|Saturday, August 10, 2002...
Greetings from Des Moines, Iowa, where I'm surrounded by
wholesomeness. The state fair is in town, I'm 10 miles from
Bob Feller's birthplace, 15 from John Wayne's, and about
the same distance from the actual Bridges of Madison County. This
morning wasn't so wholesome, though: for the first time in 10
years I was harassed by a power-drunk state patrolman with
delusions of competence.
When I first saw the officer, I was driving east on I-80 from Laramie at about 8:00 this morning. He was ahead of me as three lanes of traffic struggled up the steep climb of Telephone Canyon. He then pulled into a turnoff, spun parallel to the road and watched us climb before pulling back out behind me. As I wasn't speeding, hadn't changed lanes, had no unusual lights or flashers and was wearing my seat belt, I thought nothing of it. Then as I exited for a photo opportunity at the Summit Rest Area, he switched on his lights and followed me into the parking lot.
This guardian of the public safety wanted to know why my car didn't have a front license plate. I explained that he'd better ask Hertz, which had rented me the car. He took my license and the rental agreement and wrote me out a warning, which took long enough that I'm sure he checked both my license and the car plates against police records. At this point he knew to an absolute certainty that I have no criminal record; that I had legal possession of the car; and that the regulatory violation he had spotted wasn't my fault.
So when he hands back my papers, the officer asks if I'm carrying any cocaine, marijuana or other illegal drugs. (I should note that while he was writing up my warning, with his permission I had walked a good distance away, out of his direct line of vision, to photograph a statue at the rest area, thus having ample opportunity to dispose of any contraband which might have been in my pockets.) I don't mind this question, which can only remove from society people so mind-bogglingly stupid that they shouldn't be allowed to breed. But I was not happy when he then asked me to open the trunk.
He had no probable cause, reasonable suspicion or any other basis for this request. Even under Reichsmarshal Scalia's version of the Constitution, I had a perfect right to refuse and drive away...but somehow I suspect that if I did, I wouldn't be making my flight home tomorrow. I opened the trunk.
Remembering his "Drug Searches 101" training film, the officer poked the sides of the trunk to see if I had hidden anything in the walls, and asked me to lift the floor mat to see if I had hidden anything in, or in lieu of, the spare tire. He asked me to open the main compartment of the bag in the trunk, which at this point in the trip contained a week's worth of dirty clothes, one day's clean clothes and several books.
He must have slept through the Drug Searches 102 film, though. The officer didn't ask me to open any of the side pockets; never asked me to empty my pockets; and never searched any part of the inside of the passenger compartment. The latter was particularly ridiculous, since the items visible through the windows included a closed laptop/camera case on the floor in front of the front passenger seat and a closed 18-quart plastic cooler behind that seat, either of which could have held as much contraband as the compartment he did inspect. Sheer genius. If this guy ever did stumble upon a major drug courier through one of these "consensual" searches after a bogus traffic stop, he's less likely to find the drugs than to have his head blown off by a concealed weapon.
After this introduction to law, Wyoming style, I continued on to the other Lincoln Highway landmarks in the area, then swung through Cheyenne and headed for Nebraska. The missing front license plate didn't bother the Nebraska police I saw, any more than it had bothered the Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, California, Nevada, or Utah police before them. To be sure of finishing today's intended drive before sundown, I zigzagged between I-80 and the route of the Lincoln Highway.
Across western Nebraska, the Lincoln, the Interstate, the railroad, the Pony Express and the Oregon/California/Mormon Trails all follow the Platte River. I-80 runs south of the river, with the railroad and the Lincoln further north. Sidney, Nebraska has a classic old downtown, followed by the Generic Motel east of town. North Platte, previously best known for the Union Pacific Railroad and Buffalo Bill Cody's ranch, is now getting a lot of attention for its efforts feeding and caring for U.S. troops who passed through town during World War II.
Kearney's Great Platte River Road Archway Monument is impossible to miss: like Oklahoma's World's Largest McDonald's, it's suspended directly above the Interstate. Its automated radio announcement proclaims that Kearney "has some of the finest dining establishments you'll find anywhere, coast to coast," but an inspection of restaurants at the exit suggests that a more accurate message would describe Kearney as having "exactly the same dining establishments found coast to coast."
The Monument provides elaborate, walk-through dioramas depicting the various forms of transportation, from the Oregon Trail through the Interstate, which have passed through the region, with stereo narration broadcast to specific corners of each room. Just as in a department-store Santa Claus display, visitors who buy tickets are asked to pose for photos as they enter, with the opportunity to buy them as they leave. Its dozens of employees suggest that the Monument is Kearney's way of keeping teens and the elderly off its streets
After Kearney, I sped straight toward Omaha, stopping a few miles out of town to drive the section of the brick-paved 1920 Lincoln Highway depicted in the photo. While I was parked to take this photo, a grasshopper jumped onto my wiper blade. Hope it wasn't too close to its local relatives, for by the time I noticed it I was five miles away and driving 65 MPH. For the next 20 minutes the grasshopper balanced on my blade, crouched down to protect itself from the wind and turning its head to survey the surroundings, before it finally fell off somewhere in Iowa.
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