Friday, June 26, 2009

Nebraska - Omaha, Grand Island, Shelton, Kearney, Gothenburg, North Platte, Ogallala

"Then Omaha, and, by God, the first cowboy I saw, walking along the bleak walls of the wholesale meat warehouses in a ten-gallon hat and Texas boots, looked like any beat character of the brickwall dawns of the East except for the getup. We got off the bus and walked clear up the hill, the long hill formed over the millenniums by the mighty Missouri, alongside of which Omaha is built, and got out to the country and stuck our thumbs out.” (16)

“All the men were driving home from work, wearing railroad hats, baseball hats, all kinds of hats, just like after work in any town anywhere. One of them gave me a ride up the hill and left me at a lonely crossroads on the edge of the prairie. It was beautiful there” (12).

“I was in another big high cab, all set to go hundreds of miles across the night, and was I happy! And the new truckdriver was as crazy as the other and yelled just as much, and all I had to do was lean back and roll on. Now I could see Denver looming ahead of me like the Promised Land, way out there beneath the stars, across the prairie of Iowa and the plains of Nebraska, and I could see the greater vision of San Francisco beyond, like jewels in the night.” (13)

(not taken at night, but this does illustrate the plains of Nebraska)

“Cowboy had two cars with him that he was driving back to Montana. His wife was at Grand Island …” (16).

(I kind of cheated on this one and didn't take pictures of the town itself, but I was in a rush to get to Rapid City.)

“So we drove a hundred miles across Nebraska, following the winding Platte with its verdant fields” (16).

“Then an old man who said nothing—and God knows why he picked us up—took us to Shelton. Here Eddie stood forlornly in the road in front of a staring bunch of short, squat Omaha Indians who had nowhere to go and nothing to do. Across the road was the railroad track and the watertank saying SHELTON. ‘Damn me,’ said Eddie with amazement, ‘I’ve been in this town before. It was years ago, during the war, at night, late at night when everybody was sleeping. I went out on the platform to smoke, and there we was in the middle of nowhere and black as hell, and I look up and see that name Shelton written on the watertank. Bound for the stayed a few minuts, stoking up or something, and off we went. Damn me, this Shelton! I hated this place ever since!’ And we were stuck in Shelton.” (18)

(They have a new water tower these days)

“‘You boys going to get somewhere, or just going?’ We didn’t understand his question, and it was a damned good question” (18).

“I had visions of a dark and dusty night on the plains …” (19).

“In no time at all we were back on the main highway and that night I saw the entire state of Nebraska unroll before my eyes. A hundred and ten miles an hour straight through, an arrow road, sleeping towns, no traffic, and the Union Pacific streamliner falling behind us in the moonlight. I wasn’t frightened at all that night; it was perfectly legitimate to go 110 and talk and have all the Nebraska towns—Ogallala, Gothenburg, Kearney, Grand Island, Columbus—unreel with dreamlike rapidity as we roared ahead and talked.” (218)


“And so we talked, and he told me about his life, which wasn’t very interesting, and I started to sleep some and woke up right outside the town of Gothenburg, where he let me off” (19).

“Montana Slim and the two high-school boys wandered the streets of North Platte with me till I found a whisky store. They chipped in some, and Slim some, and I bought a fifth. Tall, sullen men watched us go by from false-front buildings; the main street was lined with square box-houses. There were immense vistas of the plains beyond every sad street. I felt something different in the air in North Platte, I didn’t know what it was. In five minutes I did. We got back on the truck and roared off. It got dark quickly. We all had a shot, and suddenly I looked, and the verdant farmfields of the Platte began to disappear and in their stead, so far you couldn’t see to the end, appeared long flat wastelands of sand and sagebrush. I was astounded. ‘What in the hell is this?’ I cried out to Slim. ‘This is the beginning of the rangelands, boy. Hand me another drink.’” (23)

“… he had no place he could stay in without getting tired of it and because there was nowhere to go but everywhere, keep rolling under the stars, generally the Western stars” (23).

“As in a dream we zoomed through small crossroads towns smack out of the darkness, and passed long lines of lounging harvest hands and cowboys in the night” (25).

“We zoomed through another crossroads town, passed another line of tall lanky men in jeans clustered in the dim light like moths on the desert, and returned to the tremendous darkness, and the stars overhead were pure and bright because of the increasingly thin air as we mounted the high hill of the western plateau, about a foot a mile, so they say, and no trees obstructing any low-leveled stars anywhere. And once I saw a moody whitefaced cow in the sage by the road as we flitted by. It was like riding a railroad train, just as steady and just as straight” (26).”

“We came suddenly into the town of Ogallala….I had to buy more cigarettes” (26).

(Ogallala - not a very appealing town.)

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I was kind of surprised at how nice Omaha was. Maybe it was the fact that at the time they had an arts festival going on downtown, or maybe it was the lazy monotony of Iowa, but in terms of midwest cities it seemed to be one of the nicer ones. A asked a local about the city (how they like it, blah blah blah), and essentially what they said was that relatively recently Omaha decided to change their image--I wasn't aware of any image, much less one that needs to be changed. His answer was ambiguous, but the city seems nice now.

After Omaha I mentally prepared (i.e. reminded myself not to zone out and miss something that could be worth seeing) for some extended driving in long, flat Nebraska. Scenery-wise, I was impressed. I had imagined green oceans of corn and the occasional nowhere-town, and there were those things (oh God was there ever corn), but there were plains, prairie, and, towards the northern parts of the state, sand hills. When I imagined the midwest before I left, this is what I was hoping it would look like.

I had high hopes for places like North Platte and Ogallala--great names by the way--but I was sorely disappointed in North Platte when I got there; it was one big neon avenue full of giant humming signs for chain restaurants, chain hotels, chain everything. The only unique thing about that town as I drove through was how geared toward the typical touristic traveling american family; it was odd how present the idea of commercial familiarity (and by that I mean "don't be afraid to eat/stay here because you've done it before only in a different town") was in that town. Traveling through North Platte was when I realized how grossly commercial most places I've not yet been to are going to be on this trip. It's interesting to think that if there was one less billboard or neon sign in North Platte, I probably would have observed the obvious insult to regionalism, history, and culture with the typical, passive response "commercialism is everywhere, and that's too bad."

But being offended at gratuitous advertising for ruining the image I had of place I had high hopes for and realizing a place isn't that great even without in-your-face advertising are two different things. Ogallala wasn't too great, partly because I couldn't help but notice how many drunks hang around downtown on weeknights. Maybe that's part of the charm, and I could have just caught Ogallala on a bad night.

As for the northern part of Nebraska, I was impressed; where a lot of parts of the state are flat and the roads straight, the northwest was hilly, diverse in scenery, and the roads winding almost dangerously. What's more, even though I didn't amble slowly through the state, I did meet some pretty friendly people. I say this now after having some damn unfriendly experiences in less hospitable states.

Iowa - Davenport, Iowa City, Des Moines, Adel, Stuart, Council Bluffs

“I was all for it. Iowa!” (12).

“In the afternoon we crossed drowsy old Davenport again and the low-lying Mississippi in her sawdust bed ..." (223).

“… he balled that thing clear to Iowa City and yelled me the funniest stories about how he got around the law in every town that had an unfair speed limit …” (13).

(I'm not positive that I took this picture in Iowa City--I lost track)

“Off we roared, and an hour later the smoke of Des Moines appeared ahead over the green cornfields” (13).

“… I immediately got a ride from a farmer and his son heading out for Adel in Iowa” (14).

“But we stuck together and got a ride from a taciturn man to Stuart, Iowa, a town in which we were really stranded. We stood in front of the railroad-ticket shack in Stuart, waiting for the westbound traffic till the sun went down …” (15).

“We arrived at Council Bluffs at dawn; I looked out. All winter I’d been reading of the great wagon parties that held council there before hitting the Oregon and Santa Fe trails; and of course now it was only cute suburban cottages of one damn kind and another, all laid out in the dismal gray dawn" (16).

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I didn't spend a bunch of time in Iowa--I pretty much drove straight through this state and Nebraska, as I was trying to make South Dakota that same night. I tried to find something exciting about Iowa, but I didn't have much to work with; I remember lots of fields, lots of small towns indistinguishable from one another, and an almost mindless sojourn through the state. Call it tunnel vision from all that driving, but I genuinely couldn't muster Kerouac's enthusiasm for the state. Granted, he stayed there longer than I had, and he also had company, but I think I would have a hard time keeping myself occupied in Iowa. I felt almost glazed-over once I hit the beginning of Nebraska, but once I crossed sleepy Iowa I felt a slight surge in energy, a surge resulting from a slight (emphasis on slight) change in scenery into Nebraska.

I felt I missed something, so to be sure I had asked someone I met in Colorado (he was from Iowa, visiting the Rockies) if there was something I should have seen or done while I was passing through. After Iowa, I was beginning to suspect the midwest was going to be the least intriguing part of my journey.