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Tornado country

Dave - @8:50 pm

Today was the second day of our “cover lots of miles, in very flat country” days so we got up early in Clive, Iowa and hit the road. First port of call was to fill up with petrol, which is proving to be somewhat more complicated than anticipated. See, American gas stations don’t work like UK petrol stations, and no two American gas stations seem to work in the same way. Most of them have a self-service credit card option, which is good, but all of these machines require a US Zip Code to be entered. Since the only zip code I know is “90210”, which doesn’t work, I’m forced to rely on the manual option.

And this is where it gets complicated. In the UK, you’d fill up the car and pay the man. In the US, you either have to fill up the car and pay the man; or pay the man in advance and fill up the car, then return for any change. But there’s no indication of which option you should take. There’s also a bigger selection of unleaded petrols, each with contradictory names (sometimes you want Super Unleaded, sometimes you want Unleaded). And some pumps require you to flip an extra handle before petrol will flow, otherwise you’re left there wondering what on earth is happening.

My solution, till I get a bit more familiar, is to go inside and say to the attendant, “I’m English, help!”. So far, this is proving to be a winning formula, since an English accent seems to go a long way and they’re generally very friendly.

We eventually got on the road and started off down the long road from Des Moines to Kearney (pronounced Cah-nie) Nebraska. When I say “long road”, I’m not kidding. It’s a single road, the I-80, which is one of the transcontinental interstates. Yesterday we did 150 miles on the I-80, today we did 300 miles and tomorrow we’ll do another 200. It really underlines how big this country is when your sat-nav tells you to continue straight for 175 miles till your next instruction!

It’s also very straight, with barely a single corner for the whole of today’s 300 miles, through mile after mile of flat farmland. So we weren’t anticipating a very interesting journey and settled down with one the countless apparently AC/DC-themed radio stations.

Now, if you’ve been following the US news lately, you’d know that the American midwest (mostly Texas and Oklahoma, but also up into Kansas and Nebraska) has been suffering with a particularly bad period of tornadoes the last few days. We’d been following this and had checked there were no weather alerts before setting out, so we were a little surprised when the local radio station broadcast was interrupted with a public service announcement advising us that Douglas and Lancaster Counties in Nebraska had been issued with tornado warnings for the rest of the day. Nobody else on the road seemed particularly concerned though, and Nebraska is a big state, so we decided to double check where the warnings were for when we stopped for lunch.

Of course, when we stopped for lunch, we realised that Douglas County was the one we just left and Lancaster County was the one we were in! We decided that since we were in the middle of nowhere anyway and nearly through the affected area, we’d continue onwards and be on the lookout.

Photo doesn't do justice to how biblical this was!
Photo doesn’t do justice to how biblical this was!

Just as we entered Lincoln, the sky darkened noticeably and the clouds grew ominous looking and worrying. Then suddenly, the heavens opened and dropped the heaviest rainstorm I’ve ever driven in. It was extremely sudden, like driving into a solid wall of water. Visibility dropped down to feet and the windscreen wipers, already on the “hey, could you wipe a little faster?” setting, were having difficulty keeping up. To make things worse, we were in a section of roadworks and the normal lanes were zig-zagging around very solid looking concrete blocks and the road markings were virtually invisible!

“Follow that guy in front, he looks like he knows what he’s doing”, Michelle suggested, seconds before the guy in front took the exit and left us looking only at driving rain and the faintest hint of tail lights up ahead!

It was easing off at this point
It was easing off at this point

Suddenly, just as we were beginning to think we were seeing our first tornado action, the rain stopped and we emerged into perfectly bright, blue skies and dry roads. It wasn’t a tornado after all, just a very heavy and sudden storm. We’d got off lightly, but when we got to the hotel and checked the weather station, it seems that tornadoes were hitting Texas at around the same time. It’s scary stuff, and makes you wonder how people live with the threat of this every single summer.

But we’re seasoned roadtrippers now, and take this kind of thing in our stride, so we weren’t going to let a simple (and very remote) brush with death, put us off the serious business of roadtripping. So as soon as we got into Kearney and checked into the hotel, we headed out to see what Kearney had to offer.

It's a bridge, over the I-80!
It’s a bridge, over the I-80!

Kearney is a small and quite tired looking town on the Interstate. It seems to exist purely as a halfway point between Des Moines and Denver, which is really why we ended up there. Kearney’s main tourist attraction is a unique museum housed in a cool looking building that stretches across the Interstate itself and focuses on the history of settlement and travel through the midwest across the centuries. If you’ve ever seen the film “About Schmidt”, you’d probably recognise it since it features as one of the stops on Jack Nicholson’s roadtrip.

The museum itself is actually very interesting and covers everything from the Oregon Trail settlers through to modern road trippers and it felt very appropriate to the trip we’re taking. It’s also remarkably popular considering the location and the fact that it was a cold Sunday afternoon in May. We looked around, bought a bottle opener as a souvenir (mostly to stop me injuring myself on beer bottles again!) and had a conversation with a man dressed as Yosemite Sam (or something). I really enjoyed visiting the museum, definitely recommend it if you happen to be driving the I-80.

As seasoned road trippers, we identified with this quote and nodded sagely
As seasoned road trippers, we identified with this quote and nodded sagely

Next we went for a drive around Kearney. There’s not much else to report about the town – it has a fairly quaint main street and endless mile after mile of strip mall with dozens and dozens of fast food restaurants.

Early start tomorrow for the final day of the I-80 marathon, and a couple of days in Denver!


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