This past week, my brother and I hopped in my semi-new Saturn and roadtripped out West to spend 6 days with our uncle in Omaha, Nebraska. This is my story.

Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska

The first thing you notice about a trip across the Midwest is that there isn’t much to notice. Travelling across the entire width of Iowa, I can honestly say that the occasional Rest Stop was the highlight of that stretch of road. Otherwise, it’s just gently sloping fields of corn, a sprinkling of trees, and the quiet thrum of my car’s engine as I take full advantage of the 70mph speed limit.

The main east-west artery through Iowa is Interstate 80, the second-longest stretch of Interstate Highway in the United States, its 2’904 miles (4’704 km) stretching all the way from San Francisco to New Jersey. It is trumped only by I-90 from Seattle to Boston. I only drove a little under 500 miles worth, but it’s the sort of trip that makes me want to break the tedium with a coma. I realize I’m being a little biased here, as my impression of Iowa has been created only by years of driving straight through it, but I’m beginning to think that rest areas and welcome centers are the main economic product of the state; there seems little else to discourage that notion.

Driving all that way (and, in such a flat area of the US, being able to see for such great distances) really makes one feel dwarfed by the sheer enormity of it all. At one point, my brother exclaimed to me that he couldn’t even imagine building that much road: those of you who have had any road construction know the soulcrushing slowness with which it progresses. How then, we wondered, were 42,793 miles of interstate created in just 35 years? It was certainly an ambitious project, especially in 1956, when President Eisenhower signed a bill appropriating $25 billion for the project (it eventually cost $114 billion by the time it was “complete” in 1991, but by 2002, there were still 5.6 miles of the original planned route still unfinished). Interstates, as opposed to the older and certainly more quaint highways, are an entirely separate entity governed by different rules; for instance, they are controlled-access routes, meaning they don’t have cross traffic or stoplights.

Our relatively short hop of 500 miles last only about 6.5 hours; my brother and I both went about 80mph when we had our druthers and there wasn’t a semitruck in front of us (or a nitwit passing a semitruck by going a infinitesimally small bit faster). In much of Iowa and parts of Nebraska, that speed was only 10mph over the limit; in Illinois, it was 15 over: had we been driving during the mid-70s, it would have been 25mph over the limit; the Federal government lowered the speed limit to 55mph across the board in order to preserve fuel. When that law was fully eliminated in 1995, the power to set speed limits reverted back to state control (and leading to a fun couple of years for those traveling through Montana). It is interesting to note that in 1939, General Motor’s vision of America’s future Interstate System was 14-lane roads and speeds of 100mph. We’ve finally attained the former (New Jersey turnpike), but not quite the latter. On I-55N toward Chicago, I might spend quite a while in the right lane, but on I-80, I’m a speed demon; for some reason, people just don’t want to go very fast when faced with a seemingly inestimable stretch of road. I can’t figure it out.

Books, Books, Books

Years ago, when I was still a young lad quite incapable of roadtripping, I went with my uncle to a comic book store in midtown Omaha. Bored with comics (they were never really my thing), I went next door to the Treasure Mart, a small Mom & Pop store that sold everything from Beanie Babies to Hummels to used paperbacks. Browsing through the sci-fi/fantasy, I came across a copy of Arthur War Lord (Dafydd ab Hugh) for some absurdly cheap price like $0.75. From that point on, I was infatuated with used book stores, which are to Omaha as pimples are to teenage boys. My uncle already knew every bookstore in town, as he possessed an affinity bordering on lust for vintage paperbacks. From that point on, we would make it a point to visit them all every time I was in Omaha (and Lincoln, as well), trawling through mound after mound of dusty volumes, searching for the authors I want, scowling at water damage or unusually high prices written lightly in pencil on the title page. When this all started, I was looking for things by Frankowski, Hugh, and a favorite paperback series of mine as a child called Echo Company. This time, I was looking for Bill Bryson, Tristan Egolf, more Frankowski, and some odds and ends that I’d like to see on my shelf.

Used bookstores are a hit and miss venture, really. Each one is guaranteed to have a large romance section, sometimes even partitioned off into modern romances (people like Julie Garwood, who are distanced from outright erotica only by vaguely prosaic writing, like using the phrases “quivering member” and “hot moistness” for the male and female genitals, respectively), and Harlequin/historical romances, which lack any interesting smut at all. Then, too, there’s always a large Western section, full of old paperbacks about cowboys and wagon trains and varmints; I’m always amazed that there was ever a market for these things: you certainly never see them in a place like Barnes & Noble. Add in a large mystery and true crime section, a sci-fi/fantasy section (always with L. Ron Hubbard, without fail, because nobody but Tom Cruise likes his books), a children’s section with battered Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew mysteries, several shelves of categorized nonfiction. My personal favorites are all the failed book attempts by celebrities, things like Cher’s fitness guide, sitting lost and alone on some back shelf where no daylight reaches.

Some of the bookstore owners know our Uncle Andy, but sometimes, they’d look a little concerned when three extremely tall men came into the store, like we were a novelty crime trio or something (the “Basketball Bandits” comes to mind), but strangely enough, we seemed to get into more extended conversations with owners than ever before. At the first store we went to, I ended up helping the proprietor (who remarked upon my “Schrödinger’s Cat is Dead” t-shirt) with a spyware problem on her machine, while my brother talked to her partner, a native Siberian who came to the US by way of the Ukraine. Later, at the same Treasure Mart I mentioned earlier, we talked to the proprietor about differences in English and Japanese languages. Another was about sports (I was strangely absent from that conversation…) and Bill Bryson (…but not from this one), as he had an extremely rare UP copy of Bryson’s The Babe Didn’t Point. In that it was $75, though, I only oohed and ahhed and didn’t open up my wallet.

I did, however, get a pretty good haul, taking care of most of my list except the newer sci-fi and some of the rarer stuff. Here’s a list:

  1. The Mother Tongue, by Bill Bryson (HC)
  2. I’m a Stranger Here, Myself, by Bill Bryson (TP)
  3. The Lost Continent, by Bill Bryson (HC)
  4. A Walk in the Woods, by Bill Bryson (HC)
  5. Notes from a Small Island, By Bill Bryson (TP)
  6. A Confederacy of Dunces, by John Kennedy O’Toole (HC)
  7. The Chronicles of Chrestomanci Volume II, by Diana Wynne Jones (MM)
  8. Jedi Search, by Kevin J. Anderson (MM)
  9. Dark Apprentice, by Kevin J. Anderson (MM)
  10. Champions of the Force, by Kevin J. Anderson (MM)
  11. The Gormenghast Novels, by Mervyn Peake (TP)
  12. The Radiant Warrior (3-in-1 edition), by Leo Frankowski (HC)

I also picked up The Man Who Knew Too Little on DVD, as well as Arsis • A Celebration of Guilt and The Tea Part • Splendor Solis on CD.

Kids Say the Darnedest Things

My other uncle who lives in Lincoln with his wife and three kids (AC, who is 7; JT, who is 4, and CM, who is 1). I’m not particularly good with kids (playing with children is exhausting to me, mentally and sometimes physically as well, depending on their athletic inclination), but damn, I have some cute cousins. AC likes to read the sports page every morning, and he’ll talk to you about the relative merits of this or that player on whichever team (you can tell how much attention I pay to sports talk). JT listened with rapt attention when I explained to him how oxygen made blood red, and how much of it inside the body is actually blue. “The heart is a pump, and it makes the blood go all around the body,” I told him, not sure exactly how much to condescend. “Like a swimming pool pump,” he said. “….,” I replied. “Yes, just like that.” Later, he asked me what car we had arrived in. I pointed to my grandparent’s new Toyota and said “That white one right there.” JT looked at me: “Oh, the Camry.”

Maybe I’m just not used to dealing with kids, or maybe it’s just been so long since I was one, but these kids struck me as really sharp; much sharper than I would have been at 4 or 7. JT was my “partner” for a game of Trivial Pursuit: Pop Culture that we played on Friday. He earned me a wedge, for goodness’ sake (granted, it was a question about the Justice League, but still). Of course, they’re still just children: the first thing they did when we arrived was put on their Batman and Robin outfits and did some ninja fighting. After they’d killed the three of us (Andy, Brady, and myself) several times over in different ways, they wanted to watch their Teen Titans DVD and go play whiffle ball. JT went up to bat every other turn, and managed to get an in-park homer each time, due to the curious klutziness that seized all three basemen when he swatted the ball off the tee. Must have been sun in their eyes…

The Homestead

My grandfather, Merle, was a farmer by trade. I’m not sure when he first acquired his farm near Uehling, Nebraska, but he sold it in 1997 when he retired and moved into neighboring Fremont, where my father’s parents also lived until their deaths. The selling of the farm was a sad day for everyone, as it had a lot of memories. The long dirt driveway was lined with tall trees (probably between 75 and 100 years old), the big white farmhouse stood resolute in front of a smattering of barns, pens, and silos; to the right and behind were fields and fields of corn and beans. I was never actually privy to any harvesting (I doubt we were ever there at the right time, anyway), but I do have fond memories of watching the pigs eat (and seeing a little piglet burst out of the silo-style feeder one day) and playing with the “wild” kittens in one of the barns (my uncle’s cat is one of the wild kittens, actually, though more of a domesticated fat cat these days), eating mulberries straight from the tree; I remember each step leading upstairs in the house had a different color swatch of bright carpeting, and I thought that the creaky wood and the old bedrooms were just the coolest thing since sliced bread. I especially loved burning trash: since no municipal garbage service would come that far out, my grandfather just burned all his trash in a barrel out back, and I’d always come with, taking hay out of the chicken coop to throw on. Yeah, I was a little pyro, but what boy isn’t?

When grandfather sold the farm in 1997, it was bought by a man who had a lot of plans for it: fix it up, add to it; really make it shine. Unfortunately, a sequence of tragic events sort of drove those plans into the ground, and now it seems like it will be sold again. My grandfather has a good relationship with the current owner, so we (all my aunts and uncle, some cousins, my grandparents, Brady, and I) drove out there on Saturday to roast hot dogs and marshmallows and see the farm. It was a little sad; much is just how I remember it, but more overgrown: the barns sag a little more than I remember, and tall weeds sort of creep up where there was nothing before. Speaking of weeds: on our tour along the soybean field, we saw quite a bit of marijuana growing: at one point, I saw a veritable clump of it, grown higher than the corn. Apparently, it does and always has grown natively in Nebraska, though my grandfather always nipped it in the bud (so to speak) when he was farming. You might think that given those circumstances, marijuana use would be fairly high in Nebraska, but mid and western Nebraska (along with mid and northern Iowa) actually have some of the lowest usage rates in the nation. Of course, we were in eastern Nebraska, which is slightly higher, but not nearly as bad as Nebraska’s southwestern neighbor, Colorado. At one point, grandfather cut me a stem and gave it to me as a souvenir, but I figured that with my luck, I’d get pulled over for speeding and the patrolman would find a branch of marijuana in my car. I don’t know what the heck I’d do with it anyway; I took some apricot resin from a tree near the farmhouse instead: it’s perhaps not as exciting, but it got pot beat in legality and longevity.

The evening on the farm was one of bittersweet nostalgia. The only child not there was my mother, who probably regrets not being able to come. She was, after all, the firstborn, having lived there even before it had indoor plumbing. Driving out on the country roads, though not essentially different from driving on I-80, is picturesque, almost romantic; in all directions are corn and soybeans, shimmering in the wind; the sun at that point was a fiery red pearl, couched in a spiral of clouds thrown into stark purple relief. I was full of slightly-burnt marshmallows and cold beer, pleasantly sated, thinking to myself that I might never see the farm again.

Homeward Bound

We left the next day, headed home; the same 500 miles of I-80 lay before us, full of bothersome semitrucks and slow country drivers; a nasty storm system in Iowa managed to completely miss us save for a spattering of rain. By 5:30, Brady and I were home to our girlfriends, our cats, and a dinner which disappeared quickly; we had more books than when we left, fewer clean clothes, less money, darker skin; another 1000 miles on the car, a light coating of bug innards, and the realization that summer is drawing to a close.

§699 · August 1, 2005 · Tags: ·

4 Comments to “A Vacation”

  1. Rusty says:

    All very interesting. What’s about driving on motorways in Britain is that either it’s busy with traffic, so you don’t have time to get bored, or there’s always something decent or at least different to look at. Oh and one thing I’ll request that you bear in mind when reading Notes from a Small Island: it’s over 10 years old, and quite a few of the things about which he complains, and which he praises, have changed.

  2. Jeff says:

    “(and leading to a fun couple of years for those traveling through Montana)”

    I remember “reasonable and prudent.” Too bad I wasn’t old enough to drive then.

    Glad you had a good time.

  3. Andy says:

    Excellently written little essay. Of course, I know intimately everything you reference, but still this is the kind of bittersweet poetry that can only be written and appreciated from August to October.

  4. Lina says:

    Ben, you just described my summers, growing up, perfectly.

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