High Plains Byway Extended Edition: A Sandhills Odyssey

This Reportage took place a year prior to the pandemic… please be considerate and avoid traveling to small towns during the pandemic.

Some trips stay with you more than others, and this trip is one of those. Nebraska isn’t often touted (read: never) as a cycling destination, but the truly unique and varied geography we encountered offered some of the most quality riding I’ve had the opportunity to experience. The state’s remoteness—a combination of the incredibly low population density and vast, often exposed, landscapes—was initially a concern but in actuality lent a heightened sense of adventure to our days. This is also still the longest tour I’ve taken and being able to fully settle into the rhythm of passing the days—sun up to sun down—on the bike for a week straight was a pretty intoxicating experience.

Day 1 Gering-Pine Ridge

We left from Gering, Nebraska to ride the High Plains Byway route to Valentine, and then—in lieu of organizing a tedious shuttle—planned on closing the loop simply by riding our bikes back across the Sandhills. The tour would be about 600mi—the first half stringing together a few of the state’s distinctive geologic features: the Wild Cat Hills, the Pine Ridge escarpment, and the notorious Sandhills in a 300mi stretch. The return from Valentine would take a more direct line on mostly pavement back through the heart of the Sandhills, but with Nebraska’s low population and little traffic, we weren’t deterred by the idea of a few days spent on main roads for the second half of the trip.

Our first day began with a short climb over Robidoux Pass (4,554’), the high point of the Wild Cat Hills. Descending the other side the views opened up, the ranches disappeared, and a feeling of openness swept over us. After the descent, a few miles of pavement led us to the farming community of Morrill (pop: 895) where we filled water from a gas station and downed iced coffees at a postage stamp sized park in the center of town, the bikes leaning against a tree. I wondered about the last time a bike leaned against that tree, if ever. Just a few miles later we were back on dirt and it felt like the route had finally started.

We spent the afternoon under a wide stretch of sky, looking out at an endless, absolutely car-less ribbon of road. We hadn’t expected to encounter much interesting terrain until reaching the Pine Ridge mesa later that evening but this road, with it’s soft hills, was an unexpected gem. The gentle rollers gave definition to the landscape before us, the sheer expanse of which was captivating.

While we spent most of the afternoon anticipating arriving in Harrison (so much of touring is just anticipating the next town), we did stop for a late afternoon lunch when we reached the Niobrara River, an arbitrary landmark. It was little more than a slow-moving, swampy ditch, and leeches on our legs cut the stop short.

When we did reach Harrison (pop: 251) after 90mi of riding, it was a virtual ghost town. The sinking sun cast long shadows on the deserted main street giving a strangely eerie feeling to the darkened storefronts. We had hoped for a gas station, at the least, but we settled for a hose in the alley behind the main row of brick buildings. The day was warm and I welcomed the cold stream of water to splash the salt off my face. Rolling out of town we were anonymous, nothing more than shadowy silhouettes flickering across the shuttered storefronts. We hadn’t seen another cyclist all day, and no more than a handful of cars since leaving Morrill.

Skirting a “Road Closed” sign, a dueling flutter of apprehension and excitement rose up as we wondered if a flooded road lay waiting beyond. But soon doubt was replaced with delight as we bombed down sandy runs through groves of Ponderosa pines, emerging into clearings flanked by wind-chiseled bluffs. Our first impression of the Pine Ridge zone did not disappoint.

The sun soon fell out of sight and night became imminent. Weaving along the boundaries of land parcels opaque clouds blew in overhead. A passing field contained three of the most beautiful horses I’d ever seen—two of deep chestnut bodies with jet black manes and tails, the third a patchwork of black and white. They ran parallel with us within their pasture until they met the end of the line. I felt lucky and free as we kept riding.

We ducked into a pasture not much farther down the road. It wasn’t great, but after 105 miles, it would do. Laying out mats and bivies and bags. Putting on jackets and hats. Dinner and cookies. Then, easily, sleep.

Day 2 Pine Ridge-Chadron

Waking up on these trips, you never know what you’re going to get. The hours that separate sunrise and sunset could hold some of your best or worst moments on the bike—that uncertainty is part of the allure.

The morning sun didn’t linger long. Breakfast and coffee, the much-repeated packing up ritual, and we were rolling. On the bikes, an insistent wind from the northwest made the chilly morning feel even colder while the sky grew padded with ominous clouds. Soon, rain. Having optimistically packed only light gloves and no rain pants, we were quickly soaked through and numb. Armed with earbuds, I willed my mind to separate from my body. Shifting required looking down to make sure my numb fingers contacted the lever, rather than slipping through the space between the lever and drop.

A few miles from Crawford (pop: 947), the rain let up but the clouds sulked overhead. As we kept moving (eventually warming back up) the afternoon brought brilliant sun, but the wind continued its tirade. A long stretch of rolling gravel led to a nontrivial climb through a large burn area—Ash Creek. Feeling the wear of the day, we tucked into the protected shoulder of the summit for a break. It was only midafternoon but the morning’s weather, coupled with (what I find to be typical) afternoon doldrums was making for a long day. Tony brewed up some instant coffee—a sure-fire combattant to low spirits—and we looked out over the sprawling landscape.

It helped. Leaving the ridge, we were met with the fiercest and most head-on gusts of the day. Hands in the drops, forcibly bowed to the wind, 5-7mph on flat gravel. Passing glances and laughing in disbelief at the absurdity of it all. The gravel gave way to double-track and again we dropped north off the Pine Ridge scarp with a glorious descent through a sandy canyon. We couldn’t believe this type of terrain existed in Nebraska, usually only known for its cornfield monotony and the occasional crop circle conspiracy. In hopes of escaping the wind, we decided to cut a corner on the route and make straight for Chadron State Park to camp. Our park plans were foiled by the fact that the road on the map was instead several miles of rough cowpath, and much of the time not even that. We made camp before dark in a sheltered glade; 70mi for the day but every mile had felt twice as hard as those of the day before. Not all miles are created equal.

We ended the day feeling relieved, autonomous and content, safely out of the wind’s reach. That pervading sense of remoteness—a feeling that I encountered many times on this tour—was stark and almost disconcerting but I was too tired to give it much thought. Thus far, this trip was proving to be more instructive on the principle of self-reliance than any of our other adventures. We have spent considerable time touring in Colorado but on these outings we usually pass through (at least) one major mountain town a day—which can make for a casual approach to touring when you frequently have the opportunity to resupply. This time around, we were largely self-contained—carrying a stove and more food than usual—and markedly removed from society in comparison to all of our previous trips. Nebraska’s remoteness lent a different tone to our days, and while daunting I also found myself feeling more present as the miles clicked by. We weren’t in a hurry to get anywhere because there wasn’t much (in the physical sense) where we were going, and we were carrying everything we needed. If the going got rough, there wouldn’t be much outside of our own frame of mind to provide an emotional lift.

Day 3 Chadron-Sandhills

Google said there was a road, but all we found was pasture. After a couple miles of traversing the pitted fields separating us from Chadron we made it back to gravel and a whizzing descent brought us to a yard with a gleaming spigot. The proprietress, drinking coffee on her stoop, consented when we asked to fill.

I won’t soon forget the King Canyon Road climb and descent, which rose unexpectedly from the highway. At first a winding gradual climb, and then spiny hogbacks with short swooping saddles between. The final rise gave way to a flowy stretch of double-track that rode the grassy ridge then sent us on an idyllic descent through pines and, finally, to a creek bottom. When a large part of touring, or just day-to-day riding, is unremarkable the moments when the scenery aligns with a certain mood strikes a chord and the result is pure magic. There was nowhere else I wanted to be.

Workmanlike miles on highway and rolling county roads filled in the remainder of the afternoon, with the exception of a stop for lunch in Rushville, where we enjoyed a sidewalk spread outside a grocery store—much to the confusion, amusement, and mild bewilderment of the local shoppers. It wasn’t until we crossed the Niobrara River (much more of a river this time), that the landscape shifted again and magically, a one-lane paved path replaced the loose gravel as the Sand Hills began to unfold their glory.

The paved track gave way to the region’s eponymous characteristic—sand— and we stopped to let some air out of our tires. Remounting, we were met by a herd of horses—skeptical sentries— staking out the path. Dissolving ranks as Tony slowly rolled through, they moved to the side and seemed to cast wary glances at our steel steeds as we passed.

We were soon stopped again. Just ahead, the road was completely washed out by a wide channel. As we waded in mid-shin deep water, an ATV approached, chugged across the channel and stopped on the far bank. The driver was the landowner, a kindly-natured older man, bearded and clad in a plaid shirt, whose tucked tails accentuated the outline of a slight paunch. As they spoke, Tony subtly slid into local parlance— casually mentioning area landmarks, inquiring about local road construction and guessing at heads of cattle per acre—signaling that he was himself a Nebraskan and not just some tourist. As we were about to start riding again, the man, with a hint of admiration in his voice, said those bicycles would be some fine machines if only they had motors. Smiling, I patted my tanned thigh and said “motor’s right here!” and off we went.

In recounting the following miles my memory can’t be trusted to provide an accurate estimate of distance or time—the experience of riding through the Sandhills at sunset felt like I had entered a trance state. The water was the first indication that the geography had changed. Shallows intermittently lined the road on either side, like coastal wetlands, inhabited here by ducks instead of gulls and herons. The sun was just right and all of the ponds were deep indigo reflecting pools. I kept expecting to smell that ocean smell and feel the salty sting of the coast on the breeze, as the sensory memory of sticky summer nights on rented beach cruisers washed over me. The grassy wetlands were framed in on all sides by slouching dunes, deep brown and green in the shadow of late afternoon, their shoulders flecked with golden shoots. The air was still and we were the only beings carrying time on our backs in that undisturbed realm. Had I not been riding along with Tony, I would have wept at the lonely beauty of it all, but instead we shared the experience side-by-side in spellbound silence.

The spell only started to wane as hunger set in. It was getting late and the question of where to sleep became more urgent as we realized that—for all of their uninterrupted beauty—this section of the route didn’t offer much in the way of a sheltered bivy, and proximity to water would make for a cold night. We hit the highway and turned north. At the top of the second steep roller, we pulled off onto the shoulder, jumped the barrier fence and hiked it to the top of a dune. It was remarkably warmer than it had been down in the wetlands and we pitched our bivies right on top of a sandy summit.

Day 4 Sandhills-Valentine

Our morning would include a detour from the ‘High Plains’ route, which we hoped to pick back up later in the day. When we shared the route we were planning to take to Valentine (the eastern terminus of the Byway route) with the rancher we’d met the night before, his response (“That’s not a road!”) had given us pause. Fearing hours of walking our bikes under a mighty sun made us doubt, and we looked for an alternate route. Based on our Google Maps survey, we felt optimistic that there was another option. We wagered that it might not be better, but it probably couldn’t be much worse than the alternative, which seemed to guarantee hours of pushing our bikes through deep sand.

I still can’t say for certain which side of this gamble we came out on. We were treated to a few easy miles to start, then our road petered out at a ranch. A few ranch hands doing morning chores didn’t seem to object to our presence so we kept rolling down a sandy track which soon ended, leaving us to strike out across cattle (and cowpie) studded pasture. Characteristic for the region, the field was surrounded by sloping sand dunes that obscured any larger perspective on where we thought we were heading. We followed the path of least resistance across a well-trodden cow trail. After a couple miles and a few stretches of shoe-sucking mud, we crested a small narrow rise over which we thought we’d surely see our road. Much to our dismay, from this vantage point we saw another valley hollowed out like a bowl from the surrounding dunes. On the far side, we saw a similar cut in the hills, like the one we’d just crossed—the only logical way to continue through the maze.

Upon descending from our perch, it quickly became apparent that what appeared to be a shallow lake flooded the field entirely. The Sandhills overlay the Ogallala Aquifer, one of the largest sources of fresh groundwater in the country. The low points in the dunes—the valleys used here for cattle grazing—often expose the water table that lays just barely below ground. Our options were arduously hike-a-biking over the steep dunes whilst skirting one of these lakes, or taking our chances and seeing if we could more directly wade across it at its narrowest point, saving an extra mile or so of distance. Opting for what we deemed the most efficient line we removed our shoes, shouldered the bikes and made directly for the water.

For the first few yards, we waded up to our shins—fine. The ground beneath was spongy as we stepped through the silt and grasses that poked up all around. I couldn’t help but think about all the molecules of cow shit that were probably dissolved in and adding to the murkiness of the water. Gradually, and then quite suddenly, the water deepened. I found myself wading chest-deep, with my bike hoisted over my head, and then just as we could see dry land ahead, I watched as Tony, walking a few paces ahead of me, stepped forward and was completely submerged, save the very top of his head. Fortunately, he was able to reverse course and eye up the final and deepest stretch of water (a ten foot wide channel) that separated us from terra firma, before taking a deep breath, recentering the bike over head and quickly treading water to the far bank. He hucked his bike onto the far side and then came back for mine (being 6” shorter, I didn’t have much hope of making it across without being anchored underwater by the weight of my rig). Free of my bike, I made a few quick strokes to cross the deep channel.

Back “on shore” we reassessed our detour strategy. We worried that we had picked the slower path but wagered backtracking would likely take even longer than seeing our way through this detour. Calories and water were the hour and minute hands on our ticking clock. We didn’t have a ton of food, and had enough water for the time being, but with the sun growing hotter by the hour, we certainly didn’t want to run out. Reluctantly, we determined the best course of action would be to hike up one of the surrounding dunes to get some perspective and see if more swimming was in our future. From there we could see what looked to be a house in the distance. Feeling certain that a rideable road had to lead to the house we set off for our new goal post.

Leaving the flooded field, a sandy track reemerged and although we had to push a few unrideable sections, after passing the house we had spotted we did indeed find a road that eventually led to pavement. Tarmac never looked so good. Needless to say, after what ended up being a five hour detour to cover 10 miles of sand dunes, we were fairly ecstatic when we rejoined the actual High Plains route.

The second half of the day was objectively faster but felt tedious. An old deserted highway felt drearily apocalyptic with its jarring road seams and pockmarked pavement. The lack of cars and humans brought that same sensation of remoteness that, throughout this trip, alternated between feeling liberating and oppressive—at this moment, the latter. The road ended at Merritt Reservoir and we cut back north and east for a final 30mi stretch of state highway. Eating dinner was contingent on making it to Valentine and it would be the most populated town (pop: 2,748) on our route.

From the reservoir, I kept riding while Tony fiddled with podcasts saying he’d catch up. Uplifted by the cross-tail, and spurred on by the chase, I hammered hard for 10mi. Glancing over my shoulder a few times, I’d seen him creeping up but wanting to hold him off as long as possible I charged again. But a few more shoulder checks later, he hadn’t gained on me, and in fact I couldn’t see him at all anymore. Knowing that I’m not actually that fast and prone to worrying, I couldn’t quiet the thoughts that were springing up. A mile later, I turned around.

It’s interesting how being in an unfamiliar place heightens one’s feelings of vulnerability. If we’d been in Colorado, rather than Nebraska, who knows how long I would have kept riding, likely thinking that he had just stopped to pee or drop a layer. The knowledge that a friend is just a short drive away from rescue is a reassuring safety net at home, whereas on a tour like this, and in a place where cycling is truly an anomalous activity, I felt a much greater sense of responsibility for my partner. Luckily, I turned back, because while Tony was completely fine, his bar-end shifter had fallen out of the bar and required mechanical attention.

We rode the last 15mi close together but in our own worlds. I could tell that the fading light, long hours of pedaling and listening to music were working a collective magic on Tony. Feeling totally bonked myself, I didn’t want to ruin that feeling for him, and coasted a little behind. Rolling into Valentine felt triumphant and I marveled at the improbability of the terrain we’d covered earlier in the day. The unanticipated obstacles that our detour had posed had of course slowed us down, but navigating the unknown felt infinitely more rewarding than a day spent riding where you are just following an arrow on a screen. Even if you have to wade through some physical or proverbial shit, occasionally being thrown into the unexpected—and then successfully overcoming it—reaffirms one’s sense of self-reliance.

Once in town, we shifted into action mode. Within thirty minutes we were scarfing down a Pizza Hut dinner on the curb, letting go of the day while passively absorbing the scene of shoppers navigating the surrounding parking lot. I’m always amused by these moments that juxtapose mainstream, workaday society with the small, personal epic that is bike touring. Your world feels condensed into the tour and its subversive simplicity—meanwhile, what you’re experiencing—appropriately—means absolutely nothing to the other people around you.

Our Google maps scan had revealed a baseball field on the north side of town and after dinner we soft pedaled the 2mi to the park as night descended. A picnic shelter bivy provided cover for the night and we slept soundly.

Day 5 Valentine-Hyannis

Despite our best intentions, and the knowledge that we were aiming to log our highest mileage day on what would be the warmest day of the trip, we did not get an early start. Rather, the morning included more fiddling with Tony’s shifter, and a double dose of McDonald’s breakfast sandwiches followed by a Casey’s donut. It was probably close to 10am by the time we left Valentine but at least we started out fueled for the day ahead.

From Valentine we would be working our way back to Gering to close the loop. After pointing our wheels due south on the bike path to (re)cross the Niobrara River, we would have 80mi of pavement before reaching Mullen, the next town. While this might sound unappealing to the seasoned off-road cyclo-tourist, the extreme depopulation of central Nebraska meant that we would hardly see any cars between Valentine and Mullen, and the state highways would feel just as relaxed as gravel backroads, a phenomenon that Tony cheekily refers to as “paved gravel.”

To illustrate this point, it’s worth noting that the last 40mi of blazing desolation on a quiet highway to Mullen were some of the best miles of the trip for me. Expecting to feel completely worked, the realization that my legs still wanted to push the pedals was uplifting, while the lack of traffic (we were passed by no more than three cars) provided peace of mind. I felt totally present, not wishing to be anywhere else, and took each roller in stride. The slow-paced hills provided just enough immediacy to focus on, rather than staring down an endless and unobtainable horizon.

We sailed into Mullen (pop: 463) at 83mi into the day and made for the Chuckwagon, a fastfood refuge that Tony had visited twice previously on other rides from Boulder back to his family’s farm. The covered concrete seating area was an oasis from the sun, and the woman who served us was the picture of small-town warmth and charm. Despite feeling unaffected by the sun on the bike, as soon as we were out of it I realized just how much the heat had zapped me. A few rounds of fried cauliflower, a soft serve, and an Arnold Palmer later and I felt ready to go.

We left the Chuckwagon at 4:45pm knowing that there were 40-ish miles separating us from Hyannis (our intended stopping point for the day). This is one of the most fun aspects of touring—leaving for what would be a ride of respectable distance on a normal day, after having already ridden twice as far. Most days at 5pm, I’m ready for a beer and dinner, not several hours worth of riding.

This last stretch followed an old railroad-graded highway—very gradual with a wide shoulder. The kind of riding where you even wonder if you’re climbing at all until you look at the elevation profile later. I welcomed the minimal gradient and the ability to just settle in and tick off the miles—no more rollers requiring constant in and out of the saddle! The first 20mi went by fast—tailwind!—but as we neared Hyannis, a thick bank of clouds plastered the skies ahead. The rain forecasted for later in the evening was moving in early.

A few sprinkles quickly escalated to a downpour and we pushed hard through the rain and descending darkness for more than an hour. Around 8pm we rolled into Hyannis (pop: 196) and began scouting for our shelter. Tony likes to rationalize the eschewing of a tent on most tours by claiming, “You can almost always find some kind of overhang to tuck under.” We came upon a school on the edge of town and given that it was Friday we thought we might nestle in for the night under an awning. As I circled the building, I saw Tony inspecting a couple of buses parked at the edge of the lot. With unexpected ease, he suddenly swung one of the doors open. Excitedly, he called me over.

The door to the big yellow bus had only been fastened with a bungee cord, and was otherwise unlocked. What luck! With some trepidation, we peeked inside. It didn’t take long to decide that this was our spot—it was still raining, we were soaked through and there was more rain in the forecast for that night and the next morning.

With plans to return, we pedaled to the gas station, and only real service, that sat in the center of town to stock up on breakfast supplies and microwave our burritos for dinner. The looks we got from the older ladies working the counter (and a glance at myself in the bathroom mirror) confirmed that we looked pretty rough, and I was reminded of a Bailey Newbrey interview where he comically refers to bikepackers as “very motivated vagrants.”

Back at the bus, we stealthily hoisted the bikes up the three steps and wheeled them to the back. We stripped off our sopping wet clothes and hung them to dry on the overhead racks—pretty convenient! Slipping into my (dry!) tights and merino long sleeve, I sank into one of the bus seats. With Tony in the next seat over, we laid out our burritos (and, a crucial addition, hot sauce packets from the gas station), as we reflected on the 125mi day. The rain continued falling evenly outside as we scooted into our bags (laid out narrowly in the aisle) and fell soundly asleep on the floor of the bus.* (*I’m certainly not advocating that on your next bike tour you go out and poach a school bus for your camp spot, but sometimes you just have to do what you have to do.)

Day 6 Hyannis-Alliance

Waking up around 5:30am the next morning, the conditions outside looked unchanged from the night before. The day was gray and a steady rain was falling. Growing up in North Carolina, I knew this rain. It was the kind of drizzle that could last all day, somehow never depleting the ceiling of clouds and varying between just more than a mist and full-on showers.

Drinking our coffee and eating breakfast, I inwardly vowed to not talk about the weather for as long as possible. We were snug and dry on our bus and, as unrealistic as I knew this to be, I was fully prepared to hunker down there for the whole day. Fortunately (or unfortunately for me) Tony was less keen on the idea of spending the day in our humid little box and began making moves to pack up. I stubbornly remained slumped in my bench until he coaxed me out.

Starting a ride in the rain somehow feels much worse than getting rained on midride. Your body hasn’t warmed up and you haven’t mentally committed to the ride yet, so preemptively bailing still feels like an option. Still, if we were going to get anywhere that day, starting in the rain would be inevitable. We made a dash back to the gas station for snacks and then waited outside for the rain to let up enough to nudge us out into the wet world beyond the awning where we were huddled.

The next 60mi were a blur—literally because the sky was gray and the rain obscured my vision but also because I would have liked to have been just about anywhere else other than on my bike. In retrospect, this was my low point in the trip, not just because it was a very uncomfortable experience but because I let myself be consumed by my discomfort. I was a grouch for all of the 60mi it took us to reach the next town, Alliance, and looking back I’m disappointed in myself for not being a better partner to Tony on that day. Part of touring with another person is accepting the fact that you will each experience highs and lows at different moments, and while it’s generous and supportive of a partner to try to lift the other up during those lows, it’s not his or her responsibility to get you out of your funk. And, during this particular low, I was selfishly ignoring the fact that Tony probably wasn’t loving the rain any more than I was. I still think about this day with a mixture of shame and self-disgust. Personal failings are part of the growing process, but the more touring I do, the more I hope to leave days like this behind.

When we finally made it to Alliance it was mid afternoon and we decided to call it quits for the day. It was still raining and we were both drained. We got a room at the nearest cheap hotel and ordered a pizza. After removing and hanging up our wet clothing (and I took off the trash bag that I’d been wearing under my windshell since we’d left the bus that morning), we laid out our dinner on the king-sized bed. Flipping channels until settling on a mind-numbing movie, I remember thinking it should feel more fun to binge pizza and watch T.V., but all I recall is being tired and feeling emotionally flat. I was still disappointed with myself for my mood earlier in the day, and I felt like in some ways getting the hotel was giving up.

Day 7: Alliance-Gering

Cold pizza for breakfast and clouds to start, the last day of our trip turned into blue skies and easy miles. With only 55mi to ride to get back to Gering neither of us felt like rushing. We stopped on the side of the road halfway through and shared a beer—a final toast of sorts to what we’d seen. I flatted five miles out from the truck, we threw in a tube and finished out the ride.

It’s hard to articulate what these trips mean and sometimes I don’t think they need to mean anything. A bike trip is a way to immerse myself in a landscape—familiar or foreign—and that alone is rewarding enough. It can also be a way to simply check, or question, the way I live on and off the bike and explore what the contrast between those two worlds reveals. On many days, I like living in my apartment with a roof over my head and electricity and access to a hot shower. But I also enjoy stripping away the extraneous, material distractions, and moving with purpose from sunrise to sunset, practicing a simpler existence.