Amusing ourselves across the Great Plains

Opinion: Editorials

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By Alan Brouilette

I spent last weekend driving 1,344 miles around Nebraska and Kansas, which was millions of times more fun than it sounds. This was, in large part, due to the Greatest Road Trip Game Ever, about which more anon. First a few plugs for the Great Plains: 

  • Stopped at random in Norfolk, Nebraska, to get coffee. The town is tiny, and it has a standard tiny-town museum. Signs from old restaurants, pictures of past worthies, complimentary quotes from governors, pictures of floods, that sort of thing. This one, though, also has a one-room exhibit that could be in the Smithsonian because Norfolk is the hometown of Johnny Carson. So in the room right past Merle's plow and a mailbox with a waterline 4 inches from the top are five Emmys, Carson's coffee cup and desk, Karnak's turban, and other treasures. It was great.
  • A friend asked me if it was a barbecue tour. It was not. What the Plains do great is chicken-fried steak, and god bless them for it.
  • The Geographic Center of the United States is nearly as remote as Four Corners National Monument, 100% as artificial and pointless, and yet several orders of magnitude less thrilling. No idea why.
  • Kansas has a world-class Space museum, the Cosmosphere, which was largely the result of a pen-pal friendship between a local enthusiast and the director of the Air & Space Museum at the Smithsonian, when the former asked the latter if they had anything interesting lying around that they could spare. They did. It was great. Did you know the Russians got to the moon first? I don't recall textbooks mentioning that. 
  • I fed a ring-tailed lemur. They like Craisins, it turns out, and if you are lucky, they will grab your hand with their basically-identical-but-smaller hand and yank it closer to look for extra treats. 
  • Nebraska not only had elephants, once upon a time, but also rhinoceroses.
  • Drives across I-80 are poorer than they might have been. Happily, we have a game, Pointless Mount Rushmore. Here's how you play: Someone in the car names a topic. "The Mount Rushmore of Sandwiches," say. The travelers then begin the game. First, folks start naming their Top Four. The game quickly forks into the first detour, the parameters. In the case of sandwiches, for example, you can burn several hours on questions like "Is a hamburger a sandwich?" and "Specific sandwiches from specific places, or types of sandwiches?" and "Can I specify the toppings?" (This last one is clutch for peanut butter and jelly, which takes the Roosevelt position if you are allowed to specify strawberry jam and crunchy peanut butter but gets nowhere near Rushmore status with grape jelly.)
  • For many people, the parameters are the best part. My friend Jon and I once spent two hours of a 40-hour train ride arguing about whether the Beach Boys were a "band." (My position was that they were a vocal group, like the Temptations, not a band, like the Rolling Stones. His position was that I was un-American.)
  • Once you finish arguing parameters and asking edge-case questions, you are left to set the Big Four into their appropriate presidentially-identified positions. In debating this, we learned something about the represented presidents themselves: 
  • The Washington position belongs to the clear, inarguable number one. (Sandwich example: The grilled cheese)
  • The Lincoln position: Belongs to the closest second, one who might even be the true number one if you cared to argue forever. (Sandwich example: The lobster roll)
  • The Roosevelt position: Belongs to a safe, noncontroversial choice that won't inspire strong argument for or against. (Sandwich example: The Reuben)
  • The Jefferson position: Belongs to an obvious choice that you cannot argue against at all except for having a glaring flaw that means you totally can argue against it, and vociferously. (Sandwich example: The Oreo cookie)

Other Pointless Mounts Rushmore from which we derived long, impassioned conversations: American bands, pies, vacation destinations, burger toppings, ice cream flavors, sitcoms. 

Happy travels!

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