Monday, August 11, 2008

Plain to Glamorous

Nebraska is, continentally speaking, like a giant see-saw with a kid sitting on one end. If it weren't for friction, you could put your car in neutral on the western border and coast downhill all the way to the eastern border (which would be a nice way to go, given how dull it is to drive across). As we went east to west, our GPS informed us that the elevation was steadily increasing, a 4000-foot development completely imperceptible to the naked eye. We noticed we were at about 1200 feet in Omaha (double the altitude we left in Door County on Saturday). The elevation had risen to nearly 3000 feet by North Platte and 5160 feet when we crossed the border from Nebraska into Wyoming. Just west of Sidney, NE (about 4800 feet), dusty tan-colored buttes started dotting the flat pastures and the land started to undulate, marking the beginning of the geologic folds characteristic of the build-up to mountains as serious as the Rockies.

We also learned that the Mountain time zone starts a few miles west of North Platte and were pleased to recoup one of the hours we lost on the trip east. I'm always impressed by people who live on time zone borders; it must be both confusing and cool - in terms of the simultaneity of different points in time, one of my favorite concepts - to live in one time zone and work in another. There doesn't seem to be a very large population in the relevant part of Nebraska, but I bet there are still a few people whose lives occur simultaneously in the Central and Mountain zones.

We weren't sure how far we would travel yesterday, but on Nebraska's flat, fast, straight roads we made it easily to North Platte, where we stopped at a La Quinta Inn that turned out to be delightful - not a word I tend to use for hostelry of this stripe. This Inn was a marvel, so much so that it deserves mention here. It was quiet and clean; the staff was friendly and solicitous; there was a generously sized swimming pool kept at the perfect temperature and chlorine level (nothing like swimming laps at the end of a long day of driving to work out the kinks, mental as well as physical); the room got totally dark and deliciously cool and non-humid; and, miracle of miracles, the shower pressure was superb. Just excellent work on the part of the La Quinta people.

Right off I80 in North Platte, there's a shiny silver diner, one of those adorable structures that look like Airstream campers and are always getting hitched to vehicles and hauled to new places in the movies. This diner is called Penny's and inside we found a tall, skinny short-order cook who thought we could do better than our first breakfast choices and told us what to have instead. Can't fault his judgment; breakfast was terrific. Penny's is open 24 hours a day, so if you find yourself on I80 and hungry near North Platte, check it out. If you see the tall, skinny cook, tell him the people from Las Vegas said hi.

We stuck with I80 until Cheyenne, where we joined I25 heading south into Colorado. It must be confessed that the first part of Colorado is like more of Nebraska - except, significantly, for the gorgeous tan, then mink, then blue-gray complexity of successive mountain ridges that suddenly appear in the distance off to the west. Some of the peaks are snow-capped, despite the 88-degree temps in the valley.

We turn west into Loveland, which looks like Chicago's newer suburbs - brand-new stucco strip malls chock-a-block with Barnes & Noble stores, Chipotle restaurants, and every other chain you've ever heard of. But not too far west of this Everytown, USA suburbia, there's a ridge topped with a line of hoodoos and buttes, the road turns sinuous, and bam! We're driving through steep, splintered shale slopes, dense with evergreens standing tall and punctuated by occasional reddish sandstone and exposed dark-grey granite boulders glittering with minerals. We open the windows: 73 degrees here at 7420 feet, no humidity to speak of, and postcard-perfect vistas everywhere. The mountains are so glamorous, so quietly and unconsciously showy, after the plains.

Our destination for today is Estes Park and, in a nice first for this trip, it's only mid-afternoon when we arrive, which gives us plenty of time to explore Rocky Mountain National Park before dark.

(I have pictures, but new technical difficulties have arisen. Swanky new digital camera, no problem uploading to my computer, but when I try to upload the pix here...nothing. I'll figure it out (I hope) and post the pix ASAP.)

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