Tales of a 21st Century Gypsy

June 3, 2005 On the road from Rockford to Boulder.

I convinced my friend David from Boulder to come with me to visit Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons. It made my plans confusing, because of all Matilda’s mechanical problems. David is a professor, and lives on a sort of normal schedule, where vacations are distinct from ordinary life, and have to be scheduled and planned in advance. Whereas I make my plans mostly as I go, and if they change it doesn’t really matter. I’d already pulled out on everyone else I was supposed to meet up with between Buses by the Beach and the west coast, but I didn’t want to pull out on this one.

So when Matilda was finally repaired, I made a beeline from Rockford to Boulder – well, not quite a beeline, but three days of pretty steady driving with hardly any stops. I sometimes wish I could document drives like that with a photo a mile, to capture how the landscape – both natural and manmade – changes. Around

Rockford, there are rolling hills and forests, suburban development and small cities like Grand Rapids. Heading into Indiana on the highway, I saw signs for the lakeshore and the dunes, but I didn’t stop to look at them. I’d heard a lot about Gary, mostly that I shouldn’t get off the highway there. The landscape became gray and industrial, and the road oppressive with traffic and construction as I drove slowly through. An hour or two past Chicago, I stopped in a town called Ottawa to work out at the Y. The weather was hot and sunny, and the Y was mostly unairconditioned. The town seemed bleak, though there was a pretty blue lake with a trail around it behind the Y parking lot. After the Y, I jumped back on the highway, finally stopping in a rest stop a few miles past Iowa City to sleep for the night.

The next day was similar. I’d been a bit curious about Iowa City, because my mother lived there for a year when she was in graduate school in the 1940s, but I didn’t head back into town to check it out. Instead I kept going, getting off the interstate in search of more interesting scenery. I found myself in Grinnell, a town that I knew of as the home of Grinnell College. It was hard to imagine a well-known liberal arts college in this rural farming area, so I stopped to look around a bit. The outskirts of the town were like most agricultural outposts; flat treeless lots with farm machinery, hardware stores, tractors, grain elevators. The neighborhood around the college felt very different, big old homes, fraternity houses, and academic buildings forming an enclave in the middle of the farms. The small downtown had the same mix as downtowns all over the Midwest. A surprising number of clothing stores, a few banks, a small supermarket, a few gas stations, and a number of bars. A thrift shop where I bought four paperbacks for a dollar – A Member of the Wedding, Death Be Not Proud, All Quiet on the Western Front, and a Madeleine l’Engle novel. To my surprise, there was a coffee roaster on the main street with free wifi, so I had a coffee and checked my email. The owner described the town as conservative, except for the liberal pocket that is the school. An old storefront across the street sported signs that read “Coming Soon” with the Starbucks logo, but the coffee roaster thought they were a joke. This town didn’t have the clientele for a Starbucks, he said, though he managed to survive. Maybe it's his sense of humor in art and signage that does it?

A few miles west of Grinnell my brakes suddenly went soft, and with a mental cry of “WHY ME!!!!!” I tracked down a Vanagon mechanic thirty miles down the road in Des Moines. They were nice fellows, from Mexico. They put Matilda up on the lift and examined her carefully, but couldn’t find anything wrong at all. So with a sigh of relief I continued on my way. In Council Bluffs I stopped at the Y to go to the gym, and then drove through downtown Omaha to see what the city looked like. At six in the evening it was pretty well deserted, like so many cities I’d been through. A few elaborate old

downtown buildings that had clearly been renovated, a huge fountain with a flight of sculpted geese lifting out of its waters and buffalo on the side. I didn’t linger, though, picking up the interstate again and continuing west to a convenient truck stop where I spent the night.

Friday morning I was of two minds whether I would head straight to Boulder or give it another day. I began on a minor road, and pulled aside in the village of Juniata. It turned out to be a delightful stop. Juniata has a grain elevator, a local park, an elementary school, and a population of about 675. In front of the one-story village office building a woman was fixing letters on a big notice board, so I stopped to chat. She turned out to be the village clerk and, for most of the time, its only employee aside from the few maintenance men who mowed lawns and took care of the roads. The board announced regular meetings of the village board. She said the big issues were village residents managing their dogs and mowing their lawns. People sought to be members of the village board for the wrong reasons, she thought. They wanted to feel they had some control or were important in town, but in practice they didn’t actually want to do any work. The same people always wanted to be on the board, and with a population of 675 there wasn’t a lot of choice.

Leaving her, I meandered along to take a few photos, and was approached by a man who was curious what I could find of interest to photograph on the empty village streets. I told him a bit about my travels, and he asked if I’d like to go up to the top of the grain elevator to take photos from there. That was a great idea! John – I think that was his name – used to be a manager at the elevator, so he waved to the guys working there and we climbed into a tiny lift that took us to the top. It was a very dusty place, filled with the scent and powdery remains of the dry grains stored there. The "elevator" is really a conveyer belt of scoops, each filling with grain from the truck parked beneath it, and carrying the kernels up to the top of the building where they are spilled into mechanical carts waiting on a track, as the belt moves over the top and begins its journey down. The staff determine in which cell of the structure the grain will be stored, and set the mechanical carts to carry it as far as that spot, where it is poured down into the cell. Most of it is corn, grown for input into an ethanol plant. The state of Nebraska requires that unleaded gasoline be laced with ethanol, which is much cheaper than petrol, thus creating a market for its massive corn output. John led me outside onto the roofs of the cells, 130 feet above the village. At the top

of each cell a big fan circulated the air, to keep the grain dry and keep it from fermenting. Nevertheless, there was a strong smell a bit like sourdough. I thought it was nice, but John said it was the smell of grain that had gone bad and would have to be thrown out.

The view from the top was striking in its plainness. Someone had told me that Nebraska was a place of rolling hills, but it was absolutely flat around Juniata. John pointed out the grain elevators in surrounding towns some five or six miles away. Nothing else broke the horizon, just fields and houses and the occasional playing field. John mentioned an area of new houses, and told me about all the construction going on in the area. It wasn’t clear who would be buying them, though, as there are hardly any jobs in the area and the young folks usually leave. The new houses were expensive, he told me, they were hundred thousand dollar homes and he couldn’t imagine who could afford them. I tried not to gasp at the price.

Leaving Juniata, I decided that I could make it to Boulder that day, so I hit the road and kept going. Somewhere in western Nebraska I hit the thousand-mile mark on my new engine. After that I was no longer breaking it in and didn’t have to stay at a conservative 55 mph, so my trip moved much faster. Entering Colorado, I found myself in the small town of Wray, where I came across a coffee house with free wifi. It was four in the afternoon when I pulled in for a cuppa, and sent David an email saying to hold dinner for me. An hour later I was slowed down by a massive thunderstorm, the kind where you can’t quite drive above 30 mph, and it’s too dark to see much of anything. By seven thirty, though, I was at David’s place in Boulder, happy to have made it there, and really glad not to have to drive for a few days.

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