Leaving Denver and heading east is saying goodbye to the Rockies. While most people just assume all of Colorado is 18,000ft peaks covered in snow, the eastern part is very similar to parts of Wyoming and Nebraska. That’s to say there are rolling plains and a few hills big enough to be called a mountain, but the roads become straighter as you move east.
The rains came in heavy as I left and my helmet was absolutely useless. The inside of the visor fogs up in weather like this, but if you crack it open to vent it, rain comes down the inside, leaving streaks. I was forced to slow to 50mph in some cases, being passed by tractor-trailers and cars, then being further blinded by their spray when they came back into the right lane. Eventually I removed the visor and wore my clear sunglasses, letting the rain sting my cheeks and forehead.
After about 90min the rain gave up and I could take off my wet-weather gear, but my boots had gotten soaked despite having overshoes to protect them. My gloves were also soaked so I left the heated grips on high and carried on. Hwy 36 took me east and then I hopped up onto Hwy 34 in Wray, Nebraska. The occasional river valley still broke up the corn fields, as did small copses of trees, so I can say with certainty that Nebraska is slightly less monotonous than Iowa when driving cross-country.
I overnighted in McCook at the Economy Inn, though I didn’t sleep well, so facing another day of morning rain was not how I wanted to set out. Fortunately it was only spitting and gave way to beautiful cumulus clouds that rolled along low, almost as if interacting with me…following me along as I rode east.
The post office in Funk, Nebraska was an especially worthwhile stop.
As you get closer to Omaha traffic does build up a bit, but I was there to visit a friend who lived on the west part of town, so I missed any real headaches. Downing is a friend I’ve known since I was 19. He was my first roommate when I got my first permanent duty assignment in the Marine Corps at Camp Johnson, North Carolina. When I got out I ended up moving to Omaha to be in a band with him, as we both shared a love of writing songs and playing guitar.
Although it didn’t last more than four months, Downing came out to California and stayed nearly a year to be in a band I was playing in. That project lead to a demo CD and a few live shows, but again it wasn’t enough to keep us together. We had stayed in touch more or less the entire time, but hadn’t seen each other in probably ten years.
Corn is produced in such quantities in Nebraska the days of the narrow, concrete storage silo are long-gone.
Downing lived on an immaculate, quiet street with his wife Tina and their adult son. It was a great reunion, and I stayed several extra days. I got to meet up with another friend, Bill, who I hadn’t seen since probably 2001. He had served in the Air Force and as a civilian contractor since then, and we both fit the “grumpy veteran” cliché pretty well. He showed me around the local VFW post (one of the nicest I’d ever been in, actually), we drank whiskey and looked at guns in his man-cave, and we took his 850hp Camaro out shook the windows for miles around. I got to see Downing play a live show with one of his current bands, then went to a huge show where I got blind-stinking-drunk but was at least coherent enough to remember all the band’s performances.
It was legendary times but the road was still calling me eastward. I had yet another old friend to see– this time in Kentucky. Milliken was another Marine Corps buddy, but we’d lost contact in about 1998. Downing had just found him on Facebook and I definitely wanted to stop on by, but a heart attack derailed our plans. It was minor, but still required surgery, and Milliken would be in no shape to have me over for a weekend. I hatched a plan though to give him a few days recovery while I toured the Ozarks, after which I could swing through for just a few hours and still have a chance to catch up.
I departed south and used the interstate to get me to St. Joseph, MO, where I could pick up Hwy 36 again and avoid Kansas City. I wanted to stop at some sites like the childhood home of Gen. John J. Pershing, but I needed to make good time also. Pershing is not a well-known name to the average person. He is best known for leading the American Expeditionary Force during World War 1, meaning he led our overseas forces in Europe. He was also a mentor to basically every famous army General in World War 2, from Patton to Eisenhower to MacArthur.
The only real stop I could manage was the Chillicothe Regional Airport, where they had a Vietnam War era fighter-bomber on a plinth. I snapped some pictures, read some plaques, and moved on before the heat of the day soaked through. Staying on the move kept me cool enough, and there was plenty to look at as I moved further south.
The F-105 Thunderchief was a fighter-bomber during the Vietnam War. It was the tip of the spear for many attacks and because of its dangerous missions it has the sad distinction of having the highest loss-rate of any combat aircraft the US has ever fielded, with over half the number built being shot down.
I ended the day near the town of Herman, MO. It somehow had a brewery, winery, and distillery, so these seemed like my kind of people. Sadly it was a week day and the town shut down at about 9pm, save for a gas station and one or two bars. I camped out in a quiet space, slept well, then awoke to spider nests everywhere. Damn things even built one across the entryway to the campground, with one fat bastard sitting right at face level. I knocked down his handy work and began my trek south to the Ozarks.
‘Twas a fine campground before the spiders came in.
Things would get more picturesque, hilly, green, and twisty the further south I went. The lack of turn outs or any kind of level shoulder on the roads meant I got very few pictures, but what I did get was breath-taking, so I’ll save the next leg of my journey for my next installment.