Those of us from the Great Plains have heard it thousands of times. Were we to receive a nickel for every time we’d heard it laughingly, dismissively uttered, we would be rich indeed—though sadly (or perhaps, fortunately) ours is not a system where we are fined for uttering banalities. It is part of received American wisdom— this truth, seemingly universally acknowledged, that there is nothing here in the middle of the country, nothing here except corn fields and cows and land which must be flown over or driven through as quickly as possible on the way to somewhere—anywhere—else.
In part, this is true. There are a lot of corn fields. There are many, many, many cows—the Nebraska Beef Council estimates that 5 million cattle are resident in the state of Nebraska, while only 1.8 million people can say the same. In fact, 91% of the state’s total land area is devoted to farming or ranching.
Nor are there many people outside of Lincoln and Omaha—1.1 million of the 1.9 million people in the state live in Lincoln, Omaha, or their metros. Four of the United States’ least populous counties are in Nebraska. Arthur County, nestled in the Sandhills with only 460 residents but 718 square miles, has a population density of .6 people per square mile.
And so when I tell people that I recently spent four days by myself driving 900 miles, intentionally, through this emptiest of places with no greater destination than this “nothingness” itself, camping alone with nothing but an overly optimistic mountain of library books for company, I suspect that to some, it sounds looney. After all, for the same length of trip, I could have easily had a nice weekend in Kansas City, or Minneapolis, or Chicago. Somewhere with... something.
But the idea of this trip gnawed at me for years. I grew up traveling the state with my parents, and longed to rediscover it as an adult. In my mind, it looked different—I originally planned to take this trip with a partner, and never dreamed I would want (let alone be capable of doing) a solo camping trip. But life does not always turn out the way you think it will—and then what? Is the answer to sit and wait and hope that at some point, you will be able to do all of the things you always wanted to do in the way that you wanted to do them? Of course not. There are many challenges to my life as it stands right now, but also some great freedoms—and one of them is that I can take off in the middle of a week on a four day trip if I want to, and there is an undeniable beauty in that.
And so, I did.
Four days, three nights, and 900 miles of just me and my tent (and, you know, a car full of stuff. This wasn't a "head into the wilderness with just a pocketknife" sort of thing. There will be no Reese Witherspoon remake here.) I came back feeling not only empowered, but also in love with the exquisite hidden gem that is Western Nebraska.
Day One: Chasing Waterfalls
On the first day, I headed north, my destination Nebraska’s tallest waterfall. I passed through a bastion of Nebraska-ness, the tiny town of St. Paul, home of Dorothy Lynch, doyenne of salad dressing, the “sweet and spicy, one-of-a-kind-taste” known to every Nebraskan. Soon, I was distracted by a barn.
What is it about ruins? I am mesmerized by them, particularly of old houses. To see the fading remains of something that was once the result of an aspirational act, built proudly, perhaps lovingly. A structure once filled with people, their lives, their struggles, their decisions. Perhaps good times happened within its walls. Perhaps tragedy and sadness and pain. Most likely, both of these extremes happened there. At some point, someone made the choice to leave and never come back.
Ruins are unique to no region, and yet, there is something about them that perhaps resonates especially deeply with Midwesterners. A moniker for part of the region— “The Rust Belt”— is based solely on the idea of ruin, specifically urban desertion. Nebraska’s isolated remains are not the after-effects of factories relocated overseas, but of the inexorable urbanization of the second half of the twentieth century, the consolidation of farmland, and periodic agricultural crises that drive a few more smaller farmers off of the land every time they happen. They are the skeletons of tiny towns founded by railroads, named by railroads, created for railroads, and abandoned when the railroads left and cars became king.
My first planned destination this day was not a ruined barn, but a subterranean network of hollowed out diatomite, a geographically unusual site in North America. Over six million years ago, a large lake (perhaps even a great one) covered the area, depositing algae that much later became the “chalk” in the mine. Initially, settlers thought the relatively easy-to-mine chalk made an attractive choice for building material in a tree-starved region, though as you may have guessed, there proved to be some longevity issues with these types of structures (but one, built in 1887, still stands in the nearby town of Scotia.) Eventually, the “chalk” found its place as an additive in paint, cement, and even chicken feed. Now, the mine is a cool respite on a hot day, a repository of decades of graffiti of area teens, a home for tiny, two-inch bats, and a seasonal haunted house.
As I continued north, I dipped into the edge of the Sandhills. At one point, I followed a sign down a gravel road advertising a “historical site.” There, I found two horses grazing next to a concrete marker with a plaque reading:
KILLED BY INDIANS
JANUARY 19 1874
The U.S. government’s long and gruesome campaign against Native Americans in the name of “manifest destiny” and “progress” had been ongoing for a century at the time of “The Battle of Pebble Creek” as a later, nearby marker memorialized Marion Littlefield’s fatal confrontation. While Native Americans in much of the rest of the U.S. had long since been shunted onto reservations in the wake of broken treaties and weakened by disease, the Plains tribes carried on active, armed resistance to government policies across western Nebraska and the Dakotas well into the late 19th century. This particular skirmish, in 1874, happened five years before the U.S. even recognized Native Americans as “persons” in the eyes of the law, an outcome of Ponca chief Standing Bear’s trial for “unlawfully” leaving a reservation in Oklahoma. The Poncas, native to northwestern Nebraska, had been ordered to Oklahoma, where a lack of provision by the U.S. government resulted in the death of a third of the tribe from starvation and illness during their first winter. One of the dead was Standing Bear’s son, and his departure from the reservation was a quest to return his son’s body for burial in his ancestral homelands. After their arrest for this journey, Standing Bear successfully sued for civil rights under the laws of the United States, memorably stating in a speech in his own defense:
“That hand is not the color of yours, but if I prick it, the blood will flow, and I shall feel pain. The blood is of the same color of yours. God made me, and I am a man.”
I stopped for dinner in the tiny town of Long Pine. Here, peak small town restaurant was achieved:
When I assented to the waitress’ query as to the desirability of onions and pickles, she walked to the back room, and returned bearing an old tupperware container plucked from a refrigerator with pickles, onions, and tomatoes neatly sorted inside. No style points, but effective enough—though communal condiments are possibly not strictly within the bounds of health code best practices.
I made it to my campsite as dusk fell. It was $5 to spend the night on the banks of the Niobrara River, a short walk across a bridge to Smith Falls (the photo of the river the night I arrived is the lead image for this article). There has never been a more perfect night for camping.
Day Two: Hopped Up on Toadstools
In the morning, I walked over to Smith Falls, the tallest waterfall in the state. I could have just waded across the river if I had been of a mind to do so—like most rivers in the state, the Niobrara is not particularly deep. During my visit, it was slightly above my knees in the middle—the perfect depth for tubing and canoeing/kayaking, for which it is a popular destination. But the magic of going on a Monday meant that I had the waterfall to myself, and nearly the entire river as well.
Admittedly, living in upstate New York for six years did spoil me on waterfalls. But I still love this one—it’s a little beauty, and the access to it is great. It’s the perfect way to cool off partway through a tubing trip.
I was now only about four miles south of the Nebraska-South Dakota border, which meant it was time to head west. By this point, I had long since ceased to see much crop agriculture—this part of the state, the Sandhills, is almost purely ranching country. This ecosystem is Nebraska’s most under-appreciated, and to outsiders, least known treasure, in spite of the fact that it comprises almost a quarter of Nebraska’s land. These are grass-stabilized sand dunes, and the sandy soil’s unsuitability for raising crops led to the 19th-century moniker “the Great American Desert.” Native tribes who lived in the area did not farm it extensively either, instead following bison herds who grazed in the area until they were decimated by white settlement. Today, reintroduced bison herds are still raised across this portion of the state, along with cattle. Because crop agriculture never took root (heh) here, 85% of the Sandhills remains intact and unplowed.
I stopped in Valentine, so that I could experience the Cowboy Trail, a project of the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission that has developed 195 continuous miles of the old Chicago & Northwestern Railway into a hiking, biking, and horseback riding thoroughfare (plans are to continue the trail another 125 miles to Chadron, in the far northwestern corner of the state). The crown jewel of the trail is a 150’ high bridge over the Niobrara River just south of town.
Cherry County, home to Valentine and the bridge, takes some time to traverse—at 6,009 square miles, it is larger than the state of Connecticut, or larger than Delaware and Rhode Island combined—and this is within a state that has 93 counties. The massive amount of space that is Western Nebraska appears almost unending—I have been on the road for two days, and still have three more hours and a crossing into the Mountain Time Zone before I hit the westernmost border of the state. And that is exactly where I’m headed.
Toadstool Geological Park takes a bit of work to get to, but it is worth it. Halfway down the 15-mile rough gravel road, my drive got a lot more interesting when an antelope—last seen by me in Windows 95 while writing my Oregon Trail piece last summer—sprinted out in front of me. The peril was worth it though, because here’s what awaited me in the middle of otherwise unremarkable ranch land:
After taking in the weird shapes and quasi-moonscape of Toadstool (and losing the trail twice), my trip took me on to Fort Robinson.
Day Three: In Which I Ride a Horse (and Finally Take a Shower)
By now, it’s evident from the landscape that we’re not in
Kansas Eastern Nebraska any longer:
I spent the night at Fort Robinson, a place of which I have fond childhood memories. A highlight of the morning was a horseback ride through the bluffs, like a real westerner and everything. Led by a voluble and friendly 19-year-old from nearby Crawford, I learned our intrepid cowboy was attending college at the University of Wyoming—which is, after all, four hours closer to our current location than Nebraska’s flagship university. This distance is a fact of life for western Nebraskans—with population balance in the state heavily shifted east and the state’s only two real metro areas clustered within 50 miles of the eastern border, residents of the Panhandle log untold miles driving to the eastern part of the state for anything ranging from work (many are employed by the University of Nebraska system in extension capacities, or in UNL’s ranch research outposts), to high school activities conferences, to, well, Husker football games. To fly somewhere means first, a four-plus hour drive to Denver, or with more limited options and higher costs, a two-hour drive to Rapid City (SD) Regional Airport. To be from western Nebraska is to submit to a not-insignificant degree of time-consuming travel as a regular feature of life.
But then, it is so beautiful and peaceful, you start to think that even that might be worth it.
Day Four: Art of the Ancients, or, Carhenge
My final day found me preparing to stop off at a few of Nebraska’s...highest profile attractions before driving across nearly the entire state back to home. On my way south through the Panhandle, I stumbled upon some more perfect ruins:
As I mentioned earlier, I have a real thing for decaying bits of rural life, and while there are still some excellently ramshackle farmhouses and barns in my area of the state, I posit that there are more in Western Nebraska because the need to eliminate them simply doesn’t exist. In parts of the state where crops are king, any available acre is eventually given over to cultivation—abandoned farmsteads are a great deal of work to clear, but often, the potential profit makes it worth the effort. But in this land of grazing cattle, old buildings aren’t causing anyone too much loss of income—in fact, they can even be considered a benefit, as they offer livestock shelter or shade. They return to the land slowly, co-existing alongside the region’s flora, fauna, and omnipresent cattle.
Of course, I had to make a stop at western Nebraska’s most famous landmark. Chimney Rock, though it has lost some of its original point to erosion and lightning, still cuts an impressive figure in the landscape, and it is no wonder that those traveling on westward trails in the 19th century found it such a significant sight. After so much time spent rolling through beautiful but monotonous prairie, Chimney Rock’s distinctive profile must have been an exciting confirmation that they were, indeed, still on the right path. Today, it’s a bit less thrilling—you unfortunately are not allowed to go up very close to it, and the omnipresent rattlesnake warning signs keep you looking at the ground more than at the landmark.
Chimney Rock crossed off the list, I headed to Nebraska’s arguably most kooky treasure —Carhenge. What is Carhenge? It’s a faithful replica of Stonehenge, done in American cars spray painted gray and placed in the middle of a field near Alliance, Nebraska, by a man and his family during a family reunion in the 1980s. Obviously.
The “what” may be easy to answer... but the “why” is significantly less so. In the end, it’s probably the simple conclusion of “why not?”
Heading home, I took Highway 2, the Sandhills Scenic Byway. This road feels like insider information, because whenever I hear the complaint about how boring I-80 is and how the person saying that inevitably generalizes that monotony to the entire state, I know that they simply have no idea that only a little bit to the north lies one of the most gorgeous drives in the country, weaving among undulating, grassy hills, sprinkled with the occasional small lake. It even goes through the world’s largest man-made forest, planted in 1902, a living testament to a time when environmental sustainability experiments in America were a bit more in vogue.
I closed my trip with an episode that seems particularly “Nebraska” to me. During my journey, I collected stamps on my “Nebraska Passport,” a program run in the summer by the state tourism department which encourages people to visit new places in the state and get stamps in a booklet that are then redeemable for prizes. One of the stops was a historic (and allegedly haunted, of course) hotel in Broken Bow, Nebraska. Though it was late, I figured a hotel would probably be open all night. Upon arriving, a sign on the door directed “after hours visitors” to a side door, which I entered. I found the front desk unmanned, but the hotel was prepared for another late-night guest. Their room key—a real, metal key, not a plastic card—was in an envelope sitting on the front desk with their name on it, waiting for their arrival, a beautiful implicit trust that this simple system still works in an age of encryption and chips and two-factor authentication. Trust that no one would run off with the key, or create shenanigans with the room. Trust that maybe the world still has some good left in it after all. And after re-experiencing the beauty of state, it’s easier for me to believe that too.