Road Trip

Life is finally starting to fall back into some sort of rhythm. A couple of weeks ago, pressing financial issues and a, shall we say, lack of immediate prospects, forced me into abandoning the Iowa phase of my dissertation research and moving to Las Vegas, where my family lives and where a room was waiting for me until I get my affairs back into order. Although I wasn’t relishing the idea of yet again packing up all my crap, giving up what tentative roots I had established in yet another town (I’ve lived in 5 different cities over the last 12 months), and all the attendant heartache that accompanies a move, there was one thing I was looking forward to: the drive.

I love driving cross-country, even (maybe especially) alone. Chalk it up to one too many Jack Kerouac novels during my formative years, too many half-ironic listens to truck-driving songs, or even a wholesale buy-in to the Great American Dream of infinite mobility–whatever the reason, I love it. I plotted out a three-day, 1800-mile route. I could have shaved a couple of hours by hopping on I-80 and speeding down the Boredom Corridor to I-15 and hanging a left, but there were a few things I wanted to see on the way which led me into some interesting detours.

More importantly, I wanted to avoid I-80 as much as possible, at least in the Midwest. Look: I grew up in Nebraska. Every time I tell someone that, I get the same response: “I drove through Nebraska once, what a boring state.” It’s a lie. You haven’t driven through Nebraska, you’ve driven down I-80. Except around Omaha, you never came closer than 5 miles to anywhere people even live. And you certainly haven’t seen this:

Carhenge. The product of Jim Reinder’s strange and wonderful imagination. Constructed of vintage automobiles sunk into the ground or welded in place, Carhenge was intended as a memorial to Reinder’s father and constructed with the help of 35 relatives on the fifth anniversary of the elder Reinder’s death. A number of other pieces have sprung up around Carhenge, by Reinders and others, creating the Car Art Preserve, a testimony to both the sacred place the car holds in our American culture and to the strange attraction of “elsewhere” that have drawn people to and through the West since the time of Lewis and Clark. Another sculpture–a mid-70s station wagon with arced ribs welded on reminiscent of the ribs of a Conestoga wagon–drives this point home more forcefully: we Americans, for better and for worse (ask the nearest Indian how s/he feels about the whole thing) are a moving people.

Through Iowa, Nebraska, and Wyoming (where, alas, it designates a stretch of I-80) I stuck, for the most part, to the old Lincoln Highway, Hwy. 30 (the detour to Alliance and then through Mitchell Pass notwithstanding). Lincoln Highway is another testimony to Americans’ restlessness. The brainchild of Carl Fisher, founder of the Indianapolis 500, the Lincoln Highway became on its completion in 1915 the first coast-to-coast road, a ribbon of graded gravel stretching from New York to San Francisco. Fisher came up with an intriguing method of funding the project, getting each community along the route to provide the labor and asking to auto manufacturer to donate 1% of their revenues for materials. (Henry Ford held out, for an interesting reason, especially in these times of Free Market BS: if private industry funded the construction of improved roads, the public would never learn to demand that the government provide them.) In the Midwest, Hwy. 30 roughly follows the Platte River, running about 5 miles north of I-80 through much of the state. But what a difference those few miles distance make. On I-80, the closest you come to Nebraska is the gas stations huddled around the interchanges; the cities, towns, and grain depots of Nebraska are along the Lincoln Highway. Yes, this means the occasional stoplight or 35-mph zone–and, as a 2-lane the maximum speed limit is 65 mph, as opposed to 75 on the Interstate–but it also means a chance to see people actually living their lives. Plus, virtually no traffic.

At Oglalla, NE, I headed north en route to Alliance and the aforementioned Carhenge, then back south to Hwy 26, which travels past the great Nebraskan landmarks, Chimney Rock, Jailhouse and Courthouse Rocks, and finally Scott’s Bluff, a great barrier of rock bisected by Mitchell Pass.

Mitchell Pass

Through this “V” of rock passed the Oregon, California, and Mormon Trails–the Hwy. 30s of the 19th century. Travel peaked in the years just before 1849–as Mormons made their way to Deseret (present-day Utah) and away from persecution back East–and just after–as a somewhat less morally-guided folk made their way to the gold fields of California to seek their fortunes.

From Mitchell Pass to Cheyenne, with a special project in mind. Almost a hundred years ago, my great-grandfather, Lewis (from whom I take part of my Hebrew name), arrived on these shores from Warsaw. After a short stint in a furniture factory in Alabama, he headed out to Denver where his brother was working. Together the two of them travelled a circular route out of Denver, through Cheyenne, and back, collecting salvage for the railroad. When a hardware-store owner in Cheyenne decided to sell out his shop, the two bought it, and my great-grandfather brought his wife and 6-year-old son, my grandfather, over to join him in Cheyenne. During the years when Cheyenne was transforming from a railroad boom-town (“the richest little city in the West”, according to tourist literature I picked up in town) to a military boom-town (with POW camps for both Germans and Japanese in WWII, and later a virtual fortress of missile silos), my grandfather ran a furniture store, his brother a Western-wear store (with other family members moving on to Denver).

Cheyenne also has one of the best-preserved historical districts in the West (centred around the street where my grandfather and great-uncle owned their stores), and I decided to swing through and take some pictures of this geography where my father spent his formative years (I’d been there before, when I was about 10, but of course in the absence of Mickey Mouse rides, I wasn’t impressed). I stopped in at both the tourist information bureau and the chamber of commerce and they told me about old Cheyenne and the tight-knit Jewish community that once thrived there. (The gentleman at the chamber of commerce gave me a small indication of why the Jewish community might have found other locales more to their liking when he told me sadly that “you people” used to be great merchants, but don’t do what we are so good at much anymore.) Turned out that my grandfather’s building was only a few doors down from the tourist bureau (alas, the original facade was covered in a sad ’70s attempt at “modern” style) and my great-uncle’s store was just across a small park from the chamber of commerce (alas, torn down). The chamber of commerce itself is in a grand old building, the “Tivoli”:

The Tivoli

Interestingly, the upper floors of the Tivoli used to be a brothel, back in the days before the military forced the city to clamp down on gambling and prostitution (much of which, according to my father, moved out to a then-nascent Las Vegas). Seems appropriate in a way…

From Cheyenne I had no choice but I-80, climbing steadily to the Continental Divide at 7,000 feet, after which the road levels out somewhat until, somehow, one reaches the Continental Divide at 6,400 feet. I’m still a little perplexed about the whole thing. Anyway, from there it’s a beautiful long drop into the Great Basin, bringing me into Salt Lake City. I’ve been trying to put together another post on Mormons, essentially exploring the way difference functions in the context of modern American society, but it hasn’t quite gelled, somehow. Deeper philosophical differences aside, I wanted to see Temple Square, which was nice, and an almost overbearingly helpful guide directed me to the top of the Joseph Smith building for a great view:

Mormon Temple

One notable thing about Salt Lake City is that it has some of the worst traffic I’ve ever endured on the freeway (I-15, now): miles and miles of bumper-to-bumper traffic in the middle of the afternoon. From SLC to the border, I-15 follows some of the least splendid terrain in the state. Last year, I took I-76 from Denver into Utah, which travels through incredible mesas–real Road Runner and Coyote territory–but I-15 doesn’t really take off until you cross the border into Arizona, shooting down Virgin River Canyon (I think that’s the name) until you reach the flat plain north of Vegas.

Virgin River Canyon

And a couple hours later, I crawl, stiffly, out of the driver’s seat. The next day, my muffler fell off.

3 comments to Road Trip

  • Anonymous

    at least the muffler waited until you got home to fall off.

    what beautiful pictures — you’ve inspired a road trip in me. know anywhere in the southeast that could show me an eclectic time?

  • Anonymous

    In the Southeast? Not really–the Southeast and Pacific Northwest are two areas I haven’t seen much of. Although I did spend some time in “Deliverance Country”–which is the way the maps at Northeastern Georgia gas stations describe the area–several years ago: Athens, GA was really nice, and Cleveland, GA is the home of the Cabbage Patch, where new Cabbage Patch dolls are born, which must be strange and wonderful to watch…

    What I’ve never really been able to do is find the really bizarre roadside attractions, the world’s largest ball of string or gum, the Tennis Shoe Hall of Fame, that sort of thing. Carhenge was a start, but I want to see the mummified 2-headed lizard man…

  • Anonymous

    Carhenge rocks. I may go on a road trip solely for that.

    As for the Pacific Northwest and your not having seen much of–well, you gotta remedy that. I will say, from a purely objective position, that no place in America is as fine as our fair corner. Plus, Portland’s home to Powell’s City of Books, which is like Mecca for the book lover.

    But enough of that–nice post.

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