Wandering the West
November 17, 2009
The best road trips in my book are those where you have an open schedule, an ultimate destination, and the time to leisurely poke your way down the back roads to get there. If you’re lucky, you’ll bump into real gems you never would have found out about no matter how much research you did.
Having traveled I-80 back to the Midwest for family visits for decades, I knew the sequence of every town, where to gas up, which fast-food places to stop at, and where to look to see the few worthy sights along the way. On a return trip once I searched out a different east-west alternative and found myself on U.S. Highway 20 across Nebraska. And when I got to the Pine Ridge country in western Nebraska I found several of those gems I never would have found otherwise.
If you’re an Easterner, mountain person, or beach person from either coast, the landscape here is like nothing you’ve seen. It takes time to appreciate these high plains. It’s too far west for much rainfall. You’ll see mile-long wheat fields, green circles from irrigation wheels tapping into the huge Ogallala Aquifer underneath. West central Nebraska is Sand Hill country, where sand dunes stretch to the horizon, covered thinly with prairie grasses and water in the dips between dunes. It is a fabulous waterfowl area that comes alive during spring and fall migrations.
In the Pine Ridge country of western Nebraska along the South Dakota state line, much of the history of the settlement of the West played out, a fact quite unknown to passing motorists farther south on I-80.
In the town of Chadron, where we didn’t expect more than maybe a chicken-fried steak at the bowling alley, we instead found the Museum of the Fur Trade. We dropped in for a quick look and ended up staying for hours, looking at many of the 6,000 fur-trade artifacts well displayed. In 1837, fur trader James Bordeaux built a log trading post here that figured prominently in the late days of the fur trade and through the Indian wars, which ended by 1890. Some of the rifles illegally traded by Bordeaux’s successors at the post ended up in the hands of Indians who wiped out Custer and his troops.
The original post is gone, but in 1956 it was reconstructed on its original foundation rocks. Now the reproduction is so old it is on the National Register of Historic Places. Next door is the museum, with the history of the fur trade from Greenland and Hudson’s Bay to Alaska and as far south as the Gulf of Mexico. I’m not aware of a more complete museum of this fascinating period of American history than this one.
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Pine Ridge is a landform covered in forest another surprise. In the mostly treeless Nebraska plains, the Nebraska National Forest rises green and tall. And toward the west end of the forest, still on Highway 20, stands Fort Robinson. Again, it was just a dot on a highway map, but when we pulled in, there stood an intact frontier Army fort left over from the Indian Wars. We had no idea it was there, but while walking around we came to a jail building with a monument outside proclaiming it as the place where Crazy Horse was jailed, and where he was bayoneted in what the Army said was an escape attempt.
Fort Robinson still has its parade ground, its stables, officers’ quarters and more. There’s a museum tracing the fort from its role in the Indian Wars through World War II, when K-9 dogs were trained here and German POWs were imprisoned.
There are hundreds of highways for serendipitous trips like mine down Highway 20. Try Highway 50 sometime when you’re heading west, or Highway 89 if you’re going north-south. There’s not much to see at 75 miles an hour on an Interstate. There’s a lot out there when you take the road less traveled wherever you’re headed.
Free-lance writer Larry Warren has been wandering the West covering news stories for television and magazines since he landed in Utah in the mid-1970s. In this column he writes about the favorite places he goes back to when he can.