I turned off Route 30 in Duncan, Nebraska to see the Platte River, but it was practically all dried up. It was the end of August, and it had depressed me. I’d expected water, life. So I got out of the rental and peed beneath a bridge, its underside covered in fantastical graffiti I couldn’t possibly decipher, the language and icons of barely adults, I myself so far from that version of myself, long past and incomprehensible, even to me. It started to mist then, the grey threatening to swallow me up.
I avoided the interstate that day, a pilgrim in my own land, easing through one small Nebraska town after another, trying to imagine the lives they held. They declared themselves on signs: “The Center of It All,” “A Slice of the Good Life,” “Smile City,” “An All-American City.” I envied their certainty.
Later, the sun. And outlines of birds, black on the wires, as the Union Pacific and Burlington Northern rumbled past. Wild, ecstatic sunflowers sprouted between the road and the tracks. I envied those, too, their unbridled joy.
At dusk, a god-awful stench engulfed me for miles, before and after a monstrous pen of cattle in a quagmire of filth outside of North Platte.
Miles away, as the wide sky went inky and the moon slid upward, I pulled over, rolled down the windows again, smelled the damp earth. A windmill in the distance squeaked out a lullaby behind a chorus of katydids. It was the last night of a solo road trip, in search of some version of America I’d wanted to see for myself for the first time—the plains, the heartland—before tucking myself back into place among the familiar in suburban central New Jersey, which had its own fertile farmland and the sweetest corn I’ve ever tasted. And subdivisions, clogged roads, malls, and packed trains running to Philadelphia and New York, just slivers of sky visible through the windows.
The next morning, I crossed into Colorado with melancholy riding shotgun. Headed south on Route 71, I passed a sign for Last Chance, seventeen miles ahead. A ghost town, whatever that meant. We all have our ghosts, I thought. Every town, every family, every person. And, anyway, there were still some signs of life in Last Chance: windows with curtains, and curtains counted for something, didn’t they?
On I went until, suddenly, a faint outline of the Rockies, gasping through the smog. Denver, the airport, the flight back east, home, the mini-van, the book club. Last chance, the voice whispered in my head, last chance. For what? I wondered. For what?
Sue Repko has an essay forthcoming in The Southeast Review, and her nonfiction has appeared in Hippocampus, The Common, Literal Latte, Swink, Princeton Alumni Weekly, and a few anthologies. Her fiction has appeared in The Gettysburg Review, Beloit Fiction Journal, Bryant Literary Review, and other print and online journals. She has an MFA from the Bennington Writing Seminars and teaches English at Phillips Exeter Academy in Exeter, NH.