I am trying really, really hard to make lemonade. Kenny and I took off from Chicago Sunday night/Monday morning at 2:30am. By the time the sunrise was chasing us, we were racing by the corn fields of Iowa. I was reminded of a song by Haywood Banks, a comedic musician who was frequently on Indianapolis’ ‘Bob & Tom’ show. “Corn, corn corn corn corn corn, corn corn corn corn Tree! Corn, corn corn corn corn corn, corn corn corn corn Dubuqe!”
I’d had that image in my mind, so I was pleasantly surprised by the undulating landscape, and the yellow flowers that crowded the ends of the fields and bordered the creeks that cut swaths through the stalks. Every few miles we’d pass a dilapidated barn that seemed to be returning to the earth. These were starkly contrasted with the modern rest stops, which even offered free wifi.
We crossed the Missouri River into Nebraska. Since we entered through Omaha it wasn’t immediately clear that we were in another state, but once out of the metropolitan area the fields flattened, the flowers disappeared, and we followed the monotonous course that’s I80.
In between the corn, wheat and soybean fields and the occasional expanse of sunflowers, we started seeing signs for Grand Island. I didn’t think there were any large bodies of water around, so every time I saw a sign it stuck in my mind.
And then we heard a clunk and a rattle and thought “Oh, shit.”
The Jeep wouldn’t go into 5th gear. He slowed down and pulled over to the shoulder. We struggled to the next exit: Grand Island. A few miles north of the Interstate we passed car dealership after auto parts store after car dealership. Unfortunately, it was Labor Day so they were all closed. By the time we found a transmission shop a few blocks from a rundown motel we realized that we were stuck overnight.
We could have gotten angry and frustrated. Instead we got a room at the Relax Inn and started exploring. Tried to explore, anyway. There’s nothing to explore in Grand Island on Labor Day. I may be used to the constant activity of Chicago and I knew it was going to be nothing like that, but I still expected some activity since it was a holiday. There was nothing. We’re just a few blocks from “downtown”, and it felt like we were in the middle of a ghost town.
We finally came across a bar called Hog Wild and walked in and ordered drinks. It was 3 in the afternoon.
Grand Island is run down. It’s a depressed area of 40,000 people that seems to boast lingerie shops and businesses dealing with cars. Look a little deeper, and you learn the Chamber of Commerce forgives any parking tickets received while shopping downtown. You learn it’s the third largest city in Nebraska.
And you learn that if you walk into a bar and spill your sad tale of car trouble, and how this grand adventure to the west is interrupted before it even starts, Rona and Reggie and Jimmy and Vince and a whole cast of barflies are suddenly your friends. We shared drinks and conversation, and they gave us recommendations for mechanics and said “tell ‘em I sent you.” We learned the fleabag room we’re in, with it’s peeling paint and unvacuumed floor and plastic bags stuck around the air conditioning unit, and its side table drawer littered with ketchup packets, and the flies buzzing around as its rightful residents, is run by a Sudanese woman who brought Rona meals during the two weeks she needed to stay there and told the ragamuffin youths they better leave her alone.
We left the bar with a pocket full of phone numbers and well wishes. We walked towards the street we used to enter the city and ate dinner at a Texas T Roadhouse. By this time we were exhausted. Kenny had slept about half an hour at a rest stop in Iowa, and I’d only dozed since we’d left Chicago. It had been less than 18 hours, but it seemed like an eternity.
Now it’s Tuesday morning. The Jeep’s in the shop and both reverse and fifth gears need to be replaced. We’re here for at least another day. Bill, from BG&S Transmissions, is going to pick us up and take us to another hotel, one where I don’t feel like I have to bathe in the sink and can take my shoes off as I walk around the room. We’re going to walk to the Chamber of Commerce. We’re going to visit Pier Park and Stolley Park and, possibly, the Stuhr Museum of the Prairie Pioneer.
Or, we may just head to Hog Wild, pull up a bar stool, and meet up with our new friends. When they tell us they’d warned us not to get stuck here, we’ll laugh and groan and drink deeply from that overflowing pitcher of lemonade we’ve made from our heaping sack of lemons.