The only hotel in Gordon, Nebraska has no record of my reservation, and they're fully booked. It's 30 miles to the next town, and a prairie storm is unleashing its full force outside. "I could put you in one of our B rooms," says the clerk. B is for basement, it turns out, and my windowless bunker is stark and cramped. I'm channel flipping on the TV when the screen turns red and a disembodied voice tells me a twister just touched down north of town. Dismal as it is, having the basement room suddenly seems like a very bright idea...

NE way you want it

In Scottsbluff, NE, my hotel room is the perfect antidote to the cookie-cutter accommodations in chain motels. I have a queen-size sleigh bed with a hand-quilted cover, a leather La-Z-Boy and a country rocker armchair. The table lamps might have been wedding presents received in 1950, and the full-size refrigerator is finished in wood-grain. It's charming.

On my desk there's the August 2002 issue of Reader's Digest, a plush teddy bear and a magazine called Quick and Simple, "only $ 1.59" (that's the quick and simple part). Allegedly its contents can help me make money, lose weight and find happiness. And aside from all that self-help reading pleasure, it contains $ 38,378 in coupons and prizes. What a deal!

The largest city in the Nebraska panhandle, Scottsbluff lies at the western boundary of the Great Plains, just a couple of hundred miles from the Colorado Rockies. To the east is the broad, shallow valley of the North Platte River, and to the northeast, the vast rolling prairie grasslands. My route will skirt the plains, then head south to the Colorado border, east to North Platte, and follow the Platte River upstream back to Scottsbluff.