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Tuesday, 3 September 2019

The cowboy looked me up and down. 'What did ya, lose a bet?' he asked.

So Labor Day has come and gone. Despite being preoccupied with Brexit, and the unseemly behaviour of the grotesque toffs that have infested British politics, I did note the passing of the USA’s last public holiday before Thanksgiving. It marked an anniversary.

Twenty-five years ago, on Monday 5th September 1994, I set off on a journey to get the measure of Nebraska.

I’d been studying the state’s literature and history for some time, and had made two road trips, in 1991 and ’93 – first along the Oregon Trail, then into the Panhandle to visit Mari Sandoz’ sister Caroline.

Listening to her talk about the old days in Nebraska, I decided I needed to know the place better, to get the feel of it. I came up with a journey. State line to state line, from the banks of the Missouri to the Wyoming border, from the lowest point, 840 feet above sea level, to the highest, 5424. On a bicycle, which I would have to borrow. I'd not, at this stage, heard of the annual Bike Ride Across Nebraska, or BRAN.

I started in the little town of Rulo, and over the next ten or twelve days made my way along the Republican river valley, north to the Platte, finally following Lodgepole Creek towards Kimball. As the temperature hovered around the mid-90s, parts of my face and arms turned a dark shade of brown. I developed white crow’s feet. My ankles got burned, as did the tops of my ears. My front tyre blew at seven one morning and I found to my horror that there was nothing out there to lean a bike against – no fence, no wall, no telegraph pole. I was chased by dogs, several of them. I talked to strangers in bars, cafés, in the shade of grain elevators, in small-town museums and family-run diners. I camped in State Parks and in city parks. I was haunted in my tent at night by cackling maniacs – and only realised years later that I’d been listening to nothing more sinister than a bunch of coyotes. I sheltered in whatever shade I could find: under lone cottonwoods, rustling cornstalks, and on one occasion in the shadow of a little camper-van beside Highway 30 – after asking the driver’s permission.    

After several days with a balmy wind behind me, the weather turned. At Ogallala a storm blew through town, flooding the streets and re-arranging the trash cans. By next morning the temperature had dropped fifty degrees, the wind had made an about turn. And it had freshened up some. Fifty-five miles an hour, I was reliably informed by the guy in the pick-up who rescued me from the ensuing dust-storm, took me into Chappell in his pick-up and handed me over to his mother. She fed me, then put me up for the night. Cowboys, eh?

At Kimball, you have to turn off the highway onto dirt roads to find Promontory Point. That was the best part of the ride. Now convinced that I would make it, I enjoyed myself. There was no traffic, the weather had settled down, and the fields were full of wheat stubble and sunflowers. I passed a delightful old schoolhouse, and saw a herd of deer cross the road in from of me and disappear - like water sinking through sand.

I arrived at my destination around midday and found a concrete obelisk marking the state’s highest point, over a mile high. They had a metal desk there, and inside it a notebook filled with signatures. I added mine, after checking through a few pages to make sure I was the first Brit.

Back in England, I wrote a book about my trip. I called it Mountaineering in the Sierra Nebraska. I briefly thought I’d sold it to a Midwest publisher, but for some reason they pulled the plug. It languished under my desk for many years, and then, three years ago I re-branded it and published it myself. The new title was a gift – from an old-timer I met on a seat outside a barber shop in Red Cloud. I had a cracked bearing and wanted to know if there was anyone in town who fixed bikes. ‘We-ell, there used to be a guy,’ he said, pausing to light a cigarette and scratch his head. Then, with superb timing, he added the words which gave me title. ‘But he died.’

If you’d like to read There Used to Be a Guy… But He Died, it’s available from amazon in hard copy at $10.95, or on Kindle at $4.33:


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