The Plains of Nebraska
Reading Comprehension Activity

Author: Robert Louis Stevenson

More noted for his works of fiction and poetry, Robert Louis Stevenson also wrote nonfiction. This passage is from one of his travel books “Across the Plains.” Stevenson recounts his train trip in 1879 from New York to San Francisco. Students will read the passage and respond to questions on the main idea and Stevenson’s use of language.

Topic(s): Essay / Editorial, History. Skill(s): Compare & Contrast, Figurative Language, Main / Central Idea. Genre(s): Informational, Biography / Autobiography, Journal / Diary

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Robert Louis Stevens was a Scottish author, famous for his novels Kidnapped and Treasure Island. In 1879 he took a trip across the U.S. In this passage he talks about crossing the plains of Nebraska on the train.


It had thundered on the Friday night, but the sun rose on Saturday without a cloud.  We were at sea-there is no other adequate expression-on the plains of Nebraska.  I made my observatory on the top of a fruit-wagon, and sat by the hour upon that perch to spy about me, and to spy in vain for something new.  It was a world almost without a feature; an empty sky, an empty earth; front and back, the line of railway stretched from horizon to horizon, like a cue across a billiard-board; on either hand, the green plain ran till it touched the skirts of heaven.  Along the track innumerable wild sunflowers, no bigger than a crown-piece, bloomed in a continuous flower-bed; grazing beasts were seen upon the prairie at all degrees of distance and diminution; and now and again we might perceive a few dots beside the railroad which grew more and more distinct as we drew nearer till they turned into wooden cabins, and then dwindled and dwindled in our wake until they melted into their surroundings, and we were once more alone upon the billiard-board.  The train toiled over this infinity like a snail; and being the one thing moving, it was wonderful what huge proportions it began to assume in our regard.  It seemed miles in length, and either end of it within but a step of the horizon.  Even my own body or my own head seemed a great thing in that emptiness.  I note the feeling the more readily as it is the contrary of what I have read of in the experience of others.  Day and night, above the roar of the train, our ears were kept busy with the incessant chirp of grasshoppers-a noise like the winding up of countless clocks and watches, which began after a while to seem proper to that land.

To one hurrying through by steam there was a certain exhilaration in this spacious vacancy, this greatness of the air, this discovery of the whole arch of heaven, this straight, unbroken, prison-line of the horizon.  Yet one could not but reflect upon the weariness of those who passed by there in old days, at the foot’s pace of oxen, painfully urging their teams, and with no landmark but that unattainable evening sun for which they steered, and which daily fled them by an equal stride.  They had nothing, it would seem, to overtake; nothing by which to reckon their advance; no sight for repose or for encouragement; but stage after stage, only the dead green waste under foot, and the mocking, fugitive horizon.  But the eye, as I have been told, found differences even here; and at the worst the emigrant came, by perseverance, to the end of his toil.  It is the settlers, after all, at whom we have a right to marvel.  Our consciousness, by which we live, is itself but the creature of variety.  Upon what food does it subsist in such a land?  What livelihood can repay a human creature for a life spent in this huge sameness?  He is cut off from books, from news, from company, from all that can relieve existence but the prosecution of his affairs.  A sky full of stars is the most varied spectacle that he can hope.  He may walk five miles and see nothing; ten, and it is as though he had not moved; twenty, and still he is in the midst of the same great level, and has approached no nearer to the one object within view, the flat horizon which keeps pace with his advance. 

Comprehension Questions

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