Mar 31, 2008

Pony Express and Labyrinths

North Platte LabyrinthWe woke to the sound of semi-trucks leaving. By 7 am the truck-stop parking lot was empty. By 7:30, housekeeping was working it's way down our hall. We had pulled into the truck-stop motel late last night, lured by a huge blinking sign declaring PETS WELCOME. I walk Merlin, pack the car, and venture into the truck-stop metropolis for breakfast. CNN blares from a dozen TVs suspended over tables throughout the restaurant. I order French toast with a bit a bacon for Merlin, trying to ignore the drawling bad news over my head. The southern California wild fires dominate the stories and I’ll be asked more than once if I’m driving away to escape them. At least gas was getting cheaper, as we drive east towards Washington, DC. The first morning stop is a labyrinth in North Platte. We find it sprawling behind the First United Methodist Church parking lot, a lovely smooth gravel and brick construction. Built in 2005 as an Eagle Scout Project, it’s over 80 feet across. I enjoyed it’s simplicity and clever use of interlocking bricks and solar powered garden lights.

A Lincoln Highway sign at the next rest stop announces that we are standing on the Oregon Trial and the Platt River Pony Express route. Nearby Gothenburg is apparently the Pony Express Capital of Nebraska so we have to investigate. We follow signs to a 1860 Pony Express Station, Pony Expresslocated in a lovely shaded park. Merlin enjoys sniffing around the old cabin, appreciating the antlers and buffalo coat, while I chat with the docent. My dad worked for the U.S. Post Office for over 30 years and I fondly remembered the Pony Express patches on his uniforms. We picnic in the park, appreciating our solid metal horse-wagon stocked with stores of bottled drinks and boxes of energy bars and kibble, grateful we’re not walking to Oregon.

Early settlers called the flat grassland prairie of the Nebraska Territory the Great American Desert and I can see why Nebraskans invented Arbor Day. The name Nebraska is an Oto Indian word for flat water, the Platte River. As we speed past dry corn fields towards Kearney, located exactly between San Francisco and Boston, I’m getting a bit anxious about our progress. Half way to Boston doesn’t feel far enough to Michigan. Nonetheless, I detour to the St. Francis Medical Center to visit a 60 foot rock garden labyrinth which I’d heard was quite impressive. It turns out to be a rather a long strip mall traffic jam from the freeway, and constructed of curious sharply pointed rocks. St. Francis LabyrinthBeing a hospital, Merlin isn’t allowed to wander the grounds so after a few snapshots, we drive away to find lunch. Over a chicken salad, I realize we had crossed another time zone, some time this morning. With another hour lost, we agree on an early night outside Lincoln. Merlin requests lodging next to King Kong Burgers. We settle in with fresh supplies, watching the twilight deepen out our big eastern picture window. When the sun sets over the prairie, the stars shine like no where else on Earth. We munch our dinner by candle light, watching a near full moon rise with diamond brilliant Uranus above the flat empty East.

Day Six: Nebraska. 322 miles.

Mar 28, 2008

Kindness of Strangers, Part 2

Highway CrashThe highway patrol waved everyone off Interstate 80. It had taken four hours to drive 100 miles across frozen Wyoming and we were ready to exit. The other side of the highway was already closed, littered with dozens of wrecked semi-trucks, trailers twisted, sheared, and scattered in the previous night’s wind. Our outside thermometer flicked between 29 and 34 degrees. The windshield spray froze, blocking the driver's view with slushy mud and crispy snow. We were the only non-truck, and put wipers on high panic whenever a semi roared past, spraying blinding slush for yards in all directions. I willed the temperature to rise. It refused. I used to love to drive in snowy Michigan as a teen. Winter driving in recent decades had been limited to sunny, dry roads between ski resorts in Lake Tahoe. Yesterday’s harrowing night drive through a pitch black, icy Flaming Gorge sat like a block of ice in my stomach. I began to consider turning around and limping home.

WY Rest StopHours passed in tense focus, seeking a safe track through frozen slush. We crept along, aiming for each other’s melted tracks, fighting glare ice patches and gusty winds. We watched trailers twist and glide in slow motion as they floated off the pavement and across the shoulder. We tried not to bump each other. The sun lit the brilliant landscape, dusted in gently flowing white. We crossed the Continental Divide, several times, and I would have stopped for a photo if I thought we wouldn’t get stranded, or crushed. A freeway plow glided along the other side of the deserted freeway, sending a cascade of powdery ice snow 20 feet into the air. We cheered.

At the exit all other ramps were blocked by barriers. A very serious sign announced, Interstate Closed When Flashing. It was flashing. Apparently, closing the Interstate was common enough to install permanent gates. I was astonished! It’s the Interstate, America’s freedom road. AAA never mentioned I-80 regularly closed for weather. You expect mountain roads to close in winter but this was the Lincoln Highway, the first intercontinental paved road in North America, a long straight friendly line of liberty on the map. I carefully slid to a stop in front of registration at the first motel.Snow Motel The lobby was warm and welcoming. A busy restaurant and steamy indoor pool beckoned through misty glass walls. I decided to check in and catch up on route planning and trip blogging, after a long soak in the spa. The busy receptionist flashed me an annoyed look, said there were 200 people already on the waiting list, and went back to answering phones. Devastated and unable to face the cold, I wandered aimlessly around the lobby, crowded with people and luggage. The only free seat was in a computer alcove, so I plopped down to figure out how to find another motel. I stared at the computer screen, trying to push aside hopelessness and exhaustion from the recent difficult drives, trying not to cry. A gentle man’s voice suggested I check road conditions. He assured me the crews would have the Interstate open soon. He sounded so reasonable. I relaxed in his company and began to think again. We chatted about our lives a bit and he thought Merlin's Road Trip was a grand idea. I wasn't so sure. He suggested I eat. So I joined a dozen truckers at a salad bar. We got our vehicles in line for eastbound I-80 as it opened. I inched back onto the white Interstate, refreshed and restored, and grateful for the kindness of strangers.WY Snow Roll

Back on the high plains the road was a thin, dry ribbon through the white landscape. We carefully parked at open rest stops. Merlin thoroughly enjoyed frolicking in the fresh powder. I enjoyed the hot air hand dryers in the restrooms.Recalculating a destination, we excused ourselves from reaching Lincoln and aimed for Cheyenne before dark.Merlin Cheyenne Labyrinth We reached the Cheyenne Botanic Gardens Labyrinth by late afternoon. A lovely setting any time of year, four flagstone benches host carved finger labyrinths, filled today with ice. The Peace Garden has dozens of inspirational quotes engraved in paving stones.Cheyenne Labyrinth I kicked stubborn frozen mud off the wheel rims, pouring water to melt the huge mass rubbing the tires. Merlin greeted a few other chilly dogs and had another lovely romp and roll in the snow. We had a winter picnic and drove east into dark Nebraska.

Day Five: Rock Springs, WY to Eastern Nebraska. 418 miles.