What Lies Ahead

#Merica Tour, Stories from the Road, Segment 21
(For links to previous segments, scroll to the bottom)

We’ve been posting all sorts of pictures on Facebook, and we’re getting quite a reaction. It’s prime vacation time and our friends are checking in from exotic world locations—Paris, Rome, the beaches of Mexico–and here Brent and I post from, well, the middle of the road in America and I daresay we’re surprising everybody with the stories we’re finding. Stories of bread-slicing machines, giant ice cream cones, gold mines, happy gnomes, balls of string, underground pubs… America is full of surprises.

At the moment, we’re tracking down a smiley face water tower and a Jesse James marker before we reach Des Moines and make the turn north [toward dinner!]. It’s past lunchtime right now, so we stop for gas and find fuel in the form of pizza and sandwiches, and I’m so hungry I agonize over what to get. I finally decide on a sandwich. Then I stare at Brent’s pizza as we gorge in the parking lot.

“How’s the pizza?” I say.

“Good,” he says with his mouth full.

“Really good? Because it looks really good.”

“You shoulda got pizza,” he laughs.

“There wasn’t any plain,” I say.

“Well,” he shrugs as if that explains it, and finishes the pizza without sharing a bite.

“Well!” I scoff, and he laughs again.

“How was your sandwich?” he asks. Nice distraction technique.

“Good, but I ate it all,” I say.

“Yeah. We’ll feed you again in Rochester.”

I smirk at him, because he likes to say that to me. It’s not that I eat a lot—okay, sometimes I do. But it’s more that Brent gets so focused on the task at hand that he completely forgets to eat. A true engineer, Brent can survive on nothing but soda and chips for days. Part of our friendship has been built around the necessity for me to plan food breaks, coupled with Brent’s patience to “stop the bus” long enough to eat. As we hop back onto I-80, it doesn’t escape me that this time Brent was hungry, too. That was a good stop, even if I didn’t get any pizza.

smileyAs we close in on Adair, we again take up listening to World War Z as we enjoy the Iowa sunshine and deep blue sky. You’d think the sunny afternoon and the spooky zombie war would be a contradiction in terms, but Brent and I find them both to be rather full of hope.

When we reach Adair, as we expect, we easily find the smiley face water tower. One can’t miss it—it’s golden yellow, cheerful, and right off the highway. What Lies AheadWhat we didn’t expect are the myriad people who drive past us on the small side road and honk, wave, and whistle at us as we take our usual array of serious photos. We could be journalists at this point. Or maybe pet photographers (with a good deal of training.) What Lies Ahead

The Googs gives us the vague impression that the water tower has been smiling for decades, simply for the purpose of being cheerful and welcoming. And Wikipedia says Adair is “humorously known as the ‘happiest town on Earth.’” So, as more random cars pass us and people wave, I’m sold. Adair is awesome. (And there’s still more to see!) What Lies Ahead

We get back in the Jetta, planning to turn a couple streets according to Sally the Map App and arrive at the Jesse James marker. But when we reach the place where the marker should be, lo and behold, there’s nothing there. Sally strikes again!

We stare at an open field (with no marker!) and theorize where it could be. Personally, I think we missed it. I must have blinked at the wrong time or turned my head or something. Brent is methodical; he’s sure we didn’t miss it.

What Lies Ahead“Let’s backtrack and start again,” I say just as Brent says, “I think it’s further.” We try my way first (of course we do) and it doesn’t work (of course it doesn’t), but we’re able to rule out a strange turnoff that seemed to lead to railroad tracks. We then try Brent’s way and we find the marker. We hadn’t missed it because it was never behind us; it was always ahead.

What Lies AheadThe marker is on a little knoll and has its own small driveway off the road, which allows us to spend a little time here without worrying about being in the roadway. The marker, a plaque, denotes the first train robbery made by Jesse James and his gang in 1873 just to the southwest of Adair. To pull off the robbery, they had removed a small section of train track—the very section that has been placed behind the plaque and yours truly is lounging on it. What Lies AheadAnd the plaque itself, which is mounted on a train wheel, has a story of its own: Years ago, it was stolen. And it wasn’t until the thief’s house in Ohio burned down that the marker was found and returned.

What Lies AheadWe’re Googling this story as a Cadillac suddenly pulls up the small driveway and a man and woman emerge to join us. This is a first. We’re usually alone at these roadside curiosities.

They tell us they’re retired, originally from Boston and heading back that way, and that they’d heard about this marker and just had to stop. We tell them the story about the Ohio thief and Brent shows them the write-up from RoadsideAmerica.com on his phone.What Lies Ahead

“Now, that is interesting,” the man says.

The four of us share road and weather stories before climbing back in our cars and heading on our separate ways. I can’t help but feel a certain kismet at finding this marker a little later than we expected, yet just in time to meet some kindred spirits–or maybe, in time to meet a version of our future selves. Brent and I widen our eyes at the thought of it. It seems the road never fails to offer surprises of its own.

Back to the Zombie War, and onward to dinner!

~
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 20, Segment 19, Segment 18, Segment 17, 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)

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)

Kansas, The Coolest State Since…

#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)

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