We are just back from a magnificent eight-day road trip across the Plains, in our new used car. Road trips, and driving through new-to-us places, are one of our best and most favorite things.
Total mileage: 2,465 exactly. Total days: 8. Features of itinerary from Chicago: Galena IL; Grinnell IA; Omaha NE; Grand Island NE (via NE 92); the Nebraska Sandhills via NE 2; Alliance NE; Scottsbluff and Gering NE; Cheyenne WY; Laramie WY; then home, with a little side trip to Riverside IA, future birthplace of Captain James T. Kirk.
Among the things we saw: very nervous wild turkeys; mule deer; one buffalo, in a big field that is part of a pioneer museum in Nebraska; the wild, weird Laramie Range; a Great Egret wading in a shallow country pond in eastern Iowa: many redtail hawks, all along our route; kestrels; doves, pelicans; many cattle ranches, one llama ranch; vast fields just recently shorn of every stalk of grain, across the Sandhills; so many silos; dozens of long freight trains carrying nothing but coal, each hauling more than a hundred carloads of it, one train after another, all day long, flowing unendingly from the Powder River Basin eastward; pronghorn antelope hanging out along the road in Wyoming; mixed flocks of Golden-crowned Kinglets and Mountain Chickadees, messing around in the trees atop Scottsbluff. A few Townsend’s Solitaires, here and there in the same place. Several flocks of Sandhill cranes, migrating at a great height. When you are in far western Nebraska, which is very wide open and sparsely occupied, their calls carry for miles. We were the only travelers visiting Courthouse Rock and Jail Rock, indeed, we didn’t see anyone else at all for thirty minutes either side of it; and we stood there another twenty minutes to watch two separate flocks of cranes high above, one and then, after a little while, the next, passing southeast in the deep blue sky, purposeful, intent, calling to each other. We saw actual ruts on the actual Oregon Trail. We crossed the Mississippi, the Missouri and the Platte. We crossed the golden, austere Sandhills, the largest dune structure in the Western Hemisphere and still one of the least populated places on earth. We visited Carhenge (one of my Pokemon is still in the gym there, btw.) One night, we slept in a cottage that, a century ago, was a schoolhouse for miners’ children. Another night, we slept in a hotel that had been converted from a historic office building. Yet another night, we slept in a no-frills 50s-era cinder-block motel. For the first time ever, we saw a Golden Eagle, massive and dark, hunting in a vast field under a cold, clear sky.
During the trip, my sister texted to ask about the political atmosphere we were encountering. I told her it was interesting in that no one was talking about it. Not any of it. No yard signs, except for, here and there, a hyper-local candidate. No buttons, no bumper stickers, hardly any overheard conversations. And uncharacteristically, people did not want to engage about it. Everyone was friendly and nice! We met a few people who were delighted – delighted – to talk about food or beer or to give us a detailed recommendation about motor routes (and all those recommendations were great – shout-out to the guy in The Looking Glass in Omaha, you did us a solid). But no one ventured even a syllable about anything else. Nothing. I have to conclude that what is happening now is too painful, too shameful and frightening, as if entering into public discourse about it makes one culpable, or even personally unsafe. We all know we’ve gone too far. We are in dangerous territory. We are not sure how to get back.