Roadtripping Across America: Nebraska to California

Rolls of hay on a field — looks almost like a site-specific art installation.

Fashion writer Johanna Björk continues her drive from New York City to Ojai, California, eating good food the entire way.

During the first part of my six day roadtrip across America, I made it through New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Iowa and about half of Nebraska, all without eating any junk food — which is harder than it sounds when you’re on the road. Over the course of the three days that lay ahead, the plan was to make it all the way to California, a mere 1,626 miles.

Day Four – Nebraska, Colorado
We woke up on the late side, which was probably due to several glasses of good wine we had at The Drover in Omaha the night before. The plan was to make it to Denver where we had friends to stay with. After a while of driving we saw a roadside sign advertising a “Museum of the Prairie Pioneer” and just had to go check it out. The Stuhr Museum of the Prairie Pioneer turned out to be a living history museum with a mix of indoor exhibits and outdoor built environments.

The Stuhr Building, designed by Edward Durell Stone.

The Stuhr Building, designed by Edward Durell Stone

Yes, indeed, we are.

Yes, indeed, I am

The main building, designed by renowned architect Edward Durell Stone, is surprisingly modern. There, you will find exhibits featuring everything from old farm equipment to period-specific clothing. Across the way, the Gus Fonner Memorial Rotunda houses beautiful collections of Native American and Old West memorabilia reflecting the contrasting cultures of the Plains Indians and the early western settlers. After this, we took a walk through Railroad Town, which is a replica of an old frontier town, complete with storefronts, wagons and trains. Since it was a weekday, none of the buildings were open, and the only other visitors to the museum at the time was a class of school children. It was actually quite nice to feel like we had the place to ourselves.

The Log Cabin Settlement.

The Log Cabin Settlement

Hanging out by the teepee.

Hanging out by the teepee

The Log Cabin Settlement is an interpretation of the 1850s-60s “road ranches” that were built (using Cottonwood logs) along the pioneer trails and served travelers heading west. The Pawnee Earth Lodge is a 38-foot wide replica of an 1830s lodge that would have been home to about thirty to fifty people. The Pawnee were once the most influential and populous of the native peoples of Nebraska, and their towns ranged in size from forty to two hundred of these earth lodges. Before leaving, I just had to go lay down inside the teepee for a while to stretch before the long ride ahead.

The Pawnee Earth Lodge.

The Pawnee Earth Lodge

The Pawnee Earth Lodge.

Thirty to fifty people would have lived inside one of these Earth Lodges

After a minor WordPress incident (I accidentally deleted most of a post on my blog trying to fix a spelling error using the WordPress iPhone app), a desperate search for wifi took us to the Coffee Cottage. Located right off the highway, in the midst of gas stations, fast food drive-ins and chain motels, is an independently run coffee shop (with free wifi), where the owner herself will make your cup of ice coffee for the road. That’s what I call a happy accident.

The Coffee Cottage.

The Coffee Cottage

Original Pony Express Station in Gothenburg, NE.

Original Pony Express Station in Gothenburg, Nebraska

We stopped in Gothenburg, Nebraska to check out the original Pony Express station, a small log cabin that once was a stop along the Pony Express route that ran from Missouri to California. During the period of about eighteen months when the Pony Express was delivering mail, a total of 183 riders did the route. They had to be “young, skinny wiry fellows not over 18” and “expert riders willing to risk death daily.” Orphans were preferred and the wages were $25 per week. The average weight of a rider was 120 pounds, and most of them were around 20 years old, but the youngest of them was merely eleven and the oldest in his mid-40s.

The Sod House Museum.

The Sod House Museum

An authentic replica of the sod houses built by early settlers in the region.

An authentic replica of the sod houses built by early settlers in the region

On our way back to the highway, we made one last stop, at the Sod House Museum — an authentic replica of the sod houses built by early settlers in the region. Apparently, the museum is also home to one of the world’s largest plows (we managed to miss that one, somehow). Had we not already had our coffee, we would have definitely visited Lasso Espresso next door.

Lasso Espresso.

Lasso Espresso

After being on the road again for a while I got my very first close look (and smell) at a CAFO, a sad sign that all is not always as picturesque as it seems. We arrived in Denver a little before 9 pm. The friend that we were supposed to stay with for the night had suddenly become sick and we found ourselves using the Kayak and Priceline apps, looking for hotels for the night.

Driving past a CAFO.

Driving past a CAFO

Gorgeous skies on the approach to Denver.

Gorgeous skies on the approach to Denver

Apparently, bed bugs are sort of an issue in Denver, and after finding several of the hotels we were looking at on we freaked out and decided that instead of risking waking up with itchy skin we should spend a bit more on a hotel without bed bugs. So, we used a great app called Hotel Tonight, which lets you find deals on nice hotels in major cities for that same night. We ended up at a Hilton Garden Inn, so much for no mainstream motels. Oh well, sometimes you have to make tradeoffs.

Day Five – Colorado, Utah
Before leaving Denver in the morning, we stopped in at a Whole Foods to stock up on healthy stuff to eat during the day. I had been craving a green juice since we left New York, but to my great dismay, this location did not have a juice bar and I had to settle for an organic tea.

Snow-capped mountains.

Snow-capped mountains

After four days of driving through the plains, the snow-capped Rocky Mountains in the distance was quite an impressive sight, and driving up through them was amazing. We were finally entering the Wild West. Going through the winding roads and tunnels carved through the mountains makes you realize just how amazing it is that people managed to build all this.

A gold mine.

A gold mine

Gorgeous lakes.

Gorgeous lakes

Red cliffs.

Red cliffs

The outskirts of Vail.

The outskirts of Vail

We passed an actual gold mine, red cliffs, lakes and small skiing towns. When stopping for a bathroom break we lucked out and found what has to be the most spectacular rest stop in Colorado. There were stairs that led down to a small beach, where the Colorado River rapidly flowed by. I wanted to put my toe in the water but decided that it was probably not the best idea. Instead, I sat on one of the rocks for a while, admiring the splendor of nature’s beauty.

Watching the Colorado River flow by at the most beautiful rest stop in Colorado.

Watching the Colorado River flow by at the most beautiful rest stop in Colorado

Mountain pass.

Mountain pass

As we drove further through Colorado, the formerly green and red landscape turned all different shades of beige as the trees disappeared. When we entered Utah, a vast landscape of nothing but majestic mountains and canyons was spread out in front of us. It looked like a big storm was stirring up ahead and we decided to stop at the next town and find a hotel for the night.

Entering Utah.

Entering Utah

Dark clouds looming above the mountains.

Dark clouds looming above the mountains

The nearest town, Salina, turned out to be about three hours away. It was kind of scary to drive through the winding mountain roads in the dark, with rain pounding the windshield. When we finally made it there, we looked up the cheapest thing on Kayak and found a small, fairly new motel. The people in the reception had never heard of Kayak, but were very sweet and honored the rate for us. For dinner, we had a big salad that we had picked up at Whole Foods in Denver that morning. I fell asleep watching a Storage Wars marathon on TV.

Day Six – Utah, Arizona, Nevada, California

It's amazing how much stuff one can fit in a MINI.

It’s amazing how much stuff one can fit in a MINI

On the road again.

On the road again

Hitting the road again in the morning, we were once again mesmerized by the beauty of the landscape. Every time I put my camera down after taking a photo something new turned up. It was kind of ridiculous, in a good way.

Majestic mountains in the distance...

Majestic mountains in the distance

...every way you looked.

…every way you looked.

One of the most spectacular parts was the drive through the Virgin River Gorge, which follows I-15 for 20 miles across the corner of northwestern Arizona and slices right through a scenic desert canyon.

The drive through the Virgin River Gorge is quite spectacular.

The drive through the Virgin River Gorge is quite spectacular

Majestic canyons — just like a scene from an old Western movie.

Majestic canyons — just like a scene from an old Western movie

Entering Nevada, there was no sign to formally welcome us to this new state. There was, however, casinos, lots of casinos. The landscape became more desert-like and the temperature started rising — at one point it showed as 101 degrees Fahrenheit. As we approached Las Vegas, we saw more and more power lines converging in the distance. I guess it takes a lot of power to run all those lights in Sin City.

You pick: Sin or Salvation. Elvis or Jesus.

You pick: Sin or Salvation. Elvis or Jesus

As we approached Las Vegas, the power lines got larger and more plentiful.

As we approached Las Vegas, the power lines got larger and more plentiful

The strip was enveloped in a big storm cloud, so we decided, since we had both already been to Vegas, that we would find a raw food place to have lunch. I used Yelp to find a place, on the west side of town, called Go Raw Café. Located in a strip mall adjacent to a man-made lake in an upscale residential neighborhood, it was a bit hard to find, but the food was definitely worth it. The house salad was divine (and huge) and came with dehydrated crackers. We also tried the chips, salsa and guacamole (house salsa and guacamole served with flax chips) and half a Portabello Mushroom Wrap (marinated portabella mushrooms, veggies, kale, and “almond cheese” wrapped in collard greens served with house slaw). Such a treat. I also (finally) got a green juice for the road.

Big delicious raw salad.

Big delicious raw salad

Raw Portabello Mushroom Wrap.

Raw Portabello Mushroom Wrap

Sipping a green juice outside Go Raw Café in Las Vegas.

Sipping a green juice outside Go Raw Café in Las Vegas

Entering California, you have to pass through an agriculture checkpoint, where they make sure that you are not bringing in any invasive plants or pests. I was worried that they would take my goji berries, but we were just waved through. Finally, we had reached California! It was getting dark and pretty soon we were stuck in LA-traffic on a five-lane freeway. How classic.

Traffic congestion outside of LA.

Traffic congestion outside of LA

Almost there — Ojai, CA, my new home.

Almost there — Ojai, California, my new home

Rolling into our new home in Ojai, it was pitch black outside. It felt great to have arrived, but I was also sad that the journey was over — 2,872 miles. Maybe some day I will do it again.


Johanna Björk

Johanna is a sustainable fashion writer currently based in Ojai, CA. Read her weekly On Trend column to learn what's new in eco fashion.