Ghost Roads of Nebraska
In Abandoned America, Signs of Life Appear on the Other Side of the Lens

By Gary Anthes
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, September 2, 2007

W hen I thought about Nebraska before my recent four-day trip -- and I almost never did -- I imagined an utterly flat place populated by legions of cows and mega-acres of corn. It is the Cornhusker State, after all. Asked to sum it up in one word, I would have said "boring."

Okay, it can be boring, but I'll get to that later.

First, here's what's not boring. I'm an avid amateur photographer who enjoys shooting ghost towns, abandoned buildings, ancient rusty cars and other detritus from decades and centuries past. There are quite a lot of those things in Nebraska, especially in the western half of the state, in a Great Plains region that some photographers call Abandoned America.

My idea was to drive the highways and byways of western Nebraska and photograph the accoutrements of abandonment. I planned to follow four of the nine routes that the state has designated as scenic or historic. "Nebraska's back roads invite you to drop down to low gear, prop your arm out the window and just cruise," informs the state's helpful travel guide.

That's pretty much what I did. I cruised Nebraska's Gold Rush Byway (U.S. Route 385) 160 miles from Sidney to Chadron; the Lincoln Highway (U.S. Route 30) 230 miles from Sidney to Kearney; the Sandhills Journey Scenic Byway (Highway 2) 200 miles from Ansley to Alliance; and the Western Trails Historic and Scenic Byway (U.S. Route 26) 55 miles from Bridgeport to the Wyoming border. I also drove countless dusty miles along dirt and gravel lanes -- chosen mostly at random -- with evocative names like County Road 136. Starting and ending at the Denver airport, I made a grand loop through northeastern Colorado, western Nebraska and eastern Wyoming, some 1,400 miles in six days.

I especially liked Nebraska's two-lane Lincoln Highway, the nation's first transcontinental auto route, which runs through the Platte River Valley and parallels the country's first transcontinental railroad. Every few moments, the view of agricultural land would be punctuated by glimpses of the beautiful Platte River. A few moments later, the dual red-and-yellow engines of a train would come roaring past my car.

The Lincoln Highway -- now sleepy, seedy and sad, but fascinating and somehow wonderfully relaxing -- lost its status as a major east-west route years ago when Interstate 80 was built nearby. Now only photographers, railroad buffs and locals drive it. Motels, diners, gas stations, houses and whole city streets lie deserted along the way.

Towns, generally with populations between 200 and 600, are strung out at six- to 10-mile intervals along the route. You can see each one approaching from miles away by the giant grain elevators that tower above the plains at trackside, still poised to download corn or wheat to trains at harvest time. Typically, half or more of the stores in these towns have been forsaken yet left standing in faded testimony to better times.

No One Home

Early one foggy May morning, I was driving one of the narrow, gravel county roads between Thedford and Valentine when an abandoned farmhouse emerged at the top of a hill. Vacant, black windows stared like eye sockets through the mist. I half-expected Norman Bates to come out and greet me.

I happily walked around the property, photographing the old wood house, a barn, various outbuildings and assorted rusting farm paraphernalia. The house seemed unsafe to enter, but I could see the remains of habitation -- broken furniture, a few dishes, an ancient TV set -- through open doors. But the building belonged to the birds now, and a surprising number of them, including an owl, flew in and out through broken windows. In more than an hour, not a single car passed on the road below.

I find these deserted homesteads deeply mysterious and profoundly sad. What happened to their owners? Why did they go? What were they thinking on the day they left? Why did they leave so many belongings behind? Why has no one come to take their place?

Some of these prairie houses are the product of the Homestead Act of 1862, by which settlers were lured to the Great Plains with gifts of 160-acre land parcels. But sandy soil, frequent droughts and economic conditions made it a tough go for farmers, and some just gave up and moved out. Others declared bankruptcy, and their property was seized by a bank, which was then unable to dispose of it.

Sometimes an agribusiness giant would buy a farm and simply add the 160 acres on to a larger local holding. The company often would farm around the house, leaving it undisturbed for the birds.

With the towns, the problem is a little different. Some of them died when interstates siphoned off traffic and the towns' commerce with it. A waitress in a Loup City diner said the population there had dropped from 1,600 to 900 in 40 years and that nearly all who remained worked elsewhere. And, she said, young people waste no time moving to more exciting locales as soon as they finish school.

A trick when traveling in rural Nebraska is ending each day with a place to sleep other than your car. I chose Loup City one afternoon because it was the only town in the area with a motel, a simple but clean place at $40 a night. Bring your own shampoo.

The motel had an attached restaurant/bar the size of a large telephone booth, and by 4 p.m. when I checked in, it was already populated with good ol' boys from the local construction trades. By 6 p.m., when I went to eat, the GOBs had gotten a tad rowdy. But I needn't have worried. Like everyone in Nebraska, it seems, the GOBs were as friendly as can be. I enjoyed their boisterous banter but thought it might not be the best place to bring a family.

Next morning at 6, I went for breakfast at a diner in town and several of the GOBs were already there, looking none the worse for wear. I was not deterred by a large sign in the window, repeated on a wall inside, that said, "LICENSED CONCEALED CARRY WELCOME HERE."

Scrambled eggs, bacon, toast and coffee -- $3.50. Plus a generous tip for the possibly pistol-packin' waitress.

Natural Nebraska

I was pleasantly surprised to find that there is more to see in Nebraska than corn, cows, trains and abandoned buildings, and that the state is not flat. The huge Sandhills region is dominated by sand dunes, some rising hundreds of feet and covered with prairie grass. Lakes and wetlands, rich with wildlife but not people, lie between the dunes. Parts of the northwest portion of the state feature badlands as interesting as any in South Dakota.

Mountainous and forested land, rising here and there out of cornfields, utterly transformed the driving experience in minutes. There were far more state parks, recreation areas and nature preserves than I had time to visit. I went to the Sherman Reservoir State Recreation Area near Loup City at dawn one day to watch the sun rise over a 2,845-acre lake. It's a great place for camping and fishing, I was told, but I had the whole place to myself that morning.

I watched wild ducks and pheasants one gorgeous spring day while eating a picnic lunch by a lake in the Valentine National Wildlife Refuge, 20 miles south of Valentine. It's part of the Sandhills prairie, a National Natural Landmark and the largest remaining tract of midgrass and tallgrass prairie in North America.

The refuge is quite unlike any place I had visited before. It's a lovely mixture of undulating sandy meadows, marshes, lakes and stands of trees. If there were any other people at the refuge that day, they were elsewhere on its 72,000 acres.

The lack of crowds at these natural places is perhaps their most distinguishing characteristic. I drove through the Nebraska National Forest to Chadron State Park near Chadron and to Wildcat Hills State Recreation Area near Gering and saw virtually no other visitors at either place.

To be sure, you won't find mile-deep canyons, towering red sandstone arches, geysers, giant redwood trees or snow-topped mountains in Nebraska. But there is something to be said for not having to fight for parking at trail heads, and there is a lot to be said for the tranquillity that comes from hiking for an hour and not seeing or hearing another soul.

Traffic on most of the roads I drove was so light and so local that drivers of oncoming vehicles often waved as they approached. I explored each town by driving slowly up and down Main Street, usually just two or three blocks long, and pedestrians would catch my eye, smile and wave.

Indeed, Nebraskans are the friendliest people I have ever met, and I have traveled a great deal. I found myself striking up conversations with total strangers, something I normally would not do.

Nevertheless, this is not a vacation destination for everyone. Parts of it are boring. During stretches of monotonous scenery I'd turn on my XM Satellite Radio and shamelessly tune it to vintage country music. (You wouldn't listen to Vivaldi in the Cornhusker State, would you?) So if you are a 20-something looking for a honeymoon spot, you might prefer Hawaii. If you have kids, Orlando or a beach resort might work better. If you are a scenic-trophy hunter, you might want to seek out those canyons, arches, geysers, redwoods and mountains farther west.

But do consider a drive through western Nebraska at least once in your life. See for yourself that it's possible to drive 200 miles through crystal-clean air without seeing billboards, roadside trash, shopping centers, stoplights or throngs of people. View old-time America through the eyes of John Steinbeck, Thomas Hart Benton and Buffalo Bill Cody.

It might be more than you expected.

Other lonely roads across America, P5.

Gary Anthes last wrote for Travel about canyoneering in southern Utah.

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