Potter's Pasture Mountain Bike Trail
Mountain Biking in Western Nebraska
IT’S A BEAUTIFUL fall Sunday afternoon at Potter’s Pasture. Four riders on mountain bikes are lined up, adrenaline pumping, ready to begin the Ride-Run-Ride biathlon. Steve Potter, the honorary starter with two cracked ribs, hoarsely calls BIKERS UP! then GO!
The riders mash down on their pedals in unison and spurt ahead, racing for position on a winding path mowed through tall prairie grass, then heading into a steep climb that separates them by long minutes. Panting, sweating, smiling crazily, they rush with the wind along a ridge, going way too fast to appreciate the spectacular views across canyons and trees. Dropping down off the ridge, they weave through tight trees on paths worn deep by cows.
This race appears to be over before it starts, with one rider well ahead of the others and his own teenage son far behind. Bikers pick up speed in the bottom of a long valley floor before leaping off of their bikes into a water tank, sloshing through the tank with bikes held aloft, scrambling back on, grinding up a rough road, dodging a gully that has been munching away at the trail with each rainstorm, charging down the final stretch and racing back into camp.
As soon as a rider comes in, a running teammate charges off to do the same route on foot. I’m the runner for the kid who is gamely pedaling in last place. In last place by a fairly wide margin, I think to myself as I wait. Finally, he comes in breathing hard. It’s pretty much over, but we aren’t quitting. Off I go, heavily chugging up the climb, gasping for breath. On top, I’m elated to see that I’m catching up with two other runners. If I keep going, we just might have a chance.
Twenty years ago, attorney Steve Potter of North Platte and his friend Scotty enjoyed riding bicycles together in the hills and canyons around Jeffrey Reservoir south of Brady. During those rides, Potter got the idea of looking for land to purchase so they could ride as much as they wanted without having to get permission from other landowners.
A former client had some available land, so after a bit of dealing, Potter acquired that piece and a couple more that adjoined it, ending up with 1,200 acres of hills and canyons, thick groves of trees, and native grasses that dance in the wind. From the beginning, his goal was to open to the public.
“I’m sort of like a Native American,” Potter explained. “I don’t really own the land, I’m just the caretaker for a while.” His outlook recalls the idealism of the 1960s. The spirit of that era also lives on in his throwback hippie appearance, with long, gray hair and beard – though the bicycle helmet and Spandex shorts are a bit incongruous.
“Nothing gives me as much pleasure as seeing people use it,” he said with a glance at the campground. “Look at those kids running around.” He smiled broadly, his eyes twinkling, but laughing would have been too painful, what with the cracked ribs and all.
“That’s what it’s all about,” Potter said. “I love this. In fact, I’m looking at ways to ensure that it will continue to be used like this after I’m gone.”
There is the inevitable question: “Doesn’t this expose you to a lot of risk in terms of liability?”
“Of course it does,” Potter answered. “I’m wide open. If a client asked me about doing something like this, I would say absolutely no way! It’s crazy. Even if you don’t charge, there are so many potential liabilities.”
The land is wild and the trails are unpredictable, always changing because of erosion and the cows’ whims. Branches grow quickly, tall prairie grasses obscure hazards, holes and bumps appear out of nowhere, and trail markers get eaten or blown away. The sheer naturalness gives the pasture its appeal and its risks.
There have certainly been accidents. One woman crashed her bicycle and landed wrong on one arm, which snapped badly and twisted grotesquely. Her recuperation was long and painful. Another man got going so fast downhill that he lost control and was found lying on the ground beside his bicycle, amazingly unhurt in any serious way, not counting his ego. It took him a while to get back up.
“But let me tell you this,” Potter said. “In all of these years, I have never been sued, and I have never so much as found a piece of trash on the place. People seem to appreciate it and show that by taking care of it. We’ve never had a fire get out of control, or a problem with the cattle or anything else.”
It is, after all, a pasture. The land is leased to a rancher whose cows help pay the bills. “You have to do something like that,” Potter said, “or you just can’t do it.” So it is not unusual to have cows passively watching as you walk or bike past. Gates have to be taken seriously, left closed or open as bikers find them. That’s one of the few rules.
Other rules are pretty much common sense: Use it only for non-motorized sports; pick up your trash; always wear a helmet; leave things where they are; watch your campfire; make sure you don’t lose your bearings; and watch out for the rare snake, bobcat, gully or cow. Other than that – have fun.
A committed core of local riders maintains the campgrounds and trails, keeping away grasses and branches that grow like weeds. At least four times a year, they put out a call for tools, chainsaws, four-wheelers with mowers and hardy souls willing to mow, move dirt, fill in washes, trim trees, check spigots and replace trail markers. It’s all volunteer work, and those who do it even pony up personally for the gas and pool their own funds for equipment. Since there are no user fees whatsoever for Potter’s Pasture, there is no kitty to help with expenses.
There is a spider web of about 40 “official” trails in the pasture. Some names give riders a pretty good idea of what they are in for: “Triple Bypass,” “Carcass Canyon,” “Zipper” and “Escalator” aren’t for the faint of heart. The rule of thumb is that if you want to create a trail you get to name it, so some are named for broken bones, family members or even the Mormon Trail.
Paul Brasby and Jeff Caldwell, both local riders who love camping and riding at Potter’s, explained how trails come to be.
“First,” Brasby said, “someone gets to wondering what it would be like to get from here to there or try this and that, and starts drafting a route by walking it. Once they have it more or less figured out, they begin to cut branches out of the way, mark the trail with tags and get it mapped.”
“There are endless possibilities,” Caldwell said. “Sometimes you just want something different, and sometimes a bigger challenge, something that will take you to the next level, so you figure out a route that’s pretty hairy. The variety is truly endless.”
“The cows are a big help,” Brasby went on. “If you build it, they will come. They start following the trails, packing them down and munching the grass along the sides. As the trails get deeper from use and erosion, the cows’ wide bellies wear away the walls of the trails at just the right height for handlebars on bicycles. In wet weather, the cows can mess things up, but they get it sorted out as the trails dry.”
Because of the cows and natural processes, trails may be anywhere from a few inches to more than 20 feet deep, leavingriders in another world as they pedal on narrow trails between cliffs so high they can’t see out of them. The cows add their own variations, too. Since they cannot go straight up and down, they work sharp “S” turns into the trails, demanding a whole new level of agility from fast riders.
Although Potter’s Pasture was originally opened for mountain bikers, its gorgeous views and varied trails attract hikers and sledders as well. People come from all over the area and the country to spend a couple of hours or a couple of days enjoying a piece of Nebraska that most people wouldn’t believe exists. A group of retired women are passionate about their walks at Potter’s and talk of little else. One man rode his single-speed bicycle from Oregon to Fort Morgan, Colo., and then caught a ride to Potter’s so he could participate in a race.
“It’s just a short hop from I-80,” Brasby said. “Sometimes riders will be on their way through Nebraska with their bicycles, and they’ll exit off the interstate, ride a couple hours to get some exercise, then get back into their cars and head on down the road. It’s perfect for that.”
If anything, those who use Potter’s the most want even more people to discover its joys. There are two official campouts each year that are open to anyone, with many more unofficial ones. A “Last Gasp Triathlon” that has no registration, no timekeepers and no awards is beginning to attract people who come just for the variety and the potluck lunch. The Ride-Run-Ride competition will be back this fall. The Cozad track team uses Potter’s for training. Moms show up for picnics with their children.
Whatever your interest, Caldwell advises to “get hooked” on Potter’s Pasture. “I do everything I can to encourage my kids to go out there,” he said. “It’s an unbelievable opportunity, and it’s how I want them to grow up.”
The Ride-Run-Ride that we came to participate in has turned into an upset. The obvious winners didn’t come in first because their runner lost her way, and the clear losers didn’t come in last because luck smiled on us.
With more suspense than we can stand and enough acts of sheer determination to fuel campfire tales for years to come, the whole event is breathtaking.
We all win; we all cheer each other loudly; we all crash on the old church pews that surround the fire pit, and magic envelopes us as we add to the lore of Potter’s Pasture.