Days 121-124/ June 27th-30th – Seward, NE to Grand Island, NE: Uppity town

‘It is just four months today since we left our dear home and friends, perhaps forever, and have since been leading this wild, wandering gypsy life.  Oh, when will the day arrive when we can say this long journey is over?’ – Harriet Ward, California Trail diary, 1853

Watering-frames in soy-fields in Nebraska

Those soy-beans won't water themselves

We left the town of York yesterday morning and lunched in Hampton – passing en route signs for Hastings and Norfolk – but there’s little chance of confusing eastern Nebraska with England.  It’s a landscape of vast plains of corn and soy-beans, criss-crossed with long, spidery watering-frames that creak their way slowly across the fields, occasionally watering us too when we pass downwind of them.  The only features we can use to gauge our progress through this impassively unchanging scenery are the small clusters of trees, grain elevators and water-towers gathered around small towns, but even these can be deceptive: several times we’ve agreed to take our next break at a town clearly two miles away, only to limp into it, slightly baffled, six miles later.

Mosquito bites on leg

Sally shows off the morning's crop of mosquito bites

Living in these tiny little towns, huddled together under a vast bowl of sky and on the edge of limitless fields of waving corn, it would be easy to develop agoraphobia.  In the diner at Hampton, where we stopped for lunch, our waitress Sara seemed to have succumbed.  She was a skinny, lank-haired woman of about forty, who lived in Aurora and nurtured a morbid fear of almost every other town in eastern Nebraska.

“York’s gettin’ kinda rough.  Drugs, crime.  It has a little bit of violence, but it’s not murders and stuff.  That’s starting to happen in Grand Island.  That’s not a really nice town either.  Crime’s pretty high there, a lotta Hispanics, it’s way rougher than these little towns.  I don’t know for sure the statistics, but I’d say it’s probably half Hispanic.”

In virtually every town we’d passed through on our walk, from the east coast to the Midwest, there had been significant Hispanic populations, but Nebraska was the first place where we encountered open antipathy towards them.  We happened to be in the state during the week in which the nearby town of Fremont had hit the national headlines, passing a law which forbade businesses to hire illegal immigrants or landlords to rent houses to them.  Sara was an equal opportunity xenophobe, though, and didn’t confine her misgivings to towns in Nebraska.

“I’ve lived a really sheltered life.  I went up to Aurora, Colorado to work… it was a culture shock to me.  It was the first time I’d ever seen men with boobs, twenty-dollar hookers, bums at the stop-lights.  I absolutely hated it.  When I drove back over the Nebraska border, I burst into tears.”

Road into Hampton, Nebraska

Hampton: Another teeming Nebraska metropolis

We got back on the road with a final warning from Sara about her own home town (also, confusingly, called Aurora).

“Watch out for the police in Aurora.  They might think you’re bums passing through or something.  They’re kinda picky about that kinda stuff.  A lotta times they’ll give ‘em rides to the county line.  Aurora’s kind of a uppity town.”

Not twenty minutes later, as we walked out of Hampton beside the railway track, we saw a figure walking towards us in the distance; even through the shimmering heat-haze we could make out the unmistakeable bulge of a backpack.  This had only happened a couple of times before on our walk, and each time, as now, I immediately began imagining a memorable Stanley-and-Livingstone encounter, two long transcontinental walks converging by chance on a dusty stretch of Nebraskan highway.  But the figure turned out to be a vagrant – one of Sara’s ‘bums’ – a heavily-bearded young man in filthy jeans hitching to Lincoln.

“I’m from the West coast,” he told us, vaguely, during an awkward thirty-second conversation.  “I’m homeless and don’t have a job, and I got no better way to live.  I probably won’t stay in Lincoln long either.”

Corn-fields in eastern Nebraska

A rare elevated view over the corn-fields of Nebraska

We walked on from elevator to elevator, next to freight trains that rolled past them at a crawl while golden jets of corn were poured into their wagons from chutes.  As we approached the town of Bradshaw, we began to be passed by small clusters of cyclists – at first sleek young men whirring by in twos and threes, then middle-aged couples wheezing past by the dozen.  A semi-circle of cars and folding tables in town announced that this was NUMB, the Nebraska United Methodist Bikeride for hunger, held every year over a different 5-day, 300-mile course in Nebraska.  Judging by their waistlines, hunger was something that many of the participants weren’t terribly familiar with, but the organisers at this refuelling station cooed over us, and generously allowed us to top up our bottles from their cold-water canteen.

“Look how slim you are!”

“You should consider bikes, y’know!  Ha!”

NUMB bike riders in Bradshaw, Nebraska

Sally with a rapt audience of charity bike-riders in Bradshaw

We took a day off in Aurora, a pleasant little suburban grid of sprinklers and John Deere dealerships, where a sign at the entrance to town announced ‘Ratzlaff’s Soy Bean Mulch Sold Here’.  Its streets were lettered from A to Q north to south and numbered from 1st to 22nd east to west, as though the townsfolk had never got around to giving them actual names.  We were lucky to be here on a perfect summer’s day, the schoolkids splashing around in the public pool at Streeter Park, because Aurora was prone to very extreme weather.  Last year at about this time, a tornado had struck the town, strong enough to overturn train wagons, and in 2003, the largest hailstone ever recorded, a monster 7 inches in diameter, had fallen here.  We pitied the luckless person whose job it had been to run out and retrieve it.

Heeding Sara’s words, we kept a lookout for the Aurora police in the hopes of a free ride to the county line, but they never appeared, and so we had no choice the next morning but to set out again, on foot, towards the next elevator on the horizon.

Junkyard sign in York, Nebraska

The friendliness of eastern Nebraska is legendary

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