(February 26, 2010)

One of my longest trips was in July 2008 when I followed the Oregon Trail (backwards) from Salt Lake City to Independence, Missouri. The largest chunk of new territory for me on that trip was Nebraska. My only previous visit there was a truly dismal conference of summer school administrators (which is what I was at the time) held there in midwinter - very grim.

My welcome to the state came immediately, when I stopped at a small town cafe a few miles in from the Wyoming border. The chatty young waitress, the same age as my students at Berkeley but with two kids already, asked me "So if you are from California, what the heck are you doing in Nebraaaska?" drawing out the A with satiric emphasis.

People had told me Nebraska was nothing but a long day's drive through cornfields, dead flat with nothing of interest. Of course I never believe this sort of stereotype, I find interest in every landscape and see what most others miss. But I did not have high expectations, so the reality of Nebraska blew me away.

The Sand Hills
My first stop was Agate Fossil Beds National Monument in the northwest corner of the state, a fabulous fossil site miles from anywhere out in the Sandhills. Gus Yellowhair and his two nieces sang Native American songs at the visitor center, reminding me this was the area of the last stand of the plains Indians. Nearby Fort Robinson played a sinister role in that, but now is a huge state park with one of the largest buffalo herds on the prairies.

At the end of my swing through Nebraska a week later I almost closed the loop, coming up northwest through the Sandhills along the Cowboy Trail, a railroad route converted to a trail. These are the "empty counties" where the towns stand half-empty and there are suggestions of turning it all back into a vast buffalo range.

The Oregon Trail in Western Nebraska
Returning to the main east-west corridor along the North Platte River the first stop was Scotts Bluff National Monument. The bluff's height isn't great compared to almost anything further west, but it impresssed the pioneers lumbering westward in their prairie schooners from the midwest. It actually had the authentic feel of a national park, with great views, CCC-built roads and trails, and an excellent visitor center. Another landmark was close by - Chimney Rock, which I remember from childrens books about the wagon trains. The Oregon Trail along this stretch follows the south bank of the North Platte River (the Mormon Trail was on the other side), with an important stopping point at verdant Ash Hollow.

A shortcut across the uplands towards the South Platte River brought me to California Hill where the best preserved wagon train ruts can be found on a grassy hillside that has somehow escaped the plow. Did I mention that tourists following the Oregon trail are sometimes referred to as "rut nuts"? Yes, I saw lots of ruts on this trip, but there were only two places where I could at all imagine it as it was in the 1840's. Many of the "ruts" are actually vague swales where the wagons wore a trench in the soft ground, and some are in agricultural or even urban areas. But here at California Hill, and earlier at South Pass, the country was still fairly empty and quiet, and the trail marked by a pair of wheel tracks though the grass (within the wider swale). It is one of the stranger sorts of historical artifact, and a distinctively American one.

North Platte, Nebraska, is centered in the western half of the state on the river of the same name. It is home to the Union Pacific Railroad's Bailey Yard, the largest railroad classification yard in the world - 10,000 cars a day on 315 miles of track. They had just opened the Golden Spike Tower with an overview of the yard, built with a notable lack of cooperation from the railroad, which had also torn down the historic depot. I guess it was just conforming to its historic stereotype as a ruthless, heartless corporation. Buffalo Bill's Scout's Rest Ranch outside of town was very interesting.

Cody Park in North Platte has a superb collection of railroad rolling stock and an entire small town depot, transported intact from nearby Hershey. I passed the invisible line from west to east, the Hundredth Meridian, between Gothenburg and Cozad. The landscape by that point had changed to the midwestern pattern of small towns with huge grain elevators and endless cornfields. I wasn't the only one aware of this dividing line, there were no less than four signs and plaques marking its passage through Cozad.
Southeastern Nebraska
Following Interstate 80 for a distance here I began to understand the stereotype of flat and corny. But the site of Fort Kearney, and the Archway Monument grandiosely spanning the highway hint at an interesting past. From there I veered southeast, to Rock Creek Station, site of a small toll bridge and important supply point on the Oregon Trail and the best preserved Pony Express station. It was here that a stable hand later known as "Wild Bill" Hickok shot David McCanles - one shot through the heart with a pistol at 75 yards. I met up with Bill again a few weeks later in Deadwood, South Dakota.

Willa Cather is acclaimed as one of the greatest American writers, famous equally for her stories of the frontier she grew up on, and the Southwest she moved to as an established writer. Her home town of Red Cloud, down near the Kansas border, has lovely red brick streets, stately old buildings, and even a recently restored and protected hilltop prairie. I bought two of her books here and read them for the rest of the trip.

Beyond Red Cloud the country became lusher, with prosperous looking old towns such as Fairbury and Beatrice. Failing to find a decent motel for the night I found out why people who camp in the Midwest in summer stay inside their motorhomes - the bugs, heat and humidity were almost unbearable. But I was entranced by the abundant fireflies, the first I had ever seen. My final stop on the long traverse of Nebraska was little-visited Homestead National Monument (or National Memorial, according to some sources). This was where the very first homestead claim was made and preserves a fine woodland and lush meadows, as well as a historic cabin and collection of 19th century farm equipment.
Omaha and Florence
After a few days spent in Kansas and Missouri I found myself in Omaha on a Sunday morning. After my dismal experience here years before I didn't expect much, but was surprised at what I found. I started with the Riverfront and Old Market district, recently reclaimed from the railroad, rusty industry and obsolete commerce. This was the supply center for a huge westwards swathe of frontier and later rich farmland. The old buildings were interesting and the neighborhood quickly became very lively. The only sour note was when I sought out the "Jobbers Canyon" Historic District, only to find that it had been demolished and replaced with the corporate headquarters of Con Agra Foods. Shame!

Downtown Omaha was an unexpected delight, buildings old and new surrounding a green park with pools and waterfalls, wildlife and pioneer history sculptures adding interest. I had the definite feeling of a city on the rebound, recovering from the closing of the stockyards and a troubled past of ethnic strife. On the north edge of town I visited Florence, originally known as Winter Quarters, where the first big group of Mormon emigrants waited out the winter of 1846-47.
The Cowboy Trail and Niobrara
From Omaha I wandered through pleasant small towns and lush agricultural land, roughly paralleling the Elkhorn River. Then I continued along the former route of the Chicago and Northwestern Railway, now converted into the Cowboy Trail, a 320 mile hiking, biking, and horseback rail-to-trail conversion through the area known as the Nebraska Outback.

My final stop in Nebraska was a very pleasant one, an amazing biologic crossroads - the Niobrara River National Preserve. The uplands above the river include some remnant prairie courtesy of the benign neglect of the cavalry at Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge, complete with elk and a sizeable herd of buffalo. The river canyon has steep limsetone walls with a few small waterfalls and a lovely clear river. The east-west orientation results in vegetation from further north on the south wall (facing north) and from further south on the north wall. Plus it is right on the 100th meridian and has species from both east and west, including excellent opportunities for birdwatching. Truly one of the hidden gems of Nebraska.

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