Travel: Winning the west on Highway 83, US

Cowboy at the Buffalo Bill Rodeo, 'Nebraska. Picture: Getty

Cowboy at the Buffalo Bill Rodeo, 'Nebraska. Picture: Getty

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FROM Rosebud Casino to the rodeo, a trip down Highway 83 shows how the West was won and lost, writes David Reynolds

I CAME upon the Rosebud Casino, a low building with a mock art-deco pediment, unexpectedly. It is to the right of Highway 83 on the South Dakota side of the Nebraska state line. Next to it is a motel, a Quality Inn.

Like many casinos in the US, the Rosebud is collectively owned and run by Native Americans, in this case the Brulé Sioux, who are also known as the Sicangu Lakota. Rosebud is their reservation – 2,000 square miles of South Dakota named after a creek alongside which the tribe were forced to settle under their chief, Spotted Tail, in 1889.

Inside the casino 200 to 300 slot machines booped and binged. Perhaps 100 punters – mostly white, a few Native American – chatted, drank, smoked and dropped coins into slots. At the back of the further room were a bar and two blackjack tables.

I played blackjack for an hour, then got talking to a croupier named Delaine Blue Thunder. He was smartly dressed and had a confidence about him, as if he owned the place – which in a sense he does, along with 21,000 other Sicangu Lakota who live on the reservation and, maybe, many more who don’t. We chatted: about the reservation, President Obama and Highway 83.

I asked him how it was to be an Indian in the US now. He smiled, and raised his thumbs in a tiny shrug. “It’s no problem.”

I mentioned Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse – that I had read about them and admired them. I said that what happened 150 years ago wasn’t good, or right.

Delaine smiled and raised his thumbs again. “I wasn’t around then,” he said. He looked away, scanning the room, taking in the flashing lights and the fingers pushing coins into slots. It was as if he’d said, “Relax! Let’s live here, now.”

Fifteen minutes after leaving Rosebud, I drove into downtown Valentine, where Route 83 is Main Street: a posh Main Street with court house, library, town hall, bars and cafés, a well stocked bookshop and a small art gallery. In the bookshop, long-dead local author Willa Cather had a display to herself – with her classic O Pioneers! centre stage – and the aisles were jammed with women and children.

South of Valentine I crossed a long, high bridge. Way below was the Niobrara River, a 500-mile-long tributary of the Missouri. A small road, signed “Cowboy Trail”, ran off to the left. I took it, left the car and walked. The air was warm and filled with black, floaty dragonflies darting and hovering. A track led north through long grass towards the river. Alongside it pine and spruce stood isolated and in small clumps, and pale yellow foxgloves rose among the grass.

The path led to a bridge, which once carried a single-track railroad. There were no rails now, just wooden planks for walking and wooden rails to prevent walkers slipping over the side and into the Niobrara far below.

The river was wide and beautiful and brown, with evergreens along its banks and a green island to the east before a bend. I looked down from the centre of the bridge and studied the geometry of the towers of Meccano-like metal below me and their shadows, sharp and black on the water, like fishnet stockings trying to escape downstream. Upstream, to the west, the broad, lazy river came towards me around a bend.

I drove on, at around 50 mph, stopping frequently; I had six weeks to drive the length of 83, the 2,271 miles from Swan River, Manitoba, to Brownsville, Texas. It was half-past six, still warm, the sky whitening a little at the edges. The road was empty; the dune-like landscape stirred memories of the TV Westerns I had watched as a child. There were no crops or ploughed earth, few trees, but everywhere grass, grey-green and gold. These were the Nebraska Sand Hills. Human clutter was scant and what there was – occasional rows of fence posts, old and wooden and weathered – seemed to belong.

There was a shape to this place that was exhilarating: low humps and cones and ridges that broke the horizon – and long sinewy vistas in between. A metal windmill, like an elderly desktop fan, perched on a small pylon in the lee of a low ridge. It turned slowly and was perhaps drawing up water for cattle that had mooched off somewhere else – maybe many miles away.

I stopped again. A herd of black cattle – about 100 head – grazed an open range that stretched south and west for two or three miles to an uneven line of hills and a windmill. It was the kind of place where a cloud of approaching dust might turn out to be John Wayne or James Stewart. But I saw no cowboys that day.

Beyond the little town of Thedford the landscape changed, becoming more intense, prettier, terraced in places with little pointed hills matched by little pointed evergreens. I came to the haplessly named Dismal River. It was past eight o’clock; a golden light lit the hills, the trees on the riverbank and the seed heads of the long grasses.

Soon I drove into North Platte, where many people dress like cowboys and cowgirls, with stetsons, Cuban heels and Wrangler jeans. The Oregon Trail came through here, as did the US’s first transcontinental road, the Lincoln Highway, and Jack Kerouac on the flatbed of a truck when he was hitching to Denver in 1947. The Union Pacific Railroad arrived in 1867 and built Bailey Yard, still the biggest rail yard in the world. And the city was the home of Buffalo Bill, whose name adorns the annual rodeo – which, by a remarkable fluke, is happening the evening after I arrive.

From my seat high in the bleachers, I watch about 100 horsemen and women perform a choreographed routine at walking pace; coloured shirts interweave and form patterns. All come to a halt facing us in the grandstand and remain still. An announcer tells us that an 11-year-old girl will sing The Star Spangled Banner. Everyone stands up and everyone who is wearing a hat takes it off and holds it over his or her heart. The girl has a hoarse, high voice which cracks, country-style, now and then.

There is no accompaniment, no other sound. My eyes water and I catch my breath at the lone shrill voice, at the stillness that is broken only by the fluttering of flags and the nodding of horses, at the drawn-out concentration of sincerity.

The rodeo begins. First, bull-riding: a man rides on the back of a furious, prancing bull; he may hold on with one hand only; his free hand wheels, grabbing at air; he has to stay on the bull for eight seconds. Only five men are crazy enough to try this, and not all of them succeed – although no one gets hurt. There follows bareback riding, steer wrestling, tie-down roping, saddle bronc riding, team roping, bull riding, clowns, stunts and races.

I am amused and absorbed. Yet I am acutely aware of where I am: literally in the middle of America, on a vast, not always flat, plain where the earth was first broken by homesteaders from Europe around 125 years ago. Many of the people I meet, and who welcome me, are the descendants of those homesteaders; many live on their ancestors’ land; one man told me that his kitchen is the original shack with sod walls that his great-grandfather, a Lutheran newly arrived from Germany, built to live in and to secure his claim to the allotted 160 acres. Before that, of course, all this belonged to the ancestors of Delaine Blue Thunder, and to the buffalo that Buffalo Bill and his friends almost extinguished. n

• David Reynolds is the author of Slow Road To Brownsville, Greystone Books, £10.99. He is appearing at the Edinburgh International Book Festival on Thursday at 4pm, chaired by Sheena McDonald (www.edbookfest.co.uk)

FACT FILE

• David Reynolds stayed at: Quality Inn Rosebud Casino, Mission, SD 57555, tel: 00 1 855 809 3506; La Quinta Inn, 2600 Eagles Wings Place, North Platte, NE 69101, tel: 00 1 308 536 6450; Knights Inn, 501 Halligan Drive, North Platte, NE 69101, tel: 001 800 222 2822;

• David Reynolds recommends: Penny’s Diner, 473 Halligan Drive, North Platte, NE 69101, tel: 00 1 308 535 9900;

• How to get there: flights from Edinburgh, Glasgow or Aberdeen to Denver, Colorado, or Omaha, Nebraska, are the best to bring you within driving distance of locations on the route.

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