June 12, 2021
Gothenburg, NE to North Platte, NE
46 miles/825 feet
High 86º/Wind SW@10-15 mph
I am sitting in a campground near North Platte, NE, that is the antithesis of last night’s camp in Gothenburg. Instead of lush grass, the ground cover is spotty; rather than listening to horses and birds, I have the constant roar of road of interstate traffic on US 80, about 250 yards away. I am back to the “primitive” section of the campground, which means no water at my site, and the restrooms and showers are on the other side of the phalanx of RVs parked between me and the one building with washroom facilities. I did snag the only spot with 110 electricity, so there’s that.
And, oh yeah, “primitive” camping costs twice as much here as Gothenburg.
The guy who runs the place is nice (“How are we doing today?” he says to everyone.) And I did have a choice: there’s a higher rent version of this just down the road. I’m not sure how much nicer it is, but it had a pool, which alone was enough to keep me away, and cost ten bucks more.
(As an aside, I just want to add that “camping,” as opposed to say backpacking, is very eye-opening in a way. Back when I rode in organized events, like centuries and brevets, I would always be astounded at the thousands of dollars riders invested in their bike and gear (including me). Cohabitating, as it were, among these gargantuan trailers and the mammoth pickups pulling them, the patio gear, the town cars for the RVs, etc., etc., I am astounded at the hundreds of thousands of dollars invested in each family’s rig.)
The good news is that after yesterday’s grueling duel with the wind, today’s ride was, well, a breeze. As predicted, clear weather and a following wind spirited me along. Eighty percent or more of route was on smooth pavement. I might have gone further to cover more ground and find a better place to camp, but the next camping opportunities were a little further than I felt comfortable riding, so I chose to stop early. Had I known how wind-blown and exposed and loud and inconvenient this place was, I might have chosen differently.
I had a hard time getting out of Gothenburg this morning. Maybe it was the light or my mood, but everything I saw seemed photo-worthy. I wanted to stop everywhere, take a picture of everything. In point of fact, I think a photographer could easily spend a day in every town I’ve passed through taking pictures of buildings, people, lawn art (if I stopped for every piece of lawn art, I’d never make it to Salt Lake), brick streets, the rivers, the fields, the sand hills, the sky . . .
Just south of US 80, as if to coax me to stay a little longer, sat a coffee place, Lasso Espresso, that I wish I had known about. A tiny place, like a cottage, you might say, crammed with gifts and food and and where they pull espresso shots rather than press a button. But I’d had my coffee and I was already running later than I wanted, so I settled for a cinnamon roll to go.
By the time I did make it out of Gothenburg, it struck me as the one town I’ve been through since St. Joe where I could actually stay a few days just to hang out. It just had a nice feel to it.
South of Gothenburg, I turned west, and from then until I turned into this scruffy campground, I was following the original 1913 route of the Lincoln Highway. Lest I forget, signs kept reminding me as I rode along. The big feature here is that the highway “stair-steps,” much the same as I’ve been doing for, I don’t know, 400 miles or so. But, yes, most highways run straight, and eventually the Lincoln Highway did too, and I’m sure if I asked around someone would know why the 1913 Lincoln Highway had to work it’s way north and west through Central Nebraska.
The original Lincoln Highway was only a highway insofar as it was a map of roads between towns across the US. That is, it wasn’t like the interstate where an army of engineers and road builders surveyed a route and plowed under everything in the way in the name of transportation and Dwight D. Eisenhower. Rather, there was some grading and some sign-making, but at first it was really directions on how to get to and through towns from one coast to the other. I’m guessing property rights determined the route in places like stair-step Nebraska, which if so, doesn’t make a very interesting story at all.
The Platte River Valley also starting narrowing west of Gothenburg. The valley is bordered on the north and south by low sand hills. That’s how they’re described in the 1800s anyway. Today they all looked very green to me, enviously green to this child from California who knows the hills there are all brown and gold by now.
I passed a few Pony Express and Oregon Trail monuments along the way. I should mention that I passed other monuments as well, county monuments, the salient feature of which was noting an accomplishment for “whites:” The first white child born, making the area safe for white settlers, etc. Never “American,” rarely “pioneer,” but always “white.” I wonder if those will ever be changed.
Something else I passed, that I keep meaning to mention, is unchained dogs. Nearly every day, as I ride by some farmhouse or ranch house or just house house, one or more dogs come tearing out of the yard barking, coming full-bore right for me and my bright orange bike. Different riders have different ways of dealing with unchained dogs. Mine is to stop and dismount with the bike between the dog(s) and me. Knock on wood, but so far every dog on this trip has stopped running at me as soon as I stopped the bike. Most then approach slowly to be pet. One laid down in the middle of the highway and rolled on her back. Not once has any owner stepped out to call their dog. Maybe they’re not home; maybe they see there’s not going to be a call for an ambulance, or a lawsuit, or are just glad someone else is minding the mutt for a while. But Pony Express Bikepacker, be on notice: you’ll have to deal with unchained dogs.
Another thing I’ve meant to mention is that the houses on the country roads out here share two characteristics. Virtually all have the family name engraved or emblazoned or at least painted on some slab of stone or burl or thick piece of wood displayed prominently in their yard. Some are quite ornate, decorated with little tableaux, like a farm scene, or a forest animal diorama. (If I stopped to take a picture of each one of these . . .) The other thing is everyone’s front and back yard has a lawn that looks like new-housing-development sod that was freshly laid just last week. Maybe the grass is still coming in for the season, but it all has that tenuous, light-greenish hue, like it might be lush, but if you step on it you would crush it and sink into the mud below. And I mean, every country house. It’s a little weird.
Tomorrow is going to be something of a grind. I need to make Oglala to camp, and that’s at least 60 miles. Also, it will be hotter, into the low-90s. And even though the wind is holding, my pattern is not.
The Platte River Valley doesn’t run straight, but in sort of a sinusoidal wave. Going backward from a normal description of a wave (that is, from right to left), the peak of the wave was where I first hit the Platte River east of Ft. Kearney; the first trough is at the city of Kearney; since that point, I’ve been riding north and west to the next peak, which is here at North Platte; and from here, the valley dips down again until I turn north to follow the North Platte River to Casper, WY. That’s at Julesburg, CO, where I will cross the Platte at the Upper California Crossing (more on that later).
The net result is that tomorrow I will be riding south and west, meaning I’ll have headwinds on the southerly legs. Kind of a bummer, but there isn’t much to do about it, except maybe get an earlier start. Given my current surroundings, that shouldn’t be a problem. There’s nothing to keep me here.