Days 113-115/ June 19th-21st – Omaha, NE to Lincoln, NE: Flat water

‘Nebraska is like a 75,000-square-mile bare patch.’ – Bill Bryson, The Lost Continent

“Be careful of tornadoes in Nebraska.  And fake cops.” – Concerned neighbours, New Hampshire

“Nebraska?  Wyoming?  Ugh!  It’s like going through the Outback.  Gosh, why would ya?” – Buzz Carloftis, Mount Vernon, Kentucky

“Be careful in Omaha.  It’s not a real safe place.” – Darryl, St. Joseph, Missouri

‘Nebraska must be the most unexciting of all the states.’ – Bill Bryson, The Lost Continent

Nebraska highway signs

Nebraska: Not terribly popular with the rest of America

It’s fair to say that other Americans don’t think much of Nebraska.  We usually see several out-of-state licence plates in the car parks of our motels as we leave in the morning (we lead a full life on the road, as you can tell), but during our first few days in Nebraska we noticed that there didn’t seem to be any, as though people from other states were reluctant even to spend a night here.

Early pioneers seem to have felt the same way; French-Canadian trappers passed through Nebraska in the 18th century, and Lewis & Clark skimmed its eastern edge, but even after the creation of the Nebraska Territory in 1854 it struggled to attract settlers – perhaps because the almost total absence of trees meant that they had to live in sod houses.  It wasn’t until the Homestead Act of 1862, which offered 160 acres of land to anyone who would work it for five years, that Nebraska at last began to fill up.  Even today, there are less than two million people in the state, and two-thirds of those live within 50 miles of Omaha, so that the rest of Nebraska is thinly populated indeed: 90% of its towns have less than 3,000 people.

I-80 west of Omaha, Nebraska

Right lanes: Entering Nebraska; Left lanes: Leaving Nebraska

We’ve learned that if you have to leave a large city on foot, it’s best to do it early on a weekend, and so, driven out by eye-watering hotel prices, we left Omaha at six on Saturday morning.  As it happened, this may well have been the best time to see its western outskirts.  Just beyond the caged walkway over I-480, we passed Sheri’s Show Club (‘Live Entertainment; Girls Girls Girls; Dancers Start at 2pm’).  Next door to the club was Kohll’s Home Oxygen and Medical Equipment, handily located in case Sheri’s girls proved too much for her clients to bear.  Beside a pest control company and janitorial supplies store were two seedy bars, Bud Olson’s and Alderman’s.  America’s bars seem never really to have recovered from the need to lay low during Prohibition; to this day, most of them are on the edge of towns in unobtrusive, windowless brick buildings that resemble disused public lavatories.  One of the patrons of Bud’s or Alderman’s had kicked in the door of a beauty salon on the corner overnight, and glass was scattered all over the floor inside.

Help wanted sign - drug testing

Probably a good idea not to smile too much at the interview

We were rained on more or less solidly all day on Sunday, from Chalco to Greenwood, from light drizzle to tropical downpours, so we spent the day taking an impromptu tour of the industrial estates of south-western Omaha, sheltering in loading bays, office vestibules and abandoned warehouses.  At least the rain seemed to be good for the corn.  Six weeks ago, in Illinois, it had been ankle-high; now it was well above our heads.

Nebraska is the only ‘triply-landlocked’ state in America, meaning that it has no coastline, none of the states that border it have a coastline, and none of the states that border them have a coastline.  In short, it’s a very long way from the ocean.  So the large white lighthouse that greeted us on the side of the road near Ashland was a startling sight.  This was Linoma Beach (‘Linoma’ being a portmanteau of Lincoln and Omaha), on the banks of the Platte River, which before the war had been one of the most popular tourist destinations in Nebraska.   Now it was a rather forlorn RV and caravan park, with a line of brown portaloos on the rain-soaked beach and an optimistic line of sandbags piled up along the banks of the rising Platte River.

Linoma Lighthouse by the Platte River, Nebraska

Perhaps the furthest lighthouse from the sea in the world

The Platte is, after the Ohio, the Mississippi and the Missouri, the last of the four great rivers on our walk, and much the least famous.  It rises in the Rockies and runs across most of Nebraska before falling into the Missouri near Omaha; its broad, shallow valley determined the route of the early stages of the Oregon and Mormon Trails, the Pony Express, the Union Pacific railroad and, more recently, the Lincoln Highway and I-80.  It was discovered very early, in 1714, by the French adventurer Etienne de Veniard, who called it the ‘Nebraskier’, an Otoe Indian word meaning ‘flat water’, whence the state gets its name.  Early pioneers described it as ‘too thick to drink, too thin to plough’ and ‘a mile wide at the mouth, but only six inches deep’, and Bill Bryson described it, only half-jokingly, as a river you could push a shopping trolley across.

Sally by the Platte River, Nebraska

Sally stares into the maelstrom of the Platte River

Not today.  After days of heavy rain, the Platte was a swollen, eddying torrent, two hundred yards wide and thick with branches and logs it had swept away further upstream.  It would have been death to fall in, and we picked our way carefully alongside the knee-high wall of the causeway across it and into Ashland.  Ashland lacked a certain refinement; it had once thrived from its position on a fork of the Oregon Trail, but now it was home only to the Bar & Bait Saloon, ‘Paris on the Prairie’ – a boutique and spa whose phone number was the faintly off-putting 944-SKIN – and, just outside town, the Round the Bend Steakhouse, ‘Home of the Testicle Festival’.  We hastened west.

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One Response to “Days 113-115/ June 19th-21st – Omaha, NE to Lincoln, NE: Flat water”

  1. Jovet Says:

    Nebraska DOES have the best state highway signs, though!

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