By Stuart J. Faber
I wish I had met William Campbell and Charlie Miller. Not exactly household names, but if I tell you that they were pals of Buffalo Bill, hopefully, that might perk your interest.
William Campbell, born in 1841, was among the first riders when the Pony Express, a predecessor of FedEx started up in 1860. At age 16, he was slightly older than some of his colleagues. Later, Campbell became a Nebraska state senator. Later, he moved to Stockton, Calif. where he died in 1934, a year after I was born. Although he is often reputed to have been the last surviving rider, I’ve read about others, including Charlie Miller, born Julius Mortimer in 1850. Charlie was a mere 11 years old when he first mounted a Pony Express horse. He made an unsuccessful attempt to join the army at age 92 and died at the age of 105 in 1955. Buffalo Bill, by the way, the most famous (and older) Pony Express rider, (he joined at age 15), died in 1917.
The Pony Express route extended from St. Joseph, Mo. to Sacramento, Calif., a distance of approximately 1,900 miles. Were I to fly that route, and all of my electronic equipment went on strike (my GPS, VORs, even my ADF, which for years, has been on life support), what would I do? It’s been more than 65 years since I flew my first cross-country. I cruised at low altitudes from one city to another with the assistance of Wisconsin roads, towns, lakes, and rivers. I was never very good at it. Today, should I be called upon to fly the Pony Express route by the seat-of-the-pants, I would follow I-70 and I-80 across the Great Plains, then over the Rockies, the Great Basin, and finally over the Sierra Nevada Range. If these Interstates were obliterated, I’d be in huge trouble.
Campbell and Miller, barely of age to qualify for a driver’s license, let alone a pilot’s license, made the trip often in the dark of night, and frequently chased by Native Americans who did not take kindly to intrusion on their land. Occasionally, a herd of buffalo that did not recognize the rules of the roads, such as they were, asserted the right-of-way. It’s always a good idea to yield to the herd. Imagine––Miller’s mother allowed an 11-year-old to have this adventure. Today, she would be reported to Child Protective Services for child endangerment. Many mothers of today won’t allow their 11-year-olds to walk to school alone.
Of course, these riders could not even imagine that President Eisenhower’s Federal Interstate Highway Act of 1956 would result in covering their hoof prints 100 years later. Nor could they imagine that machines would fly like birds. But Charlie lived to see both.
The Great, Historical Platte River
The Central Platte River Valley is part of the Central Flyway, one of the primary migration flyways followed by waterfowl and shorebirds on their annual trek back and forth from winter habitats to northern breeding grounds. Many species engage in this annual migration. Several species fly from the Arctic Circle to South America. Some of these, including the sand hill crane, stop off in the valley during their annual spring migration. Others using the same flyway (hopefully, without “flyway-rage”) include trumpeter swans, tundra swans, Canadian geese, canvasback ducks, bald eagles, American White Pelicans, whooping cranes, and herons.
Nebraska is an Outdoor Paradise
For those who love the wide-open spaces, Nebraska offers as much, if not more, than any state in the country. For example, farming and ranching are ubiquitous. I frequently spend days roaming through farm country or flying over it at low altitudes. I love to pause and talk to farmers about growing corn, raising cattle, running dairy operations, and just about any subject that has to do with the raising of our food.
I have fond memories of landing on crop duster strips and engaging in hangar talk with crop duster pilots. I grew up at a time and in a community where the farmer delivered chicken and eggs to our home. For the evening’s vegetable course, my mother would travel a half-mile or so, stop at a farm stand, and purchase just-harvested green beans, asparagus, tomatoes, or onions. I think it is sad that so many families of today purchase only processed food and rarely, if ever, stop at a roadside stand to purchase fresh produce. For these reasons, I have deep admiration for our nation’s food producers.
During a recent trip to Nebraska, I expanded my knowledge of such subjects as crop rotation, animal husbandry, pivot irrigation, water tables, and soil preservation. Major crops include corn (primarily for feed), wheat, soybeans, livestock (beef and pork), dairy products, grain sorghum, sugar beets, and potatoes. The state is also a major producer of soy biodiesel and American Ethanol. I marveled at the huge, more than one-story high pivot sprinkler systems where watering pipes are mounted on wheeled towers, and the sprinkler machines move in a circular pattern and irrigate an entire field
I’ve been mildly involved in bird watching since I took a college course in the field of ornithology. So it was with considerable excitement when our group of journalists gathered one cold Nebraska morning (about six degrees Fahrenheit) in a huge blind and observed the mating behavior of prairie chickens. The males gather in “pick-up” joints called “leks,” strut around, puff out their big orange sacks, and attempt to mate with a hen. Generally, a few dominant males chase the weaker males from the lek and end up with the entire flock.
Even more exciting were our early morning observations of hundreds of thousands of sand hill cranes as they awakened from their snooze on the flats of the Platte River and took off to the sky in huge squadrons. Watching the sand hill crane migration has become a major Nebraska tourist attraction.
The Western Migration
Birds are not the only migrants who pass through Nebraska. Gothenburg and other places along the Platte River were along the path of the 19th-century pioneers as they headed west. It was also the route for the Pony Express. The Platte was one of the most important corridors for settlement of the west. The Oregon Trail, which settlers first crossed in the 1840s, ran from the banks of the Missouri River and the Platte River to what is now the state of Oregon. Beginning in 1847, the Mormons headed to Utah along the trail. Prospectors destined for the Gold Rush in 1849 also joined the route. The river itself was not navigable, but hundreds of wagons passed along its banks.
The settlers traveled east to west, and the birds migrate north to south (and south to north). Their perpendicular routes intersected at the Platte River Valley. Humans have been migrating for about 150 years. Many of the bird species have been migrating for thousands, perhaps millions of years.
The route the settlers of the 1840s used to travel through Nebraska later became the same path for America’s first Intercontinental Highway, the Lincoln Highway. Conceived in 1921, the road extended from New York City to San Francisco. Today, there are still remnants of the highway: a few old-fashion gas stations, several shacks and vestiges of dirt roads claimed as original trails. Eventually, Interstate 80 covered much of the Oregon Trail from Grand Island, Neb. to Wyoming.
Why I Love Nebraska
A visit to a destination like Nebraska opens the floodgates of inspiration, reflection, and excitement for me. Thoughts and emotions about America’s expansion overwhelm me. Although I have no ancestors who settled Nebraska (mine all arrived at Ellis Island in the early 1900s), I profoundly embrace our American heritage and strongly identify with the folks who moved west across our Great Plains.
I am intrigued with the development and expansion of our country. True, I am not proud of how we stole land from Native Americans, nor am I proud of our decimation of wild life. Nevertheless, I view folks like Lewis and Clarke, the Pony Express riders, and the 49ers as men and women of grit, fortitude, curiosity, and vision. Without folks like these, we would not have our expansive country.
I also marvel how, in less than a century, we leaped from primitive travel to autos, trains, and airplanes – more in one century than the previous 20 centuries.
Another reason I enjoy trips that are steeped in history is that I love to ruminate about my own small journey and place through history and juxtapose it with the same period of the Pony Express riders. When I was 11 years old (in 1944), the time span between the Pony Express was about the same as the period from 1944 to the present. Yet, as a child, 1860 seemed like centuries away. To me, 1944 seems like yesterday. But imagine how 1944 must seem to a kid of 11 today.
As a kid, I occasionally came across an obituary of a Civil War veteran. Boy, did their photos look like old guys. Today, an obituary of a WWII veteran often carries a photo of a real old guy. But that guy was just an 18-year-old kid when he fought in the war.
As a culinary journalist, I consume my share of restaurant cuisine. Many of my dining experiences are extraordinary, others I wish I could have avoided. Over the course of a year, a few stand out and are memorable. These standouts often pervade my thoughts as I yearn to return for an encore. Some are expensive restaurants, but most aren’t so pricey. They are memorable because the ingredients, preparation, dedication, and presentation are over the top. I encountered two examples in Nebraska.
Alley Rose, 2013 Central Ave, Kearney, NE 68847, 308/234-1261, www.alleyrose.com.
For one of the best hunks of prime rib, it’s worth a trip to Nebraska just to visit this restaurant. Beef ranching is a major industry in Nebraska. Most of the cattle, Certified Black Angus, are raised and fed properly. The meat is aged to perfection. The result is a great steak or roast. Except for au jus, I deplore the use any sauce––great beef, judiciously prepared, stands on its own. Alley Rose serves a one or two pound slice that is virtually fork tender. They also deliver an impressive pork osso bucco or chicken schnitzel, lightly breaded with a lemon caper buerre blanc––all with superb sides such as mashed potatoes, creamed spinach, or wild mushroom risotto. Service is efficient and congenial.
Chances R, 124 W. 5th, York, NE 68467, 402/362-7755, www.chancesryork.com.
I love small town joints that have been operated by the same family for generations, especially where the succeeding generation doesn’t mess with the success of its predecessors. When I walked into Chances R, I immediately knew I was in the right place. The room was packed with locals. The gravel-voiced waitresses were jolly and hospitable. They made me feel like a regular. This place serves a hearty breakfast, great burgers, and homemade desserts, but the winner is the fried chicken with real mashed potatoes and country gravy. Of course, the chicken fried steak is right up there. It’s been over a month since my visit, but I can’t get these two places out of my mind.
McCook Regional Airport (KMCK) has two major runways. R12/30 is 6,450 feet long and has an ILS approach. Runway 4/22 is 4,000 feet long. The field also has RNAV and VOR approaches. Red Willow Aviation can be reached at 866/926-6904. Gothenburg has one airport, Quinn Field (KGTE) with runway 3/21 which is 2,599 feet long and 14/32, which is 3,300 feet long. Contact Gothenburg Aviation at 308/557-2384 for more information. Kearney Regional Airport has two runways. R18/36 is 7,094 feet long. R13/31 is 4,498 feet long. Contact Kearney Aviation Center, 308/233-5800. Central Nebraska Regional Airport in Grand Island has two runways. R17/35 is 7,002 feet long. R13/31 is 6,608 feet long. Contact Trego-Dugan Aviation at 800/652-0018 for more information.
One of My Favorite Places
The question I’m asked most frequently is “where is your favorite destination?” I’ve been to 101 countries. I’ve stayed in “fancy-schmancy” hotels where folks unwittingly treated me as if I were the richest guy in the world – or put up their noses and regarded me as if I were the poorest guy intruding on their opulent surroundings. In places like Nebraska, there are few, if any luxurious hotels. But I know of no luxurious hotel lobby or lofty building that can compare with the splendor of the Nebraska prairie, the expansive farmland, the rivers, the sand hills, the historic sites and the open skies of the American Great Plains.
In Nebraska, I could be sitting in an old coffee shop. One man sits to my right – another to my left. Both are wearing tattered overalls. Both have country gravy dripping down their chin. One is a farm hand – the other owns a 5,000-acre farm. I can’t tell the farm hand from the farm owner. But nobody cares. Not even those two guys. That’s what I love about Nebraska.