Day 240 – Nebraska Heartland (Part 2)

Day 240 – Nebraska Heartland, August 13, 2011

Another enjoyable day in Nebraska…though most of the
interesting sites I’ve seen have been within 100 miles of each other, and I
have driven over 600 miles over a few days to see them!

We started out today at Fort Robinson where I camped last
night.  The campground is the site of one
of the most tragic events at the fort, the Cheyenne Outbreak.  Forcibly sent to Indian Territory in
Oklahoma, a band of Northern Cheyenne, led by Dull Knife, escaped and fled
across the plains of Kansas and Nebraska.
The 149 men, women, and children were finally captured by troops from
the fort in October 1878.  Told they
would have to return to the Indian Territory, they tried escaping again on
January 9, 1879, and the men opened fire on the guards with the few guns they
had hidden away as the women and children fled toward the White River.  Many of the Cheyenne fell in the battle, one
of the last of the Indian War.

Permanent buildings at the fort, originally a camp which was
established due to Indian unrest in March of 1874, went under construction in
June of 1874.  Sioux warrior Crazy Horse
surrendered 889 members of his tribe at Camp Robinson in May of 1877.  He was later killed when he tried to escape
in September of the same year.  The
buildings included barracks, a barn, officer’s quarters and the like.  Many still stand today and line a horse shoe
shaped parade ground with a manicured green lawn.  Petey and I took a stroll around the fort
area before taking a scenic drive in another part of the park to see some
bison.  We also spotted a few mules.

After driving 19 miles on a dirt road littered with muddy dips
and rock chips and yet may have been the smoothest dirt road I’ve ever been on,
VANilla delivered us to Toadstool Park. 
We visited a 1984 sod house replica of one built in the 1930’s by
Kenneth Pelren and Segard Anderson.  The
early settlers used a plow to break the sod into strips 12 inches wide and 4
inches thick.  The strips were cut into
three-foot lengths and stacked on each other like bricks to construct the
house.

While I found the house interesting, my attraction to the
park was its peculiar landscape.  Petey
and I walked the mile loop through hills of sand and clay devoid of vegetation
and severely eroded.  Harder rocks
perched atop softer material that has eroded to create toadstool
formations.  These formations were
created 34 million years ago when ash from Great Basin volcanoes in Utah and
Nevada blanketed the land.  An ancient
river carved the valley as the landscape changed to semi-arid.  The rocks and clays are also home to several
fossils that could be seen from the pathway.

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From Toadstool Park we headed back to the east past fields
of sunflowers and into the Central Time Zone, this time losing an hour, to visit
Fort Niobrara Wildlife Refuge.  We came
to enjoy a lovely waterfall that cascaded over a rock ledge and as an added
bonus spotted some more bison and drove through a prairie dog town.

Fort Niobrara Wildlife Refuge was our last stop in Nebraska
before crossing the border into South Dakota, a state I have never visited
beyond driving through one corner on my way to North Dakota a few weeks
ago.  We crossed a two lane highway that
led us through endless hay fields.  Bails
of hay dotted the rolling green hills which were occasionally outlined with
rock formations popping from the surface until we eventually reentered the Mountain Time Zone and reached Prairie
Homestead where a house of sod and log built into an embankment in 1909 still
stands.  This is a rare exception as most
sod houses have washed away.

Just next to Prairie Homestead is Badlands National Park, a
sea of moonscape.  Ridges, spires, and
canyons of volcanic ash rich with fossil beds from the Oligocene era dominate
the landscape.  We found a campsite in
the park as the sunset over formations and later enjoyed the full moon.  The moon appeared so bright that the stars
were imperceptible.  ETB

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Day 239 – Platte River Road

Day 239 – Platte River Road, August 12, 2011

Today’s drive led me to a variety of rock formations.  Given rocks fascinate me, I was pleasantly
surprised with the western portion of Nebraska.
I probably drove close to 150 miles before I made my first stop.  Sometimes I like that, as I can zone out and
listen to music or to books on CD…Stephen King’s The Dome is the current
choice.  Not surprisingly, it is weird.

My first stop was Courthouse Rock and Jail Rock, two of the
most famous landmarks of the westward migration.  The rocks were located near the
Oregon-California Trail, the Mormon Trail, the Pony Express Trail, and the
Sidney-Deadwood Trail and were the first of several natural “road signs” weary
travelers encountered.  As a result of
erosion, the rocks; composed of clay, sandstone, and volcanic ash, rise 400
feet above the North Platte Valley.  This
natural, historic site is also home to a geocache!

Further down the road stands Chimney Rock, a solitary spire
that punctuates the naked plains.  Rising
nearly 500 feet and visible from 30 miles away, Chimney Rock signaled travelers
along the Oregon Trail that they were about to begin the second leg of their
journey across much rougher terrain.  The
grasshoppers were out in force.  They
zipped back and forth in front of my camera lens with every click of the
shutter.

As we continued northwest, we made a brief stop at Wildcat
Hills Recreation Area, opted not to stay, and moved on to Scotts Bluff National
Monument.  Scotts Bluff is over 500 feet
high and a half mile wide.  It was named
by fur traders for a fellow trapper who mysteriously died in an 1828
expedition.  Though travelers soon
discovered the Indian name meaning “the hill that is hard to go around” was far
more apt.  Wagons had to travel single
file through a narrow short-cut called Mitchell Pass which still displays wheel
ruts from over a century ago.  Petey and
I took a short stroll alongside the wagon display on the Oregon Trail and then
with the help of VANilla enjoyed the views from atop the bluff.

We ended the night at a campground in Fort Robinson State
Park that I am eager to explore in the morning!
ETB

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Day 238 – Nebraska Heartland

Day 238 – Nebraska Heartland, August 11, 2011

This morning we left Grand Island and headed northwest up
Highway 2 in gusting winds through corn fields and farmland to Broken Bow, so
named for a broken Indian bow found nearby.
The winds are so strong in this area that trees are planted along the
highways as windbreaks.  The Broken Bow
area came to be known as the Sod House Frontier, as when settlers first moved to
the nearly treeless area, they built their homes, corals, pig pens, churches
and school out of sod.  Today the town is
small and modernized, relatively speaking.
We stopped near the courthouse to snatch a cache…Nebraska checked off
the list!

Continuing along Highway 2 as geese flew in a V-shape form
overhead and trains chugged by, we entered the sand hills region.  The immense system of dunes that spans for at
least 200 miles along the highway was created when sands of ancient sea were
carried here by wind.  The dunes are
blanketed in flourishing grasses whose root systems have kept the dunes in
place.  If I were a cow living solely on
grass, this is the place I’d want to be.
The view was quite serene.

A 90,000 acre area, Nebraska National Forest, is situated on
the south side of the highway within the dune region.  Approximately one fourth of it comprises hand-planted
trees.  In the late 1800’s, Dr. Charles
Bessey was convinced that the region was once forested and could be again.  After years of building his case and
gathering support, he wrote to President Roosevelt stating the government must
take steps to provide for the production of timber for America’s future as
eastern forests had been harvested or burned by 1902.  Roosevelt established the Dismal River Forest
Preserve, which is now the Nebraska National Forest.  We visited the Scott Fire Lookout, named for
the forest’s first supervisor, Charles Scott.
The tower is not only home to a nice view, but also to a cache!  We walked along a hilltop trail watching for
rattlesnakes and sticker burr bushes and admiring the wildflowers.

After visiting the forest, we continued west past miles of
dunes and eventually turned south toward Ogallala.  Just about the only sign of life were cows
grazing on the hills or drinking from a water trough beneath a windmill.

In Ogallala, I decided to take in the nightly performance of
the Crystal Palace Revue, named for a naughty 1875 dance hall.  Eight high school students perform a gunfight
outside the saloon prior to the beginning of an hour and a half performance of
singing, dancing, and joke telling on stage in the bar.  The show; cute, fun, goofy, comical and very
interactive with the crowd, runs all summer until the kids go back to school and has been in production for over forty years.

I grabbed a bite to eat at the bar before the show where I
met Jerry.  He once lived in Bedford,
Texas and now lives in Kansas.  He works
for a seismology company and is in Nebraska briefing the farmers about the
procedures that will take place on their land in order to look for gas and oil
in accordance with the leases they signed.
Somehow we got to talking about the weather…oh because the bartender
Stacy asked if it was going to rain…and he said a guy traveling through had to
pull off at his hotel because his windshield got smashed by golf ball sized
hail.  I’m glad I missed that storm.  I hope I stay out of them!

Ogallala is on Mountain Time.  I read a road sign that informed me of this,
but my phone never changed, so I ended up being an hour early to the show.  Of course, I didn’t figure that out until I
sat around a while which was annoying until I noticed the Cowboy game was
on!  I thought well this was a good $10
spent.  If the show is boring, I’ll watch
the game on mute.  They turned the
football off and the show was entertaining enough anyway!  ETB

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