Nebraska has much to offer: history, geology and some kitsch

Contributing Travel WriterJuly 19, 2014 

  • IF YOU GO

    Western Nebraska

    Where to stay

    Best Western Plus Sidney Lodge: 645 Cabela Dr., Sidney; Bestwesternnebraska.com/hotels/best-western-plus-sidney-lodge. It has the reliable brand of a Best Western, with comfortable rooms, welcoming staff, and as a bonus, the best chocolate chip cookies I've ever tasted.

    Fort Robinson State Park Lodge: Crawford, stateparks.com/fort_robinson.html. Guests have their choice of accommodations in either the enlisted men's quarters in the main lodge, or officers' quarters in surrounding cabins. Spartan, but comfortable and clean. Rates begin at $50 a night.

    Where to eat

    Dude's Steakhouse: 2126 Illinois St., Sidney; Dudessteakhouse.com. Go for prime cuts of beef.

    The Most Unlikely Place in Lewellen: 205 Main St., Lewellen; Themostunlikelyplace.com. This is a combination restaurant and art gallery, featuring the works of local artists.

    MJ's Ranch House: 445 2nd St., Crawford; MJsranchhouse.com. This has the look of a Wild West saloon, and not surprisingly, beef is the staple here.

    Rosita's: 1205 E. Overland, Scottsbluff. A cantina-style restaurant with no frills, but great food.

    Emporium Coffeehouse: 1818 First Ave., Scottsbluff; Emporiumcoffeehouse.com. Don't let the name fool you. This chic brasserie has an interesting menu and wine list.

    Learn more: Visitnebraska.com.

I've made a decision. I'm joining the ranks of assorted politicians, celebrities, CEOs, athletes and disgraced owners of professional basketball teams on what has become the perpetual apology tour. I want to apologize to Nebraska.

Like, I suspect, many Americans, I've dismissed the state as being stuck somewhere in the middle of the country — flat, drab and colorless, known only for its corn and its Cornhuskers, a perennial college football power.

Despite this, when the invitation to follow the Oregon Trail across the Great Plains of Western Nebraska arrived, I immediately accepted. If there's one thing that fascinates me, it's anything to do with the Wild West.

On the drive from Denver International Airport, I saw pretty much what I expected — brown, dusty, flat fields — and this was eastern Colorado. How much browner, dustier and flatter would it be in Nebraska?

However, a funny thing happened when we crossed the state line. Almost immediately, brown changed to green (I later discovered that the lush green color was the result of especially heavy spring rains), and the flat plains started to be peppered with grotesque rock formations, canyons, buttes, mesas and hills. It looked like a location set for the western movies I love so much.

A Wild West secret

Sidney, Neb., might look like a sleepy small town today, but in its heyday, it equaled Dodge City and Deadwood for notoriety. Founded in 1867 and named for Sidney Dillon, an attorney for the Union Pacific Railroad, it started as a fort to protect railroad workers from the threat of Indian attack.

In addition to the railroad, Sidney was the southern terminus of a stagecoach route serving nearby Fort Robinson and Red Cloud, and Spotted Tail Indian Agencies, and South Dakota's Black Hills, where gold had been discovered. Because it also was a stop on the Pony Express route from St. Joseph, Mo., to Sacramento, Calif., Sidney quickly became a frontier boom town.

There were more saloons and brothels than churches, and for every settler looking to make an honest living, there were 10 card sharps, con men, gunslingers and gold prospectors.

So why is Sidney the wildest Western town I never heard of? I asked city manager Gary Person.

"Sidney was truly as wild as any town in the west," Person said, referring me to a book on the town's history, Lynchings, Legends and Lawlessness.

"It didn't survive Hollywood's idea of the Old West," he said. "It just wasn't as dramatic to tell someone to get out of Sidney as to get out of Dodge."

Today, the most visible reminder of Sidney's colorful past is the Pony Express Monument. A bronze statue of a horse and rider dominates a plaza surrounded by plaques and flags of each of the eight states where the Pony Express operated.

American landmark

The drive from Sidney to Crawford will allow for several interesting historical sites and one modern attraction that will have you shaking your head in disbelief. Stop first in Ogallala, one of the earliest towns on the Union Pacific route, to visit Boot Hill. Another bronze statue of a cowboy and his mount presides over a hillside cemetery where markers indicate graves of outlaws and law-abiding citizens alike.

"Rattlesnake" Ed Worley, who ended up on the wrong end of a gun barrel during a gambling quarrel at Tucker's Saloon, is buried here, but so is Birdie Smith, a 14-year-old girl who died of typhoid fever, proving that one didn't have to live by the gun to earn a spot in Boot Hill.

Afterward, stop at Windlass Hill and make the steep climb to the top, where you can see ruts from wagons coming down the Oregon Trail. It's worth the exertion for the spectacular view over the valley.

You might think you are hallucinating as you approach the outskirts of Alliance. On the High Plains, silhouetted against the sky, are what appear to be massive slabs of rock arranged like those at Stonehenge on England's Salisbury Plain.

Those slabs of "rock" are vintage American automobiles — 38 of them — spray-painted gray and arranged in a circle surrounding a 1962 Cadillac. This is Carhenge, and it would have made the ancient Druids scratch their heads in amazement.

Kitschy? Undoubtedly. Fun and enjoyable? Absolutely.

Interesting footnote: Carhenge will be in the path of the next total solar eclipse on Aug. 21, 2017; Stonehenge, alas, will not.

If Carhenge is a quirky bit of Americana, Fort Robinson is a slice of American history. Established in 1874 to protect the Red Cloud Agency and to oversee the Sioux Reservation after the Treaty of Fort Laramie in 1868, its distinguished past has included many famous names. Walter Reed was once the post surgeon; Arthur MacArthur (father of Douglas) served here, and Buffalo Bill Cody frequented the fort during his time as an Army scout.

But if there's one name indelibly linked with Fort Robinson, it's that of Crazy Horse, the Lakota Sioux warrior who waged relentless battle against the white soldiers. Upon his eventual surrender, he was taken to Fort Robinson, and on Sept. 5, 1877, he was killed by a bayonet thrust from a sentry outside his guardhouse.

A replica of that guardhouse is only one of the sites visitors can take in on a tour of the 22,000-acre fort property, now a state park. Better yet, they can spend the night in the former quarters of enlisted men and officers, making it a great base for exploring the area's attractions, including the Crazy Horse Memorial, about an hour's drive across the state line in South Dakota's Black Hills.

Scenic wonderland

I thought Nebraska was pancake-flat, so I was pleasantly surprised at its unusual topography. My first view of Chimney Rock National Historic Site — although thrilling — couldn't possibly have matched that of early pioneers on the Oregon Trail. Their first sight of the massive rock, with its fluted granite column, came while they were two days away from reaching it.

On a clear day, you can see Chimney Rock looking east from the top of Scotts Bluff National Monument. Don't stop there; look around. To the west, you'll see beyond Mitchell Pass into Wyoming, and to the south are the Wildcat Hills and the North Platte River Valley.

Toadstool Park is in a remote area known as the Badlands in the Oglala National Grasslands. A river flowed through this area 30 million years ago, and the erosion from it gives Toadstool its moonscape appearance.

The geologic formations are all shapes and sizes, and many do resemble large toadstools. The starkness of their twisted shapes is relieved only by a sea of waving grasses and wild mustard. If you arrange it in advance, members of Northwest Nebraska High Country (Northwestnebraskahighcountry.com) will come out and prepare a Dutch- oven breakfast for you and provide other "get-away-from-it-all" experiences, such as trail rides and lodging on working ranches.

Nebraska just might turn out to be the best vacation you never thought about taking.

Patti Nickell is a Lexington-based travel writer. Reach her at pnickell13@bellsouth.net.

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