I’ve been keeping a journal during my road trip from Chicago to SF. The material is raw, unedited, hammered out on a picnic table or inside my tent at night, but I’m posting it anyway. As they say, if a Ryo writes in the woods and nobody reads it, did Ryo really write?
I didn’t leave until after 4pm. I thought I’d loaded most of my stuff into the Ryomobile the previous night and just had “some stuff around the apartment”. I’ve moved well over a dozen times in the last several years, yet I still succumb to this illusion that there is less stuff than reality. I have a hard time dealing with lots of odd bits and pieces lying around. I get distracted too easily, and find myself wandering around with Widget X in one hand, Widget Y in the other, thinking about how Widget Z should actually be in that box in the car with Widget A.
In any case, after several hours, everything was finally in the car, and I headed towards Open Produce to do some grocery shopping and say bye to Nikki. I bought about 10 packs of ready-to-eat Indian food, several cans of Mediterranean food, and some fruit. Nikki rang me up, we hugged, and said bye. I focused mostly on adventures that lie ahead, and tried my best not to think too much about the last couple of months that we spent together in that dark, claustrophobic hole of an apartment.
I made a brief stop in Kimbark to buy some alfalfa sprouts from Hyde Park Produce, and dinner of Sesame Chicken from Nicky’s. I’d been meaning to get some Nicky’s all sumer and never did, so this was my last chance. I ate the chicken, or whatever it really is, in the car, then hit the road. I headed East down 53rd, North on Lake Park to 47th, then on to Lake Shore Drive.
From Lake Shore Drive, I got onto I-55 until I was out of Chicagoland, then got on US-6 and started heading West in earnest.
I didn’t get too far before the sun started hanging precariously low over the horizon, signaling to me that I better find a place to camp soon. I have an atlas that shows little tent symbols for public camping sites, but the map’s resolution is such that the tent icons usually are about a square mile. In other words, it might look like there’s a campsite right by the highway, but it could also be a mile or two away. You never know.
The first campground the map indicated turned out to be a bunch of places one may camp, along some canal. I stopped at the visitor center, closed on Saturdays, and read a little bit about the canal. Supposedly it was supposed to be a faster/cheaper route from Chicago to the Mississippi, but by the time it was completed, rail had become cheap enough or some such that the canal was never used for its intended purpose. Today it is a state park, with grassy banks, on which one may camp.
I found that to be all too confusing, so I got back on US-6.
The next camp icon on my Atlas was a mile, or maybe 5, off of the highway. I took what appeared to be the nearest local road, and headed South. For miles, all I saw on either side was corn fields, which had me concerned. Do I keep going? How far should I go? But just about when I thought about turning around, the road went over a little hill, and once over the hill, I saw some nice wooded areas to the left. That must be it.
The campsite was in an artificial forest, perhaps planted by the CCC in the last Depression; pine trees stood at attention, in perfect rows. I picked an undeveloped site away from the pavement, although with trees evenly spaced apart, you could see the next site over as if they were camping in a school hallway, lined by lockers of trees. At least it was cheap, at $8 a night.
With Nicky’s still lingering in my tummy, I boiled some water, made tea, drank it, and went to bed.
For breakfast, I had a cinnamon roll from the Med Bakery that Nikki had set aside fro me the day before, which I picked up on my way out, along with a hot cup of coffee. I packed up my tent, made a sandwich (turkey and alfalfa) for the road, and headed out.
I continued West on US-6, into Iowa. An uneventful drive until I hit Des Moines.
At first, I considered circumventing Des Moines, but then just as I thought I was successful, it occurred to me that I might never come through this way again (I mean, it’s Iowa), so I turned around to check out the city that I’ve read so much about in Bill Bryson’s books.
Downtown Iowa is clean, gleaming with modern looking buildings, and empty. I drove down some major looking road that headed straight towards the Iowa State Capitol, then veered off. Along the way, though, I was informed by lamp-post signs that the Iowa State Fair was currently on. Bill Bryson talks about the fair, or at least how he could never seem to get into a peep show of some sort, as a teenager. I had to check it out.
The fair was far more crowded than expected, or perhaps it seemed that way after seeing how empty downtown Des Moines was. In fact, there were more people there than I would’ve guessed lived in the entire state of Iowa.
Other than all the expensive heart-destroying foods on sale, and the bovine humanoids consuming such foods in large quantities (which is also the only quantity in which such foods are served), the most exciting exhibit must’ve been the show put on by some “cowboy.” He did it all. He taught kids how to spin a rope, cracked a whip like a little kid with a cap gun, cut straws out of spectator’s hands with the whip, demonstrated fast draws, shooting water balloons out of the air, and made his horse do things you’d never think a horse would do. And to top it all, he was quite a motivational speaker, occasionally putting in a quip about how to succeed in life. Not sure if he thought of himself as a model of success, but nonetheless, I was quite impressed and amused by the show.
Feeling sick after consuming ice cream, a pork chop on a stick, a egg on a stick, and big cup of soda, I rolled myself out of the fairgrounds, and back into the car. Form Des Moines, I got onto Route 44, which parallels I-80 a few miles to the north and cuts through endless miles of cornfields. I like these smaller roads than the big interstates though. You pass through dilapidated small towns, past pristine front lawns of picturesque farm houses, and you can see the oddly scientific looking labels placed in front of experimental strains of corn, planted in tight neat rows. You see real people, living real lives. Some will wave at you when you pass them on two lane roads. Old men sitting on porches will stare as you pass. You see them. They see you. This is all vastly more interesting and human than what you see on big Interstates, which is usually nothing but the blur of green and yellow of the countryside, punctuated by giant billboards advertising the next McDonalds, 10 Miles Ahead on Exit 29, and the only towns you see consist solely of fast food chains and gas stations.
I spent the night at Prairie Rose State Park, which had a real shower.
I continued West on Route 44, then onto US-30 into Nebraska. I decided to pass by Omaha, and continued onto US-275 in the North-Westerly direction. I’m planning on seeing Yellowstone, thus the somewhat Northerly route.
Nebraska is absolutely gorgeous. On our journey from SF to Chicago, we passed through South Dakota, which is also pretty similar, but having driven across the county, I have a better appreciation of how unique the Great Plains are. To the West of it is the towering Rockies, covered in pine trees. To the East is the lush woodlands, and heavy, moist air. To the South is the dessert. To the North is the taiga. The Great Plains, before humans, may have also been covered in trees, but today, it is a vast grassland, with rippling green swells for as far as the eye can see. I love it. I’m still trying to understand why I’m so drawn to this terrain, but I think it’s the combination of the dry air, the inviting openness of the place, and the solid green and blue colors. I feel more free, more unencumbered than anywhere I can imagine. I feel like there’s nothing that can stop me, that I can go for miles and miles, unbothered. As tacky and cliche as it may sound, I can’t help but feel a certain kindred with the Native Americans who once roamed freely on these lands.
I camped for the night at Fort Robinson, a surprisingly large complex in such an empty region. The girl at the inn who assigned me a campsite noticed that I’d written down “San Francisco” as my home city, and said she was moving to Palo Alto. I asked if she was going to Stanford, and indeed, she said she was. She’s originally from Wyoming, but working in Fort Robinson for the summer. I told her I used to live in Mountain View, and she nodded knowingly. Noticing the wedding ring, I asked if she was going to gradschool. She hesitated for a moment, then said “no, freshman.” I can’t imagine what it’s like to be married before even going to college. Or maybe she just had the ring to ward off us single men.
I got a site with electricity, so that I can keep my freezer plugged in over night. I keep my freezer plugged into my car, but it only runs when the car’s running. It turns out that’s not sufficient freezing capacity to generate enough ice to keep my ice chest chilled. Having this extra capacity at night will surely help.
For the first time on this trip, I built a fire and cooked a proper dinner. I saute’d some onions and mushrooms in a new cast iron skillet I bought. I also grilled up some chicken sausages, to make hot dogs.
In addition to the skillet, I also bought a machete, which was useful in hacking off some kindling from the thick pieces of firewood I had. It also makes a handy poking stick for the fire, and of course, when I’m on my land, I’ll use it to clear paths through dense shrubbery. Not to mention, it makes a good defensive weapon. You don’t mess with a guy with a machete.
I took a tour of the Fort in the morning, and learned about its colorful history. Preceding Fort Robinson was Camp Robinson, an army garrison intended to protect the employees and supplies of Red Cloud Indian Agency. The Agency was part of a treaty with the Sioux people, in which they gave up land, and settled near the Agency where food and supplies would be doled out. In other words, instead of being free self-sufficient people, they became static and dependent on Uncle Sam. Some of the Indians were understandably unhappy with the arrangement, hence the army garrison, which was established after a employee for the Agency was killed. You might think Fort Robinson was named after him, but actually it was named after Lt. Robinson who was killed around the same time in neighboring Wyoming. Go figure.
It was also at Fort Robinson that Crazy Horse was killed. Throughout the fort, there were signs saying that he was bayonetted by a private, after resisting arrest. But in the museum, there was a report written some time ago in which Little Big Man claims Crazy Horse accidentally wounded himself while the former attempted to wrestle him into submission. I guess the truth will never be known, and I reflected on how fickle our understanding of history really is.
After the Indians were finally beaten into submission, the fort became barracks for cavalry, infantry and artillery units. Around WW1, it was the biggest supply for war horses, with up to 12,000 of them on the premises. It was also there that the US Equestrian Olympic team trained during the 30s.
During WW2 it became a K-9 training camp, as well as a POW camp for German prisoners. From all I could tell, the Germans were treated well. They were fed and clothed well, and given enough freedom to form bands and theater troupes. It appears that at least some of those prisoners later opted to remain in the US. In the museum was a letter of recommendation for a prisoner written by one of the officers in charge. In it, he writes: “I do not hesitate to recommend him as being honest, intelligent, industrious, and worthy of any position.” and that he had been successfully “de-nazified”. Contrast this with prisoners held in Gitmo today. We treated Nazi bastards better than we treat suspected terrorists. Why? Is it because the Nazis believed in the same God as we do? It is because they weren’t brown skinned? Or maybe it’s the beard that’s condemning those in Gitmo. Why aren’t we de-extremizing them? If we are truly righteous, then we should believe in our ways, and show that our way is better than theirs not through violence or brutality, but through generosity and understanding. How we treat our enemies is a reflection of our selves. It is sad to think, that some time in the last 60 years, we have become brutal, torturing, unforgiving bastards with no sense of respect for others, or for ourselves.
After leaving the museum, I stopped by the cafe for a BBQ Buffalo burger. I don’t eat factory grown beef, but do eat grass fed beef, and I assume buffalo are raised in pastures. Maybe that’s not necessarily true, but I’d like to think that buffalo are the kind of creatures who would not survive in a closed pen. While chewing on buffalo meat, I mulled over where to head next. My natural trajectory would take me further North West towards Yellowstone. But I like Nebraska so much, and what’s the hurry? Most of my supplies haven’t arrived in Sunnyvale yet, and probably won’t until next week, so even if I get there sooner, I won’t be able to head to my land any sooner.
So I decided to enjoy Nebraska some more, and headed South, then East. Route 61 in Nebraska must be the most beautiful drive I’ve ever done. Just miles upon miles of the green seas that I love so much. There were hardly any other cars, just me, the road, the green grasslands, the sky, clouds, cows and windmills.
I eventually got down to Lake xxx where the atlas told me was a cluster of campgrounds. It was still too early to setup camp, and I needed to mail some checks, so I shot past the lake and into town. I bought some supplies at the local Safeway (also to get cash). While at the checkout line, a local behind me gazed out the window and noticed the wind had picked up and was pushing a storm our way. Sure enough, when I headed out, I saw dark clouds off in the distance, and the wind was blowing steadily.
I hit the road, heading back towards where some campgrounds supposedly were, while eyeing the storms brewing in the distance. There were three campgrounds in the area, and I picked a route that would take me past all three. I drove into, but back out of the first two campsites, mostly to kill time. I wanted to give the storm a little more time to see where, when and how hard it would hit. Depending on how bad the storm was, I might want to head on to the next town and stay in a motel.
My delaying tactics could last only so long. I eventually made it to the 3rd campground. I would have to make a decision here. If I didn’t stay here, the next campground would be a couple of hours down the road. Unlike the first two campgrounds, though, this campground was empty. There was an old camper, but no sign of any occupants. What made it especially eery was that this was the biggest campground of all three. There must’ve been over a hundred sites, split up into multiple areas. There were two playgrounds, with old, empty swing sets, rocking gently in the wind. An unattended sprinkler system went “thuck thuck thuck”. Under the orange glow of the lone lamp, an old telephone booth. The lights in the bathroom were on, for whom, one may only guess. I could’ve sworn I’d walked onto the set of some gory horror flick.
The skies continued to darken, the wind now howling, as I contemplated whether I would be able to ward off the black-clad hockey-mask-wearing psycho-killer I assumed was lurking behind one of the bushes. I saw lightening in the looming darkness, and realized that I was on high ground, with trees all around me. I knew the psycho-killer was an irrational fear, but fear of lightening on high ground with trees — that was rational. I decided to wait it out in my car, its rubber tires and metal shell offering protection from all contingencies. I pulled out the book I’ve been reading, ironically about the world after humans. I occasionally walked out to check on the status of the storm. The wind was blowing from the South, and West, depending on altitude. The darkest of clouds were to the South-West, but I could also see rain to the South. Depending on prevailing winds, I could get the storm, or the rain, or both.
The worst of the storms passed me to the West, and continued to my North and North West. I saw spectacular flashes of lightening spanning the entire horizon to my North. Then came the rain. Slow drops at first, then a constant hammering on my car roof. But that, too, passed. Then the stars came out. I pitched my tent, on the dry sandy soil that had sucked up all the rain, and turned in for the night. Now, I would only have the psycho-killer to contend with.
I slept with my machete at my side.