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 mass
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 are encouraging larger families as their social security
coffers are drying up. They want parents to use disposable income to have more children 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
deter mammals, but also protect the plovers, their nests and eggs from off-road vehicles.
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 black
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
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
Tomorrow would be another long day of driving. My goal was still 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.