West and Back Again

Part 4 of 5
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This is a blog (in 5 parts) on my motorcycle trip west from upstate New York to southern Colorado -- and back -- in June-July 2007.

Thursday, July 12: Exit Colorado (to Ogallala, Nebraska)

"I admire what you're doing. Couldn't do it myself." The short, broad man squinted out of his left eye, leered at me with his right. Despite this oddity he seemed a good fellow.

"It's pretty mellow," I say, "After a week of backpacking it feels downright luxurious in fact. I only do 300 miles a day."

"Yeah, that's a small bike, a small windshield. But nimble!"

We stood in the motel parking lot. He was travelling in a car, with his wife. Flown out from Ohio 3 days before.

"It loves the mountain roads here."

"What you really want is an enduro! Or at least a dual purpose. I've got two Suzuki 650 dual sports back home, and a KTM 250." He looks at me for my reaction. Blank. "Do you know what a KTM is?" he asks.

"No, is that Suzuki's dirt bike line?"

"No, Austrian. The best made."

"Not bad."

"I race the 250's."

I look at him a bit more closely now. Broad and not fat, but he doesn't seem as athletic as I'd expect an offroad motorcycle racer to be. I decide to take this without comment.

"Back in the Finger Lakes there's a lot of great riding," I say.

"Yeah, there is. We've been out there. Beautiful. One of the most underrated parts of the country, really."

"That's the only way I could afford a house there. I hope it stays that way."

In fact I've been finding a lot of underrated parts of the country on this trip.

They had to go meet their group for whitewater rafting, and I needed to get on the road. We bid each other good luck / good vacationing and parted ways.

* * *

I intended to get down out of the mountains before the next cycle of afternoon rains. The area I'd ridden through yesterday was a wide plain between peaks jutting above the snow line. The San Luis -- a giant valley at 8,000 feet. Now I climbed to 9,000, then 9,600, before descending, along the North Fork of the South Platte. This was a rushing torrent, full of standing waves and swelling up past its banks -- the rain yesterday was making its way down.

I made it to and through Denver without any mishaps. Thankfully it was cloudy now, and due to yesterday's storms was much cooler than the 100 degrees I'd met here before. I wasted little time and set course for the upper right corner of Colorado. Big cities are best seen from other vantage points than a motorcycle.

The suburbs fell away rapidly on the interstate -- I had to take it for some 50 miles before picking up the next 2-laner -- and I made steady progress until the storm clouds I thought I'd escaped began brewing on the northern horizon.

As Pirsig points out in Zen and the Art.., you do have some resources on a motorcycle when confronted with rain storms out on the plains. Evasive action for one. You can see the clouds dumping rain from far away, leaving time to plot an alternate route. If there are no convenient roads you can always try to outrun the storm, and if that fails shotgun straight through it quickly (as I had yesterday).

In this case I opted for the "outrun" approach. The front moved north to south above me, and I endeavored to scoot out east before it reached my path. I kept looking to the left, and back, and things were being cut pretty close for a while, particularly when I had to make a gas stop. But in the end I was rewarded for my efforts by not only staying dry, but making good time as well.

I kept running until I hit the Nebraska border. By this time the altitude had dropped from "mile high" Denver down to about 3,200 feet. And the horizon began to clear more convincingly now. I'd always had the idea that Colorado was supposed to have great weather, but my 10 days there had been the worst of the trip. 100 degrees, then rain every day on the hike, and more rain to finish it off. Compared with no rain (knock on wood) anywhere else. I was happy to take my chances outside Colorado.

* * *

I had little energy to ride much further, or even camp, so I got another motel in the first major town I came to, which was "Ogallala". The Ogallala Aquifer, stretching under eight states, had actually been discovered near here and in 1899 was named for it.

* * *

360 miles.

Friday, July 13: Nebraska, Nebraska!

Last night I'd had a cheap but dingy room -- that and pizza for breakfast (don't ask) were enough to cure me of any further desire for motels. Back to camping from here on out.

I loaded up and headed out early, psyched to be on the bike, finally back in the rhythm after two uncertain days of transition. I'd also decided to make this a short day. Yesterday's 360 miles had been taxing, and I had two extra days to work with on my schedule.

Nebraska was beautiful. A completely different part from where I'd been before, but far greener than Colorado had been just the other side of the border, with rolling hills. Occasional irrigated cornfields, but mostly grass. Open country.

I was heading east, and knew I was going down. The Great Plains are a giant tilted table rising up to the foot of the rockies. Mile high at Denver, 3,200 at the Colorado border, 1,000 feet somewhere before Illinois. I thought of an experiment and pulled out my GPS while on the bike, punched to an altitude display.

It read 2,930. I flipped to a couple of other displays, checking my average speed, my location on the map. Then back. 2,929. Curious, I looked at the road. Flat as far as I could tell, as far as I could see. Straight. 2,928.

Now I watched my odometer, the tenths sliding by. I seemed to be losing about 3-4 feet a mile. Close to one in one thousand grade. A thousand miles, 4,000 feet. About right. I looked at the road again -- totally flat. Amazing.

* * *

A couple of times I took side trips on roads saying "to I-80". I-80 was on the other, south, side of the Platte, or actually as I later discovered, the South Platte. A mile or so down took me to a bridge where I'd photograph the river. Despite all the water I'd seen heading down from the Rockies in Colorado, the river here was a lazy expanse consisting mainly of marsh, partly of sandbars, and only a few sinuously winding strands of actual water.

I'd heard about this, but had trouble believing it. The Platte was a major American river, comparable with the Missouri. It was generously endowed with a source in Rocky Mountain rain and snowmelt. Where was the flow?

There seemed to be one answer: the Ogallala Aquifer. My neighbors back home, the Drumms, had told me they figured the water we all drank from our wells came primarily from the stream behind my house. It cascaded out of the rock of the Bucktail gorge onto a softer bed below on the valley floor. The water started being absorbed into the soil here, Dick Drumm maintained, and the stream grew correspondingly less as it crossed my property and then the road, seeping into the ground until it hit bedrock, forming a miniature version of the Ogallala Aquifer in our valley. I had never verified for myself that the stream actually decreased in this fashion (indeed I had trouble believing it), but the maps said it "died" before it reached the lake at the base of our valley. Drumm had lived in this valley for 50 years; I figured he knew his stuff.

So the state of the Platte -- and the Ogallala Aquifer -- were both the result of something I'd been noticing since arriving on the prairie -- no rocks here. I'll have to read up on my geology as to why this is, but the ground is all soil, no stones, rocks, or formations of any kind. That's why the plains are the plains -- rolling hills, formed in some cases by the action of wind in times of dry climate -- sand dunes -- but nothing very high, which would require rock for integrity. The thirsty ground of the prairie drank the water all along the Platte's length. If we could stop the river, it would all drain away into the ground. Spring snowmelt could fill its bed, perhaps, but the rest of the time it lost water, perhaps nearly as fast as new tributaries brought it in.

In New York's Central Park on the other hand you can see the bedrock itself jutting up from the ground. This rich inheritance is the foundation making the great skyscrapers possible. Likewise, the Hudson river, contained entirely within New York State, receives far fewer inputs than the Platte does along even a fraction of its length, yet when it reaches the sea in New York Harbor it's nearly a mile across and deep enough for significant ship navigation.

* * *

Finally, at the city of North Platte, where the North and South Platte forks join together, I left the river and struck northwards into the heart of Nebraska. Altitude started going up again, and the air cooled off. Good.

By lunchtime I'd made it nearly to my destination, Sherman Reservoir State Recreation Area. "Reservoir". This fit an emerging pattern. I was beginning to realize that there were no true lakes on the Plains, for the same reason the Platte was so depleted. The earth drank the water. Every lake I'd seen -- including the enchanting Lake Louise in South Dakota, and regardless of whether it was called a "lake" or a "reservoir", was the result of a dam. Soon I was to find out the purpose of all of this waterworks.

* * *

I'd settled on a campsite and was lounging by my motorcycle in the shade, drinking water and gathering energy to go take a shower, when a long tan RV pulled into the lot, followed by a red pickup truck towing a boat. The RV stopped across from me -- I was the only one in the whole area at the moment -- and the driver slowly got out of his seat and walked back to exit the side door across from me. I noticed the passenger side door in the RV didn't even open, and I wondered whether the driver side did either.

"Hello.. Were you planning to camp here?" he asked, hesitantly. He was late forty / early fiftyish, brownish-grey mustache and hair. Seemed a friendly sort.


"Oh," he said, sounding disappointed and resigned. Then he turned and walked around the side of the RV. He was gone for a good five minutes. I gathered he was speaking with the occupant of the red pickup truck. I worried that when he was done he would get in on the driver side of the RV and drive off. He'd left the side door open.

Presently he came back and apologized for the fact they were going to stay there as well, but also inquired about my parking spot. I'd astutely occupied the only shaded area in the lot.

I told him that, it being a weekend, I expected all kinds of people along sooner or later, and that he was welcome to take my shaded spot when I went to the shower. Truth be stated, this middle-aged couple was much preferable to the marauding teenagers (and twenty-somethings who wished they were teens) who I knew from past experience were wont to descend on rural state parks on weekends, and if the presence of their huge RV kept some of them away, so much the better.

I went and took my shower, then when I got back, they were all set up with the RV in the shade and a picnic table moved behind it. They had little bungee cords with which they held their red and white-checked tablecloth down against the prairie wind. "This is our version of 'roughing it'," the man told me, and invited me to join them for dinner. Smelling the lean hamburgers fired up on their grill, and thinking of the dried stuffing and powdered mashed potatoes I had on tap, it was an easy decision.

"Bob Fulski," he said, extending his hand. Country people were always big on last names. Everyone around my neighborhood at home always introduced themselves this way too. I couldn't figure it out. Nor could I ever manage to remember the last name given -- keeping the first intact was effort enough.

"Adrian -- Robert," I said awkwardly.

His wife was Jean. Over burgers and salad we talked of many things. They'd lived in the area all their lives, and now they had "some acreage" as they put it, a bit of land out in the country somewhere.

I quizzed them as much as I could about the area. It had been settled by Germans, Poles, and Czechs for the most part. Jean's great great grandparents had come from Germany and started out in a "dugout" home built into a hill. I'd read about this relative of sod houses back at the sod house / Laura Ingalls site on the Minnesota prairie. It was interesting to connect it with reality in some way. Bob's ancestors were Poles and Czechs. Both of them could still remember hearing lots of Polish spoken around Loup City, the town I'd had lunch in.

Most of the trees around here had been planted by the Germans.

Now the main group of immigrants in the area were farm laborers from Mexico. Like the Poles and Germans earlier, they kept mainly to themselves and spoke their own language for the most part. How long did integration take? Would it be longer because so many Mexicans sent their disposable income -- little as there was of it -- back to family in Mexico? Instead of saving and putting it into building their life here. Nice guys finish last under capitalism.

Speaking of farming, they also told me the Ogallala Aquifer was being depleted, and meanwhile states were battling over the Platte as well. A moratorium had recently been declared on the drilling of new wells. This seemed a weak way to control overconsumption, but given that everyone was pumping their own water out locally, it must have been impossible to regulate directly. Too bad, since as depletion was already occurring, the moratorium seemed too little too late.

I didn't ask them about my theory that the Platte drained to the aquifer, but it seemed clear in any case there was only so much water to go around out here. I wondered what would happen to America's breadbasket as nonrenewable reserves were exhausted.

* * *

180 miles.

Saturday, July 14: Iowa Ho!

Jean and Bob said goodbye to me this morning, Jean saying "God bless," parting words I'd overheard from time to time around home, but never directed at me, thank god.

It seemed a funny kind of thing to say, in effect telling God what to do. Such presumption of course was what one associated with the warlike tribe of the red states who these two perhaps represented. It was this tribe that insisted we exact "revenge" upon others for 9/11 and other terrorist acts, that we wage preemptive war on other countries that we perceived as a threat. Meanwhile those of us who had actually been attacked, in New York and Washington, DC, took to the streets and demonstrated against the invasion of Iraq, attempted to vote an alternative into office, and in the end felt caught in the middle in a religious feud between two sets of extremists using the idea of a supreme being to bend the masses to their will.

But Bob and Jean were not the manipulators of course, but the manipulated. And "God bless" was short for something like "May God bless you," or some other form of prayer. They didn't seem like bad folks. We discussed all sides of the issues we brought up, though perhaps avoiding ones overly controversial or personal to either of us.

* * *

Today I would finish off Nebraska and move on to my first new state since hitting Colorado two weeks ago. I was excited. Not only by the prospects of killing off a state, which never failed to elicit a burst of type-A pleasure, but because it was Iowa that lay ahead.

Iowa! Most people think of corn fields, boring, bland, and blank when they picture the state. For me it had long been a source of secret fascination. The center of America and as far from the bustle of the coasts as one could get, in the same way that one might think of a meditation retreat, or a Shangri-la, I thought of Iowa.

All international events were muffled here, all the sordidness of foreign affairs, and even the dirt of domestic squabble. Bob and Jean had expressed such surprise at the idea of gangs, crime, and illegal immigrants in next door Nebraska! Here in Iowa they just grew their corn and sold it. It was loaded onto railroad cars and money paid, that simple. People always wanted corn, and if they didn't the government would pay for it. Easy living.

And so the land would stay pure and simple. No factories cluttering up the landscape, and with farming the people would be distributed evenly. No cities, no snarling traffic. Others see boring; I saw a model utopia. And this vision had always colored my view of the land. I imagined it clean, elegant in simplicity, and delivering feelings of freedom. Like the prairie before, the prairie which had been in Iowa's past as well as South Dakota's.

* * *

With this vision in mind I pounded through the remaining 150 miles of Nebraska, stopping a couple of times at crossings of the Platte to take pictures. Finally I broke for lunch just short of the eastern border. Humid. HOT. I was finished already with the West all right. I holed up in the Fremont library and wrote this blog for a while.

At last, across the Missouri, far further east than it had been at my earlier crossing in South Dakota. Unlike the Platte it was a real river with lots of water in it. Pleasure boats of all descriptions plied its broad surface. Goodbye, Lewis and Clark.

Hello, Iowa. The "Loess Hills" region, information signs proclaimed. Loess was a kind of windblown clay dust. In China such material blown down from the Gobi Desert (and the Taklamakan) makes up much of the northern plains. It blows down still (in certain seasons of the year), rendering yellow all that it touches. Here the hills were the result of some gargantuan version of the dust bowl period at some point in the past, but the dust blew no more. It was prairie now, green, dry-ish, the clay dust having made rich soil once it settled down.

I got off the main route I'd been taking, a U.S. highway, and turned onto a state road. And into the loess hills. A wonderful, rolling landscape, tilled into irregularly terraced corn fields, with snaking grass slopes in between. Patterns given their ultimate form by random events of wind, thousands of years in the past.

* * *

"You want a soda? Cold water? How 'bout some suds?"

Beer? I wasn't sure why this middle-aged man in the campsite was offering so generously to me -- maybe he had been a motorcyclist in the past? But no, it transpired.

Conversation was awkward. His wife seemed to be pissed off at him for bringing me over. Or maybe just pissed off. His name was Gary, but he didn't introduce her, and she made no move to correct the situation.

They'd lived here all their lives. They'd been coming down here with their kids to Prairie Rose Lake State Park (another artificially dammed lake) for the past five years. To fish. No boat, unlike many here. The lake was only 213 acres; it was amazing what people did with it.

Some perusal of my map revealed that the bridges of Madison County, the bridges of Madison County, lay just 60 miles from here. Had Gary ever gone to see them? No, he told me, being a local. But he knew that two had disappeared since the filming of the movie -- burned, one of them by arson. Needless to say they weren't being rebuilt. It wasn't too far out of my way; I decided tomorrow I'd have a look.

In the evening, after my shower and meal, I took a walk along the park's trail system, through "regenerated prairie" north of the lake. An overflow stream led silently through smooth, rockless dirt. Bits of marsh stood here and there, frogs giving throaty calls to their (prospective) mates. Birds chirrupped, insects buzzed; this place was thick with life. Flowers littered the path and to all sides.

Just outside the park I found a cornfield, or corn forest, it felt like, as I entered a gap in the rows. Seven feet high and more, with ears poking out mostly grown. Down below each stalk sent an octopus of exposed roots into the bare earth. Such a strange plant! Nothing else grew here BUT the corn, which seemed eerie -- everywhere else life burst forth at every seam; what forces kept it at bay here?

* * *

240 miles, plus 4 running.

Sunday, July 15: Prairie's End

Last night I slept little, for I'd had the bad luck of having my campsite next to a group of high school kids. Four of them piled into a white car and a tiny yellow hexagon tent, yakking and yelping until past 4. I thought about saying something, but without hope of enforcement (alas, this was not one of those (Wisconsonian) parks with nighttime ranger patrols) I knew it would do no good. Instead I tried to make the best of the situation and read one of the books I'd brought. I had three with me, and so far had managed only the first chapter of one.

I awoke tired but happy they were finally quiet, and went for a run along yesterday's trails. Today was Sunday, and I'd face no more teenagers in parks.

I loaded up and headed out, back along the road from yesterday for a while, then down a county road that alternated paved and unpaved sections. Thankfully the unpaved ones were short, and I eventually made it down to Madison County. Here I followed the first signs to a covered bridge I saw -- unfortunately over 4 miles of gravel road -- and was rewarded with a crimson-painted tunnel over a lazy, meandering, typical prairie river. I photographed it for a while, but sadly no beautiful married women introduced themselves seeking new loves.

A bit touristy this one, there was actually a gift shop in a grove of trees off to one side. It was a tasteful building, could have come right out of Deliverance. And the proprietor inside was a goldmine of information. The covered bridges were covered for one reason -- to protect the wood. They hadn't had good supplies of preservative-treated wood here back in the 1800's when these bridges were being built, and metal was expensive. The best alternative to rebuilding a rotting bridge every eight or nine years was to build and maintain one by painting a wooden shelter.

Nowadays other means of weatherproofing were far cheaper, and these bridges were a dying breed. Only the little-used ones had survived -- hence my four-mile journey beyond the pavement to reach this one.

* * *

For the rest of the day I carried on eastward across Iowa. Gradually it flattened out, and the character changed, the land becoming something like a spread-out Pennsylvania farmland, and the towns exhibiting shades of Ohio. Said shades consisting mainly in the mature trees gracing the streets and properties. My Ohio impressions were given a further boost when in and outside of one of the eastern towns I saw the narrow, black, horse-drawn carts of the Amish jouncing along the side of the road.

* * *

After 6 the weather cooled off considerably and riding became very pleasant. Almost four weeks into this trip and I hadn't figured out an easy way to ride more in the early evening without giving up riding in the early morning. The length of time I could stay on the motorcycle had its limits. I'd tried stopping in the middle of the day, but it was difficult to find things to do when four hours or so needed to be killed. I figured the optimal stopping time was 1 to 5pm. But lunch and internet use in the library could only get one so far. I decided at some point I'd try seeing a movie.

At 7 or 8 I rolled into Wildcat Den State Park, on the Mississippi more or less. A stop symbolizing exit from parts westward, just as hitting the river three weeks ago in Wisconsin had been a kind of launching point. But more significant emotionally was another exit.

Behind the campsite a trail led back into forest. I walked into this, climbing stairs down into a grotto carved of red-brown stone. Water trickled along rock at the bottom. Musical birds not of the plains chirped and songed. It was a wonderful place, something out of a Myst game setting. But now I realized, at some point when I'd been noting Pennsylvania farmland or Ohio towns, somewhere along the cornfields with their terraced rows, that I had left the prairie.

And I knew not when I might be back.

* * *

302 miles, plus 5 running.

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