After a night sleeping in the shotgun seat of a rumbling long-haul truck parked in the fumes of an Iowa truck stop I found myself on the road early in the morning. Thankful to still be riding with the driver who picked me up outside of Chicago I watched November’s fallow soy fields stretch into equally vast fields stubbled with stalks of the summer’s corn. Between Interstate 80 and the horizon the land was not flat, as I had been lead to believe, and not hilly either. More of an undulation into the distance. The great grassy prairie lands turned to square fields.
A speck in the distance grew to be a sign. Then a large billboard —
”How arrogant is that??!!!” I screamed in my head. “Where the West begins, indeed.” Everyone knows the West begins west of the Rocky Mountains, I harrumphed. I might have even said so to the truck driver.
A hundred miles west of the city of Lincoln the freeway followed the Platte River, echoing the route of the Oregon Trail. A continuous, gentle climb free from any radical landmarks, the valley provided reliable water and forage for wagons headed into the unknown. I thought the trees and shrubs along the river to our right would stretch to Wyoming. Actually they do but, unknown to me, west of North Platte the river heads north while I-80 heads straight toward Cheyenne, Wyoming. I didn’t notice the brush along the river was no longer in sight.
I also missed how the cultivated prairie land slowly, imperceptibly gave way. Farms grew farther and farther apart. Some half way through Nebraska I realized the land featured stacks of bailed hay and open rangeland and feedlots full of cattle. And then not even that, but scrublands with a few grazing cattle.
Perhaps eighty percent of the way thought Nebraska the truck was pulling harder. Not struggling up a steep mountain grade, but I-80 was rising on a sweeping curve into a gentle pass.
The engine’s guttural pull eased into a purr as we passed over the rounded summit. We looked out over a vast, open, sandy valley sweeping into the far distance between high bare hills. Other than the road there was not a bit of civilization in sight.
I found myself breathless.
Oh my god —
It was THE WEST ! ! !
During my two years living in the lush forests and fields east of the rocky mountains I had forgotten about the deserts. The deserts I had been raised exploring. Deserts that run from south of Boise through Nevada and Arizona and into Mexico.
For the first time I realized the American West is not defined by the towering rocky peaks of Idaho’s mountains, but by the vast room of the Great Basin.
After two years I was suddenly dropped into home.
And, of all things, it was in NEBRASKA !