Nebraska – It’s Not For Everyone

8588-NTC Tanking Image

Denver Airport is one of the busiest in the USA. But the only reason I’m landing here is to get away from crowds and into the wide-open spaces. I’m heading to Northwestern Nebraska—considered flyover land by those who don’t know better, and christened paradise by those who seek the pleasures of the scenic, unspoiled great outdoors.

Nebraska = pancake-flat? That’s a far stretch at what they call Chimney Rock, an iconic rock pillar thrusting close to 400 feet above the North Platte River Valley. It served as a famous landmark for travelers along the Oregon and Mormon Trails, and for us as we followed the paved trail to its base. (Why paved, you ask? Because the area’s rattlesnakes don’t like cement.) A Wild West thunderstorm rolled in and just as quickly out, refreshing the green prairie alive with wildflowers.

The monument’s Visitors Center describes the pioneers’ half-year-long journey in covered wagons and the dangers encountered along the way, perceived (Indians) or real (poison plants, animals). Spin its Wheel of Fortune to calculate your odds of survival. Then ‘pack’ a load and check its weight.

Before sunset, drive 30 minutes to Wildcat Hills State Park, where rangers like Gary show off the local stuffed animals (elk, wildcat and more), along with a treasury of fossil skulls. A balcony overlooks hills clad in overcoats of pine, spliced by otherworldly rock formations—the first of many we’ll spot on this trip. Hike the canyons below to earn your dinner.

In nearby Scottsbluff, choose a flight of craft beers and clever pizzas at Flyover Brewing Company, or head to the old-time tavern called Steel Grill for everything from a mountain-sized nacho platter to my choice, a heap of nicely sticky ribs.

Easy to fall straight to sleep in the blissful quiet. Then, easy to arise for a tour of Scottsbluff National Monument, anchoring a park of 3,000 woodsy acres and four miles of hiking trails. At an overlook, we scanned the 360-degree horizon of rolling pines and jutting stone. The Visitors Center offers accounts which travelers in the mid-1800s confided to their diaries. “I crawled myself into a wagon in a very cramped position and passed an emphatically miserable night,” whined John Handy in June 1850, when one in every ten travelers perished. Frances Hayes, however, opined that “The scenery here is sublime.”

We were dying of hunger, ourselves, so we sped back to Scottsbluff to pull up at The Mixing Bowl to test owner Jamie Heisner’s homage to the German fare of her great-grandfolks—specials like cabbage burgers and butterball soup (plus generous sandwiches and salads), followed by her home-made bakery treats (talking to you, black bean brownies). And a life-altering list of Starbucks-quality coffee drinks, right here in flyover land.

The tiny town of Crawford, along our route, merits a pull-over at its quirky rock and fossil shop, selling everything from mammoths’ teeth to precious gems to a curly shrimp fossilized in a piece of ancient rock. Fossils in the gumball machine, too. Lunch at the town bar & grill provided juicy Reubens because….drum roll!…the Reuben sandwich was invented in this very state.

We’d planned a night of stargazing at Toadstool, a geological park also known for its wacky stone formations shaped like (duh!) —toadstools. But one of those epic Nebraska thunderstorms muscled in. Instead, we marveled at them by broad daylight after an overnight at Fort Robinson State Park at Our Heritage Guest Ranch. Dining there was a convivial affair, overseen by portraits of stern former Army commanders, who silently urged us to clean our plates (easy for me: bison steak, then homemade pie).

A morning ride in ATVs trucked us within photo-shooting distance of the bison and pronghorn herds as we ogled mighty rock formations above deep, pine-clad gullies. Plus more rattlesnakes.

Grain Bin Antique Town

Back again at the fort’s grassy parade grounds, we ventured to the History Museum anchored there to ogle its iconic Clash of the Mammoths: ginormous skeletons of the two huge creatures which locked their tusks in battle and couldn’t break apart … even in death. You’ll spot the bones of a gazelle camel and the rhino herd which once wandered nearby, too.

Then meander to the nearby History Museum, which records the bloody ongoing battles between the Army and local Indian tribes. The heroic warrior Crazy Horse died close by.

By 1916, we learn, the fort housed a Black Cavalry unit; then, during WW II, a canine corps, trained to do guard duty, sniff out mines and deliver messages. During that war, 5,000 German prisoners also were housed here, as their photos testify.

On the road again. Enroute to North Platte, our final stop, by popular demand we swung into the town of Alliance to drop our jaws at Carhenge. Yup, a former Brit who’d moved here decided to build a replica of his land’s amazing Stonehenge; but with no Druids on hand to haul stones, he resorted to replicating its mystic circle with used cars. Still think Nebraska’s boring?

We reached the town at sunset, just in time to dig into creative pizzas and craft beers on the deck of Pals Brewing Company (“great beer for the Great Plains”). Then a night at the Hilton Tru, the brand’s new hipster magnet that’s so easy to love: lobby pool table, gathering pods, gym, free breakfast plus coffee 24/7. Sweet dreams, indeed.


Our final day’s a full one, starting with an exploration of Potter’s Pasture, 45 minutes distant, via hiking trails that climb up wooded hills, glide past piney ravines and lead us to one awesome 360-view after another.

Then, off for another of those only-in-Nebraska experiences: tanking. The idea is to float down the Platte River inside a metal cattle tank shaped like a giant cake tin. BYOB? You betcha.

Last stop, North Platte—home of the One and Only Buffalo Bill. And what a home it is! Tour the fancy Italianate-style mansion, chock-full of memorabilia: think buffalo skin coat, ten gallon hat, lots of rifles, and posters from his traveling shows.

Even quirkier: Grain Bin Antique Town, a nearby barn surrounded by scores of pavilions, each loaded with everything from figure skates to brass spittoons.

Our last—and finest—dinner was celebrated at North Platte’s Cedar Room, whose kitchen marries prairie fare with fine dining: thus, cowboy calamari (mini chicken-fried steaks) vied with wild  mushroom-coated brie; Rocky Mountain oysters (don’t ask) with ciabatta in pesto sauce. The menu’s catalog of beefsteaks was followed by my choice, a husky Duroc pork chop sauced in salted caramel. For braggin’ rights, go for the beast burger (elk, bison, wild boar and caramelized onions).

That burger might be a poster item for what they meant when they chose a state slogan for Nebraska: “Honestly, it’s not for everyone.” Just for the select few who seek the road trip of a lifetime.

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