The Trooper droops in Oshkosh

Day 12: Tuesday 2nd August 2011 – Grand Island, Nebraska to Oshkosh, Nebraska (Click for route)

After a late evening with the grand characters of Grand Island, I still managed to wake early. I hadn’t used an alarm clock since I’d arrived in the US, but my body clock seemed to have tuned into the time zone well enough now to consistently wake around 7am.

As I was packing the bike for the day’s journey, I was a little surprised to see Mike come ambling around the corner – especially given the amount of whisky he’d put away the night before. But he seemed as right as rain – I guess he was used to it.

I hadn’t had a morning coffee yet, so I offered to buy Mike one from the gas station next door to the motel. As we sat chatting over the coffee, I commented on his resilience to whisky. He said that last night had been a quiet night. Mike doesn’t work, and it made me wonder whether it was his wife, or perhaps John, that kept him supplied with whisky. In any case, I remembered I’d promised Mike a shot of my Bowmore, but we’d parted ways last night before he’d had a chance to sample it. I was interested to see what his reaction to a single malt would be, so I offered him one for the road. Drinking in the afternoon makes me lethargic, let alone at 8am in the morning, so mine was hardly more than a sniff, but I poured Mike a generous measure into his polystyrene cup and watched him knock it straight back.

“That’s good stuff!” he said “Strong.” The strong comment surprised me. I’m fairly sure most bourbon and American whiskey is just as strong as a single malt Scotch. But it wouldn’t be the last time I heard this on the trip. Perhaps the smoothness and different taste gets mistaken for strength – or perhaps it is just expected to be strong and the mind does the rest. I’m sure Mike would have been delighted to drink coffee and whisky with me all morning, but I had places to see, so I bade him farewell and set off on Hwy-30.

The ride along Hwy-30 from Grand Island to North Platte was very much as it had been through Iowa. A flat landscape full of cornfields with a small town every 10 or 20 miles, with huge silos dominating the skyline. The other thing I really started noticing was almost all these towns had a “ball in the sky”.

Ball in the Sky From Kansas

I’ve noticed this all across the US – almost every town has a water tower. I didn’t get around to taking a photo of one until I was in Kansas. This is something we don’t see in the UK much anymore, and those that are left all tend to be Victorian vintage and most probably listed buildings.

The day was another hot one. I was merrily riding along Hwy-30, stopping every so often for a coffee at one of gas stations in the small grain-silo dominated towns. The cornfields were getting monotonous, but I was happy just riding. I was as free as a bird and the absence of my Scottish biker chick was the only blot on the landscape, but she’d be coming out to Sturgis soon and that was something to look forward to.

Around 11am, I felt my pocket vibrate as a text arrived. The only person who really sent me messages was Doreen, and I always looked forward to receiving them. I pulled the Trooper over onto the hard shoulder so I could read Doreen’s latest message, but the text wasn’t from Doreen – it was from Laura. Thinking back to the night before, I remembered that we’d exchanged numbers so that I could let her know when I’d cleaned myself up and was ready to head over to the bar with John and Mike.

Laura’s first text was innocuous enough, just thanking me for buying dinner, saying she’d had a good time and asking what time I had set off that morning. I sent a text back saying she was welcome and that I’d set off around 8:30 after a coffee and whisky with Mike.

This turned out to be the first salvo in a barrage of texts from Laura, during which I began to regret giving out my cell phone number and wondering what signals Laura had thought I’d been giving off the night before.

The gist of the texts ran something like this:

“Did you get the gifts I left for you?”
“What gifts?”
“Some cigarettes, a lighter and a note”
“Thank you, but I didn’t. Where did you leave them?”
“Outside your door”
“Someone else must have taken them. But thanks anyway” – maybe Mike?
“You’re welcome. I’m sorry you didn’t get them”
“What did the note say?”
“Just thanks for last night and that I’ve left Pete”
“You’ve left Pete?”
“Yes”
“Are you OK?”
“Yes I’m fine. Just decided I didn’t need to be told what to do anymore”
“From what you told me it was probably for the best. Do you have somewhere to go?”
“Yes. Going back to the other motel”
“Good. I hope everything works out for you”
“Thanks”

I felt genuinely sorry for her. Her life had been hard for her for years, and she was so young. But there was little I could do. I thought I’d maybe text her at the end of the day, or tomorrow, and just see how things were going, but for now I thought there was nothing more I could really say, so I got back on the Trooper and carried on down the Lincoln Highway.

I got to North Platte around lunchtime. North Platte is the place where Buffalo Bill Cody settled. He had a huge ranch to the north of the town. The rump of that ranch is now a historic state park and tourist attraction.

Buffalo Bill's Ranch, near North Platte

I stopped in North Platte for rehydration and a couple of things happened.

First, I decided I just couldn’t  bear continuing to ride in my leather jacket any longer in this heat. I really understood way so many American bikers ride in just T-shirts – I was going to follow suit. I was sweltering in the jacket, and almost feeling faint. A mesh jacket, as some have suggested, would have been ideal, but I didn’t have one to hand and I couldn’t go on being boiled in the bag. If I did, I worried that I risked passing out, which didn’t sound a good idea when I was motoring along at 80mph on a bike more than 4 times my body weight.

So the jacket came off and got strapped on the back with the rest of the luggage. On one hand, I didn’t feel emotionally or intellectually comfortable about this – at first it felt like riding naked. But on the other hand, it felt physically wonderful to ride along with bare arms and the wind able to get right into my cut-off T-shirt. I’ve ridden numerous times since then with bare arms, but I never feel 100% comfortable with it – I feel a lot more vulnerable – but I think that is actually not a bad thing. Having the occasional thought of bare skin dragging over the black top is quite healthy  – it keeps my speed down and makes me ride a bit more cautiously than when I’m fully armoured-up. The helmet, however, has always stayed on when I’m doing anything more than moving the bike a few feet.

The second thing that happened during my water break in North Platte, was another text from Laura. It was a text which left me gob-smacked.

“I really wanted to kiss you last night but I couldn’t when I was with Pete. I’m not now”

Thoughts raced through my head.

Oh!
Shit!
What had I done to make her feel like this?
What was she expecting me to do now? Turn around and go back to Grand Island?
How the hell was I meant to respond to that?

Fundamentally, I’m not great in awkward situations. I’m not sure who really is. I like to avoid them. I decided not to reply straight away and to give me some thinking time for a suitable response. Basically, I was chickening out. I didn’t want to hurt her feelings, but nowadays, there is only one girl for me.

I clucked a few times and then got back on the road.

I carried on down the Lincoln Highway to Ogallala, and there began to head north toward Scotts Bluff on Hwy-26. I’d ridden across almost the entire width of Nebraska, from east to west and the scenery had varied little. Now, heading into the north western corner of Nebraska, things began to get a little more interesting. To the east of Hwy-26, lies McConaughy Lake – Nebraska’s largest lake with over 100 miles of shoreline. Glimpses of this lake are visible for miles along Hwy-26. It was almost enticing enough for a detour, but  I settled for stopping on occasions to view from a distance. The west of Nebraska was beginning to shape up nicely into the high plains I associate mentally with Clint Eastwood. I was enjoying the ride.

McConaughy Lake

By early afternoon, I reached the small town of Oshkosh and pulled into the Sinclair gas station for a much-needed refuel. After filling the Trooper’s tank, I went to start him up and pull into the parking area to get a coffee to fuel me. I pressed the ignition switch. The Trooper’s engine turned once, and then nothing. I pressed the ignition again – still nothing. A couple more presses confirmed that the Trooper’s electrics were as dead as most of the bison that used to roam these plains.

Oh well, I guess I shouldn’t have expected to make this whole trip of perhaps 20,000 miles without some set-backs, but my hope of the Trooper marching effortlessly across the whole of the North American continent was being shaken.

I pushed the Trooper away from the pump and into the parking space, and then lit a cigarette. Cigarettes have for a long time been my crutch when I’m stressed or need to concentrate – filthy, disgusting habit though it is. The problem was clearly electrical, so I checked all the fuses. All appeared OK. Next, I took the cover off battery – the connections appeared to be in place. Hmm, was there an open circuit somewhere?

I didn’t feel confident about being able to check the Trooper’s wiring, especially with a limited toolkit and no volt meter or wiring diagram. The gas station’s range of tools was almost non-existent – they didn’t even have replacement fuses if I had needed them. But all was not bleak, I’d bought Roadside Assistance insurance through Motorcycle Express as part of the package of insurances before coming over. Now was the time to put that assistance to the test.

The gas station didn’t have WiFi, so I dug the paperwork out of my bag and gave the number on the roadside assistance card a call. I got connected to Daryl in Arizona, and explained the problem and where I was. He said he’d look into options and call me back within half and hour.

I had little else to do, so I bought myself a coffee and then sent Doreen a text to let her know about the Trooper’s little problem.

Twenty minutes later, Daryl called back, and told me that the nearest Harley-Davidson dealers were either in North Platte or Cheyenne. He asked which I preferred to go to. I had a quick look at my map. Both were a step backwards, but North Platte seemed to the least extra miles, so I said that’s the one I’d like to go for. Daryl said he’d see what he could arrange and would call back as soon as he could to let me know.

Within minutes, Daryl was back on the phone. He had arranged for Budke PowerSports in North Platte to send a truck to collect me and the Trooper, and that I should expect a call from them soon to confirm all the details.

Daryl then went on to explain that my roadside assistance insurance was actually rather limited. It didn’t cover the full cost of recovery – but they would reimburse $150 if I sent in the receipt. The quote for recovering the Trooper from Oshkosh was $750 – North Platte was 2 hours drive away. I took this in my stride. I hadn’t read the small print. But the cost of recovery wasn’t what I actually needed, even though it would have been a nice to have. What I needed was someone to call who would then be able to look up dealer information, and to co-ordinate and arrange everything for me. Without internet access, I would have struggled to do this myself – and the situation would have been much worse if this had happened at the roadside miles from anywhere. This is precisely what Daryl did for me and I’m very grateful for that.

Another 15 minutes passed before my phone rang again. It was Budke PowerSports. They confirmed the details of the problem and exactly where I was, and told me that they would despatch a trailer to collect me within the next 20 minutes, but it would take a couple of hours to reach me. That would do me nicely – thank you Budke PowerSports.

I sent Doreen a text to let her know what was going on. Within 20 minutes, I had another text from her. She’d been online and had come back with hotel and eating options in North Platte. Just one more thing add to the long list of reasons to love my woman.

Just as I was thinking this and wishing forward the date for her arrival in the US, I got another text. This time from Laura.

“Where are you?”
“Oshkosh”

That was an easy factual answer.

A little more time passed and then another text.

“I’m going to the firestation. Have you been?”
What’s the firestation? I thought, but replied with “No I haven’t”

I don’t know whether it was the excitement with the Trooper, or whether I’m just a coward, but I never did reply directly to her text about wanting to kiss me. That was a mistake. Her texts and the occasional phone call carried on for over a week, with the final one coming in Deadwood, after Doreen and I had just checked into the most expensive hotel of the trip after a hard and wet day’s ride. That could have been very embarrassing had I not already told Doreen about Laura. As it was, it was still pretty awkward.

A gas station in Oskkosh, Nebraska isn’t the most exciting place to be stranded, but I was grateful for having somewhere to sit and for having access to food and drinks. A few more texts back and forth with Doreen helped to pass the time and raise my spirits. I got another coffee. A group of locals came in for refreshments, complete with stetsons and spurs. I got to chatting to a couple of them after they asked what I was looking for on the map I had spread out on the table in front of me. They seemed genuinely interested in my journey, and like many others would ask, they wanted to know what I did that allowed me to take so much time off work. My usual initial flippant answer was that I had a great boss – me!

During our chat, I learned that the rolling hills around these parts had been formed from blown sand and that they weren’t especially solid. Flint arrowheads were apparently quite easy to find if you dug a little.

Chatting with the locals helped to pass the time. After about an hour, I got another call from Budke PowerSports. The trailer that was meant to have set off to rescue me an hour ago hadn’t and wouldn’t until tomorrow morning. I wished I’d been told that an hour before. It looked like I would be spending the night in Oshkosh. From what I had noticed on the way into town, Oshkosh didn’t seem big enough for motels, but the guy from Budke PowerSports assured me that there were, so I set off down the street on foot to see what I could find.

Only a short distance down from the gas station, there were indeed 2 motels – I just hadn’t noticed them on the way in. Oshkosh is apparently a quite popular hunting destination. The front desk of the first motel was unmanned and I couldn’t raise anyone, so I tried the next. Lucky for me they had vacancies, so I paid for my room and then went to retrieve my luggage from the immobile Trooper. I’d thought that carrying bags from a motel room to the car park every day had been a balls ache, but carrying them half a mile down the street in that heat really was a feat of endurance that I didn’t wish to repeat in a hurry.

My forced stay in Oskkosh would have been much better if the motel had had Wifi, I could have blogged and planned out the next bit of the journey – but at least I had a bed for the night. I went back to the gas station to stock up on a few beers for later, and noticed a family restaurant I’d be able to get food at later. A bed, food and beer – all the essentials were covered.

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Grand characters in Grand Island

Day 11: Monday 1st August 2011 – Carroll, Iowa to Grand Island, Nebraska (Click for route)

I rode into Grand Island sweating buckets. This was the hottest day so far – 98F (37C) but feeling like 115F (46C) due to the humidity factor – at least according to the TV weather. In my leather jacket, I was finding it unbearable. I saw a McDonald’s and pulled in for a large iced tea.

I’m not a huge fan of McDonald’s but they (and Starbucks) were going to get a lot of business from me while I was in the US since they are guaranteed to have free WiFi. Having the laptop and free WiFi has been a boon for me – allowing me to check google maps, book hotels en-route, and sometimes even to update this blog.

I took my cold tea to a corner seat and powered up my pawn-store laptop. I hardly noticed her when I sat down, but there was a girl a few tables away also with a laptop out. Just as I was about done, she came over and said “Excuse me. You look as if you might know something about computers. Do you think you might be able to help me?”

I may have worked in the IT industry for over 20 years, but I doubt I look like your stereotypical computer geek, with arms full of Iron Maiden and Rob Zombie tattoos. Besides, I’ve never really been into PC troubleshooting. But I don’t like to see a damsel in distress, so I said I didn’t know much but I’d be happy to take a look.

What she was trying to do was to connect her laptop to the internet via her phone. The problem was pretty obvious – the shop had given her the wrong cable to connect the phone to the laptop. I couldn’t solve her problem, but I could at least tell her what she needed and to download the right drivers for her via McDonald’s WiFi.

She chatted away whilst I was doing this, and I learnt that she had been born in Aldershot, Hampshire in the UK, whilst her mother, a US citizen, had been touring. I didn’t ask why her mother had been touring at 9 months pregnant, but Laura went on to tell me that she had had a British passport but had given it up for an American one. Apparently America is like that – they don’t like their citizens being citizens of anywhere else and having dual nationality.

Time was getting on, and I was hot and tired. I didn’t fancy another hour or so riding and then having to start looking for somewhere to stay, so I asked Laura if she knew of a good motel, and also a good place for food and beer. She mentioned a Super 8 and a bar which where almost in opposite directions from each other. I thanked her for the advice, wished her luck with the laptop and set off to look for the hotel.

I rode down to the Super 8, but it was on a 3-lane full of strung out hotels. There was no obvious sign of a bar or restaurant within easy walking distance, so I decided to give it a miss and try my chances in the next town.

Riding out of town I noticed the bar that Laura had mentioned, the Upper Deck – and it had two cheap looking motels beside and opposite it. I decided to give them a try. The motel beside the Upper Deck had no vacancies. The one opposite looked run-down (and I’m not a fussy guy – at least as far as motels are concerned).

The motel was run by an Indian couple (from the sub-continent, not Native American). This is something I was to see a lot in the US. There is an awful lot of budget motels – especially chain ones like Super 8, Travelodge and Motel 6 – run by Indians, often with heavy accents, so I suspect they are first generation immigrants. I haven’t worked out why so many motels are apparently owned and run by Indians. Perhaps motels are easy businesses to invest in and hence “buy” a visa.

The motel had rooms available. I took one, even if the $59 looked way more than the motel was worth.

I hopped back on the Trooper and pulled up in front of my room. As I did, the guy in the room next door shot out of his door and eyed me as I parked up. I pulled my helmet off, said “Hi” and went to shake his hand. John introduced himself and without further ado offered me a cold beer, which I gladly accepted. It really was feeling like 115F! John’s buddy, Mike, ambled out of the room also equipped with a beer, and we all stood around chatting and drinking beer. With a reception like this, I was now thinking that $59 was excellent value for money.

I discovered that John owned a red Super Glide parked under the window of his room (if you haven’t already taken note, the Trooper is also a Super Glide). We chatted awhile about bikes and my journey and then John went to fetch the keys to a trailer he also had parked outside his place. He proudly showed me the pristine white Super Glide he kept in the trailer – it was the wrong colour, but still a sweet machine. Mike quipped that John was now looking for a blue Super Glide to complete his patriotic set.

With the heat and a day on the road, I badly needed a shower, but I wanted to repay John’s warm and immediate hospitality, so I offered to buy them a beer at the bar across the road just as soon as I smelled sweeter. Both John and Mike readily accepted my offer, and just as I was unloading the gear from the Trooper, Laura, the girl from McDonald’s, walked up.

It turned out that she lived at the motel, and so apparently did a lot of the folk staying there – at least semi-permanently. Looking around a little closer, the signs of long-term stay were more evident – the presumably empty beer cans lining a window as decoration; the washing hanging to dry on makeshift clothes lines outside several others.

Later Laura explained that housing is expensive and hard to come by, and motels like this offered discounted rates for long-term guests. This run-down place was all that some could afford – possibly a side of the American dream that many tourists don’t see. Having said that, in the bigger cities, I certainly saw a lot of people sleeping rough literally on the streets.

I extended the invitation for a beer across the street to Laura. I still needed that shower, and Laura lived at the other end of the motel, so we exchanged cell phone numbers and I said I would text her when I was ready. That exchange of cell phone numbers was something I would later end up mildly regretting.

When I was showered and smelling better, we all headed over to the Upper Deck. I wasn’t surprised that John and Mike were well-known to the bar staff – it was their local after all. We took a table, ordered beer’s and at Mike’s suggestion a whisky chaser. Laura took a coke. Apparently she didn’t touch alcohol, because, as I later found out, she had been married to an abusive drunk.

We drank our beers, chatted and ordered more. Each of us telling bits of our life stories. I’m not sure if any of the stories were embellished, but they were interesting nevertheless. Grand characters in Grand Island indeed.

John was a Texan with a big belly, a big moustache and a big, black stetson. He had a big bowie knife strapped to his belt and his face was scarred with what looked like a Glasgow smile.

John was an ex-marine, who had ended up specialising in bomb disposal. He was a wee bit reluctant to talk about himself, but whisky, beer and prompting from Mike seemed to help relax him. John was now a private contractor still specialising in bomb disposal and that took him across the world. There was a big demand for this skills in Iraq and Afganistan. He done many stints in each, but said that the only time he had been truly afraid had been in Somalia. He explained that he was away so often that living in a motel suited him. He had an ex-wife and kids in Texas, and now a girlfriend in Grand Island, but she didn’t live at the motel – she had a house and kids somewhere else.

Mike described John as the salt of the earth – someone who would do anything for anyone. John’s buddy had called late one night after his bike had broken down on a deserted road. John just replied “I’ll be there in 3 hours”, hitched up the trailer and set off on the 400 mile round trip to get him.

John stuck me as a modest, big-hearted guy who didn’t like talking much and preferred to keep his business private. I didn’t want to press him for anymore of his story than he was happy to share.

Mike was no less a character. He was 61 years old with long, straggly grey hair and only a single tooth in his mouth. He was a Cajun from bayou country in Louisana – and he certainly looked the part. He said he hadn’t seen a car or electricity until he was 18 years old, and he claimed he still had nephews and nieces that lived without electricity.

Mike’s story was that he had been “sent” up to Grand Island to collect money by the Outlaws MC. He said he’d nearly served his time here and he would soon be able to leave. When he did, he said he wanted to get out of the club and just live his life.

I’m not sure about Mike’s story – I’d like to believe it was all true, but I don’t think the Outlaws have a chapter in Louisana. Mike said he had an old shovel-head back in Louisana, given to him by the club president, but he also said he arrived in Grand Island by train, and he didn’t have a bike here with him now. I’m a little skeptical about an MC member being without his bike for 10 years. The other odd thing was Mike had what looked like a Mongol MC tattoo on his inner forearm. Now I don’t know enough about relations between American Motorcycle Clubs to know whether this was normal or not. Mike was a really sweet character, but I couldn’t help but wonder what his story really was – if it was different from what he said, I’m sure it would have been just as interesting.

Mike said his life in Grand Island had been bad until he’d met John, and it was clear Mike adored the guy. Mike had married a local woman, 20 years his junior, and they lived together in a single motel room with her 13 year old daughter.

During our time in the Upper Deck, Mike quickly switched from drinking beer to only drinking whisky. I mentioned that I had a bottle of single malt in my bag, and that he should give that a try. A suggestion he seemed very keen on.

Laura was the last Grand Island character. She was 25, tiny and petite – only 4’11” tall. As she’d told me in McDonald’s, she’d been born in Aldershot, while her mother had been traveling. Her mother and her grandmother had both been pretty wild according to Laura. They’d traveled Europe and Asia, hung out with hippies, ridden with bikers and done a lot of drugs. The riding with bikers was something Laura remembered from her childhood, and something she had commented on as soon as she saw the Trooper. I think she’d have rather have liked to follow in her mother’s footsteps as her life in Grand Island wasn’t shaping up so well.

Laura’s mother now lived in New York, and Laura had embarked on at least a semblance of a more conventional life at an early age – apparently with her mother’s blessing. Laura had married at 18 years of age to a guy from Grand Island. I never did find out how she’d met him, but he turned out to be a violent, abusive drunk. According to Laura, the violence and abuse had started on their wedding night, but she’d stuck with it for some reason. She’d stayed with him for 7 years, and they had a 2 year old son. She had been the main earner. Laura said her hubby couldn’t hold down a job, and had spent most of their 7 year marriage out of work.

After one drunken beating too many, Laura had had enough and summoned the courage to leave. She took her son and moved into a room in a different motel from the one we were all staying at that evening. Unfortunately for Laura, her husband may have been an abusive good-for-nothing, but he was a local boy whose family had connections. He took Laura to the local court for custody of their son – and got it! That would be almost unheard of in the UK.

The family courts in the UK are a law unto themselves, as I know only too well. They operate behind closed doors with little or no external scrutiny. And if you feel unjustly treated by the sole judge who decides your fate, then the appeal route is the judge’s fellow cronies in the same court – where perhaps a handful work together and share the case load. I wonder how often one them says that a fellow judge is wrong – I guess that might cause a little friction the next day on the golf course. In the UK, the family courts are extremely biased toward women – a fact which has given rise to organisations like Families Need Fathers and the more notorious Fathers 4 Justice – well known in the UK for it’s headline grabbing stunts with members dressed as comic-book superheroes. I haven’t dressed up as Spider Man, invaded Buckingham Palace or pelted Tony Blair with condoms filled with purple flour, but I know first-hand how shockingly biased and unjust the UK family courts are, and how completely ineffectual they are at providing a father with access and time with his children when a vindictive, bitter and obstructive mother stands in the way.

Thankfully my days in family court are behind me, but this isn’t the case for Laura. The local judge awarded her abusive husband sole custody of their son, and left Laura with no right of access. Local connections seem to count for a lot in eastern Nebraska. However, Laura is planning to go back to court and appeal the decision, and to try to get the case heard by a different judge. I wish her better luck than I had with her appeal.

Laura had spent the 3 months since she walked out living in a motel room. Two weeks previously, she had started dating a guy who lived full-time in the same motel as I was staying at. She’d moved into his room a week later. Laura is 25 and pretty. Her new man was 54 and worked shifts in the local meat-packing plant. He’d be at work until midnight, and by then, Laura needed to be back to the room to fix his dinner. She seemed to have a lack of friends or company locally, and she seemed keen to hang-out with John, Mike and I, despite all the drinking. She still had her soda. I guess 7 years at the hands of an abusive drunk had left a mark in more ways than one.

John and I took turn about to buy drinks for the table. Mike seemed more than happy with this arrangement. After 5 or 6 rounds, John took a call on his cell phone. After the call, he said he had to go and excused himself. I bought another round, but hunger was beginning to get the better of me, and I asked if Mike and Laura wanted to get something to eat. Mike declined but Laura accepted. This surprised me both ways. Somehow I had half expected that Mike would accept, and I had fully expected to be picking up the tab if he had. I felt a brief pang of guilt for mis-judging Mike when he declined. On the other hand, I had expected Laura to turn down food since she had to be back to feed her man at midnight. Well I suppose a girl can get hungry long before midnight.

Laura mentioned a good Mexican restaurant, and I was game. Chilli peppers don’t agree with me much, but Mexican food at home in the UK had never been a problem for me.

With John gone, and Mike now departing I recalled the offer I had made for a taste of the Scotch I had been carrying in my saddlebag. So I told Mike I hadn’t forgotten and that I’d fish the bottle out if he was around after we’d eaten.

The walk over to the restaurant was much further than I expected. Laura seemed a little unsure of the way, but after walking for 45 minutes, we reached a Mexican restaurant. Many of the old favourites from the UK’s take on Mexican food were absent, so I asked Laura to suggest something, bearing in mind my chilli sensibilities. Her suggestion was a shrimp soup. I’d had in mind something more substantial, but she said it was a big bowl, so I went with it. It was indeed a big bowl, but unfortunately its main flavouring was chilli! After a couple of tastes to confirm this, I cautiously fished out the big shrimps, and left most of the rest and instead eyed Laura’s steak enviously. I was too polite to ask her to share, even when most of her meal went into a carry home box. When the bill came, I picked up the tab. It seemed the right thing to do given her circumstances.

During the walk over and the dinner, Laura had told me more about her ex, her son and her new man. Her new circumstances didn’t seem a vast improvement on the old – but at least she wasn’t getting beaten for now. I couldn’t help but wonder what a pretty 25 year old was doing moving into a motel room with a man more than twice her age – it’s not like he had money which seems to be a common reason for some young girls to go with much older men. And from what else she told me I doubted that it was love.

Her new man was of Cuban origin and had served with the US armed services. She said that was how she had first met him many years before in the UK. He’d apparently been stationed in the UK for a time when she had been a young girl and somehow their paths had crossed. Fate is a strange creature, and so many years later in a small city in Nebraska, they’d run into each other again. Her blood sugar had been low that day and she had fainted whilst they were talking. He’d looked after her and made sure she was OK. I guess that he seemed like a knight in shining armour after her previous experiences.

But it turns out, all was not rosy in Laura’s new motel garden. Her new lover, Pete, wasn’t quite the knight in shining armour she had first imagined. He apparently poured criticism on her and her efforts to do stuff for him – this even went as far as the placement and order of food on his plate. Laura, apparently, didn’t measure up to his mother. He also expected her to do everything for him and didn’t like Laura leaving the motel room expect to shop for his food.

Now, I’d had quite a bit to drink by now, and not much to eat. With my track record, I’m the last person to be giving relationship advice, but I know what I have with Doreen and it is fantastic. I couldn’t see anyone being happy in her situation with Pete, and I’m afraid I told her so. My drink-enhanced wisdom was along the lines of don’t settle for 2nd best, and to find a younger guy to love her like she wanted to be loved. That may or may not have been good advice, but I’d come to regret giving it.

Time was getting on now, and I doubted we’d be certain of walking back in time for her to have Pete’s dinner ready for ten past midnight. So outside the restaurant I suggested we grab a cab back. No cabs were evident on the quiet street, and Laura didn’t know any phone numbers for cab firms. As we were discussing options, the restaurant was shutting up and our server for the evening came out on this way home for the night. We asked him if he knew any numbers for cab firms. He didn’t, but he instead insisted on giving us a ride back to the motel in his car. Most Americans I’ve met are such generous and nice folk.

When we got back to the motel, there was no sign of Mike or John. My room was before Laura’s and I wished her a good night. Laura still had half an hour or so before she needed to be back and she lingered.

I’ve never been very perceptive at reading the come-on signs from ladies – they pretty much have to slap me in the face with a wet kipper before I pick up on them. But I was being especially dense that night. I didn’t read anything into the way Laura lingered, or her keeping leaning in toward me and trying to gaze up into my face. Maybe it was the drink dulling more than usual my already dull perceptions, or maybe it was because she was on the way back to cook for Pete, and because throughout the evening I’d mentioned the gorgeous girl I had back in Scotland who’d be joining me on the trip in a week or two. Whatever the reason, I  didn’t notice a thing, and because of that, it didn’t seem the slightest bit awkward, but I cringe now when I think back. I chatted away amiably until she just ran out of time and had to go. It wasn’t until a few things happened the next day that things began to dawn on me.

The flooded river

Day 11: Monday 1st August 2011 – Carroll, Iowa to Grand Island, Nebraska (Click for route)

My journey through Iowa was proving uneventful. I set out from Carrol early and continued west down Hwy-30. When I reached Missouri Valley near the western Iowa state line, the signs of flooding started to become evident. All the store fronts on the main street had walls of sand bags around them. It didn’t look as if the town had flooded but they clearly weren’t taking any chances. I tried to take some photos on the cheap, pre-paid cell phone I had bought in Chicago, but the quality was so poor, it’s not worth posting them. Instead I’ve managed to find an image on Google which is pretty much identical to the Missouri Vally I saw.

Sandbags in Missouri Valley

Sandbags in Missouri Valley

Another sight that stuck me in Missouri Valley was the sign outside the local gun store, opposite the Rialto – “Double Barrel Shooters Supply – The Right of the People to Keep and Bear Arms Shall Not Be Infringed”. Coming from a country where most the police officers are unarmed, and where gun ownership is a tiny minority – usually just farmers with shotguns – this was a bit alien to me. Of course, we hear about the passionate gun debate in the US on TV occasionally, but this was the first evidence of it.

Double Barrel Shooters Supply in Missouri Valley

Double Barrel Shooters Supply in Missouri Valley - image courtesy of Mike Plews (http://www.flickr.com/photos/ih544gas/)

Further outside the town of Missouri Valley, nearing the Missouri River itself, I found real flooding. Hwy-30 was lined with sand bags forming a makeshift dike, although the road was passable, but on either side the river had burst its banks and all the surrounding fields had been turned into an enormous lake.

Temporary dike on HWY 30 between Missouri Valley and Blair

Temporary dike on HWY 30 between Missouri Valley and Blair - image courtesy of Mike Plews (http://www.flickr.com/photos/ih544gas/)

The scene was reminiscent of the TV news footage that many in Britain will remember when the river Severn flooded badly in 2007. That particular flood has some very personal memories for me. At the time, I lived in Worcester in a house with some fantastic views right by the banks of the river Severn. After a Friday afternoon of torrential downpours, it was clear the river level was raising, and living so close to the river meant that there could always be the risk of flooding if conditions were bad enough. But the floor of the house had been specially raised and a check with the National Environment Agency information service suggested that the river would peak at 6pm the following day several inches below the level of the floor.

At around 6am the following morning, I woke up to find that the downstairs of the house was nearly a foot deep in water. The raised floor meant wading through waist-deep filthy water as all the local drains and sewers were also overrun by flood water. Luckily, the car was on higher ground and the water had only reached the bottom of the wheels and it started easily. The water continued to rise throughout the day, reaching perhaps 3 feet in the house. After a soaking like that the house stinks. It takes literally weeks and weeks to dry out and needs a complete replastering.Since so many people had been affected by the flood, finding someone to do the reparations is difficult – the backlog was months long. That flood made me effectively homeless for 6 months, and all the possessions on the ground floor were lost. I’m very thankful for having insurance.

I know first hand what an upheaval a flood can be – and that’s just from property damage. My heart goes out to all those affected along the Missouri, and also to those affected by Irene and Lee which both stuck the south and east of the US some weeks into my trip.

A lot of agriculture in the US uses massive irrigators to spray water over crops. Perhaps one of the most pathetic sights I saw was one of these huge irrigators surrounded by water in a field that has now a lake. Alas at this point I still thought I had no means of taking photos, and besides I probably couldn’t have stopped on the dike that was Hwy-30 to take one.

Typical irrigator seen all over the US

The approach to the bridge across the Missouri River was also sand-bagged; but both the road and the bridge were passable. I crossed and continued into Nebraska – the first state I had visited where motorcycle helmets are mandatory.