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Motorcycle Ride Across the Great Plains

On Highway 26, heading west from Ogallala, Nebraska, I had my first experience with High Plains Rapture. I was following a 400-mile leg of the Pony Express, from Fort Kearney, in Nebraska, to Fort Laramie, in Wyoming, and the landscape, which was becoming more and more stark as the miles passed, had reached a kind of apogee of desolation. The road hadn't deviated from its perfectly straight path for an hour, nor had it risen or fallen; the horizon was limited only by the curvature of the earth. My motorcycle had been thrumming at the same pitch for as long as I could remember. It had been a while since I'd passed a tree or a body of water, and the twin expanses of enamel blue sky and green earth--enormous slabs of elemental matter--seemed to press against each other. I had the strange sense that I was moving but not getting anywhere. It was travel reduced to its purest form, an abstraction of forward motion, and I was suddenly possessed by a kind of ecstasy, a feeling of perfect freedom.

There is no place on earth like the Great Plains. Some of us see it as a green and brown vastness we fly over on the way from Somewhere to Somewhere Else, but that, of course, is a very new perspective: in the days before airplanes or cars, the easiest and most traveled path to the West was along Nebraska's Great Platte River Road. From 1830 until the railroad finally bridged the gap to the West in 1866, as many as 350,000 people passed through Fort Kearney: pioneers heading out to the Pacific Coast, Mormons on their way to Utah, gold diggers aiming for the Sierra Nevada, and--for its brief, legendary 18 months of existence in 1860-61--the riders of the Pony Express, carrying mail to Sacramento.

To recapture what I could of that experience, I wanted to ride; but I wouldn't know a bit from a bridle, so I took a motorcycle. I was counting on the freedom, the openness, and the equine metaphor to give me a better sense of how the trip might have seemed to the pioneers. For you, a car may do just as well. Still, this is not an ordinary driving trip. There's plenty to see, but the real reward is a feeling for what the journey was like when horseback was the only way to go.

The town of Kearney (it rhymes with "Barney"), about 100 miles west of Lincoln, is the place to start. Across the river, south of town, the buildings abruptly give way to limitless tracts of farmland, as if civilization had been swallowed by the ground. A little farther, along a county road, lie the remnants of Fort Kearney itself: a stockade and a small museum. Built by the army in 1848 to protect the westward migrants from Indian attacks, the fort was once the Grand Central station of the Great Plains. Now it's a small, perfectly peaceful state historical park, so isolated and silent that the only sound there is the prairie wind.

A few miles south brings you to the Harold Warp Pioneer Village, in Minden. As it happens, the place has little to do with pioneers, but it's an outstanding example of kitsch Americana: Warp was fascinated by old farm equipment, fountain pens, musical instruments--most everything--and the some 50,000 articles he collected are housed in 28 buildings that dominate the tiny town. It's an improbable place, but the plains are like that: they wear the deadpan of a silent movie comic, which fronts for a soul of wondrous eccentricity.

About 10 miles north of Holdrege you pick up Route 30, which runs alongside the Union Pacific railroad. Visit Little Paris, in Lexington, for lunch, or stop at a supermarket and put together a picnic to eat by one of the historical markers along the road. Most of these designate spots where Indians ambushed railroad travelers.

The small, tidy park in Gothenburg, another 23 miles west, contains a restored Pony Express station, shaded by trees and stocked with souvenirs. But the town's most telling monument lies on a dirt road a few miles north, by the side of a flawless grass plain. There you will find three delicately wrought steel crosses fashioned by a Swedish blacksmith to mark the graves of his grandchildren, who died in 1885.

Death hangs over this entire route. After a while you begin to understand the grim faces in the old photographs in the county museums, the plain, flinty features and determined expressions. As many as 20,000 pioneers perished on their way west, from cholera and smallpox, measles and the flu. More died in wars with the Indians. A little way down Interstate 80 from Gothenburg lies the Fort McPherson military cemetery, where, among hundreds of veterans, some 70 buffalo soldiers (black cavalry) are buried.

From Maxwell, head into North Platte, nexus of the Union Pacific, and home of Buffalo Bill Cody, the greatest of the Wild West show entrepreneurs and mythic hero of a hundred dime novels. At 16, Buffalo Bill was a Pony Express rider himself; in his later, more comfortable years he bought an enormous ranch on the north side of the city. The fancy three-story frame house he built for his wife and family in 1886 has been immaculately restored, down to its white picket fence.

The next day I wandered down to the Union Pacific Railyards to watch workers shunt coal cars around. The railroad built this town, and Bailey Yard is the biggest switching station in the country. If you enjoy watching other people work, you can spend hours there, followed by a visit to the Railroad Museum in nearby Cody Park.

I had a late start out of North Platte, heading west again on Route 30, but I made up an hour when, just past Sutherland, I crossed from Central to Mountain time. In a town called Paxton I noticed a couple of Harleys parked outside a restaurant called Ole's Big Game Lounge, and stopped in to say hello. The riders, two men and a woman, were on their way from New Mexico to Lincoln, dirty and tired from their ride up through Colorado. For an hour or so, under the stern watch of dozens of stuffed and mounted heads of exotic game, we ate buffalo burgers and traded notes on roads and places to sleep. When we parted they headed east, and I went west into Ogallala to find another motel room. The sun was just setting, and the sky was lipstick-red. I could smell the humid fragrance of the river.

The next morning I stopped by Boot Hill, the Old West graveyard, so called because hapless cowboys were buried with their boots on. Today it rises out of a street of tract houses like an ancient wraith that has taken up residence in a kindergarten classroom.

It was, as I say, outside of Ogallala that I encountered the Rapture. The plains are very high here, around 4,000 feet above sea level, and the sun beats down hard on a plateau of flat grazing land, interrupted very infrequently by deep ravines. One such is Ash Hollow, a dreaded obstacle for the pioneers, who had to lower their wagons on windlasses. Now it's an isolated and absolutely noiseless state historical park, which contains a tiny one-room schoolhouse from the early part of this century.

In Oshkosh you can stop at the S&S Cafe for lunch, then continue on through Broad-water. Seven miles south you'll see a small wooden sign that says mud springs 2 mi. Follow the dirt road through the fields, and you'll come across a stand of trees around a pond. A marker there indicates a Pony Express stop, and you can look for miles across the fields and imagine how it felt to set out from the shelter toward the endless wilds of Wyoming.

Almost every county you pass through will have its own museum, a tiny collection of local artifacts, privately published oral histories, family possessions, old photographs, quilts and the like. My favorite was the Prairie Schooner Museum along Route 385 in Dalton. It includes a pioneer house, and there's a lovely old gentleman who watches over the exhibits. The afternoon I stopped by was hot and bright and hallucinatory; there was an antique car rally in Broadwater, and every so often a perfectly restored Model T or Stutz would appear on the horizon, come tooling by, and then disappear again like a daydream.

By afternoon of the third day I was ready for some landmarks to relieve the uninterrupted vista, and at last they appeared. Courthouse and Jail rocks, just west of Broadwater, were so named because one looked like the St. Louis courthouse, and the other was next door. A few miles down the road is the high spire of Chimney Rock; and another 20 miles brings you to Scotts Bluff, a huge natural rock formation that serves as the gateway to Wyoming and a warm-up for the Rocky Mountains. Stop in the town of Scottsbluff, check into a motel, and reward yourself with a fine steak at Bush's Gaslight Restaurant in nearby Terrytown. Afterward, drive out to the bluffs to watch the sun go down. There is a park at the top from which you can look back on the course of the journey along the Platte, and ahead to Wyoming.

Before I left Scottsbluff the next morning, I stopped at Rebecca Winter's grave on the outskirts of town. The spot where she was buried in 1852 was marked by a bent wagon wheel with her name carved into it; later travelers considered this a landmark as prominent as the rocky eminences themselves.

You can head for Wyoming by cutting through the bluffs at Mitchell Pass. Once across the state line, visit the Cold Springs Pony Express stop on Route 92. Legend has it that the two Frenchmen who staffed the place hated each other, and that their last argument was settled when one of them literally crucified the other.

Fort Laramie, a big expanse with barracks and ruins, many from the mid-19th century, as well as a small museum, is, in effect, the end of the line: from here the trail of the westward pioneers split. Some, like the Pony Express riders and the Mormons, made their way toward Utah; others headed for the Pacific Northwest. If you have the time, you may want to push on another 16 miles to Register Cliff, a rock face where dozens of migrants inscribed their names, leaving a mark of their passage before they headed out to the Rockies.

Jim Lewis is a novelist who lives in New York City.

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