My hotel in St. Joseph was right along the river, so after loading up the bike this morning, I drove down to the park just West of my hotel. There is a monument there to Lewis and Clark, who's expedition left from there in 1802, and to the Pony Express riders who left from St. Jo's, and to the countless wagon trains of early settlers who also departed from this bank on their trek West in the years to follow. As I sat there on the bike looking West across the river, I wondered what it must have been like for folks back then. Looking at this wide river, waiting to cross it and knowing they would likely never return. Most, like me, I'm sure, were driven by a desire to move on -- wanderlust as it were -- to see what's up ahead around the river bend, or the curve in the road, and to see what's out there.
My route today would follow much of the same route they took. If Route 66 is the "Old Road" as it were, this is the "Really Old Road". It predates all of that. However, I wasn't crossing the Missouri here today, I had a detour to take first -- in order to get the last two states on my "lower 48 on the bike" checklist done. To do that I needed to motor into Iowa, so that meant heading North out of St. Jo. It was nice to as it was markedly cooler today, and somewhat overcast. I wore a long sleeve t-shirt today, and it was great not having to slather on sunscreen.
St. Joseph is an old old town, and the red brick buildings and stone cobblestone streets make it seem even older. The weather forecast on CNN this morning had tornado warnings up north around Council Bluffs and Omaha, so I had to pare back my trip some and just nick a small corner of Iowa, before heading into Nebraska. Riding in Iowa and Nebraska means I've ridden in all the lower 48 states. It's one of those weird statistics I know, but it's amazing to think that I have. In all but a few of those states on this bike too. A handful of states have been on rental bikes, but the bulk has been on this machine.
I love the farm country of Missouri, Iowa, and Nebraska. The big machines, the endless rows of corn, the small towns, the farmhouses with their silos. I don't know why but the silos in the background of that picture intrigue me and always have. I need to ask my cousin Kay about the silos. They are metal, obviously prefabricated somewhere, but where does one buy one and who puts it together? I remember she had one on their farm, and I love seeing them to this day -- with their "brand" name like "Souix" on them.
Every now and then I run across an old school, or church, or unused farm. I loved this one with the rusty playground merry-go-round out front. The only reason I even found this one is that there was a bridge washout on the road I was taking and so I had to take a 15 mile detour through the Missouri countryside where I found it.
Shortly after crossing into Nebraska I started to get hungry. I was heading west on NE-2 about 40 miles East of Lincoln, on a road which seemed to bypass most of the towns by just a few miles. Finally there was a cluster of buildings and a gas station and I thought to myself "surely there will be a cafe of some sort". I was disappointed to say the least when all that was there was a gas station with gas station food and a "Subway". However, I noticed a small sign that said "Business District - 1/2 mile" with an arrow. I thought, "what the heck, lets see." What I found was perhaps the perfect small town, hidden over the hill from the main road, out of sight, and thus out of mind to most travelers.
This was Syracuse, NE. It had all the elements. Some nice houses, a quaint little unspoiled main street, a rail line, a grain elevator, and even a banner hung across the street by the VFW Women's Auxiliary, welcoming back the troops and thanking them for their service. You can't see it from the road, it's down a hill and hidden. I decided to eat at a small saloon, called "The Triple D", and at 130p I was the only customer.
I turned around and looked back as I was leaving. I was reminded of the line from "Cars". "They are just driving right by, they don't even know what they are missing." Had it not been for that sign saying "Business District 1/2 mile" I would have too.
In Lincoln, I picked up US-34 West. This was named the "Henry Fonda Memorial Highway". I have no idea why, and Wikipedia can't tell me either although IMDB says he was born in Nebraska. A little bit further down the road in Grand Island, I picked up US-30. This is what I was aiming for all day. This is the old Lincoln Highway -- the original transcontinental highway road -- the first coast-to-coast signed auto road. Now days, most of this route is I-80, which is essentially nothing but trucks. Before it was I-80, it was US-30, and before that the Lincoln Highway, and before that the Oregon and Mormon Trails, and before that, the Pony Express Route. The original transcontinental railroad was also built along this route -- the Union Pacific following the pioneer wagon trains as they headed West nearly 150 years ago. This really is the "old road". Off to the North I could see some dark clouds -- the edges of the storm warnings I was seeing earlier in the day that were North of my route. In the plains you can see for miles.
Today 99% of all traffic goes via I-80 about 5 miles South, which suits me just fine. I'd much rather take this quiet older road through all these little Nebraska towns. Watching the grain elevators that mark each town rise before me, and then sink behind me as I pass. About then another one rises in the distance like a medieval castle, all the while a grand highway of steel runs just south of the road -- in places it's a four-track mainline, underneath a blue sky with an endless horizon.
I ended up riding a lot longer today than I thought I would -- about 430 miles. As the sun started to set, it was shining in my eyes and I started to get hungry again, so I pulled into a steak house to let the sun fall from the horizon some and to eat -- and to watch a parade of Union Pacific trains outside go by every few minutes. The Prime Rib was good, and I left at dusk. I managed to pace a train for a fair distance, he was going 50 I was doing 60.
It got me to thinking back to this morning on the banks of the Missouri in St. Jo. Looking across the river back 200 years ago, those folks would never have dreamed of the huge locomotives and trains heading West, nor the paved road, or my Harley V-twin. It would take them months to cover the distance I did in 8 hours. I'll be in Salt Lake City in two days. It would have taken them 5 months. But while the conveyance may have changed, the road itself has not. It still heads West from St. Joseph, and still leads to the future.