Lonesome Winter Highway
New Year’s Eve day we left Lincoln early for the 600-plus mile drive to Ogallala. I-80 was complete from Lincoln to the exit for Ogallala, but it was not yet built from there to the west side of Cheyenne, Wyoming.
An hour on the road, and Nebraska presented us with an expanse of unbroken white stretching in every direction with almost no visual relief. It was a bright and sunny day, and the sunlight behind us reflected off the snow around us, nearly defeating our sunglasses. Of traffic in either direction there was very little. We were alone in a sub-freezing desert of white.
Three hours into the trip we were as silent as the snow. And then I heard a small sound. I looked over, and discovered that Laura was weeping, trying to make no sound. I pulled off the highway and pulled her over to me – easily done in those days without seat belts. As she buried her face in my neck she whimpered, “We’ll die out here.”
I was appalled. Die? What on EARTH? “Why would you say such a thing?” I asked the top of her head. She just sobbed. So I held her until that slowed down some, and I asked her again. This time she answered.
“There’s nobody out here. If we have a wreck we’ll freeze before anybody sees us. I have to sit way over there so you can drive on the snow. I just feel scared and lonely…” Eventually she ran down, and much to my astonishment, I didn’t say anything stupid.
I pushed in the clutch. “Shift for me.” She pushed the shifter from neutral to first gear. I pulled out onto the highway and ran the revs up.
“Shift.” As she took the shifter in hand I clutched and she shifted us into second. I looked down at her and grinned. She smiled back and made herself comfortable under my right arm as I accelerated.
“Shift.” As smoothly as if I were doing it myself we slid into third gear and I raised speed.
The wind blew and I fought the car left-handed. Since traffic was light (we didn’t see a vehicle for the next two hours), I allowed it to slowly move left, and corrected just as slowly to the right. Abruptly, Laura straightened and pointed out the windshield. “Is that a fire?”
Off to the right, several miles ahead, smoke appeared to be rising from beyond the horizon. “Guess we’ll know when we get there, but that’s pretty goofy smoke.” Not only was it white, but it was dissipating at a couple of hundred feet.
We drove on, and eventually came to an exit. A sign said North Platte, and an arrow pointed north, toward the smoke. We took the exit to a north-south road and looked, but could see no sign of a town. “Well,” I said, “I could use some lunch… how about you?”
*Nod* “I’m hungry.” *Small smile*
We headed north. Abruptly, we dropped into a wide cut in the plains. At the bottom lay the North Platte River, and the town of North Platte, Nebraska. The town was strung out along the river with a boulevard Main Street that ran the length of the town. Businesses lined the river and a railroad, with housing backing away toward the steep sides of the cut.
It was the boulevard that caught our attention. A hundred feet wide, east-bound traffic lanes on the south side and west-bound on the north, connected every few hundred feet with traffic cross-overs. Corn piled on the boulevard higher than the houses lining the streets, pouring water vapor two-hundred feet into the air brought me to a stop. I cannot begin to estimate how many thousands of tons of corn were piled there. We could feel the heat coming off the pile when we got out of the car.
It was coming dark as we rolled off the Interstate and drove the few miles to Ogallala, where we had a reservation at the Erin Motel. We found ourselves on a stereotypical Old West Main Street. One-story buildings with two-story facades lined the street, and cowboys in working garb walked from shop to shop. Laura was fascinated. These guys wore jeans, ten-gallon hats and cowboy boots (no guns).
“Chuck, are they shooting a movie?” I looked over, startled, thinking she was serious. An impish grin said “Gotcha.” I grinned back.
We found the Erin Motel, a small white motel covered in shamrocks and leprechauns. I thought at first that it had to be the most anachronistic hotel in the west… but it was part of a chain. When I went to buy a picture postcard of it, there weren’t any… but there was one of a sister motel in Fremont, Nebraska.
Erin Motel (but not ours) Fremont Nebraska
We went to a ‘family’ restaurant (actually just a typical western small town restaurant), and I bought a bottle of Asti (it was now officially New Year’s Eve), and we went back to the motel. But we were still living on Eastern Standard Time… when the ball dropped in New York it was only ten o’clock in Ogallala. The Asti bottle made it to Logan unopened.
New Year’s Day opened to blowing snow and sub-zero temperatures. Twenty minutes out of Cheyenne, we heard on the radio that the ramps to the interstate were closed. Ever hopeful, I said to Th’ Luvly Laura, “We’ll just drive over and see if they’ve opened them by the time we get there.’
“What if they haven’t ?”
“Um-m-m-m… we’ll figure it out.”
When I finally found the entrance, there were neither police nor signage indicating closure in sight, so I wheeled onto the ramp and headed for the freeway.
The wind blew, the car fought, and the snow and sand mix blasted the “Just Married” shaving cream off the car… along with the paint. Somewhere along the way, Laura announced that she HAD to find a bathroom. I had no idea where the next exit was, but there appeared at the side of the road two Porta-Potties. It’s true… it was 1967, and some State contractor had left two portable toilets on the verge after a job. After much fearfulness, she made use of one, but despite all cajolery she refused to speak of her experience.
After a while, she said in a small voice, "Chuck?"
Even smaller voice, "There hasn't been a car on the road since we left Cheyenne."
"Oh, there must have been." I'm searching memory of the drive. There HAD to have been a car, a semi... something. Or not! Finally I had to admit, "Well, I don't remember one."
"The road's closed, isn't it? If something happens, no one will find us. You can't walk anywhere." She began to whimper and her breathing was getting shallow and fast. And then I knew... my beloved Laura was agoraphobic. Big open empty spaces scared her to death.
I pulled her over to me and wrapped her under my right arm. "Nothing is going to happen, I promise. You just hang on to me, and we'll be off this road soon."
Forever later, the Interstate ended again, and we swung onto a mountain road that led to a town called Medicine Bow. What we could see was a three-story wooden hotel, a gas station and a convenience store. I bought gas at the gas station.
The parking lot at the hotel was full, so we parked in the gas station lot after I filled up. Hoping there was a restaurant in the hotel we crossed the street. We climbed three stairs to a small verandah and I reached for the door handle. A small brass plaque screwed to the door jamb read; “Medicine Bow Hotel – It was at this hotel that Trampas shot his father in the pilot for the television series ‘The Virginian’” (a show I’d never watched). I opened the door. The noise and aroma hit us like a wall.
Well, THAT explained the full parking lot. There had to be at least three hundred people in the lobby of the hotel, all talking at once. Trestle tables filled with food accounted for the aroma. A man bustled up and began to strip our coats while he asked rapid-fire questions. Eventually he figured out that we weren’t from anywhere nearby. Apparently, every New Years Day, the entire population of the Medicine Bow environs, townsfolk and ranchers, gathered for a potluck dinner at the hotel. The fee was $5.00 per person (I gathered there was a charity involved) and a dish to pass. We had no dish, but I was reaching for my wallet when the gas station attendant roared through the door like a winter tornado, screaming “Newlyweds!”
Silence. Three hundred heads turned as one to look at us. *Beat… beat…* sound explosion. We were the wonder of the day. Dinner was free, my gas cost was reimbursed, people drew maps on napkins (our next destination was the Outlaw Motel in Rock Springs directly on the road we were on), and everybody wanted to give us a drink, all of which I refused. I think Th’ Luvly Laura had a glass of wine, but she wasn’t driving. It took more than two hours to escape, but I had scheduled short drives. It was still light when we checked into the Outlaw Motel.
The next morning, we slept in. It was a short day, only maybe 150 miles to Laramie. We played tourist and generally enjoyed the day.
In Laramie, we still had daylight again as we checked in. We played tourist again, but in the morning we were off early. The drive to Logan included Logan Canyon Road, a steep and winding road down the canyon that might be a bit difficult to navigate.
When we got to Bear Lake, Idaho we began a steep ascent to the ridge-top. Then we started down. When I had first driven the road, I had averaged less than 30 miles an hour. After a summer of driving it nearly daily, I could do it at highway speed, and I’d forgotten how scary it could be from the passenger seat. Laura soon reminded me. As I swung the little Dodge through a series of “S” curves, I glanced over to her. Her jaw was set, her eyes were staring and she wasn’t blinking, her back was rigid, and she had lowered herself partially into the space between the front seat and the dashboard. I pulled into the next campground.
Very slowly, I helped her onto the seat and pulled her over. “Little scary?”
The highway department had cleared the road well. There was a layer of ‘pie-crust’ snow on it, and the studs were gripping beautifully. “Am I driving too fast?”
*rapid, firm nod*
“OK, I’m not gonna go so fast, but I can’t do this road one-handed either. You’re gonna have to sit over there so I have room to move if I need it.”
I kissed her and guided her away from me slowly. Then I pulled out onto the road and drove more slowly. Even forty-five miles an hour made her anxious, but I had to get down the mountain. About five miles short of Logan, the twists and turns eased up and I pulled her over to me.
I drove to the housing office where I had arranged for an apartment less than a month earlier. We went inside and I handed in my paperwork. The woman at the window said, “Uh-oh.”