Dark Places in the Nebraskabyss.
I got a late start out of Omaha. That sentence is fraught for several reasons.
The night before, during my compulsive pre-departure route-checking, Google maps spat out an 8-hour trip separating me from Denver, shaving two hours off of my initially-planned 10-hour trek.
I was skeptically thrilled. Even a friend double-checked the route for me. Eight hours. Okay. Sold.
It wasn't until I was on the road for an hour or two and stopped at a Kum & Go (!!!) that the map corrected itself and added several hundred miles ahead of me.
I bellowed several creative invectives and resigned myself to the caprices of the Nebraska Triangle.
As Cacambo so adroitly put it in Voltaire's Candide: "If we do not find anything very pleasant, at least we shall find something new.”
And Nebraska afforded so many... new experiences.
There was the abandoned Pony Express station in Gothenberg, for example. I'd abruptly pulled over when I saw the highway sign, only to find the museum was closed.
A grizzled biker and I ignored each other and circled around the sad building. I left quickly as a chipper middle-aged couple walked up from the street. I had nothing good to say about Nebraska, and didn't want to make the day any grayer or colder for them.
The Pony Express: probably still more reliable than DHL.
There would be many other small misfortunes down the road before I made it to Colorado.
Listening to the static, melancholy voices acting out Gillian Flynn's Dark Places -- a light-hearted tale about a gruesome family murder and graphically violent devil-worshiping in middle America -- was perhaps my worst mistake. I became glum and ate a regrettable amount of beef jerky.
My mood was ankle-high, and worsened as the sky grew dark. Isolated factories billowed from their smokestacks eerie ghosts a few shades lighter than the night. The land was bleak and looked like it was smoldering.
Shortly after nightfall, I hit a strip of highway under questionable methods of construction. I took issue mainly with their removal of medians on the shrunken, two-lane road. The menacing headlights of big rigs constantly sped towards me as I listened to the gloomy audiobook actors drone on about hacking cows apart with axes and knives in tribute to Satan.
I don't hate myself. Honest. I don't.
But I couldn't pull myself out of the Nebraskabyss.
My mood began to improve as I was just a couple hours away from my friend's house and had to make my last stop to fill up one tank and empty another.
I pulled off at the only exit I could see giving off a promising orange-sodium glow from a distance, feeling a surge of energy and relief.
And as soon as I did, a dingy brown sign half-heartedly warned from the side of the road: CORRECTIONAL FACILITY - DO NOT PICK UP HITCHHIKERS.
I leaned over the steering wheel, peering around the bend at the several gas stations bearing my deliverance. And, hopefully, toilet paper.
Fuck it, I thought. Of all the ways to die -- and I've given myself over to many different ways, at this point -- being shivved by an ex-con wasn't an option.
Nonetheless, I made that stop fly by with the rapid efficiency of a pit crew veteran.
Hurling myself back into my car and instantly locking the doors, I glanced around the dark outskirts of the gas station to see several obscured figures meandering without direction just beyond the perimeter of the fluorescent lights.
Several turned towards me, zombie-like, as I (prayed fervently and) started the car, flicking on the headlights and peeling out without regard for the dust and gravel spraying behind me.
I wasn't sure which was the crueler punishment: serving time in prison or being released into the Nebraska hinterlands.
And I wasn't staying to find out.