Days 4-5 of a virtual journey.
In our Gering motel room , we discuss whether we really want to explore Scotts Bluff. Like Chimney Rock , its features are visible from a distance . From the road , we can clearly see the layers of siltstone, sandstone , volcanic ash and limestone of which it is formed. Do we really want to stop at the visitors center and listen to lectures by park rangers dressed up as fur trappers or pioneers? And shell out a few bucks for the privilege ? No and no.
We take US Rte 26 out of town casting a glance at Scotts Bluff every now then . Sometimes, it looks like the ramparts of a fort ( think Carcassone ) and at other times it reminds us of Ayers Rock in Australia though, of course ,it is much smaller. Then we leave it behind as we switch to scenic route 29 N ,and forty miles later arrive at the Agate Fossil Beds.
During the early Paleozoic era , most of Nebraska was covered by a shallow inland sea and, much later, by the Western Interior Waterway. Fish and sea turtles lived in these waters and the shores were inhabited by dinosaurs . During the Cenozoic age , the waters withdrew and the area became home to mammals like camels and rhinoceroses ( imagine that!). During the Ice Age which followed , giant bears , mammoths , mastodons, horses, and saber toothed big cats roamed ruled for a while . They are long gone now but their fossils are found all over the state making Nebraska a leading site for paleontologists. One of the major fossil sites is the Agate fossil beds. We had planned to spend a couple of hours here but it is too nice a day to spend indoors looking at fossils , exotic though they may be . We push on instead to Chadron , 45 miles away , where there is a highly recommended Museum of the Fur Trade.
Fur traders from Europe traded with Native American trappers since the 16th century but the fur trade peaked in the late 19th century . Native American trappers bartered furs for metal implements , (particularly knives and axes) , fish hooks , cloth, woolen blankets, kettles, glass beads etc. The furs most in demand were beaver and buffalo and, to a lesser extent ,deer, bear and ermine. The fur trade was hugely profitable for the Western traders and it introduced Native Americans to the amenities of modern civilization . Ultimately , however it proved to be the latter’s undoing as it made them dependent on the fur trade. As the buffalo and the beaver were trapped and hunted to near extinction , it led to their decline . In addition , diseases such as smallpox, to which they had no immunity , decimated their ranks .
The Museum at Chadron gives visitors a comprehensive picture of the fur trade. Located on the site of James Bordeaux’s trading post which has been meticulously reconstructed on the original foundation it has extensive collections of trade goods, such as textiles , firearms , tools and implements, provisions , and ornaments. The adjoining Heirloom Indian Garden is a botanical exhibit of the crops the Indians grew: several varieties of corn , pumpkins, squash, beans and even watermelons. Some of the rare seed stock is even available for sale.
We’re done with the Museum by late afternoon and drive to Valentine about 140 miles away . It will break our return journey to Omaha ; no point in rushing . Valentine is a pretty little town in the SandHills area of Western Nebraska . The Niobrara River is located close by and offers opportunities for canoeing and tubing but , even though it’s sunny , the water is too cold for us. We settle in at the Trade Winds motel where the beds look mighty inviting after our long days on the road. First , though , we have dinner at the Cedar Canyon Steakhouse . We want to take a break from meat so my wife has the Stuffed Merliton ( Chayote stuffed with Gulf Shrimp, Creole dressing , Brabant potatoes) and I opt for the Combo Seafood platter ( Stuffed crab, fried shrimp, catfish , oysters , crawfish bowlettes(?)). We’re stuffed , but make place for a shared spumoni.
Next morning , we avail ourselves of the free country breakfast in the motel lounge , exchanging ” Good mornings ” with the other guests . People are friendly here and I wonder briefly what it might be like to live in Valentine . I am reminded of a book Special Places : In search of Small Town America , by Berton Roueche , the journalist who wrote extensively for the New Yorker. Valentine is very picturesque , wholesome environment with plenty of outdoor activities to keep one busy year round but it seem confining for a New Jersey suburbanite like me . And then , of course there ‘s the winter….
Winters in Nebraska are long and harsh. (Many museums and tourist spots are open only from April through October.) For the early settlers, winter must have been a nightmare. With homesteads so far apart , company was rare and, in winter, it was non-existent . Not a few settler women went mad from loneliness. Sometimes children wandered out ,and were caught unawares by a sudden storm ; their frozen bodies were only recovered the following spring . And yet , for some , the vast , wide-open spaces became something they grew to love. One woman, born and raised in the Great Plains , was vacationing in the Berkshire Mountains in Massachusetts when she was asked what she thought of the landscape , so different from what she was used to . Her reply “ The hills keep getting in the way of the scenery.”
The gently rolling sandhills give way to the flat landscape that we first saw on our outward journey . Driving the treeless prairie , with the ribbon of empty road stretching into the distance , there is plenty of time to reflect , for the mind to wander. The herds of bison that used to cover the landscape all the way to the horizon are long gone . In their place are cows from the area’s many farms that gaze at us incuriously as we whiz by . Nebraska’s state beverage is milk and I can see why .There are also flocks of ducks and geese but I wish we’d been able to make this trip in late March when we would have been to see the huge flocks of sandhill cranes . These migratory birds stop to rest and feed at the Platte River as they make their way north. Their numbers are truly astounding . A single flock might have as many as 10,000 birds and , in total , half a million of sandhill cranes ( 80% of the world population ) pass through Nebraska. What a sight it must be to see them all together.
In his new book Here , There , Elsewhere William Least Heat Moon says that in fifty years of travelling , he has passed through every county in the United States ( all 3000+of them ) at least once . It is not a feat I wish to emulate. I don’t see the point. One county is much the same as its neighbors and nothing is to be gained from traversing all of them except to be able to say ” I’ve done it .” To me, travel is a means of getting to know a place and if one’s purpose is to write about one’s travels , to do so from a unique perspective . Even on this virtual journey through Nebraska I’ve passed through less than half its counties and that’s enough for me. What this journey has given me is some sense of huge this country is , how empty parts of it are ,and how heroic the pioneers who struck out into the unknown as they traveled west.
Compared to New Jersey , few of the towns we pass have Indian names . Almost all of them are of British origin and many of them are commonplace ones that are repeated elsewhere in the U.S . Almost 45 % of Nebraskans today claim German or Czech ancestry ;their forefathers emigrated here much later, after the land had already settled by colonists from England. We take U.S Route 20E past Johnstown , Newport , Stuart , Atkinson and Emmet and at O’Neill ,we turn onto US 275. Eastwards we hurry through Ewing , Clearwater, , Norfolk , West Point and Fremont finally arriving at Omaha .
Our virtual tour of Nebraska is at an end and ,with it, comes a feeling of accomplishment .
Next : Iowa