In the Midwest, the small towns are REALLY SMALL. And in the northern Midwest, they close for the winter. We left Murdo (pop 620 or so) and drove south, through miles of grassland and then duneland where the dramatic rolling hills were empty of houses and barns, where we were for long stretches the only visible car, and there weren't even very many cows. Actually, when we did see cows we saw lots of them, gathering together in their winter pastures. But no cowboys and no ranch buildings.

We had only a couple of hours to drive before reaching our planned destination of North Platte, so we decided to sightsee thoroughly. We began by driving up and down most of the streets in White River, South Dakota, about the same size as Murdo and with the same appearance. The houses in town are quite varied architecturally, from two-story frame buildings with generous porches to small cottages, even shacks, and, of course, the mobile homes that are sprinkled on every town's outskirts. The museum was closed; the normal small town museum season in South Dakota is Memorial Day to Labor Day.

Entering the Rosebud Indian Reservation, we stopped to experiment with the slot machines. Here, too, it was quiet, but friendly. We're not getting noticeably better at playing the slot machines. We probably need more practice. The steel bridge has arching steel girders for support, and rises high above the river, to withstand floods Most beautiful bridge

Soon we came to an inconspicuous sign, reading "Historic Bridge." Somewhat abruptly we swerved off to a side road and found the Most Beautiful Steel Bridge in Class C, receiving the Annual Award of Merit of the American Institute of Steel Construction in 1932, which also happened to be the first time any bridge between Wisconsin and the Pacific Coast had ever received the Annual Award of Merit of the American Institute of Steel Construction for Most Beautiful Steel Bridge in Class C.

In addition, this bridge, known as the Bryan Bridge in honor of former South Dakota governor Charles Wayland Bryan, was designed by a Russian, Josef Sorkin, who immigrated in 1923 and graduated from the University of Nebraska College of Engineering in 1929. In 1988 the bridge was listed in the National Register of Historic Places, and in 1995 it was designated as a State Historic Civil Engineering Landmark by the Nebraska Section of the American Society of Civil Engineers. According to the plaque, this particular design was chosen "because it was aesthetically compatible with the surrounding environment of the Niobrara River Valley." We're willing to bet some real dough that's a bunch of malarkey.

It is a pretty bridge over the Niobrara River, somewhat low in November, with some spots frozen over, and a few gulls and waterfowl near the shore. On each of the four corners of the bridge is a beautiful (steel) plaque announcing the famous 1932 award.

You can see the dilemma that faced the Nebraska Department of Roads when they decided to straighten out some of the kinks in good old highway U.S. 83, and incidentally, bring all the state's major bridges up to snuff by making sure they were wide enough for modern highway traffic. The Bryan bridge, although certainly beautiful, was narrow. But how could they possibly tear down such a famous award-winning bridge? The solution was easily found, and the old Bryan Bridge left in place, while the new bridge, made of low-maintenance prestressed concrete, and erected long past the time when pretty bridge awards are given, gracefully arches, wide and high across the Niobrara River, a hundred yards east of the Bryan Bridge. The old road, far too curvy for high speeds, connects to the new highway north and south of the river, and a sign has been put up at each end directing the eager tourists to the bypass The light blue sky is covered with scudding clouds, and the reddish hue of the dry grasses seems identical to an Andrew Wyeth painting. Lonely ranch and the scenic drive over what was once the most beautiful bridge in America, Class C Steel. Not to mention Historic.

South of the Niobrara was a long, long stretch of sandhills. We'd travelled east to west through the Sandhills last month, and now we crossed north to south. An ancient ocean was here, making all that sand. In the northern portion was a cluster of small lakes, and alternating wildlife refuges and wildlife management areas. In spring and fall it's a stopping place for migratory waterbirds, because there isn't much water in these sandhills. As a sign outside of Thetford explained to us, homesteaders had tried these sand dunes and failed, but the land was excellent cattle pasture -- providing it wasn't overgrazed. Evidently the ranchers and farmers learned the hard way what happened when the grass was stripped off these dunes -- although the sign didn't say that explicitly.

We drove up and down the streets of Thetford, too, and came upon a very pretty modern building, in which a beautiful frieze depicting life on the plains had been made out of brick. We don't know whether the bricks were carved and polished first and then laid, or carved and polished after being laid, but the facade is quite attractive. The horns of the cattle jut out from the building, made out of polished and rounded pieces of brickwork.

South of Thetford, the sandhills continued, although not as dramatically sandy as further north. We were about 25 miles away from Thetford, approximately in the middle of nowhere, when (BANG!) our left rear tire blew out. The thought of digging under the Stuff which covered the rear seats to extract the GMC jack and tire iron did not appeal to us. So we flagged a car and tried a cell phone call for roadside assistance from the AAA. But the cell phone didn't work, and so we gratefully accepted the help of a passing driver who had (a) a better jack than in our truck and (b) a good long breaker bar and a bag full of sockets (his brother was the bank president in the next town so he got the old worn out money bags to store his sockets) which was needed because the dudes at the tire store who put on the last set of tires had used those impact air wrenches set good and high so the nuts wouldn't fall off. They wouldn't turn without a breaker bar, either.

Outside of Stapleton we filled the spare with air and continued on to North Platte, where we learned why the cell phone didn't work. Some guys digging up tree roots had severed a fiber optic cable and there was no phone service AT ALL in Western Nebraska. Oops! We thought distributed networks were supposed to provide communications redundancy! The police radios worked, but 911 didn't, and the stores and motels had no way to check if credit cards were valid. Banks and ATMs were also shut down, as their transactions went over the phone lines. Furthermore, the trains relied on phone lines for digital communications. You may recall how amazed we were at the large number of trains travelling east and west across Nebraska, and how that was a real challenge for the dispatchers and operational controllers. Well, the trains stopped.

We learned from the next morning's paper that it took about four hours to repair the break. None of these solid, patient midwesterners got riled up The pile of grain is some 50 feet high at the top, with a long grain elevator positioned to load it into train cars to ship to market. 1.4 million bushels of grain or threatened to sue (as far as we know). When they found out the phones didn't work, they climbed in their cars and trucks and did their business in person, and continued to sit in the restaurants telling cow stories. (For those of you who don't know, cow stories are about all the crazy times a cow gets out of a field and the rancher has to get it back. These stories are told by other ranchers, having great fun at the plight of a man with a dumb cow going somewhere on its own.)

Today we read in the North Platte newspaper that with about 90 percent of the valley's corn harvest complete, there's 1.7 million bushels of corn in the grain elevator by the traintracks, plus 646,000 bushels covered with a tarp in the bunker near the elevator, and 1.4 million bushels in a pile on the ground nearby. So of course we went to photograph it. This much shelled corn is a mighty impressive pile and, at $2.26 per bushel, we can understand why there are more than a half dozen banks in North Platte alone! About half the corn production of the Cornhusker State is in North Platte; the owners are waiting for the price to go up, and gambling on the weather.