As I lean on my bicycle on this mountain-top, drinking in the glorious scene, and inhaling the ozone-laden air, looking through the loop-holes of recent experiences in crossing the great wonderland to the west; its strange intermingling of forest-clad hills and grassy valleys; its barren, rocky mountains and dreary, desolate plains; its vast, snowy solitudes and its sunny, sylvan nooks; the no less strange intermingling of people; the wandering red-skin with his pathetic history; the feverishly hopeful prospector, toiling and searching for precious metals locked in the eternal hills; and the wild and free cow-boy who, mounted on his wiry bronco, roams these plains and mountains, free as the Arab of the desert - I heave a sigh as I realize that no tongue or pen of mine can hope to do the subject justice.
My road is now over Cheyenne Pass, and from this point is mostly down-grade to Cheyenne. Soon I come to a naturally smooth granite surface which extends for twelve miles, where I have to keep the brake set most of the distance, and the constant friction heats the brake-spoon and scorches the rubber tire black. To-night I reach Cheyenne, where I find a bicycle club of twenty members, and where the fame of my journey from San Francisco draws such a crowd on the corner where I alight, that a blue-coated guardian of the city's sidewalks requests me to saunter on over to the hotel. Do I. Yes, I saunter over. The Cheyenne "cops" are bold, bad men to trifle with. They have to be "bold, bad men to trifle with," or the wild, wicked cow-boys would come in and "paint the city red" altogether too frequently.
It is the morning of June 4th as I bid farewell to the "Magic City," and, turning my back to the mountains, ride away over very fair roads toward the rising sun. I am not long out before meeting with that characteristic feature of a scene on the Western plains, a "prairie schooner;" and meeting prairie schooners will now be a daily incident of my eastward journey. Many of these "pilgrims" come from the backwoods of Missouri and Arkansas, or the rural districts of some other Western State, where the persevering, but at present circumscribed, cycler has not yet had time to penetrate, and the bicycle is therefore to them a wonder to be gazed at and commented on, generally - it must be admitted - in language more fluent as to words than in knowledge of the subject discussed. Not far from where the trail leads out of Crow Creek bottom on to the higher table-land, I find the grassy plain smoother than the wagon-trail, and bowl along for a short distance as easily as one could wish. But not for long is this permitted; the ground becomes covered with a carpeting of small, loose cacti that stick to the rubber tire with the clinging tenacity of a cuckle-burr to a mule's tail. Of course they scrape off again as they come round to the bridge of the fork, but it isn't the tire picking them up that fills me with lynx-eyed vigilance and alarm; it is the dreaded possibility of taking a header among these awful vegetables that unnerves one, starts the cold chills chasing each other up and down my spinal column, and causes staring big beads of perspiration to ooze out of my forehead. No more appalling physical calamity on a small scale could befall a person than to take a header on to a cactus-covered greensward; millions of miniature needles would fill his tender hide with prickly sensations, and his vision with floating stars. It would perchance cast clouds of gloom over his whole life. Henceforth he would be a solemn-visaged, bilious-eyed needle-cushion among men, and would never smile again. I once knew a young man named Whipple, who sat down on a bunch of these cacti at a picnic in Virginia Dale, Wyo., and he never smiled again. Two meek-eyed maidens of the Rockies invited him to come and take a seat between them on a thin, innocuous-looking layer of hay. Smilingly poor, unsuspecting Whipple accepted the invitation; jokingly he suggested that it would be a rose between two thorns. But immediately he sat down he became convinced that it was the liveliest thorn - or rather millions of thorns - between two roses. Of course the two meek-eyed maidens didn't know it was there, how should they. But, all the same, he never smiled again - not on them.
At the section-house, where I call for dinner, I make the mistake of leaving the bicycle behind the house, and the woman takes me for an uncommercial traveller - yes, a tramp. She snaps out, "We can't feed everybody that comes along," and shuts the door in my face. Yesterday I was the centre of admiring crowds in the richest city of its size in America; to-day I am mistaken for a hungry-eyed tramp, and spurned from the door by a woman with a faded calico dress and a wrathy what-are-you-doing-here? Such is life in the Far West.
Gradually the Rockies have receded from my range of vision, and I am alone on the boundless prairie. There is a feeling of utter isolation at finding one's self alone on the plains that is not experienced in the mountain country. There is something tangible and companionable about a mountain; but here, where there is no object in view anywhere - nothing but the boundless, level plains, stretching away on every hand as far as the eye can reach, I and all around, whichever way one looks, nothing but the green carpet below and the cerulean arch above-one feels that he is the sole occupant of a vast region of otherwise unoccupied space. This evening, while fording Pole Creek with the bicycle, my clothes, and shoes - all at the same time - the latter fall in the river; and m my wild scramble after the shoes I drop some of the clothes; then I drop the machine in my effort to save the clothes, and wind up by falling down in the water with everything. Everything is fished out again all right, but a sad change has come over the clothes and shoes. This morning I was mistaken for a homeless, friendless wanderer; this evening as I stand on the bank of Pole Creek with nothing over me but a thin mantle of native modesty, and ruefully wring the water out of my clothes, I feel considerably like one. Pine Bluffs provides me with shelter for the night, and a few miles' travel next morning takes me across the boundary-line into Nebraska My route leads down Pole Creek, with ridable roads probably half the distance, and low, rocky bluffs lining both sides of the narrow valley, and leading up to high, rolling prairie beyond. Over these rocky bluffs the Indians were wont to stampede herds of buffalo, which falling over the precipitous bluffs, would be killed by hundreds, thus procuring an abundance of beef for the long winter. There are no buffalo here now - they have departed with the Indians - and I shall never have a chance to add a bison to my game-list on this tour. But they have left plenty of tangible evidence behind, in the shape of numerous deeply worn trails leading from the bluffs to the creek.
The prairie hereabouts is spangled with a wealth of divers-colored flowers that fill the morning air with gratifying perfume. The air is soft and balmy, in striking contrast to the chilly atmosphere of early morning in the mountain country, where the accumulated snows of a thousand winters exert their chilling influence in opposition to the benign rays of old Sol. This evening I pass through "Prairie-dog City," the largest congregation of prairie-dog dwellings met with on the tour. The "city" covers hundreds of acres of ground, and the dogs come out in such multitudes to present their noisy and excitable protests against my intrusion, that I consider myself quite justified in shooting at them. I hit one old fellow fair and square, but he disappears like a flash down his hole, which now becomes his grave. The lightning-like movements of the prairie-dog, and his instinctive inclination toward his home, combine to perform the last sad rites of burial for his body at death. As, toward dark, I near Potter Station, where I expect accommodation for the night, a storm comes howling from the west, and it soon resolves into a race between me and the storm. With a good ridable road I could win the race; but, being handicapped with an unridable trail, nearly obscured beneath tall, rank grass, the storm overtakes me, and comes in at Potter Station a winner by about three hundred lengths.
In the morning I start out in good season, and, nearing Sidney, the road becomes better, and I sweep into that enterprising town at a becoming pace. I conclude to remain at Sidney for dinner, and pass the remainder of the forenoon visiting the neighboring fort.
Stevens' Route in Nebraska
FROM THE GREAT PLAINS TO THE ATLANTIC.
Through the courtesy of the commanding officer at Fort Sidney I am enabled to resume my journey eastward under the grateful shade of a military summer helmet in lieu of the semi-sombrero slouch that has lasted me through from San Francisco. Certainly it is not without feelings of compunction that one discards an old friend, that has gallantly stood by me through thick and thin throughout the eventful journey across the inter-mountain country; but the white helmet gives such a delightfully imposing air to my otherwise forlorn and woebegone figure that I ride out of Sidney feeling quite vain. The first thing done is to fill a poor yellow-spotted snake - whose head is boring in the sand - with lively surprise, by riding over his mottled carcass; and only the fact of the tire being rubber, and not steel, enables him to escape unscathed. This same evening, while halting for the night at Lodge Pole Station, the opportunity of observing the awe-inspiring aspect of a great thunder-storm on the plains presents itself. With absolutely nothing to obstruct the vision the Alpha and Omega of the whole spectacle are plainly observable. The gradual mustering of the forces is near the Rockies to the westward, then the skirmish-line of fleecy cloudlets comes rolling and tumbling in advance, bringing a current of air that causes the ponderous wind-mill at the railway tank to "about face" sharply, and sets its giant arms to whirling vigorously around. Behind comes the compact, inky veil that spreads itself over the whole blue canopy above, seemingly banishing all hope of the future; and athwart its Cimmerian surface shoot zigzag streaks of lightning, accompanied by heavy, muttering thunder that rolls and reverberates over the boundless plains seemingly conscious of the spaciousness of its play-ground. Broad sheets of electric flame play along the ground, filling the air with a strange, unnatural light; heavy, pattering raindrops begin to fall, and, ten minutes after, a pelting, pitiless down-pour is drenching the sod-cabin of the lonely rancher, and, for the time being, converting the level plain into a shallow lake.
A fleet of prairie schooners is anchored in the South Platte bottom, waiting for it to dry up, as I trundle down that stream - every mile made interesting by reminiscences of Indian fights and massacres - next day, toward Ogallala; and one of the "Pilgrims" looks wise as I approach, and propounds the query, "Does it hev ter git very muddy afore yer kin ride yer verlocify, mister?" "Ya-as, purty dog-goned muddy," I drawl out in reply; for, although comprehending his meaning, I don't care to venture into an explanatory lecture of uncertain length. Seven weeks' travel through bicycleless territory would undoubtedly convert an angel into a hardened prevaricator, so far as answering questions is concerned.
This afternoon is passed the first homestead, as distinguished from a ranch-consisting of a small tent pitched near a few acres of newly upturned prairie - in the picket-line of the great agricultural empire that is gradually creeping westward over the plains, crowding the autocratic cattle-kings and their herds farther west, even as the Indians and their still greater herds - buffaloes - have been crowded out by the latter. At Ogallala--which but a few years ago was par excellence the cow-boys' rallying point - "homesteads," "timber claims," and "pre-emption" now form the all-absorbing topic.
"The Platte's 'petered' since the hoosiers have begun to settle it up," deprecatingly reflects a bronzed cow-boy at the hotel supper-table; and, from his standpoint, he is correct.
Passing the next night in the dug-out of a homesteader, in the forks of the North and South Platte, I pass in the morning Buffalo Bill's home ranch (the place where a ranch proprietor himself resides is denominated the "home ranch" as distinctive from a ranch presided over by employees only), the house and improvements of which are said to be the finest in Western Nebraska. Taking dinner at North Platte City, I cross over a substantial wagon-bridge, spanning the turgid yellow stream just below where the north and south branches fork, and proceed eastward as "the Platte" simply, reaching Brady Island for the night. Here I encounter extraordinary difficulties in getting supper. Four families, representing the Union Pacific force at this place, all living in separate houses, constitute the population of Brady Island. "All our folks are just recovering from the scarlet fever," is the reply to my first application; "Muvver's down to ve darden on ve island, and we ain't dot no bread baked," says a barefooted youth at house No. 2; "Me ould ooman's across ter the naybur's, 'n' there ain't a boite av grub cooked in the shanty," answers the proprietor of No. 3, seated on the threshold, puffing vigorously at the traditional short clay; "We all to Nord Blatte been to veesit, und shust back ter home got mit notings gooked," winds up the gloomy programme at No. 4. I am hesitating about whether to crawl in somewhere, supperless, for the night, or push on farther through the darkness, when, "I don't care, pa! it's a shame for a stranger to come here where there are four families and have to go without supper," greet my ears in a musical, tremulous voice. It is the convalescent daughter of house No. 1, valiantly championing my cause; and so well does she succeed that her "pa" comes out, and notwithstanding my protests, insists on setting out the best they have cooked.
Homesteads now become more frequent, groves of young cottonwoods, representing timber claims, are occasionally encountered, and section-house accommodation becomes a thing of the past. Near Willow Island I come within a trifle of stepping on a belligerent rattlesnake, and in a moment his deadly fangs are hooked to one of the thick canvas gaiters I am wearing. Were my exquisitely outlined calves encased in cycling stockings only, I should have had a "heap sick foot" to amuse myself with for the next three weeks, though there is little danger of being "snuffed out" entirely by a rattlesnake favor these days; an all-potent remedy is to drink plenty of whiskey as quickly as possible after being bitten, and whiskey is one of the easiest things to obtain in the West. Giving his snakeship to understand that I don't appreciate his ''good intentions " by vigorously shaking him off, I turn my "barker "loose on him, and quickly convert him into a "goody-good snake; " for if "the only good Indian is a dead one," surely the same terse remark applies with much greater force to the vicious and deadly rattler. As I progress eastward, sod-houses and dug-outs become less frequent, and at long intervals frame school-houses appear to remind me that I am passing through a civilized country. Stretches of sand alternate with ridable roads all down the Platte. Often I have to ticklishly wobble along a narrow space between two yawning ruts, over ground that is anything but smooth. I consider it a lucky day that passes without adding one or more to my long and eventful list of headers, and to-day I am fairly "unhorsed" by a squall of wind that-taking me unawares-blows me and the bicycle fairly over.
East of Plum Creek a greater proportion of ridable road is encountered, but they still continue to be nothing more than well-worn wagon-trails across the prairie, and when teams are met en route westward one has to give and the other take, in order to pass. It is doubtless owing to misunderstanding a cycler's capacities, rather than ill-nature, that makes these Western teamsters oblivious to the precept, "It is better to give than to receive;" and if ignorance is bliss, an outfit I meet to-day ought to comprise the happiest mortals in existence. Near Elm Creek I meet a train of "schooners," whose drivers fail to recognize my right to one of the two wheel-tracks; and in my endeavor to ride past them on the uneven greensward, I am rewarded by an inglorious header. A dozen freckled Arkansawish faces are watching my movements with undisguised astonishment; and when my crest - alien self is spread out on the prairie, these faces - one and all - resolve into expansive grins, and a squeaking female voice from out nearest wagon, pipes: "La me! that's a right smart chance of a travelling machine, but, if that's the way they stop 'em, I wonder they don't break every blessed bone in their body." But all sorts of people are mingled promiscuously here, for, soon after this incident, two young men come running across the prairie from a semi-dug-out, who prove to be college graduates from "the Hub," who are rooting prairie here in Nebraska, preferring the free, independent life of a Western farmer to the restraints of a position at an Eastern desk. They are more conversant with cycling affairs than myself, and, having heard of my tour, have been on the lookout, expecting I would pass this way.
At Kearney Junction the roads are excellent, and everything is satisfactory; but an hour's ride east of that city I am shocked at the gross misconduct of a vigorous and vociferous young mule who is confined alone in a pasture, presumably to be weaned. He evidently mistakes the picturesque combination of man and machine for his mother, as, on seeing us approach, he assumes a thirsty, anxious expression, raises his unmusical, undignified voice, and endeavors to jump the fence. He follows along the whole length of the pasture, and when he gets to the end, and realizes that I am drawing away from him, perhaps forever, he bawls out in an agony of grief and anxiety, and, recklessly bursting through the fence, comes tearing down the road, filling the air with the unmelodious notes of his soul- harrowing music. The road is excellent for a piece, and I lead him a lively chase, but he finally overtakes me, and, when I slow up, he jogs along behind quite contentedly.
East of Kearney the sod-houses disappear entirely, and the improvements are of a more substantial character. At "Wood River I "make my bow" to the first growth of natural timber since leaving the mountains, which indicates my gradual advance off the vast timberless plains. Passing through Grand Island, Central City, and other towns, I find myself anchored Saturday evening, June 14th, at Duncan - a settlement of Polackers - an honest-hearted set of folks, who seem to thoroughly understand a cycler's digestive capacity, though understanding nothing whatever about the uses of the machine. Resuming my journey next morning, I find the roads fair. After crossing the Loup River, and passing through Columbus, I reach-about 11 A.M.- a country school-house, with a gathering of farmers hanging around outside, awaiting the arrival of the parson to open the meeting. Alighting, I am engaged in answering forty questions or thereabouts to the minute when that pious individual canters up, and, dismounting from his nag, comes forward and joins in the conversation. He invites me to stop over and hear the sermon; and when I beg to be excused because desirous of pushing ahead while the weather is favorable His Reverence solemnly warns me against desecrating the Sabbath by going farther than the prescribed "Sabbath-day's journey."
At Premont I bid farewell to the Platte - which turns south and joins the Missouri River at Plattsmouth - and follow the old military road through the Elkhorn Valley to Omaha. "Military road" sounds like music in a cycler's ear - suggestive of a well-kept and well-graded highway; but this particular military road between Fremont and Omaha fails to awaken any blithesome sensations to-day, for it is almost one continuous mud-hole. It is called a military road simply from being the route formerly traversed by troops and supply trains bound for the Western forts. Besting a day in Omaha, I obtain a permit to trundle my wheel across the Union Pacific Bridge that spans the Missouri River - the "Big Muddy," toward which I have been travelling so long - between Omaha and Council Bluffs; I bid farewell to Nebraska, and cross over to Iowa.
Heretofore I have omitted mentioning the tremendously hot weather I have encountered lately, because of my inability to produce legally tangible evidence; but to-day, while eating dinner at a farm-house, I leave the bicycle standing against the fence, and old Sol ruthlessly unsticks the tire, so that, when I mount, it comes off, and gives me a gymnastic lesson all unnecessary. My first day's experience in the great "Hawkeye State" speaks volumes for the hospitality of the people, there being quite a rivalry between two neighboring farmers about which should take me in to dinner. A compromise is finally made, by which I am to eat dinner at one place, and be "turned loose" in a cherry orchard afterward at the other, to which happy arrangement I, of course, enter no objections. In striking contrast to these friendly advances is my own unpardonable conduct the same evening in conversation with an honest old farmer.