We spent a couple of weeks driving west to east through Nebraska and finished that journey saying that Nebraska is the most boring state we’ve visited. In revisiting our stops for this blog, that really hasn’t been the case at all. The topography of Nebraska is kind of boring, as it’s pretty flat with not much to look at except crops and cattle. But, we really did find some fun and interesting things along the way.
We like to consult the website Atlas Obscura to see what unusual sites there may be in each state, and our first stop in Nebraska was the small town of Alliance to see Carhenge. The man who created this fun art installation, Jim Reinders, was born in Alliance and went to work in the oil and gas industry. He spent most of his career in the United Kingdom before retiring and returning to Alliance. Having done extensive study of Stonehenge while in the the UK, Reinders had the idea to recreate a scale model of it using old cars. He thought it might be a fun way to bring some tourism dollars to his hometown. With help from family and friends, Carhenge was built in 1987 on the family farm. As the saying goes, “if you build it, they will come,” and they did. About 100,000 people every year visit the site. In 2013, it was gifted to the City of Alliance. It’s free to visit, with the hopes that you’ll also visit the shops and cafes along the cute cobblestone streets of historic Alliance. Fun fact: there are two cars with their trunks filled as time capsules, one with World War II memorabilia, the other with 20th century items. One will be opened in 2044, the second in 2053.
Our first multi-day stop was in Scottsbluff, Nebraska. Anyone who played the video game The Oregon Trail in the late 90’s should recognize Scotts Bluff and Chimney Rock as two of the most important landmarks that helped travelers find their way west. Scotts Bluff is now a National Monument with a road and hiking trails that take you up to an observation point at the top. Chimney Rock is a State Monument that can only be observed from a distance. Standing on the top of Scotts Bluff and looking down at the deeply fissured land below, it’s mind boggling to imagine heavy wagons with wooden wheels being pulled through while trying to find the path to the west.
Scottsbluff came with a surprise … we arrived just as the National Hot Air Balloon Championships were about to take place! We’d been hoping to be able to see the Balloon Fiesta in Albuquerque, but not sure if we’d make it to New Mexico by early October. This certainly isn’t as big, but it’s very important in the world of Hot Air Balloon competition as the winners of this event qualify for the Fiesta. There were 45 competitive balloons and a couple dozen others who were there for fun. The competition involves the balloonists reaching certain targets both in the sky and on the ground. Spectators were able to watch each balloonist navigate his or her balloon toward a large field with a target painted on the ground. They had to drop a small sandbag with a long tail from the air onto the target. The one who got the closest to the center of the target won that event. Of course, there are no motors or rudders to help the balloonists direct their vessel, they rely on their knowledge of the wind layers and currents. It was interesting to see different strategies with some balloons gliding down to just feet above the ground before dropping the sandbag while others stayed high aloft. There were also evening “glow” events where several balloons inflated at dusk and fired their flames to make the balloons glow in the darkness. So, Nebraska did provide us with a highlight event!
By the way, in case you were wondering if I was guilty of typos … the city of Scottsbluff is one word, but the county of Scotts Bluff is two, as is the monument … two words, Scott’s Bluff. Don’t ask me, they didn’t ask me to proofread. (OK, I am also guilty of typos sometimes!!)
Continuing east, we needed a place to stay for a single night so we checked our Harvest Host network to see if any hosts were in our path. That led us to the Golden Spike Tower in North Platte. This is an observation tower built alongside the largest rail yard in the world. Yes, in the world! This rail yard is about 8 miles long and 2 miles wide covering more than 2,500 acres and comprising 33 tracks. It’s a pretty amazing process to watch as a they sort the cars. Trains arrive, cars are disconnected, and then rolled down a slightly elevated “hump” track which is switched to send cars toward the correct train. In simplistic terms, if they have trains on their tracks destined for Santa Fe, Denver, Sacramento and Seattle, and a train arrives from Detroit with cars destined for those cities, the cars will be disconnected and rolled down the hump where they will be fed onto the track of the appropriate outgoing train. They can disburse four cars each minute using this method. Pretty cool!
The next day, we pushed on further east to the town of Grand Island. Seems like a strange name for a town in the middle of the country with no major bodies of water. The town was so named because of an island in the middle of the Platte River that was well-known to trappers in the early 1800’s. French trappers made note of “la grande isle” in this part of the wilderness, and “la grande isle” was subsequently noted on French maps. The name stuck. We were just here for a couple of days of rest and relaxation, but while here we discovered that the Nebraska State Fair would be held here in a couple of weeks. We’ll circle back to that later.
Back on the road, we spent a few nights in Lincoln, Nebraska, the state’s Capitol and home to the University of Nebraska … go Huskers!! It was move-in week and the city was bustling with red shirted teens and parents and bright red flags bearing an enormous N. The university is home to the International Quilt Museum, which I thoroughly enjoyed visiting. We had the best time checking out Code Brewing, where we had the pleasure of being served by the brewmeister, Matt. We had a great time exchanging stories with him and another couple at the bar, Lisa and Mike Cunningham. Being fans of the show Shark Tank, we were especially interested in learning that they have applied to be on the show as they make and sell a special duck blind. Not being hunters ourselves, we don’t know what makes their blind special, but they get orders from all over the place and would really like their product to take off. We would, too! We had so much fun talking with Lisa and Mike that they invited us to join them at a different brewery for one more beer. We had a great time in Lincoln. Even though it’s the Capitol of Nebraska, it’s a very approachable town, easy to find your way around.
After a few fun days in Lincoln, we moved on toward Kansas City. My daughter Laura’s boyfriend recently started a new job working for the National World War I museum in Kansas City, Missouri. As things tend to happen with us, like the hot air balloon event, we stumbled across a website about the Kansas State Fiddling and Picking Championships being held in Lawrence, Kansas. That was less than an hour west of Kansas City, so we headed to Lawrence for the night. Come to find out, this is the home of the University of Kansas, and it was also move-in time here. There were bright blue banners and flags welcoming the Jayhawks back to school.
Laura and Jim joined us the next day for the fiddlin’ and pickin’ and we had the pleasure of spending the rest of the week visiting and touring with them. While Jim worked during the day, Laura and I went exploring. We found the town of Wamego, Kansas, with it’s claim to fame being the “home” of Dorothy Gale and her family. That name, Dorothy Gale, may ring a little bell in your head without actually reminding you who she was … Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz! Someone once asked exactly where in Kansas Dorothy was supposed to have lived. While no town was ever mentioned in the Oz books, one enterprising person in the town of Wamego said, “Why not here?” The call went out for donations of Oz memorabilia and the idea took off. A vacant store was turned into the Oz Museum, complete with a replica of the porch of Dorothy’s home, a dark, scary path through the Forest of Burzee, and life-size replicas of all the main characters. It’s very well done! Also in town is a yellow brick road and several businesses with Oz themes, such as the Oz Winery, Emerald Door Salon and Toto’s TacOZ. Even their water tower is painted to look like the wizard’s hot air balloon. Wamego sure deserves an A+ for capitalizing on something for the good of the community!
After a great week visiting Laura and Jim, we headed back to Grand Island, Nebraska, for the Nebraska State Fair. Several years ago, Bob saw a show on PBS about the Indian Nations Relay Races. They take place every year in different states in the west, and after completing a circuit of racing, the winners compete at the national championship races in Wyoming. Ever since seeing that documentary, Bob has wanted to see these races in person. He got his wish!
The races are thought to date back at least a century as a form of entertainment and competition after tribes were taken from their native lands, which were often far from other tribes, and deposited on reservations in close proximity to each other.
Before the race begins, a judge marks a number of boxes about 12 feet wide on the outer edge of the track across from the judges. Each racing team consists of four people: the rider, two holders and a mugger. Each team is randomly assigned a box, and the team’s horses are supposed to be kept within the box in the control of their holders. If a horse gets loose, the team is disqualified. There are different levels of races, from the beginners, who start on horseback and only run one lap of the track, to the pros, who start on foot, run to their horse, mount and run three laps. At the end of the first and second laps, each rider brings their horse to the team, where the mugger grabs the horse (usually still in motion). The rider jumps off and onto the next horse and takes off for another lap. Needless to say, there is a lot of commotion. You have young, fast, spirited horses, riders coming toward their teams full-bore trying to dismount and remount as quickly and efficiently as possible, and horses coming behind others. This is a dangerous sport! Here are a couple of awesome videos that Bob took, one of the start and the second of a change of horses. The third video shows how people get hurt.
This was definitely something that most people have probably never seen. If you ever travel out west, you should check to see if there are races taking place.
Now, we finally head out of Nebraska and into Kansas for a few days.