What We Didn’t Know
I crossed Kansas as a kid in the back of a station wagon. We probably listened to Marty Robbins or John Denver on the self-installed tape player and I tried to not drive my siblings crazy. Okay, I didn’t try that hard. We folded the seat down and spread out into our respective corners of the “way back” and entertained ourselves with puzzle books or license plate games or, when all else failed, naps. I’m certain the pilot and co-pilot appreciated those moments. What I really wanted was those travel bingo cards with the red plastic windows you’d slide when you saw a silo or a eighteen-wheeler or a rabbit. We didn’t have iPads or video games to entertain us and we settled for cheese sandwiches from the ice chest for lunch. Back then, we didn’t even care that we weren’t wearing seatbelts. It was the seventies – what we did know back then really didn’t matter.
The first time I drove myself across the Sunflower State, however, I did so with an infant in the passenger seat. Since this was the pre-airbag era, we didn’t think much about where we put the car seat as long as it was buckled. It was the eighties – or just shortly thereafter – and again, what we didn’t know back then didn’t matter. Having Son #1 next to me made it easier to hold a bottle of formula with my right hand and steer with my left hand, so I could make hay while the sun was still shining in my eyes as I headed westward towards Colorado. Stopping to use the restroom or get food, when it’s just a woman and an infant, presented its own set of challenges. Most rest stops didn’t have changing tables, but at least my Reliant K car included a built-in tape player so I could keep myself entertained between cities when there were no radio signals.
When faced with having to cross the Great Plains again twenty-five years later, I only transport myself, so I opt to be brave and try something new. I avoid Kansas altogether and cross Nebraska instead, and while there are people who may say Interstate 70 and Interstate 80 offer identical scenery, I disagree (see Parallel The Platte from February 2021). And now another couple years on, I again need to be on a due-west trajectory making Oklahoma or Nebraska elaborately inconvenient detours, so I beeline my way among the wheat and corn fields. At least now I have not only a CD player, but an auxiliary jack for my iPhone, offering me better music for a better drive. Welcome to the twenty-first century.
Since this is not my first time on this road, and based on my previous experiences in Kansas, I pull into a rest area and sleep in the driver’s seat for the night. The next morning, I pull off at an upcoming exit, I fuel up myself and my vehicle, and I continue onward. I recall in the seventies that the mosquitos were so thick we couldn’t even stand in line at the walk-up Dairy Queen in Salina. I remember from the eighties that after an exhausting drive that included running off the median while trying to feed my child, we slept with the lights on because the motel had roaches. I expect there are lovely places to be visited in our thirty-fourth state, but I choose to just drive straight through and only rest when I must. It’s today, and what I knew then versus what I know now matters.