Sunday, November 2, 2008

North Platte to Ogallala (part 3)

Engineers have paved the sand road of west Nebraska. It is a two-lane blacktop now – highway 30. Except for local traffic, even paved, 30 isn’t much traveled now. In the 1970’s Transcontinental traffic moved to I-80, the four-lane highway that – in this part of America – parallels 30 through the Platte River Valley, along with the rail lines that cross Nebraska, and the routes of the Butterfield Stage, and the Pony Express, and the Mormon Trail, and the Oregon Trail, and the Sante Fe Trail.

I-80 is one room, three thousand miles long, with a few doors out of it in each state, and a décor that shifts subtly every two or three hundred miles, as topography and climate and the patterns of agriculture change around it. In Nebraska there are rest stops every sixty miles or so. The architects of the rest stops have designed these oases to orient travelers to the countryside, with small signs and arrows pointing out distant landmarks. West of Ogallala, Nebraska there are no quicksand pitfalls now, but the perimeter of each rest stop is marked with signs warning travelers of rattlesnakes.

The log entry – North Platte to Ogallala – was written in the memoranda pages of the Complete Official Road Guide of the Lincoln Highway, third edition. When the memoranda pages ran out, at page 285, the author continued to add pages, written in flawless, close-spaced schoolboy script, to page 312. The log is preserved now at the Dwight D. Eisenhower Library in Abeline, Kansas. In my files, Samantha Scroggie, who found the log for me, also left a record of the author’s name: Lt. E.R. Jackson, Ordnance Dept., U.S.A. Ordnance Observer.

My copy of the third edition is date-stamped May 11, 1918. The front pages of the Road Guide give the 1918 traveler an idea of what to expect that year, and how to prepare for a trip by motor across America. Among the Don’ts for Tourists are several warnings that map a rude geography of hardship.

Don’t allow your water can (west of Cheyenne, Wyo.) to be other than full of fresh water, and fill it whenever you get a chance. You might spring a leak in your radiator, or burst a water hose.

Don’t fail to have warm clothing in the outfit. The high altitudes are cold, and the dry air is penetrating.

Don’t carry loaded firearms in the car. Nothing of this kind is necessary except for sport, anyhow.

Don’t forget the yellow goggles. In driving west you face the sun all afternoon, and the glare of the western desert is hard on the eyes.

Don’t forget the camphor ice. The dry air of the west will crack your lips and fingers without it.

Don’t drink alkali water. Serious cramps result.

Don’t wear new shoes.

This all remains good advice.

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