Where the West Begins.
With hills of fresh white snow glimmering in the sun of a beautiful October day, I crossed into Nebraska via the Pine Ridge Reservation and onto Nebraska State Highway 87. Blue skies above the Nebraska National Forest were a friendly welcome to the Cornhusker State. I was surprised by the nation’s 37th state, assuming the Great Plains to be just that — rather plain, but the panhandle of Nebraska is full of gems. I’d soon find a whole new sense of awe for Nebraskaland, “Where the west begins”.
Buttes and bulls make up Nebraska’s bootheel that extends over Colorado. Covered in a layer of snow, the Great Plains were uniquely beautiful; and each surprising geologic formation that I passed made this state of rivers and prairies even more charming. Cascading over rolling hills, winding through rich forests, I eventually coasted into Chadron, NE. I was sure to apologize to the state of Nebraska for all judgments before my visit as I pulled south onto U.S. 385, ‘The Gold Rush Byway’.
Nebraska’s fertile ground was home to humankind for thousands of years before European colonizers arrived. The historic tribes such as Pawnee, Omaha, Missouria, and some branches of the Lakota had established trade routes and settlements long before Spain, Britain, and France began contending for “control” of the area. The 1700s were wrought with conflict as the European powers formed treaties with the tribes, using them as pawns in another chess game of the New World.
By 1819 the United States was moving westward, and the first American fort was built in the area. The California Gold Rush began in 1848 and settlers on their journey west poured through the Great Plains to chase their golden dreams; via a broken wagon wheel or passion for the land, many stayed to pursue the Cornhusker lifestyle. On May 30, 1854, U.S. Congress passed the Kansas-Nebraska Act, creating the Kansas and Nebraska territories. Portions of what is today Colorado, North Dakota, South Dakota, Wyoming, and Montana were all included in the Nebraska territory, the capital established in Omaha.
After the U.S. forced the Native American tribes to give up their lands and live on reservations in the late 1860s, huge portions of land were opened up for settlers. Via Homestead Acts, the government opened up 160 million acres of public land for free to 1.6 million homesteaders. Any adult that never fought against the United States was eligible to apply, including Black Americans, Women, and Immigrants who had applied for citizenship. With roughly 10% of the country’s land up for grabs after being stolen from the natives, there was a mass migration west. Taking the shape we know today, Nebraska became a state on March 1st, 1867.
With the sun fading in fall splendor, I wound my domicile-on-wheels through the canyons of the famed Pine Ridge and made camp in Chadron State Park. Nebraska’s first state park, Chadron is one of the region’s preeminent hiking and mountain biking destinations. Over 100 miles of handsome trails and vintage roads provide a range of options for everyone, and a pine view swimming pool is open all summer long. If you’re feeling fancy, the park also offers 22 cabins for rent; they come with air conditioning, heating, and are fully furnished with all the essentials for a proper Nebraska cabin experience.
Beyond hiking and biking, Chadron State Park hosts many other activities, such as paddle boating, disc golf, and sand volleyball. Historical programs run by the park offer a greater glimpse at the area’s fascinating history, which can be lived out by taking a horseback trail ride and stopping off at the trading post. In winter Chadron is a popular place for sledding, and I wished there was time on my trip for a good sled ride — but instead I compromised with a foil-wrapped campfire dinner and mulled wine while listening to Bruce Springsteen’s “Nebraska” album.
If you’re a butte man like myself…No, get your head out of the gutter. I mean Buttes with an e, the geologic formation created by erosion when stronger rock exists above a less resistant rock, creating pinnacles that stand above plains and deserts. Nebraska’s panhandle is full of a variety of these, the most famous being Chimney Rock — for fans of the video game Oregon Trail, this is a familiar name. During the migration west, Chimney Rock was a key landmark on the Mormon, California, and Oregon trails. U.S. Route 26 follows the old Oregon Trail and runs past the butte to the north on its way west, where it eventually ends on the Oregon coast in Astoria, OR. My inner third-grader was ecstatic upon seeing Chimney Rock as it brought back all the memories of dysentery, fording rivers, and the death of digital oxen. To finally see the butte in person was a moment akin to making it to the trail’s end in the video game.
Not far from Chimney Rock is Scotts Bluff National Monument, a mixed prairie and badlands landscape full of buttes that runs along the North Platte River. I didn’t have time to swing through the park but decided it would be a good trip to make next time. The monument protects over 3,000 acres and is loaded with remnants of historic overland trails that carried over 250,000 emigrants westward between 1843 and 1869. With the spirit of the emigrants on my mind, I became eager to see the Rockies in their mighty glory. With sights set on the Pawnee National Grassland in Colorado, I continued my journey due south.
Entering Colorado from a border on the plains is a mind-bender, especially when you see Colorado license plates flaunting the snow-covered mountains. I couldn’t help but hear Jim Carrey’s voice from “Dumb and Dumber” questioning John Denver’s integrity. The state of Colorado is cut in half by the Rockies, making the entire eastern portion of the state still part of the Great Plains — not generally how the great state of Colorado sells itself. However there are few things on the planet that compare with the first sighting of the Rockies headed westbound, suddenly seeing looming silhouettes of mountain peaks in the distance inspires that raw feeling of adventure.
But in October of 2020, the mountains had an eerie feeling that I had become all too familiar with in California, Oregon, and Washington earlier in the year. The smoke from the massive wildfires and a strong northerly wind created a cloud that covered the base of the mountains but left the peaks towering above to create the illusion of floating mountains. Horrifying as the fires were, it was special to see such a phenomenon.
Pawnee National Grassland was out of the path of the smoke, leaving me alone in the wide-open land as I camped for free in a dispersed camping area near the Pawnee Buttes Trailhead. The Pawnee Buttes are the crown jewel of the National Grassland, which boasts plenty of uninterrupted prairie lands and the beautiful Chalk Bluffs: a barren chalk escarpment that stretches from the South Platte River to the Wyoming border. Most visitors come to this desolate part of Colorado for the famous bird watching opportunities, which are so plentiful the National Audubon Society has recognized it as a site of “global importance”. Of the raptors that nest in the area, the most well-known are Swainson’s hawks, golden eagles, and prairie falcons.
I spent three days and four nights on the grasslands enjoying the view of the mountains and the near-constant prairie wind that provides a playground for the region’s famed birds of prey. These were the final days of my four-month camping expedition around the northwest, and I wanted to soak up all the prairie had to offer. It would be a bitter return to civilization after falling in love with the plains upon my arrival in North Dakota at the beginning of the month. But as Edward Abbey said in ‘Desert Solitaire’:
“Balance, that’s the secret. Moderate extremism. The best of both worlds. Unlike Thoreau who insisted on one world at a time, I am attempting to make the best out of two.”
Toward the mountains, into the city, the Jeep destined to be parked in Denver as I return to the front lines of civilization to rebuild my bank account, develop my film, and prepare for the next journey into the wilds of America.
Four months on the road through deserts, mountains, and finally the Great Plains; I was full of new wonder for the environmental diversity of the US. The patchwork of ecosystems is beautiful, and that includes the Midwest. Epic clouds floating in bright blue skies, awe-inspiring sunsets against vast rolling prairies; the plains are home to a unique sense of adventure that longingly awaits.