Road trip 2020: travel during pandemic

It’s been a long year, and the fact that we had to spend a significant share of our time at home did not necessarily mean that we had more time to read, write, or do other things that we planned: as many of my friends shared, not only our daily routines were impacted, the inspiration was, too.

The ongoing pandemic that followed us pretty much the whole 2020 altered the lives of nearly everyone around in so many different ways. Among others, travel plans took a serious hit, with almost all travel cancelled or postponed, sometimes indefinitely. Since traveling is a very important part of who I am, I decided fairly early in the year that keeping myself moving will help tremendously to remain mentally balanced and sane – the only challenge was to do it safely for myself and the others around me.

Turning a challenge into an accomplishment! Author unknown, unfortunately.

In early spring, I started by driving to the parks for some walking, hiking, and working with my field radio station. That was a perfect way to get outdoors since I drove my own car, I parked in remote locations and stayed away from other people (not that there were too many anyway), and I did not use any public facilities (well, except the gas stations – but I always have hand sanitizer in the driver’s door).

However, as the summer approached, I was craving for a more immersive experience: I wanted to go camping, or venture out for a road trip. The problem was that even though parks were reopening in Nebraska and Iowa, camping was still not allowed. By coincidence, I discovered that this was not the case in South Dakota: parks there allowed tent camping, and even cabin reservations.

An idea sparked in my mind immediately: what if I could repeat the last year’s epic trip to Black Hills and Badlands of South Dakota? My good friends who I consider my “inner circle” agreed to join me for this adventure, and we were even able to book a cabin at the Custer State Park, which provided more peace of mind since camping policies may have been revised not in our favor. It is worth to note that I was extremely lucky to secure a cabin reservation less than a month in advance – usually those are gone 3-4 months ahead at least. Most likely there was a cancellation that I was able to benefit from.

One downside of the cabin reservation was the fact that we had it during the week (oh well, you don’t always get a choice when you score such a great chance!). Thus, we decided to “front load” the drive west by leaving after work on “Day 0”, and driving as far west as we could. Unlike last year, I did not plan on camping on our way there, as at the time when reservations were made, it was still not allowed in Nebraska parks. We spent the first night in a hotel in North Platte, and even completed a short run when we woke up early in the morning (we did not want to step away from our program, since we were months into training for our first half-marathon).

Crossing the South Platte river after our morning recovery run.

After a hearty breakfast, we packed up and headed northwest along the Hwy 26, then turning northbound on Hwy 385. The latter took us by Alliance, NE – home of Carhenge, a famous roadside attraction built from old cars. We stopped by for some time, walked around and enjoyed not only the car-themed replica of England’s Stonehenge, but also some other metal sculptures. After a quick rest, we were back on the road, heading to the first stop on the route where we planned to enjoy the nature of Western Nebraska.

Central “sculptural group” of the Carhenge complex near Alliance, NE.

Chadron State Park, located within the boundaries of the Nebraska National Forest just a few miles south from Chadron, NE, is the first Nebraska’s State Park established in 1921. (Next year, Nebraska State Parks celebrate their centennial – and the amateur radio enthusiasts are not staying aside and plan on celebrating this milestone!). We wanted to visit Chadron SP for quite a while, and I admit that I’d gladly have spent more time there, even making an overnight stop – but we only had a few hours. Thus, we chose to hike the Steamboat trail, as it is one of the most praised gems of the park.

Trailhead of the Steamboat trail in the Chadron State Park.

Steamboat trail is a short 1.3-mile loop that takes you through the forest up to the ridge that opens to you a truly awesome view. It is a pretty easy hike with the elevation gain of ~250 ft that we completed in less than an hour with several stops to enjoy the views and take pictures. While walking along the trail, we could see the aftermath of the West Ash Wildfire that ravaged the park in 2012. Although almost 90% of the park’s territory burned, due to tremendous efforts of the responders from various agencies, kept the fire on the ground and prevented loos of structures and property.

Walking along the ridge on the highest point of the Steamboat trail.

After completing the hike and having a little picnic at the trailhead, we got back on the road, as we still had 100 miles ahead before we could relax in our cabin and prepare for the next days adventures.

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