Sunday, June 21, 2009

2009 Vacation - Days 11 & 12: Panhandling In The Sand Hills

The night before it stormed in Scottsbluff. I mean hardcore, full blast, rain mixed with hail. In the morning we went out and there were piles of hail on the grass, on the roof of the hotel, and by the windshields of cars. The hood, top, and trunk of my car is now randomly covered in little dents. Damn you weather!!!

Our original plan was to visit a couple places out in the panhandle of Nebraska but as we drove in from Moab we realized it wouldn't be enough to fill the day. Consulting the AAA book we added two more places to the plan.

The first stop was Chimney Rock. Chimney rock acted as a waymark for pioneers traveling across Nebraska heading west on the Mormon, California, and other well traveled trails. Unfortunately we were there around 8:00AM and the visitor's center didn't open until 9:00AM. This means ... no magnet for our collection. Oh well. I did take a couple pictures (The long shot is actually from Scottsbluff).

Our second destination for the day, one of the two late additions, was Scottsbluff's namesake, Scott's Bluff. The visitor's center there had a slide show (a slideshow??? In the year 2009???) that we decided to skip. Most of the history at the center concerns the California and Oregon Trails. A short drive from the visitor's center, through three tunnels, takes you up to the top of the 800 ft tall bluffs. The view from the top is pretty cool and, being spring, there are a lot of wildflowers and cacti blooming. I, of course, took some pictures from up there.

The third destination of the day was the second addition, Fort Robinson. Going into this state park we had few expectations and fewer plans. We get there and start looking at the options. We liked two: a hay ride historical tour of the camp/fort area and a jeep tour of the surrounding bluffs, hills, rivers, lakes, and buffalo herd. This is how our misadventures went down. We walked over to the stable to ask about the hayrides. We were told that the tickets could be purchased at the information booth. By the time we found the information booth we saw the wagon tour ride off in the distance. So we walk back to the stable area to see if we could take a stagecoach ride but the driver was nowhere to be found. We see the jeep tours and think that might be fun so we go back to the information booth to ask about tickets. As we are asking our questions, we watch the jeeps drive off. The next hay rides and jeep tours are in two hours. After whining to ourselves about our piss-poor planning we make hay rides appointment (a minimum of 4 are need and we are the only two signed up - we were save by a couple of hardcore Geocachers who signed up with us).

With two hours to kill, we head inside the officer's quarters building that is now a hotel and restaurant to have lunch - the best, and only, open faced buffalo sandwiches smothered in gravy I've ever had. A quick walk through a nice little history museum and a short scenic drive through the buffalo herd (you know, those little black dots in the distance) and the buttes later and we had a nice horse drawn hay ride through the history of Fort Robinson. The fort has had a long history involving Native Americans (Crazy Horse was killed here), training of calvary remount horses, training of what would become the K-9 corp, a POW camp for Germans (who considered it a resort because of the comfortable conditions they were held in), a USDA beef cattle laboratory, and a state park. The place lost a lot of buildings during the post WWII USDA phase when they started tearing down buildings that they weren't using. Local residents of nearby Crawford raised a stink and the USDA was phased out and the Park and Game commission was phased in. The result is a state park with period lodging, horse back trail riding, jeep tours, river kayaking/tubing, fishing, swimming pools, tennis courts, polo grounds, and a lot of history. The place is a hidden gem. Sorry, no good pictures here.

The fourth destination of the day was Carhenge. While this was a pretty weird place to visit, it was pretty cool too. Along with the Stonehenge replica made from cars that gives the place it's name, there are other pieces of car/metal art spread out throughout the field. My favorite is this metal fish. Pictures can be found here.

Some wise person once said, It's not the destination that matters, it's the journey. The rest of day 11 was part of that journey and was just as important as the destinations. The drive from Carhenge to our stop for the night took us along the scenic Sand Hills Journey byway. (On this day we also traveled parts of the Buttes to Bridges byway and the Gold Rush byway). The Nebraska Sand Hills which dominated the next six hours of our drive are serenely beautiful. The best way to describe the landscape is to imagine a sand dune covered desert landscape. Now cover the sand dunes with green grass. Those are the sand hills. The rolling hills are virtually treeless - the only trees being planted around ranch compounds and a few along the highway. The landscape is dotted with windmills (the old ones, not the wind turbines), cattle, and horses.

Highway 2, which we took, traveled through tiny towns, many unincorporated. The towns were few and far between - 20 to 40 miles apart. Between the towns were dirt roads that took you to the large ranches that graze cattle and horses on the grassy hills. I can't imagine the loneliness and isolation you would endure out on these ranches. Especially when the nearest town may have a population less than 100 people. It would take a very special type of person I'd imagine.

The highway paralleled the railroad. Empty trains headed west followed shortly by coal ladened trains from Wyoming heading east to feed our need for electricity. Crossing the road ahead of us were ... turtles. The Wife counted 11+. Not sure why the turtle crossed the road but there were amazingly few dead turtles on the road. It helps that this road doesn't seem to be traveled much.

We spent our last night on the road in the town of Thedford, NE, population 243. We really thought that we would be staying in a little dive hotel in a hick town but we were pleasantly surprised. Our hotel was a a full feature hotel with internet access and comfortable beds. It was next to the railroad tracks so it was a little noisy but we did see a cool sight - two full length passenger airplanes, wings and tails removed, loaded on a train.

We walked next door to the Stubs restaurant. It looked like a nice restaurant but the service was very slow and the food was mediocre. It took us nearly an hour and a half to eat. Another client who came in right after us was up at the counter telling them that she couldn't wait any longer. I guess we were lucky to actually get out food.

Day 12, our last day on the road, started cloudy and went downhill from there but we didn't care because we were headed home. Our only stop for the day was a short drive through the Nebraska National Forest. When you think of Nebraska you rarely think of forest and for good reason - there are very few. The Nebraska National Forest has one unique distinction - it's the largest human-planted forest in the United States. The forest was planted starting in 1902 to see if a forest could be planted on the great plains. The Bessey Ranger District, the part we drove in, is a mixture of different tree varieties. Several different types of trees are grown to see which ones best adapt to the conditions.

Most of the roads through the forest are unpaved. I'm sure the 31+ miles of scenic back country roads are awesome but the recent rain turned them into a muddy mess so we stayed on the short three mile paved road. I had hoped to climb the fire lookout tower on the high point of the forest to get a panorama shot but it was closed when we were there. We probably could have gotten a ranger to let me up there but frankly I wanted to get home. I will have to go back sometime as there are hiking trails in the 90,000 acre man-made forest that temp me.

The rest of day 12 was spent driving in rain. As we got closer to home the rain intensified. Visibility was limited and cars were going in the ditch. We made it home without incident and the hard rain washed the bugs off the front of the car (I was going to take a picture of the bug gut graveyard on my license plate but they're all gone). I will have one more vacation entry to sum things up later this week.

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