Date: Aug 12 to Aug 25, 1995
Copyright (c) 1995 by Caryl L. Bergeron - Distribution for personal use permitted. Distribution for other uses with written permission.
Chapter 3 - Aug 12 to Aug 25 Castle Rock Colo to Valentine, NE - 654 miles
We tossed and turned all night long on July 11 with the anticipation of our departure .... NOT!!!! That day we'd ridden 45 miles from Brian's mom's house in Lakewood Co, to Brian's Brother's house in Castle Rock with about 40% of our gear. Keep in mind that with the exception of two 25 mile rides a few days earlier, this was essentially our first long ride since leaving San Diego 8 weeks earlier. Add to that the nice *bon voyage* party thrown for us by Brian's brother which kept us up past "bedtime". We were bushed and barely managed to drag ourselves out of bed after 8 AM. Well, so much for an early start.
We still had to pack. In the basement we had created piles containing everything we thought we'd need to make this multi-year journey a success, or at least somewhat comfortable. There was a pile of camping gear, cooking utensiles, first aid and toiletry supplies, Brian's clothes, my clothes, extra food and bike repair tools. I kept looking at all that stuff and at our panniers saying, "I don't think it'll fit, I don't think it'll fit". Well, it fit, but it's not light. Let's just say that my bike probably weighed as much or more than I weigh (just picture a 5' 2" not overweight person and you've got the idea).
Naturally we ended up leaving at the worst hour of the day. As we climbed on the bikes, the temperature gages on our brand new Trek Radar computers soared to 103 degrees. Maybe these temperature gages weren't such a great idea after all. Craig and Brenda wondered if we really didn't want to wait another day so we could leave earlier in the morning. But we'd waited so long for this day we just had to get going, heat and all.
I climbed on my bike and immediately was shocked. It was so heavy and so unstable. Normally before a tour we spend the proceeding 2 months training, both with a load and without. So by the time we actually start the tour we can maneuver the bike like it's an extension of our bodies. However, without this training, the Trek felt like some foreign being with a mind of its own. I'd turn the handle bars to the right and the bike would respond with a frightening wobble. How would I ever manage to keep this beast under control in more difficult terrain when I was practically falling over right in front of Craig's house. I grit my teeth, grabbed the handle bars with all my might, and pressed on hoping that within a few days I'd get my touring balance and strength back.
We headed east through the Black Forest to Limon and then north to Nebraska (See route and camping details in Appendixes). The gods were being exceptionally kind to us during the first three days. The searing heat was broken by a few hours of rain and cooler temperatures on two days. Also, we were relieved to not have any of those horrendous headwinds for which the western plains are so famous. We were able to gradually increase our distance from 30 to 45 to 78 miles finally settling into a relatively easy, and I do mean relative, 40 to 50 miles per day. But in general the midday temperatures stayed at over 100 degrees totally sapping our energy by the end of each day.
One of the most difficult things about riding in these temps is getting enough fluids. The water in our botttles is luke warm to hot. We did have some of those Croakies water bottle coolers, however they only brought the temps from about 100 to 80 at most. Then, no matter how much we tried to choke down that warm water, we simply couldn't get enough. We drank and drank and nothing came out. It's a wierd feeling, injesting so much water and not having to "go". To alleviate the problem we finally gave up riding in the afternoon, from 2PM on. We'd find a nice campsite, under a tree, maybe with swimming available. Definitly a wise change in strategy.
As we left the hills of the Black Forest we headed out onto the "flat" grasslands. I think "flat" is a term that should be reserved for car travel only. Those tiny hills that all but disappear in a car seem like mountains on a bike especially at the end of a 50 mile, 100 degree day. Most bike tourists learn very quickly to take terrain estimates from nonbike riders with a large grain of salt. I can't begin to count the number of times a motorist has told us of great flat roads that turn into undulating biking horrors.
This was the heart of cattle and farm country where the towns could be over 30 miles apart and your nearest neighbor a mere 10 miles away. For us bike tourists, our arrival at a town, any town, no matter how small was cause for celebration. Not the pop the cork, dance in the street kind of celebration. More of a deep breath of relief type of celebration. A town usually means a nice shade tree in this nearly treeless landscape, often a grassy town park, picnic tables, cold drinks, something to eat, and for the big end of the day party, a campsite.
Most of these towns were founded back in the early 1900s. Some still thrived and others seemed to have deteriorated to nothing more than boarded up brick buildings. A town's survival seems to depend entirely upon whether the major highway passed through it with an exit ramp at the town. Otherwise the easy access to distant towns permitted with the automobile means that the small town store can no longer compete. Stores close and people go down the road to shop. And they thought WalMart was the cause of all small town business failures.
The towns are all very similar, yet each has its own unique character. They all have lots of big trees probably planted some 50 years ago, a water tower, and it seems like streets numbered from 1 to 4. If the town happens to be by a railroad track there is also a large grain elevator. We haven't yet figured out how these things work or why they're so tall. But they sure make good landmarks. When you get into the town you can see what makes this particular town different from the rest. It may be the difference between neatly trimmed lawns and not so neat lawns, a meticuliously maintained park and one that has been ignored, or size, paved roads, the kids in town. Some places make you feel welcome, yet others make you want to leave ASAP. In a car these subtle differences are easily overlooked. On a bike they hit you smack in the face.
On the fourth day we visited our last Colorado town, Sterling, where we were honored with being the first bike-in campers at their state park. No discount though. And on the fifth, we finally made our first state line, Nebraska. The bikes were starting to feel more like home and we were gaining leg strength which allowed us to enjoy the scenery rather than think about our tired muscles.
The farms and ranches seem to have everything you could possibly imagine. Horses, cows, sheep, corn, hay, wheat, sunflowers, miles and miles of barbed wire, wind mill powered water pumps, cars in various states of assembly and rust, a variety of farm equipment, oil wells, nuclear missile silos (I'm not kidding), telecommunication towers, etc. There's always something new and different. Add to that grassy rolling hills framed by the deepest blue sky where the only clouds are the tick-tack-toe-board patterns of the high altitude jet trails and you've got Nebraska.
We marveled at the differences in the farms. Like the towns each farm house is identified by its own grove of old trees, but the similarity ends there. We've seen farm houses ranging from picture perfect to completely abandoned. One particular abandoned farm house really stood out. Its windows were shattered, the paint was peeling yet not yet completely gone, curtains fluttered in the breeze and a clothesline still hung in back. It was as if the owners just up and walked away one day. I couldn't help but wonder if the owners' dreams of a successful farming career hadn't been shattered like those windows.
Within 20 minutes of entering Nebraska we realized this was a state we would like riding through. It's one of those friendly horn honk and wave states. People were saying "Hi", asking us all sorts of questions, and generally making us feel as though they were actually happy we were riding through their state. In the town of Sidney, where there is no camping permitted in the town park, the folks at the huge outdoor store, Cabelas, let us sleep in their front yard. Later on a State Trooper had to stop us to talk for a while and give us road information. The expression on his face when we told him we were headed to Virginia was worth all the heat and headwinds we were putting up with that day. He happened to be one of the few car people we've met who was actually right about the road terrain ahead. Also, in the town of Gering they had a fabulous town camp, brand spanking new, in which they actually had town greeters come around in the evening to give you toourist information. This was the friendliest campground we'd seen yet. Everyone, all the retired travelers, came over to talk and warn us about the nightly sprinkling. Another town, Harrison, had a sign out on the road "Need a place to stop and rest, Make it Harrison Nebraska's best." Great welcome for two hot tired bikers. We do like Nebraska and Nebraskans.
The Cabelas outdoor store just outside Sidney, NE was amazing. It is the Wall Drug, Little America, South of the Border of the outdoor sportsman industry. *Huge* Inside are over 400 mounted trophies, and I do mean heads of animals, a 9000 gal. fish tank. a mountain scene, tons of guns, ammo, clothes, and fishing gear. I've never seen so many types of fishing lures in my life. Rows and rows of shiny, sparkling, slimy, feathery, colorful, pretty, and ugly flies, bugs, worms, salamanders, fishes, and others. I had to wonder whether a blue rubber polywag was any better than a red one. Could the fish really see color difference? I suspect they don't have the intricate rod and cone structures in their eyes. But I'll bet many a heated debate has occurred over the benefits of lure color, shape, and other minute details.
After spending an afternoon in Cabelas, it was a way to get out of the heat for a short while, we concluded that you could probably put a Cabelas right next to an REI and the two would hardly compete, except for clothing. REI has climbing, biking, kayakiing, canoing, and back packing gear. Cabelas is mostly hunting and fishing. It would make an interesting experiment.
At the town of Bridgeport we had one of our first encounters with someone wanting to learn more than just where we were from and where we were going. Al, a 46 year old man with hazel eyes, curly brown hair (no gray), a bit of a beer belly which was all the more accentuated by his European style flourissant green swim suit, came over to find out what we were doing and to try to talk us into switching to motorcycles. He says, "I can do the same thing as you, ride fast or slow. without the effort. When there's a storm I can be outa it within 45 minutes max. I can even ride up and down the same road several times just because the view is different in each direction. When you get tired of those bikes you should try a Susuki. You can easily get a good used one for about the same price." We just smiled and said we'd consider it. This clearly was a person who never would understand the effect nonmotorized transportatin can have on your self esteme.
Al, it turns out, is one of those folks who is absolutely, positively convinced that today's economic system will completely colapse within the next couple years making the US dollar no more valuable than toilet paper, although I imagine that in some cultures a roll of Charmin is actually quite a prized posession. The result will be an economic Armagedon in which unruley mobs reign. "People won't stand in bread lines like they did in '29." Al has bought two farms. sold his house in the city, amased a huge collection of guns and ammo "enough to start a small war", stocked enough food to last 10 people 3 1/2 years, and invested all his money in silver and gold, the real metals not just mutual funds. I've run across people with these beliefs before and always wondered, is this some form of paraoid hysteria or are they really on to something. Only time will tell.
The valley of the North Platte River in Nebraska was the scene of the most monumentous human emigration ever. From about 1812 to 1866 when the railroads went west, nearly all emigrants headed to Oregon, California, or the Morman lands in Utah passed through this valley. Estimates range from 350,000 to 500,000 people. It is flat, had a continual supply of water, and relatively no Indian threat. The biggest emmigration occurred between the 1840's and 1850's. Scotts Bluff and Chimney Rock, just west of Bridgport, were two extremely important landmarks along the route. They signified that 1/3 of the passage was complete and the monotonous grasslands of the plains would soon be over. Chimney Rock, it turns out, was the one landmark noted the most in journals, diaries, letters, sketches, and paintings. So naturally I feel the need to add my own remarks.
On July 18, 1995 we passed famous Chimney Rock. Its form is that of a large white inverted cone with a tall column on top, perhaps looking more like an inverted funnel. It stands nearly 300 ft tall but is made of such soft rock that it easily loses several feet each year. We were happy to have made it to the Chimney, however knew we had another 20 miles of searing heat and headwinds to Scotts Bluff.
Actually, we learned a lot about those early emmigrants which made our current "hardships" absolutely pale in comparison. They were of all walks of life all looking for a better future out west. Typically they had one ox drawn wagon that could haul about 2000 lbs of food, water, goods and whatever else they had. Although, the real poor usually had only a small hand cart. People walked next to the wagons to save weight which meant that they walked the entire 2000 mile in 15 mile per day increments in shoes that are no match for today's modern hiking boots. Their primary concerns were food, water, and shelter (sounds a lot like our concerns) and causes of death were mainly disease like Cholera, accidents like getting caught under the wagon wheels, and accidental shootings. Evidently they didn't know the first thing about firearms and were pron to shoot themselves. At one point it was said that there were over 4 graves to every mile of the trail. The sterotypical image of circled wagons being attacked by Indians evidently rarely happened.
We also learned about all the debris left at the side of the trail. Anything not absolutely essential was left behind often with a sign "help yourself". People were quoted as saying that if they had to do it over they would start with a light wagon and pick up what they needed along the way. It was a dirty, dusty trail lined with all sorts of junk and reeked from the smell of animal and human excriment and animals that died along the way.
As we stood on top of Scotts Bluff looking down at the green irrigated farmlands secure in the knowledge that an ice cold soda awaited us at the bottom of the trail we tried to imagine what this westward walk must have been like. I'm sure that without having experienced it first hand we'd never be able to fully comprehend how difficult it was. The Nebraska portion of the Oregon trail is now marked thanks to the effort of one Ezra Meeker. In 1852 he travelled the trail as one of those emmigrante. In 1906 he repeated the route again in an ox drawn wagon to try to get the states to mark the trail as a tribute to all the emmigrants. The trail was finally marked in 1912.
We headed north from Scottsbluff to the town of Harrison, an 80 mile day with 56 miles of nothing but grassy rolling hills. This was to be our most northwest point in this leg of the journey. On August 21 we started our official trek eastward.
We made a stop at Ft. Robinson to pick up some more of the history of the white/Indian conflicts of the 1870's. Ft. Robinson, 1874 to 1948, was created to protect the Red Cloud Agency. These "Agencies" were created in this area following the treaty of 1868. In this treaty, signed by Red Cloud, the Indians would essentially give up all right to their lands in Nebraska, some in Wyoming, and S. Dakota in exchange for food and clothing provided by the government. These Agencies were set up to distribute these goods. Evidentally this whole concept of living pent up on a reservation and then essentially being dependent upon the government for their daily needs did not sit too well with the Sioux, Cheyenne, and Arapahoe. So they rebelled. One very famous rebellious group was lead by Chief Sitting Bull. After his one success at the Little Big Horn his group had a series of battle loses which eventually forced him to surrender in 1877. His group came to Ft. Robinson, but after a short while they realized that this wasn't going to lead to a life they could tolerate. So talk of another rebellion ensued. To stifle this talk the government ordered the arrest of Chief Sitting Bull.
On September 5, 1877 while being led to the guard house, Sitting Bull was killed. Evidentally there are two stories for his accidental death. Both say that he drew knives in both hands and tried to attack his captors. Another Sioux, Little Big Man, saw this and attempted to disarm Sitting Bull. The official story has it that a private in the guard house door stabbed Sitting Bull with his bayonette. The more likely story says that Litle Big Man accidentally stabbed him during the struggle for the knives. Evidentally they recorded the first story in order to protect Little Big Man's family from possible reprisal.
After the Indian conflicts died down, Ft Robinson continued to be used as a horse training camp and then a dog training camp during WW II. In it's final days it was also used as a German POW camp. I found it hard to believe that it would have been cost effective to bring the Germans all the way over here to be detained. But evidentally with all the returning, empty supply ships I guess it was.
We continued east along Rt 20 in the blistering heat to the town of Chadron where we stopped to visit the only museum in the US dedicated entirely to the fur trade business. It is actually based at an old traders house, Mr. Bordeaux, used from about 1840 to 1870. The admission was $1.50 per person and it was well worth it. They have display case after display case showing bells, mirrors, beads, blankets, guns, ammo, coffee, tobacco, Indian clothing, pots, pans, furs, and essentially every manner of trade good that would have passed through the trade stores from 1600 to the late 1800's. We spent a full 3 hours totally engrossed. We did learn an interesting fact. A dear buck skin would trade for $1 cash which lead to the name "buck" still used today.
Back out on the hot, hot road with our temperature gages topping out at 108 deg I found I had to concentrate on something, anything to keep me going. So I started watching the grasshoppers. All along the roads of NE we've been encountering grasshoppers, thousands upon thousands of grasshoppers. There are green, brown, yellow, and red grasshoppers; small 1 inch and large 4 inch grasshoppers; grasshoppers eating other already squished grasshoppers; grasshoppers working on making other grasshoppers, and grasshoppers just sitting there for no good reason. As we rode by there would be a sudden flurry as they jumped from the road back into the bushes. Some didn't make it and would land on us, bounce off the bikes with a ping as they hit the spinning spokes, or we'd hear the *skooch skooch* as our tires rolled over them. Granted it did provide something to think about, but the *skooch skooch* was a little morbid.
We finally got a break from the high temps on August 25 when a cold front moved in. The temps dropped to a cold 68 deg and it drizzled all day long. By the time we pulled in at Valentine, NE we were good and soaked. We didn't mind, however. It was just nice to finally see some reasonable temperatures again. For the first time in about 4 days we were able to get a good night sleep.
On our 62 mile day to Valentine we rode easily and slowly. We were simply too tired to push and the headwind and rain kept us at a slow pace. We stopped in the tiny town of Kilgore to see if we could get something hot to eat. Riding up to the small store I immediately sensed we were in a rougher town. There were bars on the store window, the first we'd seen since leaving Denver. A tall, slender lady with waist length nearly black hair, large brown eyes, wearing jeans that had that comfortable lived in appearance manned the cash register. She told us stories about some of the Indians who come down from the reservation in S. Dakota.
"They bring in their government checks and I'd say 90% of them spend 1/4 to 1/2 of the money on booze. And they don't know how to take care of their children. They're dirty and uncared for. Just last night I saw a truck take off from the bar with an infant strapped in a baby seat sitting in the back of the truck. The parents and an older boy were in front. If I treated my kids that way the state would take them in a shot. But the Indians, once they get up on the *Res* you can't touch them. And they keep having more kids. For every kid they have they get $71 more from the government. Yet they don't even know how to take care of the ones they already have."
I have the greatest respect for the Indian culture. I've read many books about their myths, legends, and way of life both before and after the arrival of white man. We visit their museums and admire their beautiful art, religious cerimonies, and respect for all of nature's gifts. The Indians of the past were an amazing people and I personally regret what the white man's ancestors did.
Yet we've heard similar tales from people in or near reservations in Washington, Montana, N. Dakota, New Mexico, California, and now Nebraska. I'm sure that this behavior is not universal among all Indians. But the stories are so consistent it seems that there must be an underlying problem. I just can't help but believe that the continued policy of giving money to the Indians isn't causing much more damage than good. A once proud people now live "on the dole" Which provides no sense of pride or accomplishment. Somehow there must be a better approach.
The town of Valentine, named in 1882 for Senator E.K. Valentine and not for the rather popular sweetheart day, is a rather quaint prairie town with the most incredible town park. Situated on the Niobrara River, the park is locatded right in the river valley. It has huge eastern style trees, lots of grass, picnic tables, showers, and a nice wooden picnic cabin. It was very large for a town of just 2800 people. To us it looked just like a town park you'd find in Vermont. Especially in the morning when a light fog seemed to cover the area.
At the park we met Claire, a 70 year old forever bachelor from Niagara Falls in Canada. He was about 5' 10", reasonably slender, had gray hair on which he always wore his baseball cap with initials NCS. His eyes were that gray- blue color of blue eyes that had seen many years. He wore baggy gray pants, an equally nondescript baggy T-shirt, and shoes that were torn and ripped. We were to learn that despite his dress he was actually quite well off in his retirement. He just felt he had no need to try to impress anyone. His voice carried such enthusiasm. Everything to him was another adventure, another story to be savored and told someday. We could listen to him for hours.
Claire has a 2 acre lot in Canada on which he grows all sorts of veges during the summer. He then takes 2 months each year to travel. He'd been to Valentine with his girlfriend, Marge, in 1980 or "nineteen hundred and eighty" as he says and was telling us about the town.
"I was just driving down the road and I saw the laundermat on the corner. I found my way down here just like that. I had figured I'd get it close, but I was right on. Not bad to remember it after 15 years."
Evidentally they'd spent several days in the park. They got to know the park caretakers, Arnold and Harry, quite well. He told us of the parade that happened to be in town and when they walked up the hill they found that the 90 degree temperatures of the river valley quickly climbed to 108. They also found that the Chamber of Commerce maintained a box in which you could drop the name and address of anyone you want. Then on the next Valentine's day they would send a card to that person from the town of Valentine. He told us of the beaver they heard splashing around at night and of the motorcycle gang that arrived one night just after the Sturgis ralley. He made everything about this small quiet town sound as exciting as standing on Time Square in New York City on New Year's Eve.
He also told us about living through a 15 second tornado in Florida that killed 8 people. He and Marge survived by hanging onto a picnic table in the middle of a cement block picnic shelter. He also talked about wanting to stop by the town where Rev. Robert Schuller, speaker on the Hour of Power show on TV, grew up. "That man can give you a real education. Not just about religion but about everything in life."
We hated to leave, but the weather looked good and we knew that the heat could return at any time. We did get his address and promised to stop in if we're in the area in 1997. He has no phone which is just fine with us.
To celebrate our first two weeks and because it was Friday we strolled into town for pizza. Unfortunately the only pizza places we've found in the west are Pizza Huts. It seems that the *mom and pop* pizza places just can't compete. During the stroll back to the park we watched the Friday night ritual of teenagers driving up and down the whole four blocks that constitute downtown. Now I'll admit, I did not participate in such sport when I was in high school so the appeal of driving around and around, yelling out the window at each other completely escapes me. I keep asking Brian, "Why are they doing that?", What do they do after getting bored, meet somewhere, go home?", and "Why drive a car with such a bad muffler?" Brian just tells me it's the way teenagers are. I guess I just missed all that. Being a member of the Civil Air Patrol, Girl Scouts, and working to pay for flying lessons kept me pretty busy.
We ended the week quietly, ready to take on the next two weeks.
Appendix 3A - Route
86 East from Castle Rock, Co to Limon 71 North from Limon to Brush 6 East from Brush to Sterling RD 37 North from Sterling to N. Sterling Resevoir State Park Right turn to get to SR 113 in Peetz North to Sidney, NE North on 385 to Bridgeport West on 92 to Gering/Scottsbluff West on 26 to Mitchell North on 29 to Harrison East on 20 to Valentine
Appendix 3B - Camping
Kiowa county fair grounds, Limon KOA ($), Brush town park, N. Sterling State Park($), Cabelas outdoor store front lawn near Sidney
Bridgeport State Recreation Area, Robidoux Campground in Gering 2 nights($), Harrison town park, Ft Robinson State Park($), B&J RV Park in Chadron($), Gordon town park, Merimann town park, Valentine town park
Note: ($) means a fee campground.
Copyright © 1995-2011 by Caryl L. Bergeron - Distribution for personal use permitted. Distribution for other uses with written permission.