Great Plains and Rocky Mountains

Here are photos from my recent trip across the western Great Plains of Nebraska into the Rocky Mountains of Colorado.

Nebraska sand hills

It was hard to tear myself away from my family but I’m home again. I returned on State Highway 2 through the Nebraska Sand Hills. The Sand Hills are about as desolate and beautiful as any place I’ve seen in this country. It’s all rangeland and those tiny endangered Western Plains towns I’m always hearing about. The one or two hotels in the areas must depend on the railroad crews for business. I had a hard time finding a room, but there was almost no traffic on the highway.

On the way I stopped at Carhenge–Stonehenge made of old cars–north of Alliance, Nebraska. Carhenge bills itself as a “car sculpture reserve”. Alliance, which in turn calls itself an “oasis in the Sand Hills” was a good place to take a short break before heading across the hundreds of miles of depopulated grasslands.

Rocky Mountains

I’m done with three days of camping and hiking at Rocky Mountain National Park.

A saw-toothed ridge of bare gray mountains cuts into the clear blue sky.
Rocky mountains

The Aspenglen campground is off the shuttle route, but it’s small, quiet, and near Estes Park. The tent sites are really nice, which for me means it is easy to drive my tent stakes into the ground with a rock. The park provides each camping loop with a bear-proof food locker, but I was only one who used it. I figured out why pretty fast: The families and couples who camp there bring tons of food–the backs of their SUVs and minivans are loaded with coolers, Rubbermaid bins, and the tools of eating and cooking. And I thought I brought too much food. Most of it fit in a container borrowed from my mom; I also have a portable gas camp stove and some utensils. Anyway, the bear lockers are a good idea; they’re not secured against other campers but they let us store food somewhere other than our cars. With better planning families should be able to bring less food and store it in the locker.

Three pine trees on the slope of a valley meadow clearing surrounded by coniferous forest.
Little Horseshoe Park

So I hiked about 20 miles in three days, and my knees were screaming during the last half-mile. I’m icing them now. I’ve decided I like the scenery of the desert Southwest better than the mountains, but I really like hiking up those high mountain lakes. Sometimes when I’m looking up at the tall, barren, mountain tops I wonder, “what’s up there?” and I know that’s what drives people to climb them. And it’s hard to believe that when you’re climbing up a steep mountain trail that there’s a lake up there somewhere.

A clear blue lake is lined with pines and spruces, flanked by gray mountains, and fed from melting glaciers.
Emerald Lake

Rocky Mountain is a busy park. I know it has it’s quieter areas but I didn’t go to them this time around. I know from experience that no matter how many people crowd around a trailhead, I can outhike most of them to find some quiet. But there were quite a few people up at Lake Haiyaha and Black Lake, though there were still many people up there. Contrast that with my backcountry trip to Baker Lake at Great Basin National Park, far from any metropolitan areas or even large towns, where I saw no one for twenty-four hours.

An orange, black, and white butterfly on a yellow flower with wings spread displays a false-eye pattern.
Butterfly on a yellow flower

I saw mountain bluebirds and tassle-eared squirrels, and coyotes for the first time. I caught a glimpse of something on the opposite slope of Black Lake; maybe it was a cougar, but it could have been anything.

Pawnee National Grassland

I entered Colorado this morning by the back door, passing through Pawnee National Grassland.

An ocean of short green grass extends from the barbed wire fence along the road to the hills on the horizon.

Aside from being awed by the massiveness of this tract of shortgrass prairie, I saw a small group of pronghorns attempt to cross the road. A couple made it across, then panicked when a truck approached and returned to the field. Those barbed wire fences mean nothing to the pronghorns, they stuck it to the man and jumped right over.

A brown pronghorn on the green shortgrass prairie shows me his white rump.

Scotts Bluff

It was so hot yesterday that I held off visiting Scotts Bluff until the evening. The park doesn’t let bikes up the tour road until they close it to cars at 7:00. It turns out that Gering has a nice bike path connecting to the monument so I killed some time biking into town and back. Then I waited patiently for the rangers to close the road before hauling up tour road. I was huffing and puffing, and didn’t discover how to the use the big gear on my bike until I was near the top. I don’t ever use that gear in Iowa. The sun was setting when I got to the top and I didn’t linger long to enjoy the view.

The campground in Gering was meant for RVs. The weather was nice so I just spread my sleeping pad and bag on the grass. The road lights, mosquitoes, and trains keep me up part of the night. But I got up early and hiked up to the top of the bluff to enjoy the view a little longer.

Notes on Nebraska

Since refueling stops at the Omaha airport don’t count, this is my first visit to Nebraska.

A one-room sod prairie house with a wagon wheel gate.

Eastern Nebraska, or at least along I-80 in the Platte River Valley seems like a flatter, drier, and less populous version of Iowa. The major cities (Omaha, Lincoln, Grand Island, North Platte) get smaller and smaller as you drive west. I was tried to determine the precise moment when I passed from the Midwest to the West. The Mountain Time-Central Time frontier is a little arbitrary but demarcates the transition well enough for my purposes. When I left North Platte this morning, I noticed the hay fields and cattle pastures replacing the corn fields, and the landscape getting a little more rugged.

But Western Nebraska is definitely in “the West”, complete with Buffalo Bill’s ranch and the Chimney Rock. In fact, all I had to do was turn off the Interstate at Oglalla and head toward Scottsbluff, and, presto, I was in the arid West driving over bluffs and canyons.

I’m in Gering, near Scotts Bluff National Monument. It’s blazing hot and bone dry and there are few trees. Scottsbluff and Gering are unattractive industrial towns. There is little shade in the well-kept city campground. When it cools off I’m going to bring my bike to the monument and try to cycle up the road to the top of the bluff.

Technology gap

Turns out I’m a musical caveman.

I got my previous car, the Ubiquitous Red Plymouth, from my grandfather after he died about 10 years ago. Aside from being red, it was no-frills and didn’t have a tape deck. I don’t have a Walkman or a Discman or an I-Pod or any such thing. I just got used to playing with the seek button on the radio when I wanted to hear music on long trips.

My present car has a tape deck, but I still don’t have any tapes. In fact, I was so used to not playing tapes in the car that I (without thinking) got rid of my cassettes before I moved last year.

I think this was all for the better–it forces me to listen to the local radio stations (insofar as they exist) and therefore something different–but by the time I got to Nebraska yesterday I was feeling a little desperate to hear music I wanted to hear. Nobody sells cassettes anymore, though, except for thrift shops and I couldn’t find anything good. The man in a CD store in Omaha said, “You’re in the wrong century.” “I know,” I retorted, “but so is my car.”

No problem. Nebraska Public Radio is saving the day. Classical music is a decent soundtrack to another vacation adventure.

Phil Rizzuto

In my family, the death of a great (and especially an Italian) Yankee rates a call home.

Phil Rizzuto, the “Scooter”, died this week. If you don’t know who Phil Rizzuto was, you probably didn’t grow up in New York or as a Yankees fan. He was the great shortstop for the Yankees in the 1940s and 1950s, but that was so long ago that even my dad barely remembers him playing. But he was a Yankees broadcaster for about 40 years and when I was growing up his was the voice I expected to hear during a game. My first memory of him was announcing Reggie Jackson at bat, he said “Reginald Jackson”, which I thought was “Reggie old Jackson” so I went around saying “Reggie old Jackson” for a while.

He was a beloved figure among local fans. We always thought it was a sin that he wasn’t in the Hall of Fame but for a long time the people who made that decision disagreed with us. I looked for some statistical evidence that he belonged there: though the Most Valuable Player in 1950 he hit .273 in his career, not so impressive, and his fielding stats told me nothing. My parents knew better and reminded me so. Dad always said that he was the shortstop for seven championship teams, who else can say that? If Pee Wee Reese could get into the Hall then Rizzuto should too. During the dark years of the 1980s and early 1990s, when the Yankees were an annual disappointment if not completely terrible, my mom prophesied, “The Yankees won’t win another world series until they have another great shortstop.”

And he was no great broadcaster by some standards. He always called his broadcast partner, the skilled former first baseman and professional announcer Bill White by his last name. He’d tell stories, wish people happy birthdays, praise canolis, complain about the traffic on the George Washington Bridge. “Rizzuto’s talking about everything except the game”, my dad said. But he was a baseball fan’s announcer. Anyone who suffers through the postseason listening to Tim McCarver over-analyzing everything knows what we’re missing.

When the Yankees retired his number 10 at Yankee Stadium in 1985 they presented him with a “Holy Cow”–his signature expression in bovine form–which promptly knocked him down. Tom Seaver won his 300th game against the Yankees that day. I always felt a little bad for the Scooter.

Rizzuto did get voted into Cooperstown in 1994. The word is that Ted Williams campaigned for his induction; Yogi Berra, Pee Wee Reese, and Bill White had all been added to the selection committee. His peers knew better if the pundits didn’t.

Iowa State Fair

My former boss said one of the things I had to do in the Midwest was go to a state fair. So today I went to fulfill a fantasy of corn dogs, tractor pulls, and giant pigs (or giant pigs pulling tractors if there is such a thing) at the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines. In fact, there weren’t any tractor pulls on the schedule. I did eat a good corn dog, but managed to avoid funnel cake, fried twinkies and other atrocities-on-a-stick. I also saw big pigs, sheep shearing, a pony show, giant pumpkins, farm machinery, freaky carnies, and creaky rides.

My goal for this fair was to check out the agricultural exhibits. The county fair back home on Long Island, at least as I remember it, was a pretty nonagricultural affair. It never dawned on me that fairs have their roots in agriculture until I went to the Common Ground Country Fair in Unity, Maine. While checking out the poultry house I overheard a lady saying, “Oh, a laying hen. We need a laying hen, don’t we?” I thought to myself, “Yeah, I need a laying hen too. Ha ha ha.” Then I realized they weren’t joking and what an ignorant kid from the suburbs I was.

By the way, though Iowans know their corn and sausages, the snow cones here are terrible. I propose that all snow cone vendors take a mandatory two-week sabbatical on Staten Island to study the fine Italian ices available there before they peddle their crushed-ice-and-syrup here.

Home

Last night we ate at a fondue restaurant. I’d never done this before but it was fun and educational. You cook some of the food yourself in oil or broth (I ordered a plate of vegetables, for example). There’s also cheese and chocolate for the respective appetizers and desserts.

Back in Iowa. Modern air travel continues to amaze me. Yesterday I was riding a horse. Tonight I am typing on my computer, which I finally unpacked this afternoon. This morning I was driving past the arid yellowed grasslands of Colorado under a clear blue sky and by afternoon I was driving past the lush green farms of Iowa.

By the way, Colorado corn is puny compared to Iowa corn. Puny!

Western-style recreation

The author, in blue jeans and a red shirt, on brown horse at a horse ranch.I got on my dad’s horse Belle yesterday. Though I haven’t ridden a horse since last fall I was comfortable and she was much better behaved than last time. In the evening we went handgun shooting at a range in Fort Collins. It’s really easy to get a handgun in Colorado. My father, brother, and sister-in-law have made a little hobby out of it. It’s not really my cup of tea (I’d rather shoot a rifle if anything) but when in Colorado do as the transplanted Long Islanders do.

Two emus in a pen: one close-up, the other crouching beyond.

A prairie dog gets ready to dart into its hole as I approach to take a photo.

Hooverfest

Two bursts of fireworks as seen from below.Saturday was Hooverfest, our annual celebration of Herbert Hoover’s birthday. The park and its partners had made some changes to the event to reinvigorate it. The forecast called for foul weather, and thought it didn’t rain very hard it was enough to keep some people away during the afternoon activities. The evening fireworks were well attended, from what I could tell, but I was posted in obscure corner of the park for part of the event. So I missed most of the program, but I was right underneath the fireworks as they went off.

A lot of planning went into this year’s event and a lot of hard work. It’s hard to get mad at the weather but I’d like to know what the crowds would have been like had it been nicer.

A Hooverball player catches a six-pound medicine ball on an outdoor volleyball court.

A plexiglass exhibit from the Army Corps of Engineers simulates the deadly currents that threaten boaters below low-head dams.

Bill Richardson

One of my goals this year is to see at least one presidential candidate.

Yesterday evening Bill Richardson spoke at the University. He’s been all over Iowa the last few weeks. I always had a high opinion of him because of his various experience and accomplishments. A couple of hundred people attended. My first impression of him was that he was half an hour late. Other than that he was interesting. He has fairly typical Democrat ideas, but at least he has them. He only made veiled references to the other Democratic front-runners, saying things like “I’m not a rock star” or “I’m not trying to start class warfare”.

The crowd was pretty liberal, and older for the most part. Even though the University Democrats hosted the event, most of the students are still out of town. Nobody asked him tough questions, but there were a lot of questions that seemed intended to verify that he stood for what they stood for.

He was still taking questions when I left. Everybody else stayed, which is a good sign for him.

New apartment

I moved into my new place on Sunday and Monday. It’s on the third floor and is was hot those days. Man, I was tired.

I keep telling people it’s slightly larger than old apartment, but now that I’m living there it is quite a bit larger. I was really crowded in that little place.

So far I like it a lot.