Scotts Bluff National Monument encompasses a historic gateway to the West, a series of bluffs that loom up to 800 feet above the surrounding, infamously flat landscape of Nebraska. Travelers on the Oregon Trail found the area a welcomed respite from the tedium of the Great Plains, comparing the bluffs to castles and oriental palaces, the ruins of a lost civilization.
Clearly dazed by the relentless plainness of Nebraska, some of the accounts come off as downright hallucinatory. I believe one deranged pioneer may have even married a particularly agreeable jutting rock, mistaking it for a beautiful woman. I wouldn’t be surprised.
We’ll chalk it up to a bad case of dysentery.
To be certain, erosion has carved these mostly sandstone bluffs into striking shapes. In fact, on the topic of erosion, if it wasn’t for the hard limestone caprock atop the bluffs, the bluffs would’ve vanished long ago. What you’re seeing, in effect, is a glimpse of Nebraska as it once was millions of years ago, the thick bands of brown chronicling entire epochs, protected by caprock.
Wagons began taking Mitchell Pass through Scotts Bluff after somebody – we don’t who exactly was responsible (I like to think it was someone that was just tired of this shit) – cleared out a wide path between two bluffs. Flanked on either side by good ol’ bluff, journeyers were given a quick taste of the formidable mountains ahead.
Chimney Rock, east of Scotts Bluff, was another legendary landmark on the Oregon Trail.
You were only about a third of the way to the end of the trail.
Scotts Bluff wasn’t a happy place for everyone. It’s named after Hiram Scott, a mysterious fur trader that was more or less left to die in the 1820s by his party near what’s now his namesake bluff.
Many died on the trail. Cholera was a leading cause. Accidents, dehydration, and starvation were others. Stampeding bison were a surprisingly dangerous hazard, too.
I guess you could say it was more of a trial than a trail, but the rewards were great.
Just to the east of Scotts Bluff National Monument is the town of Scottsbluff. It began as a quintessential American railroad town, quickly usurping its “twin city” Gering as the region’s economic hub. Though it has a population of only 15,000, it’s like a big city in miniature. There’s a historic downtown with a tallish building or two; a Latino neighborhood; a mall; a tiny bit of urban crime; and a zoo.
What else do you want? Ten more malls? Ten more coffee shops? There is no reason to leave Scottsbluff, Nebraska, readers. Ever.
It was the zoo, especially, that caught my interest. I love small town zoos. There’s an intimacy and approachability you don’t find in the crowded, big city zoos, where you almost need binoculars to spot half the animals. And at the Riverside Discovery Center in Scottsbluff, they’ve got tigers, lions, leopards, monkeys, chimps, zebras, a boa, bison… even a Vietnamese pig.
It’s more than a petting zoo.
When I was there, my wife and I pretty much had the place to ourselves, an added bonus. Of course, in Scottsbluff’s defense, it was a weekday. I’m sure the place gets busy on weekends. They probably have lines all the way out to Gering.
That day, however, we appreciated the solitude. It was a beautiful, warm. A constant breeze blew across the cement path as the clouds broke up and dispersed. We woke up animals with our conversations, stared into the placid eyeballs of God’s lesser beasts.
A spider monkey, in particular, caught our attention. I don’t know if it was a he or she, so I’ll stick to the pronoun of “it”, though not in the Stephen King sense of the word.
Anyway, this monkey… it was unusually energetic. At first, it ignored our presence, keeping its back turned to us, hopping around with its long, lanky limbs and slender tail. Bored, I kept trying to talk to it. Finally it grabbed some food and a feather it’d found and face us, seemingly to show off its worldly possessions.
It threw everything to the ground and put its face up to the cage and cooed and grunted in what I took to be a friendly manner. Its fur rubbed against the metal. It was small, maybe the size of a toddler. I tried to coo and grunt back and it ran off to the back of the cage to grab a blanket.
A flurry of motion later and it was wearing the blanket like a hoodie.
Keep in mind, I was wearing a hoodie.
It was weird. I tried to communicate with the monkey some more, doing wild, comic gesticulates that I imagined any respectable monkey would engage itself in, like the Watusi or the Twist, but we quickly reached an impasse in our interspecies conversation. I’m not sure what I expected. It kept trying to “talk” to me in its indecipherable tongue, and I had no way of answering back.
So, with an inkling of regret, I walked away. A sentient, thinking being was trapped in there, man.
For the rest of the afternoon, I couldn’t shake this uncanny feeling that our inability to really understand each other spoke to the same problems we, as humans, suffer from in our everyday lives. How often are we misunderstood, or unable to understand people? Yeah, we do a better job – usually – than me and the spider monkey did, but we still fall short way too often.
But what do I know? Where am I going with this?
I’m just an dumb, ugly, unemployed guy with a blog. And with that, I’m going to write this:
Because I can.