(The Platte River, I-80 in between Lincoln, NE and Omaha, NE)
Until 2015, I had never ventured west in the United States beyond Missouri; but not for lack of trying. I had a car, and I spent many times in the year making the four hour trip from Indy to St. Louis on I-70 to visit friends who lived in the area. There were talks of continuing west to California, but nothing materialized as money became tight, and friends started families. As the years passed, I lost my car because of expensive repairs, and I lost to my fiancé’s car after she ended our relationship. I returned to school at Ivy Tech in downtown Indianapolis by using the bus or my bike, and after two years there, I transferred to Blackburn College in Central Illinois. How I got to Blackburn with no car was a mixture of luck and a friend who happened to be generous with his time and money. He made the round trip from St. Louis to Indy, picking me up, taking me to Carlinville, and after I unloaded, he returned home. I focused on school, and I burned the lean tissue as I maintained a 3.5 GPA on my remaining three years. I met Ronnie during that time, and we started attending Federated Church in Carlinville where we found a spiritual home. It was such a home that the congregation did our wedding and reception, and donated quite a bit of money for us to go out west. One week after our wedding we were on the road.
We left Carlinville a few minutes after nine in the evening, and our first stop was Lincoln, NE—a seven hour trip without stops; but the drive took nine hours so we could stretch our legs and back. I’ve never traveled through northern Missouri, and as we drove closer to I-29 we saw quite a few blood stains on the road where semi-trailers hit deer. Travelling throughout Indiana, I saw my fair share of deer blood and remains on interstates and highways, but nowhere near the frequency I saw in Missouri that night. My wife and I were anxious, and we were on high deer alert. Except for the lights from the truck drivers making their run, we had nothing to check for roaming deer. Our nerves were frayed, and the shredded ends were as velcro keeping our eyelids open. Not until we saw the lamp posts of Highway 2 outside of Lincoln did we start to breathe easier; and we finally arrived to our hotel as the sun began to rise. We fell into our beds hollow, but grateful that we ended the first leg of our trip unharmed.
Lincoln, NE is a small city with over 200,000 people, and the streets are laid out as a grid so it’s next to impossible to get lost. Because of the size and layout most of the driving is in town, and access to I-80 becomes a slight hassle especially when there is construction. Ronnie and I woke up and ate a little food before we checked out of the hotel to begin the next leg of our trip to Riverton, WY—a ten and a half hour trip across the plains. After navigating out of the construction on 56th St, we got on I-80. Nebraska, outside of Lincoln, is quite flat, and the sky is overwhelming. There are hardly any trees to cover anyone from the watchful clouds and they silently move across the plains, and in the distance, sky and earth touch; however, as we drove further into Nebraska the landscape wasn’t so flat and eternal. Ronnie drove for the first couple hours, and we noticed the hills were rolling with green waves of crops and country houses. Watching the land from our speeding car, America seemed to unfold, flowing to the Pacific; but we were in the plains, and it was tornado season.
The sky before us was a bluish white with little clouds speckled throughout the horizon, but to our left, on I-80 East, the sky was dark and menacing. We saw white lightning streaking across the sky and ripping the air with its charge. We felt the wind pick up, rocking our rented SUV, and for the first time of my road-going, I felt fear. I’ve only read about tornadoes on the plains and looked at pictures of shattered houses and gutted farms. Living in Indiana, I’ve witnessed a few tornadoes, and living in Indy, there were plenty of places to take shelter. Ronnie experienced the same thing living in Bolingbrook, IL. She and her family were not far from Plainfield, and that area had been dubbed “Tornado Alley.” She lived in a suburb of Chicago, and, like me, had plenty of places to hide; but this was Nebraska. The only urban areas in that state are Omaha and Lincoln. There was no place to take shelter—not even a ditch, and the closest house was a mile away off the interstate. We had no idea what to do but keep driving and watch the sky. Thankfully, no funnel clouds formed and we let out a sigh of relief with all of Nebraska.
The drive from Lincoln, NE across the state to the Wyoming border is a five hour drive, and the drive is across Middle America. Until I went through Nebraska the longest, boring state I have driven through is Pennsylvania. The state is a straight, flat line of nothing until you get to the mountains separating you from the New York state border—a drawn out, uneventful bridge between the Midwest and the eastern seaboard. The Midwest is as equally boring, but there is the added variety of going through different states in a couple hours. Driving from Indiana through Illinois on I-74 can be a dull drive, but the cities from Danville, IL to Peoria are forty-five minutes apart, and intervals of stopping and snacking soothes the numbed mind. Not so with I-70. The drive from Indy to Terre Haute is a little over an hour depending on the presence of the state police, but once you pass the Wabash River, Illinois becomes a dreary, three hour trek to St. Louis. Nebraska, though, is a different story.
After four hours of driving through nothing, Ronnie and I were hungry. Ronnie looked on the GPS to find any local places to eat, and discovered a Perkins in Sidney, NE. Perkins is familiar, and sitting down in a place Ronnie and I frequented in our respective cities took our mind off the road—we still had another six hours of driving. There isn’t much to Sidney except for a few restaurants and a Walmart, and the roads are in disrepair along with potholes in the parking lot; however, people were kind and not at all aloof towards us. As we were seated, Ronnie and I saw this Perkins had potato pancakes. She never had them, but I haven’t had any in years. My great-grandmother would cook them all the time when I lived in her home, and she had the recipe from her German in laws. I was given the option of ketchup or applesauce to put on my pancake, and I opted for the applesauce. Ketchup on a pancake did not appeal to me; but I love a good cake, and I insisted Ronnie should try them. “If you don’t like them, I’ll eat them, and you can order something else.” The cakes came out with the right balance of firm and fluffy, and I assumed the cooks came from some old school, German stock. We took a bite, and it took me back. The cakes were just like my great grandmother’s, and Ronnie liked hers as well. I prattled on to Ronnie about those warm childhood memories, and I told our waitress to praise the cooks because they knew their way around a proper potato pancake. We lingered for a bit longer, and after we paid for our food, Ronnie and I walked around with our cat before we got into the car. We were an hour from the Wyoming border, and sky was a ruddy purple as the sun began to set.