Saturday June 7, 2014, 60 miles (96 km) – Total so far: 985 miles (1,585 km)
The wind is gusty and out of the north. The temperature has dropped 20 degrees from yesterday. The puffy grey clouds bunch together and bump each other along while traversing low in the sky. I assess all of this and think: ugh. I’ll be heading northwest at times today. Do I want to ride with all of that wind, or just spend the day in O’Neill?
O’Neill was founded by Irish settlers. It has the largest permanent shamrock in the world – a big green one painted on an intersection in town. It seems a bit of a stretch, but then, I’m not trying to market nowhere Nebraska, either. There are a few historical buildings, but not much else to occupy a person. So, grudgingly, I decide I’ll ride today. But I’ll give it some time to warm up a little by going to do my laundry first (the laundromat is clean, has reasonable prices, good machines and is on the west side of town).
And so it is that I sit around for an hour in O’Neill, Nebraska, waiting to change out of my raingear and into clean clothes. That is the joy of laundry day – clothes that smell like detergent instead of the combination of sweat, soap and soil that quickly returns after the daily handwash. Unfortunately, while reading some fascinating low-brow material in Reader’s Digest, a gust of wind pushes my bike hard into the building. Then the bike falls over in the other direction and cracks my rear-view mirror. Hmmm… does the bad luck start immediately in one big dose or does it string itself out in small annoying acts for the next seven years?
The mirror is still usable – it just takes some getting used to spotting stuff in a slightly different spot. I quickly adjust as we head out of town into the wind around 11 am. We start seeing dead birds and broken glass in the shoulder from the big storm – the density of both will increase as we head west.
Atkinson is having a town garage sale today. There are lots of people in the little town. The Cowboy Trail bike path comes through here and the town has refurbished the old depot and installed interpretive signs. Everyone I meet is incredibly friendly – including the kiddos who want to ride along with me. I ask one where the library is located and he says he’ll take me there. He pedals off furiously, careening left and right as he looks back to see if I’m still following. Once we get there, he slams on his coaster brakes, leaving a black mark down the sidewalk. He grins really big as I say, “Wow! That was an impressive slide – I sure can’t do that on this bike.” He then asks me where I’m going and how hard it is to go that far. He wants to know what is in all the panniers and how I know where to turn. He is inquisitive but polite – way to go parents, this one’s a good one.
The library is very new and very nice with plenty of computers. In keeping with the relaxed start to the day, I spend time transferring photos to my USB stick and posting some on facebook. Then the crew and I head out. This little town has a good vibe – it’s got a feeling of optimism and determination to survive. There is a supermarket, Subway, small motel and a park for camping if you ever come this way. It will be an overnight stop for the BRAN ride in a few days time.
Not long after Atkinson we climb up out of the shallow Elkhorn River valley and onto a fairly flat surface known as the Ainsworth Table. Some outlying patches of sand dunes can be seen off to the south like piles of sugar spilled along a counter. There are a few dunes to pedal over, too. The sky is expansive, the clouds close and puffy.
The dead birds and broken car window glass fill the shoulder at times near Stuart. Stuart was hit hard by that storm – it broke all of the west windows on a nursing home, brought down many trees and has severely damaged homes in town. Between here and Bassett, the storm damage is pretty evident from the road. Apparently there were a couple tornados reported near here, too.
At the gas station in Stuart, I meet Bruce who is riding a Harley. He has an incredible story of nearly being caught in a tornado a couple days ago near Valentine. He watched as it came along the road ahead of him, ripping out power poles. He hunkered down on the bike near some trees, figuring if he was going to go, he was going to go with the bike. It passed by – the only damage to him or the bike being a broken support strut which he had fixed in Valentine. He tells me to stay safe and to make sure I go see Yellowstone. I’m supposed to go see the people with the American Buffalo Project in West Yellowstone and tell them Bruce sent me. They have people from all over the world stay there for free while they volunteer. He spouts off a list of countries the people come from – because the rest of the world is more concerned about our bison than we are. Then he heads east and I head west.
I stop to check the weather using the library wifi at Bassett. You can camp in the town park here – but no, we’re not staying here. There is definitely rain coming tomorrow (90% chance!), so we should get as far west as possible today.
After 17 more miles of mostly flat farmland and a sky of puffy clouds that plays hide-and-seek with the sun, we pass the turn-off to Long Pine and then dive down into the narrow valley of Long Pine Creek. It is a short, deep cleft in an otherwise flat landscape. We climb out the other side and then turn down the road to the state recreation area. There are a few people camped down by the creek but none in the sites up on the hill. It looks like there was a lot of investment here in the 1980s, but it’s all been left to decay since then. It feels a bit run down and the water pump is not working – a slight concern but I can ration.
I set up the tent and then the guys and I go check out the creek. It looks like they used to have a decent trail system here – I see some old markers, but it’s all overgrown. There are still some social trails left and a few plant interpretive signs here and there. What a shame. This is actually a really cool spot. Let’s go check out what we can – it’s already 7pm but the sun doesn’t set until 9.30 pm since we’re so far west in the time zone.
The creek has nice exposures of the Long Pine sands and gravels. This rock type was deposited between 3 and 2.5 million years ago in the Pliocene as sheets of sand and gravel in a braided river. The gravel sheet is up to 100 feet thick in places. Geologists think that these deposits were part of a major drainage system that carried eroded sediment off the Rockies of north-central Colorado and southern Wyoming.
The other interesting thing to check out are the Ice Age plant relics. The cleft of the canyon provides a refuge for plants that prefer cool climates, enabling these plants to survive much further south than their normal range. You also find plants that are reaching their western limits of distribution (e.g. linden trees and bur oaks) and plants that are reaching their eastern limits of distribution (e.g. Ponderosa (yellow) pine). Eastern and western birds also co-mingle here, as do white-tailed deer and mule deer.
I enjoy hiking through this biological crossroads. If that is not enough, this is the state’s longest self-sustaining trout stream. Driving along the highway, you’d never know that this little cleft in the flat expanses of the Ainsworth Table could be so rich and diverse and that it cradles the lives that live on the edge (of their distributions).