Saturday, October 4, 2014

"Crap, This is an Air Force Base!" - Nebraska Recap

Another marathon, another state people think is lame.

Look at all the trees! No wonder they invented Arbor Day.
Spoiler alert - once again, people were wrong!

Now, I don't really blame everyone for telling me how boring Nebraska was going to be. My extended family owns a farm in rural Illinois, so I totally get how seeing nothing but cornfields is the actual worst.

But fortunately for us, we stumbled upon the Monument Marathon, which is in Nebraska's panhandle. In fact, the area is known for its bluffs, which gained notoriety when pioneers on the Oregon Trail were overjoyed to see something other than plains!

We got a killer deal on flights out of DTW on Spirit - $118 round-trip! I actually got to take advantage of a pricing error, something I thought never happened to real people. Spirit breaks down their ticket price into various categories, but Goofus was running the show that day and put in that the fuel cost was $0 for the itinerary. I'm no flight expert, but I think we probably used more than zero gallons of fuel during the flight.

This required both Michael and I to trek about two hours each to our parents' the night before, but the savings were worth it. Of course, calamity struck two blocks from my parents', and I got a flat tire. Once again, AAA totally paid for itself. I waited almost two hours for the guy to show up (supposedly his prior job took quite awhile), but he had the bike tire on in about a minute. Eager Feet Dad then was awesome and took the car to a repair shop that partners with Ford and is within walking distance on Friday, so I was all good to go when I got back from my trip. Crisis averted!

The next morning we were a little nervous about our flight. We had heard all sorts of horror stories about Spirit, but most of them seemed to be from dumb people that couldn't read the fee schedule. The flight was actually great, and we would both fly them again. The seats were quite close together, and Michael's knees just about touched, but we both were plenty comfortable for a three hour flight. (Plus the seats don't recline, so the space can't be co-opted by the person in front of you.) Our flight attendants were hysterical, and we landed right on time in Denver.

Aside here - the Denver airport is awful. We wandered around forever to find the Enterprise counter, which was hiding behind an escalator, and then had to ask where the shuttle to the actual pick-up area was. On the way back, we had similar problems, and just about had to ask where the line for security was. The area outside of security was very nice, but that airport really needs a few more signs.

I think the real conspiracy of the Denver Airport is the layout was designed by the Demon Horse.
Our flight must have been the first of the day, as every person was free at the rental counter. The person who took us to our car couldn't find our class of vehicle (I still don't's not like a section of your fleet just walks away on its own), so we actually got a free upgrade to a Focus. This was great because then I didn't spend an hour giving us whiplash while I figured out the brakes. I also knew how to telescope the wheel, so Michael couldn't make fun of me for sitting up on the wheel like a grandma. Short arm struggles are real, people.

We were officially on our way! We made a quick pit stop at a Panera outside of Denver (since apparently there are none in Nebraska) to get bagels for race morning and also wrangled some water cups, because I was not about to spend good money for bottled water at a gas station.

The next stop was lunch in Cheyenne, Wyoming, the last big town we would be seeing until packet pick-up that night. We picked a place called Poor Richard's, which ended up being, well, a rather poor choice. (Ahaha, I'll be here all night.) We went in through the door by the parking lot, which ended up being the bar area with no one around, and I think the staff thought we were rather dumb, but oh well. The food was mediocre, but it did the job.

On our way back to the highway, my phone navigated us through some neighborhoods, and I needed to turn immediately upon leaving the sub, but neither of us were quite ready for this, so I just went straight and figured I would turn around at the next business.

Oh, no, once you cross, the road dead ends at an AFB without warning. We ended up illegally backing out of the visitor center and illegally making a U-turn right in front of the guard shack, because there was literally no other way, except into the base. It was rather disconcerting.

After we outran the helicopters chasing us, we continued on to the main stop of the say - Agate Fossil Beds National Monument. This park was home to some of the most complete Miocene mammal fossils ever found. However, most of those fossils were removed before the park was founded to various museums throughout the country, including one I went to all the time in Ann Arbor as a kid!, so most of the visitor center's exhibits focus on the Lakota that were friends with the ranch owner.

It's a small world.
We did an easy one mile hike first when we got the park, which showcased the fossilized burrows of paleocastor, an ancestor of the modern beaver. We also had great views from the top of the bluff and got to watch a hawk out hunting. The park is 30 miles from the nearest town, so it was incredibly quiet and peaceful, and we had the area to ourselves. This was definitely a really unique trail, and I'm so glad we made the effort to explore it.

On the way to the visitor's center, we stopped at an overlook to view the two main hills where the fossils were discovered. It was only a few miles from the trail, but apparently the first person to come explore the fossils in the area was so fascinated by the paleocastor burrows (which he thought were fossilized roots of gigantic plants), that he totally missed the amazing mammal fossils right next door, which would've been the find of a lifetime for him. Plus, his plant theory was pretty quickly disproved - that poor guy couldn't catch a break! We could've hiked out to these hills, but the fossils are almost all gone, and it was 90 degrees and we didn't have sunscreen, so we satisfied ourselves with the view.

The visitor's center was small, but they were open late that day, so we had plenty of time to explore the exhibits. The plaster models of the removed fossils were so cool to see up close. I think people spend so much time focusing only on dinosaur fossils, that it was really refreshing to learn about mammals instead.

The collection of Lakota artifacts was also very beautiful (I didn't take pictures because I wasn't sure if it was okay), and it was wonderful to read about a truly positive relationship between whites and the natives.

Once we were finished, we made the journey back to civilization. We popped into our hotel to check in and unload the car. We got a great rate at what has to be one of the nicest Super 8's in existence. They even gave us a little goody bag at check-in - the chips were so clutch after the race, and it was nice to get a throw-away water bottle to take with us before the race.

Neither of us were brave enough to try the apple pie.
However, the clerk didn't ask me to show ID or my credit card at check-in, and the exterior door by our room was taped open 24/7. These made the hotel a little shady, though the area seemed nice enough. We just triple-checked that our door was locked at night.

The game plan was to then make a brief run through packet pick-up before grabbing dinner. This was complicated by the fact the roads in Scottsbluff made absolutely zero sense. Some roads where I live make 90 degree turns, but they only make one. Some of the roads there made two or three - yes, some of the roads turned into U's or squares. Plus, the main highway wasn't labelled as such, so we spent that first night stumbling from street to street.

We eventually found the community college where packet pick-up was. The college seemed very modern and clean. The pick-up was in a sort of rotunda inside the main building, and there was plenty of room. There was no line, so it was a breeze. We also got to choose the color of our bag, which was a nice touch!

We grabbed a few freebies and made sure to add pins to our spots on the map (a really fun idea). Michael and I were both shocked our cities were officially marked, since they're in proximity to much larger places.

After some more navigation "fun," we made it to the Runza Drive-in. I did a quick Internet search before we left to see if there was any can't-miss food in Nebraska. I assumed there wouldn't be any, but, man, am I so glad I checked. For those not in the loop, a runza is (traditionally) a roll stuffed with beef, cabbage, and sauerkraut, and was introduced by Danish immigrants. Fortunately, the restaurants allow you to customize, so I added Swiss cheese and tortilla strips instead.

It tasted like sweet, sweet Jesus.
It was very pleasant outside after sundown, but there is a sugar plant in the area, which smelled like absolute ass, so we planted ourselves inside. The restaurant actually had the Tigers game on, so we watched them get whaled on by the Twins for awhile.

After dinner, we settled in and hit the bed very early in preparation for our marathon. We were both nervous how it would good, but thanks to the travel, sun, and good food, we passed out.

Check out the race recap here (coming soon!).

After the race, we were both pretty beat from the conditions, not to mention the actual distance, but we had run through Scottsbluff National Monument, and I was determined to get my park passport stamp. The visitor's center was only a few minutes from the start/finish area, so it made sense to go there right after the race. We both left our medals on, so that hopefully the other visitors would understand why we were disgusting humans. A few people congratulated us, so I think everyone was at least very good at hiding their hatred for our stench.

I snagged my stamp, but neither of us were feeling up to seeing the exhibits or viewing the film. We did decide to take the drive up to the very top of the bluff (much higher than Mitchell Pass), and I'm so glad we did! We hobbled out to an overlook, and there were amazing 360 degree views of the area. While running around the bluffs was obviously scenic, the view from way up top was even more beautiful.

That did just about max out our final energy stores, so we shot back to the hotel to take showers and watch football. We were able to catch the second half of the Michigan Minnesota game, and it was icing on the cake to watch Minnesota dominate.

With our hearts filled with joy, we went to fill our stomachs. We chose a chain pizza place (ugh), but it was founded in Nebraska, so it just squeaked in under our made-up rules. I didn't take any pictures since it looked so run down, but they were having a great special and had some damn good breadsticks.

It was also at this point that I realized I had never picked up my gear check bag from the race. I had worn a jacket against the morning chill and that was the only thing I checked, so I didn't realize I had forgotten it after the race. I'm still not sure where bag pick-up was - I wasn't that disoriented! However, the race was amazing and shipped my bag and jacket back to me right away! They were super responsive and happy to help. I seriously can't say enough about how friendly and wonderful the organizers were.

We hit the rack early again that night (partially thanks to our desire to stay on Eastern time as best we could). I think we each got up to use the bathroom when someone set their car alarm off right outside our room at 1 AM, but otherwise we slept like rocks. I sleep much lighter than Michael, and my first thought when his alarm went off was that he must not have changed his race day alarm and I should shut it off before he woke up. It was only when my alarm then went off that I realized what was going on.

After snagging some free breakfast and talking to some other guests that had done the race, we took off for another destination in the middle of nowhere - Panorama Point, the highest point in the state of Nebraska. The point is located on a private bison farm, so we had to pay $3 a person to drive up to the "summit," but it was totally worth it.

Apparently high-pointing is a big hobby, and some people set out to high-point the 50 States! This is totally fascinating to me (especially since only four or five require technical mountain-climbing skills), and I'm now obsessed with finding blogs about people taking on this challenge. I think I find it so interesting because the club that oversees this explained that most high-pointers participate to see unique parts of the country, which is very similar to why I want to run a marathon in each state. Maybe high-pointing can be my retirement project!

It was incredibly windy up at the point (and I didn't have my jacket back at this point), so we snapped a few pictures and signed the summit register before getting back in the warm car. The detour wasn't too far out of our way to the airport, and now we can say we've hit 1 out of 50 highpoints!

The plan was to get McDonalds outside of Denver, but after waiting 15 minutes in line and only one person in front of us getting cashed out, we threw in the towel, along with quite a few other people in line. Good news was, we found an Arbys hiding in a subdivision, and it was empty of people and full of delicious food. Perfect ending to a perfect trip.

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