I read this morning that former Southwest Airlines CEO Herb Kelleher has passed. Herb was one of my heroes. In a sense, I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised. He was 87 and had been struggling with some health challenges. Still, the man was a lion.
I don’t know how it is for you, but as I’ve aged I have been surprised to discover that I fear death a lot less than when I was younger. Maybe it’s wisdom, but maybe not. Maybe it’s just a natural defense mechanism we’re wired with. I don’t really know.
What I do know is that as time passes I feel more of a sense of urgency to take some rides while I still can. One of those rides is to a mythical place on the high plains of western Nebraska…a place called Carhenge.
I’ve mapped the route on RidewithGPS. It’s 520 miles one way from Jefferson, so roughly 1,000 miles round trip. That’s a good distance. I could get there and back in a week. It’s all uphill (literally) on the way out, which means it’s all downhill coming home. Roughly half the route is along Nebraska’s Cowboy Trail, another ride that should be on every cyclist’s bucket list. I’ve wanted to ride the Cowboy Trail for some time, but the town at the far end (Valentine) is just not a compelling enough draw. True, there’s a bookstore there I want to visit but that’s not enough in and of itself.
Carhenge, on the other hand, is. I’ve wanted to see this replica of Stonehenge since I first heard about it, but it’s located out in the middle of nowhere and a long way from anywhere. Most people who cross the high plains complain that they’re boring, but that’s because they cross them in a motor vehicle. I can’t help thinking of Robert Pirsig’s quote in “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.” If only they knew what I know.
“In a car you’re always in a compartment, and because you’re used to it you don’t realize that through that car window everything you see is just more TV. You’re a passive observer and it is all moving by you boringly in a frame. On a cycle the frame is gone. You’re completely in contact with it all. You’re in the scene, not just watching it anymore, and the sense of presence is overwhelming.” -Robert M. Pirsig
I’ve cycled not far from here and the sounds, sights, smells and feelings are among my most visceral and real. I find the countryside starkly beautiful in an Edward Hopper -esque way, and while cycling here it occurred to me that Bruce Springsteen knew what he was doing when he named his most genuine album “Nebraska.” This is a place unlike any other. If you don’t believe that, check out the pictures that accompany this article in Bikepacking.
If you visit the Carhenge website, you’ll learn that the sculpture was intended to be art rather than political commentary, but like the Cadillac Ranch located just west of Amarillo Texas on Interstate 40 it has always struck me as an automotive graveyard. In the grand scheme of things, cars haven’t been around all that long. We tend to inflate their importance and permanence because they’re all we’ve ever known. If we step back and take a broader view of history, it isn’t so hard to imagine a future without them. Arriving here on a bicycle would be, I think, deliciously ironic.
I could do this trip on my Fargo or even my Rove, but I’m starting to think long and hard about getting a Salsa Cutthroat frameset and building a bike around it. I’m not getting any younger and I’m willing to grudgingly admit that although steel may be real, carbon fiber is the better material for bicycle frames and forks that are going to carry the rider over very long distances. That said, I don’t like the gearing on the fully built Cutthroats. I understand that they’re designed for climbing the steep grades of the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route under heavy loads. As appealing as that is in the abstract, it’s not where I’m going to do most of my riding at this point in my life. After surviving encounters with moose, bobcats and rattlesnakes on previous rides, I don’t really feel the need to be up close and personal with Grizzly bears and big cats.
If I do this, the plan is to travel lightly and stay at some of the old 1950s roadside motor courts that are so common across the Great Plains. I’d refuel at local dives with virtually no Yelp reviews. I’ve had good luck with these places on previous Great Plains passages. I’d bring my 35 mm camera and some clothes to deal with changing weather conditions. That’s about it.
Now that I’ve publicly stated my desire to do this, it’s just a matter of time until I do. I can’t explain why, but that’s just how it works with me. If you’re heading out this weekend, ride safely and have fun! Until next time…