We must have been in the West now, we decided, because only in the West could it take more than an hour to walk across a town of 6,000 people. Sidney sprawled over a plain north of I-80, and we walked out of it in an early morning fog that cut visibility to thirty yards and changed the familiar Union Pacific into a hooting, rattling ghost train that passed by unseen in the murk.
The final fifty miles of Nebraska resembled one vast meadow, tilted down towards us like a draughtsman’s table. There was a line of low, grassy bluffs along the northern horizon, outriders of the proper mountains still to come. The only trees were clustered around a few small towns along the road – Potter, Dix and Kimball – and between them there was not a scrap of shade. Along one scorching ten-mile stretch, the only shelter we could find was in the glamorous shadow of a concrete water treatment bunker.
Kimball lay at the far end of a five-mile-long welcome mat of wheat. It’s known as the ‘Oil Capital of Nebraska’, which is a bit like being crowned the Bikini Capital of Alaska, though the only evidence of it was three nodding donkeys rusting in the fields just outside town. During the Cold War, nuclear missile silos were built around the town, and although they’ve long since been removed, the children’s playground in Gotte Park is graced to this day by the top section of an obsolete ICBM. Enjoy playtime, kids!
Kimball was originally founded as a railway stop called Antelopeville, and as we approached town, we surprised one in a culvert not twenty yards away from us. It dashed away in panic, leapt over the fence separating us from the interstate in a single bound and then sprang across it in front of several rather surprised truckers.
We were starting to tire of Nebraska, and its last town before the Wyoming border did nothing to change our minds. Bushnell was a ramshackle clutter of barns and bungalows, spread out along a curve in the railway line. Once, there had been enough optimism here to build four grain elevators, running in a line beside the tracks from one end of town to the other, but they were abandoned now, patched and darned with squares of board and metal sheeting that were themselves peeling away. Much of the rest of Bushnell was like this; almost every car rusting, almost every garden overgrown, almost every window boarded up. The town’s two schools had closed in the Eighties, quickly followed by the elevators and the petrol station. There were no people on the streets, and no sounds except a distant cockerel and an occasional yapping dog.
Being in Bushnell felt like loitering at the scene of a bad accident, so we only rested briefly in the shade of the town post office before hurrying on towards Wyoming. A few miles from the border, we reached the 2,000-mile mark on our walk, and decided to celebrate by leaving Nebraska. In the distance, rising above a small town at the edge of the interstate, we could see a line of high, pine-covered bluffs.
“That’ll be Pine Bluffs,” said Sally, sagely.
The central fact of Wyoming is its emptiness. Just over half a million people – roughly the population of Tucson, Arizona – live in an area of just under 100,000 square miles – roughly two-thirds the size of California. Or, to put it in British terms, it has the population of Bristol living in area twice the size of England. The size and shape of Wyoming – one of only two perfectly rectangular states – is no accident. It’s perhaps the clearest embodiment of a far-sighted Congressional policy, which dictated that the states that were gradually formed out of the massive western territories America had obtained from France, Britain and Mexico by 1850 should be of roughly equal size. The Rocky Mountain states, Congress decreed – including Colorado and Montana – would be 4 degrees of latitude high, while a host of other western states – including Colorado, Washington, Oregon and the Dakotas – would be 7 degrees of longitude wide. And so Wyoming is both.
There was no mighty river to mark the state border this time, only an abandoned petrol station, slowly settling into the long grass. Just behind us, a sign reading ‘Nebraska: The Good Life’ had been bullet-riddled to the point of near-illegibility, no doubt by mischevious Wyomingites from Pine Bluffs. We paused to celebrate our completion of 460 miles across Nebraska, and stepped into Wyoming – where a small sign announced that we now had 405 miles to walk to reach its border with Utah. You don’t get long to savour triumphs when you’re walking across America.