Chicago, Illinois to Williams, Iowa (~320 miles)
The remnants of a Pacific tropical storm had finally reached the Mid-West and we awoke to a driving rain storm – and then spent the morning driving west through it. We weren’t allowed any respite from the rain until we reached the Ulysses S. Grant Home State Historic Site in Galena, Illinois. We stopped there primarily (OK, they had toilets too) to recognize the U.S. President that, despite a scandal-plagued adminstration, had the wisdom to create, in 1872, Yellowstone National Park. We were here years ago to hike the Illinois state highpoint, Charles Mound (1,235 feet), which is northeast of Galena. Then we crossed the Mississippi River into Dubuque, Iowa and stopped for lunch at Caroline’s Restaurant (very good fish tacos), after which we indulged ourselves on bound cellulose at nearby River Lights Books. West of Dubuque US20 is, for all practical purposes, a freeway lined with vast fields of corn and large silos to store it in. We flew along and made it to our hotel in Williams, Iowa (at the intersection of US20 and I-35, “The Crossroads of Iowa”) well before dark. Williams is small (population 344) and the only place to eat was the Boondocks Cafe (which served a marginal, but filling, dinner) across from the hotel. The Boondocks (a cafe, hotel, and gas station) clearly dated to the early days of US20, so we got to experience some of that nostalgia close-up. Unfortunately, a corporate Flying J truck stop had just opened a few blocks away and it seemed to be drawing all the truck traffic away from the Boondocks – so the future of this bit of old US20 may be limited.
Williams, Iowa to Chadron, Nebraska (~525 miles)
This was planned as our longest day of driving but the maps showed US20 going flat out across sparsely populated farm and range land, so it seemed doable. US20 was a fast four-lane until Early, Iowa where we were diverted on to backroads by road construction. After getting back to US20, we were again detoured by 4-lane construction. They’re widening US20 here to four-lanes, so it looks like it will be that way all across Iowa. We reached a foggy Sioux City, Iowa in time for lunch and then crossed the Missouri River and started across Nebraska. Here US20 isn’t four-lane but good 2-lane with light traffic and widely spaced small towns, so the driving was relatively fast and easy.
Just west of Ainsworth, Nebraska, we crossed the 100th meridian – one hundred degrees of longitude west of Greenwich – and the boundary between the moist east (precipitation is in excess of twenty inches, so irrigation is often not necessary) and the arid west. It was established in 1879 by John Wesley Powell, then head of the U.S. Geological Survey (and the first to boat the Colorado through the Grand Canyon). The biographies of Powell by Donald Worster, A River Running West (2001), and Wallace Stegner, Beyond the Hundredth Meridian (1954), are excellent. What’s amazing is that you can see this change on the ground – within just a few miles we went from Eastern corn country to Western cow country, as fields of corn quickly gave way to grassy range land. Boosters convinced that “rain follows the plow” ignored Powell’s warnings about aridity, took us into the Dust Bowl (see Timothy Egan’s The Worst Hard Time (2006)), and were saved by the Ogallah Aquifer. But that aquifer isn’t, as is aridity, forever.
Despite the long drive, we pulled in to our hotel in Chadron, Nebraska with daylight to spare. Chadron, home to Chadron State College, and a regional center in the Nebraska panhandle, seemed pretty healthy compared to some of the other towns we’d passed though on this day. We had some nicely done char burgers at the Wings Bar and Grill (apparently the local student hang-out but willing to serve geezers), and then called it yet another day.