I look up the route and see I won’t need to write any of it down. It’s a straight shot. I-80 West all the way. I drive out of Chicago at 5am. It’s still dark. Dawn doesn’t come till I’m near the Iowa border.
My last in-person bookstore event was at the Green Arcade in February 2020. Feels right to start again at the same place. I pitch them on hosting me and they agree. That’s my second reason to drive west.
I look up the distance and it adds up to two Boston trips in the opposite direction. Sounds doable, but when I mention it to people they think I’m crazy. But sitting masked on a plane for six hours is not my idea of fun. I’ve never liked air travel. Always felt wrong to skip time zones in hours. I want to feel the distance I travel. It’s what I appreciate so much about bicycling. Driving’s still a cheat, but it’s a lot closer to human proportions than the flying tin cans of disease.
I burn through a few podcasts across Iowa. The last is an interview with Stephen Malkmus who mentions Babbitt by Sinclair Lewis. I’d downloaded the audio book a week before, so I take it as a sign it should be my next listen. A story about unthinking conformity seems right for traversing two-thirds the span of the country.
Just before I turn it on, I cross into Nebraska and get immediately pulled over by a state trooper. He asks if I’ve been driving awhile and I tell him I have. He asks me to come sit in his vehicle while he runs my license. He calls it in, then types something into the onboard computer. Soon he’s quizzing me about the purpose of my trip, then my writing career. Apparently he’s just googled me. After my license comes back clean, he explains he stopped me because of an improper lane change. He’s not issuing me a ticket. I thank him, then pop the trunk and come back with a copy of my cab book. I figure since he drives all day he might relate.
I keep seeing signs for Runza across the Cornhusker State. Anything that’s not McDonald’s or the like will catch the attention of the weary traveler. I dimly recall reading about this regional delicacy, so at dinnertime I take a chance and pull off. Inside a sad, half-abandoned gas station/convenience store, I order an Original Runza from an unmasked fifteen-year-old behind a plexi shield. A runza turns out to be a ground beef and cheese hot-pocket type thing. I look online for a place to stop for the night and decide on the 1st Choice Inn 300 miles west in Rawlins, Wyoming.
Nothing but the head and tail lights of 18-wheelers on the road now. I have no sense of landscape or topography, aside from the cold glow of occasional industrial sites. It’s mostly unvariegated darkness. The last hundred miles are stressful because of some serious winds. Ominous flashing signs warn of 60+ MPH crosswind gusts and extreme threat of blowovers. Tall and light vehicles are repeatedly urged to exit and wait it out. I keep driving.
At a service station around 5am the following morning, I see a sign referring to the Wyoming Breeze. That’s some poker-faced local humor. I stop at a 24-hr diner, hoping for a sit-down meal, but am told they have no cook on duty. I don’t blame anyone for not wanting to come in to a dead-end job in plague time, but it means the McDonald’s drive-thru and back on the interstate for me.
Trucks and trucks and trucks the whole way. Have to weave carefully around these lumbering links of our faltering supply chain. I keep thinking while driving through mountains and salt flats that this was all once the ocean floor. So much empty space where water used to be and all life began.
That blowhard Babbitt keeps me company through Wyoming, Utah, and most of Nevada. His story’s over around Reno. I listen to music the rest of the way. Bill Callahan, Arkady Severny, and Tindersticks. Longtime go-to’s for the tail end of a long-ass ride.
I reach the end of I-80 around 7:30pm PDT.
TOTALS: 4300 miles within 6 days; Tuesday: 17 hours; Wednesday: 15 hours. Two days on foot in San Francisco. Then I do the same drive in reverse.
I listen to Kafka’s Metamorphosis, then Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio going east.