That Ribbon of Highway


Random reflections from a quick trip back to the mitten.

Fort Collins sits hard against the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, which means the prairie starts (or ends, depending on one’s direction of travel) right at my door, extending east for a thousand miles. The longest and most unappealing stretch belongs to Nebraska. No disrespect to Willa Cather or the other stalwart sod busters who found some lonesome grandeur in the endless miles of grassland, but I  tend to agree with this gas station owner near Ogallala.


Consequently, I try to time it so that passage is completed under cover of darkness. Just me and the big rigs playing tag along the banks of the Platte River while the numbers on the mileage signs dwindle all too slowly. To the cornhuskers’ credit, the speed limit is 75, so I can push it close to 80, the better to clear this interminable flatness as soon as possible. Still, it’s almost eight hours to Omaha, where I sneak through a little ahead of the morning rush, when I imagine the roads become clogged with tractors and hay balers.

Across the wide Missouri, Iowa awaits – Nebraska with wind turbines and a hill or two. Another cup of bad truck-stop coffee and a sleeve of stale powdered mini-donuts and I sling-shot around Des Moines into the rising sun. As the theme from Castaway plays on my ipod, the morning light returning the greens and golds of summer to the vast fields of corn, I can almost see why Willa loved the prairie, this place where “there was nothing but land.” Almost.

Across the even wider Mississippi is Illinois – Iowa with another tree or two. One of the exit signs tries to lure me off the freeway by offering a peek at Ronald Reagan’s birthplace. How is that not on my bucket list? A few more hours and I’m nearing Chicago, where traffic is plugged up from the sheer volume of humanity trying to squeeze through the lone toll gate on my route. I hand my buck ten to the attendant, who drops the dime and bends down out of sight to retrieve it, and for a moment I expect gunmen to pop up in the next booth and open fire on me the way Sonny met his untimely demise in The Godfather. I really need more coffee.

“Welcome to Indiana,” the sign declares. “The Crossroads of America.” Whatever the hell that means. Besides, here on the outskirts of Gary, it looks more like the Concrete Trench of America. With state troopers as the welcoming committee. And the ubiquitous orange barrels. This short stretch of I-94 between Illinois and Michigan has been the Never Ending Construction Zone since I started my wanderings back in the seventies. Day or night, rain or shine, winter or summer, there is no escaping the perpetual lane closures and traffic backups. Congratulations, Mike Pence – you can’t even fix 50 miles of freeway. I’m sure you’ll make a wonderful Vice President.

And then there’s Michigan – land of my birth, the only state where the natives can give directions by pointing to a location on a body part (with the possible exception of male Floridians). Among other things, the state is plagued with the nation’s worst roads, usually blamed on the miserable winters – an argument that doesn’t hold much water when you realize that surrounding states don’t have near as much trouble keeping their pavement smooth (Indiana’s difficulties notwithstanding). Maybe the folks at the tourism bureau should consider a little ‘truth in advertising’ and make one of their inspirational commercials about these shitty roads, with Tim Allen warmly reassuring us how we can expect that welcoming ‘thu-thump, thu-thump, thu-thump’ under the wheels as soon as we cross the border into the Great Lake State, the result of years of patchwork repairs. First-time visitors will marvel at the vast stretches of roadway that are rough enough to pound your car’s suspension to pieces. “Sitting on the shoulder of I-94 with a broken tie-rod, enjoying the radiant fall colors while waiting for a tow truck…pure Michigan!”


6 thoughts on “That Ribbon of Highway

  1. Hahaha!
    After seven years in the deep south, we do really notice the potholes now, so yes, I blame winter. I don’t know if they were that bad before we left, so I blame Mike Pence with you.
    The Crossroads of America is because we have so many interstates people use to travel through to other places. Among others, we have 70 and 65 and most notably, Route 66. Also, railroad tracks. We had the first union station in the world. Trains are still busy here, but not like they were.
    When I’m up there with the toll booths and the crazy traffic with poor signage, I don’t feel much like I’m in Indiana. I feel like I’m in some liminal gray space.
    Like you, I can see the beauty of big skies, but home has always led me to prefer the hills.

  2. I’ll say this for Nebraska. It does have that Platte River, which has sandhill cranes in the gazillions at some time during the year. I know people who’ve been to see them, and it would be a reason to go to Nebraska. The reason, perhaps.

    What did tickle me beyond words was this: “Another cup of bad truck-stop coffee and a sleeve of stale powdered mini-donuts and I sling-shot around Des Moines into the rising sun.” I know exactly where you were, and “slingshot” is exactly the right word for where 80 loops around, 35 goes north, and just about 35 miles east of that spot, you could exit in Newton — my home town. I used to sit on the front steps of our house on the southern edge of town, and listen to the big rigs running to Chicago, or back west to who knows where. I still can hear it. I can see it. Oh, my. Interstate nostalgia. I remember when they opened that road.

    • I always feel a bit cheated when I take the freeway…everything is so, homogenous, I guess. I prefer traveling a little further from the beaten path, if I have the time, in order to see those places like Newton. But there hasn’t been much spare time for wandering of late. Glad to have provided the memory, though.

      And “exactly the right word” is high praise, coming from you.

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