Quest of the Phoenix 2017 (2)

Part 2 of 11

Quest of the Phoenix 2017 (2)

I rose at about 6:45 and hit the road by 8:30. The plan was to follow the directions I’d looked up on my phone to the local Firestone. However, the area around my motel consisted, in addition to construction sites, also of a bizarre sea of interlocking parking lots with no real “town” amongst them and streets and street signs that operated in ways I hadn’t seen before, so I ended up bungling around for awhile in that area, then driving across a highway into the actual downtown area, which was just as bad, involving narrow one-way streets and wandering lanes. After a bit, I just said “screw this” and opted to hit the freeway for Omaha.

Traffic picked up as I crossed the state line and immediately entered Nebraska’s largest city. However, the freeway here had, like, SIX lanes in either direction so it wasn’t as dangerously crowded as it could have been. From what I could see of Omaha, it was an interesting mixture of the handsome and the grungy; a quintessential American city, I suppose, though I’d have to actually spend time there to say more.

Once I got clear of Metro Omaha, the state opened up and revealed itself to be quite nice, actually. I’d heard a lot about how “boring” Nebraska is, and it sort of was, but I rather liked it. It helped that the rain was gone and the sun was out, though the weather was still cool and windy. I got a rather nice view of the rolling fields (now a nice golden brown in contrast to the grey-green of yesterday) at a rest stop. Meanwhile, on H.O.R., Dr. Jim was at a BEER FESTIVAL and spent the podcast getting progressively drunker... which has led him to borderline-disavow that episode, but it made for good entertainment. Meanwhile, I was delighted to discover that the NE freeway speed limit (I was still on I-80 West, as I had been for much of yesterday and would be for most of today) was 75 mph instead of 70. There were lots of cops around, though.

Central Nebraska grew flatter and somewhat less interesting. There were a lot of cattle farms (I don’t see many of those, usually), and curiously there were tons of gnarled trees, always to my left (south), and rolling brown plains to my right (north). Also a fair amount of rural poverty here. The whole state seemed an interesting mixture of the just-slightly rugged and just-slightly Western, with the homey Midwestern to which I am accustomed. (A barn I passed had also decorated an entire side, facing the freeway, with the word "TRUMP" in gigantic white letters.) Also, the fact that Nebraska lies almost in the exact center of the U.S. made me speculate morbidly that it would be a good place to just sort of “disappear;” one of those odd thoughts that come to you when driving 8 to 12 hours a day. There was also this cool bridge-arch-thingy near the town where one or another of the state’s universities is based; I forget exactly.

I stopped for gas at a dusty little truck stop near Overton. Shortly after, the landscape changed again—my dad had said that, at some point in Nebraska, you would suddenly find yourself in The West, and he was right.

This was also about when I passed a sign informing me I had crossed into the Mountain Time Zone. (Michigan is actually in Eastern, mostly, and no sign informed me yesterday when I entered Central, so I’d forgotten that as I drove west, I was essentially driving back in time. Hah!) I stopped for lunch (and more importantly, coffee) in Ogalalla, a decent-looking town in the west of the state, after which I would finally depart 80 and take Freeway 76 southwest, into Colorado. Which I did. A sign greeted me with "Welcome to Colorful Colorado" (rather redundantly).

To my surprise, the change in the landscape was almost instantaneous. The land started to rise. Trees mostly vanished. I was already entering something like a “high desert,” or at least a very hilly sort of steppe or something. The clouds thickened again. I’d never seen a place like this before. Rather than going up and then back down hills, however, I would ascend a hill, then hit a plateau of sorts, then ascend another slope, and repeat—it was like climbing a Titanic staircase. I was excited and also sort of intimidated, since even when the land temporarily flattened, the feeling of being “high up” did not go away. There remained that vague sense of peril one gets when one is standing on a fourth-floor balcony or something. I began to have slight breathing issues, but nothing too serious. (One of my biggest concerns about this trip was how I’d react to the thinner air at higher elevations, being asthmatic and all. It turned out that I had minor problems when changing elevation rapidly, but I was actually fine even at 5000 feet and up.)

Some of the plateaus turned into curiously drab-looking farmland or “rural industrial” landscapes, and soon I pulled over at a rest area in the town of Sterling. Colorado’s rest stops, bizarrely, are not directly attached to the freeway, but require taking an exit into a town and then finding the rest area the way you would a gas station or restaurant. Anyway, Sterling looked pretty nice aside from the construction on the main road near the freeway, which temporarily sent me in the wrong direction and then back through one-lane traffic before I could get back on 76. Fun times.

Eventually, I departed 76 for the regular state highways, which I would be on for the next hour or so until reaching Longmont, and which is where things got somewhat more dismal and difficult. The roads were surprisingly crowded with traffic even in small towns and the layout of the streets was somewhat confusing. The temperature, which had been in the 50s down in Nebraska, by now had dropped to around 34, with patches of snow on the ground and sporadic rain and sleet. As I came into the vicinity of Longmont, I missed my turn (due to the street being, you know, NOT MARKED) and ended up driving around in circles for at least half an hour looking for my hotel. I ended up often driving down weird highways which ran parallel to freeways, making me think for a moment I was on an entrance ramp, or down one-way streets in the middle of urbanized commercial crap which suddenly turned into no-outlet country roads over the course of like a quarter mile. (This strange demarcation between CROWDED CITY and EMPTY COUNTRY is one the things about the West which most struck me—back East, the level of human settlement is much more “mixed” and gradated, with a long progression from city to suburbs to exurbs to small town to countryside to wilderness.)

Anyway, I eventually figured that I’d already passed not only the street I was looking for, but the hotel itself (which, granted, was hidden between several other businesses), so a bit of backtracking finally got me there. A sign out front said, “UNDER NEW MANAGEMENT.” When I went to check in, the two girls at the desk were talking in Spanish to a guy in an orange-and-yellow fluorescent vest, before returning their attention to me and getting me checked in. Weirdly, they made me sign a form saying that I agreed to a $150 fine if I was found with marijuana. Why would they fine you for something you can just be arrested for anyway? OH WAIT, Colorado legalized it. Ahh. (Also I had accidentally booked a "smoking" room, but decided it wasn’t a big deal, provided that tobacco-smoke residue + being at 5000 feet didn’t mess with my lungs, which it didn’t.)

I settled into my room. There were now several guys with fluorescent vests roving around and talking to one another exclusively in Spanish, presumably employees of the hotel, which was just a tad weird to me. Were these guys security personnel or something? Had this place previously been some kind of drug-infested flophouse and they were trying to clean up their image (under new management, of course) while simultaneously appealing to the Hispanic community? I dunno. Anyway, the room was fine and I enjoyed some delicious Yakisoba instant noodles with steamed broccoli (since I had an in-room microwave this time) and watched The Simpsons.

And looked up directions, again, for finding a tire place, since I didn’t particularly want to go through the Rockies tomorrow before doing so. Texting my mom and brother to say all was well, the latter seemed mildly horrified to discover that I’d already driven from Illinois to Colorado on a spare.

(Part 1)

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