Day 111/ June 17th – Glenwood, IA to Council Bluffs, IA: River, trail, road and rail

‘Next to winning the Civil War and abolishing slavery, building the first transcontinental railroad… was the greatest achievement of the American people in the 19th century.’ – Stephen Ambrose

The receptionist at the Days Inn in Council Bluffs blinked in surprise as she checked our reservation on her screen.

“Wow.  You must really have stayed a lot to get a free night,” she said, unwittingly revealing the stunning miserliness of her employer’s loyalty programme.  “I been here two years, and I never seen a free night before.”

It was scant reward for an arduous day’s walk into Council Bluffs.  Ten miles south of town, we had caught our first glimpse of the skyscrapers of Omaha, shimmering in a damp haze above the soy-fields on the other side of the Missouri.  A flashing yellow sign on Highway 275, which we’d been happily following all morning along the Missouri floodplain, announced that it was closed ahead, and ordered a detour onto I-29.  This was out of the question for us, but we walked on without great concern.  We’d ignored plenty of similar signs over the last few months, having learned that American construction workers were every bit as adept as their British counterparts at digging a hole in the road, putting some cones around it and then vanishing into thin air for a week.

Two miles later we came upon the reason for the road closure – a ditch for a new sewer system, a hundred feet across and twenty feet deep, which joined up on either side of the road with an equally deep stream bed.  We’d been expecting to have to negotiate some sort of gap, but this was the sort of rift in the earth from which you might expect assorted imps and demons to issue forth at the Day of Judgment.  While I contemplated a 15-mile detour into Nebraska, Sally picked her way expertly down the sheer sides of the ditch, hopped across the stream and climbed nimbly up the other side.  Following her lead, I tumbled head-over-heels to the bottom, clawed my way up the opposite bank and emerged next to her covered in mud, smelling even worse than I usually do after a hot morning’s walking.

Soy-fields near Council Bluffs, Iowa

Soy-beans: Still not getting any more interesting after 300 miles

Most people outside America have never heard of Council Bluffs, but it played a series of critical roles in the westward expansion of the US and was a key milestone on our walk.  It was named for a famous meeting, held in 1804 on the bluffs overlooking the Missouri, between Lewis & Clark and assorted tribes of local Otoe Indians – though when the town was founded forty years later, by Mormons fleeing persecution in Illinois, it was called Kanesville after one of their supporters.  It was here that the Mormons first openly practised polygamy, here that they elected Brigham Young as their second leader, and from here that he led out the first party of Mormon emigrants to the Great Salt Lake Valley in the spring of 1847.  We’ll be following the trail they blazed from here west to Utah for the next 1,000 miles or so, and finally leaving the route of the Lewis & Clark expedition, which we’ve been following along the Missouri River for 500 miles since St. Louis.

Main Street in Council Bluffs, Iowa

Council Bluffs: A fine Victorian Main Street, complete with rabbit sculptures

There were two more great cross-country routes that we joined in Council Bluffs.  The first was I-80, which begins just outside New York and runs across America for just over 2,900 miles to San Francisco.  For most of its length it follows the route of the Lincoln Highway, the first paved coast-to-coast road in the United States, which in turn followed the route of the Mormon and Oregon Trails across Nebraska, the Transcontinental Railroad across Wyoming and the California Trail across Nevada and California.  If there is any modern successor to these great pioneer routes across the continent, I-80 is it, and it’s a rare modern American who hasn’t at some point piled their belongings into a car or a U-Haul trailer and spent a few days driving along it.  We’ll be following its route more or less exactly for our remaining 1,600 miles to San Francisco.

I-80 in Council Bluffs, Iowa

Our first, uplifting view of I-80

We caught our first glimpse of I-80 at the edge of Council Bluffs, running west on a flyover towards the Missouri, after a searingly hot climb along a dusty highway choked with belching, honking trucks.  It was an excellent spot for the Iowa School for the Deaf, which marked our entry into Council Bluffs proper.  As we walked into town past the Union Pacific rail-yards, a battered red pick-up pulled up alongside us, its tailgate held on with rope.  A heavily scarred, heavily tattooed young man leant out.

“Hey,” he said, “you tell me howda get to the public defender’s office?”

We collapsed with some relief at the Kitchen Emporium restaurant, an oasis of lemon pasta and sun-dried tomatoes on Council Bluffs’s smart Victorian Main Street.  We mentioned to Sherri, the owner, that we were about to walk across Nebraska.

“Oh, I was just there yesterday.  Me and my boyfriend rode almost all the way across on his bike, then back.  Long day.”  It was going to take us roughly a month.

The second great route that we joined today was the Transcontinental Railroad, which was built from just west of here on the opposite side of the Missouri to Sacramento in a scarcely believable four years.  Famously, it was constructed by two rival railroad companies working in opposite directions, the Union Pacific from the east and the Central Pacific from the west, who joined up their tracks in 1869 with a golden spike at Promontory Summit in Utah.  We’ll get a chance to examine their handiwork at length over the next few months, as we’ll be following the railroad, like I-80, for almost all of the remaining distance to the Pacific.

Transcontinental Railroad map in Union Pacific Museum, Council Bluffs

Looks like a good route to us


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