Nothing cures a case of the wintertime doldrums and cabin-fever blues faster than a four wheeling trip. When winter’s long nights threaten to turn us into couch potatoes, we load up the Discovery and head out. On a clear winter’s day, we packed a couple weeks worth of food, filled the water and fuel tanks, and set off toward Nebraska to corroborate rumors of endless sand dunes, of pine-covered ridges, and miles of four-wheel-drive trails.
We crossed the Cornhusker State following the footsteps of hundreds of trappers, explorers, and pioneers who had journeyed westward on the Platte River Road, some to Oregon and California via the Oregon Trail, and others to Utah via the Mormon Trail. Nighttime found us at Broken Bow. As we turned in for the night, an ice-cold wind began to blow. During the night, winter reasserted itself with a vengeance: first freezing rain, then marble-size hail, and finally snow--lots of it. By morning, everything was covered by 12 to 24 inches of the white stuff over a hard layer of black ice. And snow kept coming down. Slowly and with tire chains on all fours, we carefully drove toward the Bessey District of the Nebraska National Forest. This district encompasses the largest man-made forest in the country. Stands of hardwoods, pines, and cedars cover the steeply rolling topography of the Sand Hills of Nebraska. The snow- and ice-covered roads were deserted except for the cars and trucks that populated the ditches, victims of the night's icy roads. Thanks to the tire chains we drove in total control.
By the time we reached the forest-fire lookout tower, the snow had tapered off to flurries and the sun was trying to break through. Although bitterly cold, it was turning into a beautiful day. From the tower, the landscape spread below us: thousands of acres of pine trees glistened in the freshly fallen snow, and even more acres of rolling grasslands rested under a blanket of snow. We began our exploration by driving down a normally well-maintained gravel road that had become impassable to all but 4x4s. The road encircles the district and provides access to hundreds of rough tracks that lead to windmills, stock tanks, and fire breaks. Along the road we encountered deep snow drifts as well as very icy stretches, but with the sun shining, the scenery was truly outstanding. We stopped numerous times to walk through the pine and hardwood forests and enjoy the winter wonderland the storm had left in its wake.
The driving had been easy in the woods, but once out onto the openness of the Sand Hills, the going became much harder. In some places, the wind had blown the snow clear of the trail, and we faced driving in fine, loose sand where our tire chains worked to our detriment. In others, the tires would break through the snow and ice crust without warning and fall into deep ruts filled with a mixture of water and sand. In the below-zero temperatures, all the splashed water quickly froze to the truck, giving it a bizarre "Mad Max" look.
We were slowly making our way to a primitive campground at the edge of the Dismal River. The last four miles of the trail follow a depression across open country. The strong prairie winds had piled 3 and sometimes 4 feet of snow on the trail. With all three diffs locked, we plowed our way to the campground. We camped in the shelter of the trees. The thermometer registered minus-19 degrees for the morning low. Even in this extreme temperature, our Optima Batteries made quick work of cranking the engine.
We spent the next couple of days lazily exploring countless tracks to windmills and water tanks. Sometimes we were driving in sand and sometimes through deep snow drifts where we needed to have a couple of goes before breaking through. It is exceedingly easy to get lost in the Sand Hills because "they all look alike" and they spread for 100,000 acres. So, we carried the Forest Service pasture allotment map, which shows trails, windmills, stock tanks, and fences. Furthermore, each windmill is numbered on the map and tagged in the field on its northwest corner, making staying found an easy task.
The forest and surrounding grassland are home to a variety of wildlife. Antelope, mule deer, white tail deer, grouse, prairie chicken, turkey, coyote, rabbits, small rodents, and over 150 different bird species inhabit what looks like a barren landscape. One of our favorite activities is to follow tracks to a secluded spot and watch the various animals and birds that make their home there. At one of our evening campsites, a family of white tail deer and a flock of turkeys dropped in for a visit.
We had indeed found an endless sea of sand dunes, and now it was time to find the pine-covered ridges. We headed north by west and into the Pine Ridge District. Here, the federal land is interspersed with private and state land, so keeping an eye on maps and signs is vital to keep from trespassing. In this part of the state, the landscape is totally different. The Sand Hills are replaced by rocky escarpments and ridges covered with native forests. Soils also change from sand to clay. By the time we made our way to this amazing area, most of the new-fallen snow had melted creating muddy quagmires. The surface of the track would look just a bit moist, but as soon as you stepped on it, your feet would either sink ankle deep or else slip right out from under you.
We found what we hoped was just a short stretch of mud and shifted into Diff-Lock. When the trail got worse, we decided to save the track and uncoiled the winch cable. With the engine running at a fast idle, we watched as our Ramsey winch easily pulled us up the hill. The trail did not improve. Our map showed this trail winding its way up and down the ridge for some 15 miles. To go on would mean a couple of hours fighting mud, winching, and worst of all leaving the track heavily rutted. The conditions were just not conducive to treading lightly and we decided to turn back. Although we were sorry to miss the challenge, we felt confident we were doing the right thing.
We started our way down the slippery hill but began to lose traction and slide sideways toward the drainage ditch. With the ditch threatening to swallow us, we killed the ignition, bringing the truck to a controlled stop. After assessing the situation, we decided the best course of action was to use the trusty winch to straighten the truck and then to drive the last third of the hill. By the time the winch cable was back on the drum, twilight had given way to the darkness of night.
A number of trucks must have attempted to drive the lower portion of the trail because it had become one big mudhole with numerous deep ruts. Not wanting to spend the night in a cold swamp, we locked both axles, gave the engine a good head of steam, and powered our way through the mess with our Dunlop R/Ts flinging mud and fighting for traction. (The track was already in such bad shape we didn't feel we would be making it any worse).
We spent the night at a lovely picnic area. In the morning, we drove up to the Ranger's office and discussed the condition of the roads. The rangers pointed to a number of trails that offered varied scenery and a driving challenge but would not damage the trails. They were right. We climbed forest-covered ridges, crossed mountain streams, followed rambling brooks, and negotiated rocky ground, deep snow drifts, flooded tracks, and some muddy spots, but our rearview mirror showed that we had indeed treaded lightly. We spend a couple of wonderful days exploring the Pine Ridge area and made plans to return with our backpacking gear to explore the Soldier Creek Wilderness Area, a pristine area where motorized travel is not permitted.
Regrettably, our time to depart came and we pointed the Discovery homeward. On the way we came across Scotts Bluff rising out of the prairie like a ships prow. This landmark signaled pioneers that the dreaded plains were behind them and inspired us to return to this beautiful land of wide-open spaces, rolling sand hills, and forested ridges.
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