Thursday, August 4-Sunday, August 6
Heading home. With the last park behind us, we have our eye on Washington. We will have two visits with old friends–one in Des Moines and one in Cincinnati–and will arrive home in just over a week if all goes well. So the assumption would be that the best is over and the only thing left is a grind.
It turns out that still much to see and much that is surprisingly beautiful and interesting. I find myself repeating that I can’t believe how vast and extraordinary our country is.
Our first stop is Cheyenne, Wyoming. To get there we leave the Rockies through a narrow, winding canyon that turns out to be the most dramatic ride yet with steep canyon walls of granite rising straight up for mile after mile. Soon, however, the road becomes flat and we find ourselves in cowboy country. As you would expect, vast open fields and pastures line both sides of the road with cows and occasional horses. Around two we arrive in Cheyenne, an old cow town at the southern tip of Wyoming, which we are too tired to appreciate. We check in at a pretty nice motel billed as a “motel resort” (A golf course surrounds the property.) and immediately set out to see Cheyenne and replenish our beverage supply for happy hour. I type “liquor store” in Google Maps and some 10 or 12 options pop up. The names of all the stores except two are something like, “Abe’s Bar and Package Store.” The other two are some distance away—59 miles in fact for Sam’s Liquor Mart,” so we decide to head to the “Ace Bar and Package Store,” only a mile and a half away.
The store is located in sleazy part of town with auto parts stores, used car lots, fast food outlets, truck stops, two Dollar Stores (Family Dollar and Dollar General, both of which are ubiquitous in small town America) and the like. The building appears to be quite small with a huge blinking sign, “Ace Bar and Package Store.” In the parking lot I count eight Harley Davidson motorcycles and six pick up trucks. It does not exactly look like your typical liquor store, but I decide to enter anyway, leaving Embry in the car. As soon as the door closes behind me I realize that I have made a mistake. Country music is blaring from a juke box. The light is so dim it takes a few moments for my eyes to adjust, but through the haze of thick cigarette smoke, I make out a long bar with a rather large, middle aged lady in a red dress mixing drinks and about a dozen bar stools, all occupied by very large, beefy men, some with cowboy hats, and some with black leather jackets, engaged in loud and boisterous conversations. There are a few empty tables and two, old fashioned TVs displaying blurred images of a baseball game and a rodeo. I look for where the wine selection might be and see a dozen, half-full whisky bottles above the bar and nothing else. As the door shuts, the loud conversation pauses and one hulk of a man with a bushy beard and leather jacket looks around at me and stares, not saying a word, but communicating pretty clearly, “What are you doing here?”
The thought occurs to me that it may seem inappropriate if I ask to see their selection of California chardonnay.
“Oops,” I say, “wrong address,” and bolt for the door.
I am a chicken. I should have stayed. The incident certainly recalls some pages out of Hard Living on Clay Street. But I was 30 then and 74 now. But I confess that I regret I did not “suck it up” and ask where the wine bins were. It surely would have made for a better story.
With that experience I scratch off the list all the “bars and package stores” and head to the only “liquor store” actually in Cheyenne on the Google Maps list, about five miles away. On the way there we pass several dozen “bars and package stores” and drive through a bunch of neighborhoods that look pretty rundown and raunchy. After purchasing the beverages we head back to the resort motel to watch the news—Trump appears to be well on his way to self destructing–enjoy happy hour and then head out to Denny’s for dinner. We regret that we do not have more time to explore Cheyenne, but we are too tired and the next day have to leave early to stay on schedule.
The next morning we stop again at Denny’s for breakfast (By the way if you are searching for the Real America you do not have to look farther than a Denny’s.) and then head north for a couple of hours before turning east toward Nebraska. We have made reservations to stay in a motel in Valentine, a small town in the middle of the sand hills of Nebraska but some 400 miles away. It is going to be a long day.
There are several things that stand out most about the small part Wyoming we drive through and Nebraska. Neither have many trees. There is lots of grass. You don’t see many houses or people or really all that many cows, and there are hardly any towns.
But what is most impressive are the roads. They are long and straight, have wide shoulders, and have no traffic. You can go miles without seeing another vehicle. There are no billboards whatsoever (not, I presume, out of any regard for the environment but because there is nothing to advertise). And beside these long and straight roads, there is often a long and straight river and almost always long and straight railroad tracks. Unlike the roads, the railroad tracks have all kinds of traffic with four diesel engines (two in front and two in the rear) pulling along 150 or so coal cars, one train after another. In other words we find ourselves in another world again, so different from our experience in the desert and the mountains and so different from the East.
Nebraska is especially intriguing. For one thing, it is not flat. Rolling hills surround us almost the entire 400-mile journey of day one and over half the time they are sand hills, which are ancient, massive sand dunes, now covered with a thin layer of grass. Sometimes you think you are driving through a vast golf course like you might find in Scotland. Small lakes and ponds are abundant and dot the landscape. And for the entire first day we see no corn, or for that matter any other kind of crop. It is just one vast wilderness of grasslands, sand hills, and occasional cattle.
Our stay in Valentine, a tiny hamlet of several hundred houses, two gas stations, two motels and two restaurants is pleasant enough, and we set out the next day for another 400 mile drive. Embry has the idea that we must see one of the lakes up close since that is where all the birds and ducks will be. As we pass through a wildlife preserve, we see a dirt road with a sign that says, “auto trail” and decide to take it. Immediately I realize that we may have made a mistake because the bumpy, narrow road is really no more than a path and impossible to turn around on since marsh land is on both sides. We inch along for a good thirty minutes through several small herds of cows before at last finding a spot where we can turn around. I breathe a sigh of relief. We know we are close to small lakes but can’t see them because of the high marsh grass. I concede that the ride is beautiful and worth the effort. We are seeing a part of Nebraska that few tourists see. But it would have been even nicer to get to one of the lakes.
By mid morning when we leave the region of the sand hills cornfields suddenly start to appear. The fields are the largest I have ever seen and go on forever. Small towns are also now abundant and each one seems to have its own towering grain elevator, which is positioned alongside the railroad tracks. By mid afternoon, our back road intersects with the interstate and we take it for a couple of hours to our destination, Platte River State Park.
Embry somehow found this spot on the internet, and it is a real gem. In fact state parks in general are a best kept secret, which tourists often overlook. This one is pretty small, probably under a thousand acres (The national parks we visited tended to be in the millions.) but is packed with stuff to do. It is nestled beside the river and offers hiking trails, a small lake, large swimming pool, a lodge with a dining room, observation deck and something like 100 small cabins. Our cabin is a one bedroom unit with a working fireplace, kitchenette, flat screen TV (permitting us to watch the Olympics), and magnificent views of a valley of fields and pastures. And trees! Hardwoods, the first trees like those we have in the East that we have seen since we entered Oklahoma six weeks ago, surround our cabin. Our only complaint is that one of the activities is a firing range, which is located close enough to our cabin that we hear shots throughout the day.
We spend two nights here, journey into Louisville, a small town six miles away for breakfast and to buy food to cook. The next day we will depart for Omaha.