Day 8: The Coast of Nebraska

Second breakfast at Michelle’s Scrumptious Bakery

I woke at my Prairie Lake site to the sound of birds. Noisy, early-rising harpies is more how they struck me at the time. The forecast was the same as yesterday, hot and windy, so my goal was to get underway by 8. My plan for the day was to blow past my original plan to stay at the Fort Kearney Recreation Area, which was 40 miles away, and push through to the city of Kearney, which was 50 miles. I’d been a few days without a shower, and felt I could use a break from camping. Also, my overall ride plan had called for a day off every week or so to rest. This was Day Eight, so I was overdue. Better to spend the off day near restaurants and other conveniences I could walk to, I reasoned, than a campground where I would always need to keep my bike and trailer in sight.

I made it out of the Prairie Lake campground by 8:30. Close enough. The town of Juniata (which I cannot help but seeing as Juanita) was less than 10 miles away, so I detoured off the Pony Express route to stop in at Karen’s Scrumptious Bakery. One cinnamon roll (not nearly as sweet as the one in Seneca) and a cup of pod-brewed Starbucks and I was off to rejoin the route. Riding west, I passed the town cemetery. Juniata was the original Adams County seat, so there might have been some interesting tombstones there, but I was out to beat the heat and the wind, so I passed them by. A young woman, 20s, was mowing the grass, navigating around gravestones on a sit-on-top (natch), wearing a blue one piece bathing suit and pink sun hat. I wondered how the elders underground might feel about that.

The wind was mostly behind me, so but for the loose top layer of the Adams County roads, I made it along pretty well. I stopped in Kenesaw for an orange-mango drink of some kind and an apple for later—two towns in one morning! I haven’t seen that much development in one day’s ride since St. Joe, three hundred miles back.

Back side inscription of the Susan Hail grave

From Prairie Lake north to the Platte River is a divide separating the Little Blue and the Platte River valleys. This was notorious in the mid-1800s for being a dry, sandy route. Now it’s all irrigated farmland, not much distinguishable from what I had ridden yesterday. Near the summit of this stretch is Susan Hail’s grave. It’s a marker placed in 1960 over the spot where an earlier, original marker had lain. The back of the marker indicates the year of her death (1852) and the manner (drinking water “poisoned by Indians”). A signpost nearby tells the story of how her grief-stricken husband returned to Missouri, sold his horse to buy a tombstone, and carried it by wheelbarrow to mark her grave. Later research debunked the poisoning theory: 1852 was a particularly bad year for cholera on the trail, and it is assumed that there are hundreds of graves in the area, but that hers was the only one still marked after a passage of time. Also, the Adams Historical society notes that there are at least two other similar “wheelbarrow” stories, and suggestions none of them are based in fact.

The Pony Express station near this site was called Sand Hill. As if on cue, once I passed west of that mark I ran into the deepest, loosest, sandiest road yet. At times I was in first gear fighting my way through sand piles, struggling to keep from getting bogged down to a stop. This was not a happy stretch of road.

Different-colored vegetation designating the trail . . . I think. I need to find that reference to make sure.

One of the things riding the Pony Express route has taught me is a little empathy for the difficulty of travel. Not that my travails in any way compare. Rather, in the sense that when I read accounts of wagons mired to their hubs in Kansas mud, or how emigrants had to double-team wagons and push on the spokes of all four wheels to get through Nebraska sand, I would think, Bummer! Or as my son, Kazu, might have said when he was in middle school, “Sucks to suck!” Sitting in my house, drinking coffee, listening to classical music, it never occurred to me that 160 years later I’d have to deal with the same road conditions (however ameliorated). And yet here I was, day to day, having to negotiate basically the same type of lousy road conditions I had read about. As high-school-aged Kazu might say, “Sucks to be you!” At times like these, crawling along a sandy road in the hot sun, maybe it does.

Further west, the verge in a depression that ran alongside the road took on a deep red color in contrast to the surrounding green. Somewhere I read (though I can’t find it right now), that the different grasses marked the trails due to the soil disruption. If so, the road I was on paralleled the ruts for miles.

At one point was an area Irene Padden noted as notorious for buffalo wallows. I’ll let her describe them:

Seven miles beyond [Summit Station] were the famous (or rather infamous) buffalo-wallow water holes. Theodore Talbot, who was with Frémont in 1843, minced no words in his description of them. ‘These ponds or wallows,’ he wrote, ‘are formed by the buffalo wallowing, an amusement they are very fond of. When any rain falls it is collected in these places and here the buffalo come to drink and stand during the heat of the day, ading their own excrements to the already putrescent waters. This compound warmed for weeks in a blazing sun and alive with animalcules makes a drink palatable to one suffering from intense thirst. Oh! that some over dainty connoisseur might taste of it!’ Emigrants of later years, warned by the numerous guidebooks that flooded the market, carried water for emergencies from the last creek. But very early Oregon-bound travelers, delayed by one accident and another on this, the longest waterless stretch they had to cross, were sometimes forced by the intensity of their need to use this nauseating substitute for water.

Irene D. Paden, The Wake of the Prairie Schooner, p. 80

You can learn more detail about this spot if you’d like by clicking here.

According to earlier accounts of the trail, I should have been able to see the Platte River by this point, a huge moment for everyone who travelled this route. This section was called “The Coast of Nebraska,” the idea being that the prairie was like a vast, trackless ocean, and the sand of the Platte Valley like a beach or seashore.

The Platte River dominates Nebraska geography, and its dominant characteristic is its flatness. ‘Nebraska’ is the approximate Omaha Indian equivalent for ‘flat water,’ and the French word ‘Platte’ is synonymous. The earliest explorers and emigrants sometimes used ‘Nebraska’ to refer to the river and not the territory. Thus, ‘Coast of Nebraska’ and ‘Coast of the Platte’ were interchangeable. It is not known who invented the term, but it was used by the explorers John C. Fremont and Howard Stansbury and appears in occasional emigrant journals and in late-period travelogues. It was not widely used, but it expresses beautifully the impact upon the emigrants of this strange river which made possible a road which would take them to the Continental Divide and California. The term is particularly poetic in its imagery, for the vast shimmering flatness of the Platte valley, at the edge of the sand dunes, did have a remarkable resemblance to the seashore of the Atlantic Ocean. It was prophetic that this first exposure to the Platte produced an eerie, unearthly (or at least unfamiliar) atmosphere that created an aura for the remaining journey.

Merrill J. Mattes, The Great Platte River Road, p. 161

And Irene Padden again:

And now the emigrants (and we after them) looked forward only a few miles to the first view of the great Platte River. Some say it was first known as the Nebrathka, an Otoe word for weeping water, because of the sad tones of its current rushing swiftly among the sandy islands. Later it was called the Platte by the French trappers on account of its gray flatness.

Irene D. Paden, The Wake of the Prairie Schooner, p. 80

Though not everyone agrees on the poetry of the name.

At length, the wagons reached ‘the coast of Nebraska.’ Many people have taken this to be a figure of speech continuing the frequent analogy between the prairies and the sea, and such people have been like to wax eloquent at the thought of the ‘prairie schooners’ approaching the coast. But the phrase is a translation of the French le côte de la Nebraska, in which ‘Nebraska‘ serves as an alternate name for Platte, and ‘côte’ is a term to indicate a line of bluffs along a stream.” 

George R. Stewart, The California Trail, p. 110 and 128

And there seems to be no agreement on the source of the name:

The Canadian voyageurs first named it La Platte, the Flat River, discarding, or rather translating after their fashion, the musical and picturesque aboriginal term, ‘Nebraska,’ the ‘shallow stream:’ the word has happily been retained for the Territory.

Richard Burton, The City of Saints, p. 40

First sighting of the Platte. Gone are the sand dunes and vistas that suggested the coast of Nebraska

I did not get a view of the Platte River from the divide, as Pony Express riders did in 1860. Instead I had to wait until the road I was on more or less dead-ended into the river bank and turned left. Nevertheless, I found the river a welcome site. I had left the prairie and was on the eastern edge of the second part of my journey. There were times in the preceding days when I thought these first 350 miles might do me in, but I had made it . . . at least this far.

A few miles up I stopped at a crane viewing platform to make a motel reservation for the night. I had spent some researching motels time the night before and found a locally-owned place a few miles off US 80 that had good reviews for cleanliness and friendly management. So I started there.

“You want a reservation for when? Tonight? I don’t know if I have anything. Why are you trying to make a reservation for tonight?”

“Well, I’m on my bike and I wasn’t sure how far I’d make it today.”

“People are traveling again after the COVID. I have a lot of construction workers.”

“I understand.”

“I don’t know if I have room. I’ll check.”

“Thank you.”

“Why do people call and try to make reservations for the same day?”

At this point I had to laugh. I thought I’d stepped into a W. C. Fields movie.

“This may be funny to you, but I’m trying to run a business here. How many nights did you say? I don’t know if I have any rooms.”

By the time I got off I regretted making the reservation. But looking at the other motels, it seemed most had indoor-only access to the rooms, and it would be a lot easier to get my bike in a room off the parking lot than through the lobby.

“You’re not going to leak oil all over the carpet are you?”

On the way into town I stopped by the Fort Kearney State Historical Park. For emigrants, this was the first settlement since Marysville, and the last until Fort Laramie in Wyoming, over 300 miles away. The fort reservation was 10-miles square. Just east of the eastern border was Dogtown, and just west of the western border (and only two miles from the actual fort, sat Dobey Town (“dobe” meaning “adobe”). Both were notorious back in the day.

“Two miles to the west [of Fort Kearney] we arrived at the spot where once flourished the hamlet called Dobeytown, a squalid settlement of ‘dobe huts whose very mention was next door to an indelicacy. It was the ordinary type of hell-hole that clung to the fringes of any military reservation and, owing to the fact that Fort Kearney was far toward the western edge of its reserve, the group of mud buildings was within a mile or two of barracks. . .

In staging days a large reserve stable for work stock was erected at Dobeytown, and the name Kearney City was arbitrarily selected in a vain attempt to throw a veil of respectability over the community. The name never ‘took’ with those who knew the place . . .

The permanent population was about two dozen inhabitants, mainly gamblers, saloonkeepers, and loafers who made a good living by running off emigrants’ stock at night, laying it to the Pawnee, and hiring out to find it the next day. Only the most cast-iron type of hard liquor was available at Dobeytown (as beer and wines were considered an unpardonable waste of hauling space), and the thirsty drivers and crews of the bull-drawn freight wagons were frequently drugged and robbed.

‘here was no law in Dobeytown, or at least none that could be enforced.’ The place was a grisly combination of delerium tremens, stale humanity, and dirt.

Irene D. Paden, The Wake of the Prairie Schooner, p. 88

Today you can rent a yurt for $125/night to watch cranes where Dogtown sat; Dobeytown has a state marker; across the highway is a modern residence, complete with a manicured sod lawn.

The main drag into Kearney is a four lane road that rivals any in Los Angeles for speed and aggressiveness of driving. A wide-open, cutthroat drag strip lined by strip malls of fast food drive-thrus and small businesses. At the end of a long hot day, it was something of a white-knuckle ride, though I will say no one did anything more dangerous or and more rude than a driver in Davisville would do (which isn’t a particularly high recommendation, by the way).

I stopped by Dairy Queen for a banana shake that had no trace of banana whatsoever, but was cold at least.

My camp for two nights in Kearney, NE

By the time I arrived at the motel, the owner had gotten over whatever was bugging him. For all I know it was just the bad phone connection. He wore an Army baseball hat and held court behind the counter which, like all similar motels, opened up behind him into his living area. Off to the side of the tiny lobby were two comfy chairs. Another old guy (I can say this because they were both older than me, and I’m an old guy) was ensconced in his chair—I would bet it held his form from years of use—sipping coffee and watching the goings-on. He was like Ed McMahon to the owner’s Johnny Carson.

Johnny was all smiles and friendliness in person, telling me about breakfast at the restaurant in one corner of the hotel (“They make a burger on toast with sauce. Some people call it ‘Shit on a Shingle,’ but I like it”), where the local market was, the laundry, telling Ed to pull out the grocery coupons . . . Hell, just give him the whole paper. Did you say two nights?

Yep. Johnny, Ed, and I were best buds.

After settling in, I went to the grocery store and did exactly what you’re not supposed to do: shop when hungry. Went back to the room to refill on fluids (Power Ade, Tru Moo) and food (including a pint of Ben and Jerry’s and freshly-made cucumber/avocado rolls, which was a surprise), then after a shower, wandered out to get Chinese food.

Because it seems that for all of the supposed adventurousness of my trip, the novelty of seeing the traces of 170-year wagon ruts, the stone markers of stations gone by, the apparent intrepidity of long hours alone in the heat and wind, at the end of the day, what I really want is a shower and to have a prepared meal and maybe a little ice cream to go with. It seems I am not, after all, quite so determinedly rugged a traveler. In fact, I’ve already made a hotel reservation for the next town.


This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Anonymous

    Lol. That was beautiful. I have been to places “a grisly combination of delerium tremens, stale humanity, and dirt.”
    Well done Scott. Thanks for the citations.

  2. Anonymous

    “Only the most cast-iron type of hard liquor was available at Dobeytown (as beer and wines were considered an unpardonable waste of hauling space)”

    Makes perfect sense to me (Jim D.).

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