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Though modern transcontinental travellers tend to see NEBRASKA in much the same way westward settlers did during the pioneer era – as a dreary expanse of prairie to slog through – this sparsely populated state in fact holds a few places of interest. Still, it doesn’t help that three hundred miles of underwhelming, livestock-rearing flatlands separate its principal cities – commercial Omaha and its livelier counterpart, state government and university centre Lincoln – from the dramatic landscapes of its western region. This little-known area contains giant sand hills and valleys broken by towering rocky columns, all hemmed in by sheer-faced buttes, and is well worth the diversion from I-80’s seemingly endless tedium.

Western Nebraska was still embroiled in bloody battles between the American military and Native Americans long after its eastern lands had been settled; from the first serious uprising in 1854, it was thirty-six years before the US Army could make American control unchallengeable. In the far northwest of the state, Fort Robinson, an old Army post where Crazy Horse was murdered, remains one of the West’s most crucial historic sites.

Without navigable rivers, Nebraska had to rely on the railroads to help populate the land. During the 1870s and 1880s, rail companies, encouraged by grants that allowed them to accumulate one-sixth of the state’s land, laid down such a comprehensive network of tracks that virtually every farmer was within a day’s cattle drive of the nearest halt. Thus the buffalo-hunting country of the Sioux and Pawnee was turned into high-yield farmland, which today has few rivals in terms of beef production.

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