The road to Colorado from 1111 Williams Blvd in Springfield IL is a long and very straight one, not counting the northern detour to Iowa City, Iowa to pick up fifth passenger. My lovely lady friend Hannah and her lovely precious family reluctantly agreed to let me tag along with them to the big square mountain state (not Wyoming) after they discovered me hiding in the midst of luggage piles in the back of their rented Chrysler suburban. I hopped up to the backseat, put on a blanket, read my book, and vicariously watched silent Parks and Recreation on Hannah's laptop screen from across the way for 7 hours of Saturday and 7 hours of Sunday.
Admittedly, I ignored most of Illinois. We've seen it all, really. In snowless December there was a preamble to the Midwestern journey in the form of unrelenting flatness of long since harvested cornstalks. Hundreds of thousands of thin brown rows exploded past the rear window at somewhere around 80 mph speeds, marking our progress field by field, cow by cow. That was to be the theme everywhere until Colorado, when mysterious green and brown lands (also harvested) began to roll over on top of the spears of dead cornstalks.
Iowa, surprisingly, has a number of sizable hills, particularly in the southwestern corner where it spills its highways into Missouri and Nebraska. That number is around 6, and all of them provided a beautiful change of pace. Entering Iowa City, our big ass suburban was greeted by San Francisco-esque hills that turned houses on their sides and threatened the bouncy balls of every kid in town. I've never been to San Francisco, so doubtless its actual hills were nowhere near in comparison, but it felt that way in respect to lands I've known in the past — lands where the geological zit Centennial Hill is established as a local landmark.
We started Day 2 in some nameless town past Lincoln, Nebraska — it had a Hampton Inn and that is all I know. Nebraska is the oft-ridiculed driver's nightmare that extends for hellish miles across the rectum of the Midwest. If the Mississippi River divides the East and the West America for wagon settlers, it's Nebraska and Kansas that separates it for the automobile traveler. This is, however, a place I've only traversed once, and, not having the responsibility of chasing an infinite horizon at the wheel of the car, I was free to drift off as I pleased and peacefully observe the surrounding countryside as a new experience to me.
Winter is nature's dressing room, and I drank in all its naked trees and barren earth, all with lascivious eyes. Something about winter landscapes, even without snow, no especially without snow, is captivating. It's earth in the raw, with ice that creeps up against the edges of the more still-watered ponds and gives off two different reflections — the clear light blue one of the sky off the liquid water, and the dark royal blue against the ice. The rest of the view is brown; brown earth has by this point given up all attempts at photosynthesis and waits in frost for a layer of clean snow that hasn't come yet. So it's a transition period — from green summer and fireworks autumn to winter, from foraging mammals to long hibernation, from birds to no birds.
Nebraska wasn't all that bad, then. There was one picturesque scene. Over an endless expanse of wheat clipped at the knees was scattered a few groves of leafless trees, and beside the highway a wood and wire fence, behind which was a small manmade pond, around which grew cattails and the like. Prepositions. And off a little ways in the distance, a freight train chugged across the landscape carrying a hundred million red and yellow boxcars. It was so perfectly American Gothic that I almost puked up corn and nearly choked on chunks of hard-working industry. What a bastion of all-American progress. While I was witnessing that and thinking about the giant mountains I'd eventually see, it struck me as incredible how credible we consider the incredible extent of flatland to be. Those of us who grew up in the Midwest expect to see nothing different, and I imagine many people of the world might be plopped down here in Nebraska by a giant Magic Hand and not know what the hell to do with themselves, looking in every direction and seeing nothing to mark themselves with. They might assume they've fallen into purgatory, with no way out except to convert immediately to the cold religious extremism that governs much of the area.
Cows were a frequent sight. We all know how I feel about cows. I don't like them. How is it that our mental stereotype for a cow is the black and white dairy cow? Every cow I see is bull-colored. Dark black or dull brown or dirty off-white. Not a lot of multiples of color on individual cows. In early Nebraska I saw a couple of cows grazing up ahead of me in a golden-brown harvested field. It looked like a pretty plain sight to me — a boring cow being really lazy in a comfortable patch of earth. But if I turned my head and looked straight ahead down my own lane at the rows of wheat whizzing by, I saw the ground actually covered in a film of snow, and I saw that maybe the cow's ground was not as comfortable and lazy as it appeared, despite its hooves. Maybe I should give cows a touch of respect; perhaps they suffer in their fields all day. They're like timid horses, really. Or aloof horses. Or apathetic horses, who are fat. Fuck cows.
Nebraska is so flat, even if it's interesting. Nowhere is a land more placid and predictable than Nebraska, except maybe for Kansas, and Oklahoma, and Illinois, and Iowa, and Indiana, and Ohio. The only human element to break it up and make it hideous are the sloppy low-rise billboards that poke out of the ground every few miles with bright reds and yellows, the typical ones that advertise for porn shops and steakhouses and food-fuel-lodging on Route 39 just of Exit 179. The one element that surprised me though was the neverending stretch of manmade ponds that littered the side of the road. I mean, there was one that was at least two miles long and no longer than 200 feet wide, whose water level went directly up to the front steps of houses. Let's hope that never floods ever.
The thought of mountains, or the idea of mountains, is a horrible thing, because the horizon is a billion miles away and mountains will never show up no matter how far you drive, and when they do you will never reach them no matter how far you drive, because they are on the horizon which is a billion miles away. This trip promises mountains, though. That is where we are going. Once you have the promise of something, you'll start to look hard enough to where you'll start seeing things you didn't before, probably either mirages or air pollution, says Mrs. Kolkmeier. You do get to Colorado, though, and even though you can't even see the faint outline of mountains yet, a victory line has been crossed. You've made it through the infinite wheaten gateway to the west.
The west is a very strange place to me. Even the road seems foreign, with its chalk-gray surface and black and white midlines. Its grazing fields that don't even look comfortable to walk on from two miles away. But here we are. Boulder, CO, where somehow the sun shines bluer and yellower on everything in sight and it's 50 degrees in December and everyone is prettier and nicer than they are in the rest of the world. Time to snowboard.
(Dedicated to Charley Field.)