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Off the beaten path – Cracked Ice and Chrome

Off the beaten path

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As I mentioned in my last post, I chose to take a bit of a photography-related trip through the backroads of Nebraska.  I love traveling by car and getting off the interstate.  I don’t want to stop at Walmart  — I want to stop at the local variety store.  I don’t want to stay in Holiday Inn — I want to stay at the mom & pop motel down the road that doesn’t have a pool  and hasn’t redecorated in a couple decades but still has clean and comfortable rooms.  Even if the room is horribly outdated, like the Pioneer Motel in Minden, Nebraska, was, I would still want to stay there.  Case in point:

If that doesn’t make you feel like it’s 1978 again, then I don’t know what will.

This trip included a drive through the sand hills of Nebraska — a wide open and desolate drive in spots due to the remote gravel roads that stretched on forever through acres and acres of nothingness.

Part of the trip included stopping by little cemeteries along the road.  The best cemeteries are the ones that have a plethora of old headstones.  You know there are stories associated with these people’s lives that we will never know, and such land contains a lot of memories and heartache.  I am always astounded at the number of plots that contain children and babies.  I saw one plot that had three markers — all children — that died on three consecutive days. Can you imagine the heartache?  I always wonder how people picked themselves up and moved on after a tragedy like that.  Due to the marvel of modern science, such tragedy is rare these days, but even a hundred years ago, those epidemics were common.  I saw clusters of headstones that had children from the same family, all small children or babies, that died over a long period of time.  I cannot even imagine what pain or strained joy a pregnancy would bring.  Would this one live?  Would any of them live?

I saw wheat fields stretched out for as long as the eye could see, all nestled under a bright blue sky that perfectly contrasted the colors of the field.

I saw roads that ran for miles in the distance, zipping up and down the sand hills and running off into the horizon.  Every highway seemed to lead to a new adventure — a new small town with awesome retro signage — but sometimes the roads just led to more roads, and that was OK too.

I saw fields that contained colors so vivid and interesting that they seemed to be concocted from an artist’s brush, but they were merely the product of everyday farming activities and the clear blue sky.

I saw thunderstorms roll in across the plains and light up the sky in amazing lightning shows.

I saw abandoned houses in the middle of nowhere — so remote and alone that it gave me pause to appreciate having to be self-sufficient in a land that doesn’t give one iota whether you live or die.  No neighbors to help.  No internet to look things up on.  No cell phones to call for help.  It’s just you and the wide open expanse.

I saw the landscape of Nebraska transform from the dry sand hills to the lush, green forests in the northwest part of the state.  The difference between the two landscapes was literally a few miles. One moment you’re in an almost desert environment and the next you’re looking at pine trees and hills and fields of goldenrod.

Drive a few miles more and you’re out in the flat expanse of the plains, surrounding by wheat and corn fields that Nebraska is probably best known for.

I saw how beautiful simple green pastures, blue sky, and a white gravel road can be when they’re put together just right.

I saw pastures full of bison and it made me wonder if this is how the plains looked back when these lands still were the bison’s natural home and the fences didn’t exist.

I saw the past and the present nestled together in the same frame of my pictures sometimes.  Here we have an old church crumbling under the arrogant stance of a cell phone tower.

At the end of this trip, I not only understood Nebraska a lot better, but I had a renewed sense of appreciation for the settlers of these parts of the country.  I haven’t been in such remoteness in a long time, and we tend to be too reliant on Google to give us instant answers … too anxious to allow Amazon to give us everything our hearts desire … too impatient with satellite TV to provide us with instant entertainment.  You drive through country like this and you wonder if you’d be able to survive if you were dropped in the middle of this desolate country with no technology to make things easier.  You are at the mercy of the weather, the seasons, and your own common sense to get you through each day and protect yourself and your family.  If a sickness swept through your house and wiped out all your kids, you had no one to blame and no one to sue; you picked up the pieces of your life and moved on.

This trip made me hungry to discover the rest of the country.  True, I’ve driven through a lot of the country — all of the western states, in fact.  But on this trip, we took the time to really pay attention to what we were driving through.  We drove for hours on backroads and one-lane gravel roads that went on forever.  We stopped at the mom-and-pop motels and ate at Zesto’s and other local places.  At least twice I heard fellow travelers ask the locals if there was a Walmart in town, and it just made me want to scream.  Walmart didn’t build this town.  The people who own the local diners and motels and variety stores did.

And I know — progress is progress and I am not a luddite who cannot see advantages of such progress.  Sometimes, however, it is worth taking the time to remember where we came from and to see where we are going …. and to ponder whether we want to take the interstate to that future or one of the roads less traveled.


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