There's Sand in Them Thar Hills!

Tuesday, October 30, 2012 Road Junkies 0 Comments

Westward Ho, Day 9:  Kearney, NE to Pierre, SD

Since this was our one day (which was only a partial day) in Nebraska, we needed to find a letterbox and place a box in the state today to support our 2012 "Great 48" goal of finding and planting a letterbox in each of the 48 contiguous states.  After fueling up at Shell and Starbucks, we drove south of Kearney to the Fort Kearney Historic State Park.  The visitor center was closed, so we just wandered around a bit, looking at their sod blacksmith shop with the cool grassy roof before heading to the adjacent state recreation area.  In both places, we searched for a secure hiding spot but found none.  The SRA had a letterbox at the end of a two-mile hike, but then we'd have to walk two miles back to the car, and we just didn't have the time.

The sod smithy, Fort Kearney State Historic Park
So we took the easy way out and drove to a nearby rest area for a quick driveby box, stamping in and getting back on our way within ten minutes, our Nebraska finding goal accomplished.  One down, one to go.  And we had almost 200 miles to go before we reached South Dakota.  Surely we'd find one little hidey hole along the way.

Nebraska Sandhills
Driving north on US-183, we experienced a Dorothy moment as the terrain became bumpy and lumpy, the unbroken flatness of the Kansas prairie clearly left behind.  We had entered the land of the Nebraska Sandhills, mixed-grass prairie unfolded across grass-stabilized sand dunes.  This terrain covers more than one fourth the state of Nebraska, and some dunes reach heights of 350 feet.  Because the sandy soil is unsuitable for growing crops, the region contains extensive tracts of natural habitat.  The hills have proved suitable as rangeland for cattle and today support more than half a million beef cattle.

Cattle feed lot (photo from livestocktracker.com)
Intermittently on 183 we saw examples of the mass feed lots where cattle are sent to be fattened for market.  If our car AC was on the wrong setting (i.e., admitting outside air), we often smelled these operations before we caught sight of them.

At Ansley, we turned west on NE-2, better known as the Sandhills Journey Scenic Byway.  Nebraska's tourism department claims that the late Charles Kuralt called Highway 2 one of America's ten most beautiful highways.  As many years as the CBS News correspondent spent On the Road, his opinion is compelling.  We also found the drive attractive, with its textured monochromatic vistas, but we question its ranking as one of the top 10.

Sandhills Journey Scenic Byway
After we turned onto Highway 2, we were running parallel to a major east-west rail way.  Along the double sets of tracks, a steady stream of lengthy coal trains and rail convoys of cargo containers stacked two-high streamed by. 

Coal, coal and more coal
The local Subway in Broken Bow gave us a change of pace from our typical picnic lunches, and we pushed on northwest, ever on the lookout for a good home for our little box.  Just past the town of Dunning, we finally found a spot where a public road led up into the sandhills.  Appropriately called Sandhills Drive, the gravel road took us off the highway for an intimate look at this fascinating terrain.  Up close, the finely textured sand beneath the cover of buff prairie grass mimicked what we see on Gulf Coast beaches.

Sandhills Drive
A little after 2:00, we arrived at the Nebraska National Forest near Halsey.  If you're wondering how a forest suddenly sprouted from these treeless dunes, you're not alone.  As it turns out, this is the largest hand-planted forest in the western hemisphere.  Charles Bessey, a University of Nebraska botany professor, established the forest in 1902 as an experiment to determine whether a national timber reserve could be created by foresting the treeless Great Plains.  The 20,000 acre forest of Ponderosa pines stands as convincing proof that Bessey could get the trees to grow, whether his timbering scheme had merit or not.

Nebraska National Forest
One of the first things you need when you create a forest in an arid area, of course, is a fire tower.  The Scott tower is the third to stand watch in this forest, and visitors can climb up for a panoramic view of this most unusual woodland.  Once we reached the top, what did we spy but the perfect place to hide a letterbox.  Not on the tower itself, but at the sheltering base of a nearby tree. 

South Dakota landscape
Part two of our mission accomplished, we drove on to South Dakota.  The Nebraska sandhills continued into the southern part of South Dakota, soon giving way to semiarid rolling plains, similar in appearance.  Largely treeless and unfit for agricultural tillage, these plains are also havens for large cattle ranches.  This time of year, especially in the late afternoon, the tan landscape in the distance resembles a desert.  A pair of mule deer that we passed roadside were well camouflaged amid the brown grasses.

Mule deer camouflaged
Arriving in Pierre just  before the sun set, we checked into the Pierre Clubhouse Hotel, a sparkling new property that caters to what the desk clerk called "high roller" hunters.  Apparently their special hunting dog-friendly rooms and other special accommodations for hunters have been quite a hit with the sportsmen.  Where else will they find gun-cleaning towels provided in their hotel room?

Tomorrow we plan to visit the South Dakota capitol building, as well as one or two Lewis and Clark sights we missed in 2002.  Plant a letterbox and find at least one in the state and we'll be in the other Dakota by nightfall.

Daily Stats:
  • Miles driven:  373
  • Letterboxes:  F 1, P 1
  • Weather:  Sunny, 34 to 68
  • States:  2 (NE, SD)
  • Gas (premium):  $3.84 in Kearney NE
  • Train cars:  2,543
  • Cattle in feed lots:  16,933 
  • Cattle trailers:  178
  • Bales of hay in fields:  43,092
  • Farm equipment dealers:  41
  • Trees other than pine in Nebraska National Forest:  0

Trip Stats:
  • Miles:  2,820
  • Gallons of gas:  109
  • Letterboxes:  F 22, P 5
  • States:  10 (GA, SC, NC, TN, KY, IL, MO, KS, NE, SD)
  • Coldest temp:  25, Topeka,KS (Oct. 27)
  • Hottest temp:  80, Gaffney, SC (Oct. 22)
  • Gas price extremes:  $3.30 in Topeka to $3.95 in Lincolnton, NC
  • National battlefields:  3
  • National historic sites:  3
  • State capitols:  1
  • State parks & historic sites:  5

More Photos from Today

Unfortunately the museum hasn't opened yet, but it did stir our curiosity.
Listing of the people who live on the gravel Sandhills Drive
Sign on Sandhills Drive near Dunning, NE
Sandhills Drive
Scott Fire Tower, Nebraska National Forest
Valentine National Wildlife Reserve, near Valentine, NE
South Dakota hayfield