Days 138-140/ July 14th-16th – Ogallala, NE to Sidney, NE: Daylight robbery

News of the floods in Lodgepole had been filtering its way east from town to town along Highway 30 for the last few days.  The Union Pacific railway line, always thirty yards to our left, had abruptly fallen silent one morning, and there was a rumour that the tracks had been washed away somewhere up the line.  The manager of the Panther Pit Stop in Lodgepole, a burly man of seventy in a baseball cap, confirmed it.

“It was bad.  We had to evacuate the whole south side of the town.  People went to shelters, relatives.  Washed out the road bridge, washed out the tracks.”

Shadows on the road in western Nebraska

6am, somewhere in western Nebraska: 1 mile down, 22 miles to go

Now, a week later, Lodgepole seemed already well on the way to recovery.  It was a quiet little farming town, given a certain distinction by the tall cottonwoods that grew between the railway and the highway and draped Main Street, the grain elevator and the Junkyard Bar (‘We Don’t Bite Hard’) in generous shade.  We asked the manager if it was true that there were rattlesnakes in the surrounding countryside.

“Oh, yeah,” he said.  Sally asked what we should do if we were bitten.  “You got a cellphone?” he asked.  We nodded.  “Call 911.”  He grinned, and rang up our drinks.  “Anyone crazy enough to walk across America can have a discount.  Just a shame we’re gonna find your dehydrated corpses somewhere in the desert in Nevada.”

Road crew after floods in Lodgepole, Nebraska

Repairing the washed-out bridge outside Lodgepole, Nebraska

It was a week of warnings – mostly about Wyoming as we approached its border with Nebraska.  A table of retired railwaymen in Virg’s Cafe Lounge in Brule were the most fair and balanced.

“They’re pretty easy-going in Wyoming.  Just don’t steal their cows.”

“What’s the longest gap between towns?” I asked.

“Pfft.  Whole darn state’s a gap.”

Vic, who put us up at his B&B in Chappell, was less positive.

“There’s no roads but the freeway.  I dunno if you can walk on it.  No one’s gonna pick ya up for it anyway.  Lord knows they don’t pick anybody else up.  I’m speaking of the immigration problem.  You probably came through towns in Nebraska that have pretty much been taken over by illegal aliens from Mexico.  It’s the same in Wyoming.”

Cactus by Highway 30 in Nebraska

The West starts here: the first cactus of the walk

It wasn’t as if this was a part of America that people were queueing up to move to.  We left Ogallala in a pall of dust from a cement yard on the edge of town, which provided excellent cover for clouds of early-morning mosquitoes to alight on our legs to feed.  We coughed and slapped our way out of the Platte Valley and gradually climbed up onto plains of Mesopotamian featurelessness, a great desolation of wheat under a flat and empty firmament, like the world halfway through the Creation.  This was the Nebraska we’d feared before we walked across it, but mercifully, it only lasted for one long day.

Flat horizon of wheat in Nebraska

They told us Nebraska would be like this - fortunately, they were largely wrong

In a vast, beige field beside the road, five green combine harvesters moved in perfect parallel lines, vacuuming up the winter wheat and ejecting the stalks behind them in a trail of golden smoke.  Waiting by the side of the field was another line of six long trucks, and from time to time the combines paused to spurt their accumulated wheat into their waiting trailers.  It was farming on an industrial, almost interplanetary scale, the agricultural equivalent of ‘shock and awe’, and we were duly shocked and awed.

Combines harvesting wheat in Nebraska

Fifty acres of wheat, harvested in an hour. Jean de Florette this ain't.

The constant clatter of trucks hurrying in the harvest kept us awake during the night in Big Springs, where we stayed in the white clapboard Phelps Hotel.  Once a derelict ruin, it had been lovingly restored by a group of local volunteers, and was now managed by Randy and Connie, a couple of childhood sweethearts who had met in kindergarten in Big Springs, more than fifty years ago.  What had it been like growing up in such a small town?

“Our class this coming year for seniors is seven kids,” said Connie.  “Our class was a pretty large class for back then, we had, like, 26 or 27.  Randy and I are the only ones that got married.”

“We’d cruise the streets,” she went on, “go up to the swimming pool.  Go up to Julesburg when you were eighteen ‘cos you could drink beer.  Six tacos for a dollar.  There was a movie theatre in town and a drive-in out.  Ten bucks on a Saturday night, you could go have a good time.”

Dragonflies by the Platte River in Nebraska

Perching dragonflies near the Platte River

We asked if they’d ever had any problems with the local police.

“That was my dad,” said Randy.  “He had a heart attack, and they approached me about doing the job after him.  I said no.”

“His dad was the cop when the bank was robbed here,” added Connie.

On June 4th, 1965, Duane Earl Pope, a 22-year-old from Kansas, president of his high school class and a newly minted college graduate, drove into Big Springs to rob the Farmers State Bank.  He had worked in the town the year before during the harvest, and identified it as a soft target.  Randy remembered the events of the day vividly.

“He walked in.  There was Lois Ann Hothan, who was just recently widowed with two small children – Kim and Rick – and Andy Kjelgaard, and Glen Hendrickson, and Franklin Kjelgaard.  He told them all to lay down on the floor, and he shot ‘em once in the back, once in the head, and he killed Lois Ann, and he killed Andy, and he killed Glen, and Franklin Kjelgaard survived, and was paralysed, and is still in a wheelchair.”

Randy looked down at his lap and swallowed.

“I can remember we’d just gotten set down for lunch, and a farmer comes running in the door and said, ‘They robbed the bank, and he shot ‘em all’.  And I can remember my dad grabbed his gun and his holster, and his shotgun off the wall, and went swingin’ out.  Franklin, the guy that was shot… he had the strength to reach up and press the alarm.  I can remember that thing going off for hours.  No one knew how to shut it off.”

Pope had been caught a week later, and is still serving out a life sentence in jail, where one day soon he will die.  But it seemed that even 45 years later, Big Springs was still recovering.

“It was terrible.  It really was.  It is terrible.  ‘Cos everybody here knows everybody.  And, most of ‘em are somewhere or another, part-way or another, related.”

The Phelps Hotel in Big Springs, Nebraska

The Phelps Hotel - a godsend in a motel-less part of Nebraska

The robbery had a curious prequel: Big Springs had been the scene of a famous train robbery in 1877, when Sam Bass and five accomplices captured the town’s stationmaster, destroyed its telegraph, forced the Union Pacific express to halt and made off with $60,000 in gold coins from its hold.  Three of the robbers were apprehended and killed within a week, and Bass a year later, while the remaining two men were never heard from again.  It was a classic Wild West tale of bold and desperate criminals – the sort of thing, the people of Big Springs must have thought, that just didn’t happen any more.

Randy Norquist, cycling across America, in Nebraska

Randy Norquist - widowed last year - riding from LA to New York

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