Ft McPherson to North Platte: Checking out the world’s largest railyard
Wednesday June 2, 2010, 37 miles (60 km) – Total so far: 1,174 miles (1,889 km)
I’m taking a back road – State Farm Road – south of I-80 into North Platte. I’m again on the Oregon Trail and there’s a marker denoting the location of a former Pony Express station site along this road. The area is composed of cultivated fields and some houses. The road zig zags west and north, turning north each time it runs back into the loess hills. These loess hills are not as extensive as the ones in western Iowa, but they are geologically important in their own right. The area around Bignell Hill, just off to the left, may be the thickest (> 150 feet) late Quaternary loess deposits in North America. What makes them really interesting is that unlike the loess deposits in IL and IA that are a function of sediments sourced from the continental ice sheets via the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers, geological studies have indicated that the loess hills here were unrelated to the specific movements of the ice sheet. Deposition occurred both earlier and later in time.
Just on the southeast edge of North Platte, along the old Oregon Trail, there’s a large Walmart distribution centre. I wonder if somehow it’s appropriate that a modern-day freight distribution centre is located right on the Oregon Trail. Just before Interstate Exit 177, I stop at the info centre located in an old Union Pacific caboose. The volunteer is very helpful and I pick up brochures on the things I want to see in town. Outside is a military memorial that has really impressive war scenes carved into the marble.
There’s a lady on a motorcycle doing a tour of the west and she comes up to me and asks the standard questions and then asks, ‘what do you do when it’s windy’? She knows how hard it has been for her with the wind and she wonders how I keep myself upright. I say, ‘It’s definitely more of a challenge some days than others, but at least if I wipe out, I’m doing a much lower speed than you.’ She laughs.
My first stop in North Platte is lunch at Wendy’s. After this I head out to the newest tourist attraction in town – the Golden Spike Tower. It is an observation tower built above Union Pacific’s Bailey Railyard, the largest railyard in the world. There’s 315 miles of track laid out on 2,850 acres of land stretching eight miles long. There’s an outdoor observation deck, as well as an indoor one. They staff a Union Pacific employee on the indoor deck who can point out what’s happening and answer questions. However, there’s a train geek visiting who keeps the guy cornered the entire time I’m up there. The guy is not so much asking questions as trying to talk shop and sound impressive to the poor employee.
I sit up there looking out over the railyard for a half hour or so, trying to absorb the enormity of the logistics involved in operating a train network and railyard this massive. This is a central point in the network where train cars coming from the east or west are ‘humped’, or changed, from one train to another depending on the cargo’s destination. They get approximately 155 trains through each day and handle 10,000 train cars in a 24-hour period. 3,000 cars are ‘humped’ each day. 60% of their business is coal with 40 full and 40 empty coal trains coming through each day on average. It certainly explains the frequency of trains I’ve been seeing since I started paralleling the tracks at Elm Creek on Memorial Day.
Next, I’m off to Scouts Rest Ranch – the off-season home of Buffalo Bill and the animals in his Wild, Wild West show. The lady in the mansion demands I pay park admission even though I’ve rocked up on a bike. (No other state parks in NE charged me, and the park guide states only licensed vehicles are charged admission.) I begrudgingly pay but it puts me in a bad mood for a few minutes. I recover once I get out of the mansion and go down to look at the old barn. It’s huge and I’m quite impressed. The coolest thing is seeing all of the original show posters from the 1880s that were wallpapered above the stalls way back in the day.
I head over to the adjoining campground, working my way the quarter mile down the corrugated and slippery dirt road. However, the campground is so new there’s no shade, and the only shelter available is the pit toilets. There are a couple tents set up and one RV, plus a man and a woman sitting at a picnic table whom I’m sure are meeting here on the outskirts of town to continue some sort of illicit affair. The site is close enough to the river that I’m thinking the mosquitos will be bad. Bugs, no shade, no shelter – I think I’ll go back and camp at the private campground at the interstate exit. It’s not much more money, I can have a shower and be close to food outlets, and I’ll be able to get laundry done – which is becoming a pretty big priority once again.
The private campground would have been built at the same time as the interstate, and all of its 1960s features are kept in very good condition. I take my place among all of the humungous RVs. I get poured on walking over to get dinner at a Runza, but the storms don’t pick up in severity until they’ve already passed. Later, as I’m transferring my clothing from the washer to the dryer, I ask the woman taking her clothing out of a dryer if they are good ones. She says yes, but she’s not sure what to compare it to because they usually just use the dryer in their RV. Oh. We live in just slightly different worlds. The freeway is pretty noisy, but it’s a constant hum, so it doesn’t keep me from sleeping as I thought it might.
**mileage includes miles ridden around town. Distance Ft McPherson to North Platte = 17.6 miles