The Keurig cackles and drips, a soft cadence of the pre-dawn morning. With an unprompted yawn, you rub the sleep from your eyes as you pour the contents of the coffee pitcher into a travel mug. Stepping out into the cool morning air, you climb into the driver’s seat and close the door.
You’re engulfed in a muffled silence, the type of silence that comes when you’re inside a vehicle, sheltered from outside world.
Sighing lightly, you take a sip of the home-brewed coffee, its warmth unraveling throughout your body and chasing out that brisk morning chill. Throwing the car in reverse, you back out of the driveway and pull into the street, taking off for the long drive ahead.
Ohio and Indiana breeze by, the rising sun cautiously peeking from the rear-view mirror and casting its influence on the sky. The flat-cotton clouds take on a subtle mix of orange and pink before returning to its instinctive white as the sun continues its ascent.
Indiana quickly becomes Illinois, as you stop to pay another toll fee along the highway. You’ve been cruising along at a pretty good rate, but just outside of Joliet the traffic eases to a crawl. Despite this, the road soon opens up again and before you know it, you’ve made it to Iowa.
“Iowa,” you sigh, knowing five more hours separate you from your day’s destination of Omaha.
Six hours of driving down already, just the idea of crossing a flat and monotonous state such as Iowa is enough to make one want to pull over and say, “that’s enough for one day.”
Yet surprisingly, the next few hours of anticipated monotony, well, wasn’t really “monotonous” at all. Shortly after passing Big Rig 80, otherwise known as “The World’s Largest Truck Stop,” the flat fields of Iowa begin to purse and rumble like ripples in a pond. Wind turbines, too, begin sprouting methodically from these rolling fields. Each one stands watch over the highway pass, turning and waving like families along a passing parade route.
The small shadows of Des Moines lay humbly in the distance, as gray clouds overtake the once bright and sunny blue sky. Interwoven with the traffic, large trucks haul the great limbs of the turbines, stretching easily ten car lengths’ long as they journey on to be assembled at their designated posts. The remaining traffic sprawls across the length of the highway, marching off like ants on a hill to wherever their destination may be.
“Welcome to Nebraska,” the robotic, feminine voice of the GPS blurts out.
Crossing over the Missouri River and weaving through the bridges leading into the city, alas, you’ve finally arrived in Omaha. A few turns later, you pull off to the side of the road. Stepping out with a nimble stretch, you pay the parking meter with a few coins left in the cup-holder. Across the street looms TD Ameritrade Park, home of the College World Series. At the base of a concrete staircase is a statue, one that you certainly thought looked bigger on TV. Four young figures are leaping and jumping in euphoria, donning baseball uniforms and celebrating the universally coveted title in the world of college baseball.
As you prepare to leave you vow to return, sometime in June when the stadium would be filled, the peanuts cracking, vendors selling cotton candy and beer, and boys and girls alike sitting in the stands with their ball gloves in hand, anxiously awaiting a potential souvenir; nonetheless, you turn away and find the nearest place to eat before driving off to a nearby Air BnB to turn in for the night.
A cheerful sound rings from your cell phone as you aggressively slap it silent. With a tired sigh, you slip out from the comfort of a king-sized bed and begin re-packing your bag before slipping back into the still-packed vehicle. After a brief stop at a local breakfast diner, the kind of diner where patrons call each other by name and order “the usual,” you’re back on the road.
Nebraska wastes no time living up to its reputation, a two-lane highway surrounded by flat, agricultural fields stretching as far as the eye can see. A small plane swoops and banks in turns, crop-dusting the fields in the manner of a boy steering a toy plane. Traffic on this rural two-lane highway is next to nil, only the occasional passerby giving an acknowledging wave with his fingers on the wheel.
The fields gradually begin to rise and fall, taking the shape of a natural roller-coaster as they transition into the Sandhills of north-central Nebraska. Train tracks appear on your right-hand side, locomotives running to and fro, living artifacts of a distant industrial society.
Hours pass through the hills before the land flattens out again. Pulling off an exit for a nearby town, an unusual sight catches your eye by the side of the road.
Sure enough, you’ve found the place you couldn’t believe existed but knew you had to see. Ever since the friendly Omaha hostess, a native Nebraskan and local school teacher, told you about “Carhenge,” adding an extra hour or two to the drive seemed a trivial price to pay for witnessing such unique and distinctively human artistic creation.
The gravel stones crunch under your feet with each step, the hot sun bearing down from a cotton-ball cloud sky as you stroll through the propped and painted vehicles in the ground. Each one strategically placed, some stand upright, others half-submerged, and even more laid gently across the front fenders of others in mid-air. While pedestrians wander through with intrigue and awe, you can’t help but think that this place must carry the same wonder and curiosity of its original stone model.
You stop by the small shop, peeking at the gifts, trinkets, and photos on the shelves. An older lady behind the cashier’s desk smiles softly as she explains the excitement that surrounded this relatively unknown place during the solar eclipse that passed overhead just a few years ago.
“Still smiling, I see?” One of the store patrons, part of a couple that had taken your photo outside a few moments earlier, laughs.
“Yeah,” you reply, suddenly conscious of your widespread grin as you shake your head. “I still just can’t believe this place exists.”
Internally, you realize, that’s the first time you’ve heard that in quite awhile.
Climbing back into the car, you continue on for an hour south. In due time, small mountains and plateaus begin appearing on the flat landscape. One unique shape, however, stands out from the rest. Protruding like a thumb from a hand, a rock formation rises aside a short plateau. It’s Chimney Rock, a signature landmark of the old Oregon Trail.
You pull into a parking lot and stroll into the visitor center, pretending to ignore the Caution: Rattlesnakes and Please Stay on Sidewalks signs along the path.
A blast of air conditioning rushes out as you open the door of the visitor center, instinctively folding your arms to keep warm.
“Should’ve brought a jacket inside,” you think to yourself, almost laughing at the irony.
After watching a short film in the visitor center’s small theater, you amble through the timelines, maps, paintings, and artifacts displayed in the center. Each one shares its own history of Chimney Rock’s role in “Manifest Destiny” and the Great Migration West. An incredibly informative center, its learned history and spacious layout are reminiscent of the nature centers of your youth at the local city park reservations.
Based on the recommendation of the sweet, bespectacled woman behind the desk, you return to the car and drive off another twenty miles distant. Now you’re atop Scottsbluff National Monument, another landmark of the Oregon Trail. On one side the nearby towns of Nebraska sprawl into the distance, while on the opposite lay the barren fields of Wyoming. To the south, a minuscule figure stands on the distant horizon, the aforementioned Chimney Rock, barely visible a great distance away. Below you runs a road weaving between two plateaus, evoking from memory a scene from Wiley E. Coyote and the Road Runner, falling anvil and all.
Moving along you cross into Wyoming and head toward Cheyenne as the landscape changes again. The sporadic, small mountains and plateaus now become frequent, spotting the brown fields of the Cowboy State. Heading further West, dark and heavy clouds storm in the distance as lightning bolts strike from the ground. You can’t help but feel nervous, on top of the excited curiosity of a television storm-chaser. But gratefully, your route turns south and you leave the storm behind you, headed for the golden fields of eastern Colorado.
Fitting to the time of day, “Golden Hour,” as it’s sometimes called, the late afternoon sun illuminates the surrounding fields and lights them aglow through the gaps of the gray and overcast sky. Out of your windows to the West, large mountains emerge on the horizon. Cast in a blue haze, they overlook the fields like a big brother on a school playground, ready to intervene at a moment’s notice.
A short while later, however, the night has fallen and you find yourself at a doorstop, ringing a bell. The door opens and out jumps Paige Simianer, an old friend from another life that suddenly seems so far away.
The next night and day you spend adventuring through Fort Collins, exploring the bars, shops, and streets of a bustling, booming town. You stop at the New Belgium Brewery, the original maker of the world-renown Fat Tire lager. Families play on the corn-hole boards in the courtyard and young adults share drinks alongside their dogs, fresh off a mid-day run; it seems everyone is enjoying the late summer afternoon in this brewery-laden northern Coloradan town.
But soon enough you’re back on the road, on for another eight-hour ride to Salt Lake City. For most of the ride you’re back in Wyoming, cruising from the mountains and plateaus to the rugged and barren flatlands as you breach the Continental Divide.
Privately, you pause to contemplate the passing of such a moment. The Continental Divide, the marking point where all water flows west to the Pacific, as opposed to the eastern Atlantic, also seems to serve as a poignant reminder of a transition in time. You’re headed toward a new place, where even the water flows differently.
But with new places, come fresh starts.
More hours pass and the barren Wyoming landscape crosses into Utah, where mountains, much larger mountains, rise from the terrain against the backdrop of a setting sun. They loom large and dark ahead, as you weave almost playfully in and out of their shadows along the road. The sky’s canvas is cast a vibrant lavender, reminiscent of Caribbean sunsets from what really was not very long ago.
Darkness descends yet the drive continues, weariness from the days of driving having begun to sink in. Rising and falling with the inclines of the landscape, a sea of bright lights suddenly spills out before you. Excitement and relief bubbles within as you approach the limits of Salt Lake City. You pull into the city streets on a bustling Saturday night, pedestrians cruising along on motorized scooters and a bagpiper blaring his song from a street corner. You slip into a parking lot and check into a hotel arranged by your older brother, a gracious offer you’d be a fool to pass up. In the subtle quietness of a hotel room, fatigue again sets in and you drift off to sleep.
Horns trumpet in the distance below, as you climb out of bed and pull back the blinds. A clear, early morning sun glimmers across the city skyscrapers. Gathering yourself together, you climb back in the car and once again, you’re back on the road to begin the final day of driving.
Half an hour west of the city, however, lies the Great Salt Lake Basin. Briefly stopping, you wander out onto the gray sands of the beach, clouds of brine flies scurrying from your feet with every step. The water is cool and clear as the sand softens between your toes. A musty stench fills the air as you scan the horizon, mountains standing idly in the foggy haze of the largest lake west of the Mississippi.
Yet one more destination lays ahead, and the final destination at that. So heading back to the car, you continue the drive along the backroad highways of northern Utah. White salt covers the median and ground beside the road, akin to a fresh coat of fallen snow. It’s a curious sight, so when a blue Rest Stop sign appears, you pull off into the designated area.
Surprisingly, figures and even vehicles decorate a flat, white landscape before a mountainous horizon. You’ve stumbled upon what’s known as the Bonneville Salt Flats, the location of numerous land speed world records. Walking out onto the other-worldly terrain, the salt crunches beneath your feet. A muffled silence hangs stiflingly in the air, arousing an aura of humility in the atmosphere. Speaking with other passerbys, it seems as though everyone has found this spot on accident, compelled by some impulse to stop on their way to a different intended destination. A pleasant surprise to all involved, the flats are a terrain and landscape that is easy to appreciate, but not hard to forget. After all, it may even be your favorite place yet.
But soon you’ve crossed into Nevada, almost to your final destination. That being said, six hours of hot desert stand in your way. You can feel the heat rise from the open windows; first from 80s to 90s, then from 90s to 100 as you begin to pray that your car won’t break down in this godforsaken land.
In time, you arrive at your new home in Reno. Small skyscrapers and casinos rise from the valley between brown, barren mountains. For the next day you try and settle in, in spite of the exhaustion from a four-day, three-night, and nearly 2,500-mile drive.
Yet something still irritates you, like an itch you can’t scratch. Then with a day absent of obligations, you decide you can’t ignore it any longer. Climbing back into the car, you take off for the higher mountains. Originally brown and barren, the higher you climb the greener it gets as pine trees spring forth from the land in formation like the bristles on a toothbrush. Weaving through the roads in the trees, the air finally begins to cool with a natural breeze.
Before long, a massive lake appears before you. Nestled into the cusp of surrounding mountains, its water glistens and glows, tranquil and transparent beyond belief. Stopping by its beaches, vacationers run rampant with music and the excitement of a beautiful summer day. Anxiety, however, accompanies the scene as you look for a way to escape the overwhelming presence of people. Driving up the mountain and pulling off to the side of the road, you spend the day reading and hiking, finding and exploring the woods and coves of Lake Tahoe for yourself.
You may not have found the best view.
You may not have found the most beautiful spot.
But what you did find, nestled in the crevice of two large boulders, the lake and its mountains peeking through the drapery of the trees and a book in hand, was a step closer to peace.
People wonder how you did it: four days of driving alone through the likes of Indiana, Iowa, Nebraska, and Wyoming.
“It’s going to be miserable,” they said.
“It’s going to be boring,” they said.
They were wrong.
That drive, across the endless expanse of American country, was exactly what you needed: hours and hours of the windows down, music playing, sun shining, landscapes changing, landmarks and sights appearing and vanishing.
And at last, a place to be alone in the natural wilderness.
A place to escape the over-stimulation of society.
A place where you can be yourself, by yourself.
A place of peace at the end of the road…
The Road to Reno.