Friday, November 11, 2016

11/10/16: The Nebraska Exodus

Particularly after Phoenix, I was smart enough to let things marinate until the wide angle view of perspective arrived. Before Fort Morgan, this was useful, but the forthcoming hitchhiking stretch could/should have been written in the moment. If you’re one who enjoys the light “then this happened” fare, you’ll dig it. There's plenty coming for the rest of you.

Thursday, November 10th

After struggling for 36-hours, I finally snapped back to Raton-normal. The new body clock woke me up at 4:45am thrilled that, despite Colorado's November chill, there was neither condensation nor frost. With the exit ramp’s lights, breakdown was effortless and by 5:30 I paid coffee-homage to 2008's Conoco Shrine—unaware that I’d stealth camped for the last time on this trip. In fact, that morning I planned (ha!) to camp across Nebraska and Iowa for the foreseeable future!

Ft. Morgan nostalgia returned as I waited in line while chatting with migrants on their way to work and remembering the gallons of coffee I’d bought when I passed thru before. The distorted memory again struck me; Conoco’s inside had once felt much larger, too!

I embraced the emphatic advice I'd offer my 2008 self: “Ignore Conoco’s parking lot in favor of the eastbound I-76 exit ramp directly next to it!" It was cold but wind-free so with occasional light calisthenics and hot coffee, watching the sun rise over the industrial plant across the road felt enjoyable, highlighted by a happy young couple bearing the unexpected gift of McDonald's breakfast and coffee after spotting me from the drive thru. Thursday’s start reminded me of Tuesday’s and by the time the sun had fully risen the residual cynical remains had evaporated.

Ft. Morgan sunrise

Spending nearly three days here in ’08, expectations for Thursday were low! I expected to sit until it warmed up. Then? Just enjoy it. Fort Morgan is one of those few places,, like Primm, Cambria, and LaGrande, that feel inherently comfortable. In my mind, I’d paid sufficient tribute to Dennis by simply returning and a day reminiscing about those old exciting times when things were new might help to get me re-centered. It would be nice to finish the original “plan” (ha!) in 2008: getting to Julesburg and I-80!

**HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE TANGENT: Since its days as a major stagecoach stop, how many folks do you suppose have articulated “finally getting to Julesburg, Colorado” as some sort of odd life goal? I wonder if that’s ever happened. Yup. I am a contemporary trailblazer.

Alas, there would be no repeat of 2008's lengthy encampment. Despite having no plan, the Ft. Morgan reunion was brief.

At 8:20, Lloyd stopped with a ride. Destination: Nebraska. Before I knew it, Ft. Morgan faded into his rental's rearview becoming another warm memory. In retrospect I got precisely what I needed: perspective on how much things have changed since 2008. I wasn’t the same person. I didn’t see things the same way, literally or figuratively! The change and growth: dramatic.

 Lloyd was another perfect ride. A gregarious 51-year old, he had flown to Denver, rented a car, then set off toward rural western Nebraska to go hunting and said I could tag along however far I liked. Back east, he owned a propane business, had a daughter in college, and it was never long between reminders: he was intensely proud of her!

Being two days post-election, of course politics came up. Thankfully, in an abbreviated, even mundane, way. He considered The Donald a joke but voted for Trump because he despised both Hillary and, more importantly, the welfare state; “entitlements” were his big issue. I think it’s likely that Lloyd would have voted for Pepe LePew if Pepe stopped rutting after the cat long enough to pledge a cut in welfare spending. I heard nothing more ideologically religious than that. The rest of our “social discourse" revolved around the dying American Dream™ and our mutual growing disdain for social media.

Lloyd couldn’t be classified as a supreme navigator. Honestly, he had no idea where the hell he was going! After half an hour, he pulled off at a tiny truck stop to check his route and learned that he’d accidentally exited exactly where he should have taken Colorado’s state roads toward his target coordinates out in The Void of Nebraska Nothingness.

I assumed this dingy isolated little outpost was my next pitstop until Lloyd asked how long it took to get I-80 then offered to take me the rest of the way saying he could just as easily get to his destination from I-80. I liked this Lloyd.

Another 30-40 minutes north, we’d crossed into Nebraska, found the I-80 interchange, then the Flying J in Big Springs. Poor Julesburg. It would have to remain on my exotic bucket list. It shouldn’t have been a target in the first place. I’d not looked closely at the map 8+ years ago and would have ended up in Big Springs anyhow. So…mission accomplished?

Yeah. That.

Anyone catch the name of the hypocrite criticizing Lloyd's navigational prowess? They should be ashamed.

I declined Lloyd’s offer of money, shook hands, got Subway (they’re everywhere!) then set up shop at the Flying J’s exit. The good: it was barely 10:30 and I’d already arrived at the north's main east-west artery: I-80. The potentially bad: Big Springs sat in the middle of nowhere.

Nebraska/Colorado border, I-76
I prepared (hoped?) to be trapped awhile thanks in part to some rare corn-fed excitement: I was hitchhiking a new state! Having crossed Nebraska countless times by bus, train, and in my own car over the decades, I know its part of I-80 by heart. But, I’d never hitched it. Besides, Cornhuskers and I find each other agreeable so a few days crossing it sounded fine.

Keep in mind: this is “my” part of the country. I’m comfortable after doing very well in the plains. What’s the rush? Get “stuck” in Big Springs? So? Have some pressing appointment? Nope. This easterly turn reminded me of my westbound run thru North Dakota on US-2 during 2009’s epic Leslie/New Family/Andre trip. Yup. I’d be fine. There were even spots next to the Flying J to pitch that infernal dead-weight tent! If only on principle! I assumed the familiar position, slapped on some headphones, and took pictures content to wait.

Big Springs, NE
Big Springs, NE

“Content to wait.” Is this how one fools the fickle hitchhiking gods with reverse psychology?

After only an hour, a spiffy new semi stopped at the Flying J’s exit. The passenger door swung open and the paradoxically rough-yet-friendly looking driver waved me over saying he was going as far as Grand Island.

Grand Island? Really? The specific geography escaped me but I understood that most of Nebraska was eliminated after an hour. Big Springs had ejected me even quicker than Ft. Morgan! Thursday not only began well, it now became officially "productive". My dream of a slow biblical exodus across Nebraska would wait.


I had an immediate positive sense about John. A stocky blue collar guy with the familiar shaved head/big beard combo who spoke with a quiet-but-confident southern accent, my initial snap assessment : the Southern Larz. The kind of guy who didn’t feel a need to talk unless he had something to say. Astute. Also like Larz: probably not a guy to piss off. Also astute.

John was on his way home to Nashville from Portland and stopping in Grand Island, about 3-hours east, for his government-mandated sleep break. The thing standing out about the interior of the truck was his collection of gadgets on the dash including both a GPS unit and an iPhone each being independently used for navigation. I thought of the dufus I’d hitched in Virginia in 2012; the perfect Dunning-Kruger specimen who ridiculously considered himself the resurrection of Cicero. The one married to a midget. The trucker who literally (proper use) couldn’t read a fucking map! The “professional driver” who was clueless about which way to turn to head east from a southbound road! (Hint: it’s left. There will be a practical test. Eventually.) I can’t overstate it! Hyperbole isn’t possible! This twerp proved so navigationally inept in 2012 that I had to know: was John his metaphorical kin? Has the semi-driver profession slipped into the technological abyss?

John was no nincompoop. Far from it. His dual GPS setup was precautionary redundancy; one unit or the other would periodically send him off in wild unpredictable directions while navigating to pickup or drop-off points. John knew how to navigate perfectly well. My faith in the noble profession of OTR drivers remained intact. He explained the rest of the gadgetry but I’ve sadly forgotten the details. I’ll take better notes next time. Until then, I’ll trust I haven’t destroyed your faith in my brand of vagabondery.

I quickly came to like and respect John. Another Trump voter, his big issue was Obamacare; its fines nearly cost him his license. His backstory spoke to hard-earned organic principles that, like Lloyd, made it difficult for him to embrace a welfare state.

John was married with three kids and came from tough beginnings. As a teenager, he was headed toward being a little criminal when an epiphany struck: his life was just that—his. He had a choice: engage it or get sucked into the court system. He entered the military, developed an ironclad sense of perseverance, self-discipline, and ambition, then after his single tour of duty set off to build something positive. He began family while starting a successful construction business in Nashville doing high-end work for people like famous musicians. After dubious beginnings, John found the American Dream™.

Then the "economic crisis" hit. Diluted by cheap migrant labor, he said the construction market tanked, his business failed, and John found himself once again at a familiar crossroad: either feel sorry for himself or rebuild his life. Again. He earned his CDL and after working for a few shitty trucking companies found one he appreciated because they displayed a tangible appreciation for him.

Overall, John struck me as a content, happy man possessing a self-assuredness borne from building the life of his choosing. More than once. Some real “boot straps” shit. Again the reminder: here was another Trump voter I liked and, more significantly, respected. November 10, 2016 felt like the summer of 2008 or 2009.

As we approached Grand Island in mid-afternoon, John offered a ride all the way to St. Louis where he figured I could pick up I-55 north to Chicago. He had to stop for 10-hours, but said that if I failed to escape the truck stop in the meantime I could ride out with him in the middle of the night. With more focus (“presence”) or in the summer when I’d intend to stay out indefinitely, I may have accepted. Neither were the case. The end of this trip was inflexibly at hand. My focus: 1) Camera 2)Mexico 3) In January. I was going home. I suggested Council Bluffs, Iowa where he’d turn south on I-29. He agreed. The rest of Thursday could be happily spent at this massive truck stop looking for a ride. Worst case: we’d meet back at his truck. John’s instructions were specific. “Be here at 1:15am. NOT after. Even more importantly: NOT a minute before!” Sleep was imperative while waiting around wondering wasn’t an option. Fair enough.

Grand Island's Bossman’s is one of the fancier truck stops I’ve seen. And I've seen a lot! It's almost a trucker resort. A comfy, cushy place to eat, process, and relax. Result: I didn’t try very hard to find a ride. I did pretend (to myself) to be looking. The reality: sunning myself in the grass. After the sun set, I moved inside to update the journal and plot getting into the Chicago sprawl.

Sunning in Grand Island
Bossman's Grand Island
Good advice.
With my body clock set to the sun, fatigue set in early. Unable to nap at my booth, at around 10 I found a secluded tree near the truck parking where I napped/shivered on the ground for about an hour before going back inside to watch the clock.

That lack of sleep factored into Friday….

Next Time: The Good, The Bad, and The Bizarre!

Fucking Bizarre!