Days 116-120/ June 22nd-26th – Lincoln, NE to Seward, NE: The Battle of Midway

At half-past five, at the end of a long day’s walk out of Lincoln, the electronic sign at the Shell station opposite our motel read 105 degrees.  For those of you who like to measure suffering in metric units, that’s 40 degrees C.  We’d spent most of the last few days in eastern Nebraska walking in truly stunning heat.  At six o’clock in the morning, when we usually set out, it was already hot and muggy, and by seven, the sweat was dripping down our necks.  Heat of this magnitude precludes all complex thought, and we trudged through the suburbs of Lincoln and out into the corn-fields in a dull, bovine stupor.  Whenever I looked down, my glasses slid down the slick slope of my nose.  Our bottles of juice were as warm as tea, and when occasionally we paused to take photos, the camera was almost too hot to hold.

Temperature sign at petrol station, Lincoln, Nebraska

105 degrees - officially too hot to think

Lincoln had the recovering, evacuated feel of a college town during the holidays, with the windows of kebab shops, juice bars, bookstores and pubs covered with peeling flyers advertising gigs, three weeks ago, by the Waybacks and the Toasted Ponies.  It’s home to the University of Nebraska, and, more specifically, to its football team, the Cornhuskers.  UN football is a de facto local religion in Nebraska, running Christianity a pretty close second and probably superseding it on game days, when Memorial Stadium, with a capacity of 85,000, becomes effectively the third-largest city in the state.  Even if had been football season, we’d have had no hope of getting a ticket – the team has sold out every game it’s played since 1962.  The University had just announced that it was moving from the Big Twelve athletic conference to the Big Ten, an event of equal moment for Nebraska as Italy’s abandonment of the Axis in 1943 was for World War 2, and for which the Omaha World-Herald had cleared its first six pages.

Inside Memorial Stadium in Lincoln

The holiest site of the Nebraskan faith

We dutifully paid a visit to the state capitol building, an arresting limestone tower, like the top third of a Manhattan skyscraper, topped by a golden dome supporting a statue – appropriately enough, of a man sowing seeds.  It’s the third tallest building in Nebraska, and as our early experience of the state suggested strongly that numbers 1 and 2 would be grain elevators, we took the opportunity to go up to the top and see what the state looked like.  Inside, the capitol was like a Byzantine church, with a dark nave supported by green and red marble columns, lined with mosaics and hung with heavy brass lanterns.  We rode up the tower in a splendidly retro lift, all walnut panelling and brass sliding doors, and barely big enough for the two of us with our backpacks.  From the top, Nebraska looked appallingly flat, with the line of the horizon twenty miles away broken only by the aforementioned elevators and dark clusters of trees that marked the location of small towns.

View from Nebraska state capitol in Lincoln

Looking west from the Nebraska State Capitol - no Rockies yet

We left Lincoln through a neighbourhood of smart lofts surrounding the old Lincoln station.  The California Zephyr, one of America’s last long-distance train services, which runs from Chicago to San Francisco, was just pulling into town.  We’ve been struck by the incredible US national rail network on our walk – there’s barely been a day when we haven’t heard the horn of a train or walked alongside railway tracks – but long-distance passenger services were largely phased out by the 1970s, and today virtually all of the network away from the coasts is used for freight.  It’s not clear how this country will ever wean itself off its dependence on the automobile, but sometimes it seems that it could do worse than dust off its old stations and run a few commuter trains between big cities.

We came out into open corn-fields again along Holdrege Street, a gravel road that rose and fell over the gently undulating hills that 19th-century Czech immigrants waggishly nicknamed the Bohemian Alps.  ‘Nebraska isn’t flat but slightly tilted,’ one celebrated local writer has observed, ‘like a long church-basement table with the legs on one end not perfectly snapped in place.’  He was quite right, and each day out of Lincoln we walked up long, steady inclines so subtle that we would never have noticed them were it not for the heat – the first shallow slopes of the Rockies.

Resting on the roadside in the Bohemian Alps

Resting out of the sun in the Bohemian Alps

Seward was the nicest small town we’d seen for many weeks.  We came into it through the Pawnee Lake Recreation Area, where streams of pick-ups towing small boats were arriving for something called ‘Carp-o-Rama’.  It was built around a lovely grassy square with a fine little red-domed courthouse at its centre, and was home to a small Lutheran college that seemed to be enough to keep the small businesses lining the square – a cinema, bakery, gift shop, deli and bookstore among them – thriving, rather than boarded up and derelict as we’ve seen in so many other towns of this size.  Whatever its other charms, Seward was also, for us, precisely the halfway point on our walk across America, with roughly 1,700 miles of highways, roads and tracks separating it from both Jamestown and San Francisco.  And that – despite the sign outside the Cattle National Bank telling us that it was 95 degrees at seven in the evening – felt like real progress.

Seward courthouse in Nebraska

Seward courthouse, and some very welcome shade

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