Days 131-133/ July 7th-9th – Cozad, NE to North Platte, NE: Rescue squad

The town planners of southern Nebraska are not a group of people much given to innovation and experiment.  For two hundred miles now, we’ve walked through a series of settlements with essentially identical layouts: Highway 30 and the railway run side-by-side across town, splitting it in two; north of the tracks are the town centre and suburbs, and to the south a narrow commercial strip leads down to the interstate.  At the very heart of it all, hard against the railway tracks, is a large grain-elevator, usually – and helpfully – emblazoned in large black letters with the name of the town, lest its inhabitants should forget where they live, or visitors from nearby towns think themselves back at home.

These endlessly repeating townscapes could create the impression that we’re not really moving anywhere, but fortunately the countryside around them tells a different story.  We’re slowly walking from corn into cattle country, and the limitless green stalks are steadily being replaced by stockyards and pastures filled with sturdy black cows.  The Gothenburg Times sports section even carried a report from the recent Pony Express Rodeo at the Gothenburg Roping Club, which knocked last week’s high-school baseball win by the Gothenburg Melons over nearby Ogallala off the back page.

Union Pacific train and horses in Nebraska

Horses and horsepower in central Nebraska

Gothenburg was a pleasant little town, founded in the 19th century by a Swedish emigrant from its more famous namesake, with a little Main Street of antique shops, Mexican restaurants and crop insurance offices.  Gateway Realty was offering in its window a four-bedroom bungalow in Cozad for $30,000.  In the small green block of Ehmen Park there still stood Gothenburg’s Pony Express station, a gnarled log cabin, built in 1854, looking as ancient in these suburban surroundings as a Saxon church in Britain.  A large stone in front of it marked the Gothenburg Centennial Time Capsule, buried on July 13th 1985 and ‘to be opened in 25 years’.  We asked the woman running the gift shop in the Pony Express station about it.

“Oh, I remember when it was sealed up,” she said.  “It was just newspapers, a few letters, pictures from elementary school kids, things like that.”

“Are you going to watch it being re-opened?”

“What do you mean?”

“It says it’s due to be re-opened in six days’ time.”

Her face took on a stricken look, and she walked over to the stone, read the inscription, and then came back into the station.

“Well, how about that,” she said.  “Lemme just call the newspaper.”

As we left, snatches of her conversation drifted through the window to us.

“No!  No, me either!  July 13th!”

Bullet-ridden signpost in Nebraska

No one likes a left-turn sign

On the road the next day we met our third transcontinental cyclist of the week, Marco, a whippet-thin young man from Boulder, Colorado, who was covering an enviable hundred miles a day.  He had left North Platte, the next major town on our route, that morning.

“Man, I wish I could tell you something to go see there,” he said, “but I can’t.”

Bird on signpost on Highway 30

Still 1,500 miles to San Francisco as the crow flies

We walked through rolling grassland without an ear of corn in sight.  To the north were low hills, the first for hundreds of miles, a large farmhouse on the top of each one, built to capitalise on the rare opportunity for a decent view in Nebraska.  Without warning, a Gothenburg police car pulled up next to us, and a shaven-headed, goateed young officer beckoned us over.

“Were you guys lying on the grass back there?”  We conceded that we had been – for the last few months we’ve been in the habit of resting three or four times a day in quiet spots by the roadside.

He barked something into his radio, and it squawked back at him.  We noticed a large white pick-up pull up behind his car.

“Someone radioed in bodies by the railroad.  Got a rescue squad coming.”

And behind us, we now saw more vehicles arriving, forming a growing throng on the shoulder – a tow-truck, two more pick-ups and an ambulance.

“Gosh!  Sorry!” I said.  “We’re walking, and we were just resting –”

“No problem,” he said.  “We just had to come check it out.”  And with a circular wave of his finger, he turned his car around and led the fleet of rescue vehicles back into Gothenburg.

Lincoln Highway mileage chart in Brady, Nebraska

Brady, Nebraska: A handy mileage chart for the rest of our walk

We recovered from this mild shock over a microwave pizza at the Get n’ Go petrol station in Brady (‘Biggest Game Fish Each Week Wins a Free Six-Pack’).  There were no motels for forty miles into North Platte, so we tramped through ten miles of flooded fields of ruined, blackened corn to the Fort McPherson campground.  The fort was more than a century gone, and its site was now occupied by a national cemetery, where 8,000 white gravestones stood in neat rows on an immaculate lawn raised above the surrounding corn-fields.  The oldest graves were of men stationed here to fend off Cheyenne and Arapaho attacks in the 1860s, standing just a few dozen yards from fellow Nebraskans who had failed to return from Iraq and Afghanistan.

Graves in Fort McPherson national cemetery, Nebraska

War graves in Fort McPherson, Nebraska

We walked to the campground along the Supply Canal running from North Platte, crunching over thousands of tiny grasshoppers that rose up in demented clouds to meet us as we approached.  The owner, Bob, a genial man of sixty, was strimming the grass under a tree as we arrived, the first person we’d seen for at least a dozen miles.  We asked him how he coped with living in such seclusion.

“Oh, I’ve got my aquifer,” he said, “and my land and my view.  I’m very happy!”

We had covered 29 miles, our longest day of walking yet, and we fell gratefully into the cosy cabin Bob had prepared for us, sleeping every bit as deeply as any of the inhabitants of the cemetery just the other side of the canal.

Walking into North Platte down the Supply Canal

On the canal tow-path into North Platte

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One Response to “Days 131-133/ July 7th-9th – Cozad, NE to North Platte, NE: Rescue squad”

  1. Bob Fairlane Says:

    Maybe put a tent up or put some books next to you, so people don’t freak out. Really weird they called the cops and didn’t check you out themselves.

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