arriving in Nebraska, Englishman Peter Thody had been
warned to expect "a whole lotta nuttin'." But
he and wife Carole discover plenty to write home about,
including beautiful scenery, the historic Lincoln Highway,
a don't-miss museum and a particularly aggressive species
of fly. Which just goes to show, you really do have to
find things out for yourself.
We're on U.S. Route 30, the Lincoln Highway,
in Nebraska -- cornfields to the left, the Union Pacific Railroad
to the right, the Platte River guiding us on our way. The
occasional farming community announces its presence from miles
away, a towering grain elevator or two standing high above
the town's gas station, store-cum-diner and assorted ramshackle
It couldn't be more American if we switched off
Rush Limbaugh and slipped Springsteen's dark masterpiece "Nebraska"
into the CD player. So we save Springsteen for the bleaker,
western portion of the state, where heavy storm clouds will
create a mood of such cinematic majesty that we half expect
to hear a voice from up above announcing, "Cut! That's
We'd been warned that this might be the least
inspiring leg of our western journey -- a landscape to be
endured rather than enjoyed -- but eastern Nebraska immediately
puts to rest any preconceptions of empty, barren lands. The
road is lined with fields of wheat, corn and sunflowers. The
sky's a perfect blue and the clouds are almost too perfect,
as if someone's lifted them straight out of a Simpsons cartoon.
Nebraska's beauty isn't as obvious as, say, Utah, but we fall
for it in a big way.
Keen to experience more, we fork right at Grand
Island and turn onto U.S. Highway 2, the Sandhills
Journey Scenic Byway, which reveals an emptier and even
more scenic countryside. Here the horizon is interrupted not
by grain silos but by the innumerable windmills that draw
water from the Ogallala Aquifer far below, transforming what
would otherwise be barren sand dunes into rich cattle country.
A quick sandwich at Emily's Soda Fountain in Broken
Bow -- so named because, yes, a broken bow was found here
-- and it's more of the same: green-grey grass, dark brown
rivers, blue skies and endless blacktop. It's for afternoons
like this that we put ourselves through Deep Vein Thrombosis-class
As we approach Thedford, two things strike us.
First, that we've just driven through the Nebraska
National Forest without having noticed any significant
increase in the tree count. And second, that if trees are
few and far between, then hotels are pretty much nonexistent.
We decide to head south for the certainty of a place to sleep
in North Platte.
We'll never know where some other turn in the
road might have led us, but this diversion to North Platte
proves one of our better decisions. Not only is our hotel
slap bang next door to Fort
Cody, which houses the 20,000 animated pieces of wood
that make up "Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show in Miniature,"
but the city is also home to a whole host of other attractions.
Setting out to explore them, we head north through the city,
over the railroad tracks, past the Veterans Motorcycle Club
(the world's least inviting-looking bar), across Highway 30
and soon find ourselves outside the gates to Cody Park and
the wonderful Cody Park Railroad Museum. It's probably a "man
thing" (although Carole does know more of the words to
"Casey Jones" than I do) but to be able to climb
aboard a 300-ton loco and actually touch those heavy levers
and handles is just brilliant.
North Platte's most famous resident was "Buffalo
Bill" Cody -- celebrated showman, army scout and buffalo
hunter -- and his former home is the centrepiece of the 25-acre Buffalo
Bill Ranch State Historical Park. This was to be our final
destination before hitting the road again, but a hundred yards
or so before the entrance, we're tempted instead by the Lincoln
County Historical Museum.
On entering, it doesn't look much more than a
30-minute museum -- some old cars, dusty dummies in uniforms,
kids' toys, fading photos and reconstructed shops. Even the World War
II Canteen, where local volunteers provided refreshment
to the 6 million servicemen and women who passed through North
Platte on U.S. military trains during the war, can be covered
in less than 10 minutes if you're keen to be somewhere else.
But open the doors at the back of the museum
and you know you're here for a good couple of hours. Because
here we have an entire settlers' village. There are barns,
cabins, a school, a church, a general store, a blacksmith's
shop and a barber shop -- all rescued from decay and restored
to their original condition. Wonderful.
Heading west on the Lincoln Highway once again,
we stop for lunch in Ogallala,
a city whose lawless reputation earned it the name "Gomorrah
of the Plains." This was the end of the cattle trail,
where Texas cowboys drove their herds to meet the Union Pacific
then let off some steam. During its heyday,
from 1875 to 1885, it was the scene of more violent deaths
than Dodge City.
For a view of a more civilised side of the city,
visit the nearby Mansion
on the Hill, built in 1887 by wealthy banker L.A. Brandhoefer
to impress his fiancée back in Chicago. Sadly, by the
time it was finished and Brandhoefer returned to collect his
wife-to-be, she'd lost interest, or patience, or both, and
had married someone else.
Another hour or so and we're entering Sidney,
home of the famous Cabela's hunting, fishing and outdoor equipment store. Anything you
could possibly want for hiking, climbing, camping, shooting,
trapping, fishing, surviving or simply dressing up like an
outdoors-kinda-guy, you'll get here. We go in for sandals.
We leave with jerky, trail snacks, dehydrated ice cream, postcards,
T-shirts and a grizzly bear fridge magnet.
Having enjoyed the scenic views of the trucks
parked outside Wal-Mart from the one remaining motel room
available at Exit 59 (it's Cabela's yard sale tomorrow and
all the other rooms are taken), we head north again in the
morning, this time on U.S. Highway 385. Our goal is Chimney
Rock, a natural spire that stands 325 feet above the prairie.
It was a famous landmark of the western migration, known to
every wagon-train pioneer as marking the end of the plains
section of the route and the beginning of the even more challenging
mountain passage. Today it is a designated National Historic
Site, maintained by the Nebraska State Historical Society.
There's an excellent visitor centre and, half
a mile up a dirt road, a good viewing point. If you stop in
at the visitor centre first, you'll (1) understand what you're
looking at and (2) see the warning signs about rattlesnakes
before marching blithely through the grassland at the viewing
point. I advise that you wear long trousers, too, otherwise
you'll be eaten alive by a particularly aggressive species
of fly and spend the next few days reassuring strangers that
you haven't contracted some bizarre form of lower-body chickenpox.
Continuing west under increasingly grey skies,
we pass by Scotts
Bluff National Monument, a huge lump of rock towering
800 feet above the North Platte River, and stop for lunch
just west of Morrill. Our humble concrete picnic area is also
the site of a historical marker for The
Great Smoke, said to be the greatest coming together of
American Indians ever to parley with the white man. Under
The Horse Creek Treaty of 1851, the government promised the
tribes $50,000 a year for the next 50 years in exchange for,
among other things, the free passage of emigrants heading
for Oregon, California and Utah. It comes as no great surprise
to learn that Congress later changed the terms to 10 years,
gave several tribes nothing at all, and that within just a
few years the Army and the Indians were killing one another
Time to lighten the mood I think, so in goes
Bruce's "Nebraska," down comes the rain and on go
the headlights. It's a dark and dramatic end to our time in
the Cornhusker State, a place that we'd been warned offered
"a whole lotta nuttin'."
Which just goes to show how wrong people can be.
Flooded roads, fancy hors d'oeuvres and a frustratingly elusive