At breakfast the next morning, we experienced another facet of avoiding the touristed routes: people in Sargent don’t see strangers very often, and Obbie’s purple cut-off bib overalls attracted a lot of strange looks. We were deep into cattle country, but the redneck-looking people were actually quite friendly once you got to meet them. After a small-town cafe breakfast in the Great Plains, it was time to move on.
The overnight storms were brought on by a wave of cool air that made this a much more pleasant day for driving. It was also a good day for romping around on the grass chasing frisbees, which is what we did in the first park we found. But our third day was mostly spent driving. Along the way we spent a few hours visiting an acquaintance in North Platte. This is a town that most people see as a gas stop along I-80, but long before that it was a gas/food/lodging stop on US-30, and long before that it was (and still is) a major service stop on the Union Pacific Railroad. The railroad remains this city’s central focus, with grain elevators and warehouses strung out along it, and idling locomotives and coupling rail cars providing the ambient noise around the clock.
Our plan was to follow US-30 from North Platte, but road construction forced us to do something we’d promised ourselves not to do: drive on the interstate. The detour took us onto I-80 for only one exit (about 10 miles), but it was enough to convince us that we had done the right thing by avoiding it. It was two lanes in each direction packed with big trucks, rolling condos, and loaded four-wheelers all driving at hysterical speeds, trying to get across the plains as quickly as possible. It’s no wonder that most people try to race through this area. From this vantage point, there’s nothing to see but truck stops, billboards, and an occasional sign informing us how many hundred miles are left between here and Denver. No farmhouses, no Burma Shave signs, no passing trains, no open road, nothing interesting whatsoever. It was great to get back off the freeway.
It was late afternoon when we crossed the Colorado state line at Julesburg, and we pressed on to Sterling before making a hard right turn and charging due west toward the still unseen mountains. The towns were getting to be further apart, and they all seemed to be heralded by tall grain elevators next to the railroad tracks. As we turned away from the railroad, we drove for a couple of hours into the setting sun with little harassment from civilization. With about an hour of daylight left, we knew for certain that we were looking at the outlines of distant mountains on the horizon. We passed a sign announcing that we had just entered Pawnee National Grassland… sort of like a national forest on the prairie. A little while later we saw another sign… for a campground! Not only would we finally get to break in our camping gear, but we actually had a little bit of daylight left in which to do it.