On the Road in Nebraska: Cranes, Cather, and Corn


Cranes overhead.In late March, I took a few days off from work and celebrated my free time. Instead of bikinis and beaches and beer brawls, (Thankfully, I’ve never had a spring break like that.) I marked the turn of a week past equinox into my own party of silence and solitude and sandhill cranes. I pointed the car a little north and mostly east to Nebraska! It’s hard to imagine in the midst of a snowy April-early May, but March was mostly mild and dry.

I took off in the middle of the night, just because. Earlier in the day, I had worked to finish up a project and I spent the rest of the day packing, preparing, and running errands. Then I took a nap and had the wild hair to leave just before midnight. I love being up in the middle of the night and awake when the rest of the world seems to be asleep. Plus, it makes the road a very different one traveled.

I drove and drove, watching the sun peek out from the horizon, following semi trucks, passing corn fields, getting glimpses of the Platte River, and savoring a few sightings of cranes. Then I got sleepy, so I pulled into one of the spick-and-span Nebraska highway rest areas. I parked, locked all the doors, and lumbered into the backseat for a little slumber. It felt wonderful. I slept for almost three hours and then woke up to a breakfast of my car-packed treasures: dried apricots, oatmeal cookies, and water. I walked around, stretched a bit, and took off again. Pulling into Gothenburg, I stopped to take in some local history at the Pony Express Station in Ehman Park near the quaint downtown.
Pony Express Station Gothenburg, NEFrom the sweet and helpful volunteer guide, I learned that the Pony Express didn’t necessarily meet its demise entirely due to the telegraph, as I had originally thought. It turns out that history is more complicated than the simple timelines of starts and stops. Several factors, including the telegraph’s invention, the beginning of the Civil War, and the federal government’s decision to award a contract to a competing stagecoach line, all contributed to the end of the Pony Express. History tends to repeat itself in weird ways–our own U.S. Postal Service faces huge budget issues, Congress debates five or six-day postal delivery, and stamp-and-lick mail competes with smart phones and e-mail–bringing to mind the Pony Express. I bought a postcard and looked around the rustic museum, staffed entirely by local volunteers. The building was an original Pony Express station, circa 1860, and in 1931 it was donated by Mrs. C.A. Williams and moved into town where it sits today.

The Pony Express riders faced danger and death, but their job also required a particular level of dedication. Check out the pledge each rider had to sign before working for the Pony Express (thanks to the Souvenir Edition of the Pony Express Times for this): “I do hereby swear before the great and living God that during my engagement with Russell, Majors, and Waddell, I will under no circumstances use profane language; that I will drink no intoxicating liquors; that I will not quarrel or fight with other employees of the firm; and that in every respect I will conduct myself honestly, be faithful in my duties, and so direct all my acts as to win the confidence of my employers. So help me God.” Indeed, it was a different time.

On the way out of Gothenburg, I stopped to get coffee at Deb’s Diner, a cute little cafe in the downtown area. I would have loved to stay and listen to the local gossip, but the road and the cranes were calling. I drove on to Wood River to visit the Crane Trust Nature & Visitor Center, which is right off of I-80. The cute visitor center, also staffed by volunteers, has classrooms, meeting spaces, a gift shop, and snack bar. I didn’t need a class, a meeting, a gift, or a snack, so I took a little walk on their trails. During a different time of day I could see where this would be a good crane watching spot, but I had an appointment for evening viewing at the Rowe Audubon Sanctuary later that afternoon. Instead I enjoyed watching the buffalo herd grazing nearby, ambled through a couple of miles of sunlight, and sniffed the late March breezes. Oh, and I spotted a few cranes in the corn fields nearby.DSC_0068I had just bought a new zoom lens for my camera and was eager to try it out, so I switched lenses and took a few pictures on the trail, loving the zip and zoom of the new one! Back at my car, I checked the pictures, but there were weird speckled splotches all over them. I tried my limited bag of tricks to get the dust off the lens and off the sensor, but nothing was working. Part of the reason for my Nebraska meandering was to get good photos of the cranes. I ran back into the visitor center and asked for an old-school phone book. As I riffled through the yellow pages, the kindly front desk volunteer noticed me and offered her help. I asked if she knew of a local camera shop, she said yes and gave me directions to the camera store in Kearney. I called to make sure they were open and since it was a run-of-the-mill early Thursday afternoon, yes they were. I returned the phone book (only to be used by the next rare cellphone-less visitor, perhaps rarer than a whooping crane) back to the front desk, smiled at the front desk lady, and sprinted out to the parking lot.

Jumping into my car, I sped back to Kearney, catching the tail winds of a way-too-fast-semi. I found the Camera Doctor and ran into the shop, eager to get my illin’ camera back on the mend. After checking out the problem, the tech told me it would take several hours, requiring an overnight. Perhaps sensing (or smelling?) my desperation, he said he would try to fix it before they closed at 5 pm. I let out a quick gasp and said “Yes, thank you!” It would be too late for the evening’s Audubon Center crane-viewing-in-a-blind-appointment, but I’d still have the camera in time for the crack-of-dawn viewing. I called the Audubon Center and explained that I wouldn’t get there in time for the evening and told them to use my fee as a donation or give the reservation to someone else. The woman on the phone, after hearing of my camera dilemma, told me to head to Fort Kearney and I wouldn’t miss out on an evening of sandhill cranes. It was kind of perfect, since I had planned to camp there. She gave me directions to a couple of good spots within the park. Oh, these Nebraskans were killing me with their sweet kindness!

Since it was going to be a couple of hours until my camera was ready, I drove over to Fort Kearney State Recreation Area to scope out my camping site, in case all the crane watchers were also tenters, and to check out the sandhill and whooper hangout spots. I strolled around, getting an idea for the lay of the land, and to see where I might catch the sunset and the objects of my avian affection. I picked an excellent site for setting up the tent, in the late afternoon shadows of very big, old cottonwoods. I seemed to be the only tent camper, but I had a few not-so-close RV neighbors who were quiet, but waved as I walked by. I staked and polled and paid the princely sum of $12 for a night with no electricity and $5 for the entry fee. Compare that beauty and peace to a generic motel room in town going for at least $89 a night, the crane watchers being a boon to local tourism in the late February-early April days. I would prefer my dollars to go to small, independent business and I sleep better on the ground. Once my sleeping arrangements were settled, I drove back to town for dinner supplies and my camera.

The Camera Doctor was in and my camera was all better, no bandages required, for a very reasonable amount. I thanked and thanked him for the excellent and express service and he said he understood the urgency. If I ever want another camera or more equipment, I’m taking a road trip to Kearney. In fact, I almost walked out with a new window mount, but realized I didn’t really need it and the unplanned expense of the camera repair would have to suffice for my contribution to the local monetary exchange. I found a cute little grocery store and stocked up on a good loaf of crusty French bread, some stinky cheese, a Rotisserie chicken, some leaves of spring greens, bananas, chocolate covered raisins, and a bottle of $7.99 Spanish wine. In keeping with local, maybe I should have looked for a fine Nebraska wine. Oh, well, it was dinner for a queen, and breakfast, and lunch, and dinner, and more. Sometimes one stop shopping is kind of groovy, especially when adult beverages are part of the bounty.

The sun was just starting to ebb into late afternoon and my dinner was for later in the darkness. One of the joys of traveling alone is you can eat when you want, where you want. I nibbled on fruit and sunflower seeds on the way back to camp. Leaving my food in the car, I parked tentside and grabbed my back-to-health camera, camera bag, and tripod and settled in for the cranes. I took a few pictures in the blind of cottonwoods, peeping between the trees for glimpses of the birds, but knew I could get some better viewing. I found the best spot near the corn field adjacent to the park. I didn’t want to get in trouble for trespassing on the grains looking for cranes, but was happy to discover a little pavement pullout just across from where folks stop to pay the park fees. I set up my crane camera camp right there. I was close for viewing, but not so close that I felt I’d be harassing the wildlife, and I had plenty of room as not be run off into the ditch by a wide-turning pickup. I sat and listened and watched and took picture after picture. One of the reasons I love digital photography–a five-year young passion–along with the wonders of extra memory cards, is that I can take and point and focus and shoot and repeat over and over. I have a lot to learn, but it’s fun to experiment and try things. Surely a few out of the thousand would turn out well enough to share, the rest to be deleted with a handful saved as my souvenirs.Cranes in sandpit lake at Fort Kearney SRAI stayed there for two and a half hours, snapping pictures, sometimes leaving the camera to the side so I could watch unfiltered and unfettered. The cranes moved together, a few danced, much preening and fluttering of feathers. Lots of grey and white and then flashes of red. Small groups flew into the field, other groups left to join the tribe at the river not far away. A couple of swirls of birds look like plumes of smoke, but then you see the wings and hear the calls. The Platte River in central Nebraska becomes Grand Central Crane Station. The sandhill cranes number in the thousands, even tens of thousands, gathering to feed among the vacant grain fields near the river. They feed and flirt, it’s spring and mating season, of course. The Platte is the stopover, the feeding point for the sandhill cranes to have enough strength for the migration journey. The shallow river, with its sandbars provides perfect habitat for the cranes and staying in large groups in the Platte at night provides protection against predators like coyotes. Watching the migration, taking in the event of a mass movement of fauna is to observe the ancients, as cranes are some of the oldest known bird species. Seemingly delicate, but surprisingly strong and agile, the cranes are an amazing sight. Their courtship rituals include a type of dance and it’s amazing to watch them jump and twirl, quite ballet-like but even more beautiful.DSC_0223The setting sun came next and the flocks of birds left the corn field like muffled calling ghosts. It was onto the more private rituals of night and sleeping, their feet in the freezing Platte, blood vessels constricting to limit the amount of blood needed to be kept warm.Sandhill cranes, clouds, and vapor trailsWhen the sun finally sank below, I finally came out of my dream state. The brisk night air had changed quickly from the warm afternoon breeze, my feet tingly from standing so still, my fingers stiff from shooting pictures, my heart warm from the afternoon’s sights, my soul calm from the rituals of cranes.Sunset and the Sandhill Cranes fly into the night.I finished the evening back at camp sipping alternately between my metal water bottle and directly from the wine bottle. I ate my grocery store dinner with greedy bites, sitting on top of the camp picnic table in solitude and quiet euphoria. After tucking away the food remnants for tomorrow’s meals in the car, I changed into sleeping layers and spread out in the tent. I set the alarm, a rare event for me while camping, because I didn’t want to be late for my morning view reservation back at the Rowe Sanctuary. I fell asleep with the aid of the wine from dinner, anxious to stretch out after the day’s drive.

I woke up before the alarm at 4:30, added more layers to my sleeping layers, swigged some water, and pulled down the tent in a flash of poles and swirls of nylon. The start of my engine cut into the early morning silence and I cringed, turning off my lights until I pulled out onto the road exiting the park. The gas station at the corner before the highway was open, a few miles down the road. I stopped for coffee for the smell and something hot, munched on fruit, and gunned it to the Audubon Center. For $25, you can reserve a spot in one of the viewing blinds, roughly constructed wooden shelters with small cutouts for cameras and viewing, near the banks of the river. I had stuffed my pack the night before with extra gloves, more water, a fold-out guide to cranes, my camera and lenses, and band-aids to keep my flash from going off in the dark. All the literature about coming to visit the Audubon Center to see cranes mentions no flash photography allowed. It makes sense, in the dark and low light of early morning, camera flashes shooting out of the viewing blinds would startle and disturb the cranes. Two years ago, when I came for my first crane adventure, I had left my camera in the car, because I was still new enough not to know how to disable the flash. Then the Audubon volunteer guides came around to the groups with small bits of tape to secure the flashes of cameras. So, this year I was prepared with the band-aids. The wee hours were spent in the blind, quietly intimate with strangers taking in the dancing, the calling, the sleeping, the cooing. We watched and snapped and breathed and loved. No matter, we were all there to take in the romance and beauty and stillness of an early spring morning.DSC_0750I warmed up in the visitor center. The Audubon Center building is a straw bale building, my favorite mode of construction, and quite appropriate for Nebraska. I bought a very sweet and beautiful children’s storybook, Have You Seen Mary? by Jeff Kurrus. The beautiful photographs, taken by Michael Forsberg, illustrate the story of a sandhill crane who loses his mate during migration. At some point, I’d love to do a program on cranes: making paper cranes with kids and reading this great book. After that little respite, I was ready for more cranes, so I headed to a little public observation deck that I remembered from two years ago. It was near the freeway exit to the Audubon Center and offered great views of the Platte. Best of all, it’s free and easily accessible.Observation PlatformI snapped some more pictures, tried out my skills with the tripod, and just enjoyed being in the silent company of others watching birds.
Sunrise and sandhill cranesAfter a couple of times going to watch the sandhill cranes in central Nebraska, I think I’ll return and opt for free and unfiltered viewing at the observation deck near Exit 285 from I-80. It’s the same exit one takes to get to the Rowe Sanctuary, heading south from the freeway, you’ll find the deck on your left with a small gravel parking lot nearby. I will also return to well-equipped Fort Kearney State Recreation Area for camping and more crane watching. After the highly structured and scheduled viewing at the Audubon crane blind, it’s fun to discover my own haunts. Both options have advantages, but either way I feel like I’m far enough away to give the cranes their privacy and protection. I will return to the Audubon for their seminars and birding gossip and to drop some money in their donation boxes. It’s due to their stewardship and habitat preservation that make all this crane watching possible.
Cranes on the Platte River.
Meandering of river and cranes.

After a long and lovely morning of craning for cranes, I loaded up the camera and tripod and ducked (not craned) into my car to take off some clothes. When I woke up it was around 20°F, but there were expectations for  70°F or higher in a few hours. Once I was comfortable and car trip ready, I got back on the freeway heading east. I cranked up the country (always easy to find a country station in the rural United States) and car danced my way to state highways and the Homestead National Monument of America, a National Park Service unit near Beatrice. I hiked through the prairie, visited the heirloom tool collection, and watched the beautiful and moving movie they show in the striking Heritage Center.
DSC_0289 (2)The monument celebrates the Homestead Act, signed into law by Lincoln in 1862 and sits on the site of the first granted homestead of 160 acres of tallgrass prairie to Daniel and Agnes Freeman. While celebrating the homesteading life and hard work of the pioneers, the Monument also highlights the complexity and pain in our history. While the Homestead Act basically set the foundation for settling the West, it also stripped away lands once known to be in the possession of Native American tribes, taking land from one group and giving it to another group. There’s a display of steel outlined states, with squares cut out of the middle representing the proportion (not actual location) of land that was settled by homesteaders. Check out my beloved New Mexico and a few other states where I’ve lived:
DSC_0313 (2) DSC_0315 (2)DSC_0316 (2)DSC_0314 (2) DSC_0318 (2)I can see why the Freemans (and the Native Americans before them) would have picked this land. There’s water nearby and beautiful rolling hills and then imagining a sea of endless prairie paradise made me pause. It’s easy for me for romanticize that life, without having to face the hardships of survival. There’s a restored house, the Palmer-Epard Cabin moved from another homestead, and glimpsing in the windows was like looking into another life. If you happen into central Nebraska, stop by Homestead National Monument of America. You can research old homestead records and learn more about the complexities of this stage of our history. According to the National Park Service, approximately 90 million Americans are descendants of homesteaders and approximately ten percent of land in the U.S. was “given away” in the form of homesteads. Considering the hard work in “proving” the land, I am sure that no one would consider that land completely free.
Palmer-Epard Cabin

I grazed from my leftover grocery store gleanings and pondered the life of a homesteader, but once I gathered my crumbs I was ready to move on to Willa Cather, the daughter of homesteaders, author of numerous books, and winner of the Pulitzer Prize. I drove across Highway 136, a deliciously deserted highway with quiet prairie towns and corn fields. Beautiful old churches and grain elevators provided the skyline of civilization and I imagined living in one of those towns, perhaps teaching school and raising chickens and goats and sheep. The mind wanders as the car miles roll. Finally I reached Red Cloud, but I had to drive through town twice before finding the Willa Cather State Historic Site. First I stopped on the town’s main street to take pictures and an old man walking by looked up. He kept on with his stroll and then turned around and said in a gravelly voice, “I think of this place differently than you.”

Now, if that’s not a conversation starter, or a great opening line for a book, I don’t know anything. I replied, “I am sure you’re right, but what do you mean?” Then in the middle of bricked-road-downtown Red Cloud I had one of the best conversations of my life. The man, I’ll call him Joe, talked about growing up in Red Cloud and aging. He’s 87. The building that I was taking pictures of was the office where his dad had worked, part of the old City Hall where he played and his mom picked up his dad’s paychecks. Joe remembered the days when Red Cloud was bigger and bustling. He fought in World War II and then came back to town and couldn’t find a job. He moved on and worked in fabrication around Nebraska, but returned to Red Cloud in his retirement. His wife is dead and now “most of my friends are too,” but he talked about trying to keep busy. Joe usually drinks coffee and visits at the downtown grocery store “until they kick me out” he told me with a sly smile. He wanted to know about my trip and why I wasn’t married, but we also talked cranes and Willa Cather. He said there continues to be lots of strangers who pull into town looking for the land and sites of Cather’s books.

There’s a small museum with archives and several buildings around town have been preserved as significant in the life of Willa Cather or for serving as scenes in her novels. They offer walking tours of town and there’s a Willa Cather Book Club for the locals. I love literary landmarks and although I am just now growing into Cather’s novels, it’s neat to think about landscape and sense of place. It’s amazing to think how the vast Nebraska prairie formed her vision and provided the setting for her voice. Red Cloud is small and cute, but you could see the population had dwindled through the years. With most of the travel on the Interstate, there are fewer people stopping for meals and gas. Finally Joe looked up and saw the time and remarked in closing, “Well, I guess I should let you get back on the road and I’ll go home and warm up some beans.” I mentioned wanting to come back in the summer to spend more time tooling around Red Cloud and he said he’d be at the grocery store if I wanted to talk more. Joe, I’m returning and looking forward to chatting some more, if you’ll have me.

Former Garber Bank, Red Cloud City Offices

Talked out and tired, I climbed back into the car for the final stretches of prairie highway, quiet alone time to think and dream. Corn fields spread out all around me, the lovely quiet of rural Saturday night unfolded. The miles went by and I got a wonderful view of setting sun and lightning. I happened to be driving on the heels of a storm that had passed with hail, rain, and tornado watches, according to the frazzled country DJ on the radio. All was calm, though, as I drove. Nebraska, I will return.

DSC_0455 (2)

The beautiful sunset and swirling storm was just the ending for my trip into the land of Corn, Cranes, and Cather.

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