Whine-oming

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Our story so far: I had an overnight delay in Limon, Colo., finally made it to Wyoming, and then found Interstate 80 closed at Laramie.

OK, now it was just funny. Getting stuck in Limon had been traumatic, simply because it was unexpected and chaotic. But being stranded AGAIN the VERY NEXT NIGHT … well, there’s nothing you can do about that except laugh.

Granted, the fact that it was Wyoming made it slightly less funny. My previous experience with Wyoming was limited to an overnight visit I had made seven years earlier, when I rang in New Year Y2K with a friend in Evanston. (My thinking was that if all technology was going to fail at the stroke of midnight, I should be someplace where you wouldn’t notice any difference.) Evanston wasn’t particularly thrilling, and what little else I knew about the state — lots of cowboys; home to Old Faithful; sometimes they murder Matthew Shepard — didn’t appeal to me.

But more to the point: How can the FREEWAY be CLOSED?! And a 400-mile stretch of freeway at that, and the only way to get across the state of Wyoming! There were no explanations or phone numbers to call for more information. It was just, “Sorry! Wyoming’s closed today.” I mean, this wasn’t Honduras or someplace, where the only road between Tegucigalpa and Comayagua gets closed because someone dropped a truckful of goats on it. This was the Interstate Highway System, in the United States of America! Haven’t we achieved dominance over such mundane things as weather?

In a fog of disbelief and shock, I turned around and headed back east, toward Cheyenne. My thought process, such as it was, was that I would go back to Ft. Collins and stay the night with the friend I had missed seeing the night before because of the Limon detour. But I couldn’t reach him on the phone now, and I didn’t want to get all the way back to Ft. Collins and still not have a place to sleep, so I gave up and stopped in Cheyenne.

“I gave up and stopped in Cheynne” is probably how a lot of sad, depressing stories begin. I momentarily considered driving past it, maybe going all the way back to Ohio, where I’d started my trip 7,000,000 days earlier. I still wasn’t sure what was going on — for all I knew, I-80 would be closed forever; for all I knew, this was the only way Wyoming could get new people to move there — so when I got into Cheyenne, I stopped at one of those “travel center” places. I knew those places were popular with truckers, and while I normally don’t like hanging out with truckers because they say things like “he don’t” when they mean “he doesn’t,” in this case I thought they might be useful. Truckers, of all people, should know what’s up with Wyoming’s freeway closures.

This particular establishment was one of many places I’d seen throughout my trip that had large signs reading, “Truckers Welcome!” I always wondered if that was necessary, i.e., if there are places where truckers are not welcome. For example, if you go to a museum or an opera, are there signs that say, “Non-Truckers Only” or “Truckers Must Use Other Facilities”? Is that even legal? If not, why not?

The place was brimming with truckers, walking around in their Levi’s and flannel shirts, drinking coffee, quoting Larry the Cable Guy, misconjugating verbs, that sort of thing. The freeway closure was the major topic of conversation, of course, and I quickly ascertained that it was not a terribly uncommon occurrence round these parts, and that in all likelihood the road would open again first thing in the morning.

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Lying here at the truck stop were several copies of a newspaper called The Trucker, aimed at, well, truckers. The paper’s slogan is, “Where the NEWS is first,” with “NEWS” underlined. This very precise emphasis seems to imply that there are other trucker publications that, at least in The Trucker’s estimation, do not focus enough attention on trucker news, perhaps instead filling their pages with trucker gossip and trucker fashion. (“The trucker hat: in again this year!”) None of that kind of nonsense at The Trucker, though. The NEWS is first over there, I’ll have you know.

After refueling my car and buying some snacks, I went off in search of a place to stay for the night. I wound up at a Super 8 Motel next to the freeway, where a room could be had for a reasonably low price, and where I was lucky to get one before they were all snatched up by stranded motorists. It was 12 degrees outside that night, and winds were coming out of the west at an average of 22 mph, with gusts as high as 55 mph, making for a wind chill temperature of about -15. It was under those conditions that I drove two blocks to Village Inn to eat dinner. It is wasteful to drive two blocks rather than walking, but it is also wasteful to freeze to death on the arctic tundra of Wyoming while walking.

I got up at 8:30 the next morning and went to the hotel lobby, where the current weather conditions and road closures were posted. The interstate was open again, so there was no reason to linger in Cheyenne. I checked out of the hotel and hit the road.

It wasn’t over yet, though. The roads were a bit icy, and there was still a persistent, nagging wind, blowing not at all fitfully, but rather unceasingly, continually trying to blow my car off the road. This meant I had to drive slower than usual, and it meant driving was a chore rather than a pleasure. How am I supposed to fiddle with the CD player with one hand, while I eat a chalupa with the other hand, while I drive with my knee, if the wind is forcing me to use both hands to steer?!

It didn’t help that the landscape of Wyoming is what cartographers refer to as “boring.” Approximately 500,000 people live in the state, but apparently none of them live within sight of the freeway, because all you can see from the freeway are hills, plains, and the occasional trucker-welcoming gas station. Even when you’re passing an alleged city, with a name you’ve heard before — Rawlins, Rock Springs, Evanston — there are no major signs of life. Are Wyomingans timid creatures who hide from visitors? Do their cities have magical force fields that render them invisible to everyone except true Wyomingans?

It took seven hours from the time I left Cheyenne, but I finally crossed the border into Utah. I was out of Wyoming; everything was going to be fine now. In fact, that’s the motto of several of Wyoming’s border states:

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Utah was familiar territory, and I’d driven from Utah to Portland several times, including during the winter. There couldn’t possibly be any surprises in store for me now. But just to make sure, I drove straight through, not stopping until I was home in Portland, 18 hours after I had left Cheyenne. Sure, 18 hours is a long time to drive without stopping. But I was afraid if I dawdled anywhere, Mother Nature would come up with some new way of harassing me.

All told, my free 1994 Geo Prizm cost me approximately $800 and caused untold emotional scarring. Yet I can look back on the trip now and recall certain elements with fondness. For example, I love that I saw a newspaper in Richmond, Ind., called the Palladium-Item. Usually, hyphenated newspaper names are the result of two papers merging: The Chicago Sun-Times used to be the Chicago Sun and the Chicago Times, for instance. So did there used to be two competing papers in Richmond, one called The Palladium, and one called The Item, and they both realized their names were stupid, so they merged into one paper with one awesomely stupid name? Apparently so.

I love that when you’re driving across the country, sometimes in the middle of nowhere there will be a sign on the freeway saying “Point of Interest, next right.” The signs never tell you what the thing is, only that you’ll find it interesting. That’s very savvy of them, especially considering most of the points they’re talking about — dead squirrel exhibits, piano bench museums, and so forth — are not, in fact, interesting. But the signs really sell it. “Point of interest! We don’t want to give it away, but trust us: This point is very, VERY interesting!”

Above all, I came to appreciate that though we live in a modern world with many modern conveniences, we are still in many ways at the mercy of Mother Nature. And Mother Nature is a stinky whore.

THE END.

I'll tell you who's not a stinky whore, though: Auntie Karen, who gave me the car! Just think, I got a free car and four columns' worth of material, all just for being so lovable. Thanks, Auntie Karen!

I mentioned some details of this trip, and made a couple of the same jokes, in a blog entry at the time. I offer no justification for repeating myself, nor is any needed.

Speaking of which, I wrote about my visit to Evanston way back in January 2000 (including the same joke about Y2K), and it elicited more angry letters than anything I'd written up to that point. You can see why I get a little skittish in Wyoming now, even more than a person normally would.

And yes, the Palladium-Item really did used to be two separate papers, The Richmond Palladium and The Daily Item. Why would you call your paper "The Daily Item"? What's the thinking there? "No, we don't run 'news,' exactly.... It's more a series of 'items.'"

The joke about "You're out of Wyoming; you should be fine now" being Idaho's state motto was my mom's idea. It would have been better for it to be Utah's motto, since I-80 actually takes you to Utah from Wyoming, not to Idaho, but the only "Welcome to Utah" pictures I could find already had slogans on them, and replacing them via Photoshop with the new one would have been troublesome. So Idaho it was!

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