We wake up at a Conoco parking lot for truckers in Valentine, Nebraska, to the sound of one rig idling. Last night, the lot was partially filled with about a dozen semi-trailers. Shouts of Cornhusker football fans on game night rang from a bar next door. We’re here for a second time to enjoy the Niobrara, a National Scenic River. In 2013, Judy, Nate and I rented a Roadtrek for the first time. I was skeptical about living full-time in a 21-foot vehicle and wanted a trial run. Our float down the lazy river on a hot July afternoon near Smith Falls State Park was one of the highlights of our 10-day vacation. After that, I began to serious consider the possibilities of wandering full time. Our plan today is to hike on the Cowboy Recreation and Nature Trail, which stretches 189 miles from Valentine to Norfolk along an abandoned Chicago and Northwestern rail line. Our segment begins several miles east of Valentine at a signed turnout on U.S. 20. We double back toward Valentine, enjoying a view of the Niobrara from a trestle 150 feet above. The river, originating in Wyoming and fed by the Ogallala Aquifer, drains a region where the Rocky Mountain forest we’ve traveled for weeks gives way to box elder and bur oak, and where western short grass, the mixed-grass prairie of the Sandhills and eastern tall grass intersect. We travel in afternoon sun in northern Nebraska, crossing the 100th meridian and moving into greener ranch country above the river. An hour of solitude on the plains on Nebraska 12, at last interrupted by a passing vehicle.
Leaving Ponca State Park in Nebraska, on the bluffs of the Missouri River, we pass a flooded riverfront campground and boat launch. Late-summer runoff, unusually heavy, is pouring in this unchannelized stretch of the Missouri River. As we enter Iowa at Sioux City, hay fields are out and corn and soybeans are in. I follow the lead of William Least Heat Moon. Our “blue highway” through western Iowa is Iowa 3, a more intimate alternative to four lanes on U.S. 20. I stop at a roadside stand near Cherokee to buy sweet corn and tomatoes, summer staples of my boyhood in central Illinois. I ask the seller about yellowing leaves in soybean fields. Was it because of heavy spring rains? No, the bean fields always turn yellow at the end of growing season. I was red with embarrassment. I left soybean country for Arizona 40 years ago, returned to Illinois many times, but never in September. I’d lost touch with the harvest cycle.
Sadly, there’s no time for rail trails in Iowa. We blow past the Hawkeye state. Judy and I gather groceries in Dubuque for a family reunion dinner in Freeport, Illinois. The Epic Van stammers a bit going up a hill in Dubuque on the way to the Mississippi River bridge. East of Galena, birthplace of Ulysses Grant, a bit of stammering turns into a whole lot of bucking and wheezing as we travel through steeper and steeper hills along U.S. 20, a route used by truckers. Near the top of hills, I edge onto the road shoulder as we slow under 30 mph with the pedal to the metal. Something’s not right, either with the transmission, or fuel system. (We filled up on biofuel about 50 miles ago.) We’re only 40 miles from Freeport. Surely we can limp in. Twenty-three miles from town, defeated, we turn off on a gravel road across from a herd of cattle and dial for a tow truck. It’s 3 p.m. Just before sundown at 7 p.m., the flatbed hauling vehicle we requested arrives. My cousin Jeanne and her husband, Dick, come from Freeport to rescue us. We load clothes and perishable food into their vehicle, and head back to pared-down dinner and lots of catching up on family comings and goings.
Our hike through the Oregon Dunes was a lesson in how man can screw up nature, wrecking perfectly functioning ecosystems, probably beyond repair.
We’ve hiked other dunes in Indiana, Michigan, Oregon, Colorado and the gypsum sands in White Sands, New Mexico. So I was expecting to be slipping and sliding my way up and over shifting peaks. Instead, other than a few, small patches of sand, we were trudging over stable trails, under the shade of tall trees, hemmed in by bushes. What the hell kind of dunes were these?
Well, they’re dunes altered by man’s ignorance.
Sedona has an embarrassment of rich hiking trails. Earlier this spring, we took three:
Distance: Two miles (You can go farther if you like.)
Time: About 1 hour, longer if you meander, take photos or play in the water.
Elevation gain/loss: 100 feet
We’ve been on this trail before, and it never disappoints. It’s an easy trail along the Coconino sandstone cliffs that crosses back and forth over Oak Creek. You can tiptoe over boulders, downed trees, or splash right through. Much of the trail is shaded by Ponderosa pines, Douglas firs, box elders, cottonwoods, walnuts, maple and oaks. And wildflowers grow in abundance. There are lots of other hikers here, but it’s cool, relaxing, with the constant sound of running water. In the book, 100 Classic Hikes: Arizona, author Scott Warren says the trail extends up to 6 miles, becoming overgrown and eventually just following the creek bed, with an elevation gain of 200 feet. We’ve never ventured that far.
Distance: Six miles round trip
Time: About 3 hours
Elevation gain/loss: 350 feet
The Boynton Canyon hike snakes up the side of a canyon overlooking a resort then follows a drainage through sandstone walls. The trail meanders through manzanita, oaks, pines, and cypress and, when we visited, lots of wildflowers. We got caught in a brief rain shower that left everything sparkling with drops of water.
Distance: 4 ¼ mile loop
Time: About 3 hours
Elevation gain/loss: 250 feet
The Courthouse Butte Loop circles the large formation and provides amazing views of the red-rock country. You climb along slick rock and through rocky washes on the mostly exposed sides of the formation. Even though we were there in early spring, it was warm, so be sure to bring plenty of water. And your camera, because you won’t believe the panoramas from every side.
Note: Remember to take plenty of water, snacks and proper clothing. Even in Spring, it can get very hot.