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.