Are the High Plains even Midwestern? They are doubtlessly more West than East. But these are far from the landscapes of California or Alaska. “Central,” I think, is ultimately the best name for the flat lonesome land between eastern farmlands and the Rockies. Scan the undifferentiated prairie, put a ruler to the horizon and appreciate it best for its sheer open space.
All you see along Interstate 80 through western Nebraska until I-76 splits off toward Denver is corn, corn, corn. Breach the maizy curtain, however, and there are big skies and badlands as lovely as in either Dakota. I found the locals happy to go out of their way to be hospitable to tourists, likely because of the general lack of them. It is profoundly remote — no airport in the region has passenger service — and there’s not really a central point around which Panhandle tourism revolves. To me, however, long drives on wide-open two-lane highways is meditation par excellence. I wish I had lingered.
Landmarks and curiosities
Every red-blooded American of a certain age relished playing “Oregon Trail” in elementary school computer lab. Provided you managed not to kill your character first, there would be a little to-do once you reached Chimney Rock, the famous landmark pioneers passed as they paralleled the Platte River westward. I scoffed at the visitors’ center admission fee ($3) because, well, you can see it right from the road. I got a satisfying number of Facebook likes for my selfie with it, crowing that I had yet to die of dysentery (nps.gov).
Scotts Bluff National Monument is worth the $5 vehicle pass because you can actually hike up 800 feet to its top. It’s big in a landscape whose prevailing sparseness makes everything feel tiny. Though wimps can drive atop it, the 1.6-mile paved path from the visitors center is a darling little trail requiring just enough physical exertion to put a smile on your face when you finish it (nps.gov/scbl).
I like the colors best — tawny sandstone, the tennis ball-green grass of summer, bright blue sky with sailing white clouds. I also like the wildflowers, the sound of the wind through the prairie and the view of Scottsbluff from the top. I explored that city and the adjoining town of Gering.
Catherine the Great encouraged German immigration to Russia’s Volga River valley, and they later settled throughout the High Plains. Nebraska’s famous runza, a kind of bread-pocket sandwich, is a hallmark of their mixed Teutonic and Slavic cuisine. The Mixing Bowl in Gering, open for breakfast and lunch, has seasonal menus and locally sourced ingredients. But it’s also an authentic Volga German bakery. The poor baker was loath to talk to a reporter at first but became much more forthcoming after I lauded the important cultural heritage she preserves with her craft. I tried a “dinna kuga,” a yeasted birch sugar pastry with a crumb topping, and grebal, lightly fried doughnuts laced with icing sugar (1-308-633-1288; mixingbowlgering.com).
I wanted to hate it, but Carhenge is part of what makes this country great. It’s exactly what it sounds like: a bunch of old cars arranged like Stonehenge. I pretentiously analyzed it from many sides. It’s postmodern: a reinterpretation of classic forms using new materials, a merger of high and low culture. It’s instillation art out in the middle of nowhere. And it’s endearing folk art: a man’s memorial to his father, lovingly preserved by the people of the nearby town of Alliance. I encourage them to ditch the signs’ Merrie Olde England font. Carhenge is nothing if not wholly American (carhenge.com).
Drive north to Chadron, a neat little college town, to see the Museum of the Fur Trade, an encyclopedic museum of the occupation’s entire North American history. See 18th-century woven blankets, firearms (from a 1650 Dutch model through those made at the close of the frontier), countless baubles, silver, foodstuffs and every tool that could be conceivably traded. Gilding the lily, there’s also a botanical garden of heirloom Native American crops (1-308-432-3843; furtrade.org).
South Dakota has the Black Hills, and Nebraska has the Pine Ridge. It’s best experienced at Fort Robinson State Park (visitnebraska.com). From 1874 to 1948, the site was an Army base that bred horses for World War I cavalrymen and hosted Buffalo Soldiers and German POWs. The officers’ quarters are now guest lodges. There are horse-drawn haywagon and stagecoach tours, and kayaking and tubing on the White River. The University of Nebraska’s Trailside Museum has the remains of two mammoths that died fighting, tusks still intertwined after thousands of years. There’s hiking, dirt biking and horseback riding — even off-road Jeep tours.
And it was where Crazy Horse was bayoneted to death while in the Army’s custody. The park does not withhold this difficult history. After a band of Cheyenne were arrested in 1878, the Army took them to Fort Robinson. Half of the 150 died here over the brutal winter. The barracks where they were housed without provisions have been re-created.
I heard great things about the High Plains Homestead (1-308-665-2592; highplainshomestead.com), several miles down a gravel road in Nebraska’s northwestern corner, and thought I’d enjoy a cowboy chuck wagon-style dinner. As it happens, the restaurant is for overnight guests, but they always have a few extra helpings for wayward stragglers.
Owner Mike Kesselring asked for an hour to prepare my meal, so I visited nearby Toadstool Geological Park (visit nebraska.com), where there’s camping and a milelong loop trail through the badlands. It’s a great place to fossil-hunt, though you can’t take them with you. The Hudson-Meng Bison Kill Site, an archaeological dig of thousands of prehistoric bison bones, is connected to it via a longer trail.
Kesselring and his wife, Linda, opened the Homestead 19 years ago. The first guest to book gets to set the menu. I wolfed down a big grilled pork chop, salad, fried potatoes and homemade pie. He said that visitors come back year after year, and I knew why.
You come to the Panhandle to get away from it all. It’s a place where the buffalo roam and the deer and antelope play. I say that without a trace of sarcasm. I could happily come back here to eat chops, explore the Pine Ridge, read a book, meet the other guests and go to bed at a reasonable hour for a week every year.
Aaron Gettinger (adgettinger.com) is a Chicago-based freelance writer.