This is what touring is all about: Thedford to Hyannis
Wednesday May 8, 2013, 66 miles (106 km) – Total so far: 1,005 miles (1,617 km)
What did you say?
Erg. Or ‘sand sea’. That’s what large sand dune fields are called. And it does feel very much like a sea as you rise and fall from crest to crest over the dunes. It’s a fantastic day to go riding in an erg.
The storms from last night leave a fresh and crisp atmosphere; the world feels renewed as I ride away from the motel. The railroad guys all wave as they go by, heading out for maintenance tasks on various sections of line. They pass and re-pass me over and over today. The road lies within the river valley for the first few miles.
Shortly after crossing the Middle Loup River, the road climbs up high into the dunes, undulating on top amongst domal dunes for awhile. It is so quiet, crisp and clear this morning, my soul begins to rise up with joy. I love this!
There is so little out here. Down in the valley, there is the rail line, and a town here and there hanging onto existence in a region that has never had much of a population. Up on top, there are windmills, fences and an occasional powerline. I don’t see much stock – but they’ve been in drought here and much of the area has been de-stocked, anyway. It doesn’t take much to imagine this area free from modern-day amenities, just a sea of grass with some buffalo and nomadic tribes traversing the landscape.
Between Seneca and Mullen, the road and rail-line merge close again. Every 20 or so minutes, a 1.5 mile-long coal train goes by, hauling dead ferns and dinosaurs to power plants to the east.
At Mullen, I have decisions to make. What I really want to do is head north here, and really get into the heart of the Sand Hills. I want to see different varieties of dune form, and this will be a great way to do it. However, the wind and the weather forecast, don’t really agree with my plans. The wind is pretty strong out of the north already at 9am. It is forecast to increase. I need to do about 60 more miles of riding into the wind to get to Merritt Reservoir. That doesn’t seem possible in this wind, and I’m not too keen just camping on some private land in the middle of nowhere if the storms arrive tonight as forecast.
I sit in the park at Mullen for a long time, mulling over my decision. I really want to get further into the Sand Hills, but I have no back-up plans if the weather goes shit, and I’m not sure I’m fit enough to carry more than two days of water at the moment. In the end, I decide to just keep heading west. Skipping this ride, up to Hwy 20 and back to Hwy 2, is one of the biggest, if not the biggest, disappointment on my whole ride.
My disappointment doesn’t last too long, though. There is so much to soak up in the landscape along Hwy 2. This scenic byway, called the ‘Sandhills Journey’, speaks directly to my soul. As I ride, it’s as if every burden of the last 10 years lifts and floats away like little sand particles being redistributed onto the dunes. I feel incredibly connected somehow to the space and immensity of the landscape. I love feeling like I’m lost in a sea of sand – this landscape stretching as far as I can see in every direction. My soul just lifts higher and higher as the day goes on.
The sky stretches over the vegetated sand in the deepest bowl of blue. From horizon to horizon, there is just dunes and sky. In some ways, this landscape is so simple. At least at the surface. The interconnection with the sub-surface makes this a very complex landscape – all the water percolating through that sand into the huge Ogalalla Aquifer and feeding the Dismal and Loup Rivers. The drainage systems here are really quite different to other landscapes. There is a lot to think about as you ride. In some places, flat depressions form between the dunes, supporting lakes, meadows or marshes. The bird life is prolific, and even though I’ve never been a birder, I really wish I knew all the names of these species that I’ve never seen before.
As the day goes on, fair weather cumulus clouds build and float across the bowl of a sky. I feel sometimes like I’m in a big fish-eye lens, distorting the scene into a huge orb of dune and cloud-dotted sky. I feel like I’m in a spiritual place, as if I’m closer to everything that’s ever been and all that will ever be. I feel this energy just pulsing into me. I cannot explain it – there is no scientific jargon or abstract to summarize it. It is just energy and a welling up of my spirit so joyful I can’t help but smile and be thankful for everything in my life that’s given me the opportunity to be right here, right now.
There is so little traffic, I feel as if I have all of this grand scenery to myself. What traffic there is seems to be almost all railroad and road maintenance workers. Heck, it could be the same eight railroad worker trucks passing me over and over the whole day. I do know it’s the same road maintenance guys hauling gravel/road base or something to their worksite. They wave and honk each time. I’m getting to recognize their faces. When I finally get up to where they are working, they are about to head back to get more gravel. They slow up as I ride by, waving out the window and yelling, “Great to get to know ‘ya!”. I laugh a hearty laugh over that. The world is a good place today.
After Whitman, the road circumnavigates Doc Lake, then follows an inter-dune depression deep down between barchanoid-ridge dunes. These dunes have steep faces, up to 30 degrees, on the downwind side. These are some of the tallest dune forms – they can be up to 250 feet higher than the inter-dune depressions. The ridges can grow 10 to 30 miles long, forming where the crescent-shaped dunes coalesce. I love feeling so tiny in these deeply entrenched depressions between these massive dune ridges. Oh, the joy in my heart!
Upon reaching Hyannis in the late afternoon, I’m almost sad to end the day. I could have just kept riding and riding forever between and through those dunes. All is not lost though. I’ve got more to ride through tomorrow. In the evening, I have a nice and long conversation with a crew of four contract railroad workers. They are a mix of ages and life experiences, but they are good-natured, good-humored and kind to me. I learn a whole lot about railroad maintenance, working for the railroads and that there are hundreds of derailments across the network each day – you only hear about the big ones. These guys go around setting trains back on track. I get to tell them a bit about bike touring, too. And finally, somebody has the balls to ask the unasked question: how can you afford to do it? My answer: I saved just about every discretionary penny I had for 2.5 years. I don’t drink coffee, I rarely drink alcohol, I don’t have kids, I don’t have pets, and I lived on a $25 a week food budget for those 2.5 years. When there’s a will, there’s a way.
So today was one of the most perfect days on the whole tour. It was so beautiful my heart sung and soul rejoiced. Nature’s Sand Hills cathedral raised my spirit so high while riding through that sea of sand under that big bowl of blue sky. I rode all 65 miles today with the hugest smile.