Yesterday my plane arrived in Omaha from New Jersey just as the sun was setting. Once I settled into the seat of my rental for the two and a half hour drive west to my hometown, I realized that this was the first time I was making this trip alone in almost ten years.
The road from Omaha to Hastings is a well-worn one for me. It was the path home after countless debate and band competitions in high school, to college and back, and then the last leg of my long sojourns home from Chicago, Champaign, and Grand Rapids. I know every road sign, every gas station, every distant grain elevator. The names of the towns are a familiar litany: Gretna, Ashland, Waverly, Seward, Friend, Beaver Crossing (one of my favorites), Aurora, Giltner, Doniphan and many more. In the last decade I've had my wife with me on this leg, and I tell her the same stories about every spot in the road and she patiently waits until about York or so to remind me that I've told all these stories before.
By myself, with no one to tell my stories to, I was struck by the forbidding nature of the drive. Once you get west of Omaha, the sky opens up, a massive sky that feels like it could crush you without a thought. In the dark it is that much more powerful. The real moment of shock, however, comes in a little bend in the road just on the west side of Lincoln. The fifty miles between Lincoln and Omaha have become ever more crowded as these sprawling and growing cities seem destined to join in one giant blob of subdivisions and strip malls. However, once you pass the last exit for Lincoln, the one for Northwest 48th Street, the interstate makes a little curve, you go over a hill, and suddenly all the lights are out. The darkness is darker than any other I've known, a darkness that makes you feel like the other cars on the road represent the only other living people left in the world.
Driving on the sparsely traveled roads of Nebraska at night can be a kind of spiritual experience, but one I took for granted as a child. I never knew that getting from here to there was not a reminder of human mortality in other parts of the country. Last night I even took a little detour, taking a two-lane road for about ten miles, a route where I did not see a single sign of another person until I hit Doniphan. It was like a trip to a distant, empty planet. Under that limitless, inky black sky I never could have imagined that I take a train to the beating heart of Manhattan's human ant swarm every work day. It's been a good respite to be west of Omaha.