On the Road Summer 2021 Days 2 & 3 Mark Twain & Nebraska
On the Road – Days 2 & 3 Mark Twain National Forest & Nebraska
The goal was to make it to a camping site in the Mark Twain National Forest by nightfall. Skies remained hazy with a putrid yellow smog. This was not what the weather app led one to believe with its happy bright sun. The air quality was lousy. The breezometer on my phone confirmed this. I searched for wildfire information to allay my concerns. Or had the air quality across the entire country dramatically deteriorated since I had last crossed it during the summer? It’s in the heat of summer when warm air inversions are more likely to trap the photochemical smog, encouraging a toxic soup to meld. How long had it been? It was certainly possible. So much had changed during my lifetime. I found no information about wildfire smoke spreading this far southeast, but I did see many more vehicles than ever before. The stream of vehicles in both directions looked like a sci-fi max exodus with conflicting destinations. Chrome gleamed and flashed under an oppressive silver sky. Heat waves rose from the whole ungodly scene. Piercing-blue halogen lights scarred corneas in oncoming traffic in favor of selfish drivers. Huge pickup trucks, yes, it’s not your imagination: despite the record high of deadly atmospheric carbon dioxide people are driving bigger and bigger pickups– as well as recreational vehicles, a 34% increase in new shipments in 2021 alone… obesities with their kitchens, showers and bedrooms convulsing as the steady stream moved relentlessly along the interstate. And this was just one interstate. One road. I had relocated to the hinterlands when the orange air and sepia skyline of my town, one of the cleanest and artsiest cities, became too oppressive, too constant. Austin has a lot to offer, but with typical American optimistic blindness, the downsides like traffic congestion and smog are seldom noted. Reflecting back on the nearby paper mill and the equidistant creosote plant, I began to realize there might be nowhere pristine to live anymore. Gassing up in St. Louis, I asked a man if the air quality was always this poor. He answered, “Yes. It’s getting hard to breathe.” I pulled the N95 mask from my glove compartment. This couldn’t be healthy.
The oceans are taking the brunt of this acidification. They will soon lose both the dilution and cooling effects of melting glaciers. What will be the cascading effects of losing the coral reefs, nurseries for one quarter of the ocean’s marine life? Losing our glaciers from the warming temperatures is not just a problem of rising seas. Mismatched camouflaged animals becoming easy prey for all will cause their primary predators to decline. And their primary predators will decline and so on up the line. The loss of services they perform like fertilization will cause even more holes in the web of life. But today my thoughts turn to the problems melting glaciers will cause in Asia. Almost half of the world’s population relies upon waters that originate in Tibet for their water. Six rivers whose source is melting glaciers.
I’ve been tutoring Chinese online in English, which the Chinese government abruptly declared illegal just before I left. They lifted the ban on two children families as their social security coffers are drying up. They want parents to use disposable income to have a third child rather than on educating their extant children. As an environmental writer, I can’t but find it alarming that a country with a population approaching one and a half billion is actively encouraging population growth. More people mean more goods manufactured, more fossil fuel consumption, higher global temperatures and fewer snowcapped mountains. Of course, I am aware of my own hypocrisy, burning fossil fuel. But at least my vehicle is relatively small and gets good mileage. I do not have a ridiculously giant pickup hauling a ridiculously giant recreational vehicle towing all-terrain vehicles as many who pass me do.
I take a deep breath and turn on Spotify. This mental downslide is too much. I need music with no ads, no news. I’ll find another job when I get home. A mindful vocation, thank you very much. At least I’ll try to take right action.
The Pine Ridge Recreation Area in the Mark Twain Forest is near New Bloomfield, Missouri. Follow the directions on the website, not Google maps. It’s along a paved road. Google maps took me seven miles down a dirt road unnecessarily. If I don’t have to, I’d rather not get the car filthy as I end up leaning against it a lot. This campground does not require fees; it accepts donations. There is a vault toilet and potable water available from hydrants. Something weird was going on in the woods behind my site near the campground host site. A lot of shouting and banging and clanging and revving of engines. It did not culminate until I was almost asleep. Were drunk people trying to tow a disabled RV out of a small turnaround in the campground?
The grass meadow where my picnic table sat was lovely, but so open that my site had zero privacy. On the next site over sat a smashed-up dusty black truck with its window down that looked only temporarily abandoned by a serial killer. Warily, I heated up some soup, scanning the surrounding forest as I ate. It was too early and hot to crawl into my car and sleep, so I spread a blanket on the grass and read until the sun sunk. By then I had a neighbor on my other side, a fairly new Sprinter whose occupants pretty much stayed inside but could probably hear me scream if the serial killer did return, hatchet in hand. Whether they’d bother helping was a matter I was too tired to ponder. I crawled into my stifling hot car and locked the doors. Nor did I want to waste any more imaginings on what the rednecks with the revving motors were doing exactly. Instead, I imagined I was acclimated to the tropics, having grown up in an equatorial jungle, not in the chilly mountains of Pennsylvania… and let myself sink into a deep, sultry torpor.
Morning came with the goal of getting close to the Niobrara Scenic River by nightfall so that I could pick up my Junior Ranger book soon after the visitor center opened the following morning and make it to a kayak rental appointment. I could scan the book and then have my eyes open for anything I might learn while floating through the wildlife refuge. Have I mentioned the Junior Ranger program? I am weirdly passionate about earning Junior Ranger pins. It is a program offered by the national parks and some of the monuments, ostensibly for children. The goal is to teach about the flora, the fauna, the history, the geology, whatever it is that is significant about the park or monument. To this end, the Park Rangers create a book with age-specific tasks; the older you are the more tasks you need to complete. This can be taking designated hikes, identifying plants, answering questions about the history of the park. It is a deep dive into understanding what you are seeing and truly opens your eyes to wonders you might otherwise not even notice. Once the book is completed, it is reviewed by a Park Ranger. This can be a moving experience. At Glacier National Park, I wrote a story based in part on information I learned at an evening Ranger program and received a standing ovation by those gathered around. Once the Ranger is convinced that you truly understand the significance of the Park, you swear to conserve and protect the park; this pledge usually includes picking up litter and an oath to teach others what you have learned. Then you are awarded a badge. I was deputized to swear in applicants when I worked as the Concierge at Bryce Canyon National Park. The first time, the small queue behind the child hoping to earn his pin was silent and respectful. All were teary-eyed as he swore his oath.
Not counting the wedding accommodations in Stanley, I’d made a total of three reservations, all at the beginning of the trip. The first was the kayak rental as I really wanted to make sure one would be available, knowing nothing of the commerce along the Niobrara outside Valentine, Nebraska. The second and third were campsite reservations in the Badlands and at the Teddy Roosevelt National Park, respectively. I didn’t see any inviting camping nearby and didn’t want to be bullied off Park property by well-meaning Rangers. As my trip progressed, I found that my initial concerns were unfounded. I found good camping everywhere, some of it free, the rest costing only pocket change. I have an “America the Beautiful” Senior pass, which gets me into all national parks as well as half-off camping fees when it’s the Park running the campground and generally a smaller percentage when it’s run by concessionaires under contract with the Park. It’s a beautiful thing. The Annual Pass also confers discounts. Check out this website for detailed information on passes that may be available to you: https://store.usgs.gov/pass.
Generally, I don’t like having reservations. How can I possibly know in advance how much I will enjoy a place and how long I will want to stay? Or whether I might find something interesting en-route? Or whether I might find out about another place it makes sense to visit while I’m in the general area? Perhaps I might decide to completely discard my initial itinerary and go somewhere I hadn’t anticipated. Reservations can be a buzz kill. I was glad to have the first three though and was pretty intent on making them. They also compelled me to get across the country in fairly short order. I did want to explore the north and Pacific northwest as extensively as I could. I wanted to visit Glacier National Park; I had been trying to since 1976, having turned back twice due to blizzards. I wanted to hike sections of the Pacific Crest Trail if at all possible. And I wanted to explore the Olympic Peninsula.
But first I wanted to see the Nebraska grasslands and float past pink bluffs, prairie wildflowers and rad foliage from six converging biomes. It was a little over two hours on I-70 to Kansas City, where I would shoot north to Iowa on Highway 29, then take Iowa Highway 2 west to Interstate 80 in Nebraska. I was hoping the grasslands would begin. But no. We are talking serious cornfields here. Miles and miles and miles. The toxic reek of herbicides compelled me to don my mask as I drove through the environmental disaster. King Corn: cattle feed. I had high hopes for Nebraska 2 North, which turned out to be one of those poorly engineered roads with the bumps that feel like you’ve got a flat, and a rail line running parallel to it. Warren Buffet’s railroad BNSF cars chugged by constantly, heading north and south, carrying all kinds of things, including literally thousands of crude oil containers, and spewing enough thick black diesel smoke into the omnipresent smog to choke you to death. I wonder, on balance, which pollutes more. Transporting all of these commodities by tractor-trailer highways or by rail. I was grateful for fewer trucks on the highway, but lordie, can’t we have cleaner rail?
Of course, transporting fewer commodities would go a long way as well.
I’d been hoping for a mindless, idyllic drive. Was my phone charged enough yet for another hit of Spotify?
Temperatures were hovering around one hundred degrees. After nine hours of driving, I was hot, tired and had a headache from the black crap spewing from the trains. I’d given up hope for the planet and just wanted to swim in a cool, preferably relatively clean river. Stopping in the Bessey Ranger District of the Nebraska National Forest, I leaned over a railing, gazing hopefully at a stretch of river. The placard indicated that the Dismal River flows along the southern edge of the Bessey Ranger District and merges with the Middle Loup west of Dunning. The river did not look dismal, but the sign advising that water in prairie rivers such as this, fed by the Ogallala Aquifer boils up from the river in places forming quicksand. Sure, I was feeling crusty and overheated, and a bit depressed about the future, but I wasn’t sure how I felt about stepping into quicksand that might pull me under water. I pulled into the campground to scope out the river. A young dad was leaving the river with his four-year old son who had been swimming. He quickly dismissed my fears, saying he’d been coming here for years and while the current could be daunting, it was a safe swimming spot. He was wearing cowboy boots, so clearly had not been planning on rescuing his little boy. I paid for the site directly across from the steps leading to the river, changed into my swimsuit and headed down to the cool water. On the bottom step, I was assaulted by a pang in my head. Oh, they had smothered the bottom post in creosote. Couldn’t they have found a less toxic preservative? The river was clear and shining in the sun. The current in the middle was fast. The sign had said that these prairie rivers running through the sandhills run at a steady rate. The heavy loads of sediment these rivers carry form sand bars which provide roosting habitat for the sandhill crane, the least tern and the piping plover. While sandhill cranes are tall birds, the least terns are not. They are called the least tern because it’s the smallest of American terns, an adult weighing only 1.4 ounces, so just about every small mammal and larger bird considers it prey. A sandbar in the middle of a river would at least deter dogs, cats, skunks, foxes and raccoons. Sandbars not only deter mammals, but also protect the plovers, their nests and eggs from off-road vehicles. According to Global Market Insights the off-road vehicles market size was over USD 15 billion in 2020, and it is projected to continue growing. I’ve never met an ATV rider who expressed concern over plover bird eggs, so I was relieved the nearby bank where the threatened Northern Great Plains piping plovers were hopping around was short, muddy and steep. A lot of sandbars have been overtaken by invasive plant species to the natural habitat these birds need to nest and roost; the Fish and Wildlife Service is working to restore them.
I enjoyed my swim immensely. I like fighting against a current. At the top of the stairs was a shower for rinsing, but the river water was clean, and it looked like the shower pulled straight from the river, so I didn’t see the sense. I changed into warm clothes and set out my cooking gear on the picnic table to prepare dinner. A large revving sound came from the corner of the campground. It sounded like a couple semi-trucks had got themselves stranded in too small of a space. The back-up beeping of one of them was shrill and set the campground dogs barking. Was it scraping against trees? People were shouting. I couldn’t picture what was going on over there. The campsites I passed were all full. Was someone trying to squeeze others into their site? It wasn’t my problem. I was grateful that my little corner of the world was peaceful. I settled on my site because the adjacent one was reserved for the day before and tonight by someone who appeared not to be showing up. I cleaned up the dishes and settled down with my journal and pen.
Then a stocky short-haired dishwater blond woman crossed across my campsite two steps in front of the picnic table where I was sitting, without so much as glancing over. She was heading intently toward a small white box at the edge of the paved drive of the reserved campsite next to me. She flipped open the door of the box, slapped it shut and marched back, retracing her steps. “Hello,” I piped up, smiling kindly. She turned a glowing, dimpled face to me. She appeared in her mid-forties. “Hello,” she answered, continuing back around the bushes to the corner of the campground toward the ferocious melee. Curious, I walked over to the mysterious white box. An electrical connection for an RV.
A few minutes later the entire circus descended upon me. First, a mega pickup pulling a mega recreational vehicle inched slowly past on its way to the cul-de-sac behind a screen of bushes where I knew there was an appropriate space for them. However, the driver, the woman I had seen was only using the cul-de-sac to turn her rig around. She returned in short order, the vehicles hooked together hunkering and spluttering in front of me. Jerkily, she pulled her pickup to face the river and began a protracted process of backing into the drive just a few yards from me. She was missing the drive by a fat margin. Moments later another large dark blue pickup appeared in front of me, this one with both an all-terrain-vehicle and a golf cart secured in its bed. A large masculine woman with a ruddy face and wearing a neon orange polyester shirt sat at the wheel looking cross. She began shouting terse directions to the prettier woman. “Turn the wheel left! For God’s sake, not that far!” She sighed in disgust. “Pull forward and try again. Now go back straight like I showed you!” “No! Come forward! You’re never going to fit it in that way! Why can’t you listen to me?” As she was barking her orders, a third vehicle appeared. A shiny back Escalade with an extended cab. A chubby woman wearing a tight fuchsia dress and bright red lipstick jumped out, leaving her car motor running. My view of the river was now filled with these three women and their oversized toys. This younger woman had pulled her bleached blonde hair into a pony-tail bobbing from the top of her crown. It swung back and forth as she sauntered about. She went about her way, seemingly oblivious of the increasingly hostile communication between the other two women. First, she disengaged the ramp from the still-running pickup. Then she sallied up to the bed and unfastened the bungee cords around the golf cart. She hopped in and drove it expertly backwards down the ramp, circling around to the back gate of her Escalade. She then proceeded to unload bag after bag of junk food from the Escalade into the golf cart. Once the cart was too full to fit another bag of chips or can of soda in, she drove the cart the twenty feet over to their new campsite’s picnic table. The pert dimpled dishwater blonde was trying yet another time to back the recreational vehicle into the drive, when her ruddy-faced supervisor swore, “God dammit! Alright!” and opened her driver door. Two enormous Doberman Pinschers leaped over her lap and bounded onto the road in front of me, where they bared their teeth at each other, snarling. One snapped at the other and the second sunk its sharp teeth into his face. The ruddy faced woman yelled, “Stop that! Stop that now!” to no avail. The dimpled driver shrieked and slammed the RV into the picnic table with a loud thwack. The pony-tailed blonde pouring chips into a yellow plastic bowl never even looked up.
I packed up my gear and drove my little car through the center of their melee, to the empty site in the screened cul-de-sac. In front of me was a small balcony over the water with a bench from which I could watch the sun sink, its reflection spreading toward me across the ripples of the river. I stuffed in earplugs, took a deep breath and focused on finding wildflowers in the tall grasses along the riverbank. It was clear that I was going to have to keep the ear plugs in if I wanted any sleep as two of three of my neighbors were still barking in a volume befitting giants. Sadly, this was necessary if they were to hear each other’s bludgeoning criticisms over their blaring radio.
Tomorrow would be another long day of driving. I hoped to get close enough to Valentine, Nebraska to be at the Visitor Center shortly after it opened the following morning to pick up a Junior Ranger book and then get to the nearby river outfitters to sign in for my kayak rental.