November 16th, 2003.

I hadn’t seen much of America before this trip and didn’t have a real good idea of the progression from state to state. But now, I’m drawing little simple pictorals of the landscape from Pittsburg to Loveland, like a combination timeline and topographical map. Rob thinks they look like illustrations of a skin condition.

There is something iconic and timeless about the American cross-country road trip. So much of the highways and the midcountry is virtually unchanged. The farms are sprawling. The kitschy diners and truck stops are still running. And if you find yourself a good classic rock station, which are ever-present and indistinguishable from signal radius to signal radius, time slips into nothingness and there is just the archetype and the rhythm of the road and the feeling of freedom. And in my case, a passing of the torch.

My mother took her cross-country trip at 19, the summer that the infectious guitar riff of the Hollies’ “Long Cool Woman in a Black Dress” was a permanent fixture on the radio. Mid-way through Indiana I found a classic rock station and the song found me. I called my mother and turned up the radio.

After bedding down at the Naperville, IL house of my old friend Tim Bracken, we set off for Omaha. After Chicago, Illinois is flat and endless, full of lush farmlands and sky that goes on in every direction for miles. We pass a sign for an Orchard Road and I smile when the air smells thickly of apples and cider. And it’s here that I get my first glimpses of the black dirt I’d been hoping for.

As a Maryland girl, my dirt has always been the red clay and iron-rich soils of the east coast. Black dirt only came from the garden store in little plastic pots of heavily altered earth containing a single plant. Telling a Maryland child who has dug in the red dirt all his or her life that there is black dirt elsewhere in the world is like telling a Fremen that there are oceans of water on other worlds – unbelievable. In Illinois I think we are passing a quarry or a coal field before I realize its that rich mid-western soil I’d always wanted to see.

Yes, I like dirt and made a Dune reference. I get to be a little more of a dork because the touring musician coolness is balancing it out.

Iowa is lumpy – the “skin condition” section of my America drawings to which rob is referring. For miles before we saw its near-theme-park construction and grandeur, there were billboards advertising the Iowa 80 truck stop: 8,000 spaces! Iowa’s Largest Truck Stop! Only Ten More Miles! Next Exit! Though I scoffed at all the hoopla at first, about halfway through Iowa I begin to realize that the small clusters of buildings that look like isolated towns are rest stops, and they ARE something to celebrate. There are miles of nothing and then giant signs that have “FOOD” spelled out in big letters high above the establishments before miles of more nothing. They are the only sure indications that you are moving, and not on some turntable driving the same looped section of ground over and over.

The only other noteable thing about Iowa was that we passed Winterset, which boasts a sign declaring it the birthplace of John Wayne. I begin to feel like I am getting the real American tour.

Nebraska is lumpy around Omaha and then flat again for much of the rest of the state. The trees start to get meaner-looking, squat. Like the Depression-era farmers of Farm Security Administration and Dorthea Lange photographs – hardy, tough and frugal. The winds, soil and water is beginning to change.

In Omaha, we stay with a virtual stranger, a fellow singer-songwriter named Kyle Knapp. He is warm and soft-spoken. I like him very much. We sleep in the tiny bed of his grandson’s playroom, surrounded by shrunken furniture that makes me feel like a real grown-up. In the morning, he makes us scrambled eggs and onions, and my eyes surprise me by welling up when the smell conjures images of my grandfather making the same breakfast for me during my childhood. I drink coffee, to shake off the sleep and make sure I don’t nod off during the drive, which also makes me feel like a real grown-up. His golden cat, Mosha (the Yiddish for Moses), eats from a dish inside a wooden holder that has cartoonish cat faces painted on the ends. I do a double-take to realize the face does not belong to Mosha’s protruding body, his head hidden by the cartoon. Kyle begs us to take butterscotch cookies, left at the house by someone during a church group meeting, because he and his wife are on the Atkins diet together. We are in no position to turn down food, let alone good food. With our new rations we set out for Colorado.

I force rob into the one-street town of Paxton, Nebraska because we need gas and it is the first and last such stop for miles. I also just love small towns. When I thought about running away to be a small-town newspaperwoman, these midwest towns were the kind I envisioned. There is a local general store with four-letter words printed on the siding advertising all that’s really important: BEER, WINE, FOOD, AMMO. Though the grill at this place is closed after 1:30 p.m., the proprietor refers us to the Windy Gap Grill and Bar just across the street, so named for the wagon-wheel path etched by the settlers heading north through Paxton (says the back of the menu). I love this place. This is cattle country. There are representations of different types of barbed wire on the wall, and instead of painted borders on the walls and bar, there are examples of cattle brands burned into wood. Real cowboys with their occupational spurs clink and jingle when they walk around the wood floors listening – to my great amusement – to Sweet Home Alabama. We are so north we are just below Yellowstone in Wyoming.

And I have the best steak sandwich of my life. So good, I get another one before we leave. I’ve always been a little sad to come across things like that, things I love so much. Because it means they can be discontinued, or hard to find, or require 1,000 mile drives for a sandwich. Oh, well.I get to have one more on the way home, I suppose. Let’s see, that’s in just over two weeks …

When we enter Colorado, the world gets lumpy again. We pass the childhood home of Glen Miller. I have to hum “In The Mood” for rob to get him to remember who that is. The trees virtually disappear and are replaced with ground-hugging brush and scraggle. The farmland of Illinois and Iowa gives way to grazing land for cattle and horses. The one gas station we see to the side of the road is closed. We don’t see a town for miles. And there are sign for deer.

This perplexes me. Looking around I am struck by the open field and the absolute lack of forest. Where the hell do the deer live? Rob says the houses.

Regardless of where they live, I see a doe bounding up the hill to the highway in front of my car. I swerve, miss it, and leave it standing in the middle of the road behind us. I think I scared rob to death because he was asleep at the time. Whew. That’s all I need is to hit a deer at 75 miles an hour on a road like that.

So here we are and will be for three weeks. My first glimpse of mountains surprises me more than I expect. The altitude and the dryness bothers me at first, causing a tight feeling in my chest, but I down four glasses of water and things start to feel better. By the time we have to sing at 8,000 ft, I’m a regular native.

I feel like I am living. So much in four days when I sat desk-bound for months.

Iowa 80 looks like a carnival from a distance. A truck stop in disguise...
Iowa 80 looks like a carnival from a distance. A truck stop in disguise…
Heather's pioneering spirit.
Heather’s pioneering spirit.
Sculpture at the headquarters of First National Bank.
Sculpture at the headquarters of First National Bank.
Heather riding one of the First National Swans. Lucky swan.
Heather riding one of the First National Swans. Lucky swan.

The Paxton Pit Stop.
The Paxton Pit Stop.
Paxton, Nebraska. Best damned steak sandwiches anywhere - but little else.
Paxton, Nebraska. Best damned steak sandwiches anywhere – but little else.
A lesson in perspective in Paxton.
A lesson in perspective in Paxton.

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