Ever since Bugman and I bought our tandem in 2013 and started long-distance road riding, Highway 71 south of Scottsbluff-Gering has been a favorite route.
For one, it has a shoulder, and its two lanes in each direction means that drivers can (and usually do) pull into the passing lane to give people riding bicycles on the shoulder plenty of space. Since the portion of the road over the Wildcat Hills was repaved in 2015, the ride has gotten even better on the new, smooooooth surface (though there are still gravel bars that form on the shoulder after heavy rain, and there are long un-repaved stretches of road in Banner County where the shoulder pavement cracks are terrible: ka-BAM! ka-BAM! ka-BAM! – so we sometimes still need to ride out in the lane).
For two, it’s a great workout to be able to get in (from Scottsbluff) ~750 feet of climb to the top at the Wildcat Hills Nature Center parking lot, ~1,300 feet of climb with a up-and-over turnaround at the Highway 88 west intersection, and even more if you continue further south into Banner County.
But the highlights of a two-wheeler journey south on Highway 71 go beyond road surface and climb.
There’s the scenery through the Wildcat Hills and the wide-open spaces of Banner County. I love how you can smell the ponderosa pine at the top of the hill, or the fragrance of grasses or wildflowers in other places. Traffic on Highway 71 is usually light, so you have plenty of opportunities between the roar of engine and tire to hear meadowlarks and crickets, and perhaps a spring peeper calling from a puddle or a hawk screeching overhead.
And then there’s my favorite part of this journey south over the Wildcat Hills: the destinations. While the sole remaining incorporated town in Banner County – Harrisburg – has no services, there are still a couple of places in this sparsely-populated county worth biking to and which – importantly in this largely shadeless, dry countryside – have beverages.
There’s the Beehaven Farm Roadside Market about 33 miles from our house, which I’ve written about previously.
And there’s the place Bugman and I finally rode to this weekend, about 26 miles one way from our house, which just opened late in 2015: Laura Lee’s Double L Country Store and Cafe (previously incarnated as the Banner County Cafe or the Hilltop Cafe).
The small cafe building is set on the east side of the highway on a hilltop, surrounded by ranchland. At first glance, you might think such an isolated little restaurant is a dive. You would be sorely mistaken.
Laura Lee’s place – or the Double L, as the staff answers the phone – has been extensively renovated into an oasis of charming nostalgia.
While the building is fun to look around in, the real star of the show is the food.
After biking for two and a half hours over hilly terrain, Bugman and I had sure worked up an appetite – especially after we were passed on the road by a barbecue trailer!
We timed our arrival perfectly, getting there just before 11 a.m., when the breakfast rush had cleared out, and the lunch menu was just starting.
The awesome thing about Double L is that ingredients are super local as much as possible. To quote a post from their Facebook page:
All of our meat is raised within twenty miles from us! How many restaurants can say that? Our beef is from Holt Farm’s and Lazy W Diamond, pork from Ben McGowan, Bison from Rocky Hollow, chicken from Lazy W Diamond. Talk about knowing your farmer. Our farmers are not only suppliers but regular customers.
Another awesome thing is that “from-scratch” is a cafe philosophy: hamburger buns, bread, sausage, biscuits, pies, cookies – are all made in house. The folks in the kitchen know what they’re doing. Chef Gay Olsen was trained at the Denver Culinary Arts Institute and has been cooking professionally for over 25 years.
OK – time for some food pix. (Dang, am I hungry looking at these! Wish the cafe was open right now!)
And, since we biked two and a half hours to get to the cafe, we deserved dessert, right?
Since we’d missed the 18th Street Farmers Market that morning to get in our bike ride, we picked up a loaf of bread from the cafe, too. It fit perfectly in our bike trunk.
When we headed back towards home, owners Laura And Dave Whelchel came out to bid us adieu (and to show their youngest kiddo our tandem bike) and to take our picture.
Laura and Dave are great people. I first met them when I worked for the newspaper and covered Camp Grace – a summer camp for kids with special needs that they hold on their Banner County farm. (More about Laura and Dave’s awesomeness here.)
Another unique thing about Double L is that it’s nested in western Nebraska ranch country. A visit here can be a cultural experience.
Once, while I was waiting to pay at the register, I overheard a group of ranchers discussing cow insemination technique. On this visit, we chatted briefly with a customer as we were saddling back up on our tandem, and, as I clicked into my SPD pedals, and he asked, in true cowboy fashion, “Do your feet lock into your stirrups?”
In addition to keeping an eye out for bicycles on Highway 71, it’s good to keep a lookout for cattle and horses, too.
If you happen to be biking – or driving – in the vicinity of Banner County on a Tuesday through Saturday between 7 a.m. and 4 p.m., I highly recommend stopping by the Double L!
Copyright 2016 by Katie Bradshaw, except the photos courtesy of Double L