It’s Never What You Think. Know Thyself by Knowing More. Beads and Pizza. Triggers. Show-rabbit Steak. The Great Pumpkin Platte. Fog Leads to Bo. Lincoln Mexican Hills. The Best Museums Arch over Pioneer Village. Red Cloud.
It’s Never What You Think.
Nebraska is a State few seem to know much about. Those I’d asked groaned about driving through it, preferring I suspected, to experience the world sealed in the metal, glass, and plastic of their car, rather than stopping to look around. But I’ve learned it’s best to stop when impulse draws your eye, pull over, get out of the car; it’s always worth it.
I admit my experience with Nebraska resided primarily in an assigned college book, O’Pioneers by Willa Cather. I remembered that I liked it, that there was a windmill on the cover, that she was an important American literary figure; that was about it.
Know Thyself by Knowing More.
As usual, I waited until I crossed the State border to haul out my tattered atlas from behind the engine-block. My two equally worn travel books, marked with pen and pencil, pages creased, folded and bent, were piled on my passenger seat. I used them for tips, while cross-indexing advice and suggestions from friends on the internet, or people I’d met along the way. Using my iPhone Maps for quick-references on location, I sketched a basic route through each State. The route might change, depending on conditions or information from locals, but at least I had direction, a plan that I would surrender to impulse and intuition when merited.
Looking at the maps and flipping through the pages to find Nebraska, I glanced at my scribbles along American roads I’d traveled for 10 months and realized, not unexpectedly, I’d come to know myself better. Not just from the hours of solitude and reflection on the road, the introspection, but also through an extrospection, if there is such a word, in that I was discovering a broader identity through my growing knowledge of my world. Instead of having amorphous ideas about the places I read about or saw in the news, ideas that were almost always vastly different from reality, now I had details, details that engendered familiarity. Because of this, I felt like I belonged here more, I belonged in this place more, in this country and world more. My sense of context, my existence and right to exist in it, had grown with travel. Thus I was happy to descend into Nebraska and add it to my growing self.
Beads and Pizza.
After crossing the silver Missouri on a silver day under brooding skies, I passed through low forest, and stopped at lookout-points over bosque farmland and river; the forest gradually blended into fields of cut dried corn, the drabby gold contrasting with the gray above. I pulled over to walk through antique windmills spinning gently; I stopped to ponder old barns, and stared through a chain-link fence at a football field on the Winnebago Reservation. Indigenous paintings and necklaces adorned the walls of a nearby gallery. My map named this route the Outlaw Scenic Byway.
Clinging to the road’s edges were the towns, like the rough beads on one of the necklaces I saw. Walt Hill hid behind rusty silos and grain elevators. Tribal Council election signs marked the outskirts of its surviving main street, full of beautiful peeling textures and shuttered windows and rust. Further along was the village of Tekamah, with some nice murals; and Blair, where I stopped for tacos, the young woman behind the counter, hair in a ponytail beneath her visor, approached to confide how boring life was. But even boring is interesting to me.
Cylinders of hay, ubiquitous in America’s farm-lush heartland, marked the distance unevenly between the towns. Omaha wasn’t far; I drove straight through to Elmwood Park, aiming for the University of Nebraska branch where I hoped the Presidential Debates would be screened. Parking enforcement graciously advised where I could park for free, a librarian directed me to the debates hall complete with boxed piles of complimentary pizza. I grabbed several slices of pepperoni and a Fanta, settled under the blurry giant screens at the front, and watched the candidates try to differentiate themselves. I was one of the few spectators; needless to say, there was a whole lot of pizza remaining when I left. Could I fit it in my van?
The next morning I exercised at Elmwood Park. Leaves carpeted the path in dry bronze, while those still tethered above flared yellow and fiery red. Around the city, the trees were bursting to be bare, the cold weather ensuring their final transition.
I drove by the monolithic Mutual of Omaha building, which reminded me of Sunday evenings as a kid seated on a white shag carpet. My sister and I would perch in front of a fire-place our family almost never used, to watch old Marlon Perkins host Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom (it aired right after Disney). Barry Manilow wrote the jingle for Mutual of Omaha, as well as “I’m a Pepper” for Dr. Pepper, which was sung by that actor who was both in Hot Dog and American Werewolf in London. I had a crush on the nurse from American Werewolf; she was also in Logan’s Run, and Walkabout –an Australian movie we had to watch in 6th grade –which was about the time I’d have been kneeling before Wild Kingdom and our small TV by the fireplace. So it all comes full circle. Memories triggered in the Omaha building’s parking lot.
My real goal that morning was the Joslyn Art Museum. I found a spot for the Chief beneath a very serious edifice with colonnades and large lawns and steps, very Museum. But it turned out to be the Central High School now located in what was the State’s first Capitol Building. The grass on the hill managed to remain green and the flowers still clung to their colors despite the cold and the trees whose leaves had not.
Behind the high school was the significantly more modern but solidly impressive Joslyn Museum. Inside, the entry was adorned with yet another inescapable glass sculpture by David Chihuly, necessary it seems at nearly every museum. I ducked past it and ambled through the impressive Western Art collection. All those colors and brush strokes made me want to paint again; it’s been over 3 years since I held a brush. The masterful images stirred in me ideas I’ll explore when I return to canvas one day.
If I lived in Omaha, which I really liked, I’d live in the Old Market District. I enjoy these areas, the bustle, the bars, the restaurants and stores; refurbished down towns that retain some of their grit, which I call character, holding out against the inevitable invasion of the more blatant chain-stores. The 4-story brick buildings were ringed in wrought iron, supporting flower pots, a cigar bar, and restaurants offering “the best steak in Nebraska.”
I was looking for a steak. I’d decided to eat at least one in each of the cattle states, but was disappointed by the restaurants’ darkened windows; they were closed. I scrolled my phone’s internet and found a place that was open and worthy…the legendary Johnny’s Café.
Johnny’s was quintessential old school, a place designed for eating red meat: doors with big metal handles opened to yellowish low light and red naugahyde booths; faded wallpaper depicting a forest engulfed the main dining room; laminated tables accompanied laminated menus handed out by a career wait-staff. My waitress also worked at UPS and raised show-rabbits. Given the environment, I considered a Jameson on the rocks, but it wasn’t even noon. I settled with lemonade and what the waitress recommended, a red slab of rib-eye and mashed potatoes.
The infamous dome at the Omaha Zoo was where I digested, before seeking out dessert down the highway at Valla’s Pumpkin Patch, a cool, dusty, farm-like, retro, walk-down-memory-lane type of place…perfect for my nieces.
The Great Pumpkin Platte.
Valla’s was a mammoth property piled with all sorts of squash: in bins, on shelves, strewn across the fields, sometimes even airborne, before being smashed (which I learned was called “pumpkin chunkin”). Surreal displays of familiar fairy-tales touted linty mannequins like Humpty-Dumpty and Sleeping Beauty. There was a creepy old mine made from spray-painted sack cloth, as well as a passenger train, bottled jams, caramel apples, a covered bridge, and pig races where kids could enjoy the thrill of their first bet. I strolled around snacking on ice-cream and exploring the general stores.
As the sun dropped, I followed the Platte to River State Park and Stone Creek Falls. An observation tower peered over the forest where the sun shined across the water and revealed a tipi in the field below. I went to take a look, crunching over dead leaves as light slanted in columns through the trees. Straddling the railroad tracks I gazed across the river, and then followed the trail to the falls where water dripped from low rock overhangs. Day soon disappeared behind the hill; the shafts of light replaced by shadows. I found my way back to the tipi and the tower, and aimed my van for the Strategic Air and Space Museum a few miles away. It was closed, but the giant USAF Rocket in front glinted with last sun, as Earth’s shadow filled it up. From a shredded cornfield I watched the sky melt into cotton candy.
Fog Leads to Bo.
Joe had a jolly belly and a white mustache. He worked at Walmart. He’d also been a grocery store clerk, army security guard, hydraulic jack repairman, mechanic, printer, and machinist. He grew peach trees as a hobby and gave 100 away each year. He also told me Bo Derek was once his neighbor. Joe was one of the many Walmart employees who had to jump-start my van when I left the lights on and awoke to a dead battery. This happened often.
The night before, I drove through an eerie fog to Lincoln. It became so thick that I slowed to a crawl; my headlights were like underwater beams illuminating a glowing soup. I limped along, guided by the median and floating streetlamps, to my destination for the night, another parking lot on urban outskirts. In my hooded wool jacket, I got out and wandered through the dark, watching the road where pin pricks of light grew into wavering orbs that whooshed past me in twin streams of red.
Lincoln Mexican Hills.
Coal-laden trains seemed to be everywhere in Nebraska, and Lincoln was no exception. They rumbled by the Great Temple of Football, University of Nebraska’s stadium; the train cars also sped past the hip, historic Hay Market, a few blocks away. I walked the rain-shiny streets among the taverns and bars and bookstores. I gazed into the cathedral-like interior of the State Capitol building.
The State brochures heavily promoted the beautiful rolling hills in Nebraska’s interior, as well as the picturesque country in the pan-handle, which I was sad to miss. I headed for the Sandhills Journey Scenic Byway through chilly Grand Island. The little town contained a famous pioneer museum, and plenty of Mexican food restaurants; I ate at Kentucky Fried Chicken.
An hour and a half west, Broken Bow was the end of the line for me, and worth it, through a country of gentle curves and swaying grass. I boomeranged around the gazebo in its city square and accelerated south, through increasingly bad weather and plummeting temperatures. The wind made prancing patterns over the grass.
The Best Museums Arch over Pioneer Village.
The Chief was covered in snow when I awoke the next morning. The world outside was covered in it too, speckled with frost. I drove to Kearney, and nearly ignored the Great Platte River Road Archway, which vaulted over I-80, the Lincoln Highway, also the covered-wagon gateway to the West. I was glad I stopped; they had an inspiring museum about the Great American Road-trip, from the Pioneers to the Present, designed by Disney Imagineers. Most travelers drive right by, too bad, they miss a fun museum, a placid pond and rest area, a restaurant, and a traditional Native-American Earth house. The stop was a welcome refuge from the cold, and one of my favorite museums on the trip.
Just beyond Kearney, an endearing town with latticed brick roads, barbershops, dentist offices, lounges, and the Museum of Nebraska Art, was one of America’s other coolest museums, called Pioneer Village. Coal trains barreled along Route 30, the gray skies had been replaced by fluffy clouds whose shadows drifted over the fields. The museum sat at an intersection in the small town of Minden, presided over by huge grain silos.
Pat, with snow-white hair, in a red vest and tartan skirt, cleaned the tables. Lunch was almost over, I entered the museum diner with minutes to spare. When asked what the questionable-looking contents in the salad bar contained, Pat peered in and shrugged her shoulders. “Mystery Salad,” she said. Since it was my only choice, I took it. According to her, Minden used to be a bustling town, but was now mostly a community of retired farmers. She loved it here though, not quite as much as Disneyland, she stressed, but it was home.
I headed into the museum, a stark contrast to the sleek, cinematic, immersive exhibit at Archway, but equally as compelling; I loved them both. Endless displays of cars and patches, dolls and radios and whatever, Nostalgia; and a real pioneer village in back, with a church, a school-house, a general store, hallways and barns full of Americana. This was a museum.
Willa Cather grew up in Red Cloud, near the Kansas border. I was finally coming face to face with my first impression of Nebraska. Tiny towns propped up by decaying buildings eventually lead to Red Cloud’s main street and the Willa Cather Museum. I bought a book there and drove on to a nice little RV park called Sleepy Hollow, with a nice little old lady, named Charlotte Bell, who read romance novels, passing them on to others when she was done.
It was Prime Rib night at the Palace, so I sidled up to the bar, pressing through flannel shirts and overalls, and leaned my elbows on the counter. There I met the Whitmer sisters, who’d moved back into the region to be close to family and affordable housing; they invited me over for dinner the next night.
After a day looking at historically-protected round barns, and doing chores like washing clothes, I joined the family for meatloaf and mashed potatoes in their cozy 3-bedroom house that cost $17,500. The sisters then joined me for a few drinks at a local bar with local characters, where I got my butt-kicked at billiards. I decided to call it a night. The next morning I realized I left my sweater at the laundromat; when I returned, it was still there. Thank you Nebraska.It was cold but the day opened with sun. I steered the Chief over the Republican River into Kansas, and withdrew my tattered atlas, ready to have my identity broadened by one more State. Nebraska, as usual, was much different than I imagined it would be.