Jim once said that the greatest thing ever invented was the automatic dishwasher, followed in short order by the washing machine. “But” he admitted, “I’m lazy.”
My own list is both long and fluid, its nature and substance changing with varying situations and fluctuating interests, such as the week we spent tenting in hot, humid South Carolina and felt upon our return that nothing could be finer than a simple refrigerator. I’d stand in front of the fridge grinning like an idiot while opening and closing the door, marveling each time at the miracle of cold beer and food without the mess of ice. For this moment, though, I’d rate paved roads as one of the preeminent inventions in history, and motorized vehicles to wend them.
I-80 across southern Nebraska, a modern four-lane superhighway paralleling the green ribbon of the North Platte River, speeds us toward western skies. Beneath us was once another road, a broad sandy path a mile or more wide, dotted with white shapes like “sailing vessels I had often seen on Lake Erie,” wrote Phoebe Judson in 1853. Dr. Thomasson declared it “level and smooth as a plank floor.” Rebecca Ketcham, writing in 1853, said it was as wide as eight or ten common roads back in the States, and with a little work could be made into one of the “most beautiful roads in the world.”
It’s impossible to drive this stretch without thinking of the emigrants who risked everything to start new lives in the west. Their experiences are as fresh today as they were back then, kept alive in journals and diaries and collected in such works as “The Great Platte River Road,” by Merrill Mattes. No other book so fully captures the excitement, wonder and hardship of travelers on the Oregon Trail through Nebraska. And to think: if conditions were favorable, they managed 40 miles a day; if not, 10 could be hoped for. We’re rocketing along at 70 miles an hour, a fact that puts the westward movement into stunning perspective.
Nor could they run from supercells and tornadoes, as we did. Lightning killed oxen or stampeded cattle, hail knocked them senseless, wind sent wagons cartwheeling. After particularly wet storms the flat valley turned into a quagmire, miring wagons up to the axles.
There are other parallels between the emigrants and our own codgernautical journey. Mattes remarked that the endless shimmering valley had a hypnotic effect upon travelers. “The monotony of the Platte makes one drowsy,” Peter Burnett wrote, and Rebecca Ketcham offered, “We are all afflicted with drowsiness.” One hundred fifty-five years later, Chod and Jim collapse on their hotel beds in the town of Ogallala and fall asleep at once. I have a brief pang of doubt about journeying with my elders and then digging my binoculars out of my duffel slip quietly out the door.
Where does the West begin? Somehow I missed the 100th meridian, the fabled longitudinal demarcation bisecting the nation, but on a small pond behind the hotel I find a western grebe. The medium-sized waterfowl keeps company with a lesser scaup and a raft of coots, swimming lazily in circles or tucking its black-crowned head beneath a wing. I’m a little tired myself but unwilling to subject myself to a darkened room just yet, and so make my way around the pond on a hard-packed trail. The grebe is the first western species seen so far, leading me to wonder if the west is really more imagination than destination. An absurd idea, quickly quashed. For most of my life I lived in the west and considered myself a westerner first and an American second and the gap between the two was distant indeed. Wide as the Platte, to coin a phrase. Here in this small Nebraskan city I’ve lost my bearings even while retaining a modicum of cardinal directions, thanks mostly to the wooded path of the river. I decide that the bird will have to do: I’ve left the east behind.
Without mountains on the horizon it’s never that easy, of course. When I break out of the trees a dirt road separates me from a line of small cottonwoods, their leaves clattering in a breeze. I want to dip a foot into the river but it’s evident what I’m seeing are sandy channels watered only during snowmelt, and the river somewhere beyond a menacing growth of waxy fronds of the triple-leaf variety. It’s a bit early to chance a rash so I strike off to the right, the sun at my back casting a shadow far before me like some animated caricature pumping its arms and legs in a skeletal jitterbug.
Behind me the parking lot fills with travelers seeking shelter for the night. I imagine the wooded bottoms filling with wagons, the creak of harnesses and iron-shod wheels and the pungent aroma of cookfires. They, too, looked for the west even as I do now, and it comes to me that their west began with the sentinel rocks lying ahead. Perhaps boundaries are precise only on maps and never on the ground where our lives unfold. On the heels of the thought a bobwhite flushes and sails across the road. I hear the slurry whistle of an eastern bluebird. Eastern and western kingbirds chitter and scold. A pewee perches on a naked limb not 10 feet away and I cannot tell its orientation until it utters a thin trill identifying it as an eastern species. In the fading light an olive-sided flycatcher, larger, darker, with a streaked breast, cuts loose with a quick, three beers!, a sentiment I wholeheartedly ascribe to. The bird is as misplaced as I am, caught in a place that’s neither east nor west but somewhere in between. On the banks of the Great Platte River Road, we’re all emigrants still.