(written July 24)
The trip from Denver, Colorado, to Iowa City, Iowa, was far and away the worst drive of the trip and may well have been the worst drive of my life. In the original trip plans, I had given myself three days for this leg of the journey, but because of the NJH scheduling, I was due to be in Iowa less than a day after my last appointment at NJH was finished. I wanted to go to the Writers' Conference that week-end because I had paid for it, and because it was a workship on proposal-writing, where I hoped to elicit a professional-level critique of the proposal for my book about Korea.
I drove the R.V. out of the parking lot near NJH about 1:00 PM, Mountain Time (3:00 PM, EST) on Friday, June 24, and headed north through downtown Denver before the worst rush-hour traffic began, although rush-hour usually begins earlier on Fridays than on other week-days. I picked up I-76 going out of Denver, and took that north-east to Nebraska. This north-eastern section of Colorado was dry and barren, as had been the region east of Denver along I-70. On I-80 through Nebraska, the countryside became greener, with large farms and less scrub-land, rather like Kansas, although greener. There are probably larger rivers here than in eastern Colorado, specifically the Platte River and its tributaries. The farmhouses usually seemed well kept, although barns nearby were often in serious disrepair. I assume that the barns are left to rot because crops are no longer stored on the farm, but rather are sold primarily to wholesalers, who store grain and other produce in huge elevators that dot the landscape. And fewer farmers raise both animals and plants for food these days; many need day jobs to support themselves and their families during the year.
I traveled straight across Nebraska on I-80, stopping only for gas. The countryside was high-plains; copses of trees dotted the landscape and formed boundaries between immense, planted fields. On the left, to the north, the sky was bright, with thin, drifting clouds glinting sunlight from their edges; to the south was a dark, threatening sky, the clouds roiled in uneven layers, occasionally glowing with veil-lightening. This highway was as far north as I had been on the trip, and it was just past summer solstice, so evening drifted very slowly into night, and clouds on my left were lit with hues of orange and gold as the sun set behind me. As night descended, the threatening southern sky to the right became even darker and more ominous. It was after 10:00 PM when darkness finally fell. I had promised myself I would stop around midnight if truly tired, and a Flying J gas station in Gretna, east of Omaha, was the midnight stop where I parked and slept, willing myself to wake up at 3:30 AM. I awoke at 3:00, filled up the gas tank, popped open a bottle of Frappuccino and a peanut-butter granola-bar, and headed for Iowa.
By this time, the surrounding sky was pitch-black, with veil-lightening frequent and intense, like brilliant strobe lights flashing and blinking capriciously. If the lightning stopped briefly, it left me blinded and unable to see the road for a few seconds. Moreover, that whole section of the highway was under construction. The road’s uneven edges were precipitous; orange barrels and cement barriers appeared and disappeared in the intermittent glare of lightening. And then it began to rain – at first a normal, light rain, then heavy, pelting rain, and the highest windshield-wiper setting wasn’t fast enough. Rounding curves felt like a carnival ride, and I feared I might roll the RV. Fortunately, few other vehicles were on the road, so I put on the blinking vehicle hazard lights, set the beams on high, and slowed to 30 mph. Also fortunately I had a GPS, because the web-work of roads going through Omaha would have confused me utterly without it. One scene from the drive is vivid in my mind: I have maneuvered through a long, treacherous, zig-zag course of construction, and just as I am coming out of it, a lightning bolt zaps down nearby, nearly blinding me, followed by thunder, sounding as though I had crashed into something. And then, suddenly, I come upon a bifurcation in the road and don’t know which way to go. There are no signs, or if they’re there, I'm too blinded to see them. I have slowed to about 10 mph, and look up at the GPS. It indicates that I should go straight ahead, which I do, and finally drive out of the nightmare and come upon Council Bluffs, Iowa. I have no idea when, where, or how I crossed the Missouri River.
Coming into Council Bluffs and beyond was also surreal; hundreds of red lights started to blink on and off against the black, intermittently lightening-brightened sky, above what seemed like dark hills in the distance on both sides of the road. Moreover, a thin, red dawn began to glow near the north-eastern horizon; the scene was like entering the gates of hell. As slow dawn gave form to the red, blinking lights, I saw that they were, in fact, attached to huge, energy-generating windmills and the lights were aircraft warning lights. There seemed to be thousands of windmills, only some of which had lights, and the slow churn of their dark arms - appendages of huge, unthinking, machine-beasts - felt ominous to my still-terrified, sleep-deprived mind.
Driving across Iowa in the lifting dawn, I could see that it was even greener than Nebraska, with dense forests and copses of trees. The rest of the drive to Iowa City was relatively uneventful. I arrived at the site of the Iowa Summer Writing Festival barely in time to register, having finished the Frappuccino and granola bar, still very tired and a bit hungry. Because of a hassle parking the RV, I missed the free fruit and Danish offered at the writers' conference, although I was able to snag a cup of coffee.