Eastward Across the Prairie

In Travels With Myself on July 31, 2013 at 1:15 am

There is one other large road sign in Wyoming that I forgot to mention in my last post. About a mile before the start of any road work on the highway, one can see a very large sign that says: Road Work/PAY ATTENTION/or Pay the Price. Aside from the threatening tone of the sign, which seems unduly preemptive in its focus on dire consequences, the extremely low volume of traffic along these roads, plus the way in which said traffic is channeled into very narrow, slow corridors well before and well after any place actual work is being done makes me wonder how a problem developed of such magnitude that these enormous signs were seen as necessary.
In any case, I have seen the last of them. This morning I got off of I 25 and followed US 20 into Nebraska. US 20 is, with only the exception of a few somewhat bumpy stretches, a long, flat, fairly straight road, two-lanes and generous shoulders that takes its own sweet time showing me the scenery of Eastern Wyoming and Northern Nebraska. There are remarkably few towns and few services along the road, especially in Wyoming. Towns such as Shawnee and Keeline barely exist at all, having only a few closed and boarded buildings along the highway and town line markers that mention only the elevation and no population. On the other hand, the town of Lost Springs posts only a population of 4, but has a small town center and a big welcome sign positioned so as to be visible both to the road and to the railroad that runs parallel to it for most of the way. (It was fascinating to see a train nearly three-quarters of a mile long running east with hoppers filled with coal; then see another just as long running west with the hoppers empty.)
Once in Nebraska, the road becomes wider and generally better maintained. The towns are still few and far between, but each has at least a small town center and some businesses. I am staying the night in a self-service RV park that has only one bathroom and no shower, but full hook-ups. A short walk away there is a gas station, two convenience stores/groceries, ad a Main Street on which the only apparently open businesses in the afternoon are the insurance office, the Farm Bureau and the Farmer’s Co-op, with its truck scale and grain elevator. The one bar opens in the evening, and the one restaurant opens only for breakfast, stays open until noon then closes until dinner time. The specialty of the house is an all-you-can-eat buffet. There is also small town green and a park with a very pretty gazebo; and next to the RV park is a well maintained, and completely empty, picnic area ad the town swimming pool which was very busy on this bright 80 degree day.
The one big surprise along the road today, was just before I came into Crawford, where Fort Robinson State Park maintains a very nice historical facility with its own campground, a riding stable and several buildings dating back to the 1800’s. As I have said, US 20 is a flat, wide road, but I was aware that the elevation dropped about 2000 feet from Casper, Wyoming, to Chadron, Nebraska. This didn’t concern me much because that’s a distance of about 200 miles, and I could sense that, even with the occasional hills to climb, I was generally losing altitude. So imagine my surprise when I came around a bend at the base of a hill ad discovered that the road was beginning a long, winding, steep descent that went on for what seemed like several miles. At the end of it the road flattened out and straightened again into a broad valley encircled by the cliffs and mesas and buttes that stretched across the horizon in every direction.
This is wild and beautiful and surprising country. It is also a country to get lost in. I can only imagine what must have gone through the minds of the first Eastern settlers trying to cross these plains to get to California, or the cowboys who drove their herds along the Texas trail on the way to Wyoming and Montana. It must have seemed as though the journey would never end, the mountains never reached or crossed. Even knowing that I had plenty of gas and plenty of time to travel, there were times when I marveled at the isolation in this great sea of the prairie. There were times when mine was the only vehicle on the road for ten miles or more with no stopping places, no towns, ad no indication that there was anything up ahead except the names on my road map and the small dots along the red line of the road.
Two days ago, I crossed from Pacific time to mountain time. Tomorrow I will cross into the central zone, which cuts Nebraska in half. I like the feeling of getting back into my proper time. When I see that it is now an hour later than it just was, I feel as though I can go a little later before stopping for the night, and that makes me feel as though I am making more progress. I can say to myself that the clock may say 4:00 o’clock, but it’s really only 3:00; then immediately forget that and tell myself that I have done well, today, because I have kept going an hour longer than yesterday.

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