Day 20: What Is It With Nebraska and Wind?

June 20, 2021
Scottsbluff, NE to Torrington, WY
31 miles/700 feet
Temp:Low 80s/Wind 15-25, gusts to 30 mph

Okay, I lied.

Bringing the message home in a meaningful way

Yesterday I said my plan was to ride around Scott’s Bluff, then today, get back on the Pony Express Bikepacking Route to ride through Robidoux Pass. As a matter of fact, I didn’t even try to get back to the route, or the Pass. I rode northwest on the highway all day. Here’s why:

The wind was forecast to be 15 mph out of the north. When I first read that, knowing it meant “headwind” all day (as I was headed northwest), I wondered whether I was doomed to stay in Scottsbluff forever. I felt like Fred Ward when he and Kevin Bacon were trying  to get out of Perfection in that underrated classic Tremors. Finding the road blocked by a landslide, he says in exasperation, “Is there some higher force at work here? I mean, are we asking too much of life?” Kinda how I felt when I was looking at the forecast.

[I feel I should apologize, or at least acknowledge, that for a person with literary aspirations, all of my references are to movies, or TV, or pop music. It’s a little embarrassing to be so middlebrow. I realize I should be quoting from literature. If you read Sir Richard Burton’s City of Saints, for example, you can’t go a page without some erudite reference.

The artemisia, absinthe, or wild sage differs much from the panacea concerning which the Salernitan school rhymed: “Cur moriatur homo cui Salvia crescit in horto.” [“Why should a man die whilst sage grows in his garden?”–I had to look that up: Sir Richard assumed his reader would know the quote.] Yet it fills the air with a smell that caricatures the odor of the garden-plant, causing the traveler to look round in astonishment; and when used for cooking it taints the food with a taste between camphor and turpentine. It is of two kinds. The smaller or white species (A. filifolia) rarely grows higher than a foot. Its fetor is less rank, and at times of scarcity it forms tolerable fodder for animals. The Western men have made of it, as of the “red root,” a tea, which must be pronounced decidedly inferior to corn coffee. The Indians smoke it, but they are not particular about what they inhale: like that perverse p—n of Ludlow, who smoked the bell-ropes rather than not smoke at all, or like school-boys who break themselves in upon ratan, they use even the larger sage as well as a variety of other graveolent growths.

And he takes every opportunity to wear his education and experience on his sleeve, so to speak:

Scalping is generally, but falsely, supposed to be a peculiarly American practice. The Abbe Em. Domenech (‘Seven Years’ Residence in the Great Deserts of North America,’ chap, xxxix.) quotes the decalvare of the ancient Germans, the capillos et cutem detrahere of the code of the Visigoths, and the annals of Elude, which prove that the ‘Anglo-Saxons’ and the Franks still scalped about A.D. 879. And as the modern American practice is traceable to Europe and Asia, so it may be found in Africa, where aught of ferocity is rarely wanting. . . .

Nope. When you read me you get Fred Ward and Tremors. Sorry. In that regard, I feel a little like James Elroy, or at least can relate to this quote in the movie biography, James Elroy, Demon Dog of American Crime Fiction:

I wanted to be Tolstoy … I wanted to be Balzac. Yeah. I wanted to be all these guys that – quite frankly – I’ve never really read.

Well, I’ve read them, but still, it’s the pop culture references that come to mind as I ride along from town to town composing these missives in my head. So again, sorry to lower the general I.Q. Now, back to the narrative . . .]

North wind. Riding northwest meant I’d be fighting it most or all of the way. What is it with Nebraska and wind? I had been thinking that of all weather phenomena in Nebraska, wind was the one element they could predict with some accuracy, seeing as it blows all the time. I now take these predictions with a grain of salt, the salt being that the prediction is the absolute minimum it will blow. To get a more realistic idea of what to expect, add 50% to the the baseline and allow for even stronger gusts. Which is, by the way, exactly what happened today.

Sign outside of Morill, NE

But getting back to the day’s route planning, knowing the wind would fight me whichever route I took, I took the one that went at an angle to the wind (the highway) rather than the Pony Express Route, which has legs that ride directly north, into the wind.

Plus, Robidoux Pass is a pass: Pass = hill climb. Added to that was Irene Paden’s description (from yesterday’s post) of the dust through the Pass. Maybe it isn’t as bad today, but maybe it is.

Finally, I took to heart something Jan (the route creator) had written to me. The upshot of it was, some days the weather will be bad and you may ride twenty miles and just decide to quit for the day. Amen to that.

Oh, and one last thing: 100% chance of rain forecast for tonight.

Altogether, that said to me, Ride short, get a hotel.

So I booked a room at Morill, NE, about twenty-five miles from Scottsbluff, and planned to ride the highway which takes the most direct route between the two. It worked like a charm. It worked too well, in fact. I was in Morill by 10:15 am, and had only ridden 15 miles. Somehow in making my distance calculation I managed to misoverestimate the distance and time required. So here I was in a tiny little West Nebraska fly-speck farm town, five-and-a-half hours before check-in time.

Mater’s cousin?

I called the hotel chain’s 800 number, and after fifteen minutes or so, they allowed me to move my reservation to the next hotel west, in Torrington, WY, another fifteen or so miles away. So I got back on my bike prepared to fight the wind for another couple of hours because even that was preferable to my options in Morill.

I was thinking of how I could describe riding into the wind at a slight angle, as I was. If I were in a boat, I’d say I was sailing close-hauled, which is as high as a boat can point into the wind and still move forward. A close-hauled course is also called “beating,” or “beating to windward,” which is just as appropriate to the feeling of riding the bike into a good breeze at a forward angle: the course gets you there, but it takes its toll. That’s kind of how if felt today riding into the wind. Still, better than straight into it (“in irons”) as I would have been zig-zagging west and north on the Route.

Another reason I chose the highway was that it passed a historical area I was interested in. Specifically, the 1851 treaty conference between the US and the local Native American tribes allowing passage through the area to emigrants in exchange for gifts and annuities. To quote from the signage:

From all directions they came in late summer 1851—Plains Indian tribes, summoned by government officials so their chiefs could smoke the peace pipe and sign a treaty with representatives of “The Great Father.” Never before had so many American Indians assembled to parley with the white man. (Estimates range from 8,000 to 12,000.) It was perhaps history’s most dramatic demonstration of the Plains tribes’ desire to live at peace with the whites.

The tribes had been invited to assemble at Fort Laramie, but a shortage of forage for their thousands of horses caused the parley to be moved downstream. Because some tribes had been at war for generations, most Indian camps were widely spaced to minimize contact. About 270 soldiers were present to help keep the peace. However, a spirit of friendliness prevailed.

And from another sign on the same spot:

The treaty was proposed by former fur trader Thomas Fitzpatrick, Upper Platte Indian agent, supported by David D. Mitchell, superintendent of Indian Affairs in St. Louis. The treaty provided that the government would give the tribes $50,000 a year in goods for 50 years for damages caused by emigrants bound for Oregon, California and Utah. In return the Indians would allow free passage on the emigrant trails, permit forts to be built on their land, and pledged peaceful settlement of intertribal disputes.

Signing were such chiefs as White Antelope (Cheyenne), Little Owl (Arapaho), Big Robber (Crow) and Conquering Bear, whom the whites persuaded the Sioux to elect as head chief. Assiniboine, Mandan, Gros Ventre and Arikara chiefs also signed. The Shoshone traveled over 400 miles but were not asked to sign because they were not from the Plains.

With few exceptions, the tribes honored the treaty until 1864, when the whites’ demand for land pressured the Sioux, Cheyenne and Arapaho into warfare, ending the hope for peace which had prompted “The Great Smoke.”

The signage isn’t exactly correct. It doesn’t report, for example, that Congress failed to ratify the treaty, reducing it instead to $10,000 for ten years. Also, as soon as the treaty was signed, one tribe went off to fight another (though I’d have to look through my notes back home to remember which). And as for a peace lasting until 1864 . . . Three years after the treaty was signed, while Native Americans were gathering for the annual gifts and annuities, a Mormon cow wandered off  . . . Well—

On August 18 [1854] a lame cow wandered away from Mormon emigrants hurrying westward. When the stray cow reached the Sioux encampment it was quickly butchered. From this trivial occurrence ensued a tragic series of errors for which fort [Laramie] commander Hugh B. Fleming and Lieutenant John L. Grattan bore almost complete responsibility.

Although the Sioux chief offered generous payment—a horse—for the emigrant animal, somehow the circumstances were utilized to force a major confrontation the next day. Grattan, a firm believer in severely punishing Indians for all their mistakes, demanded the arrest of the offending Miniconjou Sioux brave—who was a guest at the Brulé village. Grattan ineptly attempted a show of force with his contingent of twenty-eight men, refusing a mule as compensation for the now-important cow. A few shots were fired and an Indian was wounded, but the chiefs cautioned their wariors not to return the fire, hoping the whites had now had their vengeance.

But Grattan was not to be denied, and he ordered another volley in which the Sioux chief was killed. Reprisal came swiftly. All twenty-one soldiers and their interpreter were killed; their bodies, especially Grattan’s were badly mutilated. The enraged Sioux raided trading posts around the fort and that fall made a series of attacks on mail carriers, killing at least three.”

John D. Unruh, Jr., The Plains Across, p. 214-215

The following spring, General Harney led a reprisal known variously as the Battle of Ash Hollow, or the Ash Hollow Massacre, and other names depending on one’s point of view. 

Point being, the 1851 treaty signing is a key event, and a relatively positive one, in the initial attempts and ultimate failure of the US to facilitate a peaceful resolution to the problems caused by the ever-growing migration through Native American lands. Having read chapters and articles about the events, I wanted to see the spot. It turns out that the interpretive signs are about three miles from the actual site. But the site itself is on private land. After the passage of 170 years, you take what authenticity you can get.

It wasn’t many more miles in the wind until I reached Torrington. Like Scottsbluff, the shoulder went away and I rode on the sidewalk into town. Like Scottsbluff, everywhere I went I felt like I was taking my life in my hands. I lost count of how many cars and trucks turned in front of me, even though I was running a headlight and taillights fore and aft.

Downtown Torrington, WY, about 1pm on a Sunday

I was still early to check in, and wanted to eat, so I searched downtown for a bakery or cafe to hang out in and found instead that Torrington does not open for business on Sunday. Downtown was deserted. I checked all the restaurant listings on Google Maps, and nothing was open until Monday or Tuesday. Even the Mexican restaurants. That was when near panic set it.

At last I found a family restaurant (“Deacons”) open near the motel, though it was set to close at two, less than hour from then. The only non-meat items on the menu were breakfast, which of course worked for me, so I ordered some coffee and pancakes and it must have taken at least thirty minutes for the pancakes to arrive. They were good, I’ll say that. But man was that place slow. I ended up having to go back to the kitchen to get a coffee refill.

While waiting more or less patiently for Second Breakfast in Torrington, I planned my ride for tomorrow. That is, I decided (1) to get off the highway and get back on the route for a while (if the rain that passes through tonight doesn’t turn everything to mud), (2) to spend some time at Ft. Laramie (as it is another important historical site on the trail), and (3) that I would ride as far as Guernsey, WY for the night (somewhere around 45 miles). Guernsey has a park for camping, and I also decided I would stay there.

Thinking about the park in Guernsey, I remembered planning to stay in Pioneer Park here in Torrington on Saturday night (last night) before I realized that there was no vacancy anywhere in West Nebraska. Out of curiosity, I decided I’d go by the park and learn for myself what the person I called for information could not tell me: How many tent sites are there in the park? After eating, I swung by to find out.

Camping map for Pioneer Park, Torrington, WY

There is a very large sign at Pioneer Park, and it shows all the numbered spaces for the RVs. The tent (“Dry”) camping area is shown as a triangle of grass with icons for tents dotting it all over, kind of like 1800s maps of a village of teepees. In other words, it seems as if the tent-camping area is only as limited as space allows. And it was a pretty large area. In retrospect, then, I could have left Scottsbluff yesterday and it is highly likely, virtually certain, that I would have had a place to camp. Huh.

So I scouted a little more and found that, no, there were no showers, and I would have had to get my water from the “basic restrooms” which were so far away from the dry camping areas that I never found them. All in all, Pioneer Park was not a very alluring campground. Then it struck me that the situation at the park in Guernsey might well be the same.

And in that moment, I had an epiphany. A flash of insight as people like me (that is, those of us profoundly lacking in self-knowledge; remember, from my crazy afternoon trying to find a hotel my second night in Scottsbluff?) are fortunate enough to receive from time to time. I realized in this moment of clarity that I don’t like camping in dumpy little city parks. I don’t like to have to hike to the bathroom or go without a shower. And what’s more, I don’t have to, at least as far as Casper. I can stay in hotels! And there is no reason not to!

So I booked a place in Guernsey and thought how nice it would be tomorrow not to have to rush to a first-come, first-served campground; how I could spend time looking for the Pony Express station and the emigrant wagon ruts and Register Rock (one of the thousands of places emigrants carved their initials) and take my time because I had a reservation, a room waiting. And a shower.

But back to Torrington, which was largely closed for Sunday. One of the down sides of staying in a motel is that you can’t really set up your camp stove and cook in your room. Planning ahead, I realized nothing would be open for dinner, so I stopped in at a Subway and ordered a sandwich for later. (Side note: There is a Subway and a Dollar Store in every single town I pass through, not matter how small. Except for Oak, KS.)

Since then I’ve been here, typing away and now I’m going to play with photos and post for you all. Rain is forecast in about three hours (10 pm local); winds tomorrow are headwinds again, forecast to 7 mph (which means at least 10, with gusts to 15), and the high around 80º, which means possibly 85º. All tolerable. But tolerable or not, I will head out and get that much closer to Casper, my next resting point.

This Post Has 9 Comments

  1. Anonymous

    Gros Ventre means big belly in French. I wonder who named that chief? (Lily)

  2. Chuck

    Thanks for the posts, Scott! I love reading them.

  3. Anonymous

    I came across a term yesterday and thought of you. “Flying Dog” stands for what you should have known better, taking a risk that was maybe further out there than you expected, but pulling it off. You are the Flying Dog, keep on keeping on Flying Dog. Safe travels

    1. Scott Alumbaugh

      I’ve never heard that term, but I like it!

      1. Anonymous

        Thought you might like it Flying Dog


  4. Dana (softn)

    Glad to hear you are allowing yourself the luxury of sleeping indoors, at least when you can. It’s hard enough work during the day just surviving. Hopefully this little concession will help keep your spirits up. Murray and I continue to be so impressed by you.

  5. Lisa

    If you wear a cow suit while riding on the highway, maybe they’ll take care. Congratulations on reaching Wyoming! You’re amazing.

    1. Scott Alumbaugh

      I just wonder whether the billboard convinced anyone.

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