Nebraska - and the Great Plains

Lost in a sea of flowers

As we tumbled from South Dakota into Nebraska on our Great Plains roadtrip, I felt a burgeoning kinship with the early pioneers. Men, women and children encouraged to “Go West” for a better life.To steal a quote from the time...

“The Cowards never started. The weak died on the way. Only the strong survived, they were the Pioneers.”

In contrast to those brave souls we were gliding along the trails in an air conditioned SUV, but to steal another quote from another time “this cat doesn’t cool herself!”.

We pulled into Gordon, Nebraska and found the only accommodation in town. It looked like an Inn where truckers park up and kip for the night. When we swaggered in through the screen door, we found a middle-aged lady stretched out on the couch, within a flash she bounced up from her slumber and greeted us. She was friendly yet reserved (a contradiction I like).

She kept the place spic and span and when she saw we had a baby in tow she changed our room to the biggest one she had, no extra charge. Interestingly, in the lobby/couch/nap area there were reams and reams of books, even a children’s section and a basket with toys. All meticulously neat and tidy. I kept pestering Dom for his thoughts on this, he eventually shrugged his shoulders and said it must be for the truckers…?!

Hay! Let's bale

We asked the lady of the house for dinner recommendations and after a thought she pointed one way to Pizza Hut and the other way to Subway. So… on our walk to Pizza Hut, we ambled past fields with bales of hay an arms length away, almost as close on the other side of the road were gigantic towering grain silos. The silos were a little eerie and dominated the town both physically and economically.

Black Hawk down and out

We walked back with heavy bellies and quietly passed a man in the darkness examining his chainsaw as he sat in the back of his pickup truck… at night (I’m serious). We didn’t mind pushing on from that town the next day but before leaving I insisted we stop at the town’s one monument, I had spotted it out of the corner of my eye the day before. It was a war memorial in the form of a real live army helicopter that appeared to have crash landed in a carpark. Yes, the monument was in a carpark with the backdrop of fast food joints. Similar to thoughts I had in North Dakota, I wondered, ‘Is the army a way out of a small town for many Americans?’ Is it that or Dunkin Donuts?!

One of the lasting memories I will have of our travels across the plains is the brilliant beauty of the endless fields of golden sunflowers. Sunflowers have been a favourite flower of mine since childhood. Their brazen simplicity and big beautiful heads make the hardest of us smile. We took multiple stops so I could attempt to capture this powerful sight on camera. As I kept assuring Dom, my photos of these sunflowers will win awards, awaaaaards, I tell ya!

Nebraskans have some time on their hands

Once I eventually managed to pull away from the sunflowers I saw the strangest roadside art… “Car-henge”. A plethora of old cadillacs painted steel grey and mounted, one on top of the other, to mimic the actual Stone Henge. Bizarre, remarkable, only-in-America, and once again my camera was put to use as Róisín ran circles around the ‘stones’.

Bemused, we motored on to the next town called Alliance and stopped for breakfast. I love the names pioneers came up with for campsites-turned-towns as they forged West, they are always so powerful and ‘Merican (you have to say those words with a fist pump).

Alliance (<fist pump> ‘Hell Yeah!’) had a cute cobbled Main St and seemed a lot livelier than its spooky neighbour, Gordon. We ventured into a cafe called The Krazy Lady Bakery. The owner did a double take as she swished by with her fresh goods, she was back to us in seconds, she pulled up a chair and started the chat.

I wasn’t surprised to learn she was of Irish descent (curiosity is endemic). She regaled us with stories of her famous bakery where farmers came from far and wide to eat her homemade pastries and hearty breakfasts. A town where everybody knew everybody and looked out for eachother. She pulled closer to tell us one story of a farmer whose barn had burnt to the ground, the town dropped everything to start building and 3 days later he had a new barn.

I wonder on a different day, in a less packed cafe, would she have leaned in even closer and divulged her thoughts on how the barn burnt down in the first place (but ya gotta keep us comin’ back for more). Her stories and bonhomie warmed the cockles of my heart. We left town with warm tummies and a bagful of pastries tucked under my arm.

“The Cowards never started. The weak died on the way. Only the strong survived, they were the Pioneers.” 

It was one thing to feel like a pioneer, but now it was time to actually hit the official pioneer trail. Chimney Rock is a 480 foot natural rock spire that soars from the sandhills of Nebraska into the sky. It was this focal point that early settlers travelling West on the wagon trail looked out for. It was a sign that they had reached the ‘gloryland of the West’.

Historic monuments crack me up

As we drove closer and watched the rock tear into the sky before us, it was humbling to think of the half a million travellers that passed in the shadow of this very rock, perhaps cheering, shouting, collapsing, relieved... all of the above?

These incredible individuals were an embodiment of inspiration, a great movement of people and ideas across a country in the 1800s. Alas, I’m no pioneer, I can barely cross a road without mumbling a curse! I thought Chimney Rock was a brand of e-cigarettes and a wagon wheel conjures up a desire for a circular chocolate treat from my childhood.

Life on the trail would start at sunrise. Breakfast was fried bacon, bread and coffee (throw in some eggs over easy and we got ourselves a brunch!). They would get the cattle ready and commence the ‘march’ (most people walked the trails using the space on their wagons for their belongings). They'd stop at noon to give the animals a rest, have refreshments, then marching again until 6pm when the wagon circle would be formed and the camp settled for the night.

A striking comment from a patch of history on a plaque at Chimney Rock informed us that people’s journals from the time described the native Americans as very friendly and helpful people, but the trickle of white trailblazers became hordes bringing disease and setting up permanent camps on native lands.

I had assumed the push to go West was driven by the common man’s desire to prosper but it was largely a deliberate plan and strategy by the powers that be, the plan was to “manifest destiny” - have America span from the east coast to the west coast. I’m sure man’s desire played a big part in it too. I will manifest my own destiny and continue to hit these states until I’ve visited every last one in the Union. Only then can I begin to fully understand and appreciate this country of dreamers.

The trail led us to Ogallala, I was very excited as it’s tourist board had done a great job of making the town sound unmissable. During the wild days of the gold rush Ogallala was known as one of the lustiest towns in the West where gold flowed across the gambling tables, liquor across the bar and often blood across the floor.

It's West but it ain't Wild

There was a historic Main St which I hoped would remind me of the wild west the way Tombstone in Arizona had (read here) but it was very much on the small side. Nonetheless, the little museum and curiosity shop were nostalgic. Sadly, the town’s wild reputation was long, long gone.

One of the top attractions the Tourist Board boasts of is a beautifully preserved Victorian house called the Mansion on the Hill. Living in San Francisco, we are surrounded on a daily basis by Victorian houses on hills but I’m a sucker for anything ‘preserved’ (from chutney to chop houses). We presented ourselves on the doorstep 5 minutes before closing time. A little man looked at his watch and then gave us a “Gee Shucks, you better come on in!”. He gave us a 5 minute tour and then confessed he wasn’t the tour guide! That made it all the better.

Boots 'in' the ground
He apologised for the short shrift and suggested we take a walk to Boot Hill, a cowboy graveyard so named because the cowboys were buried with their boots on. Now that is a bit of history I came to see. It was a small plot of land but deeply moving to walk among the wooden signs, some marked “Unknown”, young men killed in gun battles, all chasing their dreams in this wild town.

Right, I'm off!

The small man from the big house had also mentioned Lake McConaughy to us, locally known as Lake Mac, fishing out a couple of tourist magazines from a stand in the house’s hallway and thrusting them into my hand. They all gushed about Lake Mac - a hub of water sports, picnics, parkland, a throbbing dam and a small but perfect beach. What's a holiday without some beach time and who knew we would find it in Nebraska! We blissed out there using our jackets as beach blankets and paddled with our jeans rolled up (ahh, memories of Irish childhood beach holidays).

I beg your pardon?

In among the tourist mags, I found a fishing magazine. Between ads for rigging, trolling and vertical jigging (say what now?!) I saw a small reference to the tiny town of Keystone, home to a small combination church. The town was too small for both a Catholic and Protestant church so they built one building. There is a Catholic altar at one end, a Protestant altar at the other and pews with reversible backs. It’s as cute as a button. Religious warring types take note.

Too cute to fight over

We had one more stop on the agenda before we hung up our travelling spurs - the Pioneer Village. It was a mad museum within a museum. A collection of Americana from the 1800s to the 1980s. Thirty buildings chronicle life in America from the horse and carriage to the first Ford motor car. You can sit in an original prairie schoolhouse, gaze into a room dedicated to colour TVs from the 1960s, browse the General Store stocked with items from bygone days, there was even a building dedicated to how modern appliances “lessened women’s work”!

"Look Ma, I'm on TV!"
Harold Warp the industrious gentleman who created the museum described it best when he said…

<1950s radio voice>

"In a mere 120 years of eternal time man progressed from open hearths, grease lamps and ox carts to television, supersonic speed an atomic power".

We were obsessed with the place and didn’t want to leave. Did you know that in the original phone booths you paid 10 cents for the operator to connect you then they remotely locked the booth only reopening it once you'd paid what you owed at the end of the call! I kinda love it.

For random American history trivia and nostalgic blasts from the past, the Pioneer Village should be on everyone's bucket list. I spent the next two hours spewing out facts and pouring over photos as we pioneered forth to our final stop on the roadtrip…

Dorothy, grab your ruby slippers, we’re going to Kansas! 

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  1. Never thought there'd be so much to see in Nebraska, thanks for sharing, you've given a great insight into the history. Hope to get there someday :)


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