The landscape that ambles past the train window is unyieldingly flat. So flat that I’m almost willing it to provide even a skerrick of topographical variation. The California Zephyr, the whimsically named train that I’m aboard, chugs towards the sunrise, which is lazily spreading its morning glow across the golden fields that hem the tracks. Sporadic, lone houses soon turn into rows, then into neighbourhoods, and soon enough the train is pulling to a lethargic halt in downtown Omaha.
Standing basically at the centre of the United States, I’m overwhelmed by the notion of just how far we are from the ocean. Having always lived within a few hours’ drive of the coast, I find it hard to fathom that I could drive for days in any direction and still see no sign of the coast. I overhear someone getting off the train behind me mention that they’re heading to the beach for the day and I wonder to myself how that could be possible. It turns out that, in Nebraska, spending the day on the side of a lake qualifies as a beach trip. I see my friend waiting for me on the platform, which, in truth, is really just a carpark. The train station itself is a tiny affair, sitting like a square Monopoly house just in front of the tracks.
The California Zephyr passes through here twice a day – early in the morning and late at night – on its way to and from Chicago and San Francisco. Aside from that, the diminutive station stays dormant all day – a sign that Omaha isn’t often inundated with visitors. And from the sea of red-and-white attire (the colours of Nebraska’s beloved college football team, the Huskers), I gather that I’m one of the few getting off the train who aren’t returning home. I’m soon made to feel like a local, however, for as soon as we get into the car, my friend hands me a bright red Huskers sweatshirt. We’re headed to a game tomorrow and she doesn’t want me being the only one not wearing the local team’s colours (to say football is huge here is being modest – on game day, the stadium in the capital city, Lincoln, has a population equivalent to the third most populous city in Nebraska).
Since it’s early in the morning, we head to Omaha’s Old Market for breakfast. Situated downtown, the Old Market comprises glorious, ageing redbrick buildings, many of which are remnants from the city’s early settlers. Back in the mid-19th century, Nebraska was right on the frontier of the Wild West, having only recently been taken over from Indian Territory. With cobblestoned streets still intact in the Old Market, it’s not hard to close your eyes and imagine hearing the clatter of horse hooves and the grating of wagon wheels trundling by. These days the buildings are home to stellar restaurants, tiny bars, charming boutiques and vintage stores of all varieties – books, clothing, vinyl, toys, memorabilia (and cowboy hats, of which I try on my very first) – meaning you could spend the entire day eating, shopping and digging through treasures and consider it well spent. Omaha’s epicurean scene has recently spread to the emerging hipster neighbourhoods of Benson and Dundee, where a fledgling specialty coffee scene has also blossomed in what once was considered an espresso dearth.
Having explored the city’s various creative pockets, later in the day we set off driving through the Nebraskan countryside. With the afternoon sun in full force, we continue for what seems like hours with still not a hill in sight. Stalks of corn cluster together tightly in fields, standing tall as if to live up to their emblematic significance in Nebraska, known as the Cornhusker state. Picturesque red barns with white awnings loom in the middle of fields, surrounded by perfectly rolled bales of hay.
Cows loiter nearby, while a mare canters regally across a field, her shining mane undulating with each graceful step. Rusting farm equipment, awash in reddish browns and weathered greens, lies in eternal rest on the side of fields, basking in the sunshine as if being rewarded for a lifetime of hard toil. We pass through a tiny one-street town, and I notice that the fields are becoming increasingly verdant. And then it appears – the elusive landscape I’ve been seeking all day. As if out of nowhere, green hills begin to grow.