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Sandhills Surprise

March 14, 2018

Yes, Virginia, there are great motorcycle roads in Nebraska

Story and Photos by Jamie Elvidge

Okay, so Nebraska wasn’t high on my list of motorcycle destinations either, but research for a book I’m writing about America’s greatest roads required I explore each state from top to bottom. However, on my ride to-do list, there was only a big question mark next to Nebraska. And to make matters worse, I was approaching the triple-landlocked state from the west, having only hours before descending the Rockies with a twisty-road-eating grin on my face.

After much Googling and finding no real answers, I decided to throw out a post to my Facebook friends: “Okay people. I need to find the best road in Nebraska.” I got some pretty funny replies: “The one that leads you out of Nebraska,” “It’s in Southern Nebraska, i.e. Colorado” – that sort of thing, but I also got some promising advice. Though it didn’t sound like a road, “Carhenge” was mentioned several times, as well as the secondary highways in the Sandhills.

When I looked up the Sandhills, I was surprised to learn that more than a quarter of Nebraska is covered with ancient, grass-stabilized dunes, and even more fascinating, this area is also the largest and most intricate wetland ecosystem in the United States, with thousands of lakes and ponds that replenish the Ogallala Aquifer, one of the world’s largest water tables. Between the promise of the Sandhills and the mysterious-sounding Carhenge, my interest was fully piqued as I throttled my loaner BMW K1600 Bagger toward northwestern Nebraska. See, Facebook is good for something.

Molehills Out of Mountains

riding-through-nebraskaA wildfire burning in Wyoming had spewed enough smoke to smother the sun as it came up over western Nebraska, colouring my first stop, the Scotts Bluff National Monument, a surreal burnt orange. The towering cliffs here were a vital landmark for pioneers travelling west on both the Oregon and Mormon Trails. As I walked a portion of the original path that led the settlers west, I wondered about those sturdy souls and what it would take to journey even this far, not to mention the crossing of those colossal mountains that loomed ahead.

And what would they think of us, flying on our machines, dismissing the Great Plains as boring while making child’s play of mountain passes? As I motored on toward Alliance and Carhenge, I felt a renewed sense of appreciation for my indulgent means of transport.

I intentionally hadn’t Googled Carhenge ahead of my arrival, though I’d guessed it to be some kind of Stonehenge tribute. What I hadn’t expected was how impressive it would be, both in presentation and backstory. One of USA Today’s top three “Quirky Monuments,” Carhenge sits alone on a tidy 10 acres outside the town of Alliance. It utilizes 39 classic American cars – everything from a 1962 Cadillac to a Willy’s Jeep – to recreate the famous assemblage of stones in Wiltshire, England, built by mysterious means some 3,500 years ago.

Build It and They Will Come

finding-bulls-in-nebraskaThe car version is credited to Jim Reinders, though its construction was a family affair. Reinders’ father, Herman, had originally lived on the site where Carhenge now stands, and it was during his memorial service in 1982 that Reinders came up with the idea to build the replica in tribute to his father, a car fanatic. The family voted in favour and decided to reconvene five years later to begin construction, and impressively, they did just that, dedicating a completed Carhenge to Herman in 1987. Reinders recalls that the Herculean effort required “a lot of blood, sweat and beers” from the family, and though the City of Alliance thought it was a poor use of land, initially mandating a demolition order, it eventually came to its senses and realized Carhenge was probably the most interesting thing about Alliance.

Carhenge was certainly what had brought me to the town, though it was the enchiladas at Mi Ranchito Restaurant on Flack Avenue I might return for. And yes, I realize we’re halfway through this story and I haven’t ridden any great motorcycle roads, but it did look promising as I rolled east and began zigzagging up and down all the secondary roads between Highway 20 and Highway 2, aka the Sandhills Scenic Byway.

Mellow Yellow

sunflowers-in-nebraskaIt was early September when I rode across the Sandhills and Nebraska’s yellow coneflowers were going berserk, lighting up the roadsides with sunny ground-borne cheer that I felt as much as saw as I leaned into the first bona fide set of corners, having left Hwy 2 in Lakeside to ride up Nebraska 250 North. Here State Route 250 swoops and swirls across the dunes, up and over rises and down across wet fields littered with cattails and birds of every feather.

Now, I’m not a birdwatcher, but I was impressed by the density of fowl in this region, which turns out to be part of North America’s Central Flyway, a kind of freeway for migratory birds. The bounty of ponds and lakes in the area invite layovers for geese and ducks and cranes, all of them frisking around in the grassy water, adding sound and movement to the otherwise quiet daisy-yellow landscape.

There are few trees along this stretch of road, fewer…

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