Day 1: On the Road
Date: April 18, 2012
Journey: Chicago, IL to Lincoln, NE
Total miles: 529m (40.5mpg)
… continued from part 1
IV. Agri-Cultures of Animals and Machines (Illinois)
It had been a while since I had driven through western Illinois. I used to travel in this region on my way to and from college during vacations, but never this far west. Past DeKalb, were several egg confined animal feeding operations [CAFOs], or what people call “factory farms.” This would be the last I would see of land animal life in a long while. Animals were absent out here. I wondered how many drivers ever thought to notice. The replacement of companion species and wildlife by machines had become so common place, that this was once the home of other life besides humans and corn, wheat, and soy had been lost. It reminded me of Aldo Leopold‘s hard words on Wisconsin’s relationship with a prarie plant:
In [the cars] there must ride at least 10,000 people who have ‘taken’ what is called history, and perhaps 25,000 who have ‘taken’ what is called botany. Yet I doubt whether a dozen have seen the Silphium, and of these hardly one will notice its demise.
Yet animals as a general class of beings ought to be a much more noticeable absence. We interact with them everyday at restaurants, grocers, and in the kitchen, but their lived existence has become all but part of a mythical past or never never land. One does not think much of animals until someone brings up an argument of their “rights,” and then comes out the argument that if we did not kill them, where would all the animals go. If only they got out to the country and witnessed that the animals are gone, stuffed into warehouses and feedlots, their wild cousins extinct or displaced from the land presently devoted to feeding “livestock” with unsuitable crops. The crisis between our relationship with animals is one of space and ethos. We no longer dwell with, amongst, or on them except in the abstract field of debate and internet memes.
V. The Poetry of Place (Illinois, Iowa)
Wind turbines stood like giants in the horizon. Were they the herald of a new age of sustainable technology or an ominous signpost of an age where the land would no longer be inhabited by humans and animal others? Their was something so foreign about them, as if they were artifacts of an alien civilization.They were so elegant, but also so sterile. The land looked even more efficient and productive under their whirling shadows.
Yet, even the tallest of the titans paled in comparison to the sea blue dome above. Was it just me, or was the curvature of the Earth clear as day under the concave sky? Outside of the city one could experience the vastness of space, the stretches of what was once a sea of prairie. It was humbling to drive through such an expanse. The churches seemed fitting. The mosaic of soft clouds above beckoned some form of worship or at least a moment of reverence. Compelled to narrate my excursion through analogies, I could not make sense of my experience otherwise. The open road has poetry at its essence.
The Ronald Reagan fed into I-80 like a capillary into a vein. The road is the circulatory system of modern America, part of “the American experience” and its commercial excellency. Capital circulated through this vast system, and so did people.
I popped out on the other side of the Mississippi. I was in the West–sort of. Often people bash Iowa. They say it is a bore to drive through, but they are probably just not paying attention, or perhaps I arrived during the right season. On I-80 there were not so much of corn fields in sight, but there were undulating paved roads banked by lush green fields and trees. Catbird breezed up and down as if it was her first flight on the road.
As the road conditions scrapped-off some of my car’s fuel economy, I thought about the interstate highway system. It’s designed to transport people and capital from point A and B as efficiently as can be. But was efficiency the ultimate value of an open road? They could have flatten out I-80 for a little extra dough to save that much more fuel. It would have perhaps saved money and resources over the long term, but it would have eliminated the geography and history of the land. The tides of traffic and and ebbs and flows of the road gave testimony to the land and its inhabitants. To iron out these inefficiencies would be to erase the land of its personality and the experience of place. Agriculture had already butchered the land up into a grid, each piece having become property, and not much more. The obstacles to efficiency was a reminder of the alterity of the earth, which prevented us from getting too caught up in our narcissistic narrative of our mastery over it. The winds and bombs forced us to look and perhaps even respect that we were traveling not only in between landscapes, but through a living history of meanings and beings.
VI. Half-way Stretch (Iowa, Nebraska)
At a rest stop before Des Moines, it had not been more evident that I would have to make this a two day trip. And I definitely wasn’t going to make dinner at McFoster’s Kind Cafe (which i had been looking forward to reviewing for at least a week). It was at least four hours away from Omaha–the midpoint to Greeley from Chicago–, and I had just woken up from an accidental nap. I couldn’t just show up somewhere at midnight and expect a place to stay and I had made a rule not to stay at motels/hotels/hostels during my trip, so I searched for campsite on Galaxy and found one in Lincoln, Nebraska that got good reviews. They had spots open for cars and tents and would allow me to pay in the box when I arrived so I would not have to pay up front if I decided to travel any more or less.
Although the drive was beautiful, the repetition on the road offered a lot of time for self-reflection. In fact, I had so many during the drive about love, sex, and death (including my mass murder of insects) that I decided to dedicate a whole post just to them. There were, however, every now and then breaks from the common scenery such as the “World’s Largest Truck Stop” outside of Iowa City, equipped with a parking lot of spaces the size of semi’s and a gas station with several fast food chains inside. You’d think you were in Texas. I entered Des Moines after nightfall. The city was lit up and the Capitol looked beautiful. I had never been to Des Moines, but wish I had some time for a visit after seeing all the pedestrian bridges over I-80.
Nebraska was not as hilly and lush as Iowa, but had its own natural beauty… at least on the other side of the windshield. Then I rolled the windows down it smelt like beef jerky and burt tires. Omaha also looked like a cool city, or at least they wanted you to think that from I-80. It had a bridge decorated in giant heart art and an epic welcome sign three stories off the ground next to the beautiful engine train car. Outside of Omaha, I fed my second tank ten gallons of what might be called “corn oil,” the Midwest’s finest. It was also the first time I was excited to pay $3.50 for a gallon of gas–$0.60 cheaper than in Lombard.
At midnight, I finally arrived at my $19 a night site at Camp A Way, an RV campground in Lincoln, Nebraska. I bumbled my way around the office and bathroom in the dark to fill out my information and deposit my money for the night, but there were no such forms, no map of the property, and no access code for the bathrooms. I made do with the envelop and pencil I was provided and drove down to an empty site and parked there. I cracked open the windows for some night air and laid awkwardly on the backseats. Sleeping didn’t come quite so easy this time, but it felt darn good to be on the road with such an extended period of solitude and a bright future ahead.