Nebraska: big, broad and beckoning…
When I was a little kid, I was nuts about geography, especially the United States. Nearly all of it was west of where I grew up, and it fascinated me that the farther west you went the bigger and blockier the states became, big straight-line chunks of uncharted territory very unlike the smaller, squiggly-bordered states in the East, overly crammed with people and trees. In time, maybe by age 10, I could draw a map of the U.S. freehand, with all the states and capitals, and it seemed to be that dead-center in all this unexplored intrigue was the state with the coolest-ever name: Nebraska. I didn’t know then, of course, that the name derived from an Otoe word meaning “flat water,” referring to the Platte River. To me, Nebraska sounded hearty and muscular, a big stretchy place with more than its fair share of wind. Forget that the mascot of their college football team was once a vegetable. Or that Kool-Aid was invented here. Or that it’s still illegal to burp in church.
(Before Herbie Husker, there was Corn Man)
Or that there can be such innovative approaches to spelling:
Sign in North Platte.
I knew none of these things, and I was determined then, at age 10, to go there and spend some time – maybe even move there and live among all those farmers and ranchers and their many daughters. But of course I had to wait till I was older and itchy enough to blow off a few weeks of work to hop in the car and go. At last, I did.
We seem to be encouraged to think Nebraska is all corn, but it isn’t so. From east to west, the state rolls through farmland (and corn) and prairie, the vast apparent uselessness of the Sand Hills, and into the near-western landscape of the Panhandle where gold rushers and wagon trains first got a hint of the mountains beyond.
So we’re panhandlers…
So to understand the allure and intrigue of panhandles, my wife and I explored them. Idaho and Utah panhandles (a bit), Texas and Oklahoma panhandles (nearly every inch), West Virginia and Florida (much of them), and now we come to the gentle green-and-sandy glories of the Nebraska panhandle and we’re hooked.
American panhandles. I guess Utah’s isn’t really a panhandle after all – more of a thrust.
Here is a peaceful and underpopulated tapestry of irrigated fields, prairie, ranch land, cliffs and spires and grasslands, part Great Plains, part hard, obtrusive west. And anchoring this mix of contradictions is Scottsbluff, the “everything” town of the Nebraska Panhandle and home to some 15,000 people. When we arrived and poked around, we found it beautiful and peaceful and friendly enough to stay a couple of days (we rarely have a set schedule or itinerary).
Just a few miles east of the town is Chimney Rock, as weird a geological anomaly as you’ll find (except maybe for Devil’s Tower). It’s not that it’s so remarkable in itself, it’s where they put it — right in the middle of the prairie. For wagon trains headed west on the Oregon Trail, which passes right through here, it must have been an alarming sight: What is that thing doing there?
Here’s my wife’s shot with her Hasselblad (film!). There was a small family cemetery that caught her eye, and a grave marker for a small child. Someone put the child’s little sneaker on the railing. I love the framing and depth of field of this photo.
Back in Scottsbluff we moseyed around, went to their YMCA for a needed workout, had lunch at Applebee’s in town, then drove up to the Scotts Bluff itself (two words, not one) to see what all the fuss was about. In fact, this is where wagon train scouts would hoof it to the top to see what lay west, and here’s more or less what they saw, minus the buildings and irrigated fields:
If I wasn’t falling in love with this place, I was falling in serious like. The folks here – at the Y, around town, at the motel and at Applebee’s – were gracious and happy. We’d been at Applebee’s in Colorado the night before and here in town for lunch, and it made perfect sense to us to go back there for supper. A threepeat! Later, after several more suppers at Applebee’s-es in other states heading home, we would sometimes refer to this particular 4,000 mile road trip as The Applebee’s Roadie.
The Applebee’s threepeat…
I don’t know why I’m such a fan of this chain, but I’ll give it a shot: the food is reliably good, sometimes better than that, and there’s something for every appetite. Full bar! – always a good idea. It’s warm and cozy inside, not too brightly lit, the service is speedy and congenial. It’s what I call a culinary soft-landing, with rarely any unpleasant surprises. Locally, here in Thomaston, Applebee’s truly is a neighborhood bar and grill, a favorite of locals and their families. Considering how many restaurant choices there are in this area, it’s impressive that it’s often packed to the gills.
I did a little homework: the chain launched in 1980 in Atlanta, grew rapidly, merged with IHOP in 2007, the company changed its name to DineEquity, which is now the world’s largest full-service restaurant company with more than 2000 Applebee’s-es around the world. Some may scoff – you’re eating at Applebee’s? Why? Can’t you do something different, something better? It’s a chain, for gosh sake. Yeah but. In the middle of the Great Plains, it’s guaranteed decent food, a comfortable seat, and friendly people.
As always, we skirted the interstates as much as we could heading home to Georgia. The storm we saw brewing from the top of Scotts Bluff chased us for several days, with dark oily clouds and pelting rain.
Near Wynot, NE on Route 12, looking west toward that Wyoming-born storm, in the extreme northeast nook of Nebraska, just a dozen miles or so from Iowa. That’s a heavy downpour in the distance, not a tornado.
At one point on the trip, I told my wife the town of Scottsbluff had a great feeling about it, a good vibe, good people. It had a commercial airport, community college, good health facilities, solid infrastructure, some cultural amenities… could we live there? It certainly crossed my mind. But back in Georgia, we would turn our view northward, not west, and ultimately I’m glad we did.
(note: I’m not shilling for Applebee’s. No money, no coupons, nothing from them. I just happen to like Applebee’s.)