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DREAMSCAPES Spring/Summer /2018
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CENTRAL NEBRASKA: A ROAD-TRIPPER'S DREAM
 
(2018 - Spring Issue)

Writer: E. LISA MOSES



From covered wagons and the Pony Express to the transcontinental railway and interstate highways, worshippers of big sky and wide-open spaces will be blessed with new insights into the prairie life.

Modern road warriors in Nebraska will find excellent highways and scenic byways on which to explore the area. They can refuel at craft beer taprooms such as Pals and Kinkaider for unique prairie refreshments, including jalapeño pale ale. They can feast on designer pizza, dips and wings—and take beer home in “growlers.” A smattering of wineries boasts award-winning libations, while eateries such as North Platte’s Canteen Bar & Grille court customers with bison and beef, local produce and decadent desserts. Travellers can stay at familiar chains such as Best Western or independents like the Niobrara Lodge, which proudly proclaims its location in The Middle of Nowhere. And campers will appreciate the well-appointed RV parks and campsites.

TALES AND TRAILS

In 1886, Nebraska’s international celebrity, William (Buffalo Bill) Cody, put down stakes in North Platte—nicknamed “Hell on Wheels.” The legendary buffalo hunter, Pony Express rider and renowned impresario built an elegant Second Empire-style home, Scouts Rest, as a showpiece for his wealth and a home for his four children. His gun-totin’ wife Louisa fended off marauders during her husband’s globe-trotting escapades with the Wild West Show. On our visit, we were greeted by re-enactor Ali Abler as the feisty Louisa, then introduced to a surprisingly docile Bill played by Bruce Richman, who had spent part of his early life in Toronto, Ontario—his father’s hometown.

The house, barn and 104 of the original 1,619 hectares now comprise the Buffalo Bill Ranch State Historical Park and recreation area, where thousands of visitors annually come to camp, picnic, tour the premises and pursue Cody family ghosts. Trail riders can rent horses on-site from Dusty Trails Stables and Outfitting, whose owner Dusty Barner participates in the re-enactments of shoot-’em-ups and kidnappings. Visitors can also go “tanking”—floating down the shallow Platte River in modified steel containers originally used to supply drinking water to farm animals.

Around the corner from Scouts Rest is the Lincoln County Historical Museum, where Mr. and Mrs. Cody hosted a chili cookout for our group in the style of the era. Adventure guide Rick Windham prepared a tasty dinner of chili, veggies, corn bread and peach cobbler in Dutch ovens. (Recipes can be found at rickwindhamoutdoors.com.)

TRAINSPOTTING AND TRAVEL

The rustic museum, run largely by volunteers, has done a remarkable job chronicling the events of the “North Platte Canteen”—a World War II phenomenon where 125 local communities fed more than six million military personnel passing through town on their way to and from the front. For almost five years starting on Christmas Day 1941, women met the troop trains stopping in North Platte for a 10-minute steam locomotive service call, inviting passengers into the station lunchroom for refreshments, homemade food and warm hospitality. One of these historic trains—the Union Pacific Challenger—is on display for all to enjoy.

The advent of the railway was one of the biggest game-changers for the Midwest. In addition to moving troops and Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show animals, props and performers, it brought goods, services and settlers into an area that before was traversed with great difficulty in covered wagons, on horses and in canoes. In the late 1800s, the Union Pacific Railroad chose North Platte as the site of its “classification yard” for train repairs and maintenance. Today, the Bailey Yard is the largest such facility in the world, with 2,500 employees servicing an average of 139 trains and 14,000 cars daily. From the Golden Spike Tower and Visitor Center, railway buffs can watch the action live on webcam and explore the history.

Central Nebraska is also a good source of western wear for those who want to dress the part. Young’s Western Wear in Valentine is a massive old-style outfitter of all things prairie. Kaycee Orr Hoffmann, owner and hatmaker at the Bar None Hat Company in Thedford, builds bespoke cowboy hats for discerning customers. And North Platte’s Fort Cody Trading Post, by its own admission a shameless tourist trap, sells western getups, Buffalo Bill memorabilia and tacky souvenirs.

SANDHILLS: NURTURING NATURE

Our foray into the Sandhills ecoregion covering more than 25 per cent of the state yielded some rare scenery along vast expanses of uncultivated territory. The giant sand dunes, anchored by prairie grasses, sit on one of the world’s largest freshwater aquifers, which feeds the area’s many rivers and lakes. While they are not crop-friendly, the Sandhills are good grazing land for more than 530,000 beef cattle owned by local ranchers. Also at home on the range are herds of bison, among them the 5,000 animals populating media mogul Ted Turner’s Blue Creek Ranch.

The hills are ideal natural habitats for countless wildlife species, including Canada geese. A popular springtime spectator sport is watching 80 per cent of the world’s cranes pass through the Sandhills on their way back north after wintering in southern climes. Some 500,000 cranes converge annually on the Platte River Valley to fatten up on crops and small prey before moving on.

The region is also a pleasant playground for humans. Tubers, rafters and kayakers can get outfitted for various types of water adventures. Fisherfolk revel in lakes that are teeming with walleye, bass, pike and dozens of other species. On land, golfers can stay and play in a wildly unusual setting at The Prairie Club near Valentine. Bikers and cyclists can find tame or tricky off-road routes while hikers can walk converted rail trails.

A worthwhile educational stop is the Charles E. Bessey Tree Nursery, where manager Rick Gilbert regales guests with fascinating facts about forestry and conservation. The nursery grows millions of tree seedlings to create windbreaks on the Great Plains and reforest public lands laid waste by various disasters.

While much of the state evokes the era of the TV series, Little House on the Prairie, modern initiatives are taking hold. North Platte in particular is transforming the downtown core into a smart shopping and cultural scene where visitors can start their days at the laid-back Espresso Shop, attend music performances, participate in “make-and-take” art classes at the Prairie Arts Center and dress in period costume for

Buffalo Bill Ranch fundraisers. In all, Central Nebraska is a great place to live the Wild West life—or simply observe.

Travel Planner

The nearest international airport to North Platte is Denver, Colorado (422 kilometres). Air Canada (aircanada.com) flies directly to Denver from Toronto, Vancouver and Calgary. More details and a downloadable Nebraska Travel Guide are available through visitnebraska.com.

 
 
 
 
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