Those not familiar with this Willa Cather classic have yet to encounter a great story of pioneer life in Nebraska. Those who know her work would have appreciated our drive today across many miles of the Great Plains. Desolate to some, and full of life to others, it is undeniably flat and unrelenting in its expanse.
We mostly followed the route of the pioneers today, along the Oregon trail. Wagon trains came from the east and followed the Platte River to the foothills of the Rockies. We reached a famous landmark of that journey today – Chimney Rock. This is not the largest or the most interesting piece of sediment one can see between here and the Pacific. But after you have traveled 500 miles across the prairies, with not a tree in sight and nothing changing in the landscape, the sight of Chimney Rock was a momentous event for the pioneers. It is not huge, but is very distinctive. When it came in sight – and you can see it for at least 12 miles away – you knew that the first third of your journey was over, and you had conquered the Great Plains.
Chimney Rock has been captured in every medium available since the early 1800’s. It was a real beacon of hope to the pioneers, and signaled a welcome change in the terrain. One settler said of his trek across the prairies, “This trip is so boring that I almost wish the Indians would attack.” You get the idea.
Their next challenge was to get through Mitchell Pass on Scott’s Bluff, an break in the rock ridge that surfaces near Chimney Rock. What is so amazing is that this land looks almost as it did when a half-million people came through in the 1840’s to 70’s. You can actually follow the Oregon Trail up to the pass on foot and see the wagon ruts. It is an amazing feeling and easy to project what those settlers felt as they crested that ridge.
Now you can drive on parts of the Oregon Trail and just daydream about how hard it must of been for those pioneers. Some came later and stayed, of course. And they picked a tough land to pin their dreams too. Today, we were in the town of Scott’s Bluff around lunchtime, and were struck by the number of Mexican restaurants and other establishments. This group of immigrants came to this area because it is a large beet-growing region, and they came to help with the crop, eventually to settle there.
We ate in a Mexican restaurant highly touted by the Sterns in their iconic Roadfood book on American casual cuisine. And as the place was filled with local farmers, it occurred to us to think about how long it took for that first Nebraska farmer to venture into a Mexican restaurant. These people came to pick your crops, but to eat their food? I bet it was a big moment – now it’s commonplace and not comment-worthy. Good food, by the way.
In the town of Gering nearby, we happened upon an old-fashioned and fabulous bakery, whose specialty – besides terrific pastry – is a Polish ‘cabbage burger’ called a runza. This is a dough pocket stuffed with cabbage and beef and found all over Nebraska. Remind anyone of Cornish pasties? You can also tell from the featured cookies that football is the shared religion of Nebraska, in case you didn’t know.
Then it was another 50 miles of prairie till we got to our destination for the evening, Alliance NE. This town looks more interesting than many, and features one really kicky roadside attraction – Carhenge! Yes, another attempt to replicate Stonehenge in a new medium, this time used automobiles. Judge its effectiveness and creativity for yourself, and enjoy a few extra displays they added as time went on. You’ll also get a good idea of the surrounding landscape.
So lots of variety in our sights for the day – just no variety in the scenery. But all in all, it’s an evocative country, with its own poetry.