DENVER — The Great Plains finally ended. It took longer than “Dances With Wolves.”
Strip malls and ugly stores. Bars with neon bulbs burned out. Motels along pavement, and working people with cracked hands walking on sidewalks. Boxcars lined up abreast like oxen.
Then, in waves, the Rocky Mountains grew up to the sky.
There is a classically funny and stupid movie called “Dumb and Dumber.” Two guys drive to Colorado with no planning and no clue. The guys names are Lloyd and Harry.
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The dumber one, chipped tooth played by Jim Carrey and plenty dumb, looks up at the horizon after going the wrong way toward the Rockies for miles and says, “I thought they’d be rockier.”
I just said the same thing.
The driver groaned.
Herald Sports Editor Gary McCann clearly is less culpable, and he was that groaning driver, so he can’t be dumber. That clearly, is me.
It ended at the corner of California Street and 18th Street in downtown Denver. The Marriott. I got out of “The Shadow,” a gray Malibu the color of sorrow. McCann, the driver for almost all of those miles, jumped from his seat and fled.
I am a guy who’s more used to carrying bags than having bags carried. I tipped the bellman, twice. Then, his buddy with three bags over his shoulder said, “Hey, buddy, no smoking by the front doors,” to guess who. “See the sign? Smoke down the sidewalk in the smoking section.”
After a 1,635-mile road trip to watch the Winthrop Eagles play in the NCAA Tournament, done just to do it — again — after going even farther to Spokane, Wash., last year, Denver looks like a city where Winthrop can again make history.
But let me tell you about Kansas first. Dorothy was wrong. She may not have been in Kansas any more when she went to Oz, but McCann and I sure were. Kansas never ends. We never thought we would make it when driving across Kansas for seven hours. Grain elevators are the only landmarks. Except silos. We saw a sign that said, “15 foot prairie dog, exit now!” so I jerked “The Shadow” off Interstate 70 for a look.
The prairie dog town in Oakley, Kan., is closed. A fence blocks the view of the colossus of the plains.“Seasonal,” said one of the clerks at the gas station next door, a woman by the name of Shelly Jackson. “And anyway, it’s fake.”
Waddya mean, fake? I demand.
“I don’t know, I’ve never even seen it,” said another clerk, Kaetlyn Schlitz.
I gasped. I couldn’t believe it. She works next door to the big dog and never was curious enough to check it out.
“You don’t really think we have prairie dogs that big out here, do you?” Jackson asked me. “What are you doin’ here, anyway?”
I explained like I had so many times. Winthrop. Basketball. NCAA Tournament. McCann hid near the honey buns and beef jerky so he didn’t have to watch. Or listen.
“Sure, I heard of Winthrop,” Jackson said.
Schlitz said she hadn’t heard of Winthrop and didn’t care to be told about the trip I was on with McCann, either.
I tried a different tack. Oakley must be the hometown of Annie Oakley, right? Buffalo Bill’s sidekick. I saw the postcards near the beer cooler.
From the cookie bin comes a voice, “Nope, Annie Oakley was born in Indiana,” said a man who identified himself as Tom Depperschmidt. “This is only where the legend was born. I’m from Oakley. Isn’t much to know around here, but what there is to know, I know it.”
I asked Depperschmidt where Oakley is. He said because he is there, it is somewhere. I asked, “Spell your name for me,” and he deadpanned, “Y-O-U-R-N-A-M-E.”
I wrote it down until the “M” before I realized he got me.
Last year this week when McCann and I drove to Spokane for Winthrop’s magical NCAA first-round victory over Notre Dame, I met a guy in an open Hawaiian shirt outside a rest stop men’s room. The guy said it was spring as the snow blew by. This year in Kansas, I met a guy named Terry Peak of Pennyton, Texas. He said he was out for a drive. He wore a T-shirt.
“I live so far out that the nearest Wal-Mart is in Kansas,” Peak said. “’Bout four hours, if you drive fast.”
That’s how far from anywhere we were.
Earlier in the marathon westward, we had stopped for gas and coffee at a place called Junction City. Junction, yes, because two barely paved roads crossed there. City? No chance. When we were there, the population went up 10 percent.
I asked the clerk at the gas station, Hilda Concepcion, if she’d ever heard of Winthrop.
“No,” she said. “Next!”
I tried to sweet-talk her. I remembered that somewhere in Kansas was the physical midpoint of the United States. I asked Concepcion if we were close.
“Don’t know if we are in the middle of the country, but I can tell you we are in the middle of nowhere,” she said.
Thank God people in Kansas are nosy. And when the distance between gas stations is measured in light years instead of miles, when you get there, you hang around and shoot the breeze a while. A great guy named Rich Bartlett was laughing at me as I begged people for interviews and he piped up, “Sure, I heard of Winthrop. They beat Notre Dame last year.”
I made the fatal flaw. “How had you heard of Winthrop?” I asked.
“Ever heard of ESPN?” Bartlett asked with disdain. “We got cable out here, you know.”
You sure do have cable. And corn stalks, wheatfields and the world’s tallest prairie dog that you can’t see because it’s behind a fence and locked doors.
But that is all a memory now. We are footloose in Denver, with a big NCAA game against Washington State coming up Thursday. After 1,635 miles, eight states, and as an unabashed homer for Winthrop, I have decided that the drive was worth it. And let me be the first to say, after 26 hours in “The Shadow,” Washington State stinks.
Andrew Dys • 329-4065 firstname.lastname@example.org