Gothenburg to Fort McPherson: Well, that was scary
Tuesday June 1, 2010, 30 miles (48 km) – Total so far: 1,137 miles (1,829 km)
Security, section 6. Security, section 6. Yet again, the store wanderings of a chick in lycra wearing a Camelback and carrying a handlebar bag are making some people nervous in a local supermarket. Any moment now, a staff member will approach me and ask if I need help finding something. When I gather food for a day or two at a time, I often wander around a supermarket backtracking and going in circles, trying to overcome indecision. Unfamiliar floor layouts, my reliance on my stomach to guide me, and the quest to find something on sale, all lead to what is apparently suspicious activity. Today, the little supermarket is in Gothenburg and I’m gathering food for lunch and dinner.
I started the day with some time doing my email at the refurbished and expanded Carnegie library. I remark to the staff that they have a beautiful library and it is a complement to the rest of the town which is so clean and well-presented. The women tell me that the town has a lot of pride and they then thank me for visiting. I spend some time today pondering why some of these little communities are so successful but others are just hanging on. There’s a bunch of them spaced about 15 miles apart in this section of Highway 30, but they are all different in character. Did one town have an outstanding leader who at some point projected the town along a successful path? Did high levels of social homogeneity ensure there was minimal conflict at crucial decision-making stages in the town’s development? Are there subtle aspects of geography (e.g. distance to a major town) or politics (e.g. being the county seat) that contribute to the growth and resilience of a place? It’s an interesting thing to think about when riding through these diverse towns which would seem to have a similar historical foundation.
I stop for lunch in Brady at a picnic shelter by the community centre. The little town also has a functioning gas station, a couple bars, and a local bank. Next door to the picnic shelter are the original, decaying remains of an old gas station and motel from sometime between the 1930s and 1950s. I’ve passed by several of these in the past couple days. This route traces the path of some of the nation’s first long-distance auto tourists. Present-day Highway 30 follows much of the Lincoln Highway, the first trans-continental highway. It was conceived in 1912 by Carl Fisher – one of the principal investors in the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The route stretched from New York City to San Francisco, taking the most direct and practical route across America. The highway was named to honour President Lincoln and was known as ‘The Main Street Across America’. Lincoln Highway proponents claim that the present-day interstate system supported by President Eisenhower was influenced by Eisenhower’s experience travelling in the 1919 Army Convoy along the Lincoln Highway. It’s pretty mind-boggling to think of all the people who have passed this way over time.
As I leave the picnic shelter, the guy across the road repairing a door at an old gas station garage looks up. I smile and wave as I ride by. Highway 30 continues to have a wide shoulder and an imperceptible inclining grade. I’ve got a bit of a southeasterly tailwind. About 10 minutes after leaving Brady, a beat-up blue pick-up passes me and pulls into the shoulder up ahead. I start looking in my mirror to see if I can get out on the road to pass him when I notice that he is waving me down to stop. And so I meet Ron, a self-employed handyman type. It’s the guy I saw back at the gas station. He says to me, ‘you waved to me back there and I thought about it for a bit and thought, wow, that’s a girl, riding by herself, going somewhere, I’ve just got to go meet her’. He wants to know all the usual stuff and is really interested in how much weight I’m carrying and what is in each pannier. He thinks he’d love to do the same sort of thing one day, only on a motorcycle. I encourage him, telling him it’s been the best experience of my life and you just have to go do things because you can always talk yourself out of them. He’s tired of living in Nebraska with all the snow and thinks it’s time for a change. It’s a good conversation and I hope I’ve inspired him to follow his dreams. And then I’m heading west again and he’s heading back to continue work on that door.
I stop in Maxwell – not much going on here – for a drink. The little general store reminds me of being back in Oz. The veranda, the wooden floors in original condition, the dusty shelves, the videotapes for rent and a counter up the back to order hand-made sandwiches, it’s all just like being in any tiny town in Australia. Then I head south over the interstate and the various braids of the Platte River. I pass Nebraska’s only national cemetery, Ft McPherson, and then head west and then south for a mile or so on dirt roads to a private campground.
The campground looks to have been built in the 1950s or 1960s. It’s sorta out in the middle of nowhere and there’s no one around. The grass needs a mow, but there’s some trash in the plastic chemical drums they’re using as trash bins and the grass is smashed down in places, so it’s obvious people were camping here over the weekend. I check out the bathrooms, they’re pretty clean, the showers look do-able. So I put the fee in the little mailbox provided, find a spot that will have some shade but should keep me away from falling cottonwood branches, and set up my tent. I face it westerly and stake in the pegs all the way, since there’s the potential for storms this afternoon. It’s so hot and humid, I think that storms would at least cool the place down. I take some photos of the crew and ponder the history of the place.
This campground puts me on the Oregon Trail again. This land would have been part of the original Ft McPherson with the fort’s buildings situated at the base of one of the canyons a bit east of here. The fort was built in 1863 to provide protection for emigrants travelling west on the Oregon and California Trails. Prior to its construction there was no military outpost in the 350 miles between Ft Kearney and Ft Laramie. The fort was established along a preferred crossing point of the Platte River and critical north-south route used by the Sioux and Pawnee. The nearby bluffs acted as a good lookout position for the military. The fort was abandoned in 1880 as the area became permanently settled.
The fort was also the launching point for several major campaigns. In 1867, General Custer and his 7th cavalry departed from here during the Kansas/Indian wars. General Carr and his cavalry left from here before the Battle of Summit Springs – the last major conflict on Colorado’s Plains in 1869 in which a camp of Cheyenne dog soldiers was raided in an attempt to rescue two white women whom had been captured in Kansas. Buffalo Bill was part of the military unit at this battle and he used it as the basis for part of his Wild, Wild West shows later in life. There’s nothing left of the fort now, and the national cemetery was moved to its current location on the original reservation in 1873.
Later in the afternoon, just as I’m getting into my tent to put my camera away, this wind comes up. And then it lets loose! The wind roars, a deafening howl unlike anything I’ve ever experienced before! I take a photo out the front of the tent and then, another photo in the tent, in the first two minutes of this ferocious wind. And then it’s all I can do to hang on. The wind is buffeting the tent from side-on and has lifted the tent on the windward side about 9 inches into the air. Luckily all my gear is on that side of the tent to provide some weight. I’m also sitting cross-legged on my Ridgerest and laying over the top of all my gear. But my upper body is still lifted off the ground and held there by this roaring, deafening wind. It’s like riding a bucking bronco. The wind eventually rips out all of the tent pegs, and starts scooting me along the ground a few inches at a time. There’s nothing I can do but keep my body weight on the windward side of the tent. Finally, the wind dissipates as quickly as it came up. It’s been around seven minutes. Everything in the tent is coated in dirt. It’s in my teeth and nose, too.
I crawl out of the tent. What the f**k just happened? Whatever it was came out of nowhere. I didn’t even have time to be scared, but now that it’s over, I notice I’m shaking. The trash barrel next to my tent is gone. I can’t even find where it went. There are other barrels all shoved up against the bathhouse and one of the trash bags is now in the top of a 30-foot tall cottonwood tree. There’s a branch a metre long and the diameter of my wrist under my tent. Thank goodness it landed under my tent instead of on top!! There are tree branches and limbs scattered all over. The temperature has easily dropped from the upper 80s to about 65 in less than 10 minutes. With no one around, I feel like I’ve just ridden out the Apocalypse – like I’m in a movie or something. I start to inspect my tent – it’s survived just fine, though the tent poles are likely to be a bit bent. I find the ripped-out tent pegs next to the tent and downwind up to 10 feet away. I never do find one tent peg, even when I do sweeps up to 25 feet downwind. A little while later I turn on the weather radio and it says that there have been 70 mph thunderstorm outflow winds reported in outlying areas of North Platte. Um, yeah. At this point I don’t technically know what an outflow wind is, or how it forms, but I do know what it’s like to ride one out in a tent. Not something I ever want to do again.
A bit later an older couple and the woman’s mother come in with an RV. We chat a bit – they’re from Loveland, just down the road from Fort Collins, and are heading home after a family reunion. Near sunset, the campground owners come home from their work at a nursery in North Platte and remark on all the branches that are down. The guy says to me, ‘we had some wind in town, but nothing bad. But we heard there was big winds out here. Last year we had a 70 mph straight-line wind take off the roof of that cabin over there just after I’d replaced it. So be glad you weren’t here when the winds hit’. I look at him and say, ‘I was. It was pretty crazy. That’s why I’ve put my bike in the laundry room’. He’s a bit concerned. He says, ‘well, I tell you, there’s supposed to be more storms tonight. I want you to be safe, so you are welcome to stay in that old cabin tonight. No charge. There’s some bedding in there’. I tell him that I should be fine, but later that night when there’s lightning all around to the south and all sorts of warnings on the radio, I get a good lesson in county names and Nebraska geography as I try to figure out where the storms are and which way they’re heading. I don’t sleep much and when the thunder and rain pass over, I’m a bit tense and ready to run for shelter in a split second!
Ave speed: 12.9mph
Max speed: 20.3mph