Continued from, Omaha: Landing in Flyover Country.
September 10/11. 2021: Carter Lake, Iowa.
I’d landed in Omaha but my airport motel was in a little enclave of Iowa called Carter Lake, just a short jet blast away from the Nebraska state line. Carter Lake, the only Iowan outpost located west of the Missouri River maintains an I scratch your itch and you scratch mine relationship with the Omaha airport, that itch being money – and the airport does most of the scratching..
In 1877, a flood redirected the course of the Missouri to the southeast creating a lake, and later, a lakeside town. The states of Nebraska and Iowa squabbled over territorial rights until it was all decided by the Supreme Court in 1892 in favor of Iowa.
My one night’s stay in Carter Lake was a restless one, but in the end I’m grateful for the pacer, the guy in the room immediately above mine, who spent most of the night walking around in his room; on his thin floor and my thin ceiling.
His was an interminable trek. First in circles, then a pause and then back and forth. There was no method, only madness. It was a migration without a destination.
On occasion, Mister Walker (the name I gave him when I wasn’t using more colorful handles) would stop and run the water at what sounded like full force. He could have been running a trickle, but in the middle of the night, fruitlessly seeking sleep in a lonely motel bed, every sound is magnified. A bug walking on the ceiling can be a pile driver.
He also spoke on occasion, though I couldn’t make out what he was saying. Was he on the phone? Was he talking to himself? (It seemed that he was alone). Maybe he was holding court with tormenting phantasms.
At the outset of his excursion it was the noise and annoyance which kept me awake. After a time though, that point at which I was giving up on the notion of a restful night, it was a mixture of astonishment and sheer curiosity that was pushing sleep aside.
What could he possibly be doing?
I wouldn’t have been astounded to find that he was staring at a human skull as he circled the room, bemoaning the demise of “poor Yorick,” his old buddy “of infinite jest,” who he once “knew well.”
The usual motel disturbance is the finite one of a couple commingling in an adjacent room. I can usually take comfort in the knowledge that this sort of activity will come, in a manner of speaking, to an end in a relatively short time. It might go on for fifteen minutes or have a duration measured, tragically for at least one participant, in mere seconds.
Mister Walker was an entirely unique problem.
At around midnight, twenty mg of Melatonin knocked me out until 3:30 when I woke up again to hear Mister Walker still pacing. I was astounded.
As I lay awake, realizing that precious hours of sleep were slipping away, I was visited by the specter of a questionable rental car contract.
I looked out the window at a pitch black night, with no hint of dawn in sight, and surrendered what was left of a night’s sleep over to my twin tormentors; Mister Walker and the growing anxiety over the rental
Short of homicide there was nothing to be done about the lunatic above, so I turned my attention to my automotive misgivings.
According to Jessica, the agent who’d rented me the Ford Eco, my travel radius was limited to the states bordering Nebraska. When I protested, she asked me how far I planned to take the car and in an offhand manner I blurted out something about Ohio.
Jessica called the owner of the agency who gave me a verbal authorization to take the car into Ohio. It was, to say the least, a flimsy arrangement, one that would put a crimp in my plan of driving, without a care, to wherever curiosity might take me.
With sleep removed from the immediate itinerary, I decided to make the waking hours productive. I needed to find some piece of mind, to find a way to make the arrangement work.
The first thing I did was to figure out just how much latitude (and longitude) I had – distance wise. I looked at a map. With Ohio as the approved state I took the Buckeye State to its furthest limit.
Steubenville in far eastern Ohio, is about as far from Omaha as one can get; 911 miles. And so, I tried to convince myself with the faulty notion that I could go 911 miles in any direction. I realized, even as the stew simmered, that it was the product of a far fetched recipe.
Still, I persisted.
Sault Ste Marie, to the far north in Michigan was 845 miles; within the range of 911. Wheeling, West Virginia was 908 miles away; borderline but still within the limit that I’d cooked up.
“It’s a wild idea, but it just might work,” said Roger, in the movie, The Producers.
Back in bed, I laid my head back down, but a few moments later my wild idea was losing its luster.
Ohio had been established but there was no understanding, not even a veiled one, about other states such as Michigan, Kentucky or Wisconsin? A house of cards built on a foundation of quicksand.
And then there was that Ford Eco. From the sound of the engine some of its horsepower was either out to pasture or gone to the proverbial glue factory.
Did I really want to take that car somewhere into the forests of Michigan or the hollers of West Virginia with uncertainty as my copilot?
Back out of bed and on the computer, I looked up reviews of the agency and found too many that were south of horrible. A common complaint was over hidden fees.
Let’s be clear about something. There’s no such thing as hidden fees in a rental contract. The fees are hidden in plain sight, right there in the fine print that few exhausted, starved, and let’s be honest, lazy, travelers ever bother reading. Being one of those lazy travelers, I pulled out the contract and scoured it for the first time, word for tiny word.
There, listed in the fine print, were the approved states, Nebraska, Iowa, Missouri, Kansas, Colorado, South Dakota and Minnesota. The contract further stipulated a $500 dollar penalty for taking the car beyond those states.
And then there was the limitation on the “unlimited mileage.” If my rental were to exceed 30 days, I would be on the hook for 20 cents per mile over 3000 miles. Hell, I’d be covering at least 7,000 miles; a value of $800 dollars.
I recalled Jessica telling me that the company was a franchise and the significance of that hadn’t dawned on me until, well, that very dawn, when it all became as clear as the new day. Since the agency was a franchise, it likely had limited, if any, national support and that’s why there was a limitation on just how far I could take the car.
She’d explained to me about having to pick me up in case of a problem. It was clear that in the event of a breakdown I wouldn’t be able to call the nearest Dollar agency. I would be dependent solely on that Omaha agency.
The only solution was to dump the car and the contract. It was 4:45 in the morning. The agency wasn’t going to open until seven, leaving me two hours to find a replacement.
But for an overpriced pickup, the airport agencies were all sold out.
I did a search for nearby agencies and found an Avis agency that was three and half miles away. Hell, I could walk there if I had to. Not only was it nearby but the cost for renting an SUV was $600 dollars less than Dollar.
Avis opened at eight.
My next worry was that Dollar would leave me on the hook for the full month. Sure that wouldn’t be right, but who ever said that businesses are bound by fairness?
“It’s not personal, it’s strictly business,” said Michael Corleone, as he schemed a double murder.
At seven, I called the Dollar agency and told the agent that I was going to return the car.
As I expected, she warned me that, “The system will probably charge you for the whole period.”
Of course it would. The “system” is always the surefire chump, the object of the pointed bony finger.
Always blame something or someone else.
‘Hey who farted?’
‘Must’ve been the dog.’ (Sure, blame your trusting friend who loves you unconditionally)
‘We don’t have a dog.’
‘Well, then, it must’ve been the system.’
“The system won’t let me” is the computer era’s version of “We’re not responsible.” It’s the corporate variant of, “My dog ate my homework.”
How many times have I heard a clerk/supervisor/manager blame it on a “system” that couldn’t be overridden? And how many times had I wanted to respond with, ‘Well if your damn system told you to jump off the Golden Gate Bridge would you try to override the system or just go take a walk off a famous bridge?’
Apparently every system has been modeled after HAL, the malicious, insubordinate computer who launched astronaut Poole into a one way space walk in 2001: A Space Odyssey.
I heard the Dollar Agent tapping away at the keys and I’d determined that if she tried to charge me full ride I was literally going to play the COVID card.
‘Look, I’ve only been here one night and I just this morning got a call from home. My wife got hospitalized with COVID and I have to get back home. Can’t you give me a break?”
The agent came back on.
“It’s only charging you for one day – $65.22. It usually doesn’t do that.”
Oh good, the “system” woke up in a good mood.
It was 7:30.
“Okay I’ll be there in an hour.” I told her.
I didn’t want to give the “system” an opportunity to change its mind, but I also wanted to be certain that the Avis agency had a car available, so I drove to Avis first.
The Avis location was but a little parking lot with a small office/garage planted in the center – and Heather.
Heather was the rental agent and resident superhero.
Heather was working the back garage, the phone, two computer keyboards and god knows what else. If flesh on plastic keys could strike a spark, Heather would’ve burned down Omaha.
She signaled me to hold tight while she operated other agencies remotely by phone, along with the office we were standing in. Using her shoulder to hold phone to mouth, Heather’s fingers flew across the keyboards. She bounced between keyboards, she ripped paperwork from a printer and every now and then she scurried to the garage.
Heather was that special employee more prized than a soaring stock price. She had more value to Avis than the CEO and the entire management staff. In fact, maybe Heather should’ve been the CEO.
After moving a final mountain, she turned to me, apologized for the wait, and reserved me a Kia Sorrento.
I drove the Eco back to Dollar and introduced myself to Crystal as the person who’d called earlier wanting to return a car, reminding her at the same time that the “system” was only charging me for the one day.
“I remember. It’s still coming up $65.22. Do you want to keep it on the same credit card?”
After returning the Eco, I took a taxi back to Avis.
Heather completed the transaction and asked me if I could wait for a few minutes. I stepped outside for some air and wasn’t at all astonished to find Heather washing my car. Was there anything that she didn’t do at that agency? Overhaul the engines? Repair the office plumbing? Resurface the parking lot maybe?
As she washed, she asked me where I was going and I told her, “Wherever curiosity takes me. Just a long road trip.”
“We took a road trip along Route 66 to Southern California and Disneyland,” she told me.”We didn’t have a lot of time for stops. More or less a straight shot, but it was a lot of fun. I love long road trips. I envy you.”
Done with the car, she handed me the keys, “Have fun. See you in six weeks.”
As I left Heather behind, I thought to myself, ‘I hope that woman gets to take her long road trip someday. If anyone deserves a wish come true, it’s her.’
Back at the Best Western, I got my new rental ready for the journey.
I was raised with road trips, as was almost every kid on my block, and so I knew all the tricks of the road trip trade.
Dad’s relatives lived in Salt Lake City, Utah, and, much to mom’s discontent, we took a biennial trek, across the Nevada Desert and the Utah Salt Flats to Uncle Al and Aunt Bonnie’s place on Second South Street, stopping in Reno, Nevada for breakfast.
Undoubtedly the stop was also for dad to feed a few slot machines and have a Bloody Mary before hitting the road for our one night waystation, Winnemucca, Nevada.
At Winnemucca, I would splash in the motel pool until my skin developed the texture of a sun dried raisin. Meanwhile dad and mom decompressed with some highballs and donated more quarters to the great state of Nevada.
I’d served my apprenticeship of getting a car ready for a road trip by watching my dad pack the family station wagon. Sporting vinyl, fake wood paneling along its sides, the old wagon was quite stylish in its time.
Everything that went into that big old beast had a designated spot; luggage was first in and last out and the cooler, the picnic basket and any games or other gimmicks to keep the little shit (me) occupied went in after that for easy access during the day’s ride.
There was also the booze box; a leatherette case that neatly held two bottles of hootch, a pair of glasses (not the reading kind), a jigger and a mixing spoon. That went in last for easiest access so that my parents could take the edge off after arriving at the motel and before unpacking – or maybe in case of a flat tire ten miles out of Wendover, Nevada. .
And so with dad’s tutelage in mind I got my SUV ready for the expedition. The luggage was first in, last out. Water bottles, one for the cup holder and a few on the passenger seat within easy reach. Hand sanitizer, masks, road maps of Iowa and Nebraska and some Clif Bars all went into the center console. I put my camera behind the front passenger seat within reach, while notes of where I’d planned to go for the day went into a pocket in the driver’s front door pocket. The vent louvers wouldn’t accommodate my cell phone mount so my phone, which housed Google Girl and her sketchy directions, went into the second cup holder.
There was no booze box, and no bottles of hootch. The days when drinking along the road was a winked at practice, are long past.
As I settled into the Kia I calculated my gains and losses. I’d lost an hour or two in time but I’d pocketed money from the table and, more importantly, I’d traded six weeks of uncertainty for some peace of mind.
Carter Lake was behind me, and out towards the east, under the rising Midwest sun before me – was somewhere.