08-Feb-2004 -- The Nebraska Sand Hills are an enormous grass-covered region encompassing 61,100 square kilometers, about the size of the state of West Virginia. Its small lakes provide important habitat and staging for many species of water birds, including sandhill cranes, swans, ducks, and grebes. Its distinct grasses, particularly sand bluestem, can survive in sandy soil. The major animal species here, bison, have been displaced by cattle. It was, therefore, a special treat for me, Joseph Kerski, Geographer from Colorado USA, to visit 42 North 101 West in the midst of this unique ecosystem. On a midwinter's day in 2004, I was heading back to Colorado after conducting a series of geographic information Systems (GIS) and GPS workshops in North Dakota and South Dakota for tribal governments and for teachers. What better way to follow up these workshops than with a field trip to a confluence in a sandy, unique part of the world?
The confluence trek allowed me to travel on one of my all-time favorite highways--Nebraska State Highway 97 southwest from Valentine. This road winds through the sand hills, past the McKelvie National Forest and the Valentine National Wildlife refuge. On its 190 kilometers to Mullen, I passed no towns, no stores, and five vehicles. Once in Mullen, I drove by the relatively new Sand Hills Community Church and then 8 kilometers south to an unnamed east-west county road. I took this one-lane road to the east. I made way for a truck to pass me in the opposite direction with two occupants. I saw no other persons during my visit. The population density here is extremely low, as the Nebraska Sand Hills are some of the least populated areas of the continental United States. Many of the county seats in this region are not even incorporated cities. Hooker County, the county in which the confluence is located, decreased in population from 1,378 in 1920 to 783 in 2000. After passing one of the longest planted stretches of spruce trees I had seen in the sand hills, about 2 kilometers long, I stopped the vehicle east of a driveway that led to the south.
I took precautions against the weather, as the wind blew about 20 km/hr and the temperature was -2 degrees C. However, this felt tropical after my previous visits to confluences in North and South Dakota earlier in the month. I climbed over two barbed wire fences on my 20 minute walk to the south, rising and falling on the sand hills. The snow depth averaged 15cm, although it drifted up to my knees in places. The lack of trees made it easy to zero out the GPS unit, and I arrived at the site just after 1030am local time. The confluence lies on ground that slopes about 10 degrees to the west, in a grazed field that probably at one time had been cultivated. The farthest horizon I could see was about 20 km away due to the darkening, snow-filled skies, with the farthest view to the northwest. Several buildings were off to the northwest, near the large planting of spruce trees, but they appeared to be only occupied seasonally. I spent about 30 minutes at the site, enjoying the wide open spaces and the sand hills.
I took a different walk back to the north, bending to the east to pass by a windmill. I arrived back at the vehicle at 1110am. Once there, I was stared at by two horses, one of which looked like the horse encountered by the previous confluence visitor. I drove west and then south on Nebraska Highway 97 to Tryon. I then encountered a ferocious but fascinating ground blizzard that shrouded the hills as I drove to the west, toward Arthur, Nebraska.