An unforgettable time for me was right out of high school. Went to work for my dad within a week of graduation, and started going to school nights. Had a very serious relationship with a girl who would eventually become my wife, but that didn't stop me from seeing a bit of the country....she understood. Late that summer, 1978, I finagled a week of vacation after only 2 months on the job, took a trip to northern Minnesota, and spent a week with 5 friends canoeing around the Boundary Waters. I fell in love with the BWCA, and went back 3 more times with the same 5 guys.
Because of the business I was in, and am currently (same job), winter was the time for vacations. My folks used to spend a month every year (February) in Ft Myers, Fl. I wasn't quite ready to become a Snowbird yet, so I decided to go visit my old friend Chris. He lived in a quiet little town outside Denver called ....Littleton.
Chris had been my best friend from 6th grade through Junior year in high school. Best friends. We did everything together. Drank, smoked ciggies, got high, got suspended from school, rode bikes, talked music, talked about the future,....best friends. Then he moved. His dad was with Johns Manville, and he got transferred to Denver. I hadn't seen my best bud in 2 years.
Now, I'd never traveled west before and by the time December rolled around I was so friggin' pumped to make that drive I could barely sleep the night before. I had taken an apartment in Naperville with my brother, and for the first time ever I woke before Bill.
The car was packed in 15 minutes with everything I needed:
....and various other Memorex cassettes. (8 track tapes? are you kidding? that is so early 70s)
Rand McNally US Atlas
CB Radio (10-4 good buddy...)
One ounce $45 Columbian weed
7 Thai sticks- $8 each
7 grams hashish- $45 for the 1/4oz
Hat, coat, gloves, boots....and 2 suitcases full of clothes.
Pushed off at 7:30 CST and hit I-5 (now US 88) heading west. The 1973 Pontiac Le Mans Sport Coupe I had bought used was a highway beast. 350V8, and it only had 44,000 miles on it. I loved that car. What a great pick-up that was. Lasted me 4 years.
Anyway, once I got away from Chicago, and out onto the flats of boring rural Illinois, I figured a nice coffee and Thai stick was just the thing to celebrate my big drive. Nothing like a coffee/Thai buzz at 8:30 on a Saturday morning in December.
When cornfields are covered with snow, they take on a most lonely appearance. Whenever I see that scene from Fargo where Buscemi crawls up that snowy embankment to bury the case of money by the fence, and they pan the camera in both directions to show the loneliness and desolation, the road stretching to the vanishing point in both directions....I'm reminded of that first trip west. Western Illinois during the winter is a very flat, white, frozen, lonely place.
The Atlas showed a pretty straight shot across I-80. I'd just stay on 5, then hook up with 80 out by the Quad Cities, then stay on 80 all the way across Iowa, and most of Nebraska. Looks like I pick up 76 south out of Ogallalla and take that into Colorado. Hook up with 25 by Denver, take that south, annnnd......I'll figure out what exit will get me to Littleton when I get there.
Thinking back on the trip now, I can't believe how reckless I was. Nothing scared me. I didn't even make a plan for stopping. I'd just drive until I got tired, and then I'd hit a Motel 6 or whatever. Not so much as a clue how far it was from Chicago to Denver, even though I had the Atlas right on the passenger seat. I didn't care. I was on no schedule, although I told Chris I'd be there Sunday at some point. I'd stop at a payphone to let him know when I was close. What the hell is a cell phone? Last year my phone took a swim in my coffee outside Sioux City,Ia and I felt naked. The idea of driving across the country without one is unthinkable to me now.
As I got close to the Iowa border, I was as fresh as I could be. Couple hundred miles under my belt, and it was only 11 AM or so. I was averaging something like 80MPH. Flying by trucks, they'd see my CB antenna and give me a shout. 'What's the fucking hurry?" "Give a holler if you see any cops up ahead.""Safe travels Mile High" (my handle for the trip)
By the time I needed to stop for gas in Iowa, I was loving this shit. (I was also wasted) I set the gas on auto-fill and ran inside to take a piss. Ran back to the car to top it off, and then back inside to pay for the gas and 6 Pepsis. How weird it would be for someone today to have to go inside to pay. No credit swipes at the pump back then. No digital shit. We had gas pumps that had rolling dials with real numbers on them. The credit card machines were big bulky contraptions that needed carbon papered slips and a person with some muscle to make it all happen.
I paid cash.
Ran back to the car and hammered it. Passed up trucks I'd passed 30 minutes ago, a second time. I think that impressed them. And then I went about the business of driving across the state of Iowa. The mileage to Omaha was something like 280 miles when I first noticed. A snap. I'll be there in less than 3 hours. Turn on some Allman Brothers....the best driving music there is.
The state of Iowa is as boring to drive across as it is to walk across. It's torture. Imagine 3 hours of driving on a white pool table with telephone poles the only things that keep the view interesting.
Davenport.....DesMoines......Council Bluffs........the fucking names of the towns are even boring.
It's almost exactly 500 miles from Chicago to Omaha. 499.1....500.4.....depends on which gas stations you stop at. It seemed like a nice halfway point, so maybe I'd grab some lunch there. First, I needed to smoke some more Thai stick, and maybe take one of those Green and Clears to keep me nice and fresh. Wash that down with some Pepsi, and switch to some Jeff Beck......
Strangely, I wasn't hungry at all when I blew through Omaha. Nor was I tired, although the odometer said 500 miles since I left Naperville. I'll just keep going.....Lincoln's 50 miles away....then Grand Island....then Kearney......maybe I'll stop for the night in Kearney. Passed a place called Ak-Sar-Ben.....a fairgrounds, racetrack, theme park sort of affair. Years later, one of my limo customers told me that it was closed down. A Nebraska landmark. People were devastated, or so I'm told. Customer asked me...."How many times did you make the drive?"...."At least 10.....I forget.....why?"......."Know what's weird about Ak-Sar-Ben?"......"You mean besides the fact that it's Nebraska spelled backwards?" (lousy tipper, I had to rub his nose in it...)
Stopped for another piss and gas. I had it down to a science now. I could take a pee, fill the tank, buy more Pepsi, and be back on 80 in about 6 minutes.....give or take. I was wasting, literally, no time.
By the time I got out into rural Nebraska....shit, it's all rural, there's corn growing in the police station parking lot in Omaha......I was really buzzing along. I was driving very very fast, and I was speeding too. Took another speeder, smoked some weed, drank some Pepsi, and listened to some Beatles. (Sgt. Pepper of course...) Late afternoon comes fast out there, and as the sun was sinking over the Nebraska snowfields in front of me I realized it was about to get dark. (the normal progression as the earth rotates west to east)
As I approached Kearney, I still wasn't tired. Maybe it was the excitement of my first drive west, or maybe it was a combination of the speed and Pepsi. Whatever it was, I made a fateful decision. I decided to keep going. I had 650 miles behind me, and that meant only 360 to go. I had finally started paying attention to the signs, and the Ogallala exit wasn't too far away. That meant that I'd have the entire I-80 run out of the way, and I could wake up in Colorado with just a short way to go. I looked forward to seeing mountains out my Motel 6 window. I'd gained an hour, so it was only in the 4-5O'Clock range. Too early to stop anyway.
Once I got on I-76, I hooked to the southwest, and the landscape began to turn beige. As the sun went down, I got the distinct impression I was entering the high desert I'd heard so much about but never knew what the hell they were talking about.
Sailing into the dusk of western Nebraska, alone, stoned, and listening to Bowie. Gotta try that once in your life. It stays with you.
"Now Entering Colorful Colorado." ,,,,the headlights caught it,,,,,,as it flashed by at 80MPH.
Hmmm......I wonder what color it is. I wonder when I'll start seeing the mountains. I wonder how far to Denver......192 miles.......183miles......Sterling....52 miles.....Ft Morgan......97 miles.....it all started to sloowwwwww down as I hit eastern Colorado.
800 miles is a long way to drive in a day. It was about 7:30 when I passed Sterling....maybe 8....Denver was getting closer. I was getting droopy eyed, but I wasn't blinking. I was zinging out of my skull from the speeders, but I was bone-weary. I'd never driven more than 200 miles in one stretch before (family vacations).....I decided to keep going.
Never expect to see mountains when you enter Colorado from the east. The whole right side of that fucking place is Nebraska. Colorful Colorado? That eastern half is as dreary as any stretch on the planet. I can't believe I stayed awake for the whole ordeal. Arduous man. I think I could have taken a nice 10 minute catnap and not strayed outside my lane.
Anyway, I made it to Denver, and now needed to find Littleton.
Never try to navigate through Denver at 9:30 on a Saturday night after you've been driving for 15 hours and 1013 miles. Only balls and stupidity got me to my destination, on Laurel Ct, right off Santa Fe Drive.....over by Cherry Hill Coutry Club.
As Chris' mom answered the door at 10:30, I realized that it was late, that I hadn't called to tell them I'd be a day early, and that I must look like some kind of wired-up jackhead.
One glance from Jane was all it took. She smiled weakly, gave me a hug, and said...."You haven't changed a bit."
When Chris came down the stairs, he took one look at me and burst out laughing. He grabbed the keys to his car, a 1947 Willy's Jeep, and off we went for a quick drive up 285 into the "mountains." A lovely night, smoking weed with my old bud,...laughing about my day's drive,...and zigzagging our way up into the "mountains." (I'd made the Chicago to Denver run in 16 hours with the time change. Every time after that, I stretched it over 2 days, and averaged about 19 hours)
Well, I called them mountains, because that's what they seemed like to me. Chris explained that these were "foothills." Tomorrow we'd drive up 70 into the real mountains. We'd go up through this brand new thing that had just been opened....The Eisenhower Tunnel.
I didn't sleep very well that night, and we were off for the mountains by 9. Left the skis at his house....we were going to Crested Butte in two days...over on the western slope.......for now, we were just going up to show Mikey the mountains. Chris was having a blast watching the reactions on my face as we ascended. The foothills are all green with a little snow, even in December. It isn't until you drive, and drive, and drive.....do you see real mountains.
I'll never forget the first time I saw the snow covered peaks sourrounding me as we rounded a curve of 70. Absolutely breathtaking. No way to accurately describe the beauty of the Rocky Mountains. You gotta feel it. I was addicted, and kept going back for the next 15 years.....
As we appraoched the newly opened Eisenhower Tunnel, Chris explained how the eastbound tunnel had just opened. Prior to this, both lanes of traffic passed through one tunnel. Now, with two tunnels, they could have 2 lanes going in both directions.
As Chris turned off I-70 I asked him where we were going.
"We're going the way everybody used to go, before they opened the tunnel........."