Saturday, September 21, 2013

How to Travel in Nebraska

Last month I visited my Nebraska homeland, which apart from my alarm at the political climate there, was a great, relaxing time.  Apart from seeing my family, it was great to be underneath the wide plains sky and gaze out upon the beautiful prairies.  We also took some cool trips into the country, and spent some time in Omaha, a seriously up-and-coming city with lots to offer.  I mention this because over the years, when I tell people I am from Nebraska, they often respond by calling it flat, boring, and desolate.  I soon discover that the only experience they have to back up this perception came from a one-time car trip across the state on Interstate 80.  This means that the supposed coastal sophisticates who register this opinion are actually incredibly ignorant.  (I wouldn't blame them, if not for the arrogance with which they run down a place they never really saw or understood.)

Instead of getting mad at such slights, I thought, as a public service, I would offer a guide on how to travel in Nebraska.  This is meant both for those passing through, as well as those looking to stop.  One nice thing about the places I will mention is that they are bereft of out of state tourists, meaning that a visitor will find them to be inexpensive, uncrowded, and patronized by friendly locals.  Below are some tips and rules for having a great travel experience in Nebraska

The Flat is Not Universal
Yes, many parts of Nebraska are very flat.  However, most of the state is not.  The perception problem stems from the fact that Interstate 80, the only one in the state, mostly follows the Platte River valley, by far the state's flattest section (and where I happened to grow up.)  Nuckolls County, where my dad hails from, is so hilly that a family legend says that my great-great-grandmother from the swampy flatlands of northern Germany died in despair once her immigrant daughter's family paid for her passage over the Atlantic.  On the wagon trip from the train station to the farm she supposedly whimpered "not another hill!" and died soon afterward.  The northwestern third of Nebraska is covered by the aptly named Sandhills, and Omaha is built on steep bluffs with streets as treacherous as those in San Francisco.  Go there and tell me Nebraska is uniformly flat.

Get Off the Interstate
If you want to get away from the flat, get off the interstate.  Not only will you get some more varied terrain, you will also get to experience some beautiful countryside.  Most state highways don't have shoulders, meaning that the prairie comes right up to the road.  For those, like me, who enjoy the driving as much as getting to the destination, these roads are a pure pleasure.  The absolute best is state Highway 2, which cuts diagonally across the breathtakingly empty Sand Hills.  A close second is Highway 83, which also goes across the Sand Hills and ends up at the scenic Niobrara River.

Lincoln and Omaha are Ideal Overnight Stops
If you're planning on just gunning it down Interstate 80 through Nebraska, you should at least plan to stop overnight for a rest in either Lincoln or Omaha.  Although Nebraskans like to think of themselves as rural folk, an increasingly higher percentage of them live in these two growing, thriving cities.  Both have a wealth of great bars and restaurants with low prices.  Downtown Lincoln is a great place to hang out, and the Old Market in Omaha is one of my favorite places in the world to spend a lazy evening.  These two locations also have well-stocked and affordable used book stores and quality microbreweries to boot.  Between Chicago and Denver there really aren't any other cities as interesting and full of things to do.

Eat at Small Town Bars
If you want to find a good place to eat on the road in rural Nebraska, sites like Yelp will be of no help to you.  Outside of Lincoln and Omaha, the only places to eat are either national chain restaurants or places so local that only locals know about them.  These are also not the most tech-savvy locals, so the places they love won't get online raves.  The bar and grill is the lifeblood of most small towns in Nebraska.  People might go there to drink at night, but during the day they are where folks get together to talk, drink coffee, and have lunch.  Each town has one, and many of them serve amazing food at low prices with good service and plenty of character to boot.  As a public service, here are a few worth seeking out, some of which are located near major highways:

Whiskey River in Dannebrog:  Went there on my last trip and had a killer prime rib sandwich for eight bucks.
The Opera House in Fairfield: Have not been there yet, but my cousins say there's good food and several local beers on tap.
Ole's in Paxton: A little creepy because it is full of taxidermy from all over the world, but totally kitsch-tastic for that reason
Dick's in Lawrence: My father's hometown bar, and the rock of that community.
Tubb's Pub in Sumner: The best chicken fried steak and hot beef sandwiches I've ever had.  Well worth the detour from I-80.

A Short List of Great Places to See
As with the food, the best places to see in Nebraska are off of the beaten path, and well-known to locals, but unknown to outsiders.  Here are some of my favorites:

Red Cloud:  This is the hometown of Willa Cather, the greatest author the Cornhusker State ever produced.  In addition to some interesting sites for Cather-holics, south of town there is a preserved grassland which has restored the prairie to how it looked 150 years ago.  Its vastness is truly a sight to behold.

Valentine:  Visit here if you want to canoe or innertube down the beautiful Niobrara River.  Conditions are ideal, the landscape gorgeous, and the prices much lower than on more famous rivers.

Highway 2:  The Sand Hills are one of the most desolately beatific landscapes I've ever seen, and Nebraska Highway 2 cuts diagonally right across them.  Every time I go home I try to drive at least a short stretch of Highway 2, and it always has a soothing effect on my soul.

Carhenge:  Outside of the Sand Hills town of Alliance, a local man built a replica of Stonehenge using junked cars.  It has a strange genius to it, and I think works as a profound commentary on consumption.

Scottsbluff:  Also in the Panhandle, climbing this giant rock provides awesome vistas.

Ft. Robinson:  Crazy Horse met his end at this old army base in the northwest corner of the state.  Very interesting spot for history buffs.

Toadstool State Park:  Getting here requires going down some seriously dusty gravel roads to a place that seems like another planet.  Out there in the middle of nothing lies a large outcropping of rock, which erosion has formed into crazy shapes that look like toadstools.  It is hard to describe just how isolated this place is, or how it gives the visitor such a brush with the uncanny.  It's like Devil's Tower in that respect, but without others around to spoil the effect.

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