June 18, 2021
Bridgeport, NE to Scottsbluff, NE
48 miles/700 feet
The morning of Day 18 in Bridgeport started out fine. The Cobblestone Hotel put out a surprisingly good breakfast spread. It was overcast outside, which kept the temperature down most of the morning. I was headed for Riverside Park in Scottsbluff, a campground (with a “primitive” option for us tenters) that promised views of Scotts Bluff National Monument. And more importantly, showers.
The wind was forecast to be out of the east. Instead it was west, so I had a headwind all morning. It was a light wind, and probably did more to keep me cool than to hinder my progress. But it was a little annoying.
I went by Chimney Rock, the most famous landmark of the emigrant trail:
Chimney Rock was the most famous of all the landmarks on the Great Platte Road. This is not idle rhetoric. . . . Chimney Rock is mentioned or described in 97 percent of [known emigrant journals and guidebooks]. The nearest competitor is Scott’s Bluff, with a figure of 77 per cent. Then comes Independence Rock with 65 per cent, South Pass, 51 per cent, the Court House, 46 per cent, and Ash Hollow, 44 per cent.”
The visitors’ area was the polar opposite of the non-existent visitors’ area at Courthouse and Jail Rocks [Don’t you want to read that as “Jailhouse Rock” whenever you see it?]. Chimney Rock had a deluxe visitors’ center right off the road—paved, no hill climb to get there— a western-style split-rail fence, and multiple warnings in multiple languages about rattlesnakes. All of which was fine, but on the signage, it actually said, “Restrooms for Paying Visitors,” and the admission was $8. I thought that was rude, and was momentarily taken by the idea of micturating on one of the rattlesnake warning signs right off the beautifully striped parking lot.
I was musing on this puerile impulse while getting ready to leave (in part to find an appropriately out-of-sight bush along the gravel backroads nearby), when I noticed a man about my age leaning on a cane by a car in the Handicapped Parking area, looking at me. This happens quite often, I assume because between my orange bike and orange helmet and and the trailer loaded with gear I’m bound to attract some attention. A woman (his wife I later learned) sat in the driver’s seat with the door open checking her phone. I nodded to the man and said Hi, and he asked about my trip. I wheeled my bike over and talked to him for a moment.
“I rode across the country twenty-six years ago,” he said. He repeated that number, twenty-six years ago, and you could tell by the way he said it that that was a particularly special memory for him. (From the way he held his head and leaned on his cane, I assume he’d since suffered some sort of neurological damage, but I didn’t ask.) He told me that when they rode through this area it was 107º, so they rode at night. For those who don’t ride, night-riding, like nighttime scuba-diving, might seem intimidating. It’s actually wonderful. A group of bikes and riders all lit up, illuminating the road in front, riding in a pack in the middle of the road because there is so little traffic, is a wonderful experience. The smaller world circumscribed by the headlamp, the quiet, the group members all able to talk . . . Everything combines to make the ride more intimate than a normal daytime ride.
So we talked about riding at night, staying in a hotel every so often to shower and get a good meal, and the more we talked the more animated he became, as if it had been so long since he’d talked to someone like me who got it the way he did. At one point he asked about riding alone (as he’d ridden in a group), and I told him how Lisa expressed her feelings about it (“marriedtothenut”). At that point, his wife chimed it for the first time: “I thought he was nuts for wanting to ride across the country.” He wished me a safe ride, and I was off.
But before we leave Chimney Rock, let me leave you with some geological and lexical info on it and other stone formations in this area:
Massive in scale, each monument towers hundreds of feet above the floor of the North Platte Valley. Each is made of stacked layers of sandstone, siltstone, mudstone, and volcanic ash. Differential erosion of these layers—some soft, some hard—gives each monolith a distinct shape. Courthouse Rock and Castle Rock are blocky and rectangular, reminiscent of colossal buildings. Chimney Rock looks like an upside-down funnel. Its lower section consists of soft strata that erode into slopes, whicle the upper chimney section is composed of sandstone tough enough to stand as a vertical column.
The local Sioux knew what they saw in the towering phallus of Chimney Rock. They called it Elk Penis. This was too graphic for most white sensibilities, even those of the rough fur traders who, in the 1830s, were among the earliest whites to report on the rock.
From Elk Penis, I came to a crossroads of sorts: I could follow the Pony Express Route and stay on gravel and dirt, or I could jump on the highway and make a straighter course for Scottsbluff. I had been making good time, the weather was fine, and there was no reason not to take the dirt roads, other than two facts: (1) they were slower, longer, and took more energy to ride, and (2) there was a Pony Express monument on the highway, and none along the Route. I decided to take the highway. While I was making this decision, I remembered another quote from Keith Meldahl (quoted above) about a “Period Rush” at the Humboldt River:
As a [river] channel evolves into ever more extreme loops, eventually two separate bends may approach one another and join. When this occurs, the river takes the shortcut and establishes a new channel, bypassing the cutoff loop. The abandoned channels, which may be miles long on large rivers, record the curve of the channel like a letter C or U. Geologists call such abandoned channels oxbows because their curves are reminiscent of the U-shaped pieces of wood that fasten the yokes onto the necks of oxen. The emigrants—despite handling real oxbows every day—didn’t use that term. They called the abandoned channels sloughs.
When they first form, oxbows contain standing water—a haven for mosquito larvae. Over time, with no moving water to keep them scoured, these stagnant ponds fill in to become low, swampy depressions. Emigrants along the Humboldt saw oxbows at all stages, from fresh ones holding several feet of water to ones that had progressed to the swampy stage. You can see the same thing along the river today. And if you want a “period rush,” as history buffs call it—meaning that you want to transcend time and touch the past in a personal way—then wait for dusk on a summer evening along the banks of the Humboldt River. As the sun slides below the horizon, the keening mosquito hordes emerge from the thickets, proboscises armed and ready. That’s when any spark of romance that you might still feel about the westward journey winks out, and you feel only profound gratitude for living in an age of sealed windows and insect repellant.
Keith Heyer Meldahl, Hard Road West, p. 216
At the time, that was kind of how I was feeling about the gravel roads. I didn’t have sealed windows, but so long as I wasn’t missing any monuments or landmarks, I didn’t see the point in taking the dirt roads when there was so much nice, smooth pavement pointing directly toward my destination. There are times I will have no choice but to take pavement; there have been and will be more times I have to take rough, washboarded, sandy roads. That’s fine. I’ll take each as they come.
Soon enough I arrived in Gering, which is south of the town of Scottbluff. At first the town was off-putting because the section I was riding through was industrial and all views of Scott’s Bluff were blocked by telephone poles, overpasses, etc. I came to the Gering Convention Center and saw some spectacularly tricked out ‘30s vehicles on a trailer. It seems there was a Father’s Day Weekend classic car show there. I’ve been seeing all sorts of tricked out classic cars around town.
I rode north from Gering to Scottsbluff. Downtown Gering was cool in a 40s downtown kind of way, but the No-Man’s land between there and Scottsbluff was harrowing. No one here has apparently heard that bikes share the road with cars. Least of all the city engineers. It reminded my of riding my bike while growing up the the San Fernando Valley, late-60s, early-70s, when no one in Southern California had ever heard of a bike lane. It was a white-knuckle ride the entire way.
I made it to the campground (safely) two hours before I could check in, made sure they knew about my reservation, then went off to find a laundromat. More time on Scottsbluff roads, plus it was now hot, and I had neglected to eat lunch. Eventually, I started riding on the sidewalk. The streets were four-lane, turn-lane in the middle, no shoulder, curb-to-curb roadway with no room. Sidewalks were the only way to make sure I wasn’t hit (assuming no one making a right-hand turn failed to see me).
To make things worse, the first two laundromats I went to weren’t open. I found a third and got laundry started, then spent an exasperating twenty-five minutes on the phone arguing with ATT about my mobile plan, which only resulted in an additional $50 charge to my monthly bill. ARRGHH.
Crazy ride back to the campground, nearly all on sidewalks. And here’s the thing about Scottsbluff sidewalks: Apart from being in poor repair, most of the ones I took were covered in sand and gravel and rocks. Not everywhere, of course: Scottsbluff has a nice old downtown with wide new sidewalks that were pretty clean. But nearly everywhere else, the sidewalks and streets were broken and cracked, and piles of sand and gravel and rocks gathered at corners as if they’d been blown there and left to die; sidewalks have swaths of sand running across them as if a stream used them to cross from the scraggly grass lot to the street and deposited its bed, like a huge snail leaving a track of sandy slime. The only clean areas of pavement and concrete seemed to be clean only because the incessant wind has blown them clear. If I hadn’t been so intent on getting off the streets I would have taken pictures, so I’m sorry I don’t ave much to show. I would hate to try to negotiate these roads on a standard road bike with skinny tires. There’s no way. By the time I made it back to the campground, I was starting to hate Scottsbluff. I know it was just my mood, fatigue, discomfort, stickiness, crankiness . . . But I was already anticipating leaving the next morning and putting Scottsbluff behind me.
[If this were a TV show or a movie, Kazu or I would turn to the other and say, Foreshadowing?]
Back at the campground; checked in; found my spot. Full sun, no shade, 90º. I went back to the camp host and asked if I could switch spots.
While she went into her trailer to get her reservation lists, a man walked up with a Yeti T-shirt (mountain bike company) and looked at my rig approvingly. So we started talking about my trip, and he introduced himself (Steve) and told me he was there from Omaha for a gravel race taking place in the area Sunday. And as we talked, he expressed a sort of admiration about my trip, that he though it was just great that I would do something like that on my own.
Meanwhile, the host returned and sat on the steps of the trailer and flipped open a spiral notebook with hand-written lists. That was my first inkling that there might be issues ahead. I had made my reservation online, and, call me technocentric, but when someone takes electronic info and re-compiles in longhand, well . . .
Between other campers (all RVs) checking in, and the host consulting with the Fire Department because one of the RVs smoke alarms was announcing there was a kitchen fire and to get out now, among other interruptions, it took about 30 minutes until she said, “Take Number Five; they’re checking in tomorrow.”
So I rolled over to Number 5 (huge Cottonwood, lots of shade), pulled some things off the trailer, then went back to the check-in area because the Wi-Fi was stronger there. A little while later I heard a couple behind me approaching the area, and the man was saying to the woman . . . “And there’s a trailer, and someone left a cell phone on the table, and a helmet.”
“Someone’s in our spot,” the woman said to the host.
“What spot are you in?”
The host checked her notes: “You’re not due to check in until tomorrow.”
The woman’s partner was standing next to me, so I said, I think that’s my stuff. I’ll go move it. No, he said, let me go back and get the cell phone and make sure.
So we walked back together and I apologized and said I was just looking for shade and I was happy to move. The long and short of it is that, yes, they did have that spot reserved for that night. The host then said she could move them to another spot, and that’s when the woman camper put her foot down. They picked that spot because it’s close to the bathrooms. You can stay, too, she said to me, but we’re keeping that spot.
In the end, they invited me to stay, and it was just hot enough to where I took them up on the offer. They were early-30s maybe, just driving around and camping and hiking, and were on their way home to Illinois. They were a nice couple and the spot left enough room for privacy. It worked out well.
With everything settled, it was time to figure out where I’d stay the next night. I had planned to ride to Torrington, about 45 miles away. No problem. Torrington has one camping area, with ten, first-come, first-served spaces. No reservations. So what if it’s full when I get there? It will be Saturday night. How many people are already there because they planned to spend the weekend? There was no way to know, which meant I needed a backup plan.
I should mention that before this, and after laundry, I hit a Starbucks in a Safeway, so I may have been a little extra edgy.
So, no guarantee of a camp spot. I start checking hotels. There are three in Torrington. All full. It turns out that Father’s Day weekend in this area means lots of tourist-drawing events: the classic car show; the gravel-grinder race; and, it turns out, some huge Little League tournament. Between those events and whatever else, everything was booked for fifty miles around.
Now, a real bikepacker would have no problem with this. I hear stories about pitching a tent beside a barn, or behind a gas station, bike packers doing that as a matter of course because, well, that’s bikepacking. But like so many things (surfing, e.g.), I took up bikepacking way to late in life to fully absorb and integrate the grace of the sport, and haven’t work hard enough to become an adept. In other words, I’m not a poser, but rather a hack. I go about things as best I can, but not with the grace or pluck of someone for whom the sport is more natural, more innate. And in bikepacking, not knowing I’ll have someplace to stay—anyplace—is a deal-breaker for me.
At this point it became clear that I needed to stay where I was because as much as I didn’t like Scottsbluff, at least I had a place to sleep. Or did I?
I went back to the camp host and asked, prepared to beg, for a spot the next night. She said something to the effect that any space that is empty tonight will be empty tomorrow, so I could take one of those. The more I thought about that statement, the less sense it made. So I went back to the online reservation system for the camp and tried to make a reservation: sure enough, it was sold out.
I had been texting with Lisa about everything that was going on, and by this point, she was fully engaged in searching for a place for me, too. So I was on my iPhone hitting every hotel site I could find while Lisa was searching all the travel sites (Travelocity, etc).
While all this was happening, I was texting and calling my friend Rick. Rick the Incredible. Since the day I started this ride, nearly three weeks ago, I have had a slow leak in my front tire. It runs out of air overnight, so every morning I have to pump it up again. No big deal—it easily lasts for every ride and then some—that is, no big deal until it is. What if it decided to fail west of Casper where there would be nothing and nobody for miles, for dozens of miles, at a time? Being the mensch that he is, Rick put together a replacement wheel, then offered to drive out to meet me, try to fix my slow leak, and failing that, swap out my wheel for the new one.
He was on this third day of driving—he drives a Tesla—and telling me that my location was just remote enough that he didn’t know whether he could reach me. That is, he had enough charge to reach me, but there might not be a Tesla charging station close enough to give him enough power to get back to the charger.
So I’m texting with Lisa (“Have you tired Airbnb?”), searching Google Maps and hotel sites, texting and talking to Rick while we search for recharge stations within range, and nothing is working. No campsites, no hotels, everything sold out, no charger where the app says one is . . . It was nuts.
Finally, Lisa texted that she might have tracked a room down in Scottsbluff. It was twice as much as anything else, one room left. Like an idiot, I balked at the price until Lisa said, “It’s an emergency!” I grabbed the room, gave my credit card number, and despite myself, felt thankful for it.
It was coming on evening. I took a second shower and starting thinking about dinner and setting up the tent. After the stress of the afternoon, I was seriously questioning my fitness for this trip. It struck me that I had become very accustomed to comforts; that I had already stayed in hotels more than I had planned, had eaten out more than I had ever thought I would. That I was on a bike tour, not a bikepacking trip, dependent on finding these oases of comfort, whether bakeries for snacks, cafes for coffee, Mexican restaurants for dinner, anyplace for air conditioning.
What would I do the the 400+ miles after Casper where there was none of that: No restaurants, no cafes, few buildings, no campsites (you camp wherever you want on government land), let alone hotels. I knew no one would think less of me for quitting. And, honestly, given my past record of undertakings that exhibit a complete lack of self-knowledge (becoming an attorney, for instance), it might even be good that I recognize that for all my preparations and stubbornness, I may just not be cut out to be a bikepacker and it might be time to call it quits.
So I was going about my business, as I say, mooning a little, trying to figure out the logistics of quitting and getting all my stuff back to Davis, when up walks a man and a woman. The man was Steve, with the Yeti T-shirt from earlier, and he introduced the woman as Ann, his wife. They said they cooked too much food and was I hungry and did I want to come hang out at their spot for a while?
It was like Dale and Beverly at Rock Springs, this couple who come out of nowhere and offer me a meal and some conversation. I started to tear up again. Why does this keep happening just when I’m ready to throw in the towel? Where do these ridiculously considerate people come from? I said, Of course, I’d love to.
[Okay, now do you see why I couldn’t write this up last night?]
So I went to their camp and ate (Steve apologizing for taking seconds when he should have left them for me) and we talked about bikes, mud, gravel, the Pony Express, the hilly Missouri Valley, Omaha, Yosemite, getting eleven miles to the gallon (They were traveling in an Airstream pulled by one of those massive Ram diesels. It turned out they were testing the concept of trailer camping by renting the whole get up: the trailer from some website that’s like an Airbnb for trailers, and the truck from Enterprise. It was Ann’s idea to rent when Steve went to her ready to buy. They both agreed that was a good move. Everybody should be so reasonable.) . . . Just a pleasant conversation.
While we talked, Steve kept coming back to my trip, and about taking it on alone, something he seemed to admire because even as a serious cyclist, it was something he didn’t know he would do. I told him not to be impressed yet as I was thinking I might bag it in Casper, to which he said, So what? You’ve done this much.
At one point, we discussed the merits of Scottsbluff—maybe it was in the context of east vs. west Nebraska. I let drop that I didn’t really like Scottsbluff, at which point Steve pointed to Ann and said she lived here. Oops. It turned out that she had lived her for five years, long ago, when her first husband transferred to Scottsbluff for a job. She said she cried when she saw it. Then she said she cried when she left because of all the friends she had made.
And I’ve probably said this before, but that really seems to be what this trip is turning out to be, chance meetings with remarkably kind people. I don’t know if I’m ready to give that up yet, even at the cost of riding across the windy steppes of Wyoming. At the same time, I’m not entirely sure I’m capable of making that run. It’s unsettling, to say the least.