Thursday, May 31, 2012

Proctor and Amble

May 30

Wednesday was a pleasant surprise, at least for my stomach.  I'd been told to expect little in the way of hot food between Sedgewick and Sterling, which I won't reach until tomorrow.  Not a surprise, population density is no problem in northeastern Colorado.
Eleven miles out from Jumbo Lake my information was proved wrong.  A Mexican restaurant, with an authentic Mexican running things had recently opened in Crook, Colorado, which is not named for Richard Nixon.  While I enjoyed my chicken enchiladas platter I learned from fellow diner Mike about a cafe in Proctor, nine miles to the west.
Lu's Buffalo Stop provided me with a nice dinner of German sausage and potatoes as well as a spot to camp behind the store.  I was warned of the potential for caterwauling, copulating catastrophe in the form of some stray cats who made their home in the midst of the tire piles.
Okay, to be honest, today was rather uneventful, even the cats failed to provide an exciting finish, quietly skulking without disturbing my rest at all.  As a wise journalist once told me, sometimes you have to bury the lead.

18 miles/2334 total miles

Water, Water Everywhere

May 29

"You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy" - Obi Wan Kenobi, "Star Wars"

There may have been less aliens in the third incarnation of Julesburg, but the vice and immorality was comparable to that found inside the Port Eisley spaceport of "Star Wars." To paraphrase explorer Sir Henry Stanley, a visitor to the town, "there were men who would kill for a mere five dollars...in fact some already had done so and walked around with no fear of justice."  Like Dobytown this Gomorrah fell to the whims of the railroad, the depravity moving on like a traveling circus to a new location.
I left the fourth and final version of Julesburg before seven, still taking advantage of the time change.  I spied a jackrabbit and a bull snake in those early morning hours when wild life tends to be the most active.
At Ovid I visited the post office and had my maps forwarded to Sterling.  My brother Colin sent them to Big Springs for me, but because of my bad timing I arrived there Sunday.  I didn't want to sit so close to the border with the federal holiday Monday.  As a result, I'm flying mostly blind until Sterling.  Fortunately, I can use Highway 138 the whole way, which is essentially the route anyway.
My boring logistics aside, I made great progress and reached Sedgewick by noon.  I'd heard much about a cafe two miles off course on I-76 and resolved to visit.
Lucy's is known for their buffalo, which is raised locally by the cafe's proprietors.  I tried the meat in burger form.  Buffalo is leaner and healthier for you than beef, which sounds like a good idea, but the grease and fat of beef give a traditional hamburger a juicier flavor the larger animal lacks.  Cows just taste too good to avoid death row anytime in the near future.
While dining I met Flake Burke, who was having lunch with his wife Joanna.  I told him about the hike and asked if there was a suitable spot further west than Sedgewick to camp tonight.  It was still early and I hoped to advance a few more miles yet.  Flake suggested Jumbo Lake, a reservoir five miles onward and only two miles off the highway.
I took his advice and headed in that direction.  When I reached the road I had been told to take I had a sudden feeling I was in the wrong place.  Flake had said there would be a sign.  As I puzzled out my predicament Gary pulled up in his pickup and told me I wanted the next turn down.  He offered a lift and since I was off trail I accepted, throwing the pack in the bed.
He dropped me off a few minutes later and as I reached the picnic table I realized I had a problem.  My two full water bottles had fallen out into the truck.  In my fatigue I had forgotten to check for their presence immediately.  I raced to catch Gary, but I only caught his dust.
With no other choice I resolved to drink the water from the lake after treating it with my pills.  These kill bacteria but do nothing about various toxins or pesticides. The label essentially says,"Don't make a habit of using these."
As the water percolated my shining knights showed up to save me from my stupidity.  Flake and his wife had stopped by to stay hello.  When I told them about my problem they gave me their last two waters.  Despite my prideful protests that I would now have enough, they went to the store and brought back four more, the exact amount I really needed.
Flake and Joanna's actions would have been enough for a Hallmark moment, but there was still more in store.  At sunset Gary returned in his truck with three more liters of water.  He didn't even know I had lost the bottles I had, he was just concerned I didn't have enough.  With the water I retrieved from the bedliner I now had seven clean liters instead of none. Water, water everywhere - more than I can drink (or carry).

19 miles/2316 total miles

A Day of Remembrance, A Day to Remember

Memorial Day Service at Big Springs Cemetery
May 28

Unused to my new Mountain Time schedule (I unknowingly passed the invisible line in Paxton), I woke much too early.  In need of groceries and interested in attending Memorial Day services, I sat in neutral at the park finishing a subpar Elmore Leonard novel.  At eight I made my way to the store, where I learned more about the infamous robbery of the Farmers Bank.  I spoke to Diane, who had dated the son of one those murdered.  She described him as bitter even now, still blaming the men who survived for not doing more to save his mother.   Duane had been considered a good kid, had never been in any trouble with the law.  He had been given the money, there was no need for him to shoot those inside the bank.  Why did this All-American kid snap?
At 9:30 I headed out to the cemetery for the Big Springs Memorial Day Service.  On the way I met another Miller, Barbara, who used to live in Big Springs before moving to Lewellen.  We attended the somber ceremony together, I starkly reminded of the purpose for the journey and she of the health struggles of her brother, who had suffered massive exposure to Agent Orange in Vietnam.  I'll long remember her words as we returned to her car, "Why do we have war?"
In a reflective mood I returned to the road.  The miles passed quickly, my distracted mind a whirlwind.  In seemingly no time I reached the Colorado border.  The last gasps and gusts of the Nebraska wind could not hold me back any longer.
Two miles over the border I ran into my first Colorado city, Julesburg.  The town was one of the first settlements in these parts, or was until Native Americans burned it to the ground.  Julesburg rose again, only to fade when the railroad changed course.  The third iteration met a similar fate.  Undeterred, the phoenix tried a fourth time.  This time Julesburg has survived, proving that persistence pays off - a lesson I will surely have to remember in the coming months.

12 miles/2297 total miles

Thanks to my new Nebraska friends:
Natasha and Kevin in Lincoln
Gretchen and the rest of the Hite family
Bob and Lucy Furr, Ryan, Christy and the rest of the Dutch Oven Gang
Ron and Kathy Fowler
Mary and Jodi in Rising City
Greg and Peg Volzke
Junior and his mom in Doniphan
The Ellers
George from Doniphan
Pat and Lee in Stromsburg
Ryan in Giltner
Candy, Jena, and Reed
The Millers: Dennis Jr, Dennis III, Cynthia, Rex, Cindy, and Barbara
Diane and Alicia in Big Springs


A 19th Century Soap Box Derby

Candy Spady with son Reed and daughter Jena
May 27

I tuliped early, whoops wrong flower.   I joined Rex and Cindy for further gabbing over a nutritional breakfast of fried eggs, orange juice, and toast with Cindy's homemade grape jelly.  The hourglass ran out as usual, however, and I had to make my way back to the the trail.
Rex took me over to Candy's, where I dropped off my pack.  Then we headed over to 26.  On the way he told me about the Battle of Blue Creek, which took place a couple miles west of Lewellen in 1855.  Almost ninety Lakota Sioux were slaughtered in retaliation for a smaller massacre of army personnel a few months earlier.   The idea was to send a message and the eight years of peace which followed indicate the plan worked.  At least until the Civil War, when the tribes noticed the barricades were undermanned and the raids recommenced.
Let's talk about me though, we don't do enough of that here.  I crossed the North Platte (the river split for good east of the town of the same name, citing irreconcilable differences) and headed into the sand hills.  These giant sand dunes covered with a smattering of green fuzz provided yet another barrier between the pioneers and their Beverly Hills mansion.
One particularly notorious mound was Windlass Hill. Wagon brakes could not handle the steep defile and the wild ride down often resulted in major damage to the carts.  Ash Hollow beneath was often a fury of activity as repairs were made to the smashed vehicles.  The adjacent cemetery suggests the descent did not do wonders for those suffering from cholera, dysentery, and other butt hole-related disorders.
Five miles on Candy showed up with her kids Jena and Reed as well as my backpack.  Jena walked with me a couple hundred yards, becoming the youngest companion I've had on the trip.  We then went back to Ash Hollow State Park, where Candy treated us to a picnic lunch of hamburgers, potato salad, and fruit salad.  The repast was slightly tastier than the pack of Spam I had planned to devour.
We then went over to the museum, where Jena pointed out that if they wanted you to wear a shirt and shoes, shouldn't they also want you to wear pants?  
We split up around two and I made the last nine miles to Big Springs in three hours.  On the morning of June 4, 1965 the sleepy village of five hundred souls was the victim of a shocking crime.  Duane Earl Pope, a college student with no previous criminal record, entered the Farmers State Bank and successfully held up the operation for $1600.  Not satisfied, he shot all five of those present, killing four and paralyzing the other for life.  He was apprehended only two days later, but his violent act still reverberates here fifty years later.

21 miles/2285 total miles

The Most Unlikely Place

May 26

Dennis Miller Jr. and Cynthia dancing at the Most Unlikely Place
Mist covered Lake McConaughy as my steps took me away from her shore.  Yesterday's beauty was now shrouded from view.  The wind was perfectly still, I had to wonder if Nebraska had stopped breathing.
A few miles into the hike, I noticed a female turkey sitting ten feet to my left. I assumed at first the bird was another piece of roadkill, but then the head moved.  Why was she refusing to flee?  My presence had to have been detected.  A small form emerged from beneath her to clear up all my questions, except for who killed Jimmy Hoffa.
Then came another strange confluence of events.  I was stopped at a railroad crossing when the train came to a halt.  I strongly considered hopping between the stalled cars, but something told me to be patient.  A couple minutes later a pick-up truck pulled next to me and asked where I was headed.  After the usual explanations they invited me to their family's cafe in Lewellen, which was only another mile onward.  The ADT turns left down 26 right before the village and I had been unsure whether the tiny place was worth a visit.  Their invite sealed the deal.
Once inside I was immediately set upon by George, a former state trooper who had been involved in the manhunt for Duane Earl Pope (we'll learn more about his crime tomorrow).  George was from Doniphan and recognized me from the article in their paper.  He asked me to join him and his brother Daryl, who were having lunch with their wives, whose names I would remember if not for a storage capacity malfunction in my brain.
The owner, Dennis Miller Jr., whom I had met earlier at the crossing came by and gave a history of the place.  The building had once been utilized as a theater, school, community center, basketball court, playhouse, warehouse for the KKK, and grocery store before its present status as a cafe/art gallery.  A comedian whose name slips my mind would have commented that the edifice had more more uses than Lucrezia Borgia's hoo-hah.
Next I met wife Cynthia, who added her name to the long list of people who think I'm from Delaware. She was worried about the busy night ahead.  The small operation was going to have live music and there were already fifty people on the books, which was a lot for her and server Leticia to handle alone.  I offered my services as a grizzled veteran of the restaurant arts.  She accepted, unconcerned at my less than fancy attire.  Cynthia showed up later in roller skates, giving me the idea I had fallen into a laid back gig.
I started the evening as galley slave under the direction of Chef Candy.  I prepared the salad ingredients while the Chadron St. graduate (alma mater of Don Beebe and Danny Woodhead for you football fans) fixed the meatloaf and a baked mash potato dish topped with corn flakes I dubbed "redneck hashbrowns."  The meal went smashingly (I helped with service as well) and I really enjoyed Candy's company, even if I was extremely jealous of her six trips to Alaska.
After dinner I was introduced to Cindy, Dennis Jr's brother Rex's wife.  Son Alex had ridden from Tacoma to Portsmouth, New Hampshire via bike and has subsequently traveled much of the world.  She knew the worry of having a son out there all alone.  She swiftly offered a bed for the night.
Following the obligatory weekly shower to make myself palatable to the rest of mankind, we sat down to exercise our tongues.  Cindy and Rex wear many hats.  She works with a choir and as a medical professional.  He is an organic farmer and carpenter.  They played together in an Irish Folk band as well, Cindy on vocals and Rex on guitar.
The hour grew late too soon and I said good night.  I couldn't have been happier to end up in such an unlikely place.

10 miles/2264 total miles

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Chocolate Retina

Cedar Vue Campground at Lake McConaughy

May 25


Before I even arose things were not going well.  Seems I had parked my tent in the same spot as the avian latrine.  On three occasions I was dive-bombed, the poop projectiles finding purchase on the screen, but not puncturing my inner domain, thank God.  The situation worsened before dawn, when a starry sky was replaced by rain clouds.  I had enough warning to apply the fly; however, I did have to batten down the hatches until nine A.M., when a break in the weather allowed me to decamp.
The woeful early morn was quickly forgotten as I climbed to the rim of the reservoir and gained my first view of Lake McConaughy.  I admit, I haven't used the word scenic to describe Nebraska too often, but in this case little else in our diction would better fit.  The walk was a joy.  The huge lake is nearly twenty five miles from east to west and Highway 92 bobs and weaves across the northern hills, following like a puppy dog.  The mind is left to wonder what will be found at the next crest and the result is often spectacular.  The lighting on this day could have won an Academy Award, the partly cloudy sky opening enough to allow the occasional ray in, illuminating the green and brown hills, the clear blue water, and the white beach.  Some serious eye candy. 
Alas, the thrill could only last so long.  By late afternoon the menace of precipitation had closed in again.  I was forced to hide in my hobbit hole once more. 

15 miles/2254 total miles

Why the Wind Blows

The inescapable Sutherland Irrigation Canal

May 24


I was back on the ADT again soon after leaving Paxton.  Start placing your bets on how long til I divert.  If you picked three miles you were right!  The Sutherland irrigation canal, which I was supposed to follow, twisted and turned too much for my liking.  The straight westward route of the country road to my north looked a whole lot more appealing so I jumped on it the first chance I got.  There never was a sign saying what the road was called so when a farmer stopped next to me I thought to verify my plan of action with him.
"You lost or just crazy?" the farmer asked.
"I'm hiking cross country," I answered.
This response seemed to fit into one of those categories and he nodded.
"Am I headed the right way to Lake Ogalalla?" I queried.
"Pretty much son.  This road hits into that irrigation canal yonder (he points at the path I'd just left), which goes on a few miles til you run into an oil slick road - head north on that and you'll come to the lake road."
His advice turned out to match the ADT directions.  My wanderlust foiled, I was on the trail once more.  If you are wondering, oil slick apparently means black top in Nebraskese.
The main impediment today has been my nemesis for much of the length of Nebraska.  Whatever direction I went, whether west or north, the wind was always pushing against me, forcing every step to be earned.  At home we call sustained gusts like these hurricanes; Cornhuskers dub them an average day.
Despite nature's resistance, territory was gained slowly and steadily until four o' clock, when I reached Lake Ogalalla.  Another few steps closer to the end. 

21 miles/2239 total miles

Animal Rites

Polar Bear trophy at Ole's

May 23

Nichole showed up about 8:30 at the reservoir and quickly went about solving my other problem.  She had noticed my tired, stooped walk and diagnosed more than pure fatigue in my stride.  As it turns out, Nichole was formerly a massage therapist who quit the business because too many customers in her small town expected a happy ending.  We did a stretching routine designed to realign my neck, shoulders, and back. 
After Nichole and I shared breakfast at Ozzie's 30, I headed west once more.  Thanks to her ministrations I felt better than I had in weeks. 
The ADT rejoined me in Sutherland, but broke off again on its way to Sarben.  I had heard too much about a place in Paxton to possibly pass up the opportunity to see for myself.
Ole's (Oh-lees) Big Game Steakhouse and Lounge opened in 1933 as Prohibition ended.  The owner was an avid hunter and over the next forty years he amassed an amazing trophy collection, two hundred examples of which found their way into the restaurant.
The collection is not meant for the hard core animal rights activist.  Represented within are several endangered species (legally hunted at the time).  An enormous polar bear greets you at the door like a giant middle finger pointed directly at PETA. 
I tried the Rocky Mountain Oysters, which come not from the ocean, but the nether regions of a recently unmanned bull.  They were sensibly served with a cocktail sauce, although I would have preferred something a little creamier. The meat was thinly sliced, fried, and tasted like a mix between chicken and country-fried steak. 
The rest of my evening was testicle-free.  Hmm that makes me sound like a eunuch.   I relaxed and read in the park, then drifted off to sleep listening  to the dulcet tones of Type O Negative singing "I Know You're F***ing Someone Else."  Sweet music even soothes the savage hiker. 

13 miles/2218 total miles

Spinning Wheels

Oregon Trail monument at the Sutherland library

May 22

Screeching and clacking noises coming from the railyard accompanied my exit from North Platte.  The eerie sounds reminded me of the score to a John Carpenter movie.  I was on edge.  Suddenly, I glimpsed a flash of white in the corner of my eye.  I yelped a quick, "No!" as a blur flew behind me and rolled into the ditch like a professional stuntman.  So much for docile dogs.  Unfazed, the thing hopped up and jogged back to his home across the street.
Further on, shortly after passing Hershey (which I was sad to see was not made out of milk chocolate - now I know how Coronado felt), I saw a unique sight.  Bent over his pack, fiddling with his straps, was another hiker.  Not since parting from Swagman in Maryland have I met a like-minded soul. 
Charles was headed east from Fort Collins to Wisconsin so he could help an Indian tribe there install solar and wind generators.  He was utilizing a device which carried his sack on two wheels and was willing to hitch but wasn't soliciting.  Charles also seemed to be stuck in an acid trip from circa 1968.  His speech was repetitive as he rambled along about a series of projects he was involved in to end dependence on fossil fuels.  His motives were pure - I pray mind and body were still enough in touch with planet Earth for him to pull off his plans.
I appeared in Sutherland an hour after our talk.  The hills here were one of the major obstructions on the Oregon Trail.  The wagon wheels slipped and slid in the shifting sands, unable to gain purchase.
Upon viewing the city park where I had hoped to stay, I worried I might be left spinning my own wheels.  With the heart of downtown on one side and train tracks on the other it was hardly the ideal spot.  The Oregon Trail Campground, which Google placed there, was nowhere in sight.  My back had been killing me all day; I could not go much further than the twenty miles I had already traveled. 
I marched into the library unsure of my next step.  As has happened on a few occasions, the librarian was my heroine.  Nichole greeted me warmly and took only moments to get to the heart of my predicament.  She made some calls and weighed all the possibilities.  When all was said and done she took me down to the Oregon trail Campground - which was located three miles south at the Sutherland reservoir.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

A Man Not For Our Time

Buffalo Bill's ranch in North Platte
May 21

North Platte is a railway town.  The Golden Spike tower looms eight stories over Bailey Yard, the largest rail yard in the world.  In the wild 1860s passage for the line seemed impossible.  Giant herds of buffalo stretched for miles and angry Indians blocked the way, unwilling to give up their ancestral hunting grounds.  One man gained fame helping to remove these impediments to progress. 
The way we view history evolves over the decades and centuries as society's morals and belief systems change.  Buffalo Bill is a prime example, a hero in his time.  Cody was a marksmen, scout, Indian tracker, a master showman and is said to have put on the first rodeo, held in North Platte in 1882.  His prowess as a tracker helped the Federal Army find and capture the last of the intransigent tribesmen in the region.  His ability as a marksmen allowed him to help eliminate the once innumerable buffalo from the plains, nearly exterminating the Native American's greatest resource and gaining him the moniker "Buffalo Bill." 
Cody's fame was solidified by his "Buffalo Bill Cody Wild West Show" which introduced the east coast to the excitement of the frontier.  The proceeds from the Wild West Show allowed him to build a ranch called Scout's Rest in North Platte. 
We view Cody and his ilk differently in the light of modernity.  The buffalo hunts were hugely wasteful and came close to wiping out the species.  Only the pelt was taken from a beast the Native Americans used in numerous ways, the rest was left to rot. 
The cowboy is no longer necessarily viewed as the bringer of justice to the savage frontier.  The Sioux and others are seen as innocent victims of manifest destiny run roughshod.  Some scholars even describe the Indian Wars of the 1870s as genocide.  Without doubt moving them to reservations brought the death of the old ways.  Cody's biography is inextricably linked with these crimes.
Sometimes I feel like a pioneer myself, walking the old trails, sleeping outside, eating really crappy beef jerky that could easily be confused with cow manure.  Not tonight, since I spent a few hours dawdling in the A to Z bookstore, making friends with Sharon and her cat Dickens.  By the closing hour a wicked black cloud loomed and the news suggested more hail was on the way.  I chickened out and found El Cheapo Motel and booked a room.

15 miles/2185 total miles  




Monday, May 21, 2012

Random Jottings from the Road

May 20

Outside of spending a few minutes talking to a taciturn Canadian biker from Toronto to Denver, today was rather uneventful.   Even the golf tournament taking place at Wild Horse, Nebraska's top course located west of Gothenburg, lacked excitement.  No Tiger Woods lapsing into sex addiction, no John Daly and his Hooter's Express, and no patrons cross-checked by the admittedly fictional Happy Gilmore.
With no earth-shattering events as I passed Brady and landed in Maxwell, we will go with some b-sides, a few random thoughts about Nebraska I haven't been able to fit in elsewhere.

1. Cottonwood fluff is everywhere.  Pillow companies should consider the seed casings as a cheap replacement for their regular stuffing.  Dr. Colonel McGillicuddy suggests pollen sufferers could use the head rest as a cure designed to overcome their allergy by means of massive exposure.

2. We've talked about H2O in its many forms and uses recently, but I haven't mentioned the source of Nebraska drinking water.  The Ogallala Aquifer, a massive underground repository of Bobby Boucher's* favorite liquid, stretches from South Dakota south to Texas, quenching thirsts in seven states, including Nebraska.

3. I've just missed nearby Fort McPherson in recent days.  In my attempts to mimic the Fox News "fair and balanced" format, I've talked only so far of white men massacred by Native Americans.  Both sides committed atrocious acts, however, and few were worse than the killing of unarmed women and children at Wounded Knee in South Dakota.  Eleven of those dead are buried at the McPherson cemetery.

4.  Finally we have our nominee for biggest buffoon in Nebraska.  Residents of the state will be relieved to know he was from Washington DC.  Citizens of other states will be unsurprised.  I was discussing the rash of snake sightings in the area with the Pony Express station's curator and I suggested the warm winter had spared more of the animals than usual.  This moron chimes in, "I doubt it, they are cold-blooded." Granted I was a C science student but even I know cold-blooded means that snakes and other reptiles have no internal heating mechanism, unlike warm-blooded mammals and birds.  That's why we see them more in hot places like the Amazon and the Everglades and not in Canada and Antarctica where there would not be enough sun to heat their bodies.  This man would have Santa riding behind a sleigh driven by pythons.  Earning my nickname Quick Draw McGrawCandless I said none of these things, merely standing mouth agape as the buffoon smugly departed.

21 miles/2170 total miles

*Even if you didn't know my sex you could probably guess it after two Sandler references.  

American Goth

The Pony Express station in Gothenburg
May 19

The threat of afternoon storms and the promise of a picturesque place to spend the night led me to cut today's trek short at a mere ten miles. Gothenburg took only a few hours of roadwork to reach, so I had plenty of time to look around.
Settled by Swedes and then overrun by a blitzkrieg of Germans, in its earliest days the town was a stopping point on the Pony Express. Few places are better examples of why you should not trust what you see from the highway.  Along 30 are rundown-looking bars and gas stations, but if you penetrate a few blocks deeper onto Lake Avenue you will find a majestic tree-lined boulevard and a neighborhood teeming with well-preserved, century old stately homes.
At 15th street you can find Ehman Park and the Pony Express station.  A famous if short-lived operation, the Express was a private company which delivered mail between St Joseph's, Missouri and Sacramento, California.  Riders would take a horse ten to fifteen miles before stopping at the next post, where a Nascar-style pit stop would outfit them with a new mount and have them on their way in two minutes.  The humans were given a break every 75-100 miles, when a new mail carrier would take over.  Correspondence could reach Sacramento in only ten days, but the price was prohibitive.  Few except the United States government could afford the service,   Even so the owners lost one hundred thousand dollars in only eighteen months before their debts and the completion of the Overland Telegraph  forced them to cease operation in 1861.
Across from Ehman Park I found the Gothenburg museum.  Inside I learned about Lake Helen, where I will stay tonight. The reservoir, the largest in Nebraska at the time of its contruction in 1891, was integral to the town's growth.  Helen provides irrigation for farming as well as electricity and water for home and industrial uses.  Before the invention of refrigeration the wintery ice was removed in blocks and shipped off for use as coolant.
Chunks of ice greeted me as I arrived at the adjacent Lafayette Park.  The threatened storm had indeed appeared and I ducked underneath a shelter in the nick of time, thus avoiding a torrent of hale, followed by a heavy downpour.  After the initial blow I found a gap in the weather to set up the Half Dome.  I snuggled inside for a long night of rain and wind.

10 miles/2149 total miles 

Just Another Victim

Passing the 100th Meridian in Cozad
May 18

A tasty bacon and cheese omelet courtesy of Kathy brightened my morning.  My excitement was tempered as the moment of goodbye grew near.  The journey would be a whole lot less grueling physically and psychologically if there were more trail angels like the Fowlers, but their rarity does allow me to appreciate them all the more.
I shan't grouse further or even talk in much detail about that species of bird, which ambushed me only a couple of miles past the lake.  The trail dragged me on as usual, lollygagging, dilly-dallying, and tomfoolery will never get me to the Pacific and they would have gotten me a demerit in Ms. Draw's first grade class.
Thirteen miles in I parted company with the American Discovery Trail.  Those who kept up with my travels last year will wonder what took me so long.  We will be apart for a few days as I seek exposure in the towns along Highway 30.  People seem to be more receptive to the Wounded Warrior Project than the farm animals who make up the majority of the population on the ADT route south of the Platte.
I am still tracing the path of the pioneers.   Many wagon trains forded the Platte here and to the west.  The river splits into two channels and sometimes more here, resulting in a shallower depth to wade through.  In fact, had I not chosen the drier bridge option I would have been unlikely to dampen my knees.  The reservoirs and canals which irrigate the surrounding area have sucked much of the volume away.
I should relate one other event which happened shortly before I reached the Platte.  As I walked on Highway 21 a truck pulled up a hundred yards ahead.  The driver dropped a bag on the ground, hopped back in, and drove away.  When I reached the spot I found a Whopper value meal from Burger King.  I had become the willing victim of a random act of kindness.
Upon crossing to the north bank of the river I entered Cozad.  At Meridian Street I reached the 100th meridian.  I have now traveled 25 degrees of the earth's surface since Delaware.  If everyone could donate one million dollars for each degree I have trod I could reach my fund-raising goal by yesterday.
Cozad's other claim to fame is the painter Robert Henri of the (tr)ashcan school of art.  His original last name is actually Cozad - his parents founded the town in 1871 after leaving Cozaddale, Ohio.  Clearly in love with himself, Robert's father John was not as fond of fellow rancher Alfred Pearson, whom he shot and killed.  Things got hot and John took off for Denver.  Henri sounded a lot better, than son of the murderer, so the young painter changed his name, along with other family members.  The young town, on the other hand, chose to stick it out as Cozad. If you'd like to see what kind of art resulted from this insane background check out some of Henri's work at the site for the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.
My original plan was to visit an Italian restaurant here recommended by the Fowlers.  The late lunch I was gifted, combined with a later trip to Dairy Queen to combat the 90 degree heat left me without further appetite.  I retired to Muny Park on the west side of town for a quiet night - and I actually got one.

18 miles/2139 total miles  

Friday, May 18, 2012

Meet the Fowlers

Ron and Kathy Fowler at their home on Johnson Lake
5/18

I spent my first rest day of 2012 at the home of Ron and Kathy Fowler.  Even so there was a little bit of forward momentum.  After enjoying some waffles Ron had cooked for breakfast I knocked out the three miles between the Cenex station and my hosts' home. 
The Fowlers are recent retirees in their late 50s whose working lives took place in Kearney.  They decided to move out to Johnson Lake, where Ron's family had long owned property, when they realized working for the man was a terrible way to spend their lives. 
Sitting on the patio furniture and drinking pina coladas is not in their nature, however, so both of them have kept very busy out at the Lake.  Kathy works for the Lexington Chamber of Commerce (the reason for her absence at breakfast) and Ron is a key member of the Johnson Lake Biking and Hiking Trails committee.  A path already exists on the western half of the reservoir, but Ron is working to make sure riders can safely circumnavigate the body of water in its entirety.  In addition, he has put up signs for the ADT all through Gosper County.  Next door Dawson County has so far refused permission for him to do the same there. 
Also on our tour I learned from Ron that Johnson Lake is used for irrigation and also provides some electricity.  The lake was constructed in 1939 and integrated into the Tri County Canal.  The whole system is operated by Central Nebraska Power and Irrigation.
The lake is named after George Johnson, the head engineer on the project.  The company donates significant funds each year for the Johnson Lake Chamber to use towards improvements on the property.  
Once our whirlwind tour was over, we went next door to the house of Dick.  A neighbor of Ron's, Dick is also working hard towards the improvement of the bike trails.  Tonight was Mallard Cove's Thirsty Thursday, an event which involved the kind of licentious behavior I don't care to discuss within the realm of these pages.  We'll just say I was forced into a primitive male bonding ritual involving Manwiches and copious amounts of Crown Royal.
My arrival at Ron and Kathy's could not have come at a better time.  I was in need of a relaxing day after going a bit overboard yesterday.  I could feel my sore body healing as the hours passed by and the pack stayed safely stored away in their basement.  Thank you just doesn't seem like a strong enough phrase to explain my gratitude. 

If you'd like to contribute to the Johnson Lake trails project:
Johnson Lake Trail Fund
PO Box 422
Lexington NE 68850
 or contact me at alastair81@aol.com for Ron's info

3 miles/  2121 total miles

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Purty Dirty Thirty

May 16

I left Sandy Channel early in the morning thinking I would have an easy day, with Johnson Lake a bit outside of the usual mileage target.  My legs had other ideas.  Maybe I would stop at the Williamsburg Church.  Too soon, my legs spoke, keep on moving.  Maybe I could stealth camp behind the Plum Creek Cemetery.  The area was wooded with soft ground and included a rare treasure on the Plains: shade.
My legs again demurred.  Perhaps they were a bit superstitious.  The cemetery commemorated one of the greatest massacres carried out on the drive west.  Cheyenne and Arapaho Indians attacked a group of sixteen pioneers, killing the thirteen men and taking the two children captive.  One woman, Mrs. James Smith, was able to hide in the cattails and evade the attackers.  The survivors fared only slightly better than those already dead.  Mrs. Smith is said to have spent the rest of her days in an asylum, her mind unable to cope with the terrible things she had seen.  Danny Marble, the boy captive, was ransomed by the Indians, only to die of typhoid fever before his father could retrieve him.  Only young Nancy Morton survived to record the tragic events for posterity.
Past Plum Creek I began to run into the Tri-County Canal.  The area west of Kearney was thought by 19th settlers to be unfit for agriculture due to a lack of precipitation.  The local Burlington Northern was not extended in that direction.  As a result, the area saw little development until 1934, when the pains of the Great Depression caused the state government to try to ease the plight of the Central Nebraskan farmer.  The result was the Tri-County Canal, designed not to facilitate commerce like other canals I've visited, but rather to supply water for agricultural irrigation.
The waterway looked rather peaceful and by now I was twenty miles in and desirous of a nap by the side of the road.  My legs would not let me, continuing onward regardless of my complaints.  By six I reached the road just south of Phillips Lake Recreation Area.  A seemingly unused park, I had been able to find little information online regarding camping and facilities.  The road shown on Google Maps didn't even seem to actually go into the park.  With my water supply low, this time my brain concurred with my legs and we headed further west.
By now I was only a few miles from Johnson Lake.  I wasn't scheduled to reach the home of my hosts, Ron and Kathy Fowler, until tomorrow.  I didn't want to surprise them unannounced, but my phone could not hold a signal.
Around eight o'clock I finally reached the entrance to the lake.  My legs had finally quit, ever ounce of stubbornness  drained by the thirty mile journey.  I entered the Cenex gas station and inquired within if anyone knew the Fowlers.  The woman at the register did and dialed them up for me.  Ron answered and I told him of my strange inability to stop.  He took my early arrival in stride and offered to come pick me up from the Cenex.  The longest mileage day yet was over.

29 miles (first mile was off trail)/2118 total miles      

Thanks for recent donations from:
Ron Smith

A Nebraskan Safari

Oriole at Sandy Creek Campground
May 15

I'm no Ranger Rick.  Wild life has to come up and gnaw me on the ankles for me to notice its presence.  The swath of green between myself and the Platte holds enough biodiversity to guarantee I would be bitten.
Woodpeckers, a type of duck I had never seen before, and a bright orange oriole made up the aerial attack.  A raccoon and a muskrat were among those I met who were reclining in rigor mortis.  Immobile animals in a state of decomposition are easy for even me to spot.
I've seen plenty of dead deer already since my return to the trail, but today brought the first living specimen.  As I rested by the side of Country Road 247 a doe hopped through the field to my south, reaching the road a mere thirty yards from where I sat.  She stared at me for a few seconds, looked both ways for traffic, and went on her merry way, back to the woods lining the river.
On the domesticated front, the dogs here seem to be more docile than those in the east.  The two I met today followed me along their property line, never barking or looking the least bit threatening.  They appeared merely curious.  What is this humanoid organism with the huge purple growth on the backside?
I had extended interaction with only one homo sapiens the whole day.  The Sandy Channel campsite was mostly deserted, but James found me resting by the water and soon was telling his tale.  His father had abandoned their family when James was still young.  He and five siblings were raised by his mother alone.  Yet somehow failure or prison never claimed him.  For twenty years he has run a successful construction company while raising his one son, a navy vet poised to enter the San Diego police force.
What happened in between to save James, to prevent the fate I fear for Junior?  James left too soon, before I could find out, before I could think of the right question to ask.
While I sat in the tent composing this entry, an oriole flew a kamikaze right into the side of my tent.  I wish the answers would come as easily.

16 miles/2089 total miles

Monday, May 14, 2012

The Mad Platter

Historical reenaction of what Fort Kearny did not look like
May 14

Help like the Volzkes gave me the last couple of days is a rare and cherished thing to someone in my circumstances.   The time came this morning to move on - the mission will never be complete if there is grass growing under my feet.  Hence we parted once the pastor dropped me back in Lowell, and I made haste towards the next spot on the map, Kearney.
The path I trod bore the shadows of the migrant movement.  Americans had been urged west and responded in mass, claiming their manifest destiny, ownership of the land beyond the Mississippi all the way to the Pacific.  They followed the Platte River Road on their way to places like Oregon, California, and Utah (reserved for the magic underwear people).
By 1848 a small fort named after General Stephen Kearny sprang up to protect the wagon trains.  Fort Kearny was also a supply depot, providing goods like Dr. Colonel McGillicuddy's Choleraway*, oxen prods, and Chinese servants named Wang. The outpost also served as a stop on the Pony Express and a staging post for expeditions against hostile tribes.
Those looking for a little more excitement could head west to the adobe buildings of Dobytown.  In the mostly treeless prairie many settlers made their homes from sod or adobe.   A place seemingly right out of a Clint Eastwood western, Dobytown had gambling and liquor in abundance.   Outlaws were lured in by the stench of sin, vice, and the blinding whiskey known as tanglefoot.  
Yet again the path of man was changed by the coming of the railroads.  The completion of the Transcontinental Railway moved commerce over to the north side of the Platte and ended the era of the wagon trains.  Within a year Fort Kearny was closed down and Dobytown became a ghost town.
Across the Platte Kearney returned, now with an extra e, becoming an important way station for crops and livestock heading to market from south central Nebraska.  With the outfitting posts south of the Platte long closed, I too headed into Kearney to prepare for the coming expedition to the Pacific.

*McGillicudy is neither a medical professional or an actual army veteran.  Choleraway is guaranteed to either cure cholera or cause death within three days after taking.

14 miles/2073 total miles

There's No I in Xylophone


Christ Lutheran Church
May 13

I attended Sunday School and worship services this morning at Christ Lutheran church, conveniently located about thirty yards from my sleeping bag.  A member of the Missouri Synod, Christ Lutheran was one of the first in the area, founded in 1886.  The attached school, which serves children between first and eighth grades, opened five years later.
Amongst the edifying utterances of the pastor was a particularly appropriate one: a reminder that God desires us to be humble and not to court personal glory.   The urge to say,"I walked across half the country, how super cool, way awesome, and fantastic am I," is ever present.  Certainly I did take the steps myself, but without the help of my family and friends - as well as the assistance of the new friends I've met along the way - I'd be nowhere.
The Volzkes, my current hosts, are a case in point.  They allowed me to slackpack today and, released from my usual burden, I was both able to find the time for church and still complete a fifteen mile trek to Lowell afterward.  The miles of country road slid away in a hurry without the weight of the pack to slow me.
Around five the pastor and his wife retrieved me from Lowell, which, according to the historical marker, was founded in 1871 and began to decline in 1872.  Needless to say there's not much left one hundred plus years later of a town which was once the county seat.  As usual, the railroad was to blame, as we will see during tomorrow's episode.
We returned to their homestead by the church and had a pleasant dinner of Godfather's Pizza.  I felt part of the family as we bantered for a couple of hours about a variety of topics.  For a little while I didn't feel like I was doing this all alone.

15 miles/2059 total miles

Sioux-Sioux-Sioux-di-o

Memorial for the brothers connected at the arrow
May 12

Junior returned to my campsite as I finished the last of my Little Caesar's from the night before.   He had begged his mom to get me some hot food the night before and pleaded with me to accept.  I felt like a jerk for having her drive us out to the store, believe me, but the lad was relentless in his desire to see me fed and comfortable and only a yes would ever end his relentless pursuit of some way to help.
Before parting I gave him my phone number and my business card.  He is scheduled to call on Thursday, which will be his birthday.   Please God let my phone have a signal then.
I've had a lot of difficult goodbyes in the course of this long journey, but none harder than this morning's.  I hope Junior can stay in touch because I will be worrying and wondering about him.
The walk began in quiet contemplation, melancholy and regret dominating my thinking.  Nebraska's pioneer past intervened, jolting me from my doldrums.
I spoke yesterday about the towns of central Nebraska, most of which were founded in the 1870s or shortly thereafter.  What of the years before?   The pioneers of the 1860s and earlier found a land already occupied by tribes such as the Omaha, Winnebago, Santee, and Sioux.  None were pleased to see the newcomers as the white man had gained something of a reputation by then - but the Sioux were especially perturbed.
As a result, the Nebraska frontier at this time was a dangerous and hostile place to live.   The federal government was preoccupied with a small civil disturbance back east and could offer little protection.  The Sioux took advantage.
I saw two examples of their wrath in a matter of miles.  First came the memorial for a young woman murdered in her house, her cold dead hands holding her baby.  A short distance on came the Martin Brothers Memorial.  The two siblings were caught unaware by a Sioux raid and forced to share a horse in a frantic attempt to escape.  An arrow struck one brother, impaling him before entering the second and pinning the boys together.  The newly minted Siamese Twins fell from their horse and were left for dead.  Miraculously, they survived.  Talk about a near death experience bringing you closer!
By the late 1860s the Civil War was over and the United States Army was able to respond to the Sioux threat.  Peace came to Nebraska soon afterward.
For now we return to the present and the never-ending search for a place to put the tent.  My original intention was to stop in Prosser, but upon scoping out the scene I deemed the parkless, churchless, restaurantless village an unlikely place to find success.  There was a sign for a Lutheran house of worship two miles on, which could be easily integrated into my route.  I pursued the option.
The choice turned out to be the correct one as Pastor Volzke lived next door and was glad to let me camp at the church.   He also offered use of the facilities, which included a bathroom and shower.  I was also invited to join the family, which included wife Peg and daughter Laura, for a dinner of cheeseburgers and baked beans.  Those Dutch oven jokes may haunt me yet.
Before dessert the pastor showed me his collection of doves and homing pigeons.   He has over one hundred and fifty of various breeds, many with an interesting genetic mutation which causes feathers to grow on their feet.  One brown pigeon could roll around like a bowling ball in search of pins.  Volzke had recently sold his most prized bird to an emir in Qatar for a hefty sum.
While we enjoyed Peg's banana squares for dessert, the family invited me to s]Sunday School and service the next morning.  In need of some spiritual guidance I was glad to accept.  The pastor's doves sat peacefully atop the church, cooing their approval.

18 miles/2044 total miles      

Am I Going Mentor?

May 11

As often is the case today's action started long after the walking had concluded.  I embarked on a routine straight shot west to Donaphin, situated ten miles to the south of Grand Island and ten to the north of Hastings.  On the way I conducted an interview with Darren from their weekly paper, the Herald.  
 Before I entertain you with stories of personal interaction, I'd thought we'd go over some boring history first.  You should at least be glad that for one day I'm not pretending to be the host of "Alastair Eats His Way Across Nebraska" on the Food Network.
I figure I've been remiss in telling you exactly what the towns since Lincoln are like.  As we've often seen, the railroad deserves the bulk of the credit for the birth of these burgs.  Towns would form at the various stops where farmers brought goods to market.  Wholesalers would gravitate to where the product was and large grain elevators and silos were built for storage.  Stores would pop up to provide services to the farmers, including banks and insurance companies, which would keep the wheels of commerce greased.
These developments took place from 1870 to 1900, when all of my recent destinations were founded.  Many like Stromsburg were settled by immigrants who came to the United States only to find the east coast absent of vacancies.   Almost all of these people were white and if they weren't then they sure are now. Or the black people are adeptly hiding from me.
All of the towns are small in size.  Out of Rising City, Brainard, Shelby, Stromsburg, Marquette, Giltner, Aurora, and Doniphan only Aurora has more than four thousand residents.  Only one or two others even manages a thousand.  Usually there is at most one bar or cafe.
Despite all these similarities my experiences in each have been unique.  Donaphin was no exception.  I struck out at the cafe, where my fellow customers were more interested in losing at keno than in breathing, much less talking.  I then headed out to the city park, where I had permission to camp, hoping to find some friends over there.
Around seven, as I was prepared to concede to a quiet night, a boy named Austin came up and spoke with me, asking if I'd like to kick the soccer ball.  I said yes, wondering how soon until some worried parents swooped in and attacked me.
Supervision never did show up on the scene, but Austin's older brother Junior did.   We ended up talking for a couple of hours after Austin left to join his other friends.  Junior was concerned about me, believing I had no home, no food, and I would be cold out in the tent.  He tried to think of anything he could do to help me out.
The more I learned of his situation the more I became the worried one.  His mother was raising him alone with four other young siblings.  Nothing specific was mentioned, but the father had clearly been a bad seed.  Although his grades were good there was trouble at school - fighting.  Junior felt he was forced to defend his mother's honor from the cruel words he heard in the yard.
There was no doubt this kind-hearted boy was in need of a mentor, some sort of positive male role model in his life.  He was crying out for me to help - but I was leaving.   Never have I been more torn.  How could I leave someone who desperately needed a friend?

12 miles/2026 total miles     


High Plains Hobo

The Sit N Bull Saloon in Giltner
May 10

One of the best/worst features of the Great Plains is the ability to see great distances.  Only four short miles after leaving Aurora I had spotted the water tower of Giltner, which was to be the finishing point for the day's hike.  It is reassuring to know your destination is actually there, but also a tad bit frustrating to never seem to arrive there.
The distance was inevitably covered even with the insistent resistance of the wind, which blew steadily north after I turned south onto the Giltner spur.  Upon reaching the town I made immediately for the Sit N Bull, whose pizza had been recommended to me as far back as forty miles.
I'd gotten reliable intelligence.  Ryan, the restaurant's owner, had lived in New York and spent time in Chicago.  Upon returning to his birthplace of Giltner he created a hybrid of the two city's pizza styles.  His pie has a doughy crust like a New York pizza and a is layered with inches of toppings, similar to the Chicago deep dish.   The result is a cheesy, savory marvel, easily the best tasting pizza I've had on the journey.
While I dined I was interrogated by two middle school age boys at the adjacent table.   They asked a number of well-thought out questions, better than those I get from most reporters.  I'd say they are more than qualified to take the jobs of some of the fools at several of the 24 hour newsless outfits on television.
After the feast and the inquisition I headed to the park to set up for the night.  I sensed trouble as I neared the shelter I had picked out as a proper home on the way into Giltner.  The place was now crawling with youths frolicking about with little apparent supervision.
Why was I worried?  Well, back in Iowa I used to head straight to city hall or the police department to get permission to camp and hopefully activate the town's gossip hot line.  In these small Nebraska towns there is no such apparent center of authority.   I therefore have to find other methods to assure the populace that I'm not some surly predator coming into town to rape the women and eat the children.
My in came when the two lads from the Sit N Bull invited me to shoot some hoops.  After blocking a few of their shots and showing them what's up I headed over to the group of adults that had gathered in an attempt to figure out whether I was a pedophile or a mass murderer.  One of the men was an ex-marine and the other the brother of an army veteran.   They quickly warmed to my cause when I explained the mission.  I would not be lynched or burned alive like Freddy Kruger this night.
Later on, I drifted quietly off to sleep, feeling safe and secure.  Suddenly, a noise jolted me from my slumber.  Someone was next to the tent.  I thrashed out with my legs in the most useless example of self-defense since Poland vs. Germany in 1939.  I turned to face my assailant, only to find Ryan and a friend barreled over laughing at my expense.  They had come down to donate a portion of the Sit N Bull's profits from the evening to the Wounded Warrior Project.
"Don't forget Giltner," Ryan yelled back as the two faded into the night.
I certainly won't forget the generosity of Giltner - or the stain I now have in my shorts.

14 miles/2014 total miles 


Aurora Australis

Saloon on Aurora's main street at the Plainsmen Museum
May 9

I advanced south today on Highway 14, down to the city of Aurora.  Failing to go in much of a westerly direction is often frustrating, as I have alluded to ad nauseum, but the amenities of my destination made the trek worthwhile in this case.
The mileage also brought me to a major milestone, as I passed over 2,000 total for the last year.  I celebrated by taking a half-day, arriving at in town by noon.  On the way in I'd observed the aerial displays of a crop duster, who sprayed the fields to my east with pesticide whilst skillfully dodging telephone wires.  I'll let you know if there are any harmful effects associated with inhaling the chemicals.  The third nipple growing on my neck is probably merely a coincidence.
With the early arrival I had plenty of time after completing my errands to indulge in a rare treat: a trip to the museum.  The Plainsmen Museum and Edgerton Explorit Center (named after the local man who invented the stroboscope a.k.a. the strobe light).  turned out to be a gem.  The outstanding collection of local artifacts from the era of the early pioneers up to the 1950s  was barely able to fit in two large warehouses.  Although Aurora is a town of merely 5,000 inhabitants, there was nothing tiny about this treasure haul of history.
Most memorable was "Main Street" which re-created a vast and intricate view of life in Aurora at the turn of the 20th century.  Full-sized shops including a saloon, barber's, hardware store, doctor and dentist offices, post office, etc. were all furnished and stocked with period items.
The second warehouse held the agricultural artifacts.  Equipment dating back to McCormick's famous reaper, which eliminated hours of back-breaking manual labor, filled the room.
Roger was in charge of this wing of the museum and he painstakingly described what each piece had been used for and how it was operated.  As I am a city boy with virtually no mechanical aptitude to boot, his patience was put to a stern test.  Luckily, a glacier would seem to be in a rush compared to Roger.
I was more in my element at the Delevan Bates house next door.   A Union general during the the Civil War, Bates was also one of the earliest settlers of Aurora, arriving one year after the town was founded in 1871.  A decorated soldier, Bates participated in many of the main battles with the Army of Northern Virginia, including Gettysburg.  In 1864 he was appointed to command one of the first all black regiments.  He fought together with them at Petersburg, although the battle was not to be one of Bates' greatest moments.  The union was routed as General Grant's plan to explode mines under the Confederate earthworks and then charge into the resulting gap turned into a fiasco.
A few years after the end of the war Bates took up his residence in Aurora.  His command experience made him a natural candidate for local office and he became an important local politician as well as a business leader.   He served on the school board, was vice president of the bank, and even spent two terms as mayor.  Through his influence the county courthouse was built as well as the memorial park and bandstand.  The general even secured land for a cemetery, where he was later buried.

11 miles/2000 total miles
 

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Jacked up on Polaroids

May 8

"Quiet in here today," the bartender muttered, "although pretty typical for a Tuesday I guess."  She astutely summed up my day as well.  The routine seventeen miles from Polk to Marquette was bereft of any interesting run-ins.
The Don't Care Bar and Grill was the only surprise of the day.  At the north side of a tiny, hard-scrabble little farming town (as if there is another kind out here) the restaurant seemed out of place with its brick interior, polished oak bar, and set of expensive guitars hanging on the walls.  Half Marquette's population could fit inside the roomy interior.  The food was exceptional too - I tried the Idaho Nachos, french fries topped with ground beef, cheese, sour cream, salsa, and olives, which made up what has to be the largest mountain in Nebraska.
Outside of a short chat with a biker (of the motorized variety) from Aurora I didn't learn much from the locals.  Which brings me to another point I took from the bartender's comments.  I am only seeing one side of Marquette, a single snap shot in time.  The place would be quite different on a weekend without a doubt.  Or I could have arrived on a Sunday with it closed.  I meet merely a tiny slice of even the small villages' populations and try to pass judgment or sum up a place during my brief encounter with the place and its people.    Perhaps I'm not seeing as much as I think.

17 miles/1989 total miles

Thanks to recent donors:

Dennis Goldsberry
Mike and Jennifer Kalbaugh
Pat and Lee in Stromsburg
Wanda in Stromsburg
Mary from Rising City
The Ellers
Joe in Rising City
Frank and Evelyn from Grand Island, NE

Do Donkeys Eat Lutefisk?

May 7

Starved for contact with my friends and family after days without phone service or internet access, I charged out of Osceola with the quickness of a hare rather than my usual tortoise pace.  I made Stromsburg by ten. The library did not open until one of course.
With the next likely library forty miles distant I decided to wait things out in the doughnut shop.  There I met owners Pat and Lee and learned something about the town.
Stromsburg is known as the Swede Capital of Nebraska.  The town was settled originally by a Swede from the region of Stromsburg,  thus the name.  The language has all but disappeared (Lee recalled his grandfather still spoke some) but the culture has remained via the cuisine.  Swedish meatballs, lutefisk, and a bread pudding I can't possibly even begin to spell correctly are all served at the annual Midsommer Festival.  Both professed not to much care for lutefisk, which is soaked in lye to preserve the fish and then drained of the lye slowly so as not to poison the consumer.  What remains is a gelatin-textured mass only loosely recognizable as fish.  Yummy!
Examples of Swedish architecture and language still persist in Stromsburg
While I ate a bunza, Pat's clever way of not getting sued by the Runza company, the couple told me about another hiker who had come through the years or so ago.  He was walking, but using a donkey to carry his gear and he wore sandals instead of hiking or tennis shoes.  At first I was jealous of his light load, but then I pondered the logistical implications of using a beast of burden.  Did he have to avoid big cities?  I can't imagine rolling through Omaha with a farm animal.  What does the donkey eat?  Where can he sleep at night?  The towns I visit probably wouldn't want donkey crap all over their nice clean parks.
By then the library was open and I said my goodbyes.  Typing a few days worth of journals took some time as I am barely past the hunt and peck method in my keyboarding skills.  Leaving Stromsburg at three, I would be hard-pressed to make Polk by nightfall.  Fortunately, my afterburners were in fine form and I jetted along, arriving just as the sun begin to peak over the western horizon.  I was even able to get enough bars on my phone to speak with my brother for a while.  For a moment the loneliness of the road melted away.

19 miles/ 1972 total miles

Monday, May 7, 2012

Ennui

May 6

A night spent in an actual bed and I awoke refreshed.  The huge breakfast of sausage, hash browns, eggs, and toast courtesy of my host didn't hurt matters any. 
The day was uneventful except for a short visit from Mary, who offered to pick me something up at the convenient store.  The long arm of Rising City love strikes one last time. The day was passed again solely on Highway 92, between Rising City and Osceola.  Besides a short pit stop in Shelby I motored on rather efficiently, finishing before three.
Osceola is inexplicably named after the Seminole Indian who was the last to resist eviction from Florida.  He fought a guerilla war for survival, hiding in the Everglades from 1832 until 1837 when he came in to negotiate a truce and was promptly arrested by the always trustworthy white man.
The town named after the poor bastard is the Polk county seat and has seen three governors born there during its history. I'd name them but I don't want to sound like a show off. 
I spent the rest of my day bouncing between Terry's Ice Cream shop, the IGA, Casey's and the Park trying to stave off boredom.  I failed. 

13 miles/1953 total miles

The Sour and the Shower

Cinco de Mayo

The morning brought the saddest sight I have yet had on this trip.  Two miles south of David City I spotted a dead possum ahead.  Nothing unusual, after nearly 2000 miles I've become inured to the ubiquitous carnage on our nation's busier highways. The little gray rat I noticed squeaking a few feet away managed to turn my blood cold.  For the tiny mammal was no rat - the corpse in front of me was a mother.  Two other babies had also somehow survived the collision and become orphaned, an almost certainly fatal condition given their young age.  With no cel signal I could do little and my hopes of a passing sheriff's car were in vain.  Not the best way to start a day. 
I traveled west towards Rising City under a cloud, which only dissipated when I met Rick Grubaugh. A Remax Realtor returning home from an open house, Rick stopped to chat - as a big supporter of a local leukemia foundation he was a big fan of the idea behind my walk.  He had previously lived in Rising City and immediately hit the phone book trying to find somewhere for me to stay in the town.  It took several tries, but his persistence paid off and I was promised a safe spot at the park there. 

I made town by two and headed to the Wetlands Bar and Grill for some grub.  Done early for once I was able to befriend Jodi, the bartender, as well as several customers, Joe, Paul and Kelly Eller, and Nancy.  Mary came in later to take over from Jodi and offered to do my laundry at her place down the street. 
During my many verbal exchanges with the fine folks there I learned I am in the middle of Nebraska's tornado alley, not a shocker considering the nightly thunder and lightning shows and huge swings in temperature.  I also learned my best defense is jumping in a ditch.  Armed with that knowledge I've never felt safer.
I left the Wetlands at seven to set up my mobile home under the city's water tower.  The wind had other ideas. As I completed the dome and prepared to stake everything down, a massive gust turned me and the tent into a kite.  As I struggled to remain planted on solid ground, the lady next door invited me to stay at her home.  Her son, along with some friends, had previously promised to help, but I, being an idiot, had refused.  I'd gotten nature's point by that time and accepted her kind offer to escape the nasty weather's upcoming nocturnal return.
Once in her home I was immediately put into a somewhat awkward position.  "I don't know if I feel comfortable with you in the house with my husband gone..."  was followed by, "I can't have you outside in the storm though."  Before I could ask what the third option was she explained her inconsistency and lack of an inner monologue, saying, "I'm a little bit drunk."
Shortly thereafter my discomfort returned when I was asked not to take anything.  I kindly explained that the flat screen probably wouldn't fit in my pack and would be hard to carry to San Francisco.  She seemed reassured. 
Yet after the fits and starts of our first few minutes she and her son did everything possible to make me comfortable.  Food, refreshment, a hot shower, a warm bed, and even a massage chair, what amounted to a spa treatment for the tired hiker.  In Rising City we've found an early front runner for nicest city in Nebraska. 

13 miles/1940 total miles

Play it Again Samaritans

As with ever night storms were never far off, but this time I was spared a visit.  For once I escaped from my cocoon around dawn and made for Loma, covering the five miles by 9:30.  Although only three or four people seem to live in Loma, the town is famous for "To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar," the And You Will Know Them By the Trail of Dead of cinematic titling long-windedness.
The film stars Patrick Swayze and Wesley Snipes as drag queens who travel cross country in an automobile before breaking down in a small town in middle America.  Needless to say we are talking cult classic  amongst the Friends of Dorothy.

Entering Brainard I was expecting to be reminded of another movie, "Fargo," part of which takes place in a city of the same name in Minnesota. Instead I felt like a visitor to the town from "the Children of the Corn," which actually does take place in Nebraska.  In that horror flick the kids take over a town, possessed by some demon force within the fields.  In Brainard I witnessed an over-abundance of parks and playgrounds, then was overwhelmed by a troop of thirty high school aged boys and girls when attempting to enter the Brainard Cafe.
On the way out to Highway 92 I did meet an actual adult (fleeing?) who offered me a ride.  I told him I could not accept but if he saw me off trail on 15 going towards David City to feel free to ask me again. 
Shortly after I hit 92 I had my first meeting with Nebraska law enforcement.  Per usual my license was run for warrants.  Thank God I chose not to traffic heroin in the off-season.  The polite officer also offered a lift.
Only half an hour later a firetruck pulled over.  I wondered if now their department had to run my beleaguered ID. Instead gentleman number three asked me if I'd like a ride to the closest town.
By the time I turned onto 15 the day had turned into a ninety degree scorcher and I was beat.  Now I was hitch legit and begged the hiking Gods my luck with Samaritans would hold.  As I sat on the shoulder finishing a bag of M&Ms the man from Brainard reappeared, along with his wife and two daughters.  They rode me up to David City Park where I collapsed, exhausted.

18 miles/1927 total miles

Mexican Moth Mayhem

5/4

The sky made due on the threats of yesterday, as shortly before midnight the light show recommenced , this time with plentiful waterworks.  The fierce storm kept me up much of the night and when I did finally sleep my near coma lasted until eight, much later than the preferred start time.
Barely awake, I stumbled to the john where I opened the door and was nearly knocked over by a swarm of moths seeking shelter within.  They were even inside the toilet paper rolls and the wave of insects emerging would have surely caused me to void my bowels had I not so recently done so. 
As it turns out these were no local insect, but foreign invaders swept up from Mexico inside the massive storm which caused such devastation only a couple weeks ago.  Known as black cutworm moths, they are a potential menace to Nebraska farmers as well as the American insects whose jobs they are taking.  Is our border truly safe if these pests can ignore our walls, guards, and sensors with such brazen impunity?
I arrived back at the trail an hour after leaving Branched Oak and resumed the northward trek along 79.  I was pleased to see Valparaiso, Spanish for vale of paradise, shortly after one.  The first settlers named the town after the fertile soil and ample rains.  Today Val is known for growing pecans or pee cans as we call them in the South.
Paradise for me was the opportunity to exit the busy highway and actually head west for once.  A delicious hamburger at Val's Tavern was a further bonus, especially when comped by Linda, who has a son in the army who has served in Iraq.  She was very excited to hear about the walk and sympathetic to what Ken's family went through when he was hurt.
After lollygagging at Val's and at the library the pack dragged me back into the woods on the Oak Creek Trail, where I completed a couple of more miles before finding a pleasant spot to camp.  Hopefully moth free....

11 miles/1909 total miles

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Branching Out

Branched Oak Lake
Midnight brought a light show and high winds to my home behind the Cultural Center.  The entire sky shifted between  illumination and darkness like a flickering bulb not quite willing to give up the fight.  My fear of vicious weather never materialized, however, and the whole show ended within an hour.  I woke at seven and met the morning crew, Charlie and Otto, who fixed me up with beverages and some snacks for the road.  Bobby arrived and gave the grand tour, featuring paintings and prints by Native American artist Daniel Soldier, who is currently working on a mural for this summer's big pow wow.
I headed out of Lincoln to the northwest, past the airport on 34 and turned north on 79, which I will follow to the Oak Creek Trail in Valparaiso, by which point I will wonder if I am walking to California or Canada.
By mid-afternoon I reached State Spur 55J and a dilemma.  I could go three miles off trail and camp at Branched Oak Lake Recreation Area or visit Raymond where there was no guarantee of a place to set up the Half Dome (my tent, not something from "Mad Max").
Contrary to what NBC would have you believe, I don't love Raymond so I vowed to head towards the park.  At the general store I met a couple of students from a community college in Lincoln who invited me to join their group at the lake. I accepted and quickly was wrapped in a world of depravity I would know nothing of if I'd not decided to conduct one or two hundred experiments with partying during my late teens and early twenties.  All for the good of science of course.
A week into the resumption of the hike and my emotions have already run the gamut.  I can't even imagine what the coming months will bring. 

15 miles/1898 total miles

Thanks to recent donations from:
Steve Wilson

Boss Hog

The Plains Indian Cultural Center in Lincoln
May 1

Languid was the word of the day Tuesday, which was spent entirely within the confines of Lincoln, Nebraska's capital city.  Lincoln was originally known as Lancaster, but the name was changed to Lincoln in honor of the executed president in 1867.  At the same time the Nebraska territory gained statehood, the capital was moved to Lincoln in a bid to gain favor with those in the south of the state who were considering a bid to become annexed into Kansas. 
 After the longest hike so far I was ready to chill - and the need to do some computer work as well as laundry provided the excuse.  I also communicated with mom, as I had discovered the absence of extra contacts amongst my possessions.  Its pretty much a requirement of my personality that I must forget something of dire importance.
The problem was solved thanks to mom and my optometrist, Dr. Kent Anderson, who donated a six pack to the cause.  My new eye balls are set to met me in Stromsburg on Saturday.
My tasks complete I entered the city center via the Rock Island Trail, the end of which promises to be a shining example of urban renewal.  Once essentially an ugly rain culvert, the creek which runs through downtown is being turned into a lovely park with a small amphitheater as the centerpiece.
Next I turned onto the campus of Nebraska University, where I was kind enough not to mention their terrible record last year against my parents alma mater, Wisconsin, or the blowout bowl loss to South Carolina last January.  I did have ulterior motives, because who wants to become just another statistic of urban violence, the dreaded scourge of our nation.
Ready for lunch, I stopped at the Southwest Pit, a small BBQ joint adjacent to campus.  There were two tables inside and the cooker was out back.  The odds of deliciousness appeared high.  The Pit has a sandwich called the Big Hog, with pulled pork, bacon, cheese, and hot sauce.  A sloppy mess - and I mean that as a sincere compliment - the tower of tasty nearly required me to beg for a fork and knife, but I persevered.  Inducing multiple mouthgasms, the Big Hog is easily the best BBQ I've had outside of Twelve Bones in Asheville.

Sated, I did more languid strolling past Memorial Stadium, home turf of several national champion Husker football squads, and into the North Bottoms section of Lincoln.  Named for the surrounding swamp rather than its resemblance to asses, the area was settled by a group of German refugees who had previously lived in Russia.  The Deutchlanders had moved there when promised free land, no military conscription, and political autonomy.  When the czar opted out of the deal in 1871, Neil Diamond's "Coming to America" popped into their heads and so they did.  They arrived at North Bottoms and carved out a community of their own.
From the American dream I moved on to the American nightmare when I reached the Plains Indian Cultural Center.  Clyde, Bobby, Allen, Frank, and Cody were all amused when I asked if they had a museum, then intrigued when I told them of my mission.  In short order they offered to let me stay on the property.  The beauty of the human spirit never ceases to amaze me on this trip.  After all the natives of our land have endured you would think they would have trust issues by now.  But they let me, a white man, spend the night - and I didn't even have to promise not to steal their land*.
*In all seriousness the Plains Cultural is a non-profit organization dedicated to providing job training, youth programs, housing, family planning, and food services to Native American people in need throughout Nebraska. Contact the center at 402-438-5231 and learn how you can help. 

Special thanks to Dr. Amy McCandless aka Mom and Dr. Kent Anderson's office.
10 miles/1883 total miles

A Fever Only Cow Bell Can Cure

April 30

I rose early and devoured road like strips of bacon along the Mo-Pac, reaching Eagle by eleven.  I spent two hours there immersed in conversation with a group of farmers, including veterans of the Korean and Vietnam "conflicts."  They warned me of the dreaded Sand Hills and regaled me with the sights of Nebraska I could see if I had more transportational flexibility or didn't want to enter Colorado until sometime in the far off year of 2014.
I finally moved out towards Walton at one, arriving there by four.  My original plan was to stop and ask for accommodations at the Lutheran Church.  Instead, feeling frisky, I continued on, finishing the Mo-Pac and entering the outskirts of Lincoln around six.
I had noted on the turn-by-turn the presence of a hotel on 70th street, but when I arrived at the indicated location all I spotted was a Taco Inn.  Since I can not sleep inside a burrito, though the lord knows I want to,  I soldiered onward in the direction of Holmes Lake.  Being a macho man I refused to ask anyone for directions to lodgings or help of any kind, passing through miles of hotel-free Lincoln.
Holmes Lake in Lincoln

By eight thirty as the light faded my inner little boy gained the ascendancy and I asked a couple out playing with their children if there was a place to stay nearby.  Kevin and Tasha used their fancy Smart Phone,  found a Hampton Inn a few miles to the south, and Kevin offered to drive me there.  I could easily walk up 56th the next day and rejoin the trail at tonight's stopping point so I gave his suggestion a hell yes.  Kevin even took me by a Runza so I could pick up dinner - I had forgotten to eat for hours in my overwhelming lust for a place to stay.
There is one more event to report.  After showering I retired to bed where I was immediately wracked by fever and chills.  I shivered uncontrollably if I left the safety of the covers.  When underneath I felt like I was in the midst of an inferno.  A sudden epiphany led me to the culprit: the heating/cooling unit.  I turned the system off and was well within minutes.

20 miles/1873 total miles