goodbye, my friend, my exit's here
My road's so long, a million miles or so
Too much for me, I got to go
My navigator's here
And they say it's nice this time of year
They say it's nice this time of year
They say it's nice this time of year
Except for the meteors
And Nebraska's so flat that I don't care
I'll never use this map, have I made it clear?”
From “Nebraska”, by Moe.
We were up at 6am the next morning. An early start was critical, as we were tackling the bulk of the drive to Wyoming in one day. Our plan was to drive all the way to western Nebraska. There I’d found a state park where we could camp and hike the following day.
We grabbed breakfast at Starbucks and hit the highway. Early on we were treated to an impressive sunrise over the Wabash River. Then it was on into Illinois. We were lucky to hit Illinois-ing early on a Sunday morning. Most of I-80 was under construction, and the drive would’ve been miserable in heavy traffic. We weaved our way through all of the orange barrels and eventually made it into Iowa. Things began looking up immediately. First, we filled up on gasoline, which was 20 cents / gallon cheaper than it had been in Illinois. We made our second stop of the day, after 7 hours of driving, in Des Moines. We got off the highway in search of a Taco Johns for lunch. Christy’s navigation system allegedly attempted to lead us to one, but our favorite taco joint failed to materialize. We eventually settled for Quiznos. Christy picked up the sandwiches, while I walked Boone in 100-degree heat. I’m not sure which of us was more miserable (and I’m including the dog in that statement).
After lunch we returned to the interstate and continued on to Omaha. Woo-hoo, Nebraska! We were knocking off states like they were nothing. However, we soon discovered that Nebraska is a different beast altogether.
In Omaha we crossed over the Missouri River, which was flooding. In fact, I-29 southeast of Omaha was closed due to the conditions. The flood was courtesy of the massive amount of snowmelt runoff coming down from the Rockies. This reminded us of just what we were getting ourselves into.
That was pretty much the extent of the excitement in eastern and central Nebraska. At one point we pulled into an official “scenic overlook”, but couldn’t figure out what the attraction was. There was a low, non-descript hill off in the distance, which I guess is pretty exciting by Nebraska standards. Either that, or the “scenic overlook” is some sort of elaborate joke the state plays on tourists. We drove another 300 miles beyond Omaha before stopping for gas. At that point, we were still in the middle of the state! By this point it seemed like Nebraska was just going to go on, and on, and on….and on.
That morning I tried pistachios for the first time. By that evening I was addicted to them. That should tell you just how long this drive was – long enough to become addicted to something before it was over.
We were all getting restless, particularly the dog. For most of the trip I’d been careful to include at least some exercise for us and the dog every day. This day was the exception though, since we had such a distance to travel. Still, by this point it was clear that we needed to let him blow off some steam.
This part of I-80 follows the North Platte River. Along the river are miles of small lakes and ponds. After gassing up we drove over to one of them. There was a small park here, and the place was deserted. After a bit of hunting I found a stick, and soon Boone was swimming. This was an extremely effective way to get him some exercise. After 30 minutes or so we were all ready to resume the drive.
Less than an hour later Boone began whining. Before long he was actually shaking. At first we couldn’t figure out what was wrong with him. Then it occurred to me that he’d probably consumed a lot of water back at that pond. We pulled off at the next exit and let him out. He immediately had a pee that would’ve made Austin Powers proud: http://youtu.be/GRx0bup8ubM
From there it was on to Ogala for dinner. This time we didn’t have any trouble finding Taco Johns. Unfortunately, it is closed on Sunday. Ogala didn’t have many other options. Unfortunately it was late, we were hungry, and the map didn’t suggest any better options farther down the road. We ended up at Denny’s. After all, how bad could it be? Pretty bad, as it turns out.
We continued on to Kimball, Nebraska, now well after dark. We exited the highway there, and headed north about 30 miles to the Wildcat Hills State Recreation Area. The Wildcat Hills are the southern-most extent of the badlands of northwest Nebraska, which also include Scottsbluff National Monument. I was looking forward to hiking and exploring the area on Monday. For the evening, we found the park’s primitive camping area. There are four or five sites there, and all of them were vacant save for one car. The car left shortly after we arrived, so I guess we must’ve looked rather shady.
The campground isn’t anything fancy, but it offered everything we needed. The sites have flat, sandy tent sites, picnic tables, and firepits with grills. There are bathrooms and water nearby, though we didn’t stumble upon those amenities until the next morning. I paid the $11 fee at a self-service pay station and set up camp quickly. We slept great that night, aided by strong winds that had banished the heat we’d experienced earlier in the day.
Boone woke us early the next morning. I immediately realized that something was amiss. Our air mattress had lost most of its air, apparently because of one of Boone’s toenails. I got dressed, and noticed a fair bit of blood on the tent floor. Yikes! Where did that come from? More importantly, we’d be in Wyoming that night. Is a bloody tent a bad thing in bear country?
I traced the blood to a wound on Boone’s leg. Apparently he’d cut himself on something while running around the previous night. Christy cleaned him up while I started getting breakfast together. While getting everything set up, I discovered that a canister of stove fuel had leaked in one of our bins. Everything in there was soaked and reeked of fuel. Sigh. We were on a real roll this morning.
A hearty breakfast of eggs, pancakes, and coffee improved our outlook for the day. So did a sunny, blue sky morning. Of course, that blue sky also promised heat. Ever since leaving the North Carolina and Virginia mountains behind on the first day of the trip, we encountered nothing but oppressive heat. Although we were up around 4000’ in elevation, I wasn’t delusional. It was going to be a hot day for hiking.
After breakfast we re-organized our gear, re-packed the car, and broke camp. Then we drove over to the Wildcat Hills Visitor’s Center. There we used the restrooms, got water, and picked up a trail map. The map was rather difficult to read, but proved to be more or less accurate. With it, I planned out a hike that would connect most of the park’s trails. I figured it would take us 3 hours or so to finish the hike.
First up, we hiked out to the North Overlook. This trail took us past scattered yucca and thickets of blooming Sunflowers. Then we found ourselves on a grassy ridge featuring occasional scattered trees. We enjoyed nice views of cliffs, bluffs, and rock formations along here, even before reaching the official overlook. There, we took in an impressive vista to the north towards Scottsbluff. We spent a few minutes enjoying the view before doubling back towards the Visitor’s Center to begin the next leg of our hike.
Christy was having problems with an old foot injury flaring up, and it was particularly cranky this morning. Once back near the Visitor’s Center, she decided to skip the rest of the hike. I suggested that she keep Boone with her, since it was already brutally hot. We agreed that she would meet me at a picnic shelter at the end of my hike in a couple of hours. The shelter would provide a shady place for them to wait for me. We parted ways, with Christy heading back to the Visitor’s Center. Later I found out that she saw a huge snake just before reaching the Visitor’s Center.
I followed a series of trails from near the Visitor’s Center over to the far side of the park. Along the way I passed through forests and grasslands, and enjoyed numerous views of rock formations and impressive cliffs. Best of all, I had the park nearly to myself. The only other person I saw during my hike was a single mountain biker.
The highlight of the hike was an old homestead in a field that was thick with blooming wildflowers. The homestead is just below the Monument Viewpoint, which consists of a substantial cliff overlooking the Scottsbluff area to the north. I found a way to bushwhack and scramble up to the overlook, where I took in the view before rejoining the trail network for an easy stroll to the picnic shelter. I was relieved when I saw it, as the day was already sweltering even though it was only noon. I found Christy there, and noted that she seemed much more relaxed and much less sweaty than me. Even Boone didn’t seem too upset that he’d missed out on part of the hike.
We had lunch there before heading into the town of Scottsbluff. We got ice cream in town, which we had to eat at headache-inducing speed to keep it from melting in our hands. Afterwards we paid a quick visit to Scottsbluff National Monument. The park features some impressive cliffs that are much larger, yet less intimate than those in the Wildcat Hills. There is a trail to the top of the cliffs, but it’s paved, and ends at the same place as the park road. We drove up instead, which was probably a good move considering the heat. From the summit parking area, I took two short strolls out to various overlooks. The viewpoints offered long distance views out across a contorted landscape of badlands, cliffs, and bluffs. They also offered bird-eye views of the town of Scottsbluff far below.
Our visit was nice, but we didn’t hang around long due to the heat. Plus, we still had a few more hours to drive. We headed back down, and pointed the car towards the Wyoming border.
I was actually rather impressed with western Nebraska. The hiking was enjoyable, despite the heat, and the scenery was quite unique. While most of the state may be flat and dreadfully boring, the northwest corner definitely has a lot going for it. To fully appreciate the state, you just have to get off the highway. Who would’ve guessed?
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