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 The River Valleys of Highway 83: An Appreciation
Photos and Text By Stew Magnuson

As I sit at my desk, in the dead of winter, with bone chilling temperatures outside and spring seemingly an eternity away, I scroll through the hundreds of photos I have taken along Highway 83.
Inevitably I stop at the river valleys, and remember the warmer days when I took the time to stop the car and explore these natural wonders.
Because Route 83 — aka The Last American Highway — bisects the center of the country from north to south, it intersects with some of the most famous rivers in America: the Missouri, the North and South Platte, the Colorado, Arkansas, and the Red River. It hugs, but never passes over the Rio Grande.

All too often we fly by the river valleys on our way to somewhere else — perhaps glancing over the guardrail to check the water levels.
“Yup, water is pretty low,” we think in the dry months. Or “Yup, water is pretty high,” when it has been raining. Then we continue to our destinations.

Any long or short trip on Highway 83 affords travelers some real scenery in these river valleys, though.
Sometimes the road departments make it easy with scenic overlooks where drivers can pull over. Other times, you have to hunt for a piece of shoulder to pull over. But it is always worth the stop.

With some 1,885 miles of road, it shouldn’t be surprising that there are a variety of rivers and valleys. No two are exactly the same and each has their own charms.
The Niobrara and Dismal Rivers run through the breathtaking Sand Hills of Nebraska. There are convenient places to stop for both. Don’t be fooled by the Dismal River’s name (top right). It is one of the most beautiful spots on the road, although I am biased since I spent many summers here floating down its spring fed waters on innertubes.

Travelers in Canadian, Texas, (named after the river) will find a pedestrian and bike trail on the north side of town that takes them over a repurposed bridge. Get out and stretch your legs and meet some of the locals.
The Red River (right) and its forks cut through that famous west Texas red mud. The shoulders on the bridges are wide enough to take a walk over and appreciate all the patterns the water has cut in the channels.

The Salt Fork of the Red Rive
r north of Wellington, Texas, is where Bonnie and Clyde made their famous “red River plunge. Read about it and see the pictures in this blog. There is a nice park here to pull over.
The Missouri still exists in some spots. It’s mostly a memory thanks the Army Corps of Engineers. There are some places where you can imagine what it was once like, when it was wild and free. Take a short drive down from the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center at Washburn, North Dakota, where the sand bars still shift in the channels. Pioneer Park in Bismarck has a trail along the river and Lilly Park in Fort Pierre (top) has a view of where the Bad River empties into the big muddy.

Highway 83 crosses over both Platte River channels at North Platte. I actually took some nice pictures of the sunset over the South Platte a few years ago. You would never know that there 18-wheelers rumbling a few feet behind me, and backlit fast food and motel signs to my right. For a more serene experience, head to Cody Park on the north side of town to see the North Platte.
It would be easy to dismiss the Arkansas River south of Garden City, Kansas, simply because it doesn’t have any water. But it has its own unique charms. I spend an hour walking its channel, lined with stately cottonwoods, inspecting rounded pebbles brought here over the millennia from the Rockies. Maybe one day these day, the Colorado farmers will let the water flow again.

Ditto for the Cimarron in southern Kansas and the Beaver in the Oklahoma Panhandle. If there weren’t a sign, or a blue line on a map, you may not know that they are considered river valleys. (Caution: I parked the car to take some pictures at the Cimarron and encountered two very large snakes. Neither had rattles, fortunately.)
Texas Hill Country has the famous Rio Frio, loved by sportsman, canoeists and innertubers. This is as close as one gets to the feel of being in the mountains on Highway 83.

The scenic town park in Menard, Texas, is a must-pullover spot to take in the San Saba River, where Spanish colonialists once walked. The Highway 83 bridge passes over the park.
And finally, there is the Rio Grande (below). Highway 83 never intersects it, but its presence is felt all along the southern stretch of the road.

There are a dozen spots one can drive to a short distance from the route. Bird watchers love this region. The easiest and most historic spot to see the Rio Grande is the town of Roma, Texas, the terminus for steamships when they once plied these waters. Many of the buildings from those days are still intact. There is a scenic overlook here next to the downtown, which is on the National Register of Historic Places.
There are so many others I didn’t mention: the three Loup Rivers in the Sand Hills, the Souris (Mouse) Loop in North Dakota, the White River in South Dakota, the Republican south of McCook, the Smokey Hills River in Kansas, the Brazos forks and Colorado in Texas — the list goes on.

So the next time you’re traveling down Highway 83 and need to stretch your legs, or feel the need to get your fishing line wet, take the time to see one of the dozens of Highway 83 river valleys. 

Ode to the Small Town Water Tower
Photos and Text By Stew Magnuson

“If you have ever hauled a can of paint to the top of a water tower to defend your sister’s honor, you might be a redneck.”

Jeff Foxworthy

It is often the first — or perhaps the second thing one sees after grain elevators — when cresting a hill on Highway 83 as one arrives in small town. I’m speaking of course, of the water tower.
Last month, on the Fans of U.S. Route 83 page on Facebook I began posting a series of photos, called “The Water Towers of Highway 83.” I have done a few photo series over the years on the page derived from the thousands of pictures I’ve taken along the road — “Highway 83 at Night;” “A Troll’s Eye View of Highway 83” (pictures taken from under bridges), and “Businesses Named after Highway 83,” but I have never had the enthusiastic reaction from the members as I did with the water towers. I had lots of “Likes” and comments on the pictures, and many posted photos of their own favorites.
I have to confess that while I took pictures of dozens of them on my Route 83 travels, I hadn’t given them too much thought.

And so poking around the web to do some further research, I have learned a thing or two. I wondered if there was some book about the topic written for people such as myself. So far, I have come up empty. A search on Amazon.com and the Library of Congress catalog showed only works written for the civil engineering crowd.
I did find a wonderful sight simply named Watertowers.com. It doesn’t say who created it, but he or she sure is passionate about the subject. The trivia section does a good job of explaining their purpose. Basically, they are supposed to hold enough water to last a day during an emergency. And so in larger towns like Oberlin, they are big and fat as pictured here. Small towns like Agar, S.D., (pop. 76) get by with lower capacity tanks.

They get drained in the morning when everyone is taking a shower and flushing toilets. They fill back up at night when all are asleep. They rely on gravity to do their job, which is why they are elevated. (That doesn’t explain this height-challenged one in Mound City, S.D.)
And so they, of course, serve a very practical purpose. But I don’t think that is why the photo series was so popular. I suspect they have a special place in the hearts of those who grew up in small towns as a perpetual presence.

The one I grew up with was in Stapleton, Neb., along Highway 83, where I would go to visit my grandparents in the summers. It is the classic, conical shape water tower with little hat on top, a bit like the Tin Man in the Wizard of Oz. I do remember occasionally seeing graffiti spray-painted on there in the 1970s, as described by the comedian Jeff Foxworthy in the above quote.
A water tower is a landmark like no other, especially in the flatlands found along Highway 83. It is only rivaled by the grain elevators. But not every town has grain elevators while almost every one has a water tower. Almost all have the town’s name displayed for the travelers who may not know here they are. Some like Aspermont, Texas, paint the high school mascot as a point of town pride.

Two of my Highway 83 favorites feature celebrities: Popeye is on view at Crystal City, Texas, which is known for its spinach. San Benito, Texas, pays tribute to its native son, the late singer Freddy Fender.
But I think my favorite is one of the newest built along the road. It is found near the border of Rosebud Reservation and Nebraska in the new Sicangu Village tribal housing development."Water is Life," it reads.

For the communities along Highway 83 on the Great Plains, South Texas and the Rio Grande Valley, truer words were never spoken.

 Promoting Eco-Tourism on the Great Plains
Photos and Text By Stew Magnuson

The University of Nebraska-Lincoln Center for Great Plains Studies has kicked off a new campaign "Visit the Prairie," and has been releasing a series of tourism posters. The campaign focuses on eco-tourism rather than the region’s rich history to lure visitors off the interstates.
“This work tries to promote ecotourism as a strategy for preserving the enormous and precious biodiversity of the Great Plains grasslands,” its website explains.
And that’s a great thing. For those who saw my series of book talks this year for The Last American Highway: The Dakotas, read this blog, or are members of the Fans of U.S. Route 83 Facebook page, I do my best to promote travel on Highway 83 specifically, and the Great Plains and all backroads in general. The beauty of the region is a running theme in all these writings.

This campaign is sorely needed. Let’s face it. Our nation has given the prairie lands short-shrift when it comes to habitat preservation. This began in the 1800s with the wonton destruction of the American bison, continued with the Army Corps of Engineers’ damming of our rivers and the ecological destruction brought on by mono-agriculture and overgrazing.
Even in these more enlightened times — with groups like the Nature Conservancy and World Wildlife Fund becoming more involved in the region — there is a lot of room for improvement.

How are we going to encourage travelers to either make the Great Plains a destination unto itself, or at least stop for a day or two on their way to or from the Rockies or Black Hills?
Let’s look at some examples of what can be done along Highway 83 in Nebraska. From Valentine to McCook, the topography surrounding Highway 83 is beautiful from beginning to end. It travels through the Sand Hills, which are not only Nebraska’s best-kept secret from tourists, but the nation’s. Yet the state has done virtually nil to promote them as a destination. Give me just one “Visit the Sand Hills!” sign on Interstate 80, please!

Highway 83 is the main conduit taking travelers from I-80 through the stunning and unique Sand Hills to the Niobrara River Valley and the Fort Niobrara Wildlife Refuge there — one of the state’s prime eco-tourism destinations.
On the way is the Valentine National Wildlife Refuge (Pictured top right). It has some nice kiosks explaining to motorists about some of the natural wonders of the region. That’s a good start. What we need is a serious interpretive center, well-developed walking paths and auto tours through the heart of the hills.

It should be as impressive as the Audubon National Wildlife Refuge on Lake Audubon on Highway 83 near Washburn, North Dakota. I stopped at both refuges in April and there is a jarring difference.
Don’t get me wrong. I love the Audubon Refuge and spent a morning there soaking in the sounds of dozens of bird species. It was an amazing symphony. But that lake isn’t even supposed to be there. It was a creation of the Army Corps of Engineers. Its relatively new center has displays, a gift shop, knowledgeable rangers there to answer questions, a nice walking path in back, and auto trails for those who can’t get around as well as they once did.

Meanwhile, the Sand Hills has no dedicated interpretive center to explain their creation, eco-system or the importance of the Oglala Aquifer that lies underneath to the nation. The money to build and staff such an interpretive center would come from the federal government. That means Nebraska’s congressional delegation needs to make this happen. And that means their lawmakers constituents need to encourage them.
Farther north in South Dakota, here is what you see when entering the Fort Pierre National Grasslands. As sign reading: “Entering Fort Pierre National Grasslands.” The next thing you see is a sign that says: “Leaving Fort Pierre National Grasslands.” Not a single kiosk, or anything in between. There are some wooden boxes where you can pick up a map, but they are hard to spot. Again, no interpretive center on par with what the prairie deserves.

The Kansas Department of Tourism, meanwhile, has a scenic byways campaign that includes a long stretch of Highway 83 on its Western Vistas Historic Byway route. It has set up a kiosk explaining the region’s natural history south of Oakley.
This column was intended as food for thought for those wanting to promote travel in the region, rather than travel tips for those wanting to see some of these sights. I’ll leave that to another column.

I hope the Center of Great Plains Studies really starts a movement. To preserve our natural heritage, people must care about it. They must have opportunities to e
motionally connect with nature, and eco-tourism is one means to do so.
Whether it’s hiking, camping, canoeing, biking, hunting, fishing or simply “taking a drive or a ride” on a road like Highway 83 and soaking in the topography, connecting ourselves to the land in these modern times is more imp
ortant than ever.

Learn more about the history and sites to see along U.S. 83 in The Last American Highway: A Journey Through Time Down U.S. Route 83: The Dakotas and the second edition, Nebraska-Kansas-Oklahoma. CLICK HERE TO ORDER