Author Theresa L. Goodrich presents Two Lane Gems, Vol. 2: Bison are Giant and Other Observations from an American Road Trip in serial form. Enjoy!
When we’re camping, my body has a very keen awareness of the sunrise. Like clockwork, when it’s still dark but the sky starts to lighten in the distance, it decides I have to go to the bathroom NOW. I’ve learned to keep slip-on shoes next to the air mattress and a flashlight in the tent pocket by the door flap.
I used to think it was the birds getting me up, but the same thing happened in Joshua Tree, where there weren’t any early songs.
Nope. Just my body saying GET UP GET UP GET UP YOU NEED TO GET UP NOW WHY ARE YOU ASLEEP GET UP NOW.
Fine. I went to the bathroom. Came back. Drank a perfect cup of camping coffee as, behind the tree line across the lake, orange turned to yellow and ripples hit the shore from the jumping fish and the anglers in boats looking to land them.
With the exception of the constant drone from the nearby Interstate (which might have been a contributing factor in my early rising), the morning was peaceful. That droning was also a reminder of why we prefer two lanes. Only one other camping experience was noisier – and boy, was it ever, but I’ll tell you about that later.
Only a couple of other campers were awake. It was easy to tell because this campground had no separation between sites. It was a line of plots of grass marked by posts and gravel drives and the occasional tree. This was not my preferred type of camping, but we weren’t there for camping’s sake. We were there to see a keelboat.
Our campground was the Lewis and Clark State Park. I should specify that this was the Lewis and Clark State Park in Iowa, because there are lots of Lewis and Clark State Parks. Iowa’s edition has full-size replicas of the big barge, known as the keelboat, and other boats used on the expedition. They’ve also got Lizard.
If you want to know anything about Lewis and Clark, go to the state park in Iowa and talk to Lizard. “If anyone ever tells you anything about Meriwether and William’s travels, ask them how they heard about it.” He has copies of the original journals and gets his facts straight from the explorers themselves.
I asked Lizard, why Lizard? He wouldn’t tell us until we’d taken a turn through the museum and came back with a question about the exhibits.
When we returned to the front desk, Jim asked about the keelboat and Lizard gave us an inside scoop: Even though the explorers’ main boat is called the “keelboat” over and over again, and the Iowa state park has a replica of the barge Lewis and Clark used and it’s called the Keelboat Display, and their keelboat is mentioned pretty much anywhere you see anything about the explorers, the word keelboat doesn’t appear in their journals.
Meriwether’s pre-expedition shopping list mentioned a “keeled boat,” and they wrote about other boats as being keel boats, but nowhere do they refer to their boat as a keelboat.
Because we did our homework, Lizard gave up the nickname. He told us he’s an historian programmer who specializes in the years of 1804 to 1840. His particular avocation is Mountainman camp organizer and Booshway, or head man at the trading post.
During reenactments, he would keep his pet iguana on his shoulder. One day, he was talking to a lady and this iguana was sitting as still as could be on top of his head. The lady asked him who his taxidermist was, and at that precise moment the coldblooded creature turned its head and stuck its tongue out. The lady clutched her skirts and ran across the field, screaming “LIZAAAARRRDDD!!!!” the entire way.
He’s been Lizard ever since.
We packed up Jeannie the Jeep, our rented chariot, and continued west, crossing the Missouri River and entering Nebraska, our third state. Shortly after we turned north onto the Lewis and Clark Scenic Byway, Jim got news that we’d been dreading.
His aunt died.
He hadn’t seen her in 20 years, and I’d never met her. I was going to, we were supposed to see her, in sixteen days.
We wanted to scrap it all and drive straight to Colfax, Washington. Family said no, don’t.
We stopped at Blackbird Scenic Overview. The symbolic earthlodge, representing a dwelling of the Omaha people, overlooks the Missouri River and is a memorial to Chief Blackbird. A couple who’d parked their RV on the side of the road left as we arrived, and then it was just us, the river below, and Jim’s memories.
I took pictures of the interpretive signs inside the earthlodge to give him space.
So close. Sixteen days.
We followed US-75 north, stopping in Winnebago to see the Clans Sculpture Garden and Cultural Plaza, a circle of twelve statues with each representing a clan in the Winnebago nation. Further up the byway was an historical marker detailing how the Winnebago were forcibly removed from Minnesota to the Dakota Territory, eventually making their way to the Omaha Reservation, where they bought a piece of that nation’s land to make a home of their own. A herd of bison grazed a hundred or so yards away under a grove of trees, which made sense since it was 50 shades of Hades out there.
We turned west on NE20 south of Sioux City, leaving the Lewis and Clark Scenic Byway. Although we would encounter the explorers several times along our journey, we weren’t following their path. Our route was even more convoluted than theirs, and for a short part of it we followed in the hoofprints of Doc Middleton, James Jameson, and the Jesse and Frank James Gang.
The Outlaw Trail Scenic Byway is a stretch of 231 miles across north central Nebraska. We drove it from Devil’s Nest, a network of deep canyons and canopies of trees that offered the perfect hideaway for the brigands, to the Sandhills, miles and miles of sand dunes anchored with grasses. The latter, an ecoregion that covers a little more than a quarter of the state, was designated a National Natural Landmark in 1984.
I didn’t know. I’d driven through Nebraska years ago, and what I remember from that mindless trek was cornfields. Lots of cornfields. That’s how I pictured the state. One. Big. Cornfield. And flat. Oh, my, was it flat. Flatter than my version of Journey at the karaoke bar. Flatter than a crepe. Flatter than a creep flattened by a knockout punch. Flatter than I-80 in Nebraska. Oh, wait.
We drove through marshes and grasslands, over creeks, past shallow lakes, towards green-covered hiccups. There were so many hills and domes it was like Mother Nature had a touch of gas and the Sandhills were what was left, in the most verdant, lush way possible.
(I’ll be using that word a lot. Lush, I mean. Not verdant. That would be obnoxious.)
This was Nebraska?
Yes. THIS was Nebraska.
I knew there was more to the Cornhusker State than corn, because a friend of mine wrote a book called Detour Nebraska. Within its pages I found one surprise after another, including a 70-foot waterfall near a town called Valentine.
It was all blue skies and sunshine until about an hour out from Smith Falls State Park. There was no foreshadowing. One minute it was a bright shiny afternoon, and the next we were driving towards a shelf cloud and extreme weather warnings were popping up on our GPS. Hail. Flooding. Tornadoes.
Did I mention we’d be camping that night?
“It’s going to be OK. It’ll blow over. It’ll be fine,” I muttered to myself with every lightning flash. Would we spend our evening glaring at another dumpster until the storm passed? This was our third day, and if this kind of weather plagued the whole journey, it was going to be a very long trip.
We neared Smith Falls and learned that we’d been driving between two storm cells, both of which were traveling away from us. Somehow we’d threaded the needle. The retreating sky was like the underbelly of a witch’s cauldron. Eye of newt stuff. When we got into the park to see if there were any campsites, the rain had slowed to a drizzle and we could see a hint of sun to the west.
This was the first of our kinda-planned-but-not-really nights. I knew Smith Falls had a campground with a few walk-up sites. There weren’t many, but when two huge storm cells blow through right before you pull up in all your “Hi! You gotta spot?” glory, you’re more likely to find a home for the night. Ranger Amy got us set up and we followed the rain-rutted road down to the campground.
We parked in the grass at the edge of our riverside spot and unloaded our mud-caked bikes. By the time our campsite was arranged, the sun was in full force. You’d never know there’d been a huge storm barreling through an hour or so before.
We took the short hike to the falls, returning in time for the golden hour. A few sites away, a troupe of Boy Scouts settled in, and next to us a family erected a tent that looked like a palace. The Niobrara River flowed by as I seared bacon wrapped filets and sauteed diced potatoes on our campstove.
Another day in the books, we turned in feeling a little more like our road warrior selves, although we still had a ways to go.