Editor’s note: Nick Hoffman lives in rural Pennsylvania. He spent 30 years as a newspaper editor. This past September, he and his dad made their 23rd pilgrimage across Nebraska and Kansas. This essay is based on what he has discovered during those pilgrimages.
Article by Nick Hoffman
As it has each year for nearly a quarter century, the time has come for my attention to turn west.
My dad has called Omaha, Nebraska, home for nearly 40 years and I’ve made many trips to the Midlands since the 1970s. My universe expanded in 1992 when I went to Norton, Kansas, for the first time and fell in love with what is often dismissed as “flyover country.”
Dad and I have made it an annual sojourn, disdaining the “quick” way on Interstate 80 to Lexington, Nebraska, then south on Route 283 into Kansas, for back roads adventures that have introduced us to Elwood, Arapahoe and Red Cloud in Nebraska and Lebanon, Phillipsburg, Smith Center and Norton in Kansas.
Down the road to Red Cloud
Red Cloud lies near the Nebraska-Kansas border at the intersection of routes 136 and 281. Its main claim to fame is that frontier author Willa Cather, whose novels chronicled life on the prairie, grew up there in the late 19th century. The home where she lived still stands and there’s an overlook named in her honor south of town.
One of the top-rated steakhouses in Nebraska, The Palace, is in Red Cloud, whose main street is made of brick. The weekly newspaper, The Chief, sits near the south edge of town near the city park.
Red Cloud’s population peaked around 1,800 in the 1920 and it has ebbed slowly ever since, to just under 1,000 today. But it is still a vibrant community, the county seat of Webster County. People, places and things on the prairies don’t “wither” as much as they “weather;” they endure.
The town built on big dreams
Lebanon had big plans when it was determined to be the geographic center of the contiguous United States. LIFE magazine did a cover story about it. Tourists would flock to Lebanon. They didn’t. An abandoned motel lies testament to broken dreams for the 218 residents who still call Lebanon home.
Phillipsburg — population 2,581, county seat of Phillips County, weekly newspaper the Phillips County Review – is nestled between Smith Center and Norton and features a one-block section of Main Street with an enforced 15 m.p.h. speed limit.
Sunny days in Norton
Except for the two-letter Post Office state abbreviation, Red Cloud looks a lot like Norton, whose weekly paper is called The Telegram. The city of Norton, population around 3,000, is the county seat of Norton County, population around 5,600. The county had 11,000 people in 1930 while the city’s population peaked around 3,600 in 1970.
The decline isn’t for lack of space. There’s plenty of that. On a clear day, you can just about see forever. And there are lots of clear days. Norton averages 238 sunny days each year and just 74 days on which measurable precipitation falls. Contrast that to this part of Pennsylvania, which has as many sunny days as rainy ones – 163 each. In a good year.
My first trip to Norton wasn’t a pilgrimage in search of sunshine or wide open spaces. It was for sobriety. Norton is home to one of the top drug and alcohol addiction treatment centers in America, Valley Hope. It was my last chance to turn my life around. By the grace of God, I did, as 23 years of sobriety attest. In the bargain, I fell in love with the prairie.
A time for hellos and goodbyes
This trip, our 23rd, may be the last one for Dad and me. We’ll overnight at the Brooks Motel in Norton before we say hello and goodbye at Valley Hope. Then we’ll retrace the route we took on our first visit in 1992, north to Lexington, through Arapahoe – population 1,018, weekly newspaper the Public Mirror – with time for a couple root beer floats from the authentic 1950s soda fountain at the Arapahoe Pharmacy.
Then on to Elwood – pop. 707, county seat of Gosper County, weekly paper The Bulletin – before we reach Lexington and turn east on I-80 for the 218-mile trip back to Omaha.
I find myself exhilarated, even liberated, driving along under brilliant sunshine on a cloudless “high sky” day, a fresh breeze whipping across open spaces, sunflowers swaying lazily along unbroken, endless queues of highway that “connect the dots” of oases masquerading as small, bucolic towns.
As a character in Cather’s novel, “My Antonia,” said, the prairie is a “place where there was nothing but land: not a country at all, but the materials out of which countries were made.”
It’s changed some, but not much. I doubt it ever will. I hope it never does.