CONTRIBUTED: One of the greatest American ideas was the building of I-80. Hop on this interstate in either direction and you can end up in San Francisco or New York City. No stop lights or stop signs. Just pure, unadulterated roads at 75 miles per hour. Realizing the vastness of the American interstate highway system, I decided to take advantage of it.
College students don’t have a lot of money. But two hundred dollars can get you to California from here in a car. The highway is your best friend. Not just that, car can be a home on wheels. You don’t need a hotel room if you sleep in your car in a Walmart parking lot. That’s exactly what my friend, Kuinton, and I did every night.
Kuinton has been my best friend since sixth grade. When he graduated high school, he found himself moving to Phoenix from a small town in Iowa. So, I went with him in his 2001 Mercury station wagon just for a summer.
Try to get out of Iowa as soon as possible. Your journey doesn’t truly begin until you cross state lines. However, Nebraska is a terrible state from east to west. Somewhere west of Lincoln, you’ll find the devil has come and cursed all the locals and land. I found this out when I stepped out the A/C filled car to breathe something the locals call “fresh air.”
Putrid cow manure felt like it was getting shoved into my nasal cavity. Inquiring about this at a gas station, I was horrified to find the whole west of Nebraska lives like this. The poor creatures have truly been blighted. Scanning the land, I found the culprit: huge piles of cow dung piled stories high all around. Locals had convinced themselves this is how modern people should live, not knowing the progress that the other 49 states had made in hygienic living.
The best part of Nebraska is undoubtedly “The Archway.” This giant wooden archway was built over the interstate to symbolize the old pastoral west of Native Americans. Passing under is like passing through a portal. On one side are the grazing dung piles and corn fields. The other is like being thrung out onto the plains and up into the Rockies. You feel different, too. It’s almost like a symbolic point of no return. There is no way back; there’s only forward.
Somewhere past Sterling, Colorado, Kuinton and I started getting antsy. Soon enough, it seemed like the whole car was holding in our exponential energy and restlessness. Kuinton decided to turn off onto Highway 71 south. We could no longer could deal with the massive traffic and noise of I-80.
Highway 71 scratched our itch. No traffic or cars for miles around. Driving 130 MPH with the windows down we screamed into the wind feeling invincible to the world. For hours we saw no cars or towns; not even a cop. One lonely pronghorn deer on the side of the road was the only witness to our traffic crime.
Eventually, night came and along with it, “reasonable” driving speeds. Soon enough, up came our destination, with a Walmart we could use for resting. Suddenly, the engine went “POP!” during the chorus of Kenny Rogers’ The Gambler. Freaking out, we pulled over to inspect the vehicle. We were stranded deep in Colorado. We were 18, dumb, with not a lot of money. The stress of the situation led to finger pointing and arguing. A fight nearly started between us. Young friends just want life to have a way of working itself out. I honestly don’t remember what was said. I just remember getting back into the station wagon, hoping it would make it to the nearest town.
LAST CHANCE, CO. illuminating the town sign seemed like a giant middle finger. Maybe the universe was messing with me, but I thought I was in a horror movie at this point. Smack dab in the middle of nowhere was our Last Chance.
That night we slept in the Walmart parking lot as usual. In the morning, we made our rounds at the local body shops begging for help. All but rejected, there was one last place. Geddy’s Automotive was the last option. It was situated on the outskirts of town, run by an eccentric elderly man named Geddy. Geddy immediately agreed to help us and fixed the station wagon in four hours. Rather than let us sit in the lobby, the mechanic pushed us out to walk the streets of Last Chance. In the first hour of walking, the town’s only cop pulled over to ask us if we “were hunting for a vagrancy ticket.” People gave us sideways looks. We were foreigners in their town, after all. I even saw a tumbleweed sweep across an empty street. It was an eerie place with the sun beating down on us and flat, endless prairie in every direction.
Geddy replaced the cylinders and back on the road we were. Down in New Mexico, prairie turned into desert. What was most memorable here was the sun. A sunset in the desert is not the same as a sunset in Iowa. Perhaps it was days of little to no sleep in a car, or not having had a proper meal in a while, but the sun was different. A feeling rose up in me, overcoming me. I felt I was doing good. Cowboys, Native Americans, and Jesse James made camp under this sun every day.
Looking past the sun’s rays, you see the metaphorical paradise that always seems a grasp away on any journey. So, if you find yourself traveling west, start on I-80. Ignore Nebraska as a whole. Have your car breakdown and argue with your best friend. Have Geddy fix your engine. If not, thank him again for fixing mine. Nearly get picked up for vagrancy. Lastly, on some late desert night, while the sun sets, stare west. You can look out and see where the cowboys rode, where the Natives fought to the end, and see the inspiration for the Great West.