Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Staying Ahead of the Surging Platte River

For five days now, since I reached Brush, Colorado Saturday afternoon, I have been riding along the South Platte, then Platte, River with an eerie shadow of foreboding, knowing that an unprecedented and unfathomable avalanche of water would soon be funneling through, overflowing its banks and  causing untold flooding.  All the corn fields and pasturelands that I've been gazing upon and the very road I've been riding could soon be transformed into an ocean of water.

Yet there is minimal concern by the locals.  There is no mass evacuation or sand bagging going on. The last cataclysmic flood was fifty years ago and few have a memory of it.  It is difficult for anyone to imagine their lazy, benign river, which is presently a dry river bed thanks to Colorado hoarding its water in reservoirs,

will soon be a torrent of water.  In these arid parts, people are conditioned to welcome, if not crave, any moisture, so this sudden bounty is almost a blessing, an answer to their prayers.  If it comes with a little flooding, so be it.

The water is progressing at less than three miles per hour.  I am well ahead of it--by more than 48 hours.  The surge is now reaching the Nebraska border just beyond Julesburg, a very quiet, semi-abandoned city.  I passed through Julesburg  Sunday evening, arriving just before five, hoping its non-Carnegie library might have Sunday hours.  No such luck and no luck either tapping into its WIFI, as it required a password, as has been the case at about half the libraries I have visited during  these travels.

Early reports this morning were that the river at Julesburg had exceeded its record crest of 10.44 feet set on June 20, 1965.  The river passes the town a half mile or so to its south.  No word if the water has reached the town proper.  It was a much depressed place with more than half the stores vacant.  I spoke with an older local whose forebears had settled in the area in the 1880s.  He was much chagrined with what had become of the town, not the least of which was it having a marijuana dispensary.  He was of the thought that a flood could be the best thing to happen to the place.  He still was upset that the town had refused the offer of a Carnegie library nearly a century ago, not constructing the present library until 1935.

Earlier in the day I passed through the small town of Crook.  As I sat outside its post office with my tent and sleeping bag spread out front drying, several men arrived with sand bags. They were in a frantic rush and advised me to clear out, unaware that high water wouldn't reach them for a couple of days, the only people I've encountered who seemed concerned about an impending disaster.   I also had a few items drying inside by a wall of PO boxes that they asked me to remove.  On a table inside was another example of rural generosity--someone had left a box of zucchini and corn and peppers.  I helped myself to a couple ears of corn.  They were sweet enough that they didn't need cooking.  I scraped the kernels from the cob with my knife and added them to my ramen.  

I had hoped the local radio stations would be thrilled with this huge story that had fallen in their laps, giving young energetic reporters a chance to distinguish themselves, but they are hardly covering it.  The local radio stations only speak of "possible flooding," with the same tone as climate-change doubters. No one is on the scene where the river is cresting, nor is any one calling locals for on the scene reactions.  I'd kind of like to be back 150 miles witnessing the rising waters, but I can't stop riding my bike. I happened to catch the weekly interview of the superintendent of Ogallala's high school, a town on the South Platte.  The newsman asked him what he would be doing about the flood.  All he said is that he'd try to get students to help stuff sand bags.

Since this is such a rare event, no one can predict what will happen, whether the waters will spill onto Interstate 80 (which was built after the last flood in 1965) or overflow the railway tracks or will  soak into the parched river bed and countryside.  It is an incredibly active rail line.  Several freight trains pass every hour carrying open cars of coal and enclosed cars of I know not what.  There is so little traffic on my road, the local alternative to Interstate 80, most of the engineers give me a toot when they pass.  

It was a much busier route back in the mid-1800s when thousands of Mormons and settlers followed it when it was known as the Oregon Trail. Historic signs pay tribute to it as well as to the short-lived Pony Express.

The town of Gothenburg has transplanted a nearby original Pony Express station to its park.

Gothenburg is a rare Nebraska town with a sense of preservation.  It is the only one of five towns I have passed through in Nebraska so far that once had a Carnegie Library, that continues to use it as a libary, albeit with a huge, modern addition with no pretensions of matching the original. It still had a nice, hospitable warmth, matching its WIFI password--"Welcome!"  It was just a few blocks from the Pony Express station on the same Main Street through the town.  

Earlier in the day I visited a Carnegie in North Platte that has served as a Children's Museum since 1998.  The new library is right behind it but not attached.  Like most of the Western Carnegies, it was a solid brick building with minimal embellishment.

The woman overseeing the museum is a kayaker who will try to restrain herself from getting out on the swollen river when it reaches North Platte this weekend and joins up with the still flowing North Platte River.  She's not concerned about the speed of the current, but rather all the debris in the river, especially strands of barbed wire.  

The Carnegie in Cozad, ten miles beyond Gothenberg, had been torn town and replaced on the same site by a library provided by a local benefactor who the library is named for.

The Carnegie in Kearney has also been torn down and replaced on the same site by a glassy monstrosity.  At least it pays homage to it with its original circulation desk sitting alone in a place of honor on the second floor.

It also placed the wooden archway to its entrance as the entrance to its fiction room.

The Carnegie in Lexington still stands but it has been desecrated and rendered fully unrecognizable by a law firm that took it over. It resides two blocks from the new sprawling library that fills an entire block.

I'm better than half way across the state.  Ten more Carnegies are on my route, including a possible three in Lincoln.  I'll be leaving the Platte in less than fifty miles at Grand Island when I continue directly east to Lincoln rather than following the river to Omaha.  I suspect, as do most others, the flooding will be well dissipated by then, though there is no telling.  As everyone likes to proclaim, this is a once in a thousand year occurrence, up from 500 years, an all too common refrain about all the extreme weather of late.

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