Irene North


Sometimes you have to climb high to feel your feet on the ground

Courthouse and Jail Rocks are two of the most famous landmarks of westard migration. The Oregon-California, Mormon, and Sidney-Deadwood Trails passed by here. So did the Pony Express trail. Courthouse Rock was mentioned in many diaries. It was sometimes referred to as a castle or solitary tower.

During the past few weeks, I have seen some of the most difficult days in my life. A dear friend parted this world and is no more. He left behind him a wake of love and questions. He could not see the love that surrounded him and I cannot ever blame him for taking his life. I have been there. I know. I understand. But there will forever be questions about what happened and why. They will probably never be answered and those of us left behind must find the strength to continue in the absence of answers.

In this time, I have heard some hurtful words. I refrained from responding, but they cut deep and I needed to get back to what I know to be true.

In my life, the Earth, its soil, the vastness of the outdoors has strengthened me through tough times. It is a way to escape the world, the vulgarity of false kindness, to take time standing as one with nature and the geologic wonders we take for granted every day.

Paul and I made the decision to travel just south of Bridgeport to spend a couple of hours at Courthouse and Jail Rocks. I chose to take the long way. The journey was, in more than one way, a new one. It was a different path, a different highway, than we had traveled before.

As we neared the Wildcat Hills, I shoved my foot to the floor. The speedometer increased to 80 mph. The extra speed is needed to get over the hill without slowing down to a crawl. Ludovico Einaudi’s Giorni Dispari was half way finished when we reached the apex of the hill. The wide open of Banner County lay ahead, embracing us as we descended into the valley.

As we drove on down the road, my decision a few weeks ago to change my music selection was paying off. Mostly instrumental, the music calms the anxiety within. Turning east onto Highway 88, we began the thirty-three mile journey to the rocks.

To the north, bits of green poked through the tan-colored land. Spring is trying to arrive. Clouds gently kissed the Wildcat Hills as they passed overhead.

A golden pheasant with its bright blue and red head sauntered along the south side of the highway. An osprey collapsed its wings as it settled on the top of a wooden post marking the limit where nearby cattle could graze.

A nodding donkey slowly moved up and down, pulling oil out of the ground while local birds took turns playing chicken in front of my car.

A field of calves, nary an adult to be seen, ate grass in a field east of Redington, oblivious to vehicles passing by, except one. A calf near the fencing at the edge of the road locked eyes with me as I approached the field. Cinematic Orchestra’s Arrival of the Birds played on my radio.

The young black calf with a white face watched me as my car got closer. We looked into each other’s eyes and turned our heads to maintain the moment, if ever so briefly. Forced to return my eyes to the road, I glanced in my side view mirror as I drove away from the field. The calf was still looking at me.

We continued toward our destination.

“Ooo, the rocks,” Paul said, breaking the conversational silence. They were to the left of the road and loomed over everything nearby. As I turned to glance at them, something caught my eye. To the right, a hawk was in the middle of grasping its claws around a power line. Its feathers fluctuated in the wind. It struggled to hold on as it shifted uneasily and tightened its grasp on the line.

As we arrived at Courthouse and Jail Rocks and stopped to take a picture of the entrance marker, Paul had to touch it. He does that. I won’t bore you with the Geology lesson I received.

We turned north. A few moments later, we turned back west onto a dirt road that lead to Courthouse and Jail Rocks. H3Ctic’s Unbreakable took us up the dirt road to where we would begin our hike.

Looking East at Jail Rock. British guy for height reference. He is 5’8″ or 1.73 meters.

Courthouse and Jail Rocks rise more than 4,050 feet (1,230 meters) above the North Platte Valley. They are composed of clay, sandstone, and volcanic ash.

Looking north toward the city of Bridgeport from halfway up Courthouse Rock. My Toyota Yaris looks tiny from my location. According to the National Park Service, Courthouse and Jail Rocks are the erosional remnants of an ancient plateau that bisected the North Platte River. The site is more than 4,050 feet above sea level and rise more than 240 feet above nearby Pumpkin Creek.

The rocks are listed in the National Register of Historic Places and in the Nebraska Natural Areas Register.

Do you see it there in the distance? Emigrants on the westward trails would be looking for it. From Courthouse Rock, you can see Chimney Rock, even on an overcast day.

Hey, Nick and Rebecca. You’re assholes. Stop defacing landmarks. Yes, I understand people have been doing it for thousands of years. That still doesn’t make it right.

At this point in time, Paul and I diverged from each other. I began looking at the makeup of Courthouse Rock. I told him he could go ahead of me if he wanted. Whenever I say that, we usually find ourselves separated. I was intrigued by the erosion patterns. He disappeared.

The soft dirt gave way to the weight of my body along the trail. The ground beneath me changed from solid and steady to soft, pliable sand. My feet sank into the ground, leaving marks behind. The smooth dirt was a reminder of the fragility of the land, the people, and the birds in the sky.

I had hoped to see more of the animals that are native to the area and who regularly climb on, over, and around Courthouse and Jail Rocks. It is the wrong time of year for snakes, so a good time for humans to hike the area, but the other local residents, such as deer, were nowhere to be found.

I wandered around a little bit, climbing up, down, and around Courthouse Rock. I looked for but couldn’t see Paul. I called out to him several times. There was no answer. I didn’t feel a need to panic. I took a few steps forward and was about to call for him again when I saw something about thirty feet ahead of me. Suddenly, I didn’t really care where Paul was at.

After looking at the bones for a while, I heard a cough in the distance. I recognized it. I looked up, but didn’t see Paul. I yelled his name.

“What?” was the reply. I still didn’t see him. Then, his head, covered by the gray hood of his sweatshirt, emerged from behind the rock. He was on a trail near the top of Courthouse Rock.

“How the hell did you get up there?”

“I don’t know. I just followed the trail.”

“Well…be careful.”

“I’m fine.”

The British billy goat running around near the top of Courthouse Rock.

Paul continued walking east to the other side of Courthouse Rock. When he neared the end, he turned around and came back to the middle. He paced back and forth a few times.

“Whatcha lookin’ for?”

“I’m not sure how to get down from here.”

“Just go back the way you came.”

“I’m not sure which way that is.”

Welp. This outing is no different than any other. If Paul leads, he gets lost. I was sure we were going to be there for many hours as he tried to figure out how to get down.

I think Paul has lived in America for too long. He then did the most American thing one would expect. He just started climbing straight down the edge of Courthouse Rock. No path? Didn’t matter. He was coming down.

Paul had already climbed down from the level above. When he reached this location, it was either a straight, fifteen-foot drop or climb back up and go around. Despite how it looks, this is not a gentle slope.

When given a choice, Paul always takes the most difficult option.

This is the moment Paul fell off Courthouse Rock. I was pretty sure I was taking photographs of his last moments on Earth. The grassy area is in between where Paul is falling and the ground. He actually has about another eight feet to fall.

“Are you okay?”


Paul stood up immediately. He brushed his ass off and then his hands. He looked back up at where he had just fallen from. Then he looked proudly at me and smiled.

“Are you sure?”


“What the hell? Why didn’t you just go back around.”

“I dunno.”

Paul made his way back down off the rock and rejoined me. We began walking back to the car when he had another revelation for me.

“I hit my head too,” he said. “If it doesn’t stop hurting, I might need to go to the hospital.”

“It’s okay. Bridgeport has a hospital.”

The cool temperatures of the morning had turned our hands and faces red. Paul’s hooded sweatshirt and my hooded jacket weren’t enough to keep the wind from our faces. It licked our skin just enough to make it cool to the touch. We chatted on our way back down to my car and cranked up the heat to get warm on our two-mile drive to BurgerWerx for lunch.

“I kind of need to pee,” I said.

“I already took care of that,” Paul said.

“I hate you so much,” I said.

Just like in Florence, Italy when Paul peed against a church, he did so again. This time against Courthouse Rock.

As we arrived at BurgerWerx for an early lunch, Paul got out of the car and said, “My butt really hurts.”

Paul stood up straight and stretched as he exited the car. He was still holding his backside, complaining he was in a pain.

“My head still hurts, too,” he said. “Hopefully, I don’t lapse into a coma.”

I rolled my eyes as I closed the car door. We walked into BurgerWerx for lunch.

Paul took a photo of me checking a message on my phone. Hair messed up from wind – check. Getting ready to eat a tasty burger – check. Wearing my new favorite shirt – check.

Well deserved lunch at BurgerWerx. This was our first visit. Not bad. Probably will go back.

As we sat down to eat, Paul began turning his left hand over and over.

“Did you hurt your hand, too?”

“Yeah. And my head hurts. I might have a concussion.”

I took a deep breath and closed my eyes.

“Split those rings in half, will ya?”

Paul took half the onion rings and pushed the container over to me. I dumped them out onto the paper my bacon cheeseburger was sitting on.

In between bites of burgers, fries, and rings, we chatted about Geoffrey and how to move forward from here. We reminisced about taking him out for Indian food in Denver for the first time. I couldn’t believe he had eaten so much for such a skinny little kid. He loved the spiciness and abundance of flavors.

The air outside was still chilly. The weatherman predicts snow for Sunday. It’s certainly cold enough for snow.

Taking the easy way home along Highway 92, several hawks had perched themselves on electric poles along the highway. If I was alone in the car, I would have stopped for every single one to try and get pictures. I pointed them out to Paul as we made our way past McGrew.

“Hey, the Pink Palace,” he said. “I still want to eat there.”

“I know.”

Instrumental music filled the recycled air inside my car. The Scotts Bluff National Monument could barely be seen in the distance. The overcast day obscured most of the bluffs along our way.

It’s still chilly outside. We’re awaiting the arrival of the snow. The ground beneath us is solid here in town. On any adventure, you must be careful of which way the soil moves. It can take you in unexpected directions or keep you in place just long enough to recognize the beauty of it all.

Sometimes, you have to climb high to feel your feet on the ground and see what lies ahead.


So long, Steve. Thanks for not giving me any fish


  1. Lisa L Betz-Marquez

    Beautiful story, Irene. Really enjoyed your style and humor and insight.

  2. Rachelle Eversole

    Wonderful read Irene, you have such an awesome way with words!

  3. Steve Frederick

    Let’s go to the Pink sometime!

  4. Steve Frederick

    FWIW, I think they’re nuts not to use this stuff in the paper.

  5. Brandon Nelson

    Thank you for sharing these thoughts. Geoffrey sounds like someone I wish I could have known. He loved Indian food so we would have bonded over that if nothing else! Also, I’ll need some music recommendations from you at some point Einaudi’s work is brilliant.

    • Irene

      Thank you, Brandon. I think you would have really liked Geoffrey. I will think about what to recommend. I’ve been listening to Einaudi’s work most of the month and am enjoying everything.

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