Posted by: Kirsten | Monday, 9 June 2008

Tent Camping in Tornado Alley

My daughter and I spent a recent evening camping out in the vicinity of Chimney Rock Nat’l Historic Site, right along the Oregon Trail in southwestern Nebraska.  It wasn’t wilderness camping by any stretch of the imagination, but hearing of recent tornado activity in the area (Fort Kearny was hit the day before), we might as well have been in the Cascades, perched on a ledge during a heavy snowfall, miles from the nearest rescue ranger superhero action figure poised to save us from certain peril.  Well, let’s just say I was a tad nervous about sleeping with only a thin, synthetic wall between us and large foreign objects hurtling toward us at 200 miles per hour.

Earlier in the day we enjoyed a stop at the Chimney Rock NHS visitor center which is actually run by the state of Nebraska despite its “National” moniker. In fact, there was no one present but someone weeding along the entranceway and a friendly but rather frank individual behind the gift shop counter who referred us to the exhibits if we had questions.  Definitely could use a Park Ranger presence at this park!  However, the exhibits themselves were absolutely fantastic at this visitor center.  Only one problem though — just as at Scotts Bluff National Monument earlier in our trip, there was a giant, nasty, smelly, evil, no-good bison head mounted in such a prominent place that it oversaw just about every exhibit, and my daughter’s every move as well.  We thought for sure it must have followed us here from the Scotts Bluff visitor center!

Thankfully, enough of the exhibits were around the corner from the bison such that my daughter was willing to explore them without peeking over her shoulder in terror every ten seconds.  My daughter will stand in front of a thousand people and sing the national anthem, but share a room with a bison head?  No way.

We found an activity area at the visitor center that was so interesting, my daughter was willing to brave the bison’s gaze to try it out.  They have a kid-sized wagon that can be loaded up with goods for a trip on the Oregon Trail.  On the back of the wagon were three indicator lights — 1/2 full, full, and overloaded.  It took a lot of loading, but we finally got the lights to indicate the wagon was full.

After Chimney Rock, we made the short drive over to our campsite at the Oregon Trail Wagon Train — a private venture only a stone’s throw and in plain view of Chimney Rock.  We were scheduled to take a wagon ride and participate in the chuckwagon cookout that evening.  I had envisioned a wagon ride out to somewhere near Chimney Rock, a hearty meal over the fire, stories and songs around the fire, then a quiet wagon ride home to end the day.  Well, “close” only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades, right?  The wagon ride was a short loop ride out of our base camp area that lasted 15-20 minutes at most.  And the chuckwagon cookout took place right there where our campground was.  Not a big deal though — we still had a lot of fun and the food was great — it’s just that the photo on the website tends to make you think of a certain thing, then reality sets in.  We capped off our wonderful evening with a singing and guitar-playing fellow who knew everything from Chuck Berry to children’s songs.

Our tent was all set up and ready to go since before supper, so all we had to do was mosey back over after the campfire was doused and hit the hay.  Setting up the tent was a bit of a challenge at first, however.  Right as we laid out the tarp and tent, a fierce 30 mph wind, which lasted for a good five minutes, picked up our tarp and blew it across the campsites like a willow leaf.  On our second attempt, I put my trust in my tent stakes to hold down the corners of the tarp, and it worked like a charm.  Then suddenly, the wind stopped as though it had never happened in the first place.  Very strange weather out here on the prairie!

The tent was up, the rain fly was on, and our aerodynamic 2-person tent was ready for just about anything – at least we hoped it was.  Every train in Nebraska seemed to be out that evening, with full cars heading east with hopper after hopper full of coal, and empty cars heading back to Wyoming.  So every 20-30 minutes or so we were greeted with the very loud screech of the train whistle.  Once I grew accustomed to the whistle sound and learned to ignore it (for the most part), we were then subjected to what had to be the most blood-curdling, scary cacophony of metal-on-metal I’ve ever heard.  Upon suddenly waking to this shrieking sound of steel on who-knows-what, my brain was in Twister Mode and I racked my sleepy head trying to think up a hasty escape plan.  After 10-15 seconds of being able to do nothing but hope for the best, I finally regained a useful degree of consciousness and realized that the wind was totally calm outside our tent.  False alarm… whew!

An hour or two later the same thing happened, but this time I was a bit older and a lot wiser. The sound was still loud enough to wake the dead, but a brief moment of panic did not ensue this time around.  For the rest of the night, the only twister I had to worry about was my daughter tossing and turning next to me, abandoning her sleeping bag several times through the night, and attempting to use me as a pillow. I only got about four hours of sleep that night, but we awoke the next morning in the chilly Nebraska air ready to hit the dusty highways to our next destination, Fort Robinson State Park.

Parke Diem!
— Jon


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