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Thody's American Adventures

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Nebraska: God Bless the Amber Waves of Grain

by Peter Thody

Before 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.

Lincoln Highway
Peter Thody
The Lincoln Highway, America's first transcontinental road, originally ran nearly 3400 miles from New York to San Francisco. While many sections have been re-routed, renamed and sometimes forgotten, Nebraska boasts many miles of the original route.

Peter Thody
A grain elevator by the side of the railroad, a constant sight along the length of the Lincoln Highway as it makes it way across Nebraska.

Peter Thody
The winding rivers, rolling hills and stunning scenery of the Sandhills Journey Scenic Byway, described as "one of America's 10 most beautiful highways." An almost complete lack of light pollution makes this one of the USA's largest remaining "dark spots."

Fort Cody
Peter Thody
Fort Cody, North Platte, home of "Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show in Miniature," an impressive taxidermy collection (complete with two-headed calf) and an outstanding book department.

Cody Park Railroad
Carole Thody
A 6922 Union Pacific loco from the late 1960s. As well as this walk-on exhibit, the railroad museum at Cody Park features a restored ticket office, various carriages and a Challenger 3977, one of the largest locomotives ever built. And it's all free.

Lincoln County Museum
Peter Thody
Carole Thody outside the barber shop on the main street of the Western Heritage Village at Lincoln County Historical Museum, North Platte, also home to the famous World War II canteen.

Carole Thody
One of the replica stores that make up Ogallala's famed Front Street. Throughout the summer months, there's a nightly shootout followed by music and dance in the Crystal Palace Saloon.

Chimney Rock
Peter Thody
Chimney Rock, a natural landmark signalling the end of the plains section of the Oregon Trail, the Mormon Trail, the California Trail and the Pony Express route. Its dependable spring made it a good spot for camping; the rattlesnakes and biting flies will have been less welcome.

Highway 26
Peter Thody
A beat-up pick-up outside a run-down bar on Highway 26 in Smalltown, Nebraska; all it lacks is a sleepy dog in the back. Highway 26 runs from Ogallala NE to Seaside OR, much of it following the route of the Oregon Trail.

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 sheds.

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 a wrap."

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 trans-Atlantic travel.

Update August 2023: Emily's Soda Fountain is no longer operating

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 Railroad … 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 again.

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.

Peter Thody
(Links updated 8/1/23)

Next> Wyoming: Flooded roads, fancy hors d'oeuvres and a frustratingly elusive tree


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