Grand Island

Stephanie climbed up the side of the truck, and slid into the driver's seat. She twisted the key in the ignition, and the engine rumbled. Our arms were tired from packing the truck the night before, but our spirits were riding high as we rolled out of Madison and onto U.S. Highway 151, westbound. It was Monday, December 1, 1997. There aren't many dates that I remember without doublechecking, but this date I do recall. It was a big day. Our lives would never be the same.
We weren't leaving as early as we'd hoped, because there had been last-minute things to take care of in Madison, but Steph had made us breakfast before packing the last box in the back of the truck. After months of planning and days of packing, we were finally rolling west. Driving across Wisconsin, we talked all morning and into the afternoon, about everything in this universe and beyond.
We started by talking about our itinerary for the trip: The drive to California would take three days, we figured, with no more than ten hours of driving time each day. We were planning to simply drive until we were tuckered out each day, and find a hotel as needed each night along the way. We had chips and water in the cab of the truck, and a map of the U.S.A., so we thought we were prepared.
We talked about what we would do and how our lives would be, living in San Francisco. Stephanie would move in with me, to the room I'd been renting in a dirty, dingy, decrepit hotel — the kind of hotel that has no concierge, no maids, no standards, and the elevator has been broken since the 1950s.
But she wouldn't call someplace "home" where she had to share the toilet and shower with strangers from other rooms. Also, of course, she wanted to cook, and the rez hotel had a rule against cooking. And it had no kitchens. So our plan was that Stephanie would look for a job, and once she'd been hired someplace we would start trying to find a cheap apartment. Even in 1997, though (and much more now), there was simply no such thing as a "cheap apartment" in San Francisco. It's one of the world's most expensive places to live, and I had warned her that finding an apartment might take months.
In retrospect, I don't think I really understood how scary all of this was for Stephanie. I had done this before — left Seattle, where I grew up, and moved to Los Angeles, where I didn't know anyone. And then, when I decided L.A. wasn't for me, I'd moved to Bakersfield, where I also knew no-one. And then, when Bakersfield didn't feel like a good fit, I'd moved to San Francisco, where I knew nobody. Third time's the charm. I'd been in Frisco for six years, and to me it was home.
For Stephanie, though, San Francisco was ominous — she'd know nobody there except me, and did she really know me? We had spent two weeks together, five months earlier, and then spent several days in Madison, packing and saying goodbye. So we'd had perhaps eighteen days together, and here we were, rolling down the freeway to forever.
We took Highway 151 southwest from Madison, entered Interstate-80 westbound, and then spent hours crossing Iowa. I don't remember much about that part of the drive, and corn is the only thing I know about Iowa. The truck ran well, but it wouldn't run fast; we figured out that it had a "governor" device, which limited its speed to about 50 miles per hour. Also, the truck drank gasoline like a drunk drinks Thunderbird wine — lots, and frequently.
I stupidly wasn't taking notes, so like everything else written here, the story I'm about to tell has been reassembled entirely from an old man's memory. I only know what freeway we took because Google says that Interstate-80 passes through Council Bluffs, Iowa, and I definitely remember Council Bluffs. That's where Stephanie and I had our first fight.
We had been driving for several hours and we were hungry, but we wanted to avoid fast food on the trip, as it could be hard on Steph's rather delicate digestion. So we instead parked the truck at a big supermarket, and went inside to wander the aisles. It wasn't quite as delightful as when we'd wandered the aisles at the Marina Safeway. I didn't know what we were looking for, just something for lunch, but we obviously couldn't cook in the truck so it would have to be a cold lunch.
Stephanie had an idea. "We could buy a couple of heads of lettuce and some other vegetables, and some dressing, and splurge on some pre-cooked shrimp, and I could make shrimp louie."
The thought of shrimp louie makes my mouth water as I'm typing this, and eating it in a U-Haul truck would've been a terrific meal indeed. But I wasn't enthusiastic about the idea. "Sounds like a lot of work, a lot of mess. And we'd have to buy some bowls."
"Well, I packed the bowls and silverware and spices and stuff where they're accessible, quick and easy, right by the roll-up door. And it's winter, so all the leftovers will keep nicely in the back of the truck."
"Maybe," I said. "But I'm a fat guy, and I'm not sure salad would fill me up."
She frowned for a moment, and walked off down a different aisle. Later, slowly, I figured out that shrimp louie hadn't just popped into her head — she'd probably planned it as our lunch all along, and I'd deflated her bright idea. But I was too many years single and too dim a bulb to figure that out as it happened. When I caught up with her in the meat section, though, she already had a back-up plan.
"They have pre-cooked chicken that looks good. We could buy some tortillas and a few veggies, and I'll bet I could make us some cold chicken wraps we'd be happy with."
I shrugged, and she frowned again and walked away. And no, even all these years later, I can't explain why I was anything less than enthusiastic. A beautiful woman was offering to make lunch and share it with me, and I was being difficult.
She was waiting in the deli section. "OK," she said, "I could make a shawarma bowl. They have tahini, so all I'd need is some Greek yogurt and a can of garbanzo beans, some vegetables, and some cooked turkey or chicken."
"Well, you'd need spices, wouldn't you?"
"Yeah, but I told you, all that stuff is in a box right inside the truck's roll-up door."
"Sure seems like a lot of work."
She frowned a third time, which meant I'd struck out. "So what do you want to do for lunch?"
"I don't know," I said, and this time it was me who did the wandering away.
She followed me. "We have to eat, you know."
"What about sandwiches?" I asked.
I grabbed a can of Spam off a shelf. "Yeah, maybe Spam sandwiches. I love Spam. A loaf of bread, a can of Spam, and thou."
She stared at me, then said, "I don't even know what Spam is. Does anyone know?"
"It's some kind of pork concoction. Meaty. Salty. We ate a lot of it in my family, growing up."
She took the can of Spam from my hand, and backed a few steps away from me, as I continued rhapsodizing on the culture and cuisine of Spam. Then the can of Spam went flying past my head.
"I am not having Spam for lunch," she announced. The can ricocheted off a shelf, and knocked some other prepackaged foodstuffs onto the floor. Pondering the pork product projectile, I said nothing, so Stephanie repeated herself. "I don't know what you're going to eat, but I'm not having Spam."
I don't remember what we had for lunch in Council Bluffs, that afternoon. Maybe we bought some groceries and Stephanie made something fabulous for us, or maybe we went to a Denny's. Whatever we ate, it wasn't Spam.
Steph promptly and profusely apologized, of course, for launching the lunchmeat at me, and reassured me that she'd missed my head on purpose. Indeed, she had missed my head by several feet, so I don't think she was aiming to give me a concussion. It was the first and last moment of domestic violence in our marriage. All our other arguments were settled only with words.
I, of course, apologized for my vivid cluelessness in the store, where I'd repeatedly dismissed all her suggestions, any one of which would've doubtless been superior to Spam sandwiches. I'd been trying to make sure lunch was easy, but easy wasn't what Steph wanted. She wanted to make a nice meal. She loved cooking, and always wanted to make a nice meal, even on the road in Iowa.
We were both idiots that afternoon. We'd both grown accustomed to living alone, and when you live alone you decide things for yourself. For me, living alone so many years, sandwiches had been breakfast, lunch, and dinner thousands of times. But now that we were a couple, neither of us would be deciding such things alone, and instead there would be negotiating and compromising every day.
On this particular afternoon, we decided together that we would proceed across the state line into Nebraska, driving a few more hours before calling it a night. So we motored the U-Haul in to Omaha, and then flashing lights appeared in the rear view mirror, and we were pulled over by a cop on the freeway. It was, in a word, weird. Stephanie had been driving, but she wasn't speeding, wasn't swerving, and the shoulder where we'd pulled over seemed like a dangerous place to be, on the side of a busy freeway.
The policeman looked long and hard at Stephanie's license, and asked her the ordinary questions, and then asked some questions that didn't seem ordinary. "Are you moving to Omaha, or moving away from Omaha?" Huh? He'd just seen her driver's license, so he knew she was from Wisconsin, not Omaha. "Are you two married?" What difference would that make? "Did you go to college?" Why would a cop ask that question? His demeanor was polite, but his questions were kooky. Stephanie politely answered everything he asked, while I sat mute in the passenger seat, using all the patience and prudence I could muster to keep quiet.
Then the policeman told Stephanie to get out of the truck and walk back to the police car, while I was told to remain in the truck. I very nearly shouted No!, as this request seemed miles from typical, and the shoulder was too narrow for the truck, and there was nobody else in the squad car — don't cops usually patrol in pairs? But a quick glance from Stephanie told me to say nothing, so I sat there and waited and watched my watch, while she spent six minutes in the police car.
When Stephanie came back to the truck, it was without the police officer. She'd said she'd been scared, and that something was off-kilter about that cop. She'd been given a warning but no ticket. And OK, no ticket is nice, but even the warning was ludicrous — for using her blinkers too briefly when changing lanes. Who gets pulled over for that? And what kind of cop asks the driver if she's married or went to college?
Stephanie was right; something was definitely off-kilter about that whole scene, but we'd escaped unscathed. She started the truck and we were on our way again. But seriously, a memo to the Omaha Police Department — bite me.
After Omaha, the sun went down and snow began falling, but Stephanie had been raised in the Midwest, and she knew how to drive in the snow. It seemed silly to slow down, she said, since the truck resolutely refused to go faster than 50 mph even when the pedal was floored.
As we approached Lincoln, it was past dusk, not far below freezing, and there was a layer of ice, utterly invisible on the Interstate. The truck began to slide. At fifty miles an hour. I've done some slipping and sliding in cars, but it's much more frightening to slip and slide in a 6,000-pound truck, a truck we we weren't familiar with, loaded with a thousand pounds of boxes, crates, and furniture. One moment we were driving on the freeway, la-di-da la-di-da, and the next moment we could feel the back of the truck sliding out of our lane.
The experts say, if you're caught in a winter ice- or snow-skid, first, don't apply the brakes; second, turn into the slide; and third, don't over-correct with aggressive steering. I had heard these rules many times, but it's doubtful that I would've remembered such solid advice at the moment it was most needed, especially if that moment came with no warning, as it did. So I'm glad Stephanie was driving, and not me. She reacted exactly right — didn't brake, turned into the slide, and didn't aggressively over-correct her steering. The vehicle rotated about thirty degrees on the sheet of ice before she regained control, and gently brought us to a stop on the shoulder.
It was terrifying, though. There had been moderate traffic on the interstate, but we happened upon the ice slick at exactly the moment when there were no vehicles in any adjacent lanes. No death, no injuries, and no damage to the truck or to the contents thereof. There wasn't even any screaming from either of us.
But, still — sweet jeebers! If Stephanie hadn't handled the truck precisely perfect, we were moments from death. If the U-Haul didn't have a "governor" device, limiting us to 50 mph when we'd wanted to go faster, where would we be? In an alternate reality, one where Steph tapped on the brakes or turned the steering wheel away from the slide instead of into it, we were dead on the first day of our drive to California. We never arrived where we were going, we never had a happy marriage, and everything that happened over the subsequent 21 years never happened.
The truck remained on the shoulder for several minutes, engine idling and flashers blinking, while we caught our breath and decided that our day was over, and we would spend the night at the next hotel we saw. Then Steph carefully wheeled the truck back on to the freeway, and we soon exited into the city of Lincoln, Nebraska, where a sign had promised lodging could be found.
Lincoln, however, was almost as terrifying as the skid. We never found the hotel; we only found the blackness of night and blurriness of snowfall. From the off-ramp toward the city, we drove several miles and saw no streetlights, no other vehicles going in any direction, and no sign of any hotel. The effect was increasingly eerie.
At one point, we waited at a deserted stop light with no cross-traffic, and when the light allowed it Steph made a left turn. In the snow and darkness, however, she hadn't noticed that she was turning on to a divided highway, so our U-Haul was ambling down the wrong side of a completely dark and empty road. Stephanie remained calm and executed a Y-turn, and as she shifted out of reverse she said, "I'm sure Lincoln is a lovely town, but whatever part of Lincoln we're in, it's scaring the hell out of me, and I don't see any evidence of the lodging we were promised."
"You've seen enough of scenic Lincoln?" I asked.
"I've seen more than enough," she answered, and at a slow speed we began re-tracing the route that had brought us to the wrong side of the highway on the wrong side of Lincoln. We were headed back toward the Interstate. "We'll pull over at the first sign of a hotel. You know, a hotel that actually exists, unlike the alleged hotel at the exit we took."
"If you want a break," I said, "I am tanned, rested, and ready to drive."
"I'll drive," she said, "but I do want a brief break." And at that moment, out of the darkness a small city park came into view, which seemed like a good place to park for a few minutes and collect our wits. But the park was eerie, too. There was one light bulb illuminating a fraction of the parking lot, where ours was the only vehicle, but the rest of the park was drenched in darkness and snow. You could see the silhouette of swings and picnic tables, and it was all quite spooky. We pulled out of that parking lot about thirty seconds after we pulled in, with out wits still uncollected.
"You're sure you're OK driving?" I asked.
"Yeah, I've got this. If you took the wheel now, I'd feel like a starting pitcher yanked for a reliever. I want to go the whole nine innings."
"You got in a little bit of trouble, continuing the baseball metaphor. The bases were loaded, but you've worked your way out of the jam."
"Hope so, and it's about time. I almost got arrested in Omaha, almost got us killed back on the ice, and then I took us down the wrong side of some deserted highway here in Lincoln."
"Well, let's get out of Lincoln."
We got back onto Interstate-80 and drove another fifty miles or so, before finding a hotel on the outskirts of Grand Island, Nebraska. The hotel was clean and reasonably priced, and the guy manning the desk made us feel welcome. We drove into town and had dinner at a Chinese restaurant in a mall, and then saw a movie at the mall's cinema. We returned to the hotel, and Steph slept deeply that night, but I slept lightly.
I was worried, because from the window in our room, we couldn't see the U-Haul where we'd parked it, and that truck was holding everything Stephanie owned. She wasn't concerned about the distance between us and the truck, but I put my pants on and checked on the truck several times during the night. Everything was untouched, of course, and to the good folks of Grand Island I'd say, thanks for the memories, thanks for not breaking into our truck, and thanks for a quiet respite in the middle of an exhausting drive.
There was probably nothing grand about Grand Island. Looking it up on Google Maps today, guess what? It's not even on an island. It's just another town on the Nebraska prairie, I'm sure. But for us, that first night on the road, Grand Island was exactly what we needed — peaceful, quiet, welcoming, and well-lit. We were jittery and jumpy when we arrived there, but rested and relaxed when we left the next morning. Talking about everything that had happened the day before, Stephanie said, "We made it through yesterday, so I think we can make it through anything." Smart lady. She was right.
Once or twice over the years, we spoke of vacationing in Omaha and Lincoln, but we were of course joking. We also spoke occasionally about returning to Grand Island, for a brief vacation or a longer stay, or even to retire. About that we weren't joking that town is sincerely a happy memory. But we never returned to Nebraska.
The next day, we went motoring into Wyoming and points west, and that's the next story I'll tell. But first, a tangentially-related memory pops into my head, added now as an addendum: My beloved Stephanie never ate a Spam sandwich in her life. Some years later, though, she did consent to try a few bites of scrambled eggs and fried Spam I'd made myself for breakfast one morning. She pronounced it, "Not as awful as I'd expected, but also not good."