by Mark Dvorak
The terrain surrounding North Platte is that of the West, not the Midwest. The sky is huge and the spaces beneath wide open. It is Nebraska, but feels like Wyoming. I checked twice, it is Nebraska. The cottonwoods look dry, but the hills are still green and lush. Though they have a lot of corn out here, the farmers somehow look more like ranchers. What we call cows in Illinois are called cattle out here.
On the way to North Platte, grain elevators are the first structures to appear on the horizon. And one can see a summer storm blowing through far off in the distance. The pace is slower out here, the drivers faster. The rivers are flat and muddy and pretty in their own way. It is windy all the time and the terrain takes on a kind of ruggedness. Thankfully, the North Platte Wal-Mart restored some continuity to my eroding Midwestern sensibilities. It looked like all the other Wal-Marts. The people looked like all the other Wal-Mart people.
Earlier in the day I got a hair cut in Lincoln, which is a pleasant city. Lincoln is home to the University of Nebraska and the state Capitol. Lincoln seems less industrial than the parts of Omaha I have seen, which makes a kind of sense. There is an immense football stadium downtown and there are what looks like a couple of nice museums too. Sculptures are sprinkled around the downtown area.
I got coffee in a funky coffee house on P street. The woman who cut my hair and the woman who served my coffee were each young and pretty and pleasant. Leaving the coffee shop and walking around the corner off P Street, a car accident had taken place shortly before my arrival. The man and woman involved in the accident were talking to each other in pleasant tones, even though their vehicles were damaged and their passengers shaken. They looked like nice people and Lincoln, Nebraska seems as nice a place as any to have a car accident.
With my haircut and coffee I was back in the truck and wound myself out of town through some beautiful country, along Route 6. West of Lincoln, Route 6 hooks up with Route 34 near a town called Hastings. Hastings is just this side of another town called Minden. Thirty years ago, almost to the day, I spent a night in a cornfield along Route 34 somewhere near Minden.
Not long out of high school, a friend and I had spent an entire summer on our motorcycles. We swam in both oceans, hiked a short piece of the Appalachian trail and discovered the Rockies for the first time. We wandered up Route One in California, spent a short time - a very short time - in a hippie commune, climbed a small mountain in Big Sur on our own, looked for Neil Young’s ranch outside San Francisco, slept in a cabin across the lake from Mt. St. Helens, loved the green wetness of the Great Northwest, spent a ponderous afternoon hiking the grounds of the Little Big Horn, and in Wyoming, I found out just how fast a Yamaha 650 twin can go with the wind at my back. And on and on like that.
What turned out to be our last night on the road, 68 days in all if I remember right, was spent in a somber mood by a cornfield near Minden, Nebraska. We had crisscrossed our way south from Montana through the Grand Tetons again and the Rockies. We camped for three nights in Rocky Mountain National Park and got drunk on Coors Beer in Estes Park. At last we aimed our bikes toward home as money and time were running out. The exhilaration of the mountains flattened with the terrain of eastern Colorado. We pushed ahead for two more rambling days, heading back north, then south again, looking still for something that might spark our interest one more time before the final, inevitable day of our adventure made itself patently clear.
And that day turned out to be somewhere near Minden, at a road side table along Route 34. I don’t remember what we ate, perhaps a pizza in some town earlier in the day. Perhaps some edible canned food of one kind or another, but I don’t remember a fire that night. I remember a tree and a picnic table. I remember Nebraska corn so tall you could hide in it standing up. I remember the blackest of nights and stars like we had never seen before. I remember hair down past my shoulders bleached blonde with the sun of many summer days spent in the out of doors. I remember the skin on my face and skinny arms had turned to rich bronze and my nose pink and scabbed with sunburn.
We carried no tent that summer. Just the clothes on our backs, an extra shirt and sleeping bag, a couple of ground cloths each, a notebook, a camera, a jacket with lots of pockets, a guitar and more tools than we needed. Our strategy was to sleep when possible, for free in a place we were probably not supposed to be. We were good kids and intended no trouble. We thought others would permit our gentle passing through as our youth and goodness were surely evident. And so it was at the road side somewhere near Minden.
We had devised a system of shelter should the weather become inclement. The bikes were to be parked one at each end of a picnic table, and through some construction of ground cloth and bungee cord, a suitable shelter would be struck complete with central heating from the warmth of two motorcycle engines.
We spent some rainy days that summer, but never slept once in the rain the entire trip. In the West you can see the storms coming. It was fun dodging rain clouds out where the storms tend to blow through in a hurry. It was fun changing plans with the turn of a handlebar.
We had wished to prove to ourselves I guess, that two young bucks could stay dry and happy beneath a picnic table for an entire summer, laughing off rain and the cruel world, while paying no rent. We ate modestly, and in one summer drank in by large gulps, a glimpse of a world that until such time we had only heard about through rumor and lore. The product of all of this I suppose, was an initiation of sorts; a self-initiation. I had hoped for epiphany, but remember mostly traffic jams, hoards of frazzled vacationers, annoyed park rangers, loneliness, fatigue, cops, many wonderful people and more than a few weirdos. I remember my friend and I being at odds over the most trivial matters. Not only things like tuning motorcycle engines, but we also had arguments over thousand island dressing and the best way to change flashlight batteries.
Thirty years later, I still have trivial arguments with friends and traveling partners. And off in the corners, I still hear about that same wondrous world my friend and I were first called to explore. Things change they do. I am no longer free to make plans by the turn of a handlebar. And storms no longer seem to blow through in a hurry. Dinty Moore stew does not a supper make, nor does Underwood Deviled Ham on Wonder Bread. Coors no longer counts as beer and I haven’t been on a motorcycle since the last time I fell off of one and got hurt.
I do remember though, that last night near Minden as if it were yesterday. I remember lying there, looking up at the stars past the silhouettes of tall corn stalks. How beautiful and endless they seemed, and still seem. I’ve never forgotten them. I remember the velvet sound of cornstalks rustling with the night breeze and I remember how sleep was slow to come. I remember the soft earth below my bag, and I remember wondering why we had never slept in a cornfield before. The earth in a cornfield makes a lovely mattress.
We had toted a guitar along with us the entire trip. I learned my first chords the year before and played guitar almost every day on that trip. We sang by ourselves and with others in all the campgrounds. I remember thinking before sleep on that final night that I would resolve to study guitar when I got home. I resolved that night to enroll in classes at the Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago when the new fall session began.
Going home, and going home to the rest of our lives, was of course inevitable. And I thought maybe these stars and this west, perhaps a piece of this freedom and maybe even this whole summer, might last forever if I worked at the guitar and mastered it some. That’s what I thought. College was no longer in the question, only the guitar would do. The guitar after that summer, was cemented forever to my future.
And this afternoon, no rest area along Route 34 could I find. No picnic table, no tree. I turned around twice and drove both east and west of Minden. I followed 34 far further each way than I had intended and spent more time looking than I should have. I saw a few places where it might have once been, but it was hard to tell. There were new houses here and there and all I could do was wonder.
I had hoped this afternoon to close a circle that first opened up that starlit night, thirty summers ago. I had hoped to sit on that same picnic table, under that same tree and listen again to the rustling stalks in that same cornfield. I was hoping to get a clear look at and feel for, the thing that thirty years represents. Not to be.
I did stop at one place. It wasn’t the place, but I felt I had to stop somewhere. I pulled off 34 and turned up a dirt road headed northeast. I parked about 50 yards in and dropped the tail gate of my truck. Cottonwoods shimmered in the wind. I opened a Pepsi and sat on the tail gate and ate some pretzels and a peach. I thought again about that summer with Tim on our motorcycles, and at some point I laughed. After a time I walked around behind the truck to take a pee and noticed my new haircut in the reflection of the side window. Through the glass were my guitars and banjos packed in their cases and stowed in the back with all the other gear for a short summer tour. A semi whined out on the highway. Across the way an ocean of sunlit cornstalks swayed. I finished my Pepsi, checked the map and thought I might make North Platte by suppertime.