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Although the Explorer I had didn't have the same size engine, I did have a similar problem. Start with looking up the location of the temperature sensor unit. I little Google search turned up a few youtube videos and some links to new parts ranging from around $20 and up. Of course the price is only dependent upon the application so the lower cost one's could be for the smaller displacement models. Judging by your description and the fact that you drove that distance without the engine seizing, this may be the culprit. Good luck.
Best case scenario is your thermostat is stuck open. When this happens the engine will take a long time to warm up and will never get up to full temp. Worst case could be a serious problem such as a blown head gasket. If there is no coolent in the engine the temp gauge will not register either.
I think you could be right about there being air trapped in the system. Or the heater core(radiator) is plugged. Either way you need a pressurized radiator coolant pump to put the coolant in without air being trapped. Although,i have seen it done by jacking the vehicle up high enough that the radiator was now higher than the heater core level, and then the coolant was put in. But this is dangerous to try.