Days 128-130/ July 4th-6th – Kearney, NE to Cozad, NE: Chief Turkey Leg

Corn in Nebraska is supposed to be, according to the local adage, ‘knee-high by the Fourth of July’, but this year it was already well beyond that, towering above head-height and turning the country back-roads into the lanes of a vast maze.  We had hoped to spend the Fourth watching a small-town parade and fireworks display, but it was immediately apparent that the First Interstate Inn at Elm Creek, whose better rooms offered an arresting view of an electricity sub-station, would be hosting no such celebrations.  We had to content ourselves with watching the owner’s chubby son listlessly tossing fire-crackers into a dumpster.  A low metal hut behind the motel advertised ‘Nude Dancers: 8pm-4am Monday-Saturday’; it being a Sunday, we were denied even the opportunity for Sally to earn back the cost of our room.

Hay bales in Nebraska

Hay fever is sweeping Nebraska

Monday was a national holiday, and a bumper day on the railway – at least a hundred Union Pacific freight trains hooted past us, thirty yards to our left.  Heading east, they were stacked two-high with containers newly arrived from Asia, and trundled heavily and insistently over the tracks; heading west, the trains rattled emptily along the rails, like a physical embodiment of the US trade deficit.  There were dozens of coal-trains, too, heading east from Wyoming, each almost a mile long; we’ve seen so many of them over so many days now that we’ve started to imagine Wyoming as a hollowed-out shell of land ready to collapse in on itself.

Train-tracks in Lexington, Nebraska

A rare moment of calm on the Union Pacific line in Lexington, Nebraska

We were still some way from Wyoming, but we were certainly moving into the West.  We’ve started to see a sprinkling of cowboy hats, and the other day we were greeted in a general store with our first ‘howdy’.  Today, we saw the body of a tiny prairie dog, splayed damply in the middle of the road.  At regular intervals along the highway, stone markers had been erected, recording the location of Indian attacks on the railroad.  We rested underneath one commemorating an assault on August 7th, 1867 by the Cheyenne, led by the gloriously named Chief Turkey Leg, in which they wrecked a train and killed four men, one of whom was scalped alive.  They made off with some calico, which seemed a curiously effeminate end to the atrocity.  Our only attackers today were a relentless cloud of mosquitoes, enlivened by the overnight rain, and we killed at least ten in small spatters of our own blood before deciding that moving on was the better option.

The 1733 Ranch in Nebraska

The 1733 Ranch, exactly 1,733 miles from both Boston and San Francisco

Just outside Kearney, we met Perry, a lean and tanned man of fifty, cycling across the country from Seattle to Washington DC, his bike laden with saddle-bags and with water-bottles clipped to every inch of the frame.  Like us, he was having an indifferent time in Nebraska.

“I spent last night in a corn-field.  It was easy to find places to camp out west; you’d just go up a logging road, and cut into the woods.  But here, it’s so flat, you can’t really get out of sight of anyone, and everything’s private property.  It feels like I’ve been in Nebraska forever; I just want to get the hell out.”

We considered Perry’s rate of progress with some envy; he had left Seattle less than a month ago, and would be out of Nebraska in two days, whereas we had at least three weeks to go.

“Well, good luck,” he said, as he left us, “you keep on walkin’, I’ll keep on ridin’!”

Cross-country cyclist in Nebraska

The ever-cheerful Perry about to set off again for DC

 Highway 30 seemed to be teeming with transcontinental cyclists, and two days later we met George, from Portland, also en route to the capital.  He was riding at a pace that made Perry look slow, covering 100 miles a day and expecting to be in Washington in a little over two weeks.

“Me and my son have wanted to do this ride together for years,” he said, perplexing us for several minutes until his son came into view on the horizon, panting, grimacing and dripping with sweat.  It wasn’t difficult to guess who had wanted to do the ride more.

It was, to be fair, a landscape better tackled on a bike than on foot.  A couple of hours outside Lexington, under a sky of Simpsons clouds, we looked back at its grain elevator, which still appeared absurdly close, and reflected with wonder that within the six-mile slice of corn-field that separated us from it could be contained half of central London, or the width of two Manhattans, and a couple of million people.  It seemed scarcely possible, especially as the only sign of life was a rickety farmhouse with a sign in its muddy yard reading ‘Goats for Sale’.

Grain elevator in Cozad, Nebraska

Small Nebraska towns plaster their names across their elevators so visitors can tell them apart

We came into Cozad over the railway tracks beside the Doggie Styles pet grooming parlour.  It was an unremarkable little Nebraska town, built around its grain elevator and cut in half by the railway line, whose main claim to fame was that it lay precisely on the 100th meridian west of Greenwich.  The town seemed subdued, perhaps because, as we read in the Tri-City Tribune, the local Cozad Reds high school baseball team had just been thumped 6-1 by its deadly local rivals, the Gothenburg Melons.  The back page of the paper was entirely taken up by a social column that chronicled, in minute and straight-faced detail, the goings-on in the tiny town of Farnam twenty miles to the south.  It was called ‘Farnam’.

‘Mildred Tillotson visited on Tuesday with Willa McCaa at Arapahoe,’ the column began, scarcely allowing this bombshell to fall before continuing.

‘Wanda Westfahl of Imperial was a Thursday caller on her sister, Edna Lungrin.’

‘Nancy Oberg took Bev Edson out for dinner on Saturday to celebrate her birthday.’

‘Last Thursday, Monine Mortensen accompanied Colleen Mortensen and Kim Mortensen of rural Curtis and Sandra Messersmith of rural Maywood to McCook where they met Linda Glaze of Oberlin, Kansas and Jane Burton of Norton, Kansas for lunch.’

And so on, for several dozen entries.  It had been a hard few days of walking, and Cozad was blessed with a restaurant serving ‘the only authentic Italian food between Omaha and Denver’, and so, that evening, Richard Ambrose of Chiswick took Sally Gould of Kensal Rise out for dinner in Cozad, Nebraska.

Elephant outside Mexican restaurant in Nebraska

A giant fibreglass elephant: recognised worldwide as a guarantee of authentic Mexican food


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