Day 3 of a virtual journey
After a leisurely breakfast next morning , we set out for Lincoln about 60 miles from Omaha . It is both the state capital and home to the University of Nebraska but few out -of staters know that it wasn’t always called Lincoln. Originally named Lancaster, it was re-named Lincoln in 1867 in honor of the recently assassinated President. Typical of towns in middle America, it has but one distinguishing feature : the central tower of the state capitol building which juts almost 400 feet into the sky. The tower is surmounted by a bulbous dome topped by a 20 foot high statue of a sower and its decidedly phallic appearance has resulted in the nickname ” The Penis of the Prairie”. Driving towards Lincoln , we can see why . ( LOL)
Lincoln is a pleasant enough city that, in 2008, was selected The Healthiest City in America . Forced to choose between its attractions ,we plump for the Nebraska History Museum . We are not disappointed. Though the exhibits could have been better displayed , they are very interesting . Some exhibits can be accessed online ( www.nebraskahistory.org ). Of particular interest is a Gallery of Mugshots dating back to the early 1900′s. One photo shows a craggy faced Jake Vohland , arrested after a botched attempt to rob his neighbor’s chicken farm in 1931, at the height of the Great Depression . For the crime of stealing five chickens (worth $ 5 total), he was sentenced to a year in the penitentiary. He was undoubtedly guilty but one can’t help feeling a little sorry for him. Also of interest is a collection of World War II posters.
Faced with a 2 hour drive to Grand Island , we opt for a light lunch and wind up at the Green Papaya on N.27th Street. Lincoln must have a sizeable Vietnamese population because we see at least two other Vietnamese joints in the vicinity. We have chosen well. The spring rolls are crisp and the Special Rice Noodles w/ crab , Shrimp and Pork in a rich broth really hits the spot. Refreshed but not weighed down by the food , we hit the road ,taking I-80 W and arriving at Grand Island around 4:30 in the afternoon.
Originally founded by German immigrants, Grand Island ( pop . 50,000) lies between the Wood River and the Platte River . Three times designated an All-American City , its economy is heavily dependent on sugar beets and the meat-packing industry. We drive by the Stuhr Museum of the Prairie Pioneer which features a living history village that shows life in a 1890′s era prairie village . It sounds interesting but we are museumed out . I notice that the museum building bears a strong resemblance to the U.S embassy in New Delhi . Not surprising because both were designed by the architect Edward Durell Stone .
The Nebraska State Fair is held in Grand Island but in September and it is still only May. We drive instead to the west part of town to Tornado Hill, a reminder of the massive storm that hit Grand Island in 1980 when no less than seven tornadoes leveled much of the town . Debris from the storm was burnt and buried here . The hill it forms is a grim reminder of that day and how vulnerable Nebraska is to the vagaries of the weather.
Next morning , we continue on I-80W to Gering near Scotts Bluff . It is a long drive ( about 320 miles) and traffic is sparse. The prairie landscape is flat and it stretches on and on . Driving like this , I am struck by the vastness of America . As the car eats up the miles and we drive in air-conditioned comfort , I think back to what it must have been like for the pioneers who travelled these same roads . I said ” roads” , but of course there were no roads then.
It is impossible for us , today , to imagine the hardships that the pioneers faced on their journey. Their ”prairie schooners” carried up to 2,500 lbs. of household goods but were not built for passenger comfort. There was little room inside in which to sit and the interior became stifling in the summer heat. They did not have springs and rather than suffer the jolting progress, passengers would get out and walk whenever the wagons had to go across rocky terrain. The Platte valley was relatively flat but elsewhere there were sharp inclines and drops . In spite of all precautions , wagons would sometimes break loose and tumble down a slope to wind up as kindling.
Getting to their destination was difficult enough but , once arrived , the pioneers’ life was an unending battle against the elements . Clearing the land , growing food , building sodhouses and cabins ,surviving the harsh winters, fending off disease and avoiding work-related injuries taxed those early settlers to the utmost . Nor was farming easy . One legend tells of an Indian watching a settler struggle to plow the sod , to turn it over, and murmuring “ Wrong side up.” Many sodbusters took the advice and turned to cattle raising ; it was only with the advent of farm machinery that it became possible to farm on a large-scale . Today, Nebraska grows much corn , wheat and sorghum but is also a leading beef producer.
We go past Kearney and Lexington, Cozad , Gothenburg and North Platte. At Gothenburg , we see a sign for a Pony Express Station . Intent on getting to Gering , we don’t stop but I try to remember what I know of the Pony Express . Between April 1860 to October 1861 , Pony Express riders provided the fastest mail delivery between St. Joseph, Missouri, and Sacramento, California. In total there were 183 men that rode for the Pony Express during this period , all of them young and skinny, expert riders willing to risk death daily ( ” orphans preferred” ). Most were around 20 with the youngest being 11 and the oldest in his mid-40s.One of them was 15-year-old William F. Cody , who later became famous as Buffalo Bill. The riders’ average weight was 120 pounds and they worked for $100 a month, riding between 75 and 100 miles a day with fresh horses being provided every 10 to 15 miles. The speed of the horses averaged 10 miles an hour. There were about 165 Pony Express stations along the route of almost 2,000 miles.The cost of a 1/2 ounce letter was $5 when the rides began but by the end it had dropped to $1 . The advent of the Civil War put an end to the Pony Express.
From time to time we catch a glimpse of the Platte , a heavily silted river that meanders across the plain in a series of S-curves. An early traveler said of it that it was ” bad to ford , destitute of fish , too dirty to bathe in and too thick to drink ” It is an apt description. At Ogallalla, we turn off the Interstate and take U.S Route 26 . A little later , we see a sign for Lake McConaghy ; after the unending vistas of the prairie , it is tempting to stop and feast our eyes on a body of blue water. We fight the urge and push on past Oshkosh, Lisco, Broadwater and Bridgeport. A few miles past Bridgeport , we catch sight of Chimney Rock , a tall sandstone spire rising three hundred feet above the prairie. For pioneers on the Oregon , California and Mormon trails it must have been a most welcome sight , a sign that they were one step closer to their destinations.The Native Americans who dwelt here called it ” Elk Penis ” but the white settlers gave it its present name. It is an impressive sight, visible for miles around. . There doesn’t seem to be any point going to the Visitor’s Center a couple of miles away. What more is there to see or learn?
We press on and reach Gering , where we plan to spend the night . Close by is Scotts Bluff , a massive topographic formation that reaches a height of 800 feet above the prairie floor. It is an impressive sight , second only to Chimney Rock in its significance to pioneers. We debate whether we should visit it or leave it for the morning . Then we realize that it is already past 5PM and that the visitor’s center is closed. Besides ,we are tired. Secretly pleased that we don’t have to make a decision, we check in at a convenient motel in Gering . After a refreshing shower, we go to the nearest fast food joint that we can find, a Subway, and dine on a couple of footlongs ( BMT for me , teriyaki chicken for her) with all the fixings, washed down with Diet Coke . Sometimes , the effort of finding a good restaurant is too much. Scotts Bluff can wait till the morrow. It’s been a long day.