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Terminus & Gateway

Terminus & Gateway#Merica Tour, Stories from the Road, Segment 18
(For links to previous segments, scroll to the bottom)

We leave Omaha behind, crossing the Missouri River into Council Bluffs, Iowa, where we’re tracking down a giant railroad spike. Map App Sally is completely unreliable at this point, having sent us to the Omaha Zoo over and over again and calling it a different landmark each time, but now she’s getting worse: Terminus & GatewayShe’s developing an attitude. Warnings pop up on my phone that it’s dangerously hot and I need to shut down immediately or else, so I do and set it down on the air vent by my feet. Now I’m navigating the old fashioned way with my eyes and a map while Brent uses his chill, un-snarky phone.Terminus & Gateway

We find the 56-foot yellow spike easily, but we’re pretty confused about where we are. Council Bluffs is nowhere near Promontory Summit, Utah, where we learned as kids the Union and Central Pacific railroads were joined together. The wide, grassy expanse around the spike is deserted, and the railroad tracks behind it don’t seem to be connected to anything, giving this place an awesome and quiet creepiness. Terminus & GatewayIt’s also convenient for lounging in the sunshine on the tracks while we take it all in and puzzle it out—until Brent and his camera turn on me. (I need to take that camera away from him.)Terminus & Gateway

I return to the spike, Brent and camera in tow, and we push our faces as far as we can between the fence rails around the base in order to read the signage there. All it says is something about the “Eastern Terminus of the Union Pacific Railroad.”Terminus & Gateway

Terminus!” Brent and I extract our faces from the fence and look at each other in horror. Fans of The Walking Dead understand our terror at this veritable end of the line as we look for Rick and Daryl to be in a jam and for Carol to start blowing things up. When none of that happens, we instead do zombie imitations in the yard around the spike. Then we run for it, straight into the cornfield beside the Jetta, and do our best man-and-woman-with-pitchfork (American Gothic by artist Grant Wood) faces.Terminus & Gateway

We hightail it away from Terminus, and I find that my phone is still too hot to handle. Meltdown seems imminent as Brent drives us toward a bridge and insists I take pictures of it through the moon roof because he’s too busy driving to do everything. I insist I’m busy, but he doesn’t listen. He gives me his camera and I think, “Heh, heh, heh,” but after a little more protest (sheesh, I’m turning into Sally), I do as I’m directed, snapping pictures of the red and yellow spikes on the Broadway Viaduct as one of us says, “Are you getting this?!?” while the other one says, “Slow down! I got it!”

Terminus & GatewaySafely across the Viaduct, I can now figure out what the heck just happened. According to the Googs on Brent’s cool phone, the artwork on the bridge is called the Council Bluffs Gateway, designed by artist Ed Carpenter who worked for four years with the installation team getting the red and yellow 111 light poles tilted into place. Nighttime images of the Gateway are even more stunning.Terminus & Gateway

Next, I read some golden railroad spike history and find that there’s a controversy over whether the rails were joined at Promontory Summit on May 10, 1869 or at Comanche Crossing near Strasburg, Colorado on August 15, 1870. As for the spike at Council Bluffs, Iowa, the Googs says it’s possibly a relic from the movie Union Pacific commemorating the eastern Mile Marker Zero.

A movie relic?? Despite being tricked (Terminus strikes again!), we continue our eastern drive full of pride to think about our country’s unification by the railroad line, wherever/whenever it may have happened officially. Our transcontinental railroad allowed for the expansion of ideas, business partnerships far and wide, massive distribution of foods, and travel and exploration across this great land of ours.

As for our own exploration, Brent and I are hunting down a Volkswagen spider…

~
Jody Brown is the author of Upside Down Kingdom, and is a blogger, poet, and traveler.

(For previous Stories from the Road, click here: Segment 17Segment 16, Segment 15, Segment 14, Segment 13, Segment 12Segment 11Segment 10, Segment 9, Segment 8Segment 7, Segment 6, Segment 5, Segment 4, Segment 3, Segment 2, Segment 1)

Omaha Familiar

#Merica Tour, Stories from the Road, Segment 17
(For links to previous segments, scroll to the bottom) 

Omaha FamiliarWe follow Sally the Map App’s cranky instructions for finding a giant spaghetti fork and find ourselves, instead, at the Omaha Zoo–smack dab in the middle of the zoo parking lot with no fork in sight. Brent uses The Force instead and we find a Little Italy village of houses near downtown and park the Jetta in the residential courtyard.
Omaha FamiliarTo our left is a 13-foot stainless steel fork with spaghetti in its tines. We sit in the car for a moment, deliberating, and one of us deduces that, “Look, if they didn’t want us to take pictures of it, they wouldn’t have put it there.” I’m not sure which of us says that, but it sounds an awful lot like me. That settles it, and we get out of the car. For most of our shenanigans up to now, we’re pretty much on public property or have the owner’s express permission. Today we’re in someone’s yard, without permission, in the interest of discovery and trying not to look like troublemakers. We walk a fine line.Omaha Familiar

The fork is named Stile di Famiglia in Italian, or Family Style in English, named for the serving style of passing and sharing large plates of food around the dinner table. It was made by artist Jake Balcom, and commissioned by the Homeowners Association of the Towns of Little Italy. It’s whimsical, and evocative of a time when “several Italian family restaurants defined the social life of the neighborhood,” according to an Omaha public art website found by the Googs.
Omaha FamiliarEven the neighboring houses with their large windows, flower boxes, and close placement to each other resemble a gathering of intimate friends around this fork and pasta.

We peel ourselves away and start our search for a bronze Chef Boyardee, but Sally sends us to the zoo again, a backtracking, we discover, of about 20 blocks.

“We’re seeing a lot of this parking lot,” Brent says as he turns us around.

Omaha Familiar“I’m checking us in on Facebook,” I tell him. “There, we’re at the zoo parking lot,” I show him my phone. Now it’s official. We vow to plan a return trip to Omaha just to see the zoo and especially the Desert Dome, which is visible for miles as we drive in Omaha.

Omaha FamiliarAgainst Sally’s protests and our own excitement at spending a day at the zoo, we head toward downtown, stop in the beautiful Visitor’s Center where they let us touch things, and find Chef Boyardee outside the ConAgra campus in its wide plaza, the ground of which seems to be winking at us—the ConAgra Foods logo.

Omaha FamiliarThe story goes that Chef Ettore “Hector” Boiardi was born in Italy, and followed his brother to the Plaza Hotel in New York City where Ettore worked his way up to Head Chef. In 1915, he directed the catering of President Woodrow Wilson’s wedding at The Greenbrier in West Virginia. But the Chef’s story, according to Wikipedia, is only getting started.
Omaha FamiliarThe Chef opened his own restaurant in Cleveland where he was known for sending his guests who would ask home with milk jars filled with his spaghetti sauce. In the 1920s, he helped his inlaws, who owned a chain of local grocery stores, to engineer his canning process and put his Italian foods on the shelves locally and beyond with the help of their wholesale partners. To keep up with demands, they opened a factory in 1928, and ten years later, production was moved to Milton, Pennsylvania where greater quantities of tomatoes and mushrooms could be grown.

Omaha FamiliarThen—hear this–during WWII his factory was commissioned to produce army rations for the Allied troops, requiring the factory to run 24/7 and earning the Chef a Gold Star Order of Excellence from the U.S. War Department. When the war ended, it was decided that they sell the company rather than reduce production so that no jobs would be lost. That’s decency in America, and it’s a chord deep inside each and every one of us.

There’s a lot more to the Chef’s story: the unacknowledged Order of Lenin award, the sale of the company, investment in steel mills, money lost and gained, television commercials… How it came to Omaha the Googs wouldn’t say, but then, don’t all things eventually come to Omaha?Omaha Familiar

ConAgra Foods acquired the brand in 2000, and in 2011, artist John Lajba completed this 6-foot bronze statue of the Chef that he describes as possessing “class and a lot of charm.”

The bronze Chef is purposefully placed. He’s not in the plaza center and is not up on a pedestal, but is standing, ground level, on the edge of the circular plaza, facing any and all activity that may gather there.

Omaha FamiliarWith the statue’s kind face and with our familiarity having grown up on all things Boyardee, Brent and I find ourselves hugging the statue as if we’ve run into a long-lost relative on the streets of Omaha.

~
Jody Brown is the author of Upside Down Kingdom, and is a blogger, poet, and traveler.

(For previous Stories from the Road, click here: Segment 16, Segment 15, Segment 14, Segment 13, Segment 12Segment 11Segment 10, Segment 9, Segment 8Segment 7, Segment 6, Segment 5, Segment 4, Segment 3, Segment 2, Segment 1)

Vantage Points

#Merica Tour, Stories from the Road, Segment 16
(For links to previous segments, scroll to the bottom)

Somewhat awake now and with bellies full of roadside leftovers, we pack up the Jetta in the sunny morning in Lincoln, Nebraska, set on making it to Minneapolis by day’s end. We should get there, unless we do something silly. Perhaps we’re being ambitious.

There are three states, hundreds of miles, and plenty of America to learn between here and there. Today’s plan is to find a spaghetti fork, a coffee pot, a spider, railroad spike, and if we’re lucky, a tree in the middle of the road, and still reach Minneapolis tonight. I review the list with Brent, looking to trim the fat, but after everything I say he says, “We’re not cutting that.”

“Spaghetti fork?” I question.

“No.”

“Block head?”

“We’re so close to it.”

“Volkswagen spider?”

“Jody,” he sighs, “We could cut everything, but not Volkswagen spider. That I want to see.”

“What’s a stamp ball?” I ask, eyeing the list.

“A big ball of stamps,” he says. Of course it is.

“Well, looks like everything’s in,” I say. Brent nods.

Vantage PointsWe’re tracking down a giant masonry head, which doesn’t seem like it’ll be too hard to find. The giant head sits atop the Ogallala (there’s that word again!) Aquifer. This is the Groundwater Colossus by artist James Tyler, and though it’s supposed to sing and so far this guy’s silent, we’re pretty sure this is it–unless there’s another giant head of blocks in Lincoln.

Vantage PointsI think about the Colossus of Rhodes, and how I never knew America had a Colossus of its own—other than the Marvel super hero. I post our #MericaTour progress on Facebook, and look up to find Brent trying to pick Colossus’ nose. Rhodes never had this problem. Luckily, our silent Colossus has some interesting surroundings or I’ll never pull Brent away. On Colossus’ right is a giant painted light bulb, and on his left is a wide, gurgling fountain. Vantage Points
We splash around in the fountain and take thoughtful pictures with the light bulb before climbing back into the car.Vantage Points

We’re not even out of Lincoln yet when a truck in front of us hauling sand manages to dust us with it. Our windows are down, and there’s sand all over the place inside the Jetta. I brush the puddle of sand from my lap and look at my sooty face and hair in vanity mirror.

My nicely showered self is a thing of the past, which, technically, was a thing of the past once I jumped in the fountain back in Lincoln. But now I’m all gritty, too. Brent navigates around the truck. “Well, there goes today’s photos,” I say. We have a good laugh about it.

We drive to Omaha and stop for gas at the giant coffee pot on our list, which, luckily, is a gas station, too. There are a lot of these Sapp Bros. travel stations in Nebraska, but this is the only one with the giant coffee pot on the property. We don’t get coffee, strangely enough. I buy a giant travel mug and fill it with hot tea, and we nearly buy a cool Chuck Norris driver’s license, but decide against it after much deliberation.
Vantage PointsVantage PointsInstead, we gas up and mill around the parking lot studying our vantage point to the giant coffee pot, rea
lizing we can get the best view if we walk across the quiet side street.

Quiet my—Assuming we can get across the side street, that is. It’s strangely deserted until we need to cross it on foot, then it’s suddenly and dangerously full of 18-wheelers traveling both directions. Vantage PointsWe wait and wait and finally get across, take some photos with Brent’s direction as the road is suddenly silenced, and then wait to return across the once-again super busy street. “This is so very Frogger,” I think.

Dodging death and alligators (okay, not alligators), we head back to the relative safety of the lily pad, I mean Jetta. As Brent drives us around the parking lot back toward the highway, I post the initial entry for these “Stories from the Road” on my blog, promising to write out our adventures in full (promise kept!).

As we approach Omaha, I’m repeating the Charlie Daniels “Uneasy Rider” lyrics, “If I went to L.A., via Omaha…” when my Google search tells us that Boys Town is nearby. I relay the cross streets to Brent, who frowns. “That sounds familiar,” he says. Sure it is. “Where is the stamp ball?” he asks.

I check the itinerary and find that he’s right. “Same campus,” I tell him. He grins. In a few minutes we’re driving in tree-lined circles on Flanagan Boulevard around the quiet Boys Town campus.

There’s no stamp ball or signage in sight, so we decide to go in to the Visitor’s Center. Inside, we chat up the lady in the gift shop, who gives us campus maps and shows us the incredibly cool mini-stamp balls (softball size) that the kids make for charity.
Vantage PointsVantage PointsAs I carefully choose one signed by Alexis with a Love stamp right on the top center, a couple enters from a side doorway and the man asks, “Aren’t you worried that someone will make a bigger one?

“Well,” the gift shop lady says cheerfully, “It’s over 600 pounds, with 4.6 million stamps. With stamp prices today, it’ll cost about…” she lists a figure that’s in the billions. And because it’s numbers I instantly forget it, but it’s impressive. The couple starts to browse and Brent asks where the original stamp ball is located and scrutinizes his map. The lady says, “Right through this doorway.” She points to where the couple had entered.

We look at each other, shocked that we don’t have to cross the campus to get to it. It’s right here! There’s no major security. You can walk right up to it, touch it, take goofy pictures and everything. Only in America.

Vantage PointsI pay for my Alexis stamp ball and we head through the doorway. “I’m sending two more to ya, Hank!” the gift shop lady calls into the wide hallway. At the end of the hall ahead of us is the World’s Largest Ball of Stamps, collected by the stamp club in Boys Town in the 1950s. To the right of the ball sits Hank, a retired local veteran (who neither works here nor is a volunteer we find out, but is just hanging out, which is his custom). At the moment, he’s sorting stamps. “Where are you from?” he asks us.

“Pittsburgh.”

“Minneapolis.”

Vantage PointsVantage PointsHank tells us his service company and says, “There were some nice guys from Pennsylvania there with me.” We talk about Pittsburgh together, and he insists we can touch the stamp ball. So we do. Hank is good at egging us on. Together, we spread silliness all around, and eventually have to say farewell to Hank and to the gift shop lady as we head out to see the Dowd Memorial Catholic Chapel where Father Flanagan is laid to rest.

Vantage PointsFather Edward J. Flanagan started his home for boys around the time of WWI, and moved the home to where we’re standing, at what was formerly the Overlook Farm back in 1921. According to BoysTown.org, “Since 1917, Boys Town’s mission has been to give at-risk children and families the love, support and education they need to succeed. Because we firmly believe that regardless of background and circumstances, every child and every family has the potential to thrive.”

The site goes on to say: “He had a dream that every child could be a productive citizen if given love, a home, an education, and a trade. He accepted boys of every race, color, and creed. Father Flanagan firmly believed, ‘There are no bad boys. There is only bad environment, bad training, bad example, bad thinking.’”

“I can’t believe we’re standing here,” I tell Brent, feeling the immensity and the importance of the work that was/is done here.Vantage Points

For his mindset, Father Flanagan was called a visionary. And though he was born on Irish soil, not American, Father Flanagan’s vision of opportunity over birth status is as American as it gets.

~
Jody Brown is the author of Upside Down Kingdom, and is a blogger, poet, and traveler.

(For previous Stories from the Road, click here: Segment 15, Segment 14, Segment 13, Segment 12Segment 11Segment 10, Segment 9, Segment 8Segment 7, Segment 6, Segment 5, Segment 4, Segment 3, Segment 2, Segment 1)

Night Life

#Merica Tour, Stories from the Road, Segment 15
(For links to previous segments, scroll to the bottom)

It takes a Trampled by Turtles album, a Dessa album, and a couple chapters of the zombie war (or a little over two hours) traveling along I-80 before we reach the turnoff for Hastings, Nebraska.

We head south and welcoming us to town is the Hastings Applebee’s, brightly lighted against the night sky. Back in Kansas City, days ago, we’d done a search for nightlife and Applebee’s, headquartered there, was the first thing Google found.

“Look, nightlife!” I say to Brent.

That same Google search is what landed us at Boulevard Brewing Company the next morning so, well done, Googs. Brent glances at Applebee’s and suppresses a smile. “Nightlife,” he acknowledges, and drives on.

Two things are weighing on us right now: the need for adventure and the need for sustenance. We’re on the road to see and do new things, which usually means letting go of the familiarity and comfort of chain restaurants. As self-declared road champions, Brent and I prefer the discovery of local fare and off-the-wall places and we only patron known chains as a last resort, when we’re on our last legs or when we plan poorly and nothing else is open.

At the moment, though, adventure is winning out over food. Brent and I are on a mission to find Kool-Aid, and Wikipedia tells us we’re in its birthplace.

We keep driving south, following Sally the Map App’s directions, and suddenly it feels as though the town has slipped away and we’re just heading into darkness. “Where’d the town go?” I ask.

Brent shrugs. “We’re at the lake,” he offers.

I do a quick Google search. “There are 25,000 residents here,” I tell him. “Where did they put them all?”

We round a bend and suddenly an orderly city plan springs up beyond our windshield, with a good 25 blocks’ worth of grid-laid streets.

Between us, we start referring to Hastings as two separate towns. There’s the “north side,” behind us with our old buddy Nightlife and the Visitor’s Center, and this “south side” of orderly city blocks, both connected by the dark, barren curve of the road around Lake Hastings. Brent and I look at each other and then to the stretch of traffic lights, concrete city blocks, and golden street bulbs lighting our path. We smile and start counting down the streets toward the museum address.

Night LifeThe streets are easy to navigate and we easily find the Kool-Aid Museum, where, to our surprise, there’s enough street light to take pictures. Our first photos almost pass as daylight takes, even though it’s after 9, Central Time. We can’t go inside the museum, but there’s plenty to read on the building’s placards and posters, and we fill in the rest with the help of Wikipedia.
Night LifeThe story goes that inventor Edward Perkins of Hastings, Nebraska created a liquid concentrate called Fruit Smack in his mother’s kitchen. Then in 1927, to reduce shipping costs, Perkins discovered a way to remove the liquid from Fruit Smack, leaving only the powder, which was renamed Kool-Aid. And though Perkins moved Kool-Aid’s production to Chicago in 1931, Hastings still celebrates its invention with its annual Kool-Aid Days every August.

Night LifeAs any successful artist, entrepreneur, business owner, cowboy, adventurer, musician, brewer, traveler, writer, etc., will undoubtedly say, in creating anything, there is failure. It comes down to what you do with that failure. I close my eyes and imagine Perkins in his mother’s kitchen, and all of his stages of experimentation along the way. For Edward Perkins and Kool-Aid, this is where it started, the desire, the belief, the drive, the problem solving, and the refusal to give up, right here in the middle of America, in Hastings, Nebraska.

Night LifeAs Brent continues with his pictures, I search the posters and finally find what I’m looking for. “Berry Blue!” I burst out in a wave of memory and I start talking fast, as if I’d just drunk the deliciously sugary stuff. “That was my favorite! First it was orange, and I thought it was the best, but then Berry Blue had this blueberry/lemon combination and I couldn’t get enough of it…”

Brent lowers his camera and looks at me in contemplation. “I liked orange,” he says evenly, and goes back to his pictures. Brent took childhood seriously.

For all the obvious reasons, nighttime sightseeing is peculiar. Here on the south side, we’re eerily alone. With the wind picking up just a bit, it’s as if we’ve slipped through time.

Night Life

View across the street

Returning to the car, Brent wants to find some Kool-Aid Man footprints in cement, Hollywood Walk of Fame style. They’re needle-in-the-haystack to me, which, now that I’m tired and my mind is silly, is an intriguing phrase. Variations of the “needle in the haystack/bundle/meadow” reference date back to Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote, and before that, to a 1532 speech given by Sir Thomas More. To me, the phrase never described an impossibility. I remember hearing it as a child and thinking, “But you know the needle is there. So just keep looking.” Simple as that. Just like liking orange.

“The footprints aren’t out here at random,” Brent reveals. “They’re at the Visitor’s Center, back up on the north side.” We have a starting place. And between here and there, there’s not one food-like place open that we can find. It might be Nightlife after all.

Sure, the Visitor’s Center closed hours ago, but we lurk around the building in the dark, trying to see inside. I return to the flagpole while Brent searches among the bushes. “If one of these passing cars would just call the police on us,” I say, “We could ask the officers where the footprints are…”

“Found ‘em!” Brent suddenly shouts. Haystack needle.

Night LifeNext to the bushes that line the parking lot is a slab of cement, with no real lighting on it and certainly no giant Kool-Aid Man statue pointing at it. (I suppose most people show up in the daytime, so they don’t need such markers.) Triumphant, and without needing to wait in line, we put our feet inside the giant footprints and Brent does his best Kool-Aid Man imitations.Night Life

I’m delirious with hunger by the time we get to Nightlife, which is mercifully close by and the only place still open, so I order way too much food and even some more to go.

“You still have cinnamon rolls in the car,” Brent protests.

[Yes, I’m a road forager. I think it’s the hallmark of a good traveler.] And Brent may roll his eyes as my to-go cheese sticks arrive, but tomorrow morning we’ll sleep through our continental breakfast in Lincoln, feast on these Applebee’s cheese sticks and leftover cinnamon rolls from the tire caterpillar gas station, and we’ll laugh about how clever we are.

~
Jody Brown is the author of Upside Down Kingdom, and is a blogger, poet, and traveler.

(For previous Stories from the Road, click here: Segment 14, Segment 13, Segment 12Segment 11Segment 10, Segment 9, Segment 8Segment 7, Segment 6, Segment 5, Segment 4, Segment 3, Segment 2, Segment 1)

#Merica Tour, Stories from the Road, Segment 14
(For links to previous segments, scroll to the bottom)

The Forward-Thinking Wild WestThe sun is lowering in the sky as we arrive at the Fort Cody Trading Post. With a cannon and a buffalo in the parking lot and dummy soldiers on the battlements, it takes us a little while to even get into the store. Once inside, there’s a lot more to see. This place is heralded as Nebraska’s largest souvenir and Western gift store, and they’re not kidding.

The Forward-Thinking Wild WestInside the store, immediately to my left, I find a bin of candy cigarettes. “Look!” I gasp. “I didn’t think they made these anymore!” I launch myself at the bin. Brent has turned right and found himself an old time peep show machine.

I deliberate between the red and the white packets and decide on a red one. Cigarettes in hand, The Forward-Thinking Wild WestI drag Brent away from the peep show, and we find aisles and aisles of Western hats, sheriff badges, wooden horses, magnets, candy… We wander through the store, playing with everything. I mean everything. Other tourists start following in our wake, sharing their own road stories with us. The Forward-Thinking Wild WestAs Brent rides around on a stick horse, one couple asks us if we found the covered wagon out the back door.

“There’s more?” I ask.

“Yes!” the couple tells us, “You two might want to see it.” They point toward the back of the store.

Brent holsters his horse and we hurry through Jewelry and Toy Guns (a major feat for us) to the magical and nondescript back door. Opening it, we find another world. In the grassy yard, there’s a whole host of Wild West buildings, the covered wagon, a giant Brave, and of course, a Fort Cody jail.The Forward-Thinking Wild West “Nobody mentioned this,” Brent says, and I know he’s referring to his carefully arranged seven-page list of roadside stops.

We look at each other and smile, then set off running in the yard as if we’ve just been allowed out for recess. We pause only to one-up
each other in photos, and of course, we matriculate to the jail.

The Forward-Thinking Wild WestThe Forward-Thinking Wild WestThe Fort Cody jail doesn’t have a guitar and a crumpled hat like the Argo jail in Colorado, and it doesn’t have a mannequin jailer and Wanted posters like the Abilene jail in Kansas—come to think of it, how many Wild West lockups have we seen on this trip? (A few days from now, my 4-year-old nephew will look through my photos and ask, “Why is Aunt Jody always in jail?” I’ll tell him, to my sister’s delight, Because I don’t eat my vegetables.”) The Forward-Thinking Wild WestHere in Nebraska we have our own props: the not-quite-yet-paid-for candy cigarettes and sheriff badges. We just can’t pass up a good jail.

The Forward-Thinking Wild WestFinally back in the store again, we check out the museum area. We find a two-headed calf, which Brent thinks is awesome and I, well, don’t. “It’s heartbreaking,” I say, but Brent refuses to agree. Thankfully, it’s not for sale, and I can’t believe how many times I need to remind him of that. He keeps looking from me to the calf and back again, waiting for that information to change. In times like this, his face can be as telling as a peep show: The movie reel of his mind pops up and look! It’s us, riding down the open road with Two-Head strapped into the passenger seat while I’m relegated to the backseat with a big fat frown, arms crossed…

The Forward-Thinking Wild West
I finally get him away from the calf by luring him toward the glass case filled with moving figurines and a circus-like sign for Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West show. Signage and Google tell us that in the late 1800’s, after riding for the Pony Express and serving as a civilian scout to the U.S. Army (for which he won a medal of honor), Buffalo Bill began performing in cowboy shows. Buffalo Bill’s Wild West was founded in 1883, and the large company went on tours the United States and then in Great Britain and Europe. The shows depicted cowboy skills, stagecoach robbery reenactments, and sideshows, but after scrutinizing the miniatures and digging through Wikipedia, I realize that’s not all it did.

The Forward-Thinking Wild WestIn the mid-1800’s, America’s West had not been safe for man nor beast and everyone was pitted against one another—some for Manifest Destiny, some for survival, some on sheer instinct. And then a mere 40 years after America’s cry for Western Expansion, Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show was all-inclusive, and for that, ahead of its time. According to Wikipedia, “The show began with a parade on horseback, with participants from horse-culture groups that included U.S. and other military, cowboys, American Indians, and performers from all over the world in their best attire. Turks, Gauchos, Arabs, Mongols, and Georgians displayed their distinctive horses and colorful costumes.” The show included women such as sharpshooter Annie Oakley, trick shooter and trick rider Lillian Smith, and Calamity Jane appeared as a storyteller. There was even an appearance by Sitting Bull with 20 of his braves.The Forward-Thinking Wild West

Brent and I marvel at the nearly 20,000 different miniatures, “hand-carved by Ernie and Virginia Palmquist over a 12-year period,” according to signage and the interweb. This stop is totally worth it.

We make our way to the checkout and finally pay for Brent’s two-headed calf magnet, our slightly used sheriff badges, and our open packet of candy cigarettes now with a few missing.The Forward-Thinking Wild West Before leaving North Platte, we stop next door for gas–mostly because Brent spied a green dinosaur outside the station–and we’re back on the road again. This time, we’re tracking down Kool-Aid.

On our way to Hastings, Nebraska, we pass a local truck with a Ghostbusters sticker. The Forward-Thinking Wild West“Look at that,” I point it out to Brent. I take a picture and think about all the people who talked to us in the Trading Post. “I like these people,” I tell him and breathe in deeply. “Nebraska,” I say. Who knew?

~
Jody Brown is the author of Upside Down Kingdom, and is a blogger, poet, and traveler.

(For previous Stories from the Road, click here: Segment 13, Segment 12Segment 11Segment 10, Segment 9, Segment 8Segment 7, Segment 6, Segment 5, Segment 4, Segment 3, Segment 2, Segment 1)

Filling the Big, Open Sky

#Merica Tour, Stories from the Road, Segment 13
(For links to previous segments, scroll to the bottom)

Filling the Big, Open SkyThe Zombie War is on again! We’ve got World War Z in the CD player as we cross into Nebraska, and immediately a flashing road sign warns of organized car searches ahead. We shrug and drive on, and I review the itinerary against my Map App. We’re enjoying the sunny day, heading for a giant ice cream cone, a tire caterpillar, and an alien water tower before we reach a longer stop at a trading post.

We pass a second sign, this time warning that there are drug-sniffing dogs ahead. We have just left Colorado, after all. But when a third flashing sign comes and goes, we get the impression this stop and sniff might eat up our precious daylight. I quickly consult Map App Sally. It’s decision time: Play with the roadside dogs and miss the trading post, or cross two lanes to exit the highway and take our chances on a parallel road Sally found.

“I don’t want to miss the trading post,” Brent says.

I look at him and raise my eyebrows.

“You can’t play with the dogs, Jody,” he says, getting to the heart of the issue. “They’re working.”

“Oh,” I say. Too many days on the open road and life is your own personal adventure, one where you can play with drug-sniffing dogs. “Let’s exit, then,” I say, and we’re about to rely on Sally.

In front of a police cruiser, Brent takes a last-minute exit and we hop onto a paved but dusty road. We immediately pass another cruiser and expect to be stopped. An introvert engineer and a pink-haired writer in a road-hardened Jetta sporting out-of-state plates? We’re clearly up to something. To our surprise, no one actually stops us. We drive on, toward Chappell, Nebraska, feeling off the grid.

The Nebraska landscape is impressively flat, open, and more green than brown right now. It’s so incredibly vast a person could feel small and lost in such open space. Or, one could feel the way we do, that the space serves as a great backdrop to the imagination. It’s a large, sparse canvas, everywhere that you look. A person has room to dream a lot of dreams here.

With my impeccable navigation skills, we somehow pass up the giant ice cream cone and have to retrace our steps back to a T in the road. Left or straight? Left or straight? We’re trying to agree (I think straight; Brent thinks left) when Brent simply looks up. “Oh, there it is,” he says. It’s at the T. In my defense, on the other side of the T is a grain elevator with a giant American flag painted on it. It’s cleverly done; the flag looks as if it’s waving in the wind. We were discussing it and snapping pictures from the car and missed the cone.

Filling the Big, Open SkyNow we see the closest we can get to the ice cream cone is to pull into the driveway of a nearby yellow house. “I’m sure people do this all the time,” I tell Brent. He’s wary and wants to park someplace super far away. “We still need to walk through their yard to get to it,” I point out. He follows my advice for once, and for once it doesn’t burn us. [Yes, I admit that.]

There’s a lady sitting on the porch of the yellow house, surrounded by sleepy cats and dogs. We drive up and she cheerfully welcomes us and asks where we’re from. We chat back and forth and admit we had never been to the Colorado ice cream parlor before it closed and the cone was sent here. Then she explains to Brent how to get the best angle in our photos, because the cone is bigger than it seems.

“No one knew how big it really was because it was on the roof, you see,” she says, clearly accustomed to crazy strangers, “and it wasn’t ‘til they figured out how to get it down and had it on the ground that they saw its true size.”

Filling the Big, Open SkyWe thank her, and park along the side of her house where she tells us. As we walk right up to it, the giant ice cream cone seems to be made of fiberglass, and it’s tied down pretty well with wire cables (which were invented by John Roebling, the founder of the town where I live in Pennsylvania, and builder of a little thing called the Brooklyn Bridge). I gaze up at the ice cream cone, chocolate and vanilla swirl, and my mind plays over the idea that when a business closes, a person probably faces a lot of choices. Putting an ice cream cone in your yard seems a good one. A souvenir. A piece of history. Or maybe: A beacon. Lemonade from lemons.

We take turns posing with it in the side yard and then head on our way, waving as we go. The lady waves back.

Next stop: Tire caterpillar. We’re enjoying our parallel road that Sally found, Route 30, and weigh the pros and cons of staying on it versus returning to I-80. Route 30 is slower going, but we get to see more towns. With our priorities in order, we quickly decide to stay on it. Anyone can say they drove through Nebraska. Brent and I are experiencing it.

Filling the Big, Open SkyMap App Sally leads us half an hour east to Big Springs where there’s a giant truck stop and gas station. The station is so big, it has a second floor with its own trucker lounge complete with TV and showers, and has one hallway devoted to telephone closets. We fuel up, explore, and hunt down snacks, all with no signs of a caterpillar. Finally we admit defeat and ask the checkout fella for some directions.

“Big blue caterpillar?” we ask. “Made out of tires? ‘Bout yay big?” (I’m kidding: We don’t actually say “yay big.” We have no idea how big the yay is.) But we do nod at the cashier to get him to agree with us. He has no idea what we’re talking about, and he kinda stares at us. Brent and I exchange a look, scrutinizing each other’s faces for insanity.

“Oh, there’s a tire place behind here,” the fella finally says. “It might be there.”

Filling the Big, Open SkyWe hightail it outside. At the other end of the gas plaza we find it in front of the doors to the repair shop. I do my best Men in Black re-enactment, offering the alien creature a flower, and the photo shows how well I screwed up my neck muscles panning for gold back in Colorado. My shoulders are practically at my ears (and it’ll take an hour of a therapist named Margie’s handiwork two weeks from now to get my head to turn to the left again).

Next stop, an alien water tower in what must be the windiest place on the planet. I don’t recall any wind during the half hour trek from Big Springs to Ogallala, but maybe I was distracted by the zombie war, or by my repetition of Ogallala, pronouncing it like Oo-De-Lally in Robin Hood. Ogallala!

Filling the Big, Open SkyAnyway, in Ogallala, it’s difficult to stand up straight and I’m pretty sure it’s ten degrees cooler here because of all this wind. There goes my hairdo. The wind thunders over our ears and wipes out all other sound. Brent pantomimes with his camera what I should do in his shot, much like a bossy but mute director. (He’s a perfectionist about his goofy pictures.) I interpret his gestures and strike a pose, keeping my eyes closed against the onslaught of the wind. Strangely, Google offers no explanation as to why this water tower looks like it’s piloted by smiling aliens, or what the people in Ogallala think about it.

Out of the wind and into the car, I start to wonder if this town is full of our kind of people—people who dream about the big, open sky—or if it has its share of pragmatists, too—people like my Dad, who is fond of saying, “No civilization is that clean. If aliens were here, they’d’ve left behind beer cans and cigarette butts.”

“Not in this crazy wind,” I think. “There’d be no evidence at all.”

Onward we go! We’re heading east to a Wild West Trading Post.

~
Jody Brown is the author of Upside Down Kingdom, and is a blogger, poet, and traveler.

(For previous Stories from the Road, click here: Segment 12Segment 11Segment 10, Segment 9, Segment 8Segment 7, Segment 6, Segment 5, Segment 4, Segment 3, Segment 2, Segment 1)

Meeting a SkyGrazer

#Merica Tour, Stories from the Road, Segment 12
(For links to previous segments, scroll to the bottom)

Well, now what?

That’s the first question on our minds as we pack up and face the sunny day ahead. Throughout all of this roadtripping, Brent and I had a goal in mind: the Trampled by Turtles concert. Now the concert’s over, we’re leaving Colorado, and we’ve got 1000 miles of road between us and St. Paul. The road ahead is flat, ridiculously flat, though right now, it might as well be all uphill.

“Why didn’t we fly?” I lament. Brent quietly agrees, but then, he picks up our travel-worn itinerary (7 pages of roadside attractions, handwritten, front and back) and carefully turns the pages until he finds today’s suggestions. His face shows that he takes his curiosity very seriously. Consulting and rearranging the list has been a sort of meditative ritual ever since Missouri–when we’d left the itinerary in the car at our first hotel stop and realized it was more of a living, breathing—okay, evolving–thing that we needed to keep close, so Brent had gone out in the middle of the night to get it. Now, seeing the pages and pages of strange roadside fun ahead of us, the wanderlust returns. The concert may be over, but our road trip is just hitting its stride.

IMG_2272After pigging out on hotel waffles, we pack up the Jetta and pop in a Trampled CD. We’re Northeast-bound, with the morning sun on our right. First stop, a meeting with a skygrazer.

Two CDs later, we exit the highway and navigate to a place called Sterling, Colorado, known as The City of Living Trees. We find it quickly, and that surprises us, especially in such an open space. Meeting a SkyGrazerWith a moniker like “Living Trees” we thought we’d find a forest-like area, not this high plains town. But Google assures us we’re in the right place, so I get the Googs to dig a little further and find that Sterling’s cottonwoods have been carved into a variety of creatures by renowned local artist Bradford Rhea. Now we’re getting somewhere! Rhea created the Skygrazers that we’re seeking.

While some of Rhea’s statues have been moved inside, there are a number of them simply dotted around the town. We drive up and down the wide, open, quiet streets of Sterling, looking for trees and creatures and hints of bronze as if we’re on a strange jungle expedition–binoculars included, because Brent has stocked the Jetta.

Sally the Map App is no help at all, directing us to a variety of buildings, none of which has any Skygrazers. We drive straight through town, make two lefts, drive back the way we came on a parallel street, and that’s enough for Brent. “I know where to go,” he says, and zigzags us to an unseen park. I’m sure he’s using The Force to get us here, but he says, “I saw this park on the way in.”

I know I shouldn’t say things like this, but I also know he’ll get a kick out of it, “I didn’t see any park,” I declare.

I can read the amused look on his face that says, “And I let you navigate?” but to his credit he doesn’t say that out loud.

“The Googs distracted me,” I defend to the look on his face. But, The Force has worked; there’s bronze ahead. We’re suddenly nearing The Minuteman and, about a block away, the celebratory Skygrazers.Meeting a SkyGrazer

Now here’s where the Googs earns its money: Their artist, Bradford Rhea, began sculpting dying tree trunks in this community in the 1980s, many of which have now been cast in bronze, and in 1993, he was commissioned by the U.S. government to sculpt a walking stick for President Clinton to present to Pope John Paul II. (The story goes that he carved it in seven days, from the roots of a honey locust tree.)

Truly—this is so America–who knew we’d find extraordinary treasure in such a quiet, unassuming place?

Brent poses with The Minuteman, but I find a quiet reserve when looking at it. I crouch down low, a few feet in front of it, and just look up at it.Meeting a SkyGrazer

The statue of The Skygrazers has an opposite effect. I want to leap, not just anywhere, but up. This statue reaches right into my heart and sums up our trip so far. It’s joyous, ecstatic, and reaching for the stars.

~
Jody Brown is the author of Upside Down Kingdom, and is a blogger, poet, and traveler.

(For previous Stories from the Road, click here: Segment 11Segment 10, Segment 9, Segment 8Segment 7, Segment 6, Segment 5, Segment 4, Segment 3, Segment 2, Segment 1)

Singing to the Stage

#Merica Tour, Stories from the Road, Segment 11
(For links to previous segments, scroll to the bottom)

This is it! The entire reason for our road trip! The sun is beginning to set in Morrison, Colorado and we’re following a long line of cars into the craggy lower parking lots of the Red Rocks Amphitheater, gearing up to see Trampled by Turtles.

(Warning: I tend to think of music as a deeply personal experience. You’re about to glimpse mine.)

Singing to the Stage

photo courtesy of Brent (my ticket is currently hiding)

Brent and I triple check that we have the tickets—he’s holding them because I’ll lose them for sure—and I bring along a sweater because, yes, it’s warm out now, but when it gets dark and the wind kicks up on the mountainside, I’m going to need it.

I’d love to tell you we power walk the entire way up as some folks in their yoga-concertwear are enviably doing, but we’ve just spent umpteen days in a car, (or three), eating and drinking our way across this great country, so we hike two-thirds of the way up and then stop for a “scenic break” and catch our breath before hitting the rock stairs. Singing to the StageThe opening act has just started, a fella called Shakey Graves who’s playing a cross between blues, country, and rock and roll and seems to be a local favorite when, between songs, he asks how many people had been to a certain Halloween party where he’d played and the crowd goes nuts.

Singing to the StageHearing his scratchy voice as we ascend the final steps to our seats, I’ve convinced myself that this soulful artist is ancient. I’m caught off guard to look to the stage and see he’s in his late twenties. I stand motionless, thinking I’ll let the music swirl around me, but it hits hard and straight to the heart, giving me goose bumps for the entire performance, and the only thought I can think in words is: All is not lost. If someone so young can feel the world like this and interpret it into song, we’re not completely a superficial lot lost to the reality of unreality and taking superficial opinions as fact. No, we might make it after all.

(Later, in Pittsburgh, I’ll tell a plugged-in music-minded friend about Shakey Graves and he’ll chuckle knowingly, then launch into a story of seeing him play in Austin, Texas where Graves is actually from, and how awestruck the music-wisened Austin crowd became when Graves was on stage.)

Singing to the StageWhen the set is over, Brent says, “The best T-shirts and drink prices are at the top of the amphitheater.” His recon report isn’t finished yet. “Also, the shortest bathroom line is near us.” (When Brent left and returned I don’t know. Introverts are stealthy like that.) Together, we head up, up, up, and check it out the tippy top of this place, and of course he’s right about the T-shirts because he’s done enough mental math to fill a spreadsheet. And that’s when, strangely, I spot a figure that looks familiar. (You know how that happens when you’re someplace you’ve never been, a zillion miles from the last familiar sight, and your brain is telling you you know someone?) Then I realize it’s not someone I actually know, but rather a very sweaty Shakey Graves himself, blending with the crowd. As I pass him, I say, “You’re awesome,” and he looks at me and says a quiet, “Thank you,” which has a polite and capable tone of “I worked hard for this moment” behind it.

Singing to the StageT-shirted up and back to our seats again… Well, actually, I got a T-shirt. Brent is holding out for a poster, impractically enough seeing that our peacock feathers from Truckhenge are already bent thanks to sloppy packing that we won’t blame on anyone, and he thinks he’ll get said poster on our way out at the lower level booth because they have the best price. Anyway, I have a cool T-shirt in hand as Elephant Revival takes the stage. Brent tells me about some pathways that take you to other levels in this amphitheater, and I want more than anything to go exploring and take pictures of the views now that the sunlight is taking its exit and the little natural light that’s left is playing tricks with our craggy surroundings. I want to, but I can’t. Elephant Revival has a woman playing a washboard.

I’ve never officially seen a washboard played before, unless you count the Futurama episode when Bender goes on tour with Beck. (It’s a ridiculous comparison I admit, but the writers of that cartoon are gifted.)

“Oh my goodness,” I say to Brent as if he can’t see this. Neither of us can look away. We’re standing on a Colorado mountainside, locked in the sight and sound of the washboard while stage lights shine on red sandstone monoliths, 300-feet high to our right and left, and it suddenly occurs to me that this, mine, is a life painted with its own version of cartoon colors.

Singing to the StageThe five members of Elephant Revival play an astounding fifteen instruments among them, and each of them sings. They introduce their songs with a bit of background as to what they were thinking when they wrote them. Some of the songs are named for animal and nature sounds, and I sit with my eyes closed and marvel that it really does sound as if the birds, elephants, and a babbling brook have gathered to perform here.

Singing to the StageBy the time our flanking red monoliths (named Ship Rock and Creation Rock, but I’m not sure which is which) start taking on a brilliant gold hue thanks to spotlights, the sky is busy turning a striking blue-black, and Trampled by Turtles takes the stage and fills the air with their bluegrass/rock sound. Brent and I have been fortunate enough to live in places where Trampled is played on the radio, and we share a sort of hometown pride to see them headlining here in Colorado. (Hometown pride is a peculiar feeling for this wandering gypsy, but no less fierce a passion despite the vast ground it covers.)

Singing to the StageThe last time Brent and I saw TbT on stage was in Rochester, Minnesota, which is 226 miles south of their origins in Duluth, and at the time, we thought that was far. That concert took place in an indoor concert hall that wrapped their big sound around us, but here in the open amphitheater with the proclaimed “acoustic perfection” of the stony Red Rocks, Trampled by Turtles’ frenetic stage energy is set free.

Singing to the StageWith their individual backgrounds in punk and its influence, the five band members play stringed instruments (guitar, bass, banjo, mandolin, fiddle) with such intensity that I always find myself waiting for the instruments to smoke and then burst into flames. I wait for it, but it never happens. What does happen is a sound that is sometimes thundering, sometimes rolling, and at times even downright haunting. I soak in these songs, waiting patiently for my favorite, “You Wait So Long,” which is possibly their most popular and thus I struggle not to feel bandwagonny–but I can’t help but love a song that tears your heart out and simultaneously reminds you that you’re alive. And there’s something in the quality of the rhythm of “You Wait So Long” that makes me think of Minnesota winter, of accepting the cold and pounding out a life within it, without glory, but with a recognition of the guts it takes.

Singing to the StageBrent and I have driven through four incredible states to get here, and tomorrow we’ll begin our return journey (taking a different path, of course). But right now on this mountain we’re living in the moment, soaking in the Colorado night, and singing to the stage.

~
Jody Brown is the author of Upside Down Kingdom, and is a blogger, poet, and traveler.

(For previous Stories from the Road, click here: Segment 10, Segment 9, Segment 8Segment 7, Segment 6, Segment 5, Segment 4, Segment 3, Segment 2, Segment 1)

The Dreams of Men

#Merica Tour, Stories from the Road, Segment 10
(For links to previous segments, scroll to the bottom)

The Dreams of MenWe’ve made it to Colorado! For the first time in this road trip, we have no plans until the Trampled by Turtles concert at Red Rocks, around sunset. With a whole day ahead of us in one state, we breakfast at the hotel and decide to grab a stack of tourist brochures from the lobby. We spread the brochures around our room and look for things that jump out at us: Panning for gold, riding a train, touring a mine, and visiting a brewery. Brent estimates the timing with multiple events only offered certain times a day and computes that if we leave approximately right this minute, we can do a mine tour, pan for gold, and forego the brewery but make it to a train that has a bar car–all before the concert. We look at each other for a split second in agreement of the plan, and go running for the door.

We set map-app Sally to the address of the mine, and head west out of Denver into the sunny, blue-skied day.

“It was weird,” I tell Brent, “When we drove in last night, I don’t remember going up in elevation. I thought we’d be climbing up and up, but it seemed pretty flat.” Brent agrees.

We drive along a mountainside and the highway takes us through a pass and suddenly the view before us is all downhill–downmountain, I should say—for two miles according to a sign, until we reach the valley. We look at each other from “up here” and smile.

It’s an amazing thing to ride aloft in the mountains one moment, and then find yourself looking up at those peaks from the valley floor only a few minutes later. I think about the people of Denver and how they could feel awe or triumph simply based on where they happen to stand at any given moment.

The Dreams of MenAt the bottom of the valley we meander through the mountains for about half an hour until we reach a place called Idaho Springs and find the Argo Gold Mine and Mill. The mill was built at the entrance of the Argo Tunnel, which built between 1893 and 1910 to provide water drainage, ventilation, and transportation of the gold-bearing ore from the many mines it intersected.

The Dreams of MenAt the mine, we’re allowed to touch the mining equipment before watching a presentation and taking a short bus ride to a mine entrance up the mountainside for a tour. The Dreams of MenIt’s warm under the Colorado sun, but we’re in jeans, having learned a year ago on a mine tour in Pennsylvania to bundle up for such an occasion. We’re not disappointed; the mine is chilly. Exiting the mouth of the mine, we return our hard hats and keep our eyes peeled for bears. (Our group has been warned not to feed the bears or to take selfies, as if we’d be that dumb.) The Dreams of MenInstead, I take pictures of Brent hopping in and out of an abandoned mine car that was next to a sign clearly stating not to touch it.

The Dreams of MenWe self-tour the interior of the mill from the top down, and marvel at the way this building was not much protection from the elements. Back out in the sunshine at the bottom level, we’re taught how to pan for gold and allowed to practice for as long as we want. I don’t mind telling you, I’m pretty good at it.The Dreams of Men

When we turn in our pans and head back inside the gift shop, a group waiting there for the next tour asks us, “So, how’d you do?The Dreams of Men

“We made enough for retirement,” says Brent triumphantly.

“Or to get an ice cream cone!” I say with the same exuberance.

The Dreams of MenWe wander around the shop and spend a little time in the jail, for which we get strange looks but once we’re liberated, those same folks with the looks hop in to do the same thing. We’re just trendsetters, that’s all.

Next stop, a mountainside train with a bar car–or as we’re dubbing it, The Drinky Train.

The Dreams of MenThe Dreams of MenThe Georgetown Loop Railroad weaves its way along the mountainside through trees and dirt trails, and has great views of the Rockies and the valley. Our tickets are for the bar car, which is in the caboose, so we alternate sitting at our table beside the picture window and visiting the platform outside the caboose to feel the wind in our hair.The Dreams of Men

It feels as if a whimsical kid set this train up in the most imaginative place possible, along the steep mountainside with deep green trees, the smell of pine, the sound of water rushing over the rocks below, and the chug-chug of this brightly colored rail, just to spend the afternoon lost in railroad adventures. The Dreams of MenAnd even though we know it’s not child’s play but the dreams of men that tamed this wild place, we’re glad to be the mini Weebles on such a train.

Back on solid ground, we head into Georgetown, which looks like an Old West town with wooden storefronts held up by stilts from behind—except that it’s real—and look for sustenance before the Trampled by Turtles concert.

The Dreams of Men

A dress I wanted to buy in Georgetown but the shop was closed for the day. I’m a Medium. (Okay, Large.)

We find the best Mexican food this side of the Rio Grande at a restaurant called Lucha Cantina. We sit on the upper perimeter above the bar and watch football when Brent’s eyes suddenly go wide. “Your burrito is as big as your head!” he laughs and laughs as it’s put down in front of me. He’s kinda right. The Dreams of MenAnd it’s so delicious that I eat nearly the entire thing. (I’ll spend the next hour telling him I want a nap, and also that it was well worth it.)

Spoiler alert: I don’t get the nap. Instead, we roll ourselves back to the car and head to Red Rocks to see Trampled by Turtles light up the night.The Dreams of Men

~
Jody Brown is the author of , and is a blogger, poet, and traveler.

(For previous Stories from the Road, click here: Segment 9, Segment 8Segment 7, Segment 6, Segment 5, Segment 4, Segment 3, Segment 2, Segment 1)

#Merica Tour, Stories from the Road, Segment 9
(For links to previous segments, scroll to the bottom)

We’re closing in on Colorado, but still have some unfinished business here in Kansas. Kansas, The Coolest State Since...Since we spent so much time at Truckhenge (and it was awesomely worth it!!) we need to cut some of the fat from our roadside stops. It’s tough—Kansas is so incredibly cool. I realize you don’t believe me, so let’s take a look: Eating among dinosaurs at the T-Rex Café, attempting to break in to a roadside teepee, the life-altering experience that is Truckhenge, and coming up on the docket, a fake town-within-a-town, smurfing out with naturally formed rocks that look like giant mushrooms, and the world’s largest Czech egg—which Brent insists we can’t cut from the trip—all before we hit Colorado, and it’s late afternoon as it is.

In the end, the weather makes our decision for us. We’re heading west. Twelve miles straight north of where we are is a Wizard of Oz museum, which we think is closed at this hour, but we’re not sure. That’s when it starts raining. And I mean: build-an-ark raining. In the flat and wide Kansas terrain, we feel as though we can see the entire globe around us. We see the storm system coming and it looks like it’ll bypass us. My Weather App says it’s no big deal at our location; that really it’s heading north. But the Weather App lies.

Undaunted, I relay the lies to Brent as he concentrates on finding the road and keeping the Jetta on it. “So!” he calls out, “It’ll just be a quick sprinkle?” The windshield wipers are on their highest setting, we can’t see, and it’s hard to hear each other.

“Right!” I yell back from the passenger seat as I look for funnel clouds. “Just a sprinkle!”

“Okay then!” he shouts back.

If we go north toward Oz, we’ll drive through this the entire way. If we continue west, the thin band of this system should be behind us soon. So here we are in Kansas, and we decide to skip Dorothy. True story.

Kansas, the Coolest State Since...Kansas, The Coolest State Since...We trudge on, and make it out of the deluge with our lives, barely. It’s suddenly sunny and ridiculously hot outside as we arrive in Abilene–which is my idea to visit because of the Waylon Jennings song. I try singing the “Abilene” song for Brent but that doesn’t work well because I don’t know most of the words. Also, I can’t sing.

“Abilene, Abilene, prettiest town I’ve ever seen…”

Brent makes a face and says he doesn’t know that song. So I hit up The Googs as we navigate toward an entire street the town has built Old West style. Kansas, The Coolest State Since...I play the Jennings version of the song for Brent, and as I Google some more, I learn that it was written by folksinger Bob Gibson (did you know that Gibson wrote songs with Shel Silverstein?), and also this little tidbit: Gibson claimed he wrote “Abilene” for Abilene, Texas.

“Oh, wrong Abilene,” I tell Brent.

Kansas, The Coolest State Since...Kansas, the Coolest State Since...Well, we’re here anyway, so we explore the fun Old West town-with-a-town, checking out the saloon, the jail, the schoolhouse, and the train–which is named Enterprise, probably no relation, but we Trekkies take is as a sign. We’re the only ones in the little town—well, us, and a bunny that Brent keeps trying to capture in a selfie.

Kansas, The Coolest State Since...Mushroom Rocks is next—a state park with not a soul around. The air is thick with heat and the grass is scorched and looks like hay, and it’s knee-deep and hip-high in some places as we make our way on foot to these crazy rocks. Kansas, The Coolest State Since...Google introduces me to a Kansas University website that tells us the rocks “are made of sandstone from the Dakota Formation, deposited along the edge of a Cretaceous sea about 100 million years ago. Over time, circulating water deposited a limy cement between the sand grains, creating harder bodies of sandstone called concretions… The softer sandstone of the stem has eroded more rapidly, creating the mushroom-shaped rock.”

Kansas, The Coolest State Since...We look around in awe of these wide hillsides that shrink our horizon to a stone’s throw in all directions against the blue sky and imagine the hills are waves on the sea. And then, well, what do you do with 100-million-year-old cretaceous deposits? Brent and I climb on them. And climb, and climb, and climb.

Kansas, The Coolest State Since...We hit the dirt road again, and take some amazing mid-Kansas photos from the middle of the road when Sally the Map App gets us horribly lost, and we feel as though we’re the only humans in this great, golden sun-filled territory. Kansas, The Coolest State Since...Eventually, and with Brent’s innate (and bizarre) sense of direction, we manage to reach a town called Wilson just as the sun is setting. We drive along the edge of town until we find a 25-foot egg structure.

Wilson is a town of about 800 residents, and calls itself the Czech capital of Kansas. (“These are my people,” I proudly claim to Brent of my heritage and look around as if entering a long-lost family home.) The story goes that the town reached out to Hess Services, Inc. in Hays, Kansas, to build this fiberglass egg as a tourism boost for Wilson. (Hess Services, Inc. built it for cost. Imagine!) Kansas, The Coolest State Since...And just this summer the egg received its final coat of paint, giving it its Czechoslovakian design. Perhaps for those painting purposes, the egg is on a giant horizontal spindle. A nearby sign says not to turn the egg. Technically, we only managed to wiggle it a little before I found the sign. Instead, we take pictures of ourselves with the egg, and venture out to look at the old and ornate buildings of Wilson, which are lighted with a rose hue from the lowering sun. We’re hungry, and find a place called Grandma’s Soda Shop where we join the local teenagers for some pizza before hitting the road again. Next stop: Colorado!

With full bellies and a full drive ahead, we force ourselves back in the car. As we pass the last of the Rock, Chalk, Jayhawk billboards in Kansas, we settle in for our more than 5-hour night drive (seriously, how much time did we spend at Truckhenge??), and we do what any nighttime road travelers would: We listen to World War Z on CD. Nothin’ like zombie survival stories to keep the mind sharp.

Kansas, The Coolest State Since...The thing about the road to Colorado (I-70 W) is that it’s straight as a pin, for hours and hours. And hours. The other thing about it is that there are no lights along the road, and thus, no need for lighted billboards. It’s just a solid dark, all around you, which is interesting in its peculiarity. Imagine such a place untouched by the need for constant visual stimulation. We drive, fast, and I’m building up terror in my mind that random wildlife will step in front of us on the road and we’ll never see them until too late. I try, but I can’t see if there’s a fence between the road and the open country because it’s just so dark. I’m also building up intense curiosity at what else is out there in that warm blanket of the darkness when a random thought occurs to me and I suddenly giggle.

“What?” Brent asks.

“Nothing. You won’t like it,” I say. He waits, patiently and quietly, which is his way. “Okay,” I say. “I just thought: Kansas is the best state since sliced bread.” No reaction from Brent, and that’s also his way. “Come on, it’s funny!” I say. “Try it: This is the best gas station popcorn since sliced bread. This is the best bottle of flat ginger ale since sliced bread.” Brent stays silent. “That’s funny, and you know it,” I tell him.

Miles and miles later, as the zombie war gets more intense and we cross the border into Colorado, Brent says, “I like your sliced bread line. I may borrow that.”

I knew it.~

(For more awesome America Stories from the Road, click: Segment 8,  Segment 7Segment 6Segment 5Segment 4Segment 3Segment 2Segment 1)

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Jody Brown is the author of Upside Down Kingdom, and is a blogger, poet, and traveler.

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