Day 11: The 100th Meridian

Lexington
Flags whipped by the wind over downtown Lexington, NE

I spoke too soon.

Remember yesterday, when life was sweet, 50-mile rides were easy, the wind a gentle nudge? Forget all that. I woke at 6 to clear skies and dry land. The thunderstorm that was supposed to pass through the night went further north. So the weather predictions got that wrong (or at least, we fell into the 20% category of an 80% chance of thunderstorms). What the weather reports did get right was their wind prediction. If anything, they underestimated it. All I did all day long was struggle with the wind.

A lesser man, as they say, might have stayed at the motel another day. I had considered it. When I checked in yesterday afternoon the clerk warned me about the weather, suggested I might consider staying a second night. He pulled out his phone and mumbled about 70 mph winds and hailstones and weather watch until 11am. Actually, he mumbled about a lot of things. I was the only person there and it took 20 minutes for him to check me in between consulting the weather app, switching my room in case I decided to stay a second night, telling me about how he used to work in Kearney, but driving on 30 in the snow was slow but better to get there late than not get there at all . . . On and on, sometimes audibly, sometimes under his breath. There was a piece of plexiglass between us, but that didn’t account for all of his indiscernability. I’m starting to think I should skip motels.

In any case, I woke, as I said, to clear skies and dry roads, but there was this matter of the wind. It had clocked from southeast to due north, following the low-pressure system as it tracked east. My course for the day, for the next two days, in fact, is WNW, which meant that the wind would be quartering on my starboard in front rather than my port quarter behind as the day before.

Translation: Headwind.

The prediction was for 20 mph. I’ve ridden in that before. The question was whether I wanted to ride in it today. In the end, I decided I would, but with a compromise. Rather than ride south to regain the Pony Express Bikepacking Route, which would likely be on wind-blown gravel roads and which would definitely comprise zig-zag legs that ran due north directly into the wind, I would ride north into the town of Lexington, then take Highway 30 which runs on the oblique, a little north of west. So other than the first leg, I would not have to ride directly upwind. What’s more, the highway runs more or less dead-straight from Lexington through Cozad to Gothenburg, and both towns have Pony Express Stations I wanted to see. Under these conditions, it made a lot more sense to take the highway, with its nice pavement and direct route (and put up with the not-so-pleasant traffic), than to put myself in a position where I’d have to deviate from the Pony Express route to ride dead upwind to these two towns.

I should explain for those who don’t know Nebraska roads as well as I’m getting to know them. The Platte River Valley is a multi-modal, east-west transportation corridor: everything that runs on the ground runs through this valley. It is about ten miles at its widest, and I am told this is the widest section. The lines of transportation are, from south to north:

  • The Oregon/California/Pony Express/original Lincoln Highway route (the one I am on most of the time);
  • North of that is the Platte River;
  • Above that, US 80 (with each exit having its coterie of chain hotels/convenience stores/fast food restaurants;
  • Next (usually a mile or so further north) come the railroad tracks (which carry freight trains 24 hours/day);
  • Then the towns;
  • And through the towns, or on the southern or northern edge of them, runs Highway 30 (which is also the later, straighter iteration of the Lincoln Highway). [For those who don’t know, the Lincoln Highway was the first transcontinental highway, laid out around 1915 and realigned over the years of its existence. It is the reason there are so many “Lincoln Avenues” across the US.]

So, again, my choice was (1) ride on the dusty, zig-zagged, southernmost of these routes, and when the towns of Cozad and Gothenburg came up, ride directly north into a 30 mph wind anywhere from one to three miles to see what there was to see; or (2) wimp out, ride a tough mile north, then take the wind at an unfavorable angle, but not head on.

Duh.

Off I went. And I can tell you, that first mile from the motel up to Lexington and Highway 30 was painfully slow. It was like a hill climb: low gear all the way, even lower in gusts, so as not to get bogged down to where I couldn’t turn the pedals. I made the center of Lexington, and just for giggles, checked the wind speed: 25, gusting to 34 mph. Whee!

I set out on Highway 30 and did what you do when you ride wind. Accept it and ride. There’s no other way. I once ran the finish line check-in of a 600 km brevet on a particularly windy day. As one rider checked in, I asked him, how was the wind out there? He said, you know, arguing with the wind is like arguing with my wife. I’m going to lose no matter what, so I might was well just save my breath and deal with it. And that’s pretty much how it is. You just ride it.

Plus, this was an interesting wind, in that, even though it was blowing so hard, it wasn’t angry. The Santa Anas in Southern California, where I grew up, are angry. So sometimes are the spring and fall winds in the Central Valley. They have an edge to them, almost a vengeful harshness. This wind was different. It was bossy—it pushed me all over the six-foot shoulder on the highway—but it wasn’t angry, and somehow that made it less annoying than it otherwise might be.

100th-meridian-museum
The 100th Meridian Museum in Cozad, NE

Then again, it could be me. Knowing the wind would be bad, I set a low mileage goal for the day: 30 miles if I made it to Gothernburg; 17 if I had to bail and stay in Cozad. The lower mileage definitely took some of the pressure off, and without the pressure of a difficult-to-reach goal, it was easier to accept the slower pace.

I made Cozad in two hours, which meant a pace of 8 mph; much better than I had anticipated. There is an original Pony Express station building here that has been moved to the Cozad City Park in town. More importantly, though, Cozad has the 100th Meridian Museum. That was what I really wanted to see.

The 100th Meridian is generally accepted as the dividing line between the relatively wet/fertile prairie, and the dry, harsh Great Plains. Or, as the Plains were called through most of the 19th century, the Great American Desert.

These frequently mentioned fears of overland travel derived in large measure from the commonly accepted geographic concept of the so-called ‘Great American Desert,’ an area thought to extend westward from approximately the hundredth meridian to the Rocky Mountains. Until the beginning of the Civil War virtually all maps of these regions in school textbooks and governmental reports were labeled the ‘Great American Desert.’ . . . Prompted largely by reports of the western expeditions of Lieutenant Zebulon Pike and Major Stephen L. Long, the myth of the American desert persevered in some quarters until almost 1880, when it was finally replaced with another concept similarly overdrawn—the myth that the western plain was a garden, a veritable agrarian utopia.

More than one writer has argued that this dividing line (really a region, not a narrow line) forced a rethinking of basic American tenets. Wallace Stegner wrote an entire book (Beyond the 100th Meridian) on John Wesley Powell’s attempts to get this idea through to lawmakers in Washington, the simple fact that land use and other policies developed over a couple of hundred years in the damp, forested east had no applicability west of the 100th meridian.
 

So I was excited to see a museum in Cozad (which sits on the 100th meridian) dedicated to life in the true west. When I arrived, it was closed. Remembering the error of failing to disturb the museum guide in Seneca, I called the person listed as a contact. She said she’d come right down. And she did. And she opened the museum up and it turned out not to have anything whatsoever to do with the 100th meridian, John Wesley Powell, or the Great American Desert . . . It was a museum about Cozad. Apparently the museum acquired its name because the founder, John Cozad, picked the area to settle when he saw, while riding on a train in the 1870s, a “100th meridian” sign placed by the railroad at that spot. Which is poetic, maybe, but not usefully descriptive.

The board member who came down gave me a lovely tour. (I am kicking myself because I can’t remember her name.)  She was in the middle of the process of moving herself and her husband into town from the farm where they’d lived for forty-something years, but you could tell that she loved her town and was so proud of the museum that it was a pleasure to show someone who would bother to bother her to open it up. And it was nice, interesting, fun. Well-designed exhibits, etc. So I took the tour and thanked her and left a donation and went on the see the Pony Express Station.

Like most things that have mythic status, the Pony Express Station was somewhat less than overwhelming in real life. It is a small, squat, hand-hewn building, and the overall impression for me was, Man, what a lousy place to live. The Pony Express depended on each rider riding horses at a pretty good clip, which meant each horse would only last 12-15 miles before being played out. Swing stations were placed at these intervals, and their sole purpose was to have a pony saddled and ready so the rider could jump off the tired pony and tear out on the fresh one. At longer intervals, 50 to 70 miles, were larger Home stations. These were at the beginning and end of each rider’s run, and is where they would stay to take over for the rider who ended his (they were all male) ride there. So the Home stations were larger and could actually be nice.  But the Swing stations (like the ones in Cozad and Gothenburg) had no such pretensions. It was all about the horses. Sod roof and dirt floor, often just one or two room hovels.

Still, the good people of Cozad had taken the time to move this station to town and preserve it, so it was nice to go by and pay my civic respects. While I was in town I saw a white board in a window that said, “Skinny people are easier to kidnap. Stay safe and eat lots of pie.” So I stepped in for coffee and a slice of blueberry pie while I wrote a postcard to Lisa and Kazu to send from the Cozad post office (because how many people have a Cozad postmark in their collection?) As I was leaving the Green Apple Cafe and readying the bike to go, my tour guide and her husband were coming in. She said he’d gotten new shocks for his truck, and somehow, that meant he had to take her to lunch. 

Gothenburg-StationStation originally known as Machette’s, now in Elmer Park, Gothenburg, NE
Gothenburg-Station, originally known as Machette’s, now in Elmer Park, Gothenburg, NE

Another hour in the wind and I was in Gothenburg. The town is bigger than Cozad, the lawns and houses a little nicer, all the streets paved, which was not the case at the 100th Meridian. Their Pony Express Station (also moved into town from its original location) is set up as a (very small) museum and was open to the public. I spoke to the volunteer there a while about the station and such, then got to the real issues: where was the best camping nearby? The best lunch? Breakfast for the next morning? I didn’t get any good restaurant info, but did learn that the campsites at Lafayette Park on the northern edge of town were nice. And they are.

Before exiling myself to the campground, I stopped in at the local grocery store to stock up on the usual liquids and snacks. As I was leaving, an old guy with a cane and a VFW hat said, “Got an air conditioner on that thing?” We talked a few minutes and as he walked into the store, he said he wished had an air conditioner to loan me. Sweet thought.

Gothenburg-camp
My camp in Lafayette Park, Gothenburg

The camping here at Lafayette park is the nicest I’ve seen yet. While the RV and tent sites are separated, the tent sites aren’t “remote” or “primitive.” They have electricity, a fire grill, picnic tables—on a concrete pad so they’re level!—and restrooms and showers. Instead of nearby trains, I hear horses. All for ten bucks a night. It was quiet when I arrived. As the afternoon progresses, more and more trailer-hauling trucks are arriving to set up their more modernly-convenienced abodes.

It’s turning into one of those golden summer afternoons. The wind is slowly subsiding. It’s still up, but not nearly so high. The air is cooling nicely, the leaves on the cottonwood trees fluttering, the grass glowing yellow-green in the bright afternoon sun. Sure, insects are biting my legs, but not everything can be perfect.

Tomorrow the breeze will be back where it belongs, southeast and around 10 mph. But with the settling breeze will come temps climbing back into the 90s, and as twisted as it sounds right now, I feel I may come to miss the cooling effect of that buffeting north wind.

 

This Post Has 15 Comments

  1. Anonymous

    FWIW, here’s my description of headwinds. So bad. Soul crushing …

    But the hills were not the problem. A route change had us going about 8 miles straight into punishingly strong offshore winds. Headwinds so steady and unrelenting that you just feel like you’re fighting for your life, and losing oh so slowly. Every pedal stroke an effort. Head down, hunched over, or in the drops to make yourself as small as possible. Sadddle grinding against your sit-bones (and everything else). You start singing, or rapping stanzas from Hamilton, or cussing, or counting… anything to relieve the tedium of the battle. And you look up to glance at your computer to find you’ve gone a third of a mile.…

    Good luck out there. -Kathy

    1. Scott Alumbaugh

      Great description! Only this morning I’m hearing Tom Waits instead of Hamilton. I know you understand.

  2. Jim

    I don’t know what extreme bull riding is, but I do know an extremely great truck when I see one. By the way, what happened to Day 11?

    1. Jim

      (maybe it’s with my k and my w)

      1. Scott Alumbaugh

        ???

    2. Scott Alumbaugh

      I know, right? Reminded me of your Apache. This model is a Spartan. Did I accidentally skip a day? I need to go back and renumber.

  3. Tom Norton

    I love pie in small town cafes!!
    Glad we will be riding west to east when we cross Nebraska!

    1. Scott Alumbaugh

      I have a feeling that no matter which direction you ride in Nebraska, you’re going to have deal with headwinds.

  4. Anonymous

    Thanks for the Stegner book reference that I’ve not read. Yet.

    1. Scott Alumbaugh

      It’s great, like all his work.
      I think Stegner is incapable of writing a boring sentence.

  5. Anonymous

    That wind sounds miserable. Glad things got better. Hope I don’t get kidnapped! -brenda

  6. Lisa

    Two posts and two postcards in one day! I’m now waiting for my Indian food to arrive (as per comment on prior post). I hope your Mexican food pouch dinner was tasty.

    1. Scott Alumbaugh

      Tasty, but not as good as yours I’ll bet.

  7. Jonathan

    I read your posts the second I get notification! So enjoy reading them!

    1. Scott Alumbaugh

      Thx, But you have to go back. I forgot to add the photos at the bottom.

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