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March 07, 2007

Day 2: Endless Nebraska

Day 2: Endless Nebraska
Illustration by Graham Roumieu

We pulled out of Chicago yesterday morning a little later than we should  have. Rush hour was in full swing, which wasn't such a bad thing, because Chicago has to have one of the finest looking downtowns in America. The buildings are stately, yet beautiful, and it all seems to have been laid out coherently--not as haphazard as New York City.  In all, we saw a lot more of downtown Chicago than we should have because our trip computer, who had been reliable up until this point, got pretty confused. She had us driving in circles, turning right down one way streets, and told us to pull onto highway on-ramps that were a hundred feet above our head.

Downtown Chicago
Downtown Chicago

But that would be the only complaint about a car that has, thus far, been nothing short of fantastic. The best thing is the Bluetec engine, which is a new fuel efficient diesel technology from Europe that we can finally use here, now that the government has got around to taking most of the sulfur out of the diesel fuel. The E320 CDI gets 27 miles per gallon on the highway. It took us about a single tank of gas to get from New York to Chicago. It's a big tank, mind you, but it's a big distance, too.

More importantly, the car has serious power. Diesel engines are known for torque, and this engine is one big ball of torque. Punch the accelerator down at a standstill and the seat-suck lasts a a full eight seconds, by which time you're doing a good 80 mph. And then there's the ride, as smooth as a cold slab of butter sliding across a hot iron pan.

By noon, we made Davenport, Iowa, where Jack Kerouac stopped in at the diner at the bus station for a slice of pie and ice cream. We wanted to go to the very same diner but, alas, it is no longer. The bus station was ripped down some time ago and replaced with a newer one that looks a lot uglier than the old one, even though I have never seen the old one. There was a diner at the old train station-maybe the one Kerouac visited-but it's closed now. I was told there still is a diner across the Mississippi, in Rock Port, Illinois.

But the news is mainly good for Davenport. It is one surprisingly handsome town. As you drive in, the streets are lined with big old mansions-beige brick must be local, because you see it everywhere-and as you cruise down towards the water, the streets become crowded with gorgeous old stone buildings. Graham looked around and said, "There must have been money here at some point." There's a new building, too, the Figge Art Museum-a big, geometric glass building that must look quite impressive from Rock Port. I wished we had time to check out that gallery, but we didn't.

Nebraska driving
Aiiiiiiiii!  Welcome to Nebraska
And then we hit Nebraska. Neil Young should write a song about Nebraska, a wailing, sad hymn about hardship and suffering, because that's what it feels like to drive across I-80. There's a sense of servitude following this unending strip of asphalt. You feel like an amoeba crawling at full speed across a dinner plate. The place is flat, so flat that you can't even judge distance anymore. To look out the window is to see everything and nothing. I am told that 50 miles north of the interstate are the sand hills, which are rolling and pretty. But there was none of that to be had on I-80. So we sped. I know a guy who got a ticket for going 57 in a 50 in Nebraska. That's just not right. We got lucky. Did 80 or 85 the whole way and never got caught.

Here's a typical snippet of in-car conversation in Nebraska:

"There's something really big way over there to the left."



"I don't even thing I can form words anymore."


Ole's Big Game Steakhouse, Lounge and Restaurant
Dead animals, beer and steak.  What the
Heartland does best. 
We had dinner at a great place in Paxton called Ole's Big Game Steakhouse, Lounge and Restaurant. There were something like 200 hundred head of game on the wall, all shot, I was told, by the owner, Ole himself, who's been dead for more than a decade, and the place has the feel of an era in which we still had to prove to ourselves that we are the masters of the planet. I ate a chicken-fried steak, which I'd never tasted before. It came with hash browns that were more like rosti, and cole slaw which was good. I liked the meal. The bartender was nice enough to hug.

We cruised into Cheyenne around midnight and pulled into a Best Western and then went to bed, listening to the sad sound of the train whistles off in the distance. 


Hey Mark! Really enjoying the blogs. Take care.

really enjoyiong the blog.

Tennessee is about the same as Nebraska. Sure, you get cities now and then, but I-40 runs dead down the middle for the length of it. Looking forward to further reports

I used to make this trip all the time from the university in Lincoln to home in Scottsbluff. I agree, it's long and it's hard. Try it during a blizzard! Ole's is fantastic - love the buffalo burger there. However, it's too bad you didn't have time to explore the state a bit more. I-80 is not the only impression of Nebraska you should have!

Thanks for noticing that Davenport is a handsome city. As a local I feel it's important to point out that the city across the river is Rock Island, not Rock Port.

See it on Google Maps:

Enjoying the blog. I've done Nebraska twice, once eastbound, once westbound. I-80 could not be more boring. Here is a favorite photo from that trip - I think it sums up that strectch of road perfectly! Lori

in Germany, they call chicken Fried Steak and french fried. Weiner Schnitzel and pommes Frittes. The best eatin on both sides of the ocean.

great diner in north platte ? or ogallala ?
its been a while since i drove i 80

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