Report from Western Nebraska

June 28, 2008

It’s been some time since I’ve written a post, in fact I can’t really remember the last one. There’s a good reason for this, I’m thinking, which is that every day is now blurring into every other. I think it has to do with the ritual that we go through every day: we get up early, go down to the motel breakfast, come back to the room to haul a huge amount of stuff down to the van, come back to the room to gear up for the ride, then get on the bikes and start the day. Our daily ride consists of 10-20 mile increments, interspersed by 10-minute breaks to replenish our water supplies and eat a bit in order to avoid bonking. After anywhere between 60 and 90 miles, we quit, depending on time/weather/exhaustion and proximity to a town.

And boy, have we been through a few “interesting” places. Most are dusty farm towns that appear to have seen their best days sometime in the early 20th century, before agricultural mechanization took its toll on rural employment. A few have managed to carve out niches in tourism, when the town exists in proximity to a particularly scenic spot or river.

Yesterday we did stumble upon one of the most pleasant surprises of the whole trip, when about 30 miles into our ride we rode smack through the middle of an old fort by the name of Fort Robinson, Nebraska. The original purpose of the place was to monitor Plains Indian activities during the late 19th century, after which it became a training base for cavalry. Its heyday apparently occurred during the early decades of the 20th century, when the fort’s major buildings and structures were built. Many of these not only are still standing but are kept in outstanding condition by the state of Nebraska, and in fact together constitute a very impressive collection of stables, barns, quarters for officers and enlisted men, and parade grounds. To make the place even more interesting, the state operates a kind of resort there, using all of the structures and grounds to attract tourists, offering not only lodging but jeep tours of the land around the fort (to see the wild bison that roam a nearby state park), horseback riding, rafting, mountain biking, huge campfires, and other such attractions. All of us were duly impressed by the place (dad chowed down a buffalo burger at the fort’s restaurant and pronounced buffalo “delicious”) and hope to come back sometime to stay a few days, although how exactly any of us are going to do that is an open question.

I think one other observation is due. We have now, for some reason, passed the point at which the land gets enough rainfall to support agriculture that isn’t dependent on irrigation. You have to be here to appreciate just what this means — from central Oregon through far eastern Wyoming, there was only high desert (the only exception being the Tetons and Yellowstone, which are at much higher elevations and thus attract snow/rain). For some reason, rain becomes more regular around the Nebraska border, and the land reflects this. The grasslands begin here; today the wind whipped the grass in ways that can only be described as waves on the ocean. This is, of course, beautiful, and after many, many days of riding across the desert, refreshing. But it’s more than that, for me anyway: it is yet another reminder of just how dependent we are on nature, despite all of our technology and wealth. Water is the only reason why we have anything at all to eat, and the west is absolute proof of that proposition: irrigation, which of course is a farming strategy that is based on mining a finite resource, is the only reason why there is any agriculture at all in much of the west. And, without the rains that begin somewhere over eastern Wyoming and western Nebraska, we would be unable to feed ourselves. Goodness knows what climate change will mean for the distribution of rainfall patterns over the North American continent; despite what has happened in Iowa this year, if we had to choose, we should always choose more water over less.

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