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Traveling old U.S. Highway 20

Jun 17, 2013 - By Randy Tucker

At every stop, I met someone I already knew as a Wind River athlete and parent or as a Shoshoni coach.

My first homecoming game as a football coach came in the fall of 1980 on Gibson Field in Lusk. The festivities didn't concern me much because the game that first year would be for the conference championship and the lone playoff berth from the Texas Trail Conference.

Southeast Goshen was our opponent and had one of the greatest teams in a long tradition of football excellence and Lusk head coach Jerry Fullmer had given me the chance to design a defense to slow Southeast's powerful wishbone offense. Even with my stunting 4-4 defense we trailed 7-0 at the half. We came out of the tunnel and to my surprise there was a big "N" burning on a two-wheeled cart in the east end zone. I turned to fellow assistant coach Mike Hart and said, "N? What gives?" Mike was a major league joker but he turned instantly serious and said, "Don't let anyone hear you ask that question. It's for Niobrara County, not Lusk."

It was 1980. Manville High School had closed in 1953, but the sentiment was still there and anyone, newcomer or not, who called said Lusk instead of NCHS was in for trouble.

Small towns can be very sensitive about their identities, and the removal of a high school often is the cruelest cut a small community can take.

Manville was in a big boat when it came to school closure. A look at some old yearbooks in the school library revealed heated rivalries with Hartville, LaGrange, Carpenter, Sunrise, and Fort Laramie, along with Huntley, Veteran and Goshen Hole, which all combined to form Southeast Goshen.

I've often thought of writing a book about the communities of the Nebraska Sandhills located along U.S. Highway 20. From Harrison all the way east to Valentine, the-less-than-metropolitan communities of Rushville, Crawford, Chadron, Gordon and Cody-Kilgore all cling to life amidst the diaspora of youth from the Great Plains.

Take the time to look at these little towns, and you'll see the remnants of once-proud farm communities. Vacant general stores, lumber yards, banks, even boarded-up hospitals dot the local landscape. The concept of geographical hinterland is clearly evident in this region, with only Lusk, Chadron and Valentine having the basic business and facilities common to larger communities.

Last week I made a trip north to write a few stories on the bentonite industry.

As I turned north from Shoshoni I thought of all the times I'd headed up that same U.S. 20 into the Wind River Canyon and points further on in Washakie, Big Horn and Park counties.

In 2005, my son Brian and I made that trek in his old Ford pickup as he traveled to Dickinson, N.D. to get his bachelor's degree along with playing strong safety and competing as a decathlete for the Dickinson State Blue Hawks.

We decided to stay on U.S. 20 all the way to Montana. As we traveled through Thermopolis, Worland, Manderson, Basin, Greybull, Lovell, Cowley, Deaver and Frannie, we took turns telling stories of games played and coached back to my first trip north as a sophomore to play football at Basin in September of 1972.

Geography brings a sense of place to those who listen to its siren song.

At every bentonite plant I visited I met someone I already knew as a Wind River athlete and parent or as a Shoshoni coach. The connections were palpable, and the stories were engaging and fun to hear, even if I had heard them before.

My friend Harold Bailey loved the Big Horn Basin. Basin the town reminded him of his hometown in Colorado. Some of Harold's speeches to his football team when playing Greybull, Burlington, Lovell or Basin have become the stuff of legend among his former players.

A personal favorite was made as the bus arrived at the windswept field in Burlington. One of the boys had just purchased a Trans Am, and Harold couldn't leave it alone.

As the boys jumped up to get off the bus, he told them to sit down. He looked out the window.

"You don't see a Trans Am in the student parking lot do you? You do see a lot of old Ford and Chevy pickups. These kids work for a living, and they're going to work you over if you're not ready. Now get off the bus."

What a pep talk. The kids knew what to expect and through rote memorization they knew one of Harold's other idioms about playing in Big Horn County.

"There's something in the water up here that makes these kids tough," he often said.

Whether it is a trip down memory lane or just observing the farmers in the Big Horn Basin as they cut hay, gather sheep or harvest beets there is something special about old U.S. 20.

You might say it's the heartbeat of America, or maybe just a place where solid rural ethics, hard work and the satisfaction that comes with a job well done are still the prevailing values.

I like this road.

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