have missed it for the world.

I stopped to catch my breath in Cortez, a few miles from Mesa Verde where Linda and I would rummage around 15 years later, and then rambled on toward my final destination of the day, the New Mexico and Navajo Nation border and the beautiful town of Shiprock New Mexico.

Shiprock was named Shiprock because of its proximity to Shiprock, the rock. It is and has been for millions of years (I’m guessing) the only thing to name stuff after for as far as the human eye can see. It is a shining beacon of beauty in a sea of nothingness. I realize I said similar things about Nebraska and eastern Colorado, but here’s the thing; in both of those places there was at least the promise of more than nothingness. There would be row crops and grasses and wildflowers and brand new fence posts to look at. In Shiprock, all there is, is the damned rock, unless you count the drive through liquor stores which are quite interesting on their own. Now I don’t think one can order a tall, frosty glass of beer from the chick who comes over the speaker in a garbled voice and says “welcome to drive through liquors; would you like to try one of our combos?” But you can order a six pack and a stack of plastic cups, and while the boob behind the register is trying to remember how many pennies they’ll need to make your change, you could have a pop topped and a foamy brewski in your lap! But I digress.

I left Shiprock (of Shiprock fame) early. Lucky for me, the cops get up early in Shiprock.

I have had one traffic ticket on a motorcycle in my entire 40 years of riding, and you’ll never guess where I got it. 54 mph in a 50 mph zone. Four stinkin’ miles an hour. Of course the day before I was doing 120 in a 55, but that doesn’t count since I didn’t get caught so it didn’t really happen. I was gracious to the officer. I sure as hell didn’t want to spend any more time in Shiprock than was necessary; I am certain that being bored to death is a painful way to go.

The next couple hundred miles were in Navajo country. The Navajo nation is damn near as big as our largest states, but it is, sadly, full of nothing. Poverty… there is poverty and addiction. I’m sure there are plenty of middle class folk on that reservation who have decent jobs and carry on with their lives just like the rest of us do. (Even the word reservation makes me cringe. Like we had a Maitre D’ standing at the entrance to hell on earth and he said “welcome you folks with the blankets and feathers, we’ve been reserving this piece of barren rock for you”) But there are many who have nothing, who live on nothing, who’ve hopes of nothing.

I didn’t really need jewelry, but every 30 miles there are ramshackle kool-aid stand looking buildings by the freeway with local artisans selling their wares, and eventually my resistance to doing something for the local economy wears down. I’d have to bet some of them live in an LA mansion and fly out in their private jet to fleece the tourists with their “just getting by” act, just cuz that’s the kind of cynic I am; but I can usually spot a phony a mile off as poverty has an aura and I was schooled in its colors. I bought a nice turquoise ring from a lovely woman who had an amazing smile. As I am not a jewelry caretaker, it fell apart within a year and the band found its way into a smelter, but I did my part and that’s a good thing.

Long after the trinket sellers were behind me I came upon another oddity of the southwest reservations; the “smoke shop” shaped like a teepee. I have to wonder if the owner is proud that his heritage is displayed atop his shop, indifferent, or humiliated by the lengths he needs to go to have a viable business in an inhospitable land. I’ve never asked the question; I should have, I’m actually curious. I’m sure the answer is “ask a hundred of us and you’ll get a hundred answers”, but I lust like to prove to strangers that I think too much.

In my path was the Petrified Forest national park. I’d never seen it and thought it’d be silly to blow by it without a glimpse, so I paid my fee and drove the loop. I guess I’m just not a rock guy. Oh, I like rocks just fine, but my heart doesn’t go pitter pat at the sight of a cool rock. I did see a couple of tree stump rocks that were fascinating, but for the most part, it was a lot like a quarry tour, though had I stopped and gotten off, walked the half mile to each little interpretive kiosk, I might have enjoyed it more.

Then I was into the final stretch, working to drop 4000 feet over the course of  230 miles.

America has some absolutely amazing topography spread across its girth, and one of those places is the Mogollon Rim which stands above much of the Tonto National Forest. The rim is basically the end of the Rockies and its high desert and the Tonto, a conifer forest, smothers the sandstone walls and slopes with scent and color that’s unforgettable. Unfortunately since I was there it was the site of the largest forest fire in the state and changed the scenery over thousands of acres for decades yet to come.

As I slid toward the sprawl that is Phoenix, it finally became warm enough to doff my leathers and wear nothing but a t-shirt over my chest. It was a relief, not only to lose the chill but the weight of all that clothing. The last 50 miles is stunning, the road, twisty and rolling, the flora changing faster than you can blink. Spruce gave way to scrub and pinion, gave way to olive, ash and cottonwood, gave way to Saguaro and barrel cactus. The city was invisible until the last moment, lying on the west side of a small mountain range that protected we travelers from the ugliness that a city of size offers. And then, pop, we were out and into the houses and ranches and strip malls of Phoenix Arizona. It was time. I was tired, and ready for a long, long nap.

It took another hour to get to my aunt’s house where I had to go first as I didn’t have a clue as to where my dad’s home was at that point. I’d been there as they were building it, but I didn’t pay attention to the directions or the address for that matter. The only thing I can say about movement in Phoenix is, it’s fast. Many of the main city streets are 50 miles an hour, which is fine once you’re accustomed to it, but pretty scary if you’re not sure where you’re going.

I spent a little over a week there; an eventful week, a week of emotional teeter totter. 

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Rocking Horse Road (2)

If I was to compile the top ten perfect pleasures in my life, one of them would be a hot breakfast with coffee and milk, served by wait staff with at minimum a pleasant personality if not a jovial disposition, and a reasonably interesting newspaper to read. For some odd reason it’s more relaxing when I’m smoking than not; probably more long standing habit than anything else. It may be that I’m subconsciously remembering my Gramma “B” who, after my having done her yard work every few weeks over my teen summers, would serve me an endless meal of scrambled eggs, sausage, toasted bakery egg bread, fruits, cakes, and on and on until I could barely waddle to the bus stop. It may be far more simple; that it is one of the very few decadences I can afford as a man of few means.

McCook Nebraska may not have much in the way of nightlife, or even day life for that matter, but it had a wonderful mom and pop restaurant that served a glorious breakfast; and most importantly was still serving it at 10AM when I’d finally rolled out of bed and checked out of the motel.

There was spotty sun on the second day, not that it made much of a difference. There was still a biting chill in the air and the countryside was as monochrome in light as in sullen half darkness. Yet the chance to relax within the comfort of my culinary passion for an hour before I strapped my ass to the Honda’s seat made the previous day’s long boring hours fade away.

Cruising a few blocks westward I found a convenience store where I could fill the tank and restock smokes and cokes for another day’s jaunt, and surprisingly, I found the experience damned entertaining. Often I have to wonder if I’ll ever grow up and take life seriously; if I’ll ever reach the point where farts aren’t funny and silly names don’t make me grin. I’m guessing not. At least I never was one to prattle on to the boys about my conquests while standing in the high school locker room shower, yet even in my mid thirties I was prone to guffaw over what I saw as a marketing gaffe, even when it was amazingly obvious. The station’s name was Kum and Go, and even writing this makes me giggle. When I first saw the sign I could only imagine they weren’t selling gasoline at all, but perhaps were an operating sperm bank where one might quickly make a deposit and then hit the road. I know, juvenile. The poor company has stations all across the Midwest, how would they know the majority of American men have read porn at one time or another in their lives and see an entirely different picture of their proud logo than their stockholders might.

Though I giggled through my purchase, I didn’t “spill the beans” as it were. I’m sure they’d heard it before, and if my annoyance at having people bastardize my own name into “Running Board” was any indication, I was pretty sure they wouldn’t giggle along with me.  So I filled and packed and lit out for the high country with a childish grin on my face.

My itinerary had been plotted to an extent before I’d left home, though it was only an outline and subject to shredding without a second thought. In this case though I thought it a perfect second day to travel only as far as I had planned, Colorado Springs, even though I’d bought some time with my late night extension. Not only would it be guaranteed to be a shorter day by far, but it would prevent me a similar problem in finding a motel, in the dark, in the heart of the continental divide.

Just before I left Nebraska I found an intriguing spot that conjured up a raft of historical visuals. I was about to cross a river, atop a small dam, when the topography changed dramatically; where the road for hours had droned on barely shifting a few degrees from its perfectly straight course, now it was twisting and winding into what seemed to be a large gulch, no doubt cut by a few millennia of floods and recessions. Most of the land I’d crossed to this point had been under cultivation. What hadn’t been tree lines and waterways had been deforested, de-stumped and picked clean of rocks; the only variance in its appearance being the shade of brown each field sported. This though was wild prairie, where native grasses choked out any earth tones by standing six feet tall even in dormancy and waved in the brisk wind looking quite like a tidal pool in a hurricane. I imagined troops of cavalry followed closely by hordes of Sioux, all making their way to certain doom in the Custer battlefields. And I saw lines of Conestoga wagons, dragging still young lifetimes across inhospitable territories toward 100 acre promises in the great west, many of them never making it past the very spot where I’d been staring.

A sign at the dam/bridge told me to beware strong winds. That was no issue really. By the time I’d arrived I was already heeled 45 degrees to the west, so the gusts could only stand me straight rather than blow me over the guard rails. By the time I’d grown accustomed to riding with my head scraping on the ground I’d wound my way out of the vale and back into the bore that is the foothills of Colorado.

My father once told me of taking the train to Oregon where he was stationed during the Korean War, and where I was born incidentally. He said it took two days to cross Montana, and each morning he’d awaken to peer out the window, and each day he’d see the same freaking mountain at what seemed to be the same distance, and it would remain there all freaking day. That’s a little like what driving toward the Rockies is like. It looks amazing. You so want to be there, right now. And you are so far from your goal it drags on forever.

Imagine a stairway on which each riser lifts a hundred feet and each tread muddles on for 30 miles. Now cover it in tan suede. Going to the mountains is a little like being served ice cream covered in Brussels sprouts. You know there’s good stuff at the end of the journey, you just have to endure the not so good to get there.

As I know it, Eastern Colorado is ranch country, mostly because only cows could enjoy living there. It is barren. It is homely. It is a good excuse to go a hundred fifty miles an hour and I’m sure some do; but I saved my craziness for later and just plodded the distance like a good boy, basking in the few degree rise in temperature the un-obscured sun allowed me.

It was a short day, 250 miles or so. I don’t even recall stopping for lunch and I’m not one to miss a meal on the road as it’s a good source of boredom breakage. As I began to hum through the outer suburbs I was struck by what a contrast in visuals I was witnessing. The highway was unkempt, its shoulders were gravel and bottle glass with a smattering of empty beer can, the flora was scrub brush and volunteer weed trees like slippery elm. The houses were mostly shacks that may have been opulent on the inside but were in need of a little paint on the out.

Yet the mountains, in particular Pike’s Peak, were breathtakingly beautiful, and damned hard to take one’s eyes off of, even in heavy traffic. Now I’m sure a resident would point out there are lovely parts of Colorado Springs. I may have been on the worst road going through the slummiest neighborhood as even the most amazing cities have at least one of each. But it’s nearly all I saw of the town as I concentrated on finding a room and a good dinner, then a few hours of mindless television before sacking out in preparation for the next day. I watched a lot of CNN that night and paid particular attention to the weather. I knew I’d need to cross the divide on the morrow and it had snowed up there in the heavens recently. I didn’t want to get caught on two wheels in a high altitude flake fest.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Rocking Horse Road (1)

Pockets of snow still dotted the landscape as I packed the bike for a few weeks’ journey. It had been warm, but in the spirit of a Minnesota spring, plenty cold enough at night to keep the cream colored slush in place at the base of thickly branched trees. The weather report was none too promising. Rain was forecast, though a drizzle at best. Had I not been so stubborn about bailing from home, away from my many bottles of bitter pills, I’d have waited out the overcast. Another day or two wouldn’t matter when I’d planned for twenty three. But as in all situations, I consistently fear my weak will; and the chance that given time for second thoughts I might back out, forced me to push onward, mist or no mist.

It was just an average street bike I was riding at the time; a Honda Shadow 1100, with a near miniature windshield as my only defense against nature’s misery. For the gas tank area I’d found a nice square bag with a ziplock, see through plastic cover that was perfect for maps, which I had marked and cut out of a new US road atlas in advance. It held my camera and a telephoto lens along with spare film. I had purchased rainproof nylon saddlebags that simply lay over the back seat for my clothes, and added a waterproof bag I’d bought for white water rafting for sundry items like towels and cooking gear, the latter taken on the off chance I’d have to shoot a rattlesnake for dinner and doctor it up with some shallots and white wine. Finally a little inflatable bag/pillow I’d bought on the same trip was the perfect storage for daily accoutrement, like cigarettes, gum and my Swiss army knife with its 14 separate tools that would help keep me on the road in good repair; or at least open packages of beef jerky that were too well wrapped to tear apart with my teeth.

The combination of bags made a fine backrest that would mold to my frame each time I nuzzled into my seat. Somehow it made me feel safer. An extra layer of padding between a motorcycle rider and his tailgaters is never a bad thing.

As for clothing, I fooled myself into believing I could get by with jeans, a sweatshirt and cowboy boots; at least for the first few hundred miles until I was nearly hypothermic. Then I added the leather jacket and rain gear, along with rubber boots, which all shed the breeze from my pores and kept me at least slightly above shiver mode. I did have to wear a helmet though it annoyed me no end. In spite of the squirrel fat stored in my ample cheeks, it was still a bit brisk for playing Easy Rider, and having had a few layers of skin ripped from my face during various rainstorms taught me to always have a scalp umbrella handy during inclement weather.

I can only imagine what I was thinking as I maneuvered out of the city and onto the first county road. I’m sure I was excited, in a sort of melancholy way. As with the not caring about living or dying syndrome, the melancholia disorder demands certain things from its practitioner; one being the ability to keep joyful exuberance at bay, especially when it’s a most appropriate reaction to present circumstance.  I’m sure I shrugged a few times, maybe even grinned, though I probably convinced myself I was grinning about something else, something wickedly morose; so I wouldn’t have to do penance later on.

I am not a freeway rider by choice. Given the opportunity I will always take two lane country roads, or at least four lane county byways so long as the distance traveled isn’t doubled. It’s not the traffic that bothers me, but only the boredom. Freeways are designed to put one to sleep so as to foster errant driving and eventually highway patrol stoppage and ticket reception. This is how all the tiny towns that dot rural America pay to have streets that will roll up at dusk; they fleece passers by after boring them into committing a moving violation, producing a locally revenue enhancing summons. The out state roads are far more interesting, though in some locales, there is no hope no matter how small and backwoods a lane might be.

Minnesota was not a worry in that respect. It’s a beautiful state, even while its trees are bare and the roadside slush sports the color of overused diapers. And so the first hour or two were a wonderful cruise, down highway 169 along the Minnesota River valley, through the original capital of the state, St. Peter, past Mankato, my namesake St. James (my chosen radio name) and on to Worthington on the southern border. It had spritzed a bit, but never actually rained. I was pleased. I obviously had absorbed a tiny bit of luck during the night and had remembered to pack it for the trip.

I think it would be fascinating to have a random thought recording device. Certainly it would be a dangerous item if fallen into the wrong hands. For instance if you had forgotten to unplug it during sex, your mate noticed, and upon your falling asleep he or she listened to what you’d been thinking and discovered you’d actually been making love to your favorite movie star, you might have issues.

But the material gathered during an extremely long and boring circumstance, say, a road trip, might be quite entertaining.

“I’d better keep an eye open for deer, geez it’s cold, I wonder if I ever beat my dad at checkers, liverwurst sandwiches are good, man what I wouldn’t give to be in Spain right now, gosh look, there’s a cow!” And on and on I suppose. It’s a little like my dreams; I can’t remember much about the specifics, but I have no doubt it was a good, if slightly muddled time.

It was on this particular trip that I developed my penchant for talking to cattle. I may have been in one of those funny thought patterns when it came to me, I’m not sure. If I were to analyze it I’d say the road is a lonely place, and it’s comforting to communicate with living creatures every couple hours or so; cows are plentiful, they seem to pay attention (though seldom do they communicate back) and it makes me feel good, so what could it hurt? “Hi girls” I’ll holler as I pass a gaggle of honeys standing around chewing the cud. I’ll wave in case they don’t hear what I actually say they’ll know I mean them no ill will. I have to imagine they say to each other “well he’s certainly friendly enough, but pretend like you don’t understand English or he’ll stop and want to hang out.” Well, I don’t have to imagine that, but it makes it more fun.

Iowa is a boring enough place in the summer, but in the winter it’s almost stupefying.  At least during the warm season if you’re a huge devotee of corn, Iowa has a visual benefit. But as the corn stalks are plowed into the earth and the fog settles across the flat, treeless, featureless state, one is reminded of a lump of plumber’s putty, that stretches for hundreds of miles in all directions. Luckily, I was just cutting the corner of Iowa, so I made it through before my eyes rolled up and into the back of my head.

Now South Dakota… There’s a State! I’ve heard there was once a tree that flourished east of the Black Hills yet within the borders of the Mount Rushmore state, but I haven’t yet spotted it, in spite of driving nearly every road in the godforsaken place over the last 20 years. But as I had with Iowa, I was again cutting a corner, doing my best to get to a truly amazing place before sundown.

I didn’t make it anywhere amazing. In fact all the worse, I made it to Nebraska. Sure, Nebraska has a few items of interest to its credit. From the eastern edge you can damn near see Colorado 415 miles away. I’ll give you an idea about what the Cornhusker state looks like (though the nickname should give you pause right away). Find a place in your lawn, or your neighbors’ if yours sucks, where there’s at least a foot of fine, green grass. Now pretend you can pull on the edge of that grass and it’ll expand, kind of like a window shade. Now nail the grass to the ground on one end, and grab the other and take off walking for, oh say, three weeks, making sure you never change your altitude in relation to the sea. Have a few friends grab the sides and walk away from each other for another week or so, and you’ll have the gist of the wonder that Johnny Carson called home.

While it never actually rained, it never cleared either. It stayed brisk and gray and damp all day, and though I remained warm enough, my muscles gradually tightened as if I were anxious about finding myself in a monochrome world. I stopped every hundred twenty miles or so, for gas and a stretch and a smoke or snack. The bright colors of convenience store banners would remind me that eyes were indeed capable of seeing the entire prism; but within minutes of leaving their plastic facades behind I’d forget the meaning of the word pigment and learn to live with a dog’s viewpoint on the world.

When you’re motel camping as I was, you have two definite advantages. You’re pretty sure you’ll have a hot shower available at the end of the day, which means you can suffer more chill than is normally possible without becoming angry with life in general, and you can push a little further than you might otherwise as motels are not few and far between as campsites usually are. Skipping one will not necessarily mean another day’s journey before pillow time. Yet, I ran into a glitch before sunset, that didn’t rectify itself until nearly midnight. Central Nebraska was a-celibratin somethin’!

It may have been the prom, or basketball tournaments; maybe it was a dead grass festival or corn hair counting competition. I could tell there was something up when I started noticing no vacancy signs, one after another, in town after town. At first it was no big deal; as I said, you can afford to travel a few more miles when you’re sure there will eventually be a room waiting, so ten more minutes to tv time was an almost enjoyable setback. It’d be ten minutes less to my next destination! But then it was dark, and then, darker, and then, really dark… and cold too! I hadn’t stopped to eat for hours. Hungry and cranky and confused about what to do next, I plodded onward through another four towns before I began to second guess myself.

We all make decisions like this every day. I’m twenty miles from the freeway, a road that will probably have more if not larger motels leering over it. Yet the twenty miles is away from my goal, and after having ridden ten hours by that point the idea of adding another hour on the off chance that my logic was correct didn’t thrill me.

Going forward would surely bring me relief eventually I thought. There’s a town every ten miles or so and most every town worth a nickel has a freaking motel in it… doesn’t it? Eventually the creeps that had flooded in from out of town to pluck chicken feathers or whatever the hell they were doing, had to go home… didn’t they?

At more than one intersection stop I spit into the air, hoping to receive a sign from God or whatever was out there as to what I should do. If only the wind would suddenly come up and blow my saliva to the north, or the west, or even the south for god’s sake! But each time, my spitball would simply follow the laws of gravity and tell me nothing I needed to know. (So much for learning to be a champion spitter in grade school.)

Finally, in a little town called McCook Nebraska, about quarter to twelve, with my gas gauge bouncing off the E mark, I found nirvana in the form of Day’s Inn. They had two rooms left in fact. I considered renting them both, just to make some other poor sucker go through what I just had, but I was too tired to be cantankerous. I paid for a suite, bought a chocolate bar for dinner, and shuffled off to my first night’s sleep in the wilderness that is anywhere but home.