The buffalo isn’t happy. She is eyeing me warily from the other side of a rickety wooden and wire fence. This iconic symbol of the Great Plains is shaggy but gorgeous, and as I raise my camera, her eyes lock with mine. Suddenly miffed by my intrusion, or maybe my red sweater, she takes a couple of steps backward, snorts mightily, then charges full speed ahead.
Luckily, there was a fence. The tango between the bison and me was at the High Plains Homestead close to Crawford, in the far northwest corner of Nebraska near its intersection with South Dakota and Wyoming. The Homestead, reached by threading a number of well-maintained dirt roads, is reminiscent of an Old West cowboy town, reconstructed with a sheriff’s office and jail, a school, a saloon with swinging doors so authentic that you expect Yosemite Sam to come crashing through at any moment, and the critters, a menagerie of horses, chickens and buffalo, one in particular that doesn’t care for my presence in the least.
My traveling companions and I — four friends in a rented van — stopped by the Homestead for its ribs — slow-cooked on an outdoor grill — but the place is also a bed-and-breakfast with rooms decorated to honor Nebraska’s cowboys, cowgirls and caballeros.
I expected western Nebraska to be an inland ocean of flat, open prairies, endless grasslands and gently rising sand hills.
That is all here, of course, but what I didn’t expect to find is a land, an almost prehistoric land, of high plains striated by mesas, buttes and the strangest of rock formations, all cut with mountains, deep valleys and fertile river beds. This wealth of unexpected natural beauty caught me off-guard.
I can blame the journey to western Nebraska not only on nature, but also on the wonderful “Lonesome Dove,” Larry McMurtry’s beloved and prizewinning novel and later CBS miniseries that depicted a cattle drive from Texas to Montana, which takes the motley crew of cowboys through Nebraska. When the cowboy character of Augustus “Gus” McCrae, played by Robert Duvall, tells Lorena, played by Diane Lane, that he’s “bound for Ogallala, honey,” my interest was piqued. I picked up a map and found that Ogallala actually exists.
And that’s how I found myself in Nebrasky, in Gus-speak. For a few days this past summer, we drove hundreds of miles across the western fringes of Nebraska, from Sidney and Ogallala in the south to Alliance, Scottsbluff and Gering in its middle, to Crawford and Fort Robinson State Park in the north. The roads are gloriously empty, with no such thing as rush hour, unless you count the herds of deer and antelope playing in the open fields.
It is here that the heartland meets the wild, wild West under clouds floating like flower petals in big, bright cerulean skies. On the drive to Ogallala from Sidney, where we had first stayed overnight, my mind conjures images of the great herds of cattle driven up from Texas as they feasted on the sweet prairie grass. Ogallala is a town of fewer than 5,000 residents whose cowboy roots are still strong with plenty of cattle ranchers and farmers. In Ogallala proper, we visit the Petrified Wood Gallery with its collection of petrified wood art, then take time to climb the steps to Boot Hill, a flower-strewn cemetery that was quite literally the end of the trail for cowboys and pioneers who first settled the town where the fictional Clara lived.
The South Platte River, framed by willowy cottonwoods, meanders through Ogallala from Colorado and Wyoming eastward toward the Missouri River. Not far from Ogallala, we pass a jigsaw puzzle of low green knolls, stopping at Windlass Hill at Ash Hollow State Historical Park, notched in part by fragrant valleys smothered with wild roses, currants and chokeberries. The Oregon Trail crosses here, the deep trenches of wagon ruts of long ago still visible. Looking westward toward the Rockies and across the seemingly endless landscape, I thought how brave those early pioneers were to cross these beautiful valleys toward an uncertain future.
Historic sites abound
While the primary goal of our journey was to bask in the beauty of Nebraska’s great outdoors, our road trip revealed a plethora of historic and natural treasures. One of those places is Chimney Rock Historic Site near Bayard. This needlelike rock juts into the sky, the product of erosion from wind, rain and snow. One of the landmarks along the Oregon Trail, it looks like a cross between a towering chimney, obelisk and pyramid, and is visible for miles. Other well-known rock formations created by erosion are Courthouse and Jail Rocks near Bridgeport, named for buildings they resemble.
There’s no shortage of roadside wonders in this part of Nebraska.
Our van puttered across the Great Plains, which are essentially the remnants of ancient oceans. We stopped at Scott’s Bluff National Monument, sometimes called Nebraska’s Rock of Gibraltar. At the visitors center at the base of the bluff, we learn that Scott’s Bluff is yet another landmark on the Oregon Trail and was once a stop for the Pony Express.
We then drove to the top of the bluff — named for Hiram Scott, a fur trader and trapper who died nearby in the early 1830s — where the untamed wind tears across the plains. But even the crazy wind couldn’t detract from the impressive 360-degree views of the tapestry of Nebraska’s primordial plains, where dinosaurs and massive herds of bison once roamed.
Yet another surprise of western Nebraska is how quickly the topography changes with every turn of the road. Particularly in the state’s northwestern corner near the Agate Fossil Beds, the terrain looks much like the rolling desert-like hills of Tanzania’s Serengeti. Toadstool Geologic Park, also in the northwest, has all the hallmarks of a moonscape with its haunting rock formations.
Parts of 22,000-acre Fort Robinson State Park, which an Omaha friend called the jewel of her home state, is covered with thick forest. In the park, we went on a Nebraska-style safari, taking a four-wheel-drive adventure over steep, rocky dirt roads looking for, and finding, skittish bighorn sheep.
With all the remoteness of our long drives, we had little or no Internet or cellphone service, which makes this part of Nebraska an excellent place to relearn how to read a real paper map, make good use of your sense of adventure, and better yet just get off the grid for a while. But beware the buffalo and don’t wear red.