Portland, Oregon to Chicago


Fall 2008


Denis Kertz, ©2008


Day 24: Wed, Sep 24, 2008 - Lusk, WY to Chadron, NE [87.3, 7:14:42, 12.1 mph]

I was looking forward to breakfast at the truck stop near my RV park because another cyclist's trip report had raved about the huge pancakes.  So it was a big disappointment when the pancakes were medium sized, and certainly not large, much less huge.  As a result my breakfast was just adequate with 2 pancakes, eggs, sausage, and bacon.  I augmented this breakfast with a pastry from a food mart on the way out of town.

I expected a moderate travel day of 85 miles to Chadron because it was mostly downhill according to my route profile.  However, it seemed like the route was more roller coaster than downhill until I reached a major descent to Fort Robinson State Park.  As I left Lusk I encountered more coal trains coming and going as they apparently did all night, based on the fairly frequent train whistles I heard through the night.  I counted cars again and got between 130 and 140 including 4 locomotives, 2 pulling and 2 pushing.  A little further I saw 2 trains stopped, one in each direction, as there was apparently some track work underway.  So I quickly passed up the outbound train.  Shortly after that both trains were released and the outbound train passed me and disappeared from view.

I again witnessed more Pronghorns but not nearly as many as yesterday.

In just over 20 miles I rode though Van Tassel, population 19, whose Post Office was an adjunct to a trailer home.  A few miles further I entered Nebraska and 10 miles further I rode into Harrison, population 291.  I debated yesterday continuing on to Harrison since I reached Lusk early in the afternoon and I had a great tailwind but I was uncertain about what I would find in Harrison.  What I found was a city park for camping, a bar, a small grocery store, and a small cafe.  What I didn't find was the famous hamburger place at Sioux Sundries where I decided I would eat rather than have a second breakfast.  A local told me the place had closed a couple years ago.  So I bought a quart of milk from the grocery store and had my second breakfast after all.  In retrospect, knowing now what services were available I would probably have opted to continue on to Harrison yesterday.

When I left Harrison around noon I was hit with a fairly strong cross wind, probably about 15 mph.  In the morning US20 had no shoulder and that wasn't much of a problem because there was almost no traffic.  There were also frequent horizontal pavement cracks that gave my butt a thumping.  When I reached Nebraska US20 immediately developed a wide 6 foot shoulder and it was much more comfortable riding.  Traffic wise I didn't really need the wide shoulder but it was certainly helpful in light of the strong cross wind.

The land continued to be wide open yellow grassland and then something startling appeared – pine trees.  This area was known as Pine Ridge and the pine trees made a stark contrast to the yellow grassland.  A few miles before Fort Robinson there was a scenic overlook from a high ridge with buttes in the distance.  This highway was called Bridges to Buttes.  It was easy to see why Buttes was in the title but I struggled all day to understand the Bridges part.  It was only later in the day that I learned the eastern terminus of this Bridges to Buttes was just east of Valentine where several bridges crossed the Niobrara River and then the road name made sense.

From the scenic overlook I descended to Fort Robinson State Park.  I knew it was the park as soon as I saw a herd of buffalo on my left and then some longhorn cattle.  From http://www.stateparks.com/fort_robinson.html:

“This historic outpost served from the days of the Indian Wars until after World War II. This was the site of the 1879 Cheyenne Outbreak and the death of famed Sioux Chief Crazy Horse. Over the years, the fort served the Red Cloud Indian Agency, as a cavalry remount station, K-9 dog training center, POW camp and beef research station.”

I spent maybe 40 minutes around Fort Robinson.  Historically, I was most interested in the killing of Crazy Horse but I couldn't find where this event had taken place.  I debated camping and calling it a day but there was no food around.  During the summer hours there is a restaurant on site that provides breakfast/lunch/dinner but it closed after Labor Day.

In the end I decided to continue on to Chadron, another 24 miles.  The wind helped to motivate me since the road took a northeast turn which made the former cross wind also a helping tail wind.  Just past Crawford a historical site noted the area was famous for several Indian fights over the years, including Crowe Butte to the south, Red Cloud Buttes to the west, and another area to the north.  After that it was fairly easy riding to Chadron and I covered the 24 miles in 2 hours.

As I entered Chadron at 5:00 I rode through town to gauge the services and then I returned to the Westerner Motel that had advertised a sub-$40 rate and got a room there.  It was a really nice room for the price and easily the best motel value of the trip so far.  After settling in I walked downtown with the intention of eating at a Mexican place but by the time I got there around 6:00 there was a waiting list.  So I walked a little further to a bar/restaurant and had a chicken sandwich that was somewhat disappointing.  I have this odd standard that the chicken in a chicken sandwich ought to fill the sandwich and when it occupies only a little more than half the bun it doesn't seem right.

Back at the motel I used the WIFI to access the Internet.  When I checked in, the proprietor was on the phone discussing some WIFI issues so I asked about WIFI and he commented that it was virtually a requirement for a motel to provide it these days since many business travelers carried laptops and wanted/needed to check email during their stay.  When checking my email I found I was still getting a number of “mail failure delivery” type spam but the number was less than 50 which I could deal with, as opposed to the 9,000 I got the other day which was difficult for even my ISP to handle.



Day 25: Thu, Sep 25, 2008 - Chadron, NE to Merriman, NE [81.3, 6:47:09, 12.0 mph]

In the morning I walked across the street to a pancake house for breakfast.  I had 3 large pecan pancakes, renewing my faith in western pancakes.  I left early at 8:15 which is probably a good thing because in a day or two I will switch to standard time and will be leaving earlier by sun time.

My goal for the day was the small town of Merriman, pop 118.  I didn't have a route profile because I didn't figure I needed one now that I was out of the mountains.  However, I found I was climbing up a modest uphill for quite a while but nothing especially difficult.  What was a bit difficult was the shoulder, which had wide cracks, several inches wide, and that wasn't any fun.  I did see some wild turkeys along the road but they didn't seem particularly wild.

After about 14 miles the road leveled off and the shoulder improved to minor cracks.  After 20 miles I rode into Hay Springs but I had to go to a small grocery store to find milk for my cereal.  When I left around 11:00 it was already warm, around 80F, and expected to get warmer.  I removed my tights and long sleeve jersey and lathered up with suntan lotion.  The wind was also picking up from the southwest and that provided a cycling boost and a cooling factor as well.

It was warm enough that I stopped at a couple small towns along the way for a cold drink. After 50 miles I rode into Gordon.  Gordon had an old cowboy museum that sounded like it might be interesting.  The only problem was finding it and getting in.  After asking and riding around I found it but it was closed with a list of telephone numbers to call to get in.  I guessed they pretty much shut down after Labor Day.  I wasn't that hot on the museum that I wanted to get the museum opened even if it was free.  So I gave up and rode on.

It was early afternoon and 30 miles to the next town, Merriman.  With an aiding tail wind it was an easy 30 miles.  The road now passed through the Sand Hills, the part of Nebraska with grass covered sand dunes.  Originally it was assumed these Sand Hills were unsuitable for cattle but that turned out not to be true.  Now the Sand Hills were one of the great cattle raising areas in the country.  It was rolling country with brown fields and pockets of grazing cattle.

I rode into Merriman around 4:30 not exactly sure what I would find.  I knew there was a Cottonwood Lake Recreation area just outside town where I could camp but I found something better.  The town had a park with a restroom with a shower facility.  The town also had a food mart, a cafe, and a bar so it was well equipped from my perspective.  I stopped at the food mart for a cold drink and had a nice chat with the proprietress.  While I was there a motorist came along and inquired about the route to Lusk and I was able to give first hand information.  He was also interested in bicycle touring and asked about the right kind of bicycle so I gave him the Surly LHT and Trek 520 as two possible touring bicycles.

Next I went next door to the cafe and had their special of the day, a beef dinner with salad bar.  The salad bar wasn't much, as would be expected in such a small town, but the meal was fine.  Then I rode back to the city park, set up, showered, and walked to the bar with my PC for a beer.  I had to work a little to find an outlet I could use and wasn't surprised to find I couldn't find any WIFI.  My camera exhausted its current battery set during the day and that reminded me that I hadn't charged any batteries for a couple weeks and the batteries lose their charge over time even if not used.  So I brought my charger along and charged an extra battery set just to be safe.


Day 26: Fri, Sep 26, 2008 - Merriman, NE to Ainsworth, NE [111.6, 8:11:26, 13.6 mph]

After packing up I walked my bike to the restroom.  I thought it a little strange that the park had everything but drinking water and then I found the water faucet next to a bush which made it a little difficult to see.  I rode the short distance to the cafe and had my pancakes which were large and fine but the coffee was a little tepid.  Still, for $4 it was a steal.

I left just after 8:00.  I expected to make Valentine, 61 miles away, but figured I might make Wood Lake, another 25 miles.  Since I started out with a bit of a tail wind I thought Ainsworth might be a possibility but it was a little more than 100 miles.

It was easy riding except for my butt which continued to get pounded by the cracks in the shoulder.  The harshness of the cracks varied so the pounding would ease at times.  Most of the time the shoulder had rumble strips that weren't a bother because they were close to the white line and the shoulder was so wide that there was still plenty of room for riding.  However, at one point the rumbles disappeared and that made it easy to ride in the driving lane, to avoid the cracks, and easy to move to the shoulder when traffic appeared.

Yesterday I hadn't seen any Pronghorns so I figured I had left them behind, until I caught 3 of them staring at me in the distance.  This was still Sand Hills so it was rolling brown grassland with occasional pockets of grazing cattle and occasional windmills to draw water for the stock.

When I reached Cody I elected to continue rather than have my second breakfast because the riding had been easy.  I figured with Nenzel, Kilgore, and Crookston ahead I would have a second breakfast opportunity.  However with populations of 13, 99, and 98 I didn't find anything in those towns so I kind of regretted passing up on Cody.

Just east of Crookston I entered the Central time zone and then I rode into Valentine at 12:30.  I had a small pizza and a large cold drink as I anticipated I would likely go for Ainsworth since the riding had been pretty easy.

Nominally I had been following The Cowboy Trail from Chadron that continued to Norfolk.  The Cowboy Trail was a rails-to-trails conversion of a railroad that was initially developed to provide supplies to the Black Hills during the gold rush days when it was called the Cowboy Line.  Over the last 14 years this former railroad line has been under conversion incrementally to The Cowboy Trail as a trail for a variety of uses including bicycling.

Although eventually the trail will extend all the way to Chadron, the trail currently is finished only to Valentine.  I asked and found where to get on the trail and I finally started actually riding The Cowboy Trail.  It was a fine crushed rock trail rather than a paved trail as I had hoped for but didn't really expect.  The good thing was the trail eliminated my butt thumping but it came at the cost of riding efficiency.  I guessed that I was riding 1-2 mph slower than I would have been on the road.  That was similar to my experience riding the Katy Trail in Missouri which was also a rails-to-trails conversion on a crushed limestone path.

The trail was in various stages of repair.  The good sections were sometimes the worst because the crushed rock was not well packed and made riding more difficult.  There was a section that was obviously formerly used as a narrow road and riding where wheels used to roll was almost as good as pavement.  Then there was the wooden bridge over the Nairbrara River that was neat, about a quarter mile long and 148 feet above the river.  There was also a section where weeds had virtually taken over the trail.

Still, I made decent if not great time and rode into Wood Lake.  I figured I would stop, get refreshed, and then ride the rest of the way to Ainsworth.  There was only a cafe where I could get a cold drink.  It had a great sounding Friday night special that was tempting – fish fry with salad bar and desert – but I passed.

When I returned to my bike I thought my rear tire was flat but it was just setting down in the gravel a bit.  However, my front tire was seriously flat.  Worse, I was horrified when I saw that the tire was embedded with thorns.  I believe they call these sand burrs in this area and we called them cockle burrs where I grew up in Missouri.  Whatever they are called they were all over the tire.  It was clear I had to remove all these thorns to have any confidence of fixing the flat.  Some were easy to remove.  Others were embedded in the tire and broken off at the rubber surface and I had to use my Leatherman needle nose pliers to pull some out.  After that I removed the tube and felt along the inside of the tire and found some more thorns that I did my best to scrape off from the inside of the tire.  Then I used a new tube, having no idea how many punctures might be in the old tube, to fix the flat.

Next, I inspected the rear tire.  It also had a number of thorns and I did my best to scrape them off.  The tire still held air but it seemed a bit soft but I hadn't put any air in it since starting the trip so I couldn’t be sure about the state of the tire.  However, the last time I remember checking the tire it seemed to be holding air well.  I could only hope it was OK but I wasn't terribly confident.

With some trepidation, I set off for the 21 miles to Ainsworth, hoping my tires would get me there and then I would be in a better position to handle any problems.  My butt took some more thumping but I decided I preferred thumping to the uncertainty of when and where I might get flats.  I left on my Mountain time of 4:30 and made Ainsworth around 6:00, or 7:00 Central time.  I stopped at a food mart for a welcomed cold drink and then rode east looking for motels.  It was a Friday night and the local football team was playing.  However, I only found Rodeway and Super 8 motels which was disappointing.  I backtracked and took 7 heading south - main street in town - hoping I might find something there.  It wasn't looking good as I didn't see any motel sign and I was set to turn around when I noticed the building on my right looked an awful lot like a motel.  Sometimes former motels are turned into longer term residences and I guessed that had probably happened here.  But I saw someone at one of the units and she confirmed it was a motel.  I checked in at the office which had no real sign that it was a motel office.  Its neon sign was all broken and I couldn't see any light inside.  Nevertheless there was an elderly lady inside who gave me a room for $33. 

So this turned out to be a great find that I came within a whisker of not finding.  There was also a restaurant, the Depot, just up the street that had a Friday night special of smoked pork chop with salad bar for $6.25.  I asked the waitress to bring me a pitcher of water so she wouldn't have to spend the next 30 minutes filling my water glass and I emptied the pitcher.  The food was good and a great price.  So it was a good ending to a day that started great and threatened to end catastrophically.

Back at the ranch, my rear tire seemed even softer.  I pumped it up to see how it would be in the morning but I was pretty sure it had a slow leak and I would be fixing it in the morning.  On the other hand, I expected tomorrow's destination to be O'Neill and it was only about 60 miles away so if I had to take some time in the morning it wouldn't be a big deal.

Day 27: Sat, Sep 27, 2008 - Ainsworth, NE to O'Neill, NE [69.3, 6:40:37, 10.4 mph]

When I checked the air pressure in my rear tire in the morning it had obviously lost some pressure but had held up pretty well so I concluded it had a slow leak.  I decided to fix it and get it out of the way.  So it was a major surprise to find the tube had 4 leaks.  I figured I had to patch them or I would have no good spare tube.  So the tube went from no patches to four in record time and held up all day.

I rode down the main street to the Depot where I ate last night and had their breakfast buffet.  Unfortunately it only had traditional breakfast items and no pancakes or french toast but I managed to make a dent in the buffet.  I had the same waitress as last night – apparently the only waitress.  She was so impressed that I drank a pitcher of water last night that she provided another pitcher this morning but I was well hydrated and only drank a regular glass of water.

In contrast to the last few days, it was a cool morning and was 53F when I left town around 9:00.  I figured it would be a relatively easy day since my destination was O'Neill, 65 miles away.  However, I hadn't counted on the constant, moderate head wind I had all day.  For most of the day I rode at about 9 mph on a flat route whereas without any wind I would have been riding at 12 mph or a little better.  So the expected easy day became fairly hard.

After yesterday's disaster on The Cowboy Trail I had no desire to come close to The Cowboy Trail today and there was no need to use the trail.  The traffic was light and the wide shoulder had no cracks and it was smooth riding all day, much smoother than the trail would have been.  However, the shoulder had a frog problem.  There were dead frogs all over the place.  It was as if yesterday was National Frog Suicide Day.  Apparently the frogs made it out on the shoulder and then just fried themselves to death.  There were also a few garter snakes that crawled away as I rode the shoulder.

With the flat route the scenery was rather uninteresting.  It was just a matter of plugging away into the wind.  Small towns were mostly about 10 miles apart.  In contrast to yesterday, I stopped at the first one, Bassett, for my second breakfast.  After that I stopped at the others for a cold drink and momentary relief from fighting the wind.

Expecting a relatively easy day I expected to arrive in O'Neill in mid-afternoon.  Instead, I didn't make town until 5:00.  I rode through town scouting out eating places and motels.  I stopped at what appeared to be the cheapest place but they didn't have WIFI.  The proprietress pointed out that the Golden Hotel had it so I backtracked and found it was more expensive and I would have had to carry my bike up one or two flights of stairs.  So I went back to the previous motel and figured I would find some kind of WIFI access in town.

I walked back to the main part of town and had a pretty good meal at a Mexican place.  Then I backtracked towards my motel and stopped at an expresso/video place that had WIFI and was open until 10:00.  I didn't particularly want any coffee but I had to buy something and they had a chocolate/coconut coffee that was refreshingly different.  There I cleaned out the spam from my one email account, caught up on some news, and wrote my daily notes.

Day 28: Sun, Sep 28, 2008 - O'Neill, NE: rest day

I quickly decided in the morning that this would be a rest day.  I was at the point where I needed a rest day and the weather forecast was a little uncertain.  There was a possibility of afternoon thunderstorms with gusty winds and even some hail.  On top of that there was a head wind.  So it was a good excuse to take a rest day.

I washed my clothes at the Laundromat at the Golden Hotel and used its WIFI while I was there.  Around 11:30 there was some thundering and then there was a brief period of rain.  I had considered riding half way to Norfolk and staying at Neligh and that plan would almost certainly have got me caught in the rain.  I spent most of the rest of the day resting and watching NFL football.

Day 29: Mon, Sep 29, 2008 - O'Neill, NE to Norfolk, NE [86.9, 6:39:05, 13.1 mph]

The motel proprietress had recommended a breakfast place on the west side of town rather than the cafe downtown so I rode to it.  It was a mile and a half and I'm not sure it was worth it.  I had 2 so-so pancakes with a good hunk of ham so breakfast was OK but the cafe downtown would have been more convenient.

I left town around 8:30 on a cool morning, around 53F when I left.  The scenery was much like the previous riding day – flat and not very unexciting.  What was exciting, however, was the modest tail wind.  The wind was out of the NNW and I was riding southeast and rolling along fairly leisurely at 14 mph.  This was farming country with grazing cattle and hay and then later a lot of corn fields and soy beans.  By the end of the day one could have thought one was in Iowa already.

After about 20 miles I stopped in Ewing for my second breakfast.  Then I rode on until Neligh where I nuked a burrito and had a cold drink.  Riding the rest of the way was uneventful until Meadow Grove where road construction was underway and they were widening the road to a 4-lane.  At the same time the previously good shoulder deteriorated quite a bit.  I was really tempted to ride on the new lanes but they were elevated above the old road.  When a cross road crossed over I couldn't avoid the temptation any longer and started riding on the new lanes.  A couple of dirt haulers used the new lanes from the other directions but otherwise I had the lanes to myself.  After a few miles I had to go back to the regular road because of construction but that was OK because the shoulder improved.  When the shoulder really deteriorated in another mile or so I got back on the new lanes and rode them into Norfolk, a city of 23,500.  Norfolk was named as Norfork – north fork – since it sits on the north fork of the Elkhorn River.  However, the US Postal Service assumed the spelling was Norfolk.  The spelling remains Norfolk but it is pronounced as Norfork.

I chose to ride the main road through town, hoping to skirt the usual fast food places and motels of the highway strip.  I wanted to get an extra bike tube and so I was looking for a bike shop.  I stopped at a sporting goods store where a guy told me where the bike shop was but it turned out to be closed on Mondays.  I rode east some more and found another bike shop, which the sporting goods store guy didn't know about, and a motel for $28.  I thought I had hit a home run but the bike shop didn't have the tube size I needed and the motel was full.  So it was a strike out rather than a home run.

I rode south to 275, resigned to staying in a formula motel.  I figured I was going to get gouged as I saw Holiday Inn Express, Hampton Inn, and the like.  I was encouraged when I saw a Rodeway that advertised $50 and hoped an AARP discount would keep the cost below $50.  I decided to check out a place that advertised luxury accommodation at a budget price before settling for the Rodeway and was surprised to get a rate of $37 with an AARP discount.  If the included continental breakfast is any decent, this could be almost as good as the $28 budget motel rate but only breakfast will tell.

After cleaning up I started walking to find a place to eat.  When I saw a mall with a food court I decided to check it out and found a Subway inside so I ate there.  Then I retreated to my motel to take advantage of the WIFI and took care of my monthly bills.

Day 30: Tue, Sep 30, 2008 - Norfolk, NE to Onawa, IA [77.6, 7:04:55, 11.0 mph]

The motel had a continental breakfast so I took advantage of it – cereal, waffle, and bread.  It wasn't a great breakfast but it was adequate.  Last night my front tire was a little low so I pumped it up and it was still holding air fine this morning so I left it alone.  Probably it has a very slow leak but at that rate I may only have to pump it up a couple times to get home.

I left at 8:00 and was a little concern about rush hour traffic on 275.  I didn't have to worry.  There was relatively little traffic and I was soon out of the Norfolk area.  My goal was to make it into Iowa and that was reasonable since it was just a little over 60 miles away.  The wind was out of the NW so I expected it to help some.

Shortly, after I left Norfolk I started some climbing and within a couple miles I had done more climbing than in the last 2 riding days.  The rest of Nebraska was a roller coaster almost the entire way to the Missouri River.  This made the scenery much more interesting than the previous days as I rode through farming country with lots of corn fields, soybeans, and cattle.

After close to 30 miles where US275 headed southeast to Omaha I stopped in Wisner for my second breakfast.  I was surprised that I couldn't find a real breakfast place so I made do at a food mart with a breakfast sandwich, pastry, and chocolate milk.  Then I retraced my route a mile on US275 and took 51 east all the way to the border.  US275 had a flat section before this turnoff but that was the end of the flats in Nebraska as I started climbing on the way to never ending rollers.  All across Nebraska I had had a wide shoulder but 51 had no shoulder.  For the most part this wasn't a major problem with the relatively little traffic but about half that traffic was big trucks so I had to pay attention.  I didn't have any dicey situations but I got off the road in a couple of cases just to be extra safe.

There were no services right along the road so I rode all the way to Decatur at the border and arrived around 2:30.  I stopped at a food mart for a cold drink and granola bar.  Then I rode the toll bridge across the Missouri River but no toll was required for a bicycle.

In contrast to Nebraska, the Iowa side was flat.  Shortly I saw a sign advertising a Lewis & Clark keel boat exhibit and I realized I was riding past the Lewis & Clark State Park where I had stayed on my Lewis & Clark ride in 2004.  Rather than stay at the park again I rode on into Onawa.

Since it was only 3:30 and 75 miles, I would have been happy riding another 10-20 miles but there just wasn't any town to the east that I could count on for reasonable services.  So I chose to stay in Onawa.  I checked with the police to make sure it was OK to camp overnight in the city park and then ate at a pizza place downtown. 

It was OK pizza but more importantly I got some suggestions about riding across Iowa.  In contrast to the previous states where I had a well defined route Iowa was open ended.  That was mostly because there are many roads in Iowa and it was unclear what would be a good route although I had an Iowa bicycling map.  The folks at the pizza place suggested that US30 was very busy and not a good choice.  Checking the map some more suggested that 141 might be a good initial choice for getting across the state.  However, it only went about a third of the way across the state so there was still the question of how to ride the remainder of the state.

After eating I rode to the library nearby which was open until 8:00 during the school year and used their WIFI to access the Internet with my PC.  Then I rode to the city park and settled in for the night.  The park had a shelter with picnic tables under an overhang so I decided to sleep on a picnic table rather than bother pitching a tent.




Copyright Denis Kertz, 2008. All rights reserved.