#Merica Tour, Stories from the Road, Segment 13
(For links to previous segments, scroll to the bottom)
The 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.
Now 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.”
We 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.
Map 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.”
We 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!
Anyway, 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.