Days 125-127/ July 1st-3rd – Grand Island, NE to Kearney, NE: The Lincoln Highway

“Nebraska has three cities: Omaha and its suburbs, with over half a million people; Lincoln, with a little over two hundred thousand; and Grand Island, with about fifty thousand…  The rest of the state is a vast grassy preserve set aside for those of us who like to be left alone.” – Ted Kooser, Local Wonders: Seasons in the Bohemian Alps

Freight train passing grain elevator in Nebraska

Two icons of southern Nebraska: Grain elevators and freight trains

We left the Wood River Motel, a peeling motor court on a deserted and dusty stretch of interstate, just after six.  A man was emerging from the single car parked in the dirt yard, and had evidently spent the night in it.  In the back seat lay a second man, his face and nose crushed against the window in a sweaty cube of duvet.  The first man smiled at us as we walked past.

“Morning!” he said, and lit a cigarette.  “Helluva night.”

The local morning news led on the prices being paid at the elevators in Kearney, Hastings and Grand Island for corn and soy-beans.  We walked for ten dead straight miles along Burmood Road through the fields that produced them, a pared-down, treeless landscape of head-high corn that finished in sharp lines at the side of the highway.  It passed through Alda, Shelton and Gibbon, a series of tidy little towns of neat bungalows with a basketball net at the top of every drive.

Truck carrying house on Highway 30

It's not uncommon to see people literally 'moving house' in America

By the side of the highway a few miles outside Kearney, a brown sign announced that we were now on the former route of the Oregon, California and Mormon Trails and the Pony Express.  As we reflected on this unique convergence of the great pioneer routes across the continent, a gust of wind spattered us with pesticide from a spraying-frame in a nearby field.  All of these routes follow the shallow valley of the Platte River, which we had crossed again on our way through Grand Island (which was neither grand, nor an island).  It was much reduced from the swollen monster it had been a week ago and 150 miles east, the pale bottom clearly visible between streaks of sandbars and beached, bleached logs.

The Platte River at Grand Island

The fathomless depths of the Platte River

Just after we left Grand Island, we joined yet another great transcontinental route, the Lincoln Highway, the first paved road across America, built in 1913, at a time when more than 90% of roads in the country were dirt.  It was known as the ‘Main Street Across America’, and ran between Times Square in New York and Lincoln Park in San Francisco.  The first motorists to drive it took between 20 and 30 days to travel from coast to coast; early travel guides recommended camping equipment west of Omaha.  It’s now been subsumed beneath other, more modern roads, especially Highway 30, which follows its route from Philadelphia to Wyoming, and which we now followed west into Kearney alongside the Union Pacific railway line.

Union Pacific train driver in Nebraska

Train drivers: Surprisingly friendly (or bored)

After a week of walking beside the freight trains on this line, we’ve become very familiar with the shipping companies – Hapag-Lloyd, ‘K’-Line, Evergreen, Triton – whose colourful containers trundle past us several dozen times a day.  This was the busiest stretch of the Union Pacific line we’d yet seen, with mile-long trains at least every ten minutes.  We exchanged waves with the drivers, who often gave us a sympathetic double-hoot as they passed by.  Just before Kearney, the driver of a stationary train hailed us across the thirty yards of grass that separated the railway from our highway.

“Hey!  You guys need a drink?”  And a cold bottle of water arced through the air and landed in the grass beside us.

Dusty foot after hiking

Nebraska: Quite a dusty state

Like a lot of towns along this stretch of our walk, Kearney began life as an outpost on the Oregon Trail in the 1840s – Fort Kearny (sic) – and later became a relay station for the Pony Express.  It provided protection from Indian attacks for the crews building the transcontinental railroad, and makes an appearance in the novel Around the World in Eighty Days when a train stops here to seek protection from just such an attack.  But almost all of this history had been subsumed by a modern town of sprawling suburbs and commercial strips, including the worst motel we’d yet experienced (and this, let me assure you, is a crowded field).  The Western Motel was a pale blue fleapit at the edge of town, offering dingy, cardboard rooms rank with the smell of death and old skin and an air-conditioning unit that made no impression on the stifling heat despite making a noise like a taxiing airliner.

To take our minds off it, we thought back to the man who had pulled up alongside us just outside town, in a minivan scoured all over with salt damage.

“How far are you guys walking?”

“We’re walking across America.”  He paused, then gave us an enormous, toothy grin.

“Well, you’re halfway!”

Fireworks stall in Nebraska

Fireworks stalls are everywhere as the Fourth of July approaches

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