When my twin sister Martha visited Kearney from suburban Cleveland in late March, it was the ordinary things that impressed her. The things you Nebraskans take for granted.
I packed her four-day itinerary as thick as a crane-crammed sandbar. During her previous visits, we’d often hurry away to see the Rockies or the Black Hills. This time, we focused on central Nebraska.
She arrived at noon on a Thursday and browsed the shops on Central Avenue and the Museum of Nebraska Art while I worked. Thursday evening, we had dinner at the Speakeasy in Sacramento. Heading out to the car after that scrumptious dinner, she stopped. She stared at the disappearing plains, as bleached as white breast meat against the coming sunset. You Nebraskans take these panoramas for granted. We took photos.
Friday, we headed south to Red Cloud to see the Willa Cather Visitor Center. Our expert guide bubbled with passion as she led us through Cather’s childhood home. Hungry for lunch, then, we walked a bit hesitantly into a little bar on Main Street, but the food was scrumptious, and the owner friendly. “All Nebraskans are like that,” I told Martha.
I drove south to the Willa Cather Prairie, hiding on the west side of Highway 281. I say “hiding” because there’s no sign for southbound travelers on that road, and I always sail right past it. Sure enough, I did that again. Soon I saw the “Welcome to Kansas” sign. I turned around. Northbound, a sign pointed the way to Cather’s prairie.
We found ourselves in the middle of a vast sanctuary of wind-tickled prairie grass spread like a tablecloth to the horizon on all sides. The world was silent, lulled to sleep by that wind. No one else was there. We hiked a bit. It was lovely.
We went north 15 miles on Highway 281, turned west on Highway 4, and searched for the old farm where Cather heroine Anna Pavelka lived. We rumbled around on dirt roads, past grain elevators and fallow cornfields. We never did find it.
Heading back to Kearney, we stopped in Minden so Martha could see the Christmas City and envision people piled in blankets sitting on the curb watching the story of Mary and Joseph re-enacted there in early December.
That evening, we went to the World Theatre. “That place is a gem,” she wrote in her thank-you note. “I hope you appreciate it. The new candy shop and the lounge off the lobby are great. It’s more than just a theater. It’s a destination.”
Saturday we visited the Walnut Range Farms of Forrest and Jessica Swanson north of Alma. We climbed into Jessica’s pickup, rumbled down by a creek and bumped up hills and came face to face with shaggy Scottish Highland mamas and their newborn calves. They sauntered up to the pickup and might have poked their heads in had I not raced to roll up the window.
That afternoon, we browsed Tiede’s Second-hand and Antique in Overton and the thrift shop in the old brick school in Odessa. My findings: an ice cream scoop for $1, four 50-cent juice glasses, a $4 lawn chair, a $2 lampshade.
Sunday afternoon, we roasted hot dogs over a campfire at Fort Kearny State Recreation Area. As sunset crept in, we drove to the bridge over the Platte River south of Gibbon to see the cranes. In they came, flock after flock, non-stop, descending noisily on the river. Then came a parting gift: a bloated full moon rising in the east.