Friday, January 31, 2014

The Situation is Growing Dire for the Monarchs of the Plains


Credit: Wikimedia Commons: Kenneth Dwain Harrelson
The Last American Highway: A Journey Through Time Down U.S. Route 83: The Dakotas is very much a book about what I encountered on a trip down U.S. 83 in September 2009. The people, the scenery and the history.
And unfortunately, one thing I encountered a lot during those two weeks were Monarch butterflies. Or to be more specific, my 1999 Mazda Protégé encountered them.
The numerous butterflies whose lives I accidentally terminated as my car sliced through the prairie air became the subject of a brief passage in the book. It is one of two only two excerpts I have released so far when I posted it in this blog Sept. 16, 2013. (Read it below). The butterflies in the fall begin a long migration from as far north as Canada down to Mexico, as the excerpt explains. They funnel over the southern part of Texas that roughly corresponds with Highway 83 as it travels from Laredo to Brownsville.
One angle I did not address in the passage was all the additional obstacles other than cars Monarchs encounter as they make their long trip.
They end up in a valley in Mexico, which has become a tourist destination over the last few years. Unfortunately, during the last two decades, the amount of acres that the Monarchs cover after they reach their destination has shrunk dramatically from 45 acres of forest to 1.6 acres.
Why their numbers are collapsing is the key question.
Loss of habitat in Mexico seems to be one reason. They also rely on milkweed to lay their eggs and large-scale farming in Canada and the United States is killing off this native plant.
The article says they won’t go extinct, but the whole amazing migration where a single butterfly travels 3,000 miles to make it to Mexico may end. That would be a shame.
Last fall, I met two girls and their mother outside my local supermarket who were selling brownies and cookies. They were only $1 each so I as I bought one, I asked why they were fundraising for. They were going to set up a Monarch butterfly habitat in their backyard. I think I had nine bucks on me. I bought a lot more brownies, and then just gave them the few dollars I had left.
Here is a link to a website that says it will mail you free milkweed seeds for the asking, or for a small donation. I plan on planting some in the spring with my daughter in a small patch of wooded land where I live (whether my condo association realizes it or not!) I hope others do the same.
Maybe that will make up in some small way for the carnage my car bumper and windshield caused back in 2009.

Stew Magnuson is the author of The Last American Highway: A Journey Through Time Down U.S. Route 83: The Dakotas, now available at To learn how to order signed copies, message him at stewmag (a)

A Journey Interrupted: Monarch Butterflies on the High Plains Originally posted Sept. 16, 2013 
The following is a brief excerpt from the forthcoming book, The Last American Highway: A Journey Through Time Down U.S. Route 83: The Dakotas. It takes place just south of Minot, N.D., September 2009.

A Monarch butterfly flitters out of nowhere, hits my windshield, and tumbles away to the pavement.
I wince.
One can avoid hitting a squirrel, rabbit or pheasant. But when a butterfly flies in front of a car, there’s nothing that can be done about it. They hit the windshield and fall on the road like dead leaves in autumn.
This isn’t the first time I had struck a Monarch since I left on the trip. There were others. The previous evening at a gas station in Minot, as the pump was filling up the tank, I took a sopping wet windshield cleaner and started to remove the layer of bug splotches covering the glass.
Making my way around the car, I noticed a perfectly preserved Monarch on the grill, just above the bumper. Its wings were fluttering and for a moment, I thought it was still alive, but it was just the wind. I gently removed it.
The Monarchs I have been inadvertently slaughtering are also traveling south. The orange and black-winged Lepidoptera was traveling even farther than me, though. It’s believed that the Monarchs of the Northern Plains are the only species of butterfly to migrate. The one that hit my windshield was heading south to winter in the warm central mountains of Mexico. Highway 83 runs 1,885 miles.
It seems almost impossible to me that something so delicate intended to fly 1,000 miles beyond the road’s terminus. The migration begins in Canada around August and continues until the first frosts. 
The butterfly I killed would have stopped along the way to fill its abdomen with sunflower nectar, and made its way south, gliding on the winds as often as it could to preserve its strength. Like the route, it would have passed over South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma and finally Texas, where it would meet up with millions of other Monarchs.
They all funnel over the South Texas borderlands, making their way to fir forests, 10,000 feet above sea level on the tops of transvolcanic mountains, where they spend the winter. They mate, and finally die from exhaustion. Their offspring begin the journey north around the second week of March. They lay their eggs along the way in South Texas. Through the spring and summer, each generation flies a little farther north until the great-great-great grand-Lepidoptera emerge from their cocoons in the fields of High Plains. It’s these offspring, the ones I’m encountering now, that begin the nearly 3,000 mile journey to Mexico.
This is why I wince when I strike a Monarch in North Dakota in early September.
I will kill dozens of them during the next two weeks, and I will mourn each and every one of them.
The grasshoppers. Not so much. 

To join the Fans of U.S. Route 83 group on Facebook, CLICK HERE. And check out the U.S. Route 83 Travel page at

 Stew Magnuson (stewmag (a) is the author of Wounded Knee 1973: Still Bleeding: The American Indian Movement, the FBI, and their Fight to Bury the Sins of the Past published by the Now & Then Reader. It is available as an eBook on Kindle, Nook, Kobo and iTunes. Buy it in paperback on Amazon or bookstores such as Plains Trading Company Booksellers, in Valentine, Neb., on Highway 83. 

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Guidebook Takes Readers on Tour of Buffalo Bill Cody's Life Along Highway 83, and Beyond

A native of Omaha, Nebraska, Jeff Barnes over the past few years has made a name for himself publishing a series of guidebooks on the Old West as well as traveling the Great Plains lecturing on the topic. Forts of the Northern Plains in 2008 came first, and told readers how to locate 51 forts in Iowa, Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Wyoming and Montana. Next came The Great Plains Guide to Custer: 85 Forts, Fights and Other Sites in 2011. On February 1, his publisher Stackpole Books will release The Great Plains Guide to Buffalo Bill. William F. “Buffalo Bill Cody” is associated with several sites along Highway 83, not the least of which is his home of about 16 years, Scout’s Rest Ranch in North Platte, Nebraska. Barnes in an email interview explains how the book came about/

SM: Tell us how you began specializing in writing guidebooks centered on Western history?
JB: I’ve always loved visiting the old forts and battlefields of the Indian wars, and had a little checklist to click them off as I did. Every time I stopped to see the Fort Sidney (Nebraska) site, however, it was closed. I first had an idea to create a list for my glove compartment of the sites I hadn’t seen yet, including their hours, directions and contact info, so I wouldn’t make a wasted trip. From that, I thought about making an expanded list for friends who shared my interest, and then it was just a short leap to think it might be a book.

SM: After writing guidebooks about forts of the Northern Plains and Lt. Col. Custer, you chose Buffalo Bill Cody? Why him? Why has he endured as such as popular figure in U.S. history?
JB: Actually, and this will sound goofy, but I was kind of looking for a sign on who to write about next. Buffalo Bill was one of about five topics I was considering, and I thought a 2012 road trip/speaking tour through Kansas might give time to sort it out. One of the stops was in Leavenworth, Kansas, and there on the wall of my motel room was a portrait of — you guessed it — Buffalo Bill. I called my editor the next day.
Bill Cody was a natural extension of the first two books – he was known at the forts and was a Custer contemporary.
I think he’s endured as a popular figure because he did so much to build his brand when he was alive. He was the one who had hundreds of dime novels and books published about himself, who advertised himself and his show and traveled and performed so extensively. He was a romantic figure who presented a very romanticized American West and successfully included himself as a major player in its history.  He used public relations incredibly well, and he was also a very attractive man whose broad Stetson, long hair and distinctive goatee were eye-catching. And he had a name you couldn’t forget either! It’s easily argued that he was the nation’s first superstar.

SM: Scout’s Rest Ranch in North Platte, Nebraska, is of course the most famous site on Highway 83 associated with Cody. What are some others that aren’t as well known? For example, I heard he once ran cattle north of the Dismal River?
Scout's Rest Ranch, North Platte, Nebr. Photos by Stew Magnuson
JB: His ranch on the Dismal with Frank North was farther to the west from Highway 83, about 65 miles to the northwest of North Platte near Tryon.
Easily visible from 83 to the north of Stapleton on the South Loup River, is the unmarked site of the 1872 skirmish with Sioux Indians [Lakotas] that resulted with Cody being awarded the Medal of Honor.
As you pass through Wellfleet, Nebraska, and cross Medicine Creek, you are very near the unknown site of where Cody, Custer, Gen. Phil Sheridan and Grand Duke Alexis of Russia took lunch and changed horses on their way to their campsite of the Grand Buffalo Hunt. That hunt is commemorated by a state historical marker near Red Willow Creek, between Highway 83 and Hayes Center.
 Across the border into Kansas, near the town of Traer [a few miles southwest of Cedar Bluffs] is a landscape formation called Elephant Rock. Cody was also involved with an Indian skirmish there while with the Fifth Cavalry in 1869.

SM: Oakley, Kansas, has a dramatic statue dedicated to Cody. What do we know about his time in that area?
JB: That statue is a commemoration of where Bill Cody “won” the name Buffalo Bill. A few miles west of Oakley on U.S. 40 is a depression in the ground where a supposed buffalo-shooting contest between Cody and Bill Comstock was held in 1868. Both had been nicknamed Buffalo Bill and this contest was to determine who owned the right to the name. Cody, of course, won. The story came out years after the event and after
Buffalo Bill memorial, Oakley, Kansas
Comstock was dead, leading to suspicions the story was created just to support the Buffalo Bill “legend” that was starting to grow. Decades later, broken remains of champagne and beer bottles were found at the site indicating a large number of people had been there to celebrate something!

SM: I’ve heard conflicting accounts of where the first Wild West Show was held. Was it North Platte or Omaha?
JB: Cody put together a show in North Platte in 1882 called the “Old Glory Blow-Out” to celebrate the Fourth of July. Judging from the response, Cody thought it might be something he could put on the road — he organized performers for rehearsals in Columbus, Nebraska, and in May 1883 in Omaha held the first production of the Wild West. So both towns, and maybe even Columbus, can claim being the birthplace.

SM: You have what is for some of us is a dream job traveling the West, checking out historic sites. What is next for you?
JB: I’m not sure. I’m still a freelance writer and have been approached about writing a book or two for an organization here in Nebraska. My publisher would like me to do a narrative on an historical character, yet unspecified, and I’d like to try that. But it will be something that I have a great deal of curiosity about — I can’t write about something I don’t care for. 

The Great Plains Guide to Custer is available at Order HERE.

To join the Fans of U.S. Route 83 group on Facebook, CLICK HERE. And check out the U.S. Route 83 Travel page at
 Stew Magnuson (stewmag (a) is the author of Wounded Knee 1973: Still Bleeding: The American Indian Movement, the FBI, and their Fight to Bury the Sins of the Past published by the Now & Then Reader. It is available as an eBook on Kindle, Nook, Kobo and iTunes. Buy it in paperback on Amazon or bookstores such as Plains Trading Company Booksellers, in Valentine, Neb., on Highway 83. 

Thursday, January 9, 2014

The River Valleys of Highway 83: An Appreciation

The Dismal River, Nebraska
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
South Platte River
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.
Bridge over the Canadian
There are convenient places to stop for both. Don’t be fooled by the Dismal River’s name. 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 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 River 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
Missouri River from Lily Park in Fort Pierre
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 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.
San Saba River, Menard, Texas. Highway 83 in background
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. Highway 83 never intersects it, but its presence is felt all along the southern stretch of the road.
Scenic view of Rio Grande, Roma, Texas
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.
Red River mud
There are so many others I didn’t mention: the three Loup Rivers in the Sand Hills, the Souris (Mouse) Loop, the White River in South Dakota, the Republican south of McCook, the Brazos forks — 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.  

To join the Fans of U.S. Route 83 group on Facebook, CLICK HERE. And check out the U.S. Route 83 Travel page at
 Stew Magnuson (stewmag (a) is the author of Wounded Knee 1973: Still Bleeding: The American Indian Movement, the FBI, and their Fight to Bury the Sins of the Past published by the Now & Then Reader. It is available as an eBook on Kindle, Nook, Kobo and iTunes. Buy it in paperback on Amazon or bookstores such as Plains Trading Company Booksellers, in Valentine, Neb., on Highway 83.