Archive for the ‘Nebraska’ Category

Days 141-143/ July 17th-19th – Sidney, NE to Pine Bluffs, WY: The last town in Nebraska

July 19, 2010

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.

Union Pacific train under cliffs in western Nebraska

Western Nebraska: The Union Pacific rounds the bluffs

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.

Lincoln Highway in western Nebraska

The shadeless Lincoln Highway/ Highway 30 in western Nebraska

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.

Rainstorm in Kimball, Nebraska

A slight evening shower in Kimball, Nebraska

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.

Bushnell Bar in Bushnell, Nebraska

Bushnell, Nebraska: Sadly not long for this world

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.

Nebraska-Wyoming border on Highway 30

No expense has been spared to mark the Nebraska-Wyoming border

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.

Hiking boots with 2,000 miles of wear

Sally's boots - one new, one with 2,000 miles of wear


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

July 16, 2010

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

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

July 13, 2010

 “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

Day 134/ July 10th – North Platte, NE: Buffalo, soldiers

July 10, 2010

We came into North Platte over the South Platte River.  The two forks of the Platte come together here, and the town’s founders couldn’t decide whether to call it North or South Platte.  Eventually, the debate had to be settled by a coin toss, and North Platte it’s been ever since.  We were checked into the Travelers Inn for the night by an earnest young boy of ten, whose mother watched proudly as he confirmed our booking, checked our ID and handed us our key before asking for payment.

“That’ll be, uh, four hundred… eighty-one dollars,” he announced, doubtfully.  “Mom!”

North Platte had seen better days.  Along the brick-paved stretch of Dewey Street downtown, fully a third of the shops were closed down and vacant, and shoppers strolled under awnings past long lines of empty windows.  Across the road was the Pawnee Hotel, clearly once a smart railwayside lodging for business travellers, but now a semi-derelict ‘retirement hotel’, where a sad little group of elderly people squatted outside the lobby around a cluster of paper bags and Styrofoam coffee cups.

Pawnee Hotel and Fox Theater in North Platte

North Platte: Not the nation's liveliest town centre

It’s hard to believe today, but around the turn of the century, North Platte was the home of arguably the most famous person on the planet.  William Cody was born in Iowa in 1846, and by his 14th birthday had been a Wyoming wagon-train driver, a Colorado gold-miner and a Pony Express rider.  The following year, at the outbreak of the Civil War, he tried to join the Union forces, but was turned away for being too young.  In 1867, he was employed to procure buffalo meat for workers on the Kansas Pacific Railway, and earned the nickname ‘Buffalo Bill’ after killing 4,000 of the animals in eight months.  Following a subsequent career as a soldier and hunting-guide, he put on a show in 1882 here in North Platte called the ‘Old Glory Blowout’, widely considered to herald the birth of the modern rodeo.  The following year, he staged his first ‘Wild West’ show, and spent most of the next 25 years touring with it across America and Europe, becoming in the process an immensely wealthy global celebrity.

His home, Scout’s Rest Ranch, still stands on the north side of town, at the end of a long road of trailers and dilapidated bungalows.  It was a striking building, a green and white Italianate villa set on spreading lawns cut by a long, curving creek, and we spent a pleasant hour examining the décor inside – buffalo skins were a recurring motif – before taking a stroll through the grounds.  Behind a vast red barn, three buffalo were sitting listlessly in the shade of a large hay bale.  No doubt, had Bill been alive today, he would have enlisted them in a thrilling show – or, perhaps more likely, shot them.

Buffalo at Scout's Rest Ranch, North Platte, Nebraska

Buffalo demonstrating the agility and preservation instinct that served them so well in the 19th century

North Platte had had a good war.  Not content with giving the world Glenn Miller, it was also the scene of one of the most heart-warming episodes on America’s home front.  In December 1941, a rumour spread around the town that the men of the Nebraska National Guard would be passing through North Platte on their way to deployment overseas.  Expecting to see their sons and husbands, five hundred of the town’s womenfolk descended on its train station with food and treats, only to discover that the arriving troops were in fact from Kansas.

Unperturbed, they laid on a spread for the men anyway, and it dawned on them that, as a major rail junction near the centre of the country, nearly every American serviceman would pass through the town on their way overseas, and that as a result, they were in a unique position to offer them a final taste of small-town hospitality before they went off to war.  Over the next 4 ½ years, without a single day’s break, the North Platte Canteen, operating from an unused room in the Union Pacific railroad depot, fed an average of 4,000 servicemen each day.  Towns, church groups and neighbourhood clubs across Nebraska – some 55,000 volunteers in all – took it in turns to prepare and serve fried chicken, pies, sandwiches and drinks to the passing men for one day each, working unpaid and paying for the meals out of their own pockets.

North Platte Canteen mock-up in county museum

The North Platte Canteen exhibit in the county museum

By the end of the war, six million American servicemen – in Normandy and Italy, Guadalcanal and Iwo Jima – all had in common that they had briefly stopped and been welcomed with an extraordinary outpouring of affection in this tiny prairie town.  After the war, though, the depot fell into disuse.  Union Pacific deemed it surplus to their requirements, and, realising that it had great emotional importance to the residents of North Platte, quietly demolished it one night in 1973.  The townsfolk awoke to find a smoking ruin where the Canteen had once stood.

Trains in Bailey Yard, North Platte, Nebraska

Bailey Yard: The trains stay mainly on the plain

You might have thought that Union Pacific’s name would be mud locally, but it was still the town’s largest employer, and North Platte still a major rail junction, halfway between Chicago and Salt Lake City and between Denver and Omaha.  We walked west out of town past the hub of it all, Bailey Yard, the largest rail-yard in the world.  From the tower of its visitor centre (‘Welcome to Bailey Yard – More Trains Than You Can Keep Track Of!’) we looked out across an area the size of a large airport, filled with unending lines of freight wagons being shunted between more than 300 parallel lines of track.  It was a vastly impressive spectacle, but it was hard not to imagine a Union Pacific demolition crew forty years ago, climbing into their trucks here in the middle of the night, driving into town to knock down an old depot.

Trains outside North Platte, Nebraska

North Platte: Train-spotter's paradise

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

July 9, 2010

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

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

July 6, 2010

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

Days 125-127/ July 1st-3rd – Grand Island, NE to Kearney, NE: The Lincoln Highway

July 3, 2010

“Nebraska has three cities: Omaha and its suburbs, with over half a million people; Lincoln, with a little over two hundred thousand; and Grand Island, with about fifty thousand…  The rest of the state is a vast grassy preserve set aside for those of us who like to be left alone.” – Ted Kooser, Local Wonders: Seasons in the Bohemian Alps

Freight train passing grain elevator in Nebraska

Two icons of southern Nebraska: Grain elevators and freight trains

We left the Wood River Motel, a peeling motor court on a deserted and dusty stretch of interstate, just after six.  A man was emerging from the single car parked in the dirt yard, and had evidently spent the night in it.  In the back seat lay a second man, his face and nose crushed against the window in a sweaty cube of duvet.  The first man smiled at us as we walked past.

“Morning!” he said, and lit a cigarette.  “Helluva night.”

The local morning news led on the prices being paid at the elevators in Kearney, Hastings and Grand Island for corn and soy-beans.  We walked for ten dead straight miles along Burmood Road through the fields that produced them, a pared-down, treeless landscape of head-high corn that finished in sharp lines at the side of the highway.  It passed through Alda, Shelton and Gibbon, a series of tidy little towns of neat bungalows with a basketball net at the top of every drive.

Truck carrying house on Highway 30

It's not uncommon to see people literally 'moving house' in America

By the side of the highway a few miles outside Kearney, a brown sign announced that we were now on the former route of the Oregon, California and Mormon Trails and the Pony Express.  As we reflected on this unique convergence of the great pioneer routes across the continent, a gust of wind spattered us with pesticide from a spraying-frame in a nearby field.  All of these routes follow the shallow valley of the Platte River, which we had crossed again on our way through Grand Island (which was neither grand, nor an island).  It was much reduced from the swollen monster it had been a week ago and 150 miles east, the pale bottom clearly visible between streaks of sandbars and beached, bleached logs.

The Platte River at Grand Island

The fathomless depths of the Platte River

Just after we left Grand Island, we joined yet another great transcontinental route, the Lincoln Highway, the first paved road across America, built in 1913, at a time when more than 90% of roads in the country were dirt.  It was known as the ‘Main Street Across America’, and ran between Times Square in New York and Lincoln Park in San Francisco.  The first motorists to drive it took between 20 and 30 days to travel from coast to coast; early travel guides recommended camping equipment west of Omaha.  It’s now been subsumed beneath other, more modern roads, especially Highway 30, which follows its route from Philadelphia to Wyoming, and which we now followed west into Kearney alongside the Union Pacific railway line.

Union Pacific train driver in Nebraska

Train drivers: Surprisingly friendly (or bored)

After a week of walking beside the freight trains on this line, we’ve become very familiar with the shipping companies – Hapag-Lloyd, ‘K’-Line, Evergreen, Triton – whose colourful containers trundle past us several dozen times a day.  This was the busiest stretch of the Union Pacific line we’d yet seen, with mile-long trains at least every ten minutes.  We exchanged waves with the drivers, who often gave us a sympathetic double-hoot as they passed by.  Just before Kearney, the driver of a stationary train hailed us across the thirty yards of grass that separated the railway from our highway.

“Hey!  You guys need a drink?”  And a cold bottle of water arced through the air and landed in the grass beside us.

Dusty foot after hiking

Nebraska: Quite a dusty state

Like a lot of towns along this stretch of our walk, Kearney began life as an outpost on the Oregon Trail in the 1840s – Fort Kearny (sic) – and later became a relay station for the Pony Express.  It provided protection from Indian attacks for the crews building the transcontinental railroad, and makes an appearance in the novel Around the World in Eighty Days when a train stops here to seek protection from just such an attack.  But almost all of this history had been subsumed by a modern town of sprawling suburbs and commercial strips, including the worst motel we’d yet experienced (and this, let me assure you, is a crowded field).  The Western Motel was a pale blue fleapit at the edge of town, offering dingy, cardboard rooms rank with the smell of death and old skin and an air-conditioning unit that made no impression on the stifling heat despite making a noise like a taxiing airliner.

To take our minds off it, we thought back to the man who had pulled up alongside us just outside town, in a minivan scoured all over with salt damage.

“How far are you guys walking?”

“We’re walking across America.”  He paused, then gave us an enormous, toothy grin.

“Well, you’re halfway!”

Fireworks stall in Nebraska

Fireworks stalls are everywhere as the Fourth of July approaches

Days 121-124/ June 27th-30th – Seward, NE to Grand Island, NE: Uppity town

June 30, 2010

‘It is just four months today since we left our dear home and friends, perhaps forever, and have since been leading this wild, wandering gypsy life.  Oh, when will the day arrive when we can say this long journey is over?’ – Harriet Ward, California Trail diary, 1853

Watering-frames in soy-fields in Nebraska

Those soy-beans won't water themselves

We left the town of York yesterday morning and lunched in Hampton – passing en route signs for Hastings and Norfolk – but there’s little chance of confusing eastern Nebraska with England.  It’s a landscape of vast plains of corn and soy-beans, criss-crossed with long, spidery watering-frames that creak their way slowly across the fields, occasionally watering us too when we pass downwind of them.  The only features we can use to gauge our progress through this impassively unchanging scenery are the small clusters of trees, grain elevators and water-towers gathered around small towns, but even these can be deceptive: several times we’ve agreed to take our next break at a town clearly two miles away, only to limp into it, slightly baffled, six miles later.

Mosquito bites on leg

Sally shows off the morning's crop of mosquito bites

Living in these tiny little towns, huddled together under a vast bowl of sky and on the edge of limitless fields of waving corn, it would be easy to develop agoraphobia.  In the diner at Hampton, where we stopped for lunch, our waitress Sara seemed to have succumbed.  She was a skinny, lank-haired woman of about forty, who lived in Aurora and nurtured a morbid fear of almost every other town in eastern Nebraska.

“York’s gettin’ kinda rough.  Drugs, crime.  It has a little bit of violence, but it’s not murders and stuff.  That’s starting to happen in Grand Island.  That’s not a really nice town either.  Crime’s pretty high there, a lotta Hispanics, it’s way rougher than these little towns.  I don’t know for sure the statistics, but I’d say it’s probably half Hispanic.”

In virtually every town we’d passed through on our walk, from the east coast to the Midwest, there had been significant Hispanic populations, but Nebraska was the first place where we encountered open antipathy towards them.  We happened to be in the state during the week in which the nearby town of Fremont had hit the national headlines, passing a law which forbade businesses to hire illegal immigrants or landlords to rent houses to them.  Sara was an equal opportunity xenophobe, though, and didn’t confine her misgivings to towns in Nebraska.

“I’ve lived a really sheltered life.  I went up to Aurora, Colorado to work… it was a culture shock to me.  It was the first time I’d ever seen men with boobs, twenty-dollar hookers, bums at the stop-lights.  I absolutely hated it.  When I drove back over the Nebraska border, I burst into tears.”

Road into Hampton, Nebraska

Hampton: Another teeming Nebraska metropolis

We got back on the road with a final warning from Sara about her own home town (also, confusingly, called Aurora).

“Watch out for the police in Aurora.  They might think you’re bums passing through or something.  They’re kinda picky about that kinda stuff.  A lotta times they’ll give ‘em rides to the county line.  Aurora’s kind of a uppity town.”

Not twenty minutes later, as we walked out of Hampton beside the railway track, we saw a figure walking towards us in the distance; even through the shimmering heat-haze we could make out the unmistakeable bulge of a backpack.  This had only happened a couple of times before on our walk, and each time, as now, I immediately began imagining a memorable Stanley-and-Livingstone encounter, two long transcontinental walks converging by chance on a dusty stretch of Nebraskan highway.  But the figure turned out to be a vagrant – one of Sara’s ‘bums’ – a heavily-bearded young man in filthy jeans hitching to Lincoln.

“I’m from the West coast,” he told us, vaguely, during an awkward thirty-second conversation.  “I’m homeless and don’t have a job, and I got no better way to live.  I probably won’t stay in Lincoln long either.”

Corn-fields in eastern Nebraska

A rare elevated view over the corn-fields of Nebraska

We walked on from elevator to elevator, next to freight trains that rolled past them at a crawl while golden jets of corn were poured into their wagons from chutes.  As we approached the town of Bradshaw, we began to be passed by small clusters of cyclists – at first sleek young men whirring by in twos and threes, then middle-aged couples wheezing past by the dozen.  A semi-circle of cars and folding tables in town announced that this was NUMB, the Nebraska United Methodist Bikeride for hunger, held every year over a different 5-day, 300-mile course in Nebraska.  Judging by their waistlines, hunger was something that many of the participants weren’t terribly familiar with, but the organisers at this refuelling station cooed over us, and generously allowed us to top up our bottles from their cold-water canteen.

“Look how slim you are!”

“You should consider bikes, y’know!  Ha!”

NUMB bike riders in Bradshaw, Nebraska

Sally with a rapt audience of charity bike-riders in Bradshaw

We took a day off in Aurora, a pleasant little suburban grid of sprinklers and John Deere dealerships, where a sign at the entrance to town announced ‘Ratzlaff’s Soy Bean Mulch Sold Here’.  Its streets were lettered from A to Q north to south and numbered from 1st to 22nd east to west, as though the townsfolk had never got around to giving them actual names.  We were lucky to be here on a perfect summer’s day, the schoolkids splashing around in the public pool at Streeter Park, because Aurora was prone to very extreme weather.  Last year at about this time, a tornado had struck the town, strong enough to overturn train wagons, and in 2003, the largest hailstone ever recorded, a monster 7 inches in diameter, had fallen here.  We pitied the luckless person whose job it had been to run out and retrieve it.

Heeding Sara’s words, we kept a lookout for the Aurora police in the hopes of a free ride to the county line, but they never appeared, and so we had no choice the next morning but to set out again, on foot, towards the next elevator on the horizon.

Junkyard sign in York, Nebraska

The friendliness of eastern Nebraska is legendary

Days 116-120/ June 22nd-26th – Lincoln, NE to Seward, NE: The Battle of Midway

June 26, 2010

At half-past five, at the end of a long day’s walk out of Lincoln, the electronic sign at the Shell station opposite our motel read 105 degrees.  For those of you who like to measure suffering in metric units, that’s 40 degrees C.  We’d spent most of the last few days in eastern Nebraska walking in truly stunning heat.  At six o’clock in the morning, when we usually set out, it was already hot and muggy, and by seven, the sweat was dripping down our necks.  Heat of this magnitude precludes all complex thought, and we trudged through the suburbs of Lincoln and out into the corn-fields in a dull, bovine stupor.  Whenever I looked down, my glasses slid down the slick slope of my nose.  Our bottles of juice were as warm as tea, and when occasionally we paused to take photos, the camera was almost too hot to hold.

Temperature sign at petrol station, Lincoln, Nebraska

105 degrees - officially too hot to think

Lincoln had the recovering, evacuated feel of a college town during the holidays, with the windows of kebab shops, juice bars, bookstores and pubs covered with peeling flyers advertising gigs, three weeks ago, by the Waybacks and the Toasted Ponies.  It’s home to the University of Nebraska, and, more specifically, to its football team, the Cornhuskers.  UN football is a de facto local religion in Nebraska, running Christianity a pretty close second and probably superseding it on game days, when Memorial Stadium, with a capacity of 85,000, becomes effectively the third-largest city in the state.  Even if had been football season, we’d have had no hope of getting a ticket – the team has sold out every game it’s played since 1962.  The University had just announced that it was moving from the Big Twelve athletic conference to the Big Ten, an event of equal moment for Nebraska as Italy’s abandonment of the Axis in 1943 was for World War 2, and for which the Omaha World-Herald had cleared its first six pages.

Inside Memorial Stadium in Lincoln

The holiest site of the Nebraskan faith

We dutifully paid a visit to the state capitol building, an arresting limestone tower, like the top third of a Manhattan skyscraper, topped by a golden dome supporting a statue – appropriately enough, of a man sowing seeds.  It’s the third tallest building in Nebraska, and as our early experience of the state suggested strongly that numbers 1 and 2 would be grain elevators, we took the opportunity to go up to the top and see what the state looked like.  Inside, the capitol was like a Byzantine church, with a dark nave supported by green and red marble columns, lined with mosaics and hung with heavy brass lanterns.  We rode up the tower in a splendidly retro lift, all walnut panelling and brass sliding doors, and barely big enough for the two of us with our backpacks.  From the top, Nebraska looked appallingly flat, with the line of the horizon twenty miles away broken only by the aforementioned elevators and dark clusters of trees that marked the location of small towns.

View from Nebraska state capitol in Lincoln

Looking west from the Nebraska State Capitol - no Rockies yet

We left Lincoln through a neighbourhood of smart lofts surrounding the old Lincoln station.  The California Zephyr, one of America’s last long-distance train services, which runs from Chicago to San Francisco, was just pulling into town.  We’ve been struck by the incredible US national rail network on our walk – there’s barely been a day when we haven’t heard the horn of a train or walked alongside railway tracks – but long-distance passenger services were largely phased out by the 1970s, and today virtually all of the network away from the coasts is used for freight.  It’s not clear how this country will ever wean itself off its dependence on the automobile, but sometimes it seems that it could do worse than dust off its old stations and run a few commuter trains between big cities.

We came out into open corn-fields again along Holdrege Street, a gravel road that rose and fell over the gently undulating hills that 19th-century Czech immigrants waggishly nicknamed the Bohemian Alps.  ‘Nebraska isn’t flat but slightly tilted,’ one celebrated local writer has observed, ‘like a long church-basement table with the legs on one end not perfectly snapped in place.’  He was quite right, and each day out of Lincoln we walked up long, steady inclines so subtle that we would never have noticed them were it not for the heat – the first shallow slopes of the Rockies.

Resting on the roadside in the Bohemian Alps

Resting out of the sun in the Bohemian Alps

Seward was the nicest small town we’d seen for many weeks.  We came into it through the Pawnee Lake Recreation Area, where streams of pick-ups towing small boats were arriving for something called ‘Carp-o-Rama’.  It was built around a lovely grassy square with a fine little red-domed courthouse at its centre, and was home to a small Lutheran college that seemed to be enough to keep the small businesses lining the square – a cinema, bakery, gift shop, deli and bookstore among them – thriving, rather than boarded up and derelict as we’ve seen in so many other towns of this size.  Whatever its other charms, Seward was also, for us, precisely the halfway point on our walk across America, with roughly 1,700 miles of highways, roads and tracks separating it from both Jamestown and San Francisco.  And that – despite the sign outside the Cattle National Bank telling us that it was 95 degrees at seven in the evening – felt like real progress.

Seward courthouse in Nebraska

Seward courthouse, and some very welcome shade

Days 113-115/ June 19th-21st – Omaha, NE to Lincoln, NE: Flat water

June 21, 2010

‘Nebraska is like a 75,000-square-mile bare patch.’ – Bill Bryson, The Lost Continent

“Be careful of tornadoes in Nebraska.  And fake cops.” – Concerned neighbours, New Hampshire

“Nebraska?  Wyoming?  Ugh!  It’s like going through the Outback.  Gosh, why would ya?” – Buzz Carloftis, Mount Vernon, Kentucky

“Be careful in Omaha.  It’s not a real safe place.” – Darryl, St. Joseph, Missouri

‘Nebraska must be the most unexciting of all the states.’ – Bill Bryson, The Lost Continent

Nebraska highway signs

Nebraska: Not terribly popular with the rest of America

It’s fair to say that other Americans don’t think much of Nebraska.  We usually see several out-of-state licence plates in the car parks of our motels as we leave in the morning (we lead a full life on the road, as you can tell), but during our first few days in Nebraska we noticed that there didn’t seem to be any, as though people from other states were reluctant even to spend a night here.

Early pioneers seem to have felt the same way; French-Canadian trappers passed through Nebraska in the 18th century, and Lewis & Clark skimmed its eastern edge, but even after the creation of the Nebraska Territory in 1854 it struggled to attract settlers – perhaps because the almost total absence of trees meant that they had to live in sod houses.  It wasn’t until the Homestead Act of 1862, which offered 160 acres of land to anyone who would work it for five years, that Nebraska at last began to fill up.  Even today, there are less than two million people in the state, and two-thirds of those live within 50 miles of Omaha, so that the rest of Nebraska is thinly populated indeed: 90% of its towns have less than 3,000 people.

I-80 west of Omaha, Nebraska

Right lanes: Entering Nebraska; Left lanes: Leaving Nebraska

We’ve learned that if you have to leave a large city on foot, it’s best to do it early on a weekend, and so, driven out by eye-watering hotel prices, we left Omaha at six on Saturday morning.  As it happened, this may well have been the best time to see its western outskirts.  Just beyond the caged walkway over I-480, we passed Sheri’s Show Club (‘Live Entertainment; Girls Girls Girls; Dancers Start at 2pm’).  Next door to the club was Kohll’s Home Oxygen and Medical Equipment, handily located in case Sheri’s girls proved too much for her clients to bear.  Beside a pest control company and janitorial supplies store were two seedy bars, Bud Olson’s and Alderman’s.  America’s bars seem never really to have recovered from the need to lay low during Prohibition; to this day, most of them are on the edge of towns in unobtrusive, windowless brick buildings that resemble disused public lavatories.  One of the patrons of Bud’s or Alderman’s had kicked in the door of a beauty salon on the corner overnight, and glass was scattered all over the floor inside.

Help wanted sign - drug testing

Probably a good idea not to smile too much at the interview

We were rained on more or less solidly all day on Sunday, from Chalco to Greenwood, from light drizzle to tropical downpours, so we spent the day taking an impromptu tour of the industrial estates of south-western Omaha, sheltering in loading bays, office vestibules and abandoned warehouses.  At least the rain seemed to be good for the corn.  Six weeks ago, in Illinois, it had been ankle-high; now it was well above our heads.

Nebraska is the only ‘triply-landlocked’ state in America, meaning that it has no coastline, none of the states that border it have a coastline, and none of the states that border them have a coastline.  In short, it’s a very long way from the ocean.  So the large white lighthouse that greeted us on the side of the road near Ashland was a startling sight.  This was Linoma Beach (‘Linoma’ being a portmanteau of Lincoln and Omaha), on the banks of the Platte River, which before the war had been one of the most popular tourist destinations in Nebraska.   Now it was a rather forlorn RV and caravan park, with a line of brown portaloos on the rain-soaked beach and an optimistic line of sandbags piled up along the banks of the rising Platte River.

Linoma Lighthouse by the Platte River, Nebraska

Perhaps the furthest lighthouse from the sea in the world

The Platte is, after the Ohio, the Mississippi and the Missouri, the last of the four great rivers on our walk, and much the least famous.  It rises in the Rockies and runs across most of Nebraska before falling into the Missouri near Omaha; its broad, shallow valley determined the route of the early stages of the Oregon and Mormon Trails, the Pony Express, the Union Pacific railroad and, more recently, the Lincoln Highway and I-80.  It was discovered very early, in 1714, by the French adventurer Etienne de Veniard, who called it the ‘Nebraskier’, an Otoe Indian word meaning ‘flat water’, whence the state gets its name.  Early pioneers described it as ‘too thick to drink, too thin to plough’ and ‘a mile wide at the mouth, but only six inches deep’, and Bill Bryson described it, only half-jokingly, as a river you could push a shopping trolley across.

Sally by the Platte River, Nebraska

Sally stares into the maelstrom of the Platte River

Not today.  After days of heavy rain, the Platte was a swollen, eddying torrent, two hundred yards wide and thick with branches and logs it had swept away further upstream.  It would have been death to fall in, and we picked our way carefully alongside the knee-high wall of the causeway across it and into Ashland.  Ashland lacked a certain refinement; it had once thrived from its position on a fork of the Oregon Trail, but now it was home only to the Bar & Bait Saloon, ‘Paris on the Prairie’ – a boutique and spa whose phone number was the faintly off-putting 944-SKIN – and, just outside town, the Round the Bend Steakhouse, ‘Home of the Testicle Festival’.  We hastened west.