Sunday June 8, 2014, 71 miles (114 km) – Total so far: 1,056 miles (1,699 km)
The wind is still blowing in the trees this morning. It slips and slides through the cedar and pine needles and pushes back the leaves of the oaks. It is somewhere between a whisper and a roar. It has swapped from the northwest to the southeast in the night. That says I’ll have a tailwind but that I’ll also be riding into a frontal boundary. The immediate benefit, though, is that the tent is the driest it’s been at pack-up time in a long time.
I flick as many ticks off of the tent as I can from the inside. I love Nebraska, but the ticks have been pretty full-on each time I’ve ridden across. I love the thought of the little things flinging through the air after my finger has connected with them on the other side of the fly. Simple minds.
There is a high thin overcast in the sky, but the sun is peeking through in places. The tent is still in shade. The air feels heavy and expectant – the wind just brushes off the thickness a bit.
I get ready quite quickly because I’m thirsty and ready to go find some water. You can only ration ½ a litre for so long. I check the front tire – all is well. I had a slow leak from a thorn that I had to fix last night after returning from my creek wanderings.
It is mostly flat (still on the Ainsworth Table), with just a few dips to creeks, to the turnoff to Hwy 183. There are clouds in the distance – a white and grey wall inching up the western horizon. It consumes about a third of the sky in the direction I’m heading. Here, the sun shines gently through the thin overcast and morning humidity.
I ride through a mix of cropland and grassland. The views are long, the horizon a humid blur far in the distance. The flatness gives way to a fast descent into Bone Creek. The dropping road cuts through old creek terraces lined with oaks and pines.
At the bottom of the descent I brake hard to make the turnoff to Keller State Recreation Area. I find a hand pump but struggle to figure out a way to fill my Camelbak. The distance from pump handle to the spout is greater than my arm span, particularly when the pump handle is highest. I really need two hands to push down on the pump handle, too. The birds get a great morning comedy show out of all of this. I get about a litre of water before I give up.
We ride through more cropland and grassland before we commence a long and gentle descent to the Niobrara River. White settlers called this the Niobrara, ‘the running water’, after the Omaha-Ponca name Ni-obthatha-ke, which means ‘spreading water river’. It carves a narrow, winding valley. We drop down from the Pliocene Long Pine gravels into the Miocene Ogallala group, heading back another 10 million years in time.
The Miocene rocks comprised a long, gentle, sloping surface leading away from the Rocky Mountains and well into Nebraska. These sediments filled valleys cut by earlier streams, therefore, this geologic period was one of sediment accumulation. Then, in the Pliocene, large river systems began to erode away these rocks and exhume the Rockies. When you ride from Lander to Muddy Gap in Wyoming, the buried mountains to the north look much like Rockies would have appeared in the Miocene before the rivers began to carry away the sediment and deposit it in Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas.
The river is thin, but flowing high and brown – well, as much as I can see of it. I’ve ridden into a thick fog bank and visibility is greatly reduced. The world goes quiet. The air goes dense. The sound of the rapids below the bridge is muffled by the ground-level cloud. I’m disappointed, because I’ve chosen this route specifically to visit this river. I pedal on, though, since I know I’m going to spend more time on the water in the coming days.
I climb out of the valley and back into the Ogallala sediments. I hit my 1,000th trip mile on the way into Springview. The wide main street is sparsely occupied by low buildings which have seen better days. There is a lounge/bar, café, gas station and library. I can pick up wifi standing on the sidewalk outside the tiny library – radar indicates I’m going to be getting wet soon. After I take the 1,000 mile- mark photo, I pull out my raincoat and put the rain covers on my panniers.
A huge contingent of farmers is sitting at tables in the gas station. When I walk in, there is a pause in conversation long enough for everyone’s head to turn. Should I bow, do a pirouette or a jig – because every single old man in that place is looking directly at me. Momentarily, they stop staring and one guy says to another, “hey, you should grab your bike and go ride with all those crazies coming into town”. The BRAN ride has an overnight stop here tomorrow. I’m pretty sure that none of these old, narrow-minded white men, who are making jokes about me as I peruse the drinks case, were part of the committee that advocated to have the bike tour stop in town. I ignore them and go to pay for my drinks at the counter. The attendant says, “don’t mind them. They’re generally grumpy but harmless. Are you with the bike group? ‘Cause you are really smoking the rest of the group if you are here already.” I tell him that no, I’m out doing my own thing, and heading the opposite direction. He replies, “oh, then you’re going to get wet today. Good luck.”
I head out of town toward the dark blue sky with rear blinkie light flashing. I run into the first sprinkles at Cub Creek Recreation Area. Not long after, it begins to rain. And rain. And rain. At times it pours. Sometimes there is a rumble of thunder. Traffic is light, though. I see two older guys on touring bikes in all of their wet weather gear. I call out, “Hi, how you doing?”, but they don’t even respond. They just nod, heads down in the soaking rain.
Our route has us pretty high in the landscape on the Ogallala sediments. There are some hills to climb and descend where creeks and other tributaries have eroded into the landscape on their way to the Niobrara, but the terrain is not really all that difficult. I take great joy in looking out over the landscape at the Niobrara valley down below. It is deep and tree-lined. The trees grow up the gullies and up onto the hills, growing sparser and sparser until they are just isolated patches on the side of the hills. Many of the trees through one section are burnt – two large wildfires burnt through here in 2012. Around 10 homes and 10 outbuildings were lost; more than 50,000 acres were burnt.
At one point, I see lightning forward and to the left. The accompanying thunder indicates it was pretty close. That’s a bit scary, and the deluge that follows reduces visibility considerably. I spot Sparks off to the left. It doesn’t look like there is much there – so I don’t turn off and head into the tiny town. Similarly, the road to Smith Falls State Park, where I’d considered camping, is gravel and goopy. I’m not thinking it would be much fun to do five miles of that in the rain. That means I’ve got 18 more sopping wet miles to Valentine.
The rain lets up a little. The dark skies lift just a tad, revealing higher grey clouds of stratus and cumulus. Oh, it doesn’t look like it is clearing, but it does look like I should be spared from further lightning.
All of the clouds are scudding across the sky from west to east at great speed above me. Down at ground level, though, the winds are still out of the southeast. They turn crazy and gusty – pushing me hard with intermittent shoves. I heave forward and across the road. The wind is so crazy at times on the wet, slippery and smooth pavement, that I don’t feel like I have total control over the bike. I learn later that the super smooth stretch of road won the local contractors an award from the state DOT last year when it was laid (who knew there were awards given for ‘smoothest’ paving job!). Wow, was that ever slick!
I push myself with the pushy wind. The speedy clouds, the crazy wind, and the water everywhere all at once – raining down on me, spraying up from the road, dripping off my helmet – gives me great energy. When things turn sour, I turn tough. Life has taught me that is the best response. So I pump myself up. I stand up and pedal the downhills with vigor and abandon. I crank the pedals in smooth but hard strokes on the uphills. I yell out loud to myself, “Come on, Em! Come on! Let’s go! Let’s go! Let’s do this! Get up the hills! Come on!”
I am thoroughly soaked. It is cold. The wind whips tears out of my eyes. But I don’t feel a thing. All I feel is this internal roar of undefeatable determination inside. This whole section is through road construction – the pavement finely milled. However, the milled surface doesn’t slow me down and actually provides a bit of traction as I crank out the miles. I feel like I’m 20 again and full of angst. The energy pours out of me as the rain pours down on me. For these miles, I feel invincible again, like nothing can touch me. I pound out every burden, every hurt, every everything that life has thrown at me since moving to Oz. The bad weather reflects the bad things I’ve encountered in life, and I use the puddles and the pouring rain as inspiration to release whatever anger and sadness has accumulated in the dark spots of my spirit. I’m a pretty mellow gal these days, but give me a day here or there to exorcise any festering demons through exercise. I love feeling tough and untouchable. It gives me strength for future unknowns. It lets my spirit soar free.
We stop soaring at the top of the downhill to Niobrara and take a picture of the cap rock layer of the Ogallala sediments. Then we freewheel down a few million years of time to the river bottom, then climb back up to Valentine.
I want something hot but don’t want to spend much money. So I end up at the gas station with a McDonalds attached. I squelch around with my soggy shoes, leaving little puddles of gritty rainwater on the floor in my wake. I end up with a serving of large fries. I check out the radar. It is absolutely full of rain. The entire circle of coverage is blue, green, yellow and orange. It is supposed to continue all of today and tonight.
I talk to some guys in full motorcycle rain gear who are leaving as much sogginess in their wake as me – we agree it is not an ideal day for travel. Another group of motorcycle guys all wearing Harley tshirts and bikie jackets, but not actually riding today, ask me all sorts of questions and give me their approval. One guy says, “hey, she’s hard enough to ride with us. Who wants to give her the membership tattoo”? I laugh and ask, “where does it have to go”? He replies, “Anywhere you want it, young lady, but I can offer suggestions, if you’d like”. He says it in a good-natured way – not creepy at all. They all shake my hand and wish me well when I get up to leave.
I need to get somewhere warm. In the time it’s taken to consume the fries and talk to all the motorcycle men, I’ve started shivering. And now I can’t stop. There is an Econo Lodge across the street. I don’t know if it’s good or bad or there are less expensive places in town. I don’t care. I just want to get somewhere warm and dry.
The lady at the check-in desk is incredibly kind. She says they have rooms available. I tell her I know it’s early, and I’m happy to just hang out in the lobby until check-in time, but she says she is sure there would be something she could get me into on the ground floor. She thinks I really should get dried off and warm very soon, so she calls the housekeeping staff on her radio and finds me a room. So kind. I get in the room, peel off all of the wet layers, take a long and hot shower to remove the grit which has gotten everywhere (even in my hair!), and turn the heater up to ‘Australian Summer’.
Only when I’m almost sweating do I go outside with my rags and wipe down the bike the best I can before bringing it inside. Some of that grit and sand will persist for many miles down the road. But thank goodness, the miles are done for today, and now we are warm and dry and all of our gear is in various states of drying all around the room. Another day down. Have I said yet that I’m the luckiest chick in the world to be out here riding? I love it – even the occasional crappy weather day.