Chapter 3, The Great Plains
Hot Nights and Train Whistles
Soon after we left Longmont on the morning of July 6, we knew we were in the Great Plains. Rounded hills rolled off to the east, snow capped mountains shrank and finally disappeared in the west. As always, we feel excited by a major landscape change.
Around mid-day, we stopped in the small town of Ault to get food for the night. Ault stands for A Unique Little Town, (according to the Chamber of Commerce) and it is, a mid-west town with views of the Rockies.
As we left the grocery, a boy on a BMX bike saw Zippy. His eyes widened in excitement; his first view of a loaded tandem. “That bike kicks butt!” We were honored. He raced us to the stoplight. Claire suggested he should wear his bike helmet. She never misses an educational opportunity.
That night, we camped in the Pawnee Grasslands. A long sunset walk took us through carpets of flowers. We hopped across small seasonal streams. They whispered through lush native prairie grasses, pressing them to earth, like a comb through wet hair. In the high dry places, small prickly pear cactus bloomed beside tiny but intensely blue lupine.
The sky was blue in the east, and an explosion of fire in the west. Yellow light poured across the rounded hills, and danced in the wind-blown seed heads and blossoms.
Mrs. Dolan rose from her accustomed seat at the table near the high storefront window and shuffled her way across the well oiled wood floor to greet us, her feet instinctively missing the warped boards and nail-heads.
When we had rolled into Sedgewick, Colorado, it was 103 degrees and we needed some shade and a big drink of something cold. A woman coming out of the beauty parlor directed us to the empty looking storefront on the corner across from the old post office. It didn’t look open, but we were desperate, and gave the screen door a try.
The dim store looked empty to us at first, it was so big and the shelves held only a few widely spaced items, and we thought we had made a mistake. Mrs. Dolan assured us it was the Sedgewick store and showed us to the soda case.
We sat with her while we drank our sodas, and learned a lot about her and Sedgewick. Mrs. Dolan is old and Sedgewick appears to be dying a not so slow death, in the manner of many small towns we see; our automotive culture encourages 40 mile round-trips for grocery shopping.
Mrs. Dolan told us the only cafe in town had closed not too long ago and the two banks in town had closed years ago. There was a pool hall her son used to own that was doing okay, and a beauty shop next to her store, a new post office; modest homes on unpaved streets with mature locust trees providing shade. But the business district was just about deserted; the life of the town had moved down the road miles and miles, victim of cheap gasoline, wide roads and high speed-limits. Now, everybody goes to Julesburg to shop at the big market.
Mrs. Dolan doesn’t carry much stock anymore; since her husband died she’s had a time of keeping up with the store. When it rains, the roof leaks and she has to move the stock around to make room for buckets. She has difficulty getting route salesmen to stop to help her keep the store stocked because she doesn’t do enough volume.
Nobody had time to go to the cafe anymore either, which is why it closed. Mrs. Dolan stays open, because it’s what she has to do, and a few people still depend on her for bread and milk, emergency toilet-paper and the odd bottle of Windex.
A quick survey of the wood shelves and wood and glass showcases showed: a dozen cans of pork and beans, six cans of creamed corn, six cans of green beans, four Downy fabric softeners, six Windex, six Four-O-Nine cleaners, four boxes baking soda. There are a dozen boxes of cereal her son buys retail for her at the big market in Julesberg. She sells them at no mark-up, as a service to her community; no one should have to drive 20 miles each way for a box of cereal.
Dolan’s store won’t last any longer than Mrs. Dolan does. The ceiling shows lath and crumbling plaster from the heavy snowfall last winter and subsequent melt. Bare wires on insulators cris-cross the ceiling, relics of a pre-code era. The current electrical supply wouldn’t allow for expansion, and the rotted roof would cost a fortune to replace.
Dolan’s store won’t serve Sedgewick, Colorado any longer than Emma Dolan’s wavering voice can welcome strangers and her liver-spotted and palsied hands can make change. That may not be long, or it may be, I hope, many years.
When Sedgewick loses its Emma and Dolan’s Store, something precious will have been lost. Something more than a grocery.
While we were there, a three-generation family came in, ostensibly to buy some bread and milk; a few things for the week-end. What they really came for was Mrs. Dolan’s approval of a new family son-in-law and to show off the pregnant belly of the next generation in Sedgewick.
Mrs. Dolan’s approval carries weight here still, and the bag of groceries they left with helps keep Dolan’s going. Sedgewick needs Mrs. Dolan as much as Mrs. Dolan needs Sedgewick.
In many areas, small towns are thriving. In the great plains the smallest are victims of consolidation. I’m glad Sedgewick will be there for Emma Dolan’s final years.
Got into Julesburg, Colorado around 3:30 and the temperature hit 103 not long after. We hadn’t felt too bad during the ride. We just kept drinking and pedaling, kept the air moving.
We inquired about camping and a woman at the grocery store called city hall and got permission for us to camp at a city park. At the swimming pool we had a shower and swim for $1.50 each. Found a good Mexican place and treated ourselves to dinner. Then we sat on a bench in the town square and watched the kids and people cruise; it is obviously the thing to do on Saturday night in Julesburg.
We began keeping score on certain cars, holding up fingers to show them how many circuits they’d made. Then we began a game to see which one of us could catch the temperature lowering one degree on the bank sign. It was late when it finally dropped below 100.
After we’d had enough Nebraska excitement for the evening, or so we thought, we went to our tent to sleep. It was the first of several nights we would camp beside the Union Pacific mainline. On average a train passes every few minutes, day and night.
Julesburg has a couple of RR crossings that seem to inspire each engineer to a virtuoso performance on the train’s whistle. It was something we would come to love, but we didn’t know that yet. Also, our tent was so close to the tracks that the ground shook with each train. I thought that was pretty cool. A vibrating bed without having to feed it quarters.
We were just getting accustomed to the trains, sometime after midnight, when we heard the first row of automatic sprinklers spurt alive at the far end of the park. Uh oh. I got out to try and see where the sunken sprinkler heads were close to our tent, but I couldn’t see any. We would just have to hope one would not pop up underneath the tent. As it turned out, we were between two rows of sprinklers and got irrigated twice over a long period of time. We finally got to sleep around three. Free camping has it’s downside.
A couple of days later in Brady, Nebraska, it was over 100 degrees again, as it has been every day in Nebraska. In almost flat terrain we were averaging less than we did on some days in the mountains. We lowered our goals, and sub-60 mile days became the norm. We stopped by early afternoon to look for free camping in town parks and to swim when there’s a pool. We soaked our cotton shirts with water at every opportunity. The cooling lasts a few minutes.
The previous three days we camped in town parks; two of them had swimming pools, and for three or four dollars we both got showers and a swim with the locals. We always meet new people, but Zippy gets all the attention. I’m afraid it’s making him vain.
The smallest town here has at least one or more shady parks and towns of over 1,000 population have a nice pool. These people know how to make the most of hot plains summers.
The temperature reached 106 yesterday, at 6:22 pm.
The cafes are one of the best things about Nebraska. At Brule yesterday, I had steak and eggs (ten ounce) home fries and toast for $3.75. It was Sunday and the after-church crowd was there (church is early in summer) catching up on the local gossip and predicting more heat. We enjoyed hearing the crop talk and answering all the usual questions about our trip. Very friendly. They seem so happy where they are that they see no need to travel anywhere else.
When we got into Brady, we stopped at the grocery today and asked about camping and one of the shoppers borrowed the store’s phone to call the mayor to get permission for us. No problem. I love Nebraska.
We went to the town park, watched little league practice. Talked to a small girl waiting for her brother. I can’t remember the conversation, just how cute she was, and how nice it is that kids here feel safe enough to talk to strangers. We also scoped out the location of the sprinklers.
Went for a walk and stopped to talk with a couple sitting on their lawn. Their Gold Wing motorcycle sat gleaming in the driveway. They take a short tour most years, but had trouble imagining ours, even on a motorcycle. He’s newly retired from Union Pacific. Says they change crews here and so lots of trainmen live here, and retire here.
That night I knew this was a railroad town. Each engineer on each passing train tried to outdo the last in complex and evocative whistle performances.
I remember one in particular; soulful as a blues harmonica, it thickened the humid night air with rich and complex emotion. Between trains the only sounds were crickets, and a mournful dog somewhere across the dewy bean fields.
Daddy was a railroader. He knew the signature sound of every engineer on the Coal River run of the Chesapeake and Ohio in West Virginia, and the mainline too.
I can see him in his apple orchard, head cocked, hand cupped behind his ear, listening to the whistle for the Alum Creek crossing. He’d nod and smile to himself, go back to his pruning, picturing his friend at the throttle.
He doesn’t do that anymore. He’s gone, and I miss him.