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PHOTOS: Daniel Wakefield Pasley
Nebraska is a mathematician’s delight; it’s one big square divisible by hundreds and thousands of smaller squares. Farms, fields, ranches, all on a grid of right angles and square plots. It’s deceptively not flat, like an ocean, where scale and perspective is the difference between table top and mountain range. While it’s expansive, nothing about it is particularly grand, it’s wholesome like the soil, crops and people that it’s sparsely populated with.
On paper, our ride dubbed ‘The Lincoln Continental’, is plumb straight. On a map it’s six 8.5” x 11” landscape pages of paper taped together and nearly four feet tall. In practice, it’s fourteen hours of dirt and gravel due north.
On the edge of Lincoln, Nebraska, our dirt road, a thin reddish-brown line, is freshly graded and covered with a deep layer of loose sand and dark mud. The non-absorbent, unpacked surface has too much sink and for miles, and hours, we slog—cutting dark scars into the road. We labor without traction or control, our trajectory as much a result of camber and slope as will and intent. 155 miles to our destination in Ponca is a full day in any case, but with a soft ground gripping back it makes maintaining 14-mph a full-gas effort.
At regular intervals our unpaved road intersects another. From time to time farm houses, churches, trees, silos and barns materialize and fade. Our world is steadily equal parts air, water, dirt, and day-dream.
On the far side of the Platte River we come all at once to North Bend, an intersection-sized town. There we eat through a nap, or sleep through a meal of pancake stacks, biscuits and gravy and pies at the Corner Café.
Emerging finally to a weak sunshine, the dirt continues but now it’s dry. Our straight road ends at the foot of a 200 year-old majestic Oak tree and we turn. Left.
In Pender, another small, nearly empty town struggling into the future, we reprovision. The gas station combination convenient store is owned by a friendly elderly couple curious about our bikes and adventure. She has never made it to Ponca but “sure would like to some day when she finds the time.”
The sun and wind sink into the evening and make it rustle. Shadows grow and stretch to the edge of the road, playing across the shape of fences, mailboxes, silos and newly planted rows of corn. Deciduous trees planted for shade and to break the wind quaver in the mounting breeze and shake off the day.
The sky transitions from blue to dusty-blue, pink, reddish-orange and quickly to black. Stars appear one by one. The shadows now, are a mile long. The metal sides of barns, abandoned cars, wire fencing, metal porch swings and wind chimes pleasantly glitter and glint in the new moonlight.
The team is broken-up and surviving into the evening one by one. At last, the grid lets loose its grip and the roads bend and curve and snake their way into the dark and the outskirts of Ponca where we eat dinner from a Mexican food cart, exhausted and satisfied.