We were a grungy hot mess when we walked into the Sunset Grill, but cheery Brianna greeted us with hot coffee like we were regulars. Taking her advice on the off-menu breakfast order of 2 eggs over medium with sausage on Texas toast, we charged our phones and planned the Next Dest that would get us out of rain and ahead of the impending cold front sweeping across the plains.
The transcontinental railroads changed the landscape of America, opening the country to settlers and development in dramatic fashion. The case could be made that it was the interstate highways system that has the bigger impact on our lives. Rail used to dominate, but today about three quarters of all freight and most of the people are transported by cars and trucks, primarily on interstate highways. When we think of heading out for a trip, we naturally assume we will be zipping there along a road that starts with an “I”. The interstate highways system, less than 70 years old, officially began in 1956, finished in 1992 and completely changed how we think about travel.
With that zip down the road system in place, travel is all about the destination. The journey is a series of Pilot and Love’s Travel Plazas and a conveniently located Hilton Garden Inn off of the exit. The signage across America has been standardized. The speed is standardized, or nearly so. In the rare exceptions where an interstate crosses a mountain, the grade, lane width, and radius of turn are so standardized as to make the journey forgettable. They have taken all of the diversity out of the road part of a roadtrip. As an added bonus, the Biden infrastructure bill is working overtime, with heavy equipment and work crews closing lanes and clogging interstate traffic.
Google Maps wants to keep you on the interstates and we generally stuck to that programming in our RV days. Free from 10,000+ pound baggage, we could try on the back roads and byways, hoping for a more pop-up adventure.
Sheri took the wheel while Eric navigated the back roads of Nebraska, which looks nothing like the interstate views that left us dreading Nebraska. Two lanes sometimes weaved around and sometimes ribboned up and down hills along the edge of the Badlands, which gave way to grazing lands as we slowed to 35 mph through small towns before speeding back up again. Small towns declared themselves “The Easter City,” and “Grassroots Arts Capital of Kansas,” and other unverifiable but catchy names.
If there is a lake west of the Mississippi River, then there is a boat ramp and recreation area adjacent to it. To boost employment during the Great Depression, the Army Corps of Engineers created A LOT of lakes behind damns. Each night we easily found ACE campgrounds, typically closed for the season but free to use if you did not mind the solitude and lack of amenities.
In between overnights, middle America revealed itself to be quirky and delightful. In Oxford, Nebraska on Wednesday we tripped over ‘Taco Tuesday’ run out of the back of the town’s miniature supermarket. We noshed our authentic order of spicy beef on corn tortillas with all the fixings at the Veteran’s Park in the center of town reading the list of Oxford citizens who had served, some in the Spanish-American War, some last year.
On Thursday, Lucas, Kansas surprised with a Marfa-like art scene with the anchor as a Victorian home and yard called the Garden of Eden, turned into a sculptural tribute to the book of Genesis, Revelations, and worker’s rights, preserved with the help of the Kohler Foundation outta Sheboygan! Lucas was also awarded second place in the the International Award for Best Public Toilet to bring awareness for the extreme need for public restrooms in the world. Further down the road the town of Wilson proclaimed itself the Czech Capitol of Kansas with the world’s largest hand-painted Czech egg to prove it. The town of Wann, OK flies six flags of America without explanation. Perhaps we recognized the “thin blue line” flag from current events. But, did you know that the “thin green line” American flag represented first responders? Someone in Wann does.
Headed back to Florida, we’re in it for the journey, not the destination. Which means passing through and stopping often in many small towns across America.