It should be a fairly straightforward trip of about 850 miles. And it should take about 12-13 hours. Of course, in the movie, if it did, there wouldn’t be much of a movie.
The route that Woody and his son David intended to take is never completely clear. But this is pretty much where they went, in case you are ever tempted to re-create the trip (million-dollar pot of gold at the end of the rainbow not included):
The filmmakers traveled through and shot in four states: Montana, Wyoming, South Dakota and, of course, Nebraska. A direct route from Billings to Lincoln probably would have avoided South Dakota altogether. But that’s a whole other story…
Leaving Billings on Interstate 90, the Grants traveled in their Subaru generally south and east through the Crow Indian Reservation about 100 miles to the Montana-Wyoming border. They crossed the Big Horn River and passed the Little Bighorn Battlefield and Custer monuments.
Crossing into Wyoming along the Wolf Mountains, they soon drove through the town of Sheridan. For some reason, David stops at the “Buffalo Lake Stop gas station”; they shouldn’t have to stop for gas for at least another 250 miles. This stopover occurs at an actual place, although the name is a bit garbled. It is a small “resort” alongside Lake De Smet, outside of Buffalo, Wyoming. The bar, gas station and tiny motel look exactly as they do in the movie; stop in for a beer. Tell them Woody sent you.
If all this territory seems pretty bleak, it’s because the scenes were shot in November – long after every leaf had fallen, and all the prairie grass had turned golden.
From Buffalo, it’s about 150 miles to the border with South Dakota, traveling east – “Forever West” – as the sign says, welcoming visitors to the state. The bikers depicted passing by are a subtle nod to the nearby presence of Sturgis – the home of the mammoth biker gathering in late summer.
It’s also a short detour to Mount Rushmore. I agree with the filmmakers, the rock sculpture seems a little odd, in person. Huh! Really? What possessed someone to do that…here, of all places? And the sculpture does seem disappointingly small, when viewed from so far away. Oh well, let’s hit the road again.
It’s just 18 miles from Mount Rushmore to Rapid City, where Woody and David spend a fitful night. This is where Woody stumbles over a switch in the railroad yard and loses his teeth, gashes his forehead, and takes a trip to the emergency room for stitches. I don’t recommend re-creating this part of Woody’s journey.
From Rapid City, the Grants’ route is a little fuzzy and illogical. They detour from whatever their original route was intended to be, to visit Woody’s boyhood home in Hawthorne, and to rest up from his traumatic night in Rapid City.
The Grants end up meandering out of South Dakota somewhere at a sign that touts “Nebraska, …the good hife – Home of Arbor Day.” (Yes it is; the holiday was first celebrated in Nebraska City in 1872.) They are now 500-600 miles from Billings. A logical route would have had them follow the 195-mile-long “Cowboy Trail” from Valentine to Norfolk, Nebraska.
But in the script, they are next to be found turning off U.S. 77 in Lyons, in northeast Nebraska, down an unpaved rural road. They seek out an abandoned motel with a toppled sign that says, “Rustler Roost”. It’s an icon from Woody’s childhood, that does not seem nearly as impressive now. This somewhat digressive scene may not have made it into the theatrical cut of the movie.
Then, it’s on to Woody’s childhood home in Hawthorne.
Spoiler alert: Hawthorne doesn’t exist.
Hawthorne is a figment screenwriter Bob Nelson’s imagination. But it is an amalgam of places around an actual three-county area – Pierce, Stanton and Madison (maybe with a little bit of Antelope County thrown in). Scenes were filmed in and around the cities of Stanton, Norfolk, Madison, Battle Creek, Tilden, Pierce, Osmond and Plainview, which is the home of a somewhat disconcerting Klown Doll Museum (clown dolls outnumber live people in Plainview, by about 4-to-1.) Plainview is known as the “Klown Kapital” of the world, and each June hosts a clown festival.
Plainview is considered part of the “greater Norfolk” statistical area, even though it’s a good 30 miles away. Norfolk was where the film’s production offices were centered for about a month in the fall of 2012. And it is where one of the movie’s premieres was held.
From a tourism standpoint, the Norfolk area has little to commend it. The film sort of spells this out, literally, in black and white. For a time, Norfolk was known as the home of the state’s largest insane asylum. Now, with 24,000 inhabitants, it is better known as Nebraska’s ninth largest city – which sort of tells you something about the state as a whole.
There is a real Sodbusters Saloon, but it is in downtown Hooper, which is on the outskirts of Omaha. The cinematic Sodbusters is really the Keystone Bar in Plainview. The Blinker Tavern also exists, but in real life it’s Fat’s Lounge. The Plainview News newspaper office also received a new name and sign for the movie, “The Hawthorne Republican.” Did the service station that Woody formerly own even have a name? If so, I didn’t notice that place having any sign.
Other locations such as the Hawthorne cemetery, Woody’s boyhood home and the Westendorf farmhouse might be a little harder to find. But they are all located within a few miles of Plainview.
The locals, who are unlikely to forget the presence of a Hollywood film crew anytime soon, would probably be happy to point the curious in the right direction.
Norfolk gets an actual mention in the script as the place where Woody is taken for hospitalization again. It’s also the jumping-off point for Woody’s final 125-mile jaunt toward his imagined seven-figure fortune in Lincoln. It’s mostly a straight shot south on U.S. 81, to U.S. 34, then east into Lincoln.
Lincoln is the capital of the state, home to about 260,000 people, and headquarters of the fictional Mid-Plains Marketing Promotions, the Sears Hometown Store and the used car dealership where David plunks down about $8,000 for a 2007-ish Ford Ranger.
So Woody Grant’s 850-mile-plus journey from Billings ends. But the film doesn’t quite end here. See it, to find out the surprising plot twists that propel him to where his journey ultimately takes him.
Fade to black.
December 25, 2013
Official “Nebraska” Movie Trailer