AS I HEAD TO EUGENE FOR THE OLYMPIC TRIALS, it seems only fitting that I channel the cult classic Animal House (which, of course, was filmed on Oregon’s campus and has Hayward Field as a backdrop) and its use of two of the all-time greatest words in the English language: “Road Trip!” A travel tale that started lighthearted but took a turn in the middle:
Penn Relays director Dave Johnson and I had a most interesting adventure on a trip that actually began in Eugene after the Pre meet and ended in Des Moines for the NCs. The subtitle of the excursion almost became “DJ, I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore,” but we were fortunately able to stay on I-94 (barely) and not end up on a yellow brick road.
After Pre we hooked up again in Fargo (look out for wood-chippers). Fargo? Well, what a perfect excuse to visit some states—albeit briefly—never before accorded a pin on the out-of-date map on the wall. Thus it was that in the next 24 hours I would drive 800+ miles, hitting North Dakota, Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, Iowa, Nebraska, Missouri, Kansas, Missouri and Iowa.
I’ve had easier drives. In western Iowa, just as the sun began to set, we hit a series of fog banks that were London pea-soup at its best. And then the rain started. About the heaviest I’ve ever seen. Accompanied by big-time lightning.
But we pressed on. Then things abated, but we were slightly disconcerted to drive across a swatch of highway where all the road signs were knocked over and huge tree limbs littered the landscape. With emergency vehicles screaming in all directions. And then the rain came back. And so did the lightning.
But we pressed on. And all the 18-wheelers started leaving the road. And every underpass had a half-dozen cars huddled under it.
But we pressed on. By the time we reached Nebraska, the rain was like a firehose being shot at the front of the car. At 20mph, visibility was down to about 20 feet, and that bright zone was only courtesy of the lightning raging all around us.
But we pressed on… not! Next exit Omaha, with a Hilton sign looming out of the dark. The first intersection we hit off the freeway had a river so deep running through it that if we hadn’t been in an SUV, the engine probably would have flooded. And then the hail hit. So we parked.
At the hotel we wondered why the lobby was empty. The skeleton staff wondered why we were dumb enough to be out in a tornado alert and pointed out that anybody with brains was in the basement. A look at the Doppler showed 7 incipient twisters surrounding a purple Omaha. And the TV news was talking about the boy scouts, killed at the same time and place where we had seen the downed road signs.
There would be no more pressing on that night. The resumption of the trip, under sunny skies, was a sobering reminder of how precious life is and how one can’t take it for granted. And of how little control we have over nature. Now we noticed that what should have been miles and miles of green fields was instead rice paddies. Iowa no longer seemed east or west of the Mississippi, it seemed in the Mississippi.
Oddly enough, the geography of Des Moines is such that at our end of town there was no sign of water, although major parts of town were flooded, and even athletes were out filling sandbags (see p. 48). A city populated by about the warmest and friendliest people I’ve ever met deserved better. But they staged a great NCAA. They knew how to press on.