Plains Folk

Great Plains Highway


Cowboys in the days of the long drive spoke of the “ladder of rivers” they had to climb in order to reach the north–each one a treacherous crossing. It was as if the country, according to its waters, were aligned east and west, and so travel north and south was troublesome. The transcontinental railways of the late 19th century, and the interstate highways of the 20th century, also were aligned east and west. Travel north and south remains less smooth, the highways full of jogs and diversions.

If you travel much north and south on the plains, then you either cuss the highways for their indirection, or you learn to love them. North-south routes have more contour than east-west routes. They go up and down across valleys and divides. They connect county seats and small towns point to point, keeping you in touch with the country. They have character. And of all the north-south highways, I would argue that Highway 281 is the highway of the Great Plains.

1872 miles, its endpoints being Brownsville, Texas, on the Rio Grande, and the International Peace Garden, on the Canadian border. 281 crosses the hearts of North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas.

Highway 281 has other names. In 1960 its entire length was designated by Congress the American Legion Highway. Local groups have also labeled certain sections as Blue Star Memorial highways, commemorating the sacrifices of Americans in service. New Rockford, North Dakota, is one of the places with a Blue Star Memorial Highway alongside Highway 281.

In a literary mood, Nebraska in 1999 declared a stretch of 281 through Webster County to be the Willa Cather Roadway. On the other hand, Nebraska also has labeled the stretch from Hastings to Grand Island the Tom Osborne Expressway–celebrating the legendary football coach who went to Congress for a while and then came back and, as Nebraska’s athletic director, nearly destroyed the Big 12 Conference. Along the Rio Grande, Texans call 281 the Old Military Highway.

Great personages of the Great Plains lived along 281. The law office of Moses P. Kinkaid, author of the Kinkaid Act of 1904, overlooks the junction of highways 20 and 281 in O’Neill, Nebraska. (Across the street is the great old Golden Hotel.) Russell, Kansas, as the blue-painted legend on a grain elevator declares, is the “Home of Bob Dole.” Colorful congressman Sockless Jerry Simpson and ardent prohibitionist Carry Nation both hailed from Medicine Lodge, Kansas. Louis Lamour spent his boyhood in Jamestown, North Dakota.

Highway 281 is studded with points of interest, some celebrated and others obscure, all along its length. At Dunseith the International Peace Garden declares the kinship of two great North American nations. In Portis, Kansas, the modest memorial to Melvin “Tubby” Millar honors the creator of Porky Pig.

At what point, as you proceed south on 281, do you first encounter armadillos as roadkill? Or, where, as you proceed north, do you first run across–literally–ringneck pheasants on the road? I have lots of questions about life along 281, the Great Plains highway.

Some of the things we find as we explore 281 I’ll talk about here, in this column. If you’d like to follow the exploration of Highway 281 more closely, and if you’re a user of social media on the Internet, then get into the Facebook group called “281: Great Plains Highway.” Drive careful, everyone.

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