Rafael Lloréns didn’t know Nebraska very well, so he decided to bike across the entire state.
He made the trip — 511 miles of a meticulously planned nine-day route — starting June 1 with his wife, Tammy, providing support and gear. The total mileage was actually almost 588 from the Wyoming border to Omaha, where he’s lived for 2½ years.
Lloréns organized his trip in tandem with the 39th annual Bike Ride Across Nebraska (BRAN) event from June 2-8, which extended across 404 miles in northern Nebraska, from Chadron to Fremont and spanning a constellation of communities.
Some of the more memorable spots along the way were on the Cowboy Trail, where he clocked in at over 100 miles. He encountered bull snakes, other adventurers and breathtaking scenery along the way — even despite some areas affected by flooding.
“That was quite an adventure on the Cowboy Trail,” he said. “It was a great cycling adventure with sandy and grassy trails which was not easy, but it was worth it.”
As one of countless areas affected by historic flooding this spring, the question of the Cowboy Trail’s rideability is on the minds of many. It was certainly on my mind after I rode the trail over Memorial Day weekend — casually, I should note — and had to turn around at Battle Creek.
If I couldn’t make it past the first checkpoint, 10 miles from the Norfolk trailhead, how are others adjusting for biking trips that would take much more planning and effort than mine?
As it turns out, I shouldn’t have been too concerned. Alex Duryea, recreational trails manager for the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, has fielded dozens of questions about trail closings and how to work around them.
“I have been getting a lot of questions from people coming to check out the trail this year, asking about how the closures will affect their trip,” Duryea said. “From my understanding, a lot of them continued on with riding the trail ... I’ve been really impressed with the amount of people reaching out and asking about conditions, showing interest in coming out.”
While there’s plenty of bikeable trail, about 15 miles are still closed, he said. Most of the closings are on the eastern half of the trail, where it runs closer to the Elkhorn River. When the entire 189-mile path will open again is hard to pinpoint, especially when continual rains keep areas too soggy to work on. After flooding in 2011, it took about two and a half years to completely repair all the damage.
In the meantime, people have worked around the trail closings by biking on the adjacent Highway 20, he said.
BRAN President Doug Scherlie put the trail front and center in this year’s event by advertising the ride as a “tale of two trails.” He worked with Duryea to make sure the trail was well-marked and safe for cyclists who chose to use it.
It was a hit with riders (there were 430 this year), especially because some have commented on incorporating the trail in the past. But it wasn’t completely smooth sailing, either.
“A lot of the riders commented that it was very scenic and beautiful yet challenging,” Scherlie said. “Just west of Battle Creek there’s a section where the earth rolled off to the river, that doesn’t exist anymore. A quarter of a mile visibly gone.”
No wonder my bike ride got cut short.
Lloréns said the flood damage and recent rains caused some parts of the trail to be covered with sand or water. But it also yielded a lot of rewards, even enticing a group of cyclists to bike on it after a full day of riding.
“We took ‘after-rides’ — kind of like an after-party, but it was an after-ride,” he said. “You just cycled 86 miles, now you’re gonna cycle more — sure, crazy cyclists. Some of us jumped back on the Cowboy Trail.”
The trail’s allure is evident to anyone who’s experienced it.
When I crossed a bridge encompassing the Elkhorn, I stared in awe at the river as it curved through the trees and greenery surrounding me. I didn’t even try to take a photo because I knew it could never measure up.
The Cowboy Trail’s current state, I soon realized, is less of an anomaly and more of a fact of life for a trail characterized by redefining itself. That’s not to say it’s always being fixed, but that it’s always developing and growing.
It was originally a Chicago and North Western Railway corridor built in 1910. Over the years, the line’s usefulness dried up, displaced by highway and interstate drivers, and the Chicago and North Western Railroad abandoned the line in 1992.
The Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, a national nonprofit dedicated to converting old rail lines to trail systems, brought new life when it bought the corridor and donated it to the state of Nebraska.
The trail spans seven counties, but it’s far from finished. The game and parks commission is working to expand it to Chadron, adding 126 miles. And it’s a part of the Great American Rail-Trail, which will connect the country from Washington, D.C., to Washington state when it’s complete.
Biking Nebraska introduced Lloréns to a wide variety of scenic terrains, he said.
“People, all they think about is the cornfields,” he said. “But it’s not (just) that at all — you can be transported back to the Old West. You can be transported to forest lands. You can be transported to farmlands, you can be transported to a beautiful little oasis of a babbling brook or pond.”
As he ventured across the state, lost in his thoughts, he couldn’t help but think of the settlers who first encountered the plains and feel a sense of humility for their journeys.
“I had hills alongside me, and I remember watching the Westerns and how robbers would attack the train — I was thinking, ‘Are the desperadoes gonna come and get me?’ ” he said, referring to outlaws of the Old West. “It gives you a sense of history, an understanding of what those who came before had to endure.”
I know what he means. Biking the Cowboy Trail — away from familiar paths, wind in my face — I felt much more connected with the landscape.
On the trail, the past, present and future are all spokes of the same wheel, blurring together.
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Curious for more?
For an interactive trail map showing closings and other information, visit https://maps.outdoornebraska.gov/trails.