Nebraska Worth a Visit

This friendly, affordable birdwatching paradise is flyover country, but in an entirely good way.


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Attractions like Carhenge and natural wonders abound.

FLICKR KEVIN SAFF (CC)

 

Californians, confess: You’re so weary of crowds, condescension, and fennel-infused hipper-than-thouitude that you yearn to run screaming to a simpler place where history meets wildlife meets world-class, free-admission museums. You want to wave at strangers while driving straight spotless roads through serene structureless landscapes sprawling clear to the horizon under caramel- and Aqua Velva–colored country skies.

This wide-open, warm-welcome wonderland exists. It’s called Nebraska.

Stop pretending you’ve never heard of it. Nebraska has the world’s largest porch swing. Twenty-ounce steaks. Could Lewis and Clark, the man who invented Kool-Aid, and 500,000 sandhill cranes per year be wrong?

“The skies here are amazing; sometimes I can’t believe they’re real,” says Jennifer Homan, whose dazzling pastels hang in the Museum of Nebraska Art (admission: $0.00) in Kearney, where Homan grew up and where in a series of rustic wooden blinds, Audubon’s Rowe Sanctuary provides springtime viewing access to those noodly-necked, scarlet-scalped, spiky-winged cranes. Descending mid-migration upon an 80-mile stretch of the Platte River for a month’s feast before speeding north to their Siberian breeding grounds, these golden-eyed giants crowd the sky, tracing great aeronautical arabesques.

Other avian attractions include bald eagles, prairie chickens (whose annual mating dances attract avid voyeurs), and 457 wild species. including 37 types of warbler. Far from the sea, thousands of gigantic white pelicans spend their mid-migration respites on silent, sparkling Harlan County Reservoir.

“Watching the birds come in to land is a spiritual experience,” asserts Homan. Her uncle wrote scripts for Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom, which shares famous-Nebraskan-product status with CliffsNotes, Reuben sandwiches, Spam, Arbor Day, beloved East Bay chocolatier Christopher Blue, Henry Fonda (his babyhood home is among 104 authentic historic structures dotting 200-acre Stuhr Museum of the Prairie Pioneer, whose period-costumed staff churn butter and bale hay), and that bright sweet beverage whose creator also devised Kool-Shakes and Kool-Aid bubblegum, memorialized at the Hastings Museum and Hastings’ mid-August Kool-Aid Days. (World’s biggest Kool-Aid stand, hello.)

The chicks and rabbits that are transformed into hilarious artworks at York’s annual springtime Peep Show are made of marshmallow, but animals, plants, water, and weather loom large in a state that, at 93 percent, tops all others in terms of acreage devoted to farmland. You can’t climb mountains here, or surf. But Nebraska’s striking four-season beauty, dismissed by snobbish slope-scalers and skyline-scanners, is an ancient kind, its green, gold, and ice-white flatness as soothing as smooth, clean sheets for those of us who never have to drive tractors across what might be the quintessential American terrain. Praise the prairie. Embrace the plains. Do the math: More farmland equals fewer strip malls. Win-win.

At the Ashfall Fossil Beds, Crazy Horse’s grave, and Carhenge—Stonehenge, with cars—runaway cornhusks dance like blonde butterflies around your legs. Agriculture isn’t a happy-cows cartoon here, but hard work, infusing every stratum of the atmosphere. At steak buffets, Omaha’s spectacular zoo, Lee’s Legendary Marble Museum, and the panoramic Great Platte River Road Archway, locals discuss wind, sun, and soil—because ever since French fur traders first arrived in the late 18th century, followed by a million westward-headed pioneers, they’ve had to.

“The story of America—the America we recognize—started to come into its own here. Nebraska’s frontier history is the history of America’s adolescence,” says Stuhr Museum executive director Joe Black.

So just as you would with Bolivia’s altitude or Hawaii’s humidity, imbibe Nebraska’s flatness. Find its music, whether this, for you, is chortling cranes or windswept stalks or unpretentious talk. Study its soul at open-air museums such as Wessels Living History Farm. Hearing your guide exclaim, “There’s a lot of really interesting tractors in here,” and realizing he’s right, it dawns on you: I’m not in Emeryville anymore.

Confess: You fear that if you avoid steak and corn, you’ll starve. Psst: Charcuterie at Omaha’s Grey Plume. Cupcakes at Hastings’ Käffekiks. Pupusas at Grand Island’s Azteca. The lavish salad bar at York’s quaint Chances R. Period dinners at the Henderson Mennonite Heritage Park. Picnic? Backalley Bakery breads. Artisanal cheeses, jams, and pumpkin butters. Lincoln-roasted Cultiva coffee. Organic U-pick produce. Wines from Sage Hill, Meyer, Moonlight Ridge, Prairie Creek, and more. Empyrian, Scratchtown, Blue Blood, and Lucky Bucket microbrews. At a fraction of Bay Area prices, sans waiting in Off the Griddish lines.

Oh, and the Nebraska Softball Hall of Fame: One more reason to retrace in reverse the pioneers’ passage across the state whose slogan once was “Where the West Begins,” where a smile is a smile, because it snows too long and hard on that flat fertile land for smirks.

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