Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Heading Home on the High Plains Highway

Nothing very romantic about being a road warrior. 8 days on the road, living out of a suitcase might sound like an adventure, but the thrill is soon gone. The reality is unpacking in a different hotel every night, trying to turn a sterile (you hope) cubicle into something you can call home for about 7 hours before you pack it all away again. It’s a 12-hour shift sandwiched between a 100-mile drive and a late-night taco before stripping off the you-don’t-want-to-think-about-it bedspread from the sagging mattress that was someone else’s home last night. It all makes a man want to get home. In a hurry. Luckily the work is fun and rewarding and, sometimes, the scenery in between is more than worth the drive.

The work is done and I’m heading home on Highway 81 south out of western Nebraska. It’s a long lonesome highway that morphs into Highway 23 that will take me west into Colorful Colorado. Two lanes of blacktop that lead across the border into Holyoke, Colorado where the speed limit is 60mph but the actual minimum speed is 75 for any vehicle not built to drive between rows of corn.

The road out of North Platte (home of the world’s largest railyard) climbs imperceptibly but steadily towards the high plains of eastern Colorado. Once in the Centennial State, I begin to feel an urgency, like a horse on a long ride that smells water, and I have to fight to keep my right foot from turning into a lead anvil. The air is noticeably thinner, drier and clearer as my eyes are drawn to the sights along the road of my home state. I could go straight west from here and catch I-76 into Denver, but I decide to take the road less traveled and turn south onto 385 – the “High Plains Highway.” Here’s what I saw.

After passing “Blisties” – a curiously-named and as-yet-unexplored roadhouse on the edge of Holyoke, with a flashing neon martini glass that is still lit up in the early morning – it’s a wide open road. 385 is a straight ribbon of macadam where the only traffic is tractors, Ford F-350’s, a few overloaded 18-wheelers sneaking around the weigh stations and me. It’s a road that invites you to break the speed limit if not the sound barrier. A lone buzzard dips his wings in a salute – circling the road ahead as if he’s anticipating my role in an upcoming road-kill incident, but I don’t prep lunch for him today and he soon passes behind me.

Eastern Colorado – the corn is shorter here. So short it droops in shame, perhaps sensing I am judging its growth against the Iowa and Nebraska standards where it’s already above your knees and will be “thigh high by the 4th of July.” Although it’s good to be back in Colorado, the only mountains in sight are on the license plates of passing cars. The High Plains Highway heads straight south, not west, so there won’t be any snow-capped peaks in view for hours. The only hint that you’re not in Kansas anymore is the drier air and a subtle change in the flora. The hills are covered with the familiar tall grass, sage brush and yuccas of home. In mid-June, the yuccas are in full bloom; their banana-like stems of pale yellow-green flowers are the tallest plants on the plains.

Crossing into Yuma County is like bursting onto a moonscape. Small, but bumpity hills of desert brush hint of a different local government as the road turns uneven and is not so well-maintained. The rough road is now noticeably climbing, slowly but inexorably, and finally crests onto the high plains. Prairie grasses that no plow has ever turned over dominate the scenery for miles and miles. The occasional farm struggles to tame the grass, cactus and scrub. Irrigation ditches hand-dug by some long-dead homesteader divert water from a distant river to grow the trees that are so foreign to this biosphere; deep wells feed circular sprinklers so big it takes tractors to move them, creating an oasis that is dependent on ever-contested water rights to survive.

Going south, the air gets hotter and the crops become more varied and grow taller. Although the high plains are almost treeless, it’s very green here. There’s more rain here. It’s far enough from the mountains that the clouds that disperse over the Continental Divide have had time to regroup & coalesce into towering thunderclouds. The storms come almost daily in the summer, dropping the life-giving moisture that passed over the semi-arid Front Range along the Denver metro corridor. It’s a land that’s well-acquainted with hail and tornados (though there’s not a trailer park in sight!)

The road bends East and my stomach flip-flops as I worry about getting home on time. I’ve been away for a week, working my way along the Platte River through Nebraska and though I’m enjoying the drive, I don’t want it to be any longer than it’s already going to be. As we say when hiking a trail, you hate to give up the higher ground, or in this case, the western ground. I yearn to get home – see my baby; breathe the cool, clean, thin air and sit in the shade of trees I’ve planted myself.

A ring of cottonwoods on the side of hill makes me wonder about the ranch they must at one time have sheltered but have now outlived and outlasted. There is no evidence of that civilized past – not even a crumbling foundation, yet there is no way they would grow on this dry hillside without human help. What happened to the people? What happened to the house? Another mile and Prickly Poppies dominate a field supervised by a racing windmill, endlessly pumping water for a dozen angus heifers just chillin’ in the mud.

The road drops precipitously off a ridge into a valley that begat Wray, elevation 3516. I’ve climbed half way from the lowlands of Nebraska to the Mile High City. I take the bypass around Wray and then regret my hurry on the other side when my bladder inquires if there are any rest stops on this lonesome road. There isn’t. But, an uncomfortable 20 miles farther along there’s a turnout with a couple half-dead trees that offer enough privacy for a deserted road like this, and soon I’m lighter and on my way. The road bends west and I strain my eyes looking for the mountains, though I know they are still an hour or more away. A dry stream bed turns into an unexpected canyon with a herd of future steaks lying in the shade of the only trees for miles around. It’s an alien garden of Eden for a half mile – a paradise that these cows deserve given their inevitable fate; then the open plains exert themselves again. The trees are gone and grasshopper oil pumps are the only things that rise above waste level into the sky around here.

An elaborate windbreak hints of high winds and snowdrifts across the road in another season. A full mile of three parallel rows of pines accentuates the otherwise flat countryside. At 60 mph, there are only venetian-blind glimpses of the sprawling complex behind the trees and my mind takes a brief flight of fancy to imagine some horrible Jonestown cult, a serial killer’s hideout, or an evil doctor’s lair. But, when the gleaming white farmhouse pops into view, the horror fantasies melt into the Petticoat Junction reality.

Full road replacement work in the middle of nowhere brings a mild curse to my lips. But I’ve got luck on my side as the one-way escort vehicle starts the 3-car parade going my direction right when I pull up to the sun-burned, Camel-smoking flag girl, who cautiously turns the STOP sign she’s holding to show me the side that warns SLOW. The pilot car leads us through 5 miles of brand new, but one lane and painfully slow highway. Past the construction the blacktop is pot-holed and wash-boarded and a big sign proudly proclaims its ultimate repair thanks to the debt-inducing, but jobs-creating, American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Yay big government!?

The next stop sign I hit is Highway 36, a direct route to northern Denver. I decide to keep going south, thinking I’ll head west when I hit I-70 in 30 miles. But I see another flag girl with a stop sign almost immediately. I’m not so lucky at this new stretch of construction, and I’m stopped for way too long. Frustrated, I finally turn around and head back north to jump on 36 towards the mountains. I love the sight-seeing and the freedom of the road less-traveled, but I’ve been driving for 4 hours now with only my thoughts and XM-Radio comedians to keep me company (and awake) and I’m ready to get home. Highway 36 is smooth. Easy to go fast and I catch myself going 80 before I set the cruise control, knowing that a main road brings an easier ride, but also an easier ticket.

There’s a wide spot in the road called “Joe’s.” Judging by the huge Baptist church and cemetery, the Bible store and the marquee advertising nightly prayer meetings, this must indeed be a born-again, God-fearing town. Even the wrecker service is named “Church Towing.” Yet, the only other visible business in town is “Joe’s Liquor Store.” Not sure if that’s a hypocrisy or a necessity.

Yellow Honey-clover stretches along the road for miles. I roll down my window and hang my head out the window, inhaling the scent, my nostrils flaring like a dog. I can hear the bees above the whine of the tires and the growl of the wind. The smell of honey and summer weeds makes my mouth water and my eyes mist over. An entire hillside of yellow stretches to the horizon. It’s everywhere! It’s a weed of course, but it smells like heaven.

An abandoned clapboard farmhouse on a hill makes me wish there was a pull-out so I could take a picture. With all its windows missing, I can see straight through it, the peeling-paint frames highlight the sunlit fields beyond. And then it’s gone. I crest a hill and look in all directions – only one tree as far as I can see, but the green grasses and yellow clover create an amazing lushness to the landscape.

At Bennett, the 2-lane turns to 4-lane and the outline of the mountains come into view. The sight of the Front Range always gives me a thrill. Almost there! The rest of the trip is a combination of interstates and rush-hour traffic and a couple of wind-up-business cell phone calls now that I have reliable service, and the last 50 miles go by quickly.

As I exit off I-25, I sing the words to an old favorite Simon & Garfunkle song. “Home – with my thoughts escaping. Home – where my music’s playing. Home – where my love lies waiting silently for me.” The drive is over. The work week’s done. My beautiful wife pulls into the garage right in front of me. Perfect timing.

I’m home. That’s all that matters.

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