Kearney, NE to Lexington, NE
Today felt like cheating. I had booked a hotel room in Lexington because the forecast was for thundershowers early Friday morning (3-5am), and I did not feel like waking up to that. The hotel check-in time was 2pm, and I arrived at 1:56. I had no idea I’d actually get here early.
The morning was warm (70s), and for the first time, the humidity was high (80s). I started perspiring as soon as I mounted the bike. Thankfully, there was a breeze. Otherwise I might have drowned in sweat.
I started off with breakfast at the Lodge, the motel restaurant in Kearney. There was one waitstaff and she worked the floor like a pro. My breakfast (pancakes and eggs) was world’s better than the upscale chain Good Evans’s. Now, my partner, Lisa, thinks that in fairness I should disclose that I have a high standard for pancakes. I don’t think that’s true. I appreciate a good pancake, and I make what are probably the best pancakes I have ever had. But I will happily eat a wide range of quality. It just bugged me that Good Evans was so proud of their “house blended pancake mix.” On reflection, I wonder if that just means they stir up the packaged batter on site?
So, breakfast eaten, bike packed, I started out and for the first 30 miles rode on virtually flat, lightly-travelled pavement. For the first time on this trip, no hills! The wind built steadily to about 15 knots from the SSE, and I was headed just north of west, so it hit me a little abaft the beam, nudging me along this stretch if not pushing as hard as I would have liked. The sun was blocked by low clouds, harbingers of the coming storm, maybe. They kept the temperature moderate, but as the morning went on, seemed to darken with rain. I rode from farmhouse-to-farmhouse, watching for trees to hide under in case I got caught.
Scanning the sky for threatening clouds reminded me of a little dialogue from Out of the Past:
Ann: They say your name is written in the clouds.
Jeff: Who says?
Ann: They do.
Jeff: Never heard of them. There’s nothing in that cloud except rain.
I passed a couple of unmarked Pony Express Station spots. Also a couple of monuments to the Plum Creek massacre, part of the same raid by Cheyenne and Lakota that took place along the Little Blue River.
About 30 miles into the ride, I detoured north to get lunch. My friend Robin has a niece who told her to tell me that if I was passing anywhere near Overton, I had to stop in at Taste of India. The restaurant, apparently, also runs a wildly popular food truck.
So I detoured north about two miles to cross the Platte and US 80 to Jay Bros truck stop. Actually, I stopped and weighed my options first. I was making good, easy time, which is always sweet. The ride to the restaurant would be downwind, but directly upwind coming back. Plus, hills to get over the river and freeway! Was it really worth it? Probably not. What tipped the balance was Robin. I knew she’d appreciate that I interrupted a perfectly smooth ride to follow a recommendation she passed along. And Robin is the kind of friend who would do anything for you, so I thought I could do this one little thing for her. So what the hell; I turned north.
And thought I had made a huge mistake. Jay Bros is a god-forsaken, remote, dusty, semi-dilapidated real-trucker truck stop, all dirt, no pavement, a small convenience store with restrooms and showers, and in the west half of the building, Taste of India.
It smelled incredible! I hadn’t realized how much I had been craving Indian food since Hebron. Smells from the kitchen filled the convenience store. God, it was wonderful. I ordered samosas and garlic naan (easy to carry on the bike) and a ginger tea. What a great thirty minutes that turned out to be. Something about the tea, in particular, was so comforting. It was hot, of course, as was the food. And unpleasant as it was outside, I drank and ate out in the heat and wind because inside dining was closed and I didn’t want to wait. It was, by far, the high point of the day’s ride.
So I fought back upwind for two miles, then turned west and continued toward Lexington with, really, what seemed a minimum of effort do to the smooth pavement, the quartering wind, and the gentle, imperceptible, upward slope that runs for about eight hundred miles up to South Pass in Western Wyoming. When the road turned to gravel the going went slower. But I was already so far along on the day’s ride, it didn’t matter.
Nearly everyone who took the Platte River Road in the mid-1800s praised it. After the hills and sand and mud that they had trudged through from the Missouri River, the road along the Platte was wide, flat, and though not level, rose so gently as to feel flat. What cyclists complain of as a “false flat.”
The writing from the period, and from writers writing about the period, drop a string of superlatives on the road.
Here’s a typical passage:
Even though the rivers of the high plains did not provide the westering Americans with navigable waterways, the valleys of two of these rivers [the Arkansas and the Platte] did provide the world’s finest natural wagon roads. Along a great section of the valley of the Arkansas River ran the Santa Fe Trail, and a branch that led to Denver, Colorado. Along the Platte ran the Overland Trail, also called the Oregon Trail, the California Trail, and the Mormon Trail.”
Henry Pickering Walker, The Wagonmasters (1966), p. 18
I added the bold to that passage because that phrase, “finest natural road,” comes up again and again, some claiming the Platte River Road to be the best in the world (though I don’t know on what evidence the claim is based).
Another way of describing the route:
The route from Fort Kearny to Fort Laramie was the superhighway of westward expansion. There were many ‘jumping-off places’ for emigrants along the Missouri River from Independence to Omaha, but all these strands converged at Fort Kearny to become one great migratory, military, and communications route. Fort Kearny was the official end of the prairie lands and the gateway to the Great Plains, with its endless level horizon and strange treelessness; Fort Laramie, with Laramie Peak looming to the westward, marked the transition from the Great Plains to the Rocky Mountains.
Merrill J. Mattes, The Great Platte River Road, p. 6
And from Wikipedia:
The Platte River corridor eventually became the primary avenue of transcontinental travel in the United States, a route so straightforward that it was used simultaneously by several of the most popular pioneer trails of the era. All emigrants traveling by the Oregon or California Trails followed the Great Platte River Road for hundreds of miles. There was a prevailing opinion that the north side of the river was healthier, so most Latter-day Saints generally stuck to that side, which also separated them from unpleasant encounters with former enemies, particularly non-Mormon emigrants from Missouri or Illinois. In the years of 1849, 1850 and 1852, traffic was so heavy along the corridor that virtually all feed for grazing livestock was stripped from both sides of the river. . . . An estimated 250,000 travelers made use of the Great Platte River Road during its peak years of 1841 to 1866. The Great Platte River Road was also used by the Pony Express, eventually becoming an important freight and military route.
There is a lot more I could add here—Merrill Mattes for one, wrote a 600-page book on it—about using buffalo chips for cooking fuel, descriptions of the river itself (so sandy it floats bottom-up; a mile wide and a foot deep), and other facts and lore, but those aren’t really part of this narrative. The point here is that riding nearly 50 miles today felt nothing like it did last week, and I would attribute that to the road and not to my adjusting to the ride.
Since arriving at the hotel, showering, etc., the wind has picked up (21-28 mph according to my weather app), as has the heat (94º — “feels like” 104º). So I may not have cheated on today’s ride so much as made a good decision based on available information to get here as early as possible. Or I just got lucky the ride went as quickly as it did. Either way, I’ll take the win.