Day 112/ June 18th – Council Bluffs, IA to Omaha, NE: Zoo station

Whatever the myriad failings of the British political system, you rarely hear Parliamentary candidates promising to go to Westminster for the sole purpose of extracting millions of pounds to benefit Bournemouth, or Blackpool, or whichever constituency they happen to represent.  Yet it’s symptomatic of the oddly distrustful and resentful relationship that America has with its federal government that local politicians are often lauded – and certainly re-elected – for their ability to get federal funds allocated to their home states.  In 2000, Bob Kerrey, then a Nebraska senator, secured a whopping $18 million to build a pedestrian bridge over the Missouri between Omaha and Council Bluffs, a magnificent white elephant that was duly named the Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge.

We couldn’t be too critical of American pork-barrel politics, because they had been responsible for our sole means of crossing the Missouri to Omaha on foot.  We walked to the bridge past the riverfront casinos of Council Bluffs, which were a little more riverfront than usual this morning – the Missouri had burst its banks and was flowing, rather alarmingly, straight through the car park of Harrah’s.  It didn’t seem to faze anyone, though; a few cones had been placed along the new water-line, and the gambling went on uninterrupted.

Missouri floods car park in Council Bluffs, Iowa

Council Bluffs: The Missouri floods, but the gambling goes on

The Missouri was about two hundred yards wide here, and while it wasn’t the irresistible force we’d seen a few weeks ago and a few hundred miles downstream, it still did a fair job of looking like the longest river in America.  The only other people on the bridge were a straggle of tourists who had evidently tired of the casinos, and who wandered up to the state line marked along the centre of its span before tramping rather resignedly back into Council Bluffs to lose a little more money.  We took a last look back at Iowa, perhaps the most friendly and hospitable place we’ve yet passed through, and stepped into Nebraska, the eighth state of our walk, and unambiguously into the West.

Iowa-Nebraska border on the Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge

Crossing one of the world's least-disputed borders

The townsfolk of Council Bluffs had also crossed the river here in 1854, after the federal government – there they are again – voted to create the new Nebraska Territory on May 30th.  The local citizenry had been anticipating the legislation, and shortly afterwards rowed across the Missouri en masse and established the city of Omaha in genteel fashion by staking out land claims during a Fourth of July picnic.  Two years later, protracted negotiations between the government and the local Omaha tribe ended with the cession of much of what is now eastern Nebraska to the United States, and Omaha’s settlement could begin.

Its blue-collar origins – half of the city worked in meat-packing during the 1950s – have given way to a definite yuppie affluence, and Omaha now dwarfs Council Bluffs.  A line of handsome lofts faced the riverfront, and we walked up a steep hill through a neighbourhood of old fruit warehouses converted into restaurants, bars, art galleries and antique shops.  Underneath the glassy box of the Union Pacific headquarters, a policeman whirred silently past us on a Segway with a coffee in his hand.  Omaha felt like Seattle on the Plains, but it was to some extent a façade; at the top of the hill, just a mile from the river, this downtown affluence came to an abrupt halt and was replaced by vacant, overgrown lots and a low-rise commercial sprawl.  The streets were very wide, and the city built on a perfect grid, so sometimes you had the impression, like the famous New Yorker cover, of looking straight through the city to the farmland and plains beyond it.

Crowds in Old Market district in Omaha

Omaha: Baseball fans looking for dinner in the Old Market district

We had arrived in Omaha on its busiest weekend of the year.  It was the start of the College World Series, an annual tournament for the eight best student baseball teams in the country (quite why no overseas teams are invited to the ‘World Series’ was never satisfactorily explained to us), and Omaha had extended a big Nebraska welcome to the thousands of fans who had poured into the city by hospitably tripling the prices of its hotel rooms.  The streets were teeming with people – an unusual sight in an American city – and the bars and restaurants were packed.  As tickets for the dream match-up of South Carolina versus Oklahoma were going for 300 dollars, we decided instead to go to the zoo, handily located next to the baseball stadium, where an afternoon of tailgate parties were in full swing.

The Henry Doorly Zoo is regularly featured in lists of the world’s top 10 zoos, and it was easy to see why.  Sprawled across hundreds of hilly acres on the south-east side of Omaha, it was the kind of zoo that makes you want to close down almost all others – especially the depressing concrete disgrace that is London Zoo – and move all their animals into it.  We spent an afternoon there, but could easily have stayed all day.  There were meerkats, servals, cobras and coatimundis in the desert zone, housed under a massive geodesic dome and complete with artificial canyons and cliffs, and a walk-through aquarium where sharks and sting-rays cruised lazily above our heads and anemones resembling large pieces of sushi were suctioned to the glass walls.  We saw langurs, capuchins, Amur leopards, whole colonies of penguins and villages of gorillas, aardvarks, civets, Siberian tigers, armadillos, polar bears and peacocks in the petting zoo.

Siberian tiger in Henry Doorly Zoo, Omaha

A Siberian tiger chills out in the zoo

On the way back to our motel, we crossed over the railway tracks beside the old Omaha Union Station – now a museum – just as a line of Union Pacific freight wagons trundled past beneath us.  The sight of Union Pacific trains is a rather pleasing historical survival – as remarkable as if Robert Stephenson & Company were still operating rail services out of Lime Street Station.  We could see the tracks running arrow-straight into open fields to the west, reminding us that despite the distractions of Omaha, there was yet another large state waiting for us to walk across it.

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2 Responses to “Day 112/ June 18th – Council Bluffs, IA to Omaha, NE: Zoo station”

  1. fivestrokeroll Says:

    Excellent photo from the zoo…

  2. goodyear eagle rs-a Says:

    goodyear eagle rs-a…

    […]Day 112/ June 18th – Council Bluffs, IA to Omaha, NE: Zoo station « The Walkover States[…]…

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