November 14, 2013


A friend posted this on Facebook. It’s a sweet little travel article dealing with the problem of expectations. It poses the hypothesis that if we travel with “no expectations”, especially when we travel to places widely felt to be “dull”, we will often be surprised by joyful little discoveries. So, be open-minded and make the most of your travel destination, wherever it might be. Sounds good.
So guess which state they feature not only in their opening visual, but all through the article, as apparently the worst-possible travel destination: Nebraska.
Ohhh, NeBRASka. Ha ha ha. Of COURSE. How many people have I spoken with over the decades who moan about how long it seems to take to drive across the endless expanse of that wasteland. “Thank GOD we FLEW to Denver.” Etc. etc. etc.
This may seem like a change of subject, but let me just say that we don’t allow Anna to use the word “boring” in our home. Being bored is a decision, not a fait accompli. And in the case of Nebraska, every time I hear someone say how booooring it is, I think they’re advertising their ignorance. Here’s why.

With a cabin in Colorado, we travel back and forth across Nebraska by car sometimes up to three times a year, and I’ve made the trip for more than forty years now.

Nebraska Road Map

Nebraska Road Map (click twice on this map for larger version)

In the early 1980s, well before I began my career as a history teacher, for whatever reason I became intrigued with the Oregon Trail (well before the video game).


I was fascinated primarily by what motivated American men (the primary decision-makers of that era) to be so dissatisfied with their existing life that they would risk their lives and the lives of their families to leave all behind and travel the better part of 1500 miles for three months in a covered wagon across desolate and dangerous terrain to get to a place they at best had heard about from a travel brochure. After a lot of reading on the subject, I’m still not sure I know.

I was equally intrigued by the journey itself, and found myself joining the fledgling Oregon-California Trails Association, and reading Oregon Trail journals (there are many of them – these pioneers had the time to write, and they were recording the greatest adventure of their lives).

Main route of the Oregon Trail through Nebraska

Main route of the Oregon Trail through Nebraska

The best book on the subject (at least at the time) was The Oregon Trail Revisited, by Gregory Franzwa, probably THE best OT (Oregon Trail) historian at the time. I fell in love with this book, as it told the history of the trail in the first part of the book (back to the first mountain men to learn from the Natives that there was a way to get across the Rockies without climbing the Rockies, to Marcus and Narcissus Whitman, and so on) and in the second part laid out state-by-state, county-by-county, and turn-by-turn directions of how to find the trail today. I was hooked. This book led me to read other books about our great westward migration. I would single out Bernard DeVoto’s fabulous, Across the Wide Missouri as perhaps the most entertaining and informative of them all. Merrill Mattes’ The Great Platte River Road, and Irene Paden’s In the Wake of the Prairie Schooner are also excellent. Ms. Paden and her family re-traced every mile of the trail in the 1940s. I’ll never forget her description of being at Register Cliff in eastern Wyoming near Guernsey, a sandstone wall covered with the carved names of pioneers and the date of their passing by.

Register Cliff

Register Cliff

As she was kneeling in the weeds to read names near the bottom of the wall, she came across a metal rod, quickly realizing that its “scraper end” fit the exact width of the graffiti carved above it in the 1850s. There lay the very tool used 90 years before, left for others who followed to use… and eventually, for Ms. Paden to find.
I purchased (and still own) every Nebraska county survey map that the trail goes through. When Interstate 80 crosses the Blue River in eastern Nebraska, I know that’s the river that pioneers “jumping off” from Kansas City (Westport) followed up to its confluence with the Platte. It’s really just a ditch, but there is a tiny sign that says “Blue River”. I look for it every time. I’m not kidding – every time.

In the 1980s, Rose and I and the girls began exploring the trail (okay, so maybe the primary decision was still made by the man) as we worked our way west on summer vacations. We camped a number of times on Mormon Island near Grand Island, pitching our tent on the bank of the Platte, listening to the June breeze in the cottonwoods overhead, cottonwoods that lined that river in the 1850s. It didn’t take much imagination, especially after dark, for us to see our tent in the middle of a group of pioneer tents, wagons just over to the side there, oxen tearing off grass and chewing their cud. We took a picture of Ruth and Alyce standing on dried cow patties on Ivor Dilke’s ranch in Brule, Nebraska, where ruts are still visible as the wagons for the first time forded the North Platte River to climb over California Hill and lumber on toward Scott’s Bluff, Ft. Laramie and South Pass. I’ve sat on the south bank of the river there in Brule and dangled my legs in the water at the spot where the wagons would have by necessity forded that stream. I chose not to try to ford it myself because I didn’t know where sand turned to quicksand, and where six inches changed to six feet. Imagine the risk in 1850 – no AAA to speed-dial on your cell phone.

I-80 crosses the Platte between Omaha and Lincoln. But it’s not until Grand Island that the “Great Platte River Road” really begins. This is where the streams of Mormons on the north bank headed to Salt Lake and streams of “Gentiles” on the south bank headed to Oregon or California merged (just after the Blue joins the Platte, see) and began to travel in earnest by the thousands. Ft. Kearny is understood in light of the protection from Indians those travelers needed (or thought they needed), as is Cozad, which straddles the 100th meridian, “where the East meets the West”. Its founder, John Cozad, thought that location would make it a significant attraction. He was wrong. But west of Cozad, the climate changes, primarily due to the subtle elevation change as you begin to climb the million-year erosion field of the eastern slope of the Rockies. I love Cozad – it’s where The West begins.

Nebraska gains in elevation as you move west. In the east is corn and soy country. By the time you cross the state you're in dry ranch country.

Nebraska gains in elevation as you move west. In the east is corn and soy country. By the time you cross the state you’re in dry ranch country.

Gothenberg boasts a real Pony Express station in the heart of town. And it is real, just not on its original location. For that you have to go west of town a ways to find the tumble-down ruins of a station still on its original foundation. Gothenberg doesn’t advertise that one because it wouldn’t bring people into town, would it?
There’s more. Larry McMurtry’s heralded Lonesome Dove explained the immense importance of the city of Ogallala, Nebraska to the cowboy era. Every time we approach that city from the east I “look” for Clara’s little ranch.

The Lincoln Highway, America’s first coast-to-coast paved roadway, runs right along the railroad tracks. Here’s a few pictures I took this summer of a restored Lincoln Highway motel, albeit in Wyoming, from the early days of automotive travel.

Black and Orange Cabins You park your car in the garage next to your room

Black and Orange Cabins
You park your car in the garage next to your room

Your room, sir.

Your room, sir.

Lincoln Highway milepost

Lincoln Highway milepost

Every time you see a long freight train stretched out with you on the north side of I-80 you’re looking at the mainline of the original transcontinental railroad. Stephen Ambrose’s lousy (sorry, but it was) book on the birth of this railroad, Nothing Like it in the World, was hard to plow through, but ultimately explained a lot. His much-better book, Undaunted Courage, describes in amazing detail the Lewis and Clark expedition, which of course went up and then back down the Missouri River which forms Nebraska’s eastern border. So every time we “cross the wide Missouri” from Iowa into Missouri I look down at that water and squint to see the Corps of Discovery poling upstream along the banks. (The squinting helps eliminate the casinos that line the banks now.)

Lewis and Clark would weep

Lewis and Clark would weep

For the Oregon Trail pioneers, crossing that river was known as “jumping off”, because that’s what you were doing: leaving the United States of America fo

You'll find Harrah's right around that next bend there.

You’ll find Harrah’s right around that next bend there.

r the great unknown of the American West. As soon as you cross that river you are greeted by the shadows of the two huge locomotives in Kenefick Park that remind you you’re at the start point of the transcontinental railroad.

Kenefick Park, Omaha

Kenefick Park, Omaha

One of those locomotives is a Big Boy and the other is a UP “Centennial” (The Centennial was made at the GE Electromotive Works on 47th St. in McCook, Il. I recognize the building in some of the background shots on the video link. Electromotive has been gone for a good twenty years.) Both are the most powerful locomotives of their generation and when you stand next to them you get just how big and powerful and important this industry was to the nation. You also get a sense of just how much time, energy and money can go into something, and how very quickly it can become history.

So think about this. The Platte River, the Pony Express, the first telegraph lines, the transcontinental railroad, the Lincoln Highway and I-80 interweave themselves virtually all the way across the state of Nebraska. You’re not just traveling on an interstate; you’re traveling on a highway system that’s been in place for human migration and communication for thousands of years. And you’re traveling the history of our nation. In Nebraska.

I know. Boooorrriiinggg.


About robertwallacegraham

Retired high school teacher, curmudgeon, soccer coach, bicyclist, etc. etc.
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