Nebraska to Illinois: In the Tire Tracks of a Pioneer Part 4

Nebraska to Illinois: In the Tire Tracks of a Pioneer Part 4
Surely the Midwest will be easier to cross than the Sierra Nevada, the Great Basin Desert, and the Rocky Mountains, right? For modern interstate travelers, it’s a yawn fest of endless, unchanging miles tempered only by sagging eyelids and bladders about to burst. But when George Wyman came this way, nothing about his crossing could have been described as easy and boredom was a luxury he couldn’t afford. His introduction to Nebraska was nearly fatal:

l was riding alongside the track, close to the outer rail … Suddenly I heard the loud shriek of the whistle … I looked back and the train was not more than 10 yards away. I just had time to shoot down the embankment, which, luckily, was only about four feet high … If it had been a fast passenger train and got that close to me, it would have hit me before I got out of the way. This was worse than the mountains, for nothing that happened there came so near to causing heart failure.

Wyman’s tire tracks across Nebraska and Iowa run alongside the railroad and what is now the old Lincoln Highway (U.S. 30). The pace is slower and the scenery more immediate than it is from the interstate, but the small towns dotting the route have withered since their railroad-fueled heydays. Towns like Kimball that Wyman called “prosperous” are forgotten collections of vacant storefronts.

There is a rhythm to the Lincoln Highway as it crosses the Midwest—miles and miles of corn and then grain silos on the distant horizon marking a sleepy farm town. In a blink, the quiet town and the silos are shrinking in the mirrors, until all that remains is the corn, the railroad, and the Lincoln Highway.

So much has changed in the years between Wyman and me, but one thing hasn’t, summer thunderstorms.

It is now the time of the heavy rains, cloudbursts and freshets that devastated so much of the Western country during the month of June … After 10 miles of heavy going through the mud, I struck sand, and then took to the railroad track once more. After going six miles over the ties, it began to rain so hard that I had to get off and walk three miles to the station at Paxton. There I waited for three hours until it stopped raining.