Before falling asleep, in Sterling Colorado, I heard freight trains, their wheels screeching, their couplings slamming together, all no more than a few hundred feet beyond my motel. Two major freight lines meet in Sterling, the Burlington Northern and Union Pacific. The Burlington Northern tracks head due east and the Union Pacific tracks follow the Platte River Valley to the northeast. For the next week, the Union Pacific freight trains would be my constant, welcome companions.
Leaving on my third day, I took US highway 138 east. US 138 follows the Platte River to the Nebraska border, just outside of Julesburg, Colorado. It was a clear day and the high afternoon temperature approached 80 degrees. The wind was light and out of the south. This created a slight tailwind and I had a wonderful morning, cruising along, the old gravel in the roadway blurring as it passed under me.
Along the 60 miles from Sterling to Julesburg the road was flat, the towns were little, and the scenery was unchanging. The South Platte river was a mile or two south, running closer to the interstate, so it was out of my sight except for the line of cottonwood trees that rise up from it. Between me and the river lay flat open fields, either freshly plowed or covered with matured wheat, corn, alfalfa, and soybeans.
These little towns, all five to fifteen miles apart, had populations of several hundred to 1,000 at most. There were two dominant features in each town, a water tower and the white grain silos that rose up like small skyscrapers along side the railroad tracks. Both could be spotted from five to ten miles away, depending on the lay of the land and trees. There was food in most towns, in stores and cafes.
I stopped under a giant old cottonwood tree in the tiny little town of Illif, at about noon, to eat a peanut butter and banana sandwich. The town, small old ranch houses spread over just a few blocks in either direction, seemed almost deserted. I was in a park along the roadway with a few pieces of rusted playground equipment and an empty school bus.
I made some seat adjustments on the bicycle. I dropped the nose slightly and raised the saddle about a quarter of an inch. I wanted to be sure I was getting the maximum power from each pedal stroke. I was also having my usual bit of knee pain and thought it might help if I extended my leg a bit further.
Near the town of Crook I began to see lots of grasshoppers. Many of them sat in the shoulder of the road and occasionally, as I passed, they would react by leaping into the air. Sometimes they would hit me or the bicycle. Now and then one would have the coordination and reflexes to grab onto my leg (uhuhuhuhu).
Ping. That's the sound they make when they hit a spoke, as if someone had gently plucked it. When I got into the town of Crook I relaxed in the town park next to the water tower and removed a bisected hopper from one of my brake cables. I thought that I was seeing an extreme number of them and made a note in my journal about grasshoppers near the town of Crook. It was nothing compared with what lay ahead of me.
I whiled away the afternoon calibrating my speedometer. At each mile marker along the road I checked my odometer reading making sure that I had recorded a mile since the last mile marker. To gain even more accuracy, I would count the number of pedal strokes after each mile marker until the odometer flipped to the next tenth of a mile. I was making very accurate measurements. Mile marker signs are not all exactly one mile apart, and I kept making minute adjustments.
I'd forget about it for a while and sing a song to myself. Then I'd get calibration fever again. Over the course of this afternoon and the next day I settled on a setting that was as accurate as I could possibly get. The rolling circumference of my rear, 26 inch x 1.4 inch, Nimbus tire, with a full load on the back was 75.94 inches. At home, with no load on the bike, I'd had it set to 77 inches.
As the day wore on the wind grew stronger and turned slightly toward the west becoming a direct crosswind. It felt like something grabbing at me as I passed by, like a line of people grabbing at my coattail as I rode past them. A crosswind can be no fun. It's best not to express too much frustration though, as the gods can make things much worse with a headwind. Then you feel like someone is standing directly in front of you and holding you back with outstretched arms. I remained as humble as possible and accepted the crosswind.
Before I left, a somewhat naive and younger friend of mine had asked me what sort of weapons I planned on bringing with me. He would want a club mounted to the bike that could be brought to ready at a second's notice to beat off muggers and thieves. I didn't have much of an answer for his query other than to laugh a bit and tell him that he needed to get away more often. That afternoon, however, there was a moment when I began to wonder if I wasn't the one that was being naive.
About three miles west of the little town of Ovid, it's water tower and silos having been in sight for over 15 minutes, a car approached me from ahead, slowed to a crawl, and as I came by the driver pulled into the shoulder and watched me ride by. No big deal. Minutes later, the same car passed me from behind and drove ahead until it was out of sight. It must have turned around, as it once again passed me slowly in the opposite shoulder, the driver watching me cycle by. I was starting to wonder what he wanted, when he passed me from behind again. I decided to pick up the pace, so that I might make it into little Ovid before our third meeting. I was a little concerned, if not scared. What it was all about, I'll never know. That was the last I saw of him.
Thinking later, with calm rationale, it disappointed me that I hadn't asked him what he was doing. I decided the whole thing was nothing to be concerned about, just perplexing. I wish I'd asked him what he wanted. I still believe there was no malice intended. This was the only time that another human being aroused a sense of fear in me during the entire trip.
In Ovid, I rode a few blocks north of the highway to the town park. It was a beautiful day and a well groomed park with lots of old trees and lush green grass. At one end was the high school. An old brick building. I saw a few of the townfolk, but no one even looked my way long enough for a conversation to ensue. People seemed well to do in this little town. There was a new car in most every driveway. As I left town, a teenager drove by in his nice new pick up and waved.
Three miles west of Julesburg, coming down from a highway overpass, I heard a barking sound and noticed a white blur in my left peripheral vision, about 50 yards away. A light colored, setter-ish looking dog was running with great earnest in order to greet me where the two roads we were on converged. I had to go well over 20 miles an hour to pull away. I have no idea what that pooch's intentions were. I just panicked and beat feet.
Once in Julesburg, I found the Motel Grand, a block north of the highway. It was the only Hotel in town and cost $26.30 for a very nice room, clean, and with a firm mattress. I checked in and immediately went to one of the two small diners in town. It had wood floors and tables with straight back chairs laid out in rows like a cafeteria. I had the day's special: chicken fried steak with mashed potatoes and green beans. The food and country ambience were delicious.
Back at my room, I was feeling sleepy and exhausted. Yet, for some reason, I wouldn't let myself fall asleep. So, at twilight, I went out on my bike to take a quick look around Julesburg. Directly across the street were trees full of birds chattering noisily away. Then, looking southeast, I saw the rising full blue moon. The moon wasn't actually blue. It was August 31st and this was the second full moon in the month. A blue moon.
Looking past the clean, white grain silos, that great, shiny, silver
disk hung in a luminous, steel blue sky. The cool evening air was
fresh with the organic smell of rich farmland. The streets were
lined with large deciduous trees. I couldn't stop myself. Riding my
lightweight, unencumbered bicycle was easy and fun, so I took a more
extensive look around Julesburg.
I rode near the railroad tracks and the restored train depot. There was a brick monument out front commemorating Julesburg as the site of a Pony Express Station. Pony Express riders, in 1860, covered the central plains, stopping every ten miles or so for a fresh horse, and every 50 to 100 miles to sleep. Sound familiar?
The town of Julesburg was a rectangular grid of streets that hung off the main highway like a sheet on a clothesline. Just to one side of the highway, the top of the clothesline, were the railroad tracks and grain silos. On the other side of the highway hung Julesburg in a rectangular gridwork of streets some 15 blocks deep and 20 blocks long.
I rode around the perimeter of Julesburg, which was surrounded by corn fields. I said good evening to folks out for a twilight walk, waved to kids riding around with their buddies, and sighed each time I looked up to see that great bright moon and the luminous sky. It reminded me of my younger days, growing up in a small, Illinois town.
I looked through warmly lit windows as families sat down to dinner. I passed a hobbyist in his garage full of woodcrafting tools, swingsets in the backyards, and kids playing in the clean alleys. I thought how sweet it must be to live in a town like this. I rode past an old brick grade school, churches, and, at the edge of town, the white bleachers of the high school playing field. Tall green corn stalks swayed in the breeze just beyond.
I rode back to the motel, giving one last nod to the little boys that were trying to squeeze out those last few minutes before being called indoors. I watched some TV, iced my knees a couple of times, saw my buddy Dave, and fell peacefully to sleep.
I'd ridden 60 miles that day, starting at 11:00 A.M. and arriving in
Julesburg at 5:00 P.M. Ten miles an hour, including breaks. My
altimeter said I was at 3520 feet elevation, although after going a
few days without being calibrated it's accuracy was questionable.
I'd climbed a total of 60 feet all day. That must have been the
highway overpass that I crossed just west of Julesburg. My average
speed on the bike had been 13.1 MPH. My maximum speed was 24.5 MPH,
running from Rover. I was 220 miles from home. Not far, really.
On the fourth day of my adventure I reached my first major goal, the Nebraska state line. Four miles east of Julesburg I encountered the "Welcome to Nebraska" sign. It was a big, metal sign, like some giant green highway interchange sign. In big, bold letters was the state motto: "The Good Life." I stopped and took ceremonial pictures of my bicycle propped against the sign, and continued on to Big Springs. It was another excellent day with the wind at my back.
I got away at 9:30. I easily maintained over 16 mph to Big Springs, Nebraska, eight miles inside the border. Things got better in Nebraska. Being a Coloradan (for over ten years) makes it hard to say this, but right away I noticed that people seemed more friendly. It was easy to strike up a small conversation.
I'd had a small breakfast in Julesburg (juice, a banana, and milk), so I stopped at a pantry in Big Springs for more bananas. The woman at the counter was smiling and glad to talk about bicycling, energy from bananas, and the steepness of the road I would be taking out of town. She made me feel at home.
From Big Springs there is a small jog north, up and on to the rim of the South Platte River valley. It's about a 250 foot climb. At the top, next to a very old deserted gas station, I encountered U.S. highway 30, an old, faded, two lane highway that stretched straight out through the distant green and yellow hills like a grey ribbon. There was no shoulder, but little traffic. I encountered no conflicts. In fact, it was this early in my crossing of Nebraska that I began to notice frequent waves and the thumbs up sign. I received a lot of encouragement from Nebraskans.
For nine miles I cruised up and down the rolling hills that slowly descended back into the South Platte River valley. I still had a tail wind -- cyclist's heaven. It was easy to ride no handed, sitting back within a pocket of still air maintaining a speed between 15 and 20 mph. My jaw was locked into a great big smile.
I saw an historical marker for the Oregon Trail. A mile off in the distance the ruts from wagon wheels that had tread there 150 years ago were still visible. Many of the pioneers on the Oregon Trail had crossed the South Platte River here. There was a short section of the trail to the north that crossed over hills to the North Platte River. From there they followed the North Platte, through the panhandle of Nebraska and into Wyoming.
Just past Brule, twenty miles into the day, I rested my bike against a signpost on a service road that led to the Union Pacific tracks that parallel highway 30. I was making great time, so I took a rest stop to leisurely drink some water. When I heard a freight train coming in the distance, a childhood memory seized me. I walked onto the tracks to see which of the three sets of rails the train was on. It was hard to tell from that distance as the tracks converged towards a single point, but the green light next to the first set of tracks indicated where it would be. I carefully laid three pennies on the rail and stood back. The train, racing towards me faster than I expected, blew it's whistle and I stepped back. Whoosh.
Squashing pennies. If you've never done it, you should. They look as though they've been flattened by a huge press. Indeed, they have -- by a large rolling press. A mile or so farther on, I flattened a quarter and a couple more pennies. As the train whooshed by, I could see the coins fly up in the air and land in the gravel bed.
My smile was getting wider and I was beginning to feel the sensation that was my real reason for taking this trip. It felt good to be back home, on the road, nothing to confine me but the sky, the earth, and the light of day. The spirit of my journey was finally emerging.
West of Ogallala, I saw a strange procession on the tracks. There was an engine with a line of open cars behind it. It was pulling the steel rail up from the adjacent tracks with great mechanical arms, passing it back to a car full of workers, and, from there, onto the open cars behind it. Some of the men waved. I, of course, waved back. Behind them was another engine carrying a big electromagnet that it dragged alongside the tracks, occasionally pulling it up to a car behind to let lose of whatever "trainsam" it had accumulated in it's sweep.
I kept my pace, 16 mph, up all the way into Ogallala and arrived there just before noon. I had put on thirty miles and decided to have a real meal in a restaurant. The elder woman filling in at the Chamber of Commerce recommended the diner at the five and dime. We talked a bit. I told her how beautiful I thought Julesburg was. She told me that she was born there. When she asked why I was riding to Minneapolis, I described how I was recharging my batteries. I told her I'd been out of work for a long time, and she immediately responded "it's hard when you're doing nothing every day. It takes it out of you. I understand. You gotta get your energy and will back." I was surprised at how easily she understood and accepted what I was telling her. What a dear.
The diner at the five and dime was perfect. Cheap and good. I had a chocolate shake, a cheeseburger and fries. I also bought some more film. I asked the middle-aged clerk a little about my route and what it would be like to head north through Nebraska from North Platte. He said a lot, but the key words were "hills" and "desolate."
The next fifty miles, to North Platte, were marked as a scenic route on the Nebraska state highway map. I'm not sure which part of it was supposed to be scenic. The river still lay a mile to the south, and to the north were the sandy, grass covered hills that separate the North and South Platte Rivers.
It was a hot day, and I did my best, riding from town to town between the two branches of the Platte River, which, by the way, carry snowmelt east from the Rocky Mountains through Wyoming, Colorado, and Nebraska, and into the Missouri River. From there, what hasn't evaporated, or been used for irrigation and industry, runs into the Mississippi river and finally the Gulf of Mexico.
I rode on in the heat through Roscoe and Paxton, where I had a bottle of Gatorade and a Cherry Coke. I was talking to a Nebraskan just the other week and he mentioned Ole's Tavern. It's a bar in the little farm town of Paxton with hundreds of game trophies on the wall. I remember seeing Ole's, but I was not in the mood for a dark tavern and beers. Besides, I could see plenty of dead animals on the road.
The Gatorade and Cherry Coke, in combination with the heat, left me feeling nauseous. Bad combination. I rode through Sutherland, and in Hershey, stopped at a roadside park. I laid in the soft grass with my feet propped up on a picnic bench, drank a pint of water and psyched myself up for the final 13 miles of my day to North Platte.
I noticed that no matter how long a day is, no matter how many miles you have to cross, the last ten to fifteen are always the hardest -- in some cases almost unbearable. If you're riding 50 miles, once past 40 the riding becomes tedious. Yet, if you ride 80 miles in a day, those miles from 40 to 50 just sail by. Once past 70 miles though, the last 10 miles come with a strained effort. Just one of many analogies I realized between bicycle touring and life.
Once again the wind velocity picked up and came more directly from the south. This intense crosswind was causing me no small consternation and was slowing my efforts. It was also quitting time at the power plant west of North Platte and everyone was driving home, so there was a lot of traffic noise to accompany the crosswind grabbing at my coat tail as I struggled into North Platte. It was a long thirteen miles.
The road turned towards the south as it entered North Platte and I got to ride into a headwind for a short while. Soon, I was in North Platte, one of the biggest cities I went through on my trip. North Platte is a big railroad town with tall, downtown buildings and a population of 25,000.
I came to the intersection with highway 83 that runs up into the hinterlands of Nebraska. I looked north and saw the road rise out of town over sparse grassy hills. I turned south and immediately found the Bar-X Motel. It's a very friendly place that's run by an older christian couple. At $23, the price was right.
After unpacking, as I left to hunt down some supper, I noticed a couple from Minnesota pulling up in front of their room at the Bar-X. I couldn't resist, I rode over, excused myself, explained what I was doing and asked if they had any route advice for me. "How did you get here?" I asked the Minnesotan standing next to his car. He told me that the Platte River was a good route. It's flat and there are towns and people all along the way. Then he showed me a map he'd gotten from the Nebraska Tourism office. It was color coded to show the different terrains in Nebraska. The route following the Platte River was a flat valley. I decided to try to get one of those maps the next morning at the North Platte Chamber of Commerce office. Hmmmmm. Flat river valley.
I rode around North Platte looking for a good deli sandwich, which I didn't find until I got to the opposite side of town, and came back to the liquor store across the street from the Bar-X. While inside a hard looking, middle-aged man approached me and said, "My wife and I were just driving across town. When we saw you I pointed you out and told her that I'd seen you near Ogallala this afternoon. You know, you really shouldn't leave your bike unattended in this part of town. Don't worry for now, though, I told my wife to stay in the car and keep an eye on it." He was on the crew that was tearing up old track. They were shipping it down to Texas. I asked him about his work, and he asked me about my ride. He'd been on the road for several days with the rail crew. He'd missed his wife and was glad to be home.
As I described my adventure to him, other people came into the conversation and praised me for my courage and strength, always with a look of amazement, though, like the third trait I possessed was stupidity. Perhaps so. Perhaps so.
We both grabbed a six pack and a bag of ice, paid the clerk, and were on our separate ways. The Bar-X was right across the street. As I sat in my room, a thunderstorm rolled in. At home, living against the front range of the Rockies, I don't often get to see thunderstorms in their full glory. They skip overhead and billow out into the plains. I was thrilled to be able to stand out in the middle of the natural, electric, rain filled intensity of a fully blooming thunderstorm. I was away from home and in the midst of new experiences.
That night I called my home in Boulder to let the household know all was well and to tell them to spread the word to my other friends. I also called my friend in Illinois, my final destination. Jym is my original bike riding compatriot, the friend that convinced me to buy a bicycle twelve years ago. I informed him of my progress. Even he was amazed. It's really not that hard, but what the hell. I'll take the praise.
I also had some serious, introspective contemplation over the rest of my course. Would I keep getting motel rooms? (I was still icing my knees and taking 3200 mg.s of Ibuprofen throughout the day). Would I follow the simpler, populated river route? Was I wimping out? I felt I was letting myself down, but also remembered that part of traveling involves exercising freedom of will and not simply following preset plans.
The trip north, through central Nebraska, seemed mysterious and difficult. What a challenge. After these few days of riding, though, my mind kept moving to thoughts of comfort. Physical and mental. Camping alone is no fun. As much as I like my own space, I don't relish complete monk-like solitude. I was beginning to take motel rooms nightly, and I was enjoying it. Cheap motel rooms ($20 - $30) can be found in any of the bigger towns along the Platte River valley.
I'd gotten my first in Sterling after a particularly difficult day that ended in the dark, with sore knees and overwhelming exhaustion. The last couple of nights I'd also gotten a room. I hadn't seen any campsites, and I'd not seen any fellow bicycle travelers, either. The summer vacation season was over.
I opted for the easier, river valley route, deciding that I would do more camping to save money. I had budgeted $20 a day and my motel habit was pushing me $20 a day over that. I had plastic with me, but the reason I was able to take this trip was that I'd cashed in an old life insurance policy to relieve myself of all debt -- my credit card having been the biggest sinkhole.
Having tentatively decided to take the comfortable, flat, and populated route, the Platte River Valley, I read the local paper and let my friend Dave entertain me as I iced my knees. He really cracks me up. I slept with thoughts of friends and thunderstorms circling through my unconscious mind.
I'd ridden 83 miles from 9:30 to 5:45 (I was now in the central time
zone, so it was 6:45 when I arrived). That's another 10 mph day. My
average riding speed was 14.2 mph. I'd climbed a total of 300 feet,
and nearly all that was in the morning outside of Big Springs. I was
300 miles from home and my altimeter said I was at 3000 feet
Copyright (C) 1993 by C. Anderson - All Rights Reserved