The only hotel in Gordon, Nebraska has no record of my reservation, and they're fully booked. It's 30 miles to the next town, and a prairie storm is unleashing its full force outside. "I could put you in one of our B rooms," says the clerk. B is for basement, it turns out, and my windowless bunker is stark and cramped. I'm channel flipping on the TV when the screen turns red and a disembodied voice tells me a twister just touched down north of town. Dismal as it is, having the basement room suddenly seems like a very bright idea...
NE way you want it
In Scottsbluff, NE, my hotel room is the perfect antidote to the cookie-cutter accommodations in chain motels. I have a queen-size sleigh bed with a hand-quilted cover, a leather La-Z-Boy and a country rocker armchair. The table lamps might have been wedding presents received in 1950, and the full-size refrigerator is finished in wood-grain. It's charming.
On my desk there's the August 2002 issue of Reader's Digest, a plush teddy bear and a magazine called Quick and Simple, "only $ 1.59" (that's the quick and simple part). Allegedly its contents can help me make money, lose weight and find happiness. And aside from all that self-help reading pleasure, it contains $ 38,378 in coupons and prizes. What a deal!
The largest city in the Nebraska panhandle, Scottsbluff lies at the western boundary of the Great Plains, just a couple of hundred miles from the Colorado Rockies. To the east is the broad, shallow valley of the North Platte River, and to the northeast, the vast rolling prairie grasslands. My route will skirt the plains, then head south to the Colorado border, east to North Platte, and follow the Platte River upstream back to Scottsbluff.
Into the Plains
Chowing down on a breakfast sandwich at a fast-food outlet in Scottsbluff when a Ducati Monster pulls in the parking lot, I'm soon chatting to RoadRUNNER reader Martin Marnett from Alliance, Nebraska. Martin recommends two destinations I shouldn't miss. First, I ought to ride up the ridge to Scott's Bluff, and then I have to see Carhenge.
Motorcycle & Gear
Scott's Bluff, a broad verdant line of mesas, dominates the skyline around Scottsbluff. Both the town and the bluff are named for an unfortunate fur trapper, Hiram Scott, who perished alone and deserted by his companions at the base of the bluffs in 1828. Quite why his name was chosen from the many who died in this region along the Mormon and Oregon Trails is unclear.
Martin is right about the ride up to the Bluff. It's a pleasant winding road but with three tricky tunnels and too many tar stripes. The panorama from the top is well worth the detour, though.
I'm riding north on 71 toward Crawford and Chadron across seemingly infinite fields of swaying grain with only the occasional shallow-sided butte interrupting the horizon. The BMW R1200RT, rented from Eaglerider in Jackson, WY, hums happily along the straight, chip-sealed two-laners; but the day is a scorcher, and the digital numbers on the RT dash read 104 degrees.
From Chadron south, Nebraska National Forest offers a change of scenery, though "forest" is perhaps an overstatement for the patchwork copses that line the road. In Hemingford, I stop to watch a mile-long coal train from the open-pit mines near Gillette, WY, heading for the huge marshalling yards at North Platte - and then another and another and… I also pass markers denoting the Sidney-Deadwood Trail, the 267-mile main supply route from Sidney on the North Platte River to the gold fields around Deadwood and Custer.