June 17, 2021
Sidney, NE to Bridgeport, NE
46.6 miles/1400 ft. 94º
Today’s ride was a blast.
The high was forecast for the mid-90s; my course, due north nearly the entire ride; winds forecast to blow from the north, in my face, at around 7 mph. So I rose at 5 and was on the road by 6. I didn’t know how much climbing I had, or how bad the roads would be, or how strong the headwinds might blow. I allowed seven hours of riding for a 45-mile trip in order to get me there before the peak of the heat. As it turned out, the ride took only four and a half hours, and I ended up kicking around Bridgeport all afternoon until the hotel would let me check in (3pm).
The first part of the ride out of Sidney was pavement. That changed to gravel after a few miles, but it was nicely compacted gravel, nearly as fast as the pavement, but less traffic. In fact, none. In either direction.
I left the Pony Express Route to detour a mile to the east to see a station marker (Deep Wells). From there, I continued north to the small (tiny) town of Gurley and the Outlaw Cafe. The cracker-box cafe was as small as the town: one room, six counter seats, a few booths, a few tables. No social distancing here. On the counter sat a tray of maybe two dozen donuts and a pan of cinnamon rolls. I had planned just to get a cup of coffee, but the donuts looked so good I ordered one of them as well. And man, it was good. Probably the best donut I’ve ever had. I don’t even want to know what it was cooked in. But it was an epic donut.
A few years ago, Stu Bresnick used to run the Tour de Bakery out of Davisville, a multi-day loop in Northern California that had a featured bakery (sometimes two) every day. Outlaw Cafe would have been a good stop on that itinerary . . . If it were moved a thousand miles or so west.
The woman working the tables (I took it to be a husband/wife operation, as I only saw the two people behind the counter) said they make them fresh every morning. On a different type of day, I could easily have sat there and listened to the farmers talk about the weather (yes, they really were), while I stared at the mammoth grain silos across the highway and ate these delicious coffee donuts and drank coffee until I had indigestion and acid reflux. The donut and the coffee were that kind of satisfying.
But I needed to go. The man rang me up because the woman was in back washing dishes. Coffee and a donut? Two dollars.
From here I could have made my way back to the Pony Express route, but the route rejoined the highway up at the next town anyway, so I saved the miles and kept straight north.
(You know, it’s one thing to sit at your computer and look at routes and say, “I want to be off-road as much as possible.” It’s quite another to be on those roads and look at the time you’re making, or not making. More often than not so far, I’ve bagged the gravel when I could to go for the better time and easier ride. So I’m a hypocrite . . . )
The next town, Dalton, had a market that wasn’t open yet. Neither was the town’s Prairie Schooner Museum. I got off the bike and took a few pictures anyway while a woman across the street patiently held her dogs.
Some miles up the highway, I saw someone walking ahead, which seemed bizarre. I slowed to go around, announced I was passing. It was a woman who looked to be in her twenties. She was walking in her socks with hiking boots hanging over one shoulder by the laces. I asked if she was okay, she said she was fine. I asked if she needed anything, she said water. So I stopped and handed her my water bottle. She gulped some down and handed it back. It seems she was out driving with some friends, and things got . . . I forget the word she used. It was enough, in any case, that she felt safer out of the car. She told me she’d be fine when she got to Bridgeport because her brother lived there. I handed my water bottle back to her and told her to keep it, asked if she needed anything else, then moved on.
I felt like I hadn’t done enough for her. I think it was because she seemed so self-confident that I wasn’t more solicitous. But I still felt uneasy riding away.
A couple of miles further up was a turnoff onto gravel roads which would take me by the first two of the natural landmarks emigrants saw along this portion of the trail: Courthouse Rock and Jail Rock. This was a low maintenance road, lots of powdery sand to get stuck in. I had mapped a Pony Express station (Mud Springs) off this road, so I followed the GPS to that location. First it went onto even less of a road than the one I was on, which was okay; but from there it turned onto a faint two-track (marked by a sign that said “Monument” with an arrow, thankfully); and finally, to tire impressions in grass that climbed a small rise. I hesitated because this was getting pretty far off the main track. But I leveled the rise and there it was: the Mud Station monument, erected in 1931, surrounded by a steel barrier. There were horses and cattle wandering through the area, but they didn’t seem to mind my presence. The ground surrounding the monument was a little overgrown, and as I left I wondered how many people have actually gone to see this monument in the 90 years since it was placed there? Maybe a lot have. But I didn’t get that impression.
Back to the sandy gravel road. A large road-construction scraper thing was driving along in the other direction, shaving the side of the road at a steep enough angle that I was afraid if I fell in it I might not get out again. A few miles later, as I was (slowly) climbing a hill, the scraper approached from behind: I guess the driver had finished whatever he was doing because he was moving fast. I moved to the side to let it pass, and came to an immediate stop in the powdery dirt. I ended up walking 50 feet or so until I found solid enough ground to get going again.
More miles past more miles of corn than you’ve ever seen in your life, and finally, to the turnoff for Courthouse and Jail Rocks. I rode out to the base of the rocks. Had I known how far it was and how much of a climb, I would have just waved as I passed. But once I figured that out, I was half-way there, so . . .
At the base is a large cul-de-sac. No marked parking; no interpretive signs; no warnings. Just a couple of benches placed for people to contemplate the rocks and landscape. I kind of appreciated that there wasn’t anything to keep people from risking the snake-infested trail and trying to scale the rocks so they could risk breaking their necks.
I was catching my breath from the climb, enjoying the quiet and the chance to take in the monuments when a few minutes later an SUV roared up the hill and into the far corner of the lot. Five people piled out, three men and two women in their 30s or 40s. They capered around and took a lot of pictures of themselves and each other, then headed up the path to climb Courthouse Rock, stopping every so often to take more pictures of themselves and each other. They were still up there when I left. I presume they made it down safely.
Seeing the rocks was worth the side-trip. But I think Irene Paden got more out them than I did:
Late in the afternoon, when the evening sky was lemon-colored and placid, we distinguished the dark bulk of Courthouse Rock outlined against the sunset and knew that this day’s journey was ending, as hundreds had ended in years past, within sight of the first great monument of the Oregon Trail. Tomorrow we would imitate the thousands of encamped travelers who took time out for a jaunt to ‘the courthouse’ intending to see for them selves how far away in the deceptive prairie distance it might be. No well-conducted tour of the Emigrant Trail, either now or one hundred years ago, would be complete without the inclusion of a pleasure excursion on the side to Courthouse Rock.
In emigration days, Courthouse Rock was part of an informal network of messaging: the Bone Express:
Because attrition, traveling company splits, combinations, and recombinations were so common to the overland emigrating experience, the matter of conveying advice, progress reports, and other newsworthy information to relatives, friends, and former traveling companions was extremely important. The ‘roadside telegraph’ which overlanders devised was a crude by surprisingly effective means of communication. Anyone wishing to leave a message would write a short note and place it conspicuously alongside the trail so that those following behind would be certain not to pass it by . . . The notes were usually of two types, those written on paper and those inscribed on such things as trees, pieces of wood, rocks, and animal bones. . . . Even human skulls were used. With surfaces that had been smoothed and whitened by the elements, these skulls and bones were strikingly visible, especially when hung by a stick by the side of the trail. . . .
While ‘Bone Express’ messages . . . were found along the trail, at certain places so many notes accumulated that these locations came to be known as ‘prairie post offices.’ . . . Someone even carved the words ‘Post-office’ on a rocky ledge near Courthouse Rock . . . but primarily these primitive post offices were found at trial junctions where the road forked and overlanders had a choice of routes to follow.”
John D. Unruh, Jr., The Plains Across, p. 130-132
From the rocks to my destination in Bridgeport was a quick five or six miles. I arrived by 11:30—Three and a half hours before I could check in. The wind never backed further than east; the temperature was still in the 80s. All in all, I had made a good ride plan for the day. But I had a lot of time to fill before I could take a shower.
I went to the front desk. This is a nicer, newer or renovated hotel. Has that corporate look-but-don’t-touch feel about it. I explained who I was and that I knew it was too early to check in (both women behind the counter agreeing emphatically), and asked if there was a package for me. Yes, my new shorts were there, waiting.
I went from there to the bank to withdraw some money. The teller was the sister-in-law of one of the owners of La Puerta, the Mexican restaurant in town, and recommended it. Good enough for me.
I took my ripped shorts to the post office to return them. But for dinner the post office closes between 11 and 1. Now what? The day was heating up. I was already sticky from sweat and sunblock. Then I remembered passing a shop on the way into town: “Call Me Cupcake.” Who could resist an invitation like that?
The air smelled like cotton candy. The bakery had all kinds of pastries and, of course, cupcakes. I settled for a cold smoothie and a hot coffee and took a seat. Well, not quite so quickly. Kathy, the owner’s mother-in-law (who was working the counter joyously, if not efficiently) was having a great deal of fun explaining all the items to me and recommending sizes and giving the history of the place. To tell you the truth, I think she was a little bored; the place was large and empty, except for a table of three adolescent girls. I kept trying to pay Kathy, but she refused to take money until I left in case I decided I wanted anything else. Which, eventually, I did. Kathy is a convincing saleswoman, and the cupcakes were pretty irresistible.
I sat at a nice table by the window with a view of the main drag and my locked-up bike. It was cool in there, and quiet. Even the piped-in music was playing at a low volume. It was some streaming service playing Early-70s Easy Listening. When I walked in it was Carole King (“So Far Away,” which felt appropriate), then Harry Chapin (“Cats in the Cradle,” which I have not been able to listen to without tearing up since Kazu was five-years old), followed by Bread (“I want to Make It With You”—when was the last time you heard that?), the Carpenters (“We’ve Only Just Begun”—remember when that was a commercial jingle?), “Crystal Blue Persuasion,” by Tommy James and the Shondells . . . There were some stinkers in there, too, but so many of these songs from so long ago were so great to hear. James Taylor, Neil Diamond . . . It went on and on because I sat there for about an hour and a half waiting for the post office to reopen. No one else in the place. Air conditioning. It really was a sweet time.
Which is one of the funny things about traveling. You can’t plan a block of time like this; it just has to happen somehow. When was the last time you were thankful you had to wait for something, whether to check in to a hotel or for some other thing that had to happen and you had no choice but to wait? Or maybe I should say, when was the last time you felt rewarded for waiting, like maybe this moment was waiting for you?
I still remember a moment like this from forty years ago . . . January 1981. I was traveling alone through Japan (who does that in winter anyway?), and I was in Kyoto felling kind of down. I saw a coffee house named Poco (with a horseshoe logo). So I ducked in. They had just put on Side A of Ricky Lee Jones’s first album (“Chuck E’s in Love”), and for the length of that album side, I was . . . I don’t know, at peace. I knew the album by heart, and it was music I loved. I nursed a cup of expensive Japanese coffee and wrote a letter to my friend Jim, and had a wonderful 25 minutes or so until the last chords of “Last Chance Texaco” faded out.
Anyway, back in Bridgeport, NE in June, 2021, I sat in Call Me Cupcake and uploaded some photos (“Fire and Rain”) and wrote a postcard (“Cracklin’ Rose”) and checked email and generally just enjoyed the vibe (“If You Could Read My Mind”) until it was time to go to the post office. Patagonia had sent me an email for the post office to scan to print out a label, and the two people working there were kind of into it because they’d never used that feature before. They spent some time on the touch-screen running through menus until, in the end, got it all to work.
Still some free time before I could shower . . .
I went by a convenience store to use the rest room (no public rest rooms in Midwest parks, remember?), then went to a grocery store for a couple more energy bars for the road. The funny thing about Bridgeport was that every time I was stopped near my bike, locking up or getting ready to go, anyone who passed made a comment. Hot enough for you? Isn’t it a little hot to be riding a bike? Where are you headed? People would stop and talk and seemed genuinely interested in what I was doing out there on a bike in the heat and all wished me safe travels. It made the town feel more welcoming than say, Sidney, where I spent two days and it seemed like I didn’t exchange a word to anyone unless we were in some kind of transaction.
Back on the street I scanned Google Maps and was reminded that there was a Prairie Trails Museum on the other side of the river and decided to check that out.
The river I’m referring to is the North Platte River. At this point, way before there was a bridge (1876) or a town called Bridgeport (1900), all of the trails passed this section of the North Platte: The Mormons on the north bank, and everyone else (until 1849 anyway) on the south bank. This is where everybody who took the different crossings from the south bank of the Platte River, whether the Lower or Upper California Crossing, met up again. Bridgeport’s motto is Trail City, USA, and now you know why.
The volunteer working the museum this hot afternoon was Jim. He looked elderly, frail, and a little surprised to see someone wander in. He showed me around a little, enough so that I learned, like the 100th Meridian Museum, this was really a local collection. Not nearly so much about the trails as about Bridgeport, to the point that they had a blow-up of class pictures of the Bridgeport High Class of 1965.
But it was nice in there, and I found some interesting maps and such. Eventually, Jim got to talking, asking me, How could you stand it out there in California with all the rules about Covid?
“It wasn’t bad, I said, we’re kind of home bodies anyway.”
“I’m a little rebellious,” he said, “I refused to wear a mask.”
“How’d you get so much time away from your family to take a trip like this?”
“Well, to tell you the truth Jim, I think my wife was a little tired of me being around the house all the time.”
“That’s like my wife,” he said. “When I retired, she told me she was afraid I was going to drive her crazy. I told her she didn’t have far to go; she could walk there.”
I wandered back down to Call Me Cupcake for some lemonade, and to start my daily blog. I stayed until they closed at 4pm, then checked into the hotel. It’s a lot nicer than the ones I’ve been staying in, but not as comfortable, if that makes sense. Once I was squared away I wandered by La Puerta for an early dinner, but despite it being opening hours, the place was shut tight. Every other place in walking distance had nothing vegetarian, just meat, chicken, and fish. Lots of burgers and deep fry. I ended up getting pizza from a concession in the convenience store, and am now regretting that decision. But it was that or Subway, so I may still have made the better call.
I should see two more landmarks tomorrow: Chimney Rock and Scott’s Bluff. I plan to camp by the latter, as the nights are cooling into the 60s. Maybe I’ll see scenery such as this along the way:
. . . the [emigrant] trains rolled on—ever west—along the south bank of the North Platte. “Its width is not so great [as the Platte],” Edwin Bryant observed, “but still it is a wide stream, with shallow and turbid water, the flavor of which is, to me, excessively disagreeable.” The North Platte may taste bad, but in June its valley is dazzling. The full glory of spring paves the land with a carpet of lush grass and wildflowers. The bulbous yellow-white flowers of blooming yuccas pepper the landscape. Thunderstorms regularly scrub the air clean, leaving it cool and pungent with the smell of wet grass and sagebrush. Much of the valley today is a patchwork of irrigated fields and fenced cattle ranges. Up on the valley flanks, though, far from the river and on land too steep to irrigate, you can still sense the wild high plains—the vanished buffalo grasslands.”