Across the Plains

(Written a couple of days after the fact.)

I think my numbers were a little off, going from Columbia, Missouri to Richfield, Utah. I think it was more like 20 hours to go 1,188 miles.

On this day, I travelled through Missouri, Kansas, Colorado, and half of Utah. Why did I go so far in one day? Some of it was on purpose, some of it was due to circumstances beyond my control.

This is most definitely the furthest and longest I’ve ever driven at one time, and I see no reason to ever attempt to break this record.

I started my marathon just like the day before: A nice breakfast at Cracker Barrel, filling up the gas tank, and a visit to the nearest Starbucks for a venti mocha, a bottle of water, and a blueberry muffin. I sipped the mocha and water throughout the day and ate the muffin when it was time to fill up with gas again (450 miles.)

Missouri was a bit of a blur. I spent most of my brain power just psyching myself up for another long run. I didn’t know it yet, but I was going to cross the continent in three days.

Kansas is pretty flat, but not entirely so. Low rolling hills broke up the monotony of the road. And outside of Kansas City and Topeka, it certainly looked like the entire state was nothing but farmland.

Keep going... just 80 more trips to the horizon before I'm done...

Then, over a small rise, I saw that the constant wind blowing across the plains was being put to good use:

A very small part of a Kansas wind farm.

I saw a few giant windmills spread out over the landscape. “Cool!” thought I, after having driven through the horror that is the coal belt the previous day.

But then I crested another rise and…

Everywhere.

They were everywhere.

I’ve never seen anything like it. It was a green wet dream! In every direction, off as far as I could see, giant windmills turning, producing power. Just beautiful. I had no idea wind power was already being done on this scale. And the land was still farmland. There were roads leading up to the bases of the towers, but otherwise it was still all crops!

This is one of those states with a board of education that thinks creationism isn’t a bad thing. But here… I’ll be honest. I cried a little, I was so happy. Elements of this state are still firmly in the 1800’s. Elements are at the leading edge of the 21st century. There’s a lot of time to think on those long, straight roads. And I had a lot to think about.

It took a solid 45 minutes to drive past the wind farm.

Later in the day, I stopped in Goodland, Kansas for some more gas. It’s over on the western side of the state. I went in to use the restroom and get a supplemental frappuchino from the fridge.

“Hey, forgive a city boy for asking, but what do you grow out here?”

“Well…” The woman behind the counter gestured to the older man in line behind me. He perked up.

“Oh, alfalfa mostly, as cattle feed, some wheat, corn, long beans… Sunflowers even.”

“Wow. Thanks for feeding everyone.”

He smiled. “You’re welcome!”

I wonder what long beans are. No matter. If you need some, they’ve got ’em.

Either alfalfa, wheat, corn, or possibly long beans.

As twilight approached, I drove into Colorado, top down, wind blasting me as the cruise control kept me at a steady 90 mph. Ahead of me, Colorado seemed pretty flat. Behind me, storm clouds formed and I would occasionally see lightning in my rear view mirrors.

The suburbs and city of Denver appeared ahead of me, seemingly spread out over a vast flat plain. I had just assumed that it was a city surrounded by mountains on all sides, but in fact, it was a huge sprawl, not unlike Los Angeles.

Most of the cities I’d seen in my travels appeared “suddenly” to this California boy, who’s used to housing tracts and development spreading dozens of miles out from the core of a city. I would see a sign like, “Kansas City 20 miles” and wonder why I was still in the middle of farmland. If this was California, I’d already have passed five or six Outback Steakhouses by the time I was 20 miles from downtown.

Denver broke that cycle. It was very spread out.

Finally, past downtown, with the light fading, the Rockies… the capital “R” Rockies loomed into view. And I was suddenly driving up the steepest highway I’d ever seen! Trucks struggled along in their own slow lane, and I was amazed that they could move forward at all.

And then, in the dark, I hit the summit.

Now, I consider myself to be a good driver. And in a nice car like Jenny, I have the confidence to speed along fairly fast. But I was suddenly confronted with a long, steep-beyond-belief downhill dropping off into the unseen distance. It was scary. Seriously scary, even to me. I stayed in the slow lane and cruised down the hill, locals and trucks screaming by me at what must have been 80 or more. I don’t think I’ve ever been this timid on a road.

I’d been driving with the top down, enjoying the warm night, but once we started heading down from the summit, Jenny’s thermometer showed the temperature dropping rapidly. When it got to 65, I put on my jacket. When it got to 60, I turned the heater on full. Then suddenly, almost instantly, it dropped to 42. That’s the point at which I say, “Fuck it” and pull over to put the top up.

I passed through Vail, a collection of eight to ten-story hotels crammed into a small river valley. There were a number of signs informing me that “Noise abatement rules are in effect.” Trucks aren’t allowed to make noise in Vail.

Finally, I was out of the twisty rollercoaster section and back out onto relatively flat road. I entered Utah.

Now, I made this drive on the Friday before Memorial Day. In Missouri, for example, I must have passed at least ten speed traps and at least that many stopped speeders getting tickets. Kansas seemed to have far fewer troopers, at least on the road I was on, and maintaining 90 wasn’t a problem.

Here in Utah, late at night, with no human habitation in evidence and a sign saying that the next gas was 100 miles down the line, I felt I could put down my guard a bit. Sure enough, I never did see a Utah trooper.

There was a small town called Green River (at the end of the 100 miles without gas.) I decided that would be my stopping point for the night. I was going on 17 hours in the car, and it was time to rest.

But…

I finally made it to Green River at around 1 a.m., only to find that every motel had a sign on the front door that said, “Sorry, no vacancies.” On top of that, of the five gas stations in town, only one was still open. Okay, well, I didn’t want to do this, but I went in and got yet another frapp and headed back out on the road.

Two or three hours later (things started getting wonky,) I found myself in Richfield, Utah. And there, like a jewel in the night, was a Hampton Inn. I drove up and entered the lobby, trying to appear coherent and not suffering from a 20 hour drive. They had one room left. I took it, went upstairs, unpacked my CPAP machine, and went to sleep, after several fits and starts as I woke up and tried to reassure myself that I was really in a motel room and not falling asleep still out on the road.

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