June 19, 2021
Loop Around Scott’s Bluff National Monument
13.6 miles/475 feet
Lower 90s/wind southeast @15, gusts to 20/overcast and humid
[Apologies. I wrote this last night, but was too tired to proof. So yesterday’s bonus post about, well, yesterday’s ride follows.]
I woke around six this morning to a text from Rick: Call me. I called. It was not a happy conversation. Rick told me he woke to a flat tire. He had found and plugged the hole, and was headed back to Davis. As Lisa later pointed out, it seemed ironic that in trying to fix my tire, Rick lost one of his own. But while Rick and I were talking, neither of us were in much of a mood to appreciate a good irony.
Then again, it seemed an appropriate end to a quixotic quest: to drive a thousand miles to help a friend. While willing to help—Rick is overly generous in his willingness to help, in case you hadn’t noticed—he was also ambivalent about coming. He was concerned that injecting himself into my journey was a little like Back to the Future and other sci-if films where going into the past messes up the future, or present, as it were. I reminded him that going back actually made a better present, for everyone except Biff, that is. But that didn’t assuage his concern. So like I said, maybe driving a thousand miles to come within a couple of hundred miles and still not connect was somehow appropriate.
I got off the phone and went to take a shower and to figure it what to do with my day. Another day in Scottsbluff. Oh boy. Why couldn’t it have been Bridgeport, a place where I could walk everywhere . . . safely! I took my time making breakfast and drinking coffee and breaking camp, the whole while making plans like, well, I guess I could get Second Breakfast here, maybe shop for Clif Bars there, coffee and lunch at this cafe . . . And kind of depressing myself with the thought that not only was I not making forward progress, I was planning to do that worst of all things you can do in life: Kill time. In this case, until 3pm when I could check in to the hotel.
Then, somewhere in the back of my little brain, I remembered being in Davisville, planning my trip, and looking at Scottsbluff, and Scott’s Bluff, and the Pony Express Bikepacking Route and coming up with an idea. Jan’s Route doesn’t make it as far north as the town of Scottsbluff, where I was: it stays south, in Gering, then instead of visiting Scott’s Bluff National Monument and riding northwest through it over Mitchell Pass, as the Pony Express did, the Route continues west, south of Scott’s Bluff, to go over Robidoux Pass.
Robidoux Pass makes more sense for a bikepacking route because Mitchell Pass is a highway without a paved shoulder. It is also acceptable historically, insofar as the main line of emigrant travel was over Robidoux Pass until sometime in the 1850s. My favorite trail explorer, Irene Paden, has this to say about Robidoux Pass:
The river lapped at the very base of Scott’s Bluff. The wagons must go inland. This was the more difficult because the bluff is not an isolated rocky formation, but the end of a line of hills. Several more of less parallel canyons break through, and of these Mitchell’s Pass, used by the highway, is the best and shortest and lies nearest the river; but it was not passable to the early migrations. Probably it was obstructed by fallen rock and debris. Instead the wagons toiled through Robidoux Pass, the next canyon to the south. . . .
Robidoux Canyon or Pass is reached from the town of Gering. One proceeds first over a decided rise and then down into a large circular valley of loose sandy loam. The emigrants’ columns raised storms of dust through which exposure of Scott’s Bluff showed fitfully until they reached the canyon and entered its obscuring walls. The dust was bad for lungs and equally so for eyes. Helen Carpenter’s little dog became entirely blinded and caused her mistress some bad hours by getting lost in the billowing clouds that smothered the teams. Many stated that they suffered more acutely from eyestrain and from cracked and bleeding lips than from any other cause.
Graves grew thick and thicker. They were no longer approached on paths worn smooth by enquiring emigrants who trudged up from the road to read the crude marker and learn who lay below. Now the travelers were too intent upon their own discomfort to bother . . . And still the westbound families camped near and, unless the smell was offensive, even on the graves in stoical disinterest.
The diarists raved about the distant beauty of Scott’s Bluff. It gave off romance in practically visible emanations, but they seldom mention being comfortable there.
Irene D. Paden, The Wake of the Prairie Schooner, p. 148-149
Staring at maps on my computer in Davisville, I thought maybe I could see both; maybe I could stay two nights in the Scottsbluff area, ride over Mitchell Pass and see Scott’s Bluff National Monument, then continue on the Pony Express Bikepacking Route over Robidoux Pass the next day. Somewhere I had forgotten that plan. I think it’s because I had split my ride up into more or less equal segments with a day’s rest at the end of each segment, and Scott’s Bluff fell in the middle. Now that I remembered the idea though, there was no reason—that is no good reason— not to circumnavigate Scott’s Bluff as I had once planned.
I remembered Steve and Ann saying something the night before about a bike path to the visitors’ center—Bike path? Scottsbluff? Right.—But sure enough, there was one. So I packed everything up, waved farewell and said good-bye to the camp host’s father, whom I think was nearly deaf, and set out.
There is a mile-or-so long path along the North Platte. I took that to the main drag, and rode that south (on the sidewalk) to Country Club Road, which would take me to the Scott’s Bluff bike path. For the first time, I notice a faint Bike Path symbol, half-hidden under sand, painted on the sidewalk. But I only saw the one marker.
Once on Country Club Road, there was a real painted bike lane, on and off, anyway. I rode west, straight at Scott’s Bluff, which became more and more imposing as I approached. At the end of Country Club, a very nice concrete path ran south, following the contour of the bluff area. After a time, it turned onto Federal Monument land. From there, the nice, wide concrete gave way to a very narrow, bumpy, asphalt strip. As promised, though, that lumpy trail delivered me in a couple of miles to the Scott’s Bluff Visitors’ Center.
Now, this visitors’ center had the best of the non-center at Courthouse Rock, and the tight-ass center at Chimney Rock: It was free—even the restrooms—and had some nice displays and interpretive signage. It was, in other words, a very welcoming visitors’ center, and I was happy to poke around in there for ten or fifteen minutes while I cooled off.
As for Scott’s Bluff, if you don’t know how it got its name . . .
The third of the soft stone landmarks is Scott’s Bluff, slightly more than twenty miles from the Chimney. Scott’s Bluff owes its name to an incident of the fur-trapping days. Scott, it seems, was employed by the American Fur Company, and fell sick on his way home from the mountains. . . . [I]n order to make speed, the leader of Scott’s group went ahead with his men, leaving only two to bring Scott down the North Platte in a bullboat. It was agreed to meet at this distinctive bluff.
The boat was wrecked, and there was no way to take Scott along. The two men deserted him, expecting that he would obligingly die quietly where they left him. In fact they reported to their party that he had done so, and the entire company left the bluff and returned to civilization.
The unfortunate Scott, meanwhile, struggled along toward the assigned meeting place, a distance of some sixty miles. After untold agony of body and mind he arrived to find unmistakable evidence of their departure. Hope was gone. He relinquished his soul to its maker and his outraged body to the wolves; but his bones remained—his bones and some identifying trifles by which they were recognized the next summer and the whole sordid story was exposed. A memorial tablet has been erected near the spring where he spent his last hours.
Irene D. Paden, The Wake of the Prairie Schooner, p. 147-148
Speaking of “the third of the soft stone landmarks” (the two previous being Courthouse/Jail Rocks and Elk’s Penis, aka Chimney Rock), one of my main reasons for riding the Pony Express Bikepacking Route from east to west was because I wanted to see the landmarks of the trail as the emigrants saw them: the creeks of Kansas; the Big Blue and the Little Blue Rivers; the Coast of Nebraska at the Platte; and now the monoliths of Western Nebraska. There are more trail landmarks to come, and I will note as many as I see. I just thought it would be more interesting to see them in this order, from these angles, after reading about them in this manner.
Near the Scott’s Bluff visitors’ center I noticed a trail running parallel to the highway over Mitchell Pass, and asked a ranger about it. He was young, late-20s, I’d guess, with Harry Potter-like glasses and that fresh-face kind of look and and he excitedly told me how further along, once the path turns to dirt, you are actually walking on the Oregon Trail, the same trail as the emigrants, walking in their footsteps! He got more and more hyped while dishing out his spiel about how I would see some ditches and poles and actual ruts and how they were working on this and that to reenact or reconstruct something to convey the feeling of something else and after a while I couldn’t tell what he was talking about because all I really wanted to know was could I ride that nice historical trail to avoid at least some of the shoulderless highway over Mitchell Pass. No I could not. Even if the path connected to the highway, no bikes allowed.
So I rode over the pass. Traffic was light enough I felt much safer on this 65 mph highway with no shoulder than on the no-holds-barred mean streets of Scottsbluff. I rode east, back to town, and arrived around noon, feeling much better for having ridden than I would have if I just sat around and eaten instead. Shopped a little at Safeway, then headed over to Cappuccino and Company in downtown Scottsbluff to eat lunch, drink coffee, and record all these facts and impressions in my online journal, otherwise known as The Blog.
As soon as I pulled up I knew I would like this cafe because of the music. I could hear it through the open door. It must have been the same playlist (Satellite radio? Spotify?) as Call Me Cupcake. While I locked up my bike, the song was “Aimee,” by Pure Prairie League (Bustin’ Out, Side B, Still one of my favorite album sides of all time), followed by Seals and Crofts (“Summer Breeze”), Jim Croce (“Operator”), then the interminable “Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” by Gordon Lightfoot, which was sort of a mood breaker for me, but you get the idea.
I sat there and ate and drank and wrote until they closed and kicked me out. By then I could check in to the hotel. After my shower, I sat in the lobby to blog some more when I got a call from Dale . . . Remember Dale and Marilyn from Rock Creek? He apologized for not calling sooner, but he’d put me in his phone app as Scott California Cyclist, so I was listed under “C,” not “S,” which threw him. He said he called because he wanted to check on me and see how things were going, but I think he really called to brag (while trying to sound like he wasn’t) because he’d ridden 50 miles that morning in three-and-a-half hours (“There was a headwind toward the end, so that slowed us down some.”). I am certain he’s Larry “The Legend” Burdick’s long-lost twin.
A family moved in to the area where I was working and brought pizzas and pretty much took over. I talked to the couple who were the primary organizers, and they told me they were visiting parents (91-years old) at the Veteran’s retirement home. It was the first time the parents got to see some of their great-grandkids. Like so many people, it was the first chance they’d had in over a year because of Covid. I imagine reunions like that are going on all over the country.
By the time I finished the two blog posts I’d been working on since the afternoon, it was after ten and time for bed. All in all it had turned out to be a productive day, if not the one I planned. I received some nice messages of support from some of you, so thanks for those. I also received a completely freaked-out message from my mom; as soon as I post this I need to call her and convince her I won’t die in Wyoming.