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Lessons for High Plains drifters

There's history and nature to discover in Pine Ridge, an escarpment dotted with buttes and ravines in Nebraska's panhandle.

September 17, 2006|James McCommons | Special to The Times

Ft. Robinson State Park, Neb. — IT was the odd grunting noises in the breeze that made me stop pedaling. Dropping the bike in the sagebrush, I climbed a ridge and came upon dozens of grazing buffalo. The cows tossed their heads and called to tawny-colored calves. Bulls, exhaling and snorting in the morning air, stood as massive and solid as locomotives.

The herd turned to gaze up at me. Uh-oh. But then they turned as one and thundered away, hoofs thumping the dry earth, a trail of dust in their wake.

Encountering a herd of bison might seem as unlikely as mountain biking in Nebraska, a state known for its generally flat, tame terrain. But in the state's panhandle, the Pine Ridge -- a rocky escarpment between the White and Niobrara rivers -- rises high above the grasslands and fractures the plains with buttes and ravines. The trails are challenging and the wildlife plentiful.

In late August 2004, my 12-year-old son, Kelly, and I camped at Ft. Robinson and Chadron state parks about 30 miles apart and rode into the surrounding Oglala National Grasslands -- administered by the Forest Service. The parks and grasslands cover tens of thousands of acres, preserving landscapes and native animals. We saw pronghorn antelope, whitetail and mule deer, coyotes, black-tailed prairie dogs, burrowing owls, and one very large prairie rattlesnake.

Late August and September -- when most children are back in school -- are great times to visit. At Chadron, Nebraska's oldest state park, we joined one other family at the outdoor pool and swam under a broiling, late summer sky while the young lifeguards discussed their first day of classes at the local state college. We biked a trail that climbed into the Pine Ridge above the park, where we took in dramatic vistas of the ranchlands and prairie below -- an undulating landscape specked with windmills, water tanks and the dark dots of cattle.

Each night as we made dinner, a pack of coyotes shrieked out a chorus above the campground. When the fire died down, we lay on our backs, unzipped the tent and watched meteors and satellites pass through star fields above -- the night unpolluted by artificial light.

For my son, the Pine Ridge was exotic country and his first look at real cowboys.

We drove into Crawford (population 1,150) for a rodeo sponsored by the National Senior Pro Rodeo Assn., which featured contestants 40 and older. When we arrived, pickups, horse trailers and RVs covered much of the grounds. The air smelled of horses, steers, dust and manure.

Everyone -- participants, spectators -- wore cowboy garb, and we stood out in our sneakers, cargo shorts and T-shirts. Most people shunned the grandstand and crowded up to the arena fence, leaning forward to watch with serious expressions.

These were ranchers, here to see their own rope and ride.


Inhabitants past

OF course, before the progenitors of these ranchers homesteaded this land, it belonged to the Plains Indians. When we moved our camp to Ft. Robinson -- an old Army post central in the war against the Sioux -- we found that for some people the history of white settlement remains a raw wound.

We ordered buffalo burgers at the Ft. Robinson Restaurant, where the back of the menu offered a short history lesson on the fort and described the killing of a soldier by "hostile Indians." Someone with a pen had crossed out and replaced those words with "Native Americans defending their lands."

It was at Ft. Robinson that Crazy Horse, the famed Sioux warrior, and his starving followers finally surrendered to the U.S. Army in May 1877. A soldier killed Crazy Horse as he was being led off to jail. A marker on the old parade grounds shows the spot.

Many Sioux who refused to stay on the reservations were incarcerated in the fort's barracks. On a December night in 1879, about 100 people broke out of the barracks and tried to flee into the surrounding buttes. Eleven soldiers and 64 Indians died in the attempt. Our campground lay in what had been their escape route.

Ft. Robinson continued as a military post until 1948, and many historic buildings remain. Tourists can rent rooms in the enlisted men's quarters or stay in cabins that once served as homes for officers and their families.

At 22,000 acres, Ft. Robinson is a much bigger park than Chadron (976 acres), and there were a lot of activities with an Old West flavor -- trail rides, chuck wagon cookouts and history tours.

One morning, we took a tubing trip on the nearby White River, a narrow waterway a few feet below the prairie.

They gave us short paddles to push ourselves along, and the kids in the group soon struck out ahead of the adults. The stream was gentle, without hazards, and when Kelly made some friends, I hung back and floated along under the cool shade of the cottonwood trees as the river twisted and ox bowed through the dry landscape.

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