Bizarre Trek

How hard can driving from Memphis to Portland be? Lewis and Clark had no idea.

by Paul Gerald

Back in the summer I read the original journals of Lewis and Clark and became fascinated by them. Those guys literally traveled off the map and into a paradise: In what is now Nebraska and South Dakota, they saw immense herds of deer, antelope, elk, wolves, bears, and buffalo. They caught 800 catfish in one day in the Missouri River. They became the first people to cross the continent. They portaged past mighty waterfalls and descended the Columbia River, which no white man had ever done, all the way to the ocean.

When I decided to move to Oregon this fall, I thought it would be neat to retrace Lewis and Clarkās trail. But Lewis and Clark had a distinct advantage on me: They were not in cars. They were on foot, in boats, or riding horses. If they got tired of walking, they got in the boat; when the boats sank, they made new ones or got on the horses; and when the horses died, they ate them. They didnāt have to worry about things like a wheel bearing getting trucked in from Denver, wheel-bearing mechanics putting brakes back together wrong, interstates being closed because of snow, motel rooms without heaters, smart-ass TV weathermen ÷ in short, the curses of modern America.

On my second day out, following the Missouri into Kansas City, it was pouring down rain, but I was happy. I was, after all, on The Road, headed for Montana and then over the mountains and down the mighty Columbia. Adventure! Then I noticed ice on my windshield wipers. Then it started snowing. This was October, in Missouri.

I stopped for the night, several hours early, in St. Joseph, and I watched it snow four inches. A national weather map showed one spot of snow, about 10 counties of it, and I was smack in the middle. The local weather guy informed me that this was the biggest October snowfall in Missouri history. Sure glad I was around for it.

The next day the roads were clear and I put in 11 hours ÷ nine of those in Nebraska, which really needs to plant something other than corn ÷ and reached Cheyenne, Wyoming. There, my hotel room had no heater, and the phone always called completely different numbers from the ones I punched in. Once, for example, I dialed my editor at the Flyer and got the Belgian Consulate in Seattle.

At dawn the next day I was cruising north on Interstate 25, a beautiful day in the Great Wide Open, with Montana on my mind. Hiking! Fishing! Snow-capped mountains! Arlo Guthrie fiddling on the stereo! The open highway! An odd popping noise from the rear of my my car!

Popping noise? Must be backfiring. I took an exit for Glendo, Wyoming (the next exit was 27 miles down the road). Glendo turned out to be a town of 16 blocks, 195 people, and one mechanic. That was Gene, who informed me that I had blown a wheel bearing ("see how yer tahr is leaninā like āat? That aināt good, heh heh heh.") and that it would be tomorrow before the parts could be trucked in.

This was not a problem Lewis and Clark would have had to deal with: "Well, sir, we could shoe that horse, but we donāt have the right size shoe for him. Weāll have to wait for the next wagon train, which is due in about 30 years."

A night alone in Glendo. I was one of five customers at a restaurant which had no name that I could find, but did have a lovely mural on the front wall of Foghorn Leghorn swigging a bottle of brew. Afterwards I "retired" to the (no kidding) Old Western Saloon, where the bartender was nice enough to keep the place open so I could finish watching a World Series game. He called his wife to say heād be home soon, "as soon this olā boy in here gets through watchinā the ballgame." I got real nervous as the Braves put the tying run on in the ninth inning, raising the ugly specter of extra innings, but the Yankees, God bless āem, closed it out, and we all got to go home.

The only other customer in the place, a crazy-looking woman wearing a Nebraska Cornhuskers jacket, told me how the stuff they use to make the lines on a baseball field is mined right here in eastern Wyoming. It was an odd conversation.

Glendo, by the way, has two bars, which I consider an impressive number in a town of 195 people. Only in South Naknek, Alaska (population 54 people and one bar) have I encountered a more impressive population-to-libation ratio. And the Old Western sports a tremendous collection of fancy-shaped bottles, the centerpiece of which is a vintage 1956 Elvis. If you think youāll leave The King behind when you leave Memphis, forget it.

That night the weatherman on TV actually said, "Goshdarnit folks, we just had a winter storm, and here comes another one!" I envied Lewis and Clark not having TV weathermen to torture them, and decided to take the southern, flatter route to Oregon.

(This is part I of a two-part story.)