By the time the sun rose over Madison, Wi on Sunday, November 20th I had already been up for a while. I had finished packing the last of my belongings into my sweet van and was on my way to Short Stack Eatery for a quick breakfast. I had hoped for one more Yellow C.A.B. at Gotham Bagels, but Short Stack was the only place open early enough for my schedule. Half an aggressively decent breakfast burrito later, as I was walking back to my van, I was greeted with a bright shock of orange and pink above the Capitol as the morning light caught some low clouds. After over six years in Madison I thought it was a fitting sendoff and made a welcome final memory. A few minutes later I was pulling out of the parking lot behind my old apartment and pointing my wheels out of town.
It’s easy to be emotional when venturing off into the unknown, and during my time in Madison I had made some strong connections to the city and its people so of course I was sad to leave. The last week had been spent reveling in the company of my friends and a surprise party at City Bar a few days before I left made leaving even more difficult. Still, the excitement of the open road beckoned and there were a lot of miles ahead, so, with eyes slightly moistened with memories of the past, off I went.
My first goal was to reach Denver, a mere 1000 miles away. I’m used to driving long distances and Van Halen had cruise control so I was hoping it would be an uneventful 14 hours. And uneventful it was. I’ve done the DEN - MSN drive both ways and can easily say that, from a driving point of view, going East is the preferred direction. Views get better as you head east and each mile traveled increases the reward. The opposite is true when driving west.
Western Wisconsin’s gentle hills and quaint red barns provide pleasantly pastoral scenes as US 151 winds its way over hills and along rivers to the border with Iowa. Iowa is a notch or two below Wisconsin on a scenery scale; it manages a decent representation of the American heartland, but without the warmth of the dairy state. It technically has all the right pieces; some farms, some hills, some small towns America, but it somehow seems more cold, more stark, and more cynical than its eastern neighbor. Now, I’ve actually spent some time in Iowa and know that many of its towns are actually pretty cool, but from the highways the state leaves much to be desired.
By no fault of it’s own Iowa is also where I first got on I-80. Until Iowa City I had been following US 151 on a nice drive as it wound its way from town to town across Wisconsin and Iowa. Once on I-80, though, all illusions of a pleasant Sunday drive disappear. It was probably about 3/4 of the way to Des Moines that I remembered just how big this country is; hours and hours of the same speed on the same road certainly get you somewhere, but not as fast as you’d like. Cruise control rules.
If Iowa is a failed attempt to capture the Midwestern spirit present in Wisconsin then Nebraska is a lack of any attempt at all. Omaha has a pretty impressive “Welcome to Nebraska” display with some cool trains and a big flag, but that’s about it. Bob Seger had his directions wrong when he complained about traveling east of Omaha. Omaha truly marks the end of the conglomerate of civilization stretching from the cities of the East; west of the city is the beginning of the nothing that exists between the somethings on either cost.
Side note: I had the second worst milkshake of my life at a Wendy’s just west of Omaha proper.
Between Omaha and Lincoln I-80 is an optimistic 3 or 4 lanes wide in each direction. I wonder if there’s ever traffic out here. At this point the speed limit climbs to 75 mph in recognition of everyone’s desire to get somewhere else as fast as they can. For some parts of Nebraska the speed limit even gets up to 80 mph, but I found that going any faster than 80 severely impacted not only the quality of the ride, but also the fuel economy of Van Halen.
Omaha was the half way point, and not much happened after that. I saw some snow, it got dark, and eventually I hit I-76 which lead me into Colorado towards Denver. A few hours later I was in a Walmart parking lot near the Denver airport eating my first official van dinner and getting ready for my first official night on the road. The weather in Denver was nice; probably about 40 or so at night. It ended with little fanfare, but the first day of my journey was complete.
A few other things I noticed:
Regarding roads. I-80 in Iowa and Nebraska has a feel that, while far from openly hostile, makes no attempt to welcome drivers to its surface. Especially after dark I felt that at any moment I could hit a patch of bad road or ice and fly off into the bushes. I-76, on the other hand, greets travelers to Colorado with smooth, friendly asphalt that allows you to glide along as if in a dream. Truly a superior road. (This does change a little bit south of Fort Morgan, but the first impression was important).
It did not escape me that the route of I-80 and I-76 west of Lincoln followed the same Platte river valley that guided many settlers west in the middle of the nineteenth century. Manifest Destiny is still a powerful force in the mind of America.
Somewhere in the middle of Nebraska I was overwhelmed by some rank shit smell. I’ve driven near stockyards before and am familiar with the stank of lots of cows but this was different. It was a distinctly acrid miasma that I usually associate with the combination of human feces and whatever chemicals they add to portable toilets to prevent the spread of dysentery. I’m not saying some brave prankster took a monster dump across parts of central Nebraska; I’m just saying it smelled like that.