Days 135-137/ July 11th-13th – North Platte, NE to Ogallala, NE: Bullrun

 “I farm twenty-five hundred acres or so, so I’m probably one of the smaller farmers around here.  There used to be a lotta small farms like that.  Now they’re a lot bigger.”

The definition of a ‘small farm’ in Nebraska is rather different from the rest of America.  In Virginia, we’d seen farms the size of a large tablecloth in the back yards of Appalachian trailer-homes, and in Illinois had spent days walking through immaculate Amish smallholdings, but in Nebraska, unless your farm could accommodate a good-sized international airport, you were nobody.

Ethanol factory sign in Nebraska

Rural Americans: Now putting ethanol in their cars, not down their throats

We were having lunch in a petrol station in Hershey – a town of 572 people that nonetheless contrived to sustain the Hershey State Bank – with Jim and Carol, who owned a farm a few miles away.  There was an agricultural boom in the Midwest, they told us, but it didn’t seem to be benefiting farmers.

“You can’t hardly start without a family farm,” said Jim. “There’s a lotta investors, and land’s doubled in value over the last two or three years.  And then all of a sudden corn went from two dollars a bushel up to four or five… But when it goes up it don’t matter; fertiliser, fuel, seed corn, everything goes up, they only let ya make so much.”

Main Street in Hershey, Nebraska

Ice-cream, haircuts and coffee: all the necessities of life in Hershey, Nebraska

The price of equipment seemed especially daunting.  In a region where a pleasant family farmhouse could be had for $100,000, a new tractor could cost twice that, and a top-of-the-range combine harvester as much as $350,000.  On top of that, there was the weather.

“Last ten years, there’s been a real bad drought.  It finished last summer, but Lord knows what we’d a done without the Aquifer.”

The ‘Aquifer’ was the Ogallala Aquifer, one of the world’s largest deposits of groundwater, left behind when the glaciers melted at the end of the last Ice Age.  The town of Ogallala – our next major destination – sits above its deepest point.  It covers an area of almost 175,000 square miles beneath the Great Plains, extending across eight states and as far south as Texas.  Put simply, the Aquifer enables America to feed itself: it provides water for a quarter of all the irrigated land in the country, and drinking water for 80% of the people who live above it.  Without it, the Great Plains would become largely arid and uncultivable – another Dust Bowl.  Needless to say, it’s being pissed away at a rapid rate; some studies estimate that the Aquifer could be completely dry in 25 years; in northern Texas, it already is.

Roadworks on Highway 30 in Nebraska

15 miles of one of America's most famous highways was closed for this

We walked to Ogallala down Highway 30, entirely empty of traffic along a 15-mile stretch because of roadworks, which turned out to consist of four men loitering beside a stationary road-grader.  Somewhere along the road, we passed into Mountain Time, and although there were no mountains in evidence, the small town of Paxton was the first we’d seen in America whose welcome sign announced its elevation as well as its population.  We stopped for an execrable breakfast at Ole’s Big Game Steakhouse, a restaurant whose walls were festooned with hunting trophies collected by its eponymous founder during the 1940s and 50s.  Almost every mammal that had ever lived was represented; as well as the deer, antelope, elk, buffalo and moose heads that one might expect, there was an entire polar bear in a glass case, an elephant head, a stuffed cheetah prowling above the fireplace and the long neck and head of a giraffe mounted beside a doorway.  It was an ideal place for people who enjoy dining in the shadow of a colossal moose head roughly two feet above their booth.

Inside Ole's Big Game Steakhouse, Paxton, Nebraska

The rather surprising decor of Ole's Big Game Steakhouse

Ogallala had been a stop on the Pony Express route and the transcontinental railroad, but its heyday came in the 1880s, when it had been the terminus of the Great Western Cattle Trail, a route running all the way from Texas, along which more than 100,000 animals each year were brought to the town.  The only survival from that time was Boot Hill Cemetery, overlooking Ogallala from a hilltop overgrown with long, pale grass, and bristling with wooden planks marking the graves of those who had died – usually violently – during the town’s heyday – ‘Wm Coffman – Shot 1875’; ‘Pauper 1887’; ‘Pedro – September 11th 1876’.

Abandoned gas station in Roscoe, Nebraska

Escaping from the heat in Roscoe, Nebraska

It seemed to have been mostly downhill since then.  Ogallala was a dusty grid of seedy bars, liquor stores, Christian bookshops and peeling, pastel motels, whose inhabitants seemed to have abandoned the effort of its upkeep some time towards the end of the Carter administration.  The sole exception was Front Street, a short stretch of ersatz Wild West shopfronts, where we stumbled upon an unusual event in progress.  The dirt yard outside the Crystal Palace Saloon was lined with red Ferraris, black Porsches and silver Mustangs, and inside it was packed with tattooed, goateed young men surrounding a spray-tanned young woman in a red PVC catsuit, with buttocks each the size of a Christmas turkey and breasts to match.  We’d been in the state long enough to guess that these people were not from western Nebraska.

“I live in Stoke Newington,” said Dan, a man in his late twenties who we interrupted on a cigarette-break outside.

This was no surprise: pale, slightly overweight, utterly inappropriately dressed for the hundred-degree heat, sporting an absurd and ironic handlebar moustache and stroking his iPhone, he could only have been from north London.  He explained to us what was going on.

“It’s called ‘Bullrun’.  We’re racing from New York to Vegas, in eight days – well, not me.  I’m in the support bus.  It’s mainly Americans on it.  They pay twenty grand to enter.  We don’t know where we’re going each day – like today, we’ve come from Omaha, and we were only told this morning we’re going to Boulder.”

Bullrun 2010 cars in Ogallala, Nebraska

Town meets country as the Bullrun rally descends on Ogallala

There were perhaps a hundred people milling around outside; the American racers – tanned, gelled men in their thirties in expensive jeans – and a gaggle of pasty boys in baggy shorts and ‘Bullrun 2010’ T-shirts, the staff of a London production company tagging along to film the event.  The drivers were noisily reliving the morning’s drive from Omaha.

“Dude!  We got to 110!  You guys were at 90 like the whole time!  Pussies!”

“We got pulled over three times.  And there was a police plane that came and, like, pulled over four guys at once.  A fuckin’ plane!  Wild!  I didn’t even know ya could get pulled over by a plane.”

Although the detailed breakdown of the US 2010 census data won’t be published until next year, this must surely have been the biggest concentration of utter pricks between the Rockies and the Mississippi.  The race was being filmed for an edifying-sounding programme called Cops, Cars & Superstars, and it was clear that speeding tickets, and police involvement generally, were an essential and desirable part of the event.  Several of the participants’ cars had been carelessly – and illegally – parked in front of the police station across the street, and there were cheers when a couple of deputies came out and began rather good-naturedly slapping tickets on them.

Cowboy statue in Boot Hill Cemetery, Ogallala, Nebraska

19th-century graves in Boot Hill Cemetery, Ogallala

The entire teenage population of Ogallala had assembled in the yard; the boys gawping through the windows of the sportscars, the girls in bikini tops and hot-pants, each displaying two plump hemispheres of pale buttock in an ancient impulse to offer their charms to anyone who might take them out of Ogallala.  An officious young woman in skinny jeans, carrying an iPad like a clipboard, began herding the drivers back into their cars.  It was like watching early settlers encountering uncorrupted native tribes. 

There was a flurry of bodies at the restaurant door, and Ice-T emerged, looking like an older, thinner version of Ice-T, accompanied by his wife, Coco – she of the red catsuit – and got into a black Aston Martin only recently ticketed outside the police station.  He posed briefly for photos with the sheepish, star-struck deputies, and then led the line of sportscars roaring and growling out of town and back towards the interstate.  A few saggy British cameramen stayed behind to get some wide shots, and then the dust settled on Ogallala again.

Cow-hunting in Nebraska

Unofficial cow hunts are frowned on in Nebraska

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