I-80 across Nebraska

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So here’s the thing about crossing the belly of America on Interstate 80: It’s boring. I get really offended when people say that they drove across Iowa and it was flat and dull, but I say the same thing about crossing Nebraska. So there you go. I’m a hypocrite.

My friend Jim Heemstra and I crossed Nebraska earlier this month en route to an Iowa State speaking engagement in Denver. Jim was determined to make the crossing interesting, so he did some research and planned several stops to make along the way.

This was moderately successful.

We avoided places we’d been before, like Omaha and Lincoln.

The first place we stopped – some dinosaur museum – did not exist. Maybe it was there at one time, but not anymore. At least we didn’t travel too far off the highway to discover this.

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The second stop was my favorite: Wessels Living History Farm in York, Neb. This is the cutest little farm you ever saw. There’s a lovely home – a restored 1920s farm house that belonged to the David Wessels family and moved to the location just south of I-80. There are barns and a church and a windmill and a one-room schoolhouse and – this is the best part – miniature animals.

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The day we were there the miniature horned cow had just given birth (that very morning!) to a tiny, adorable white calf. She was so brand-new that she hadn’t even figured out how to nurse. Her mamma was still giving her a good licking, and she did NOT like the fact that we were there, taking pictures of her.

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Friendlier animals included Nancy the miniature donkey (who reminded me of a dog) and Snowball the miniature white horse. Both of these little ladies were chubby and pregnant, and they loved attention. They followed us around the whole time we were there. A mamma goat and her baby goat were adorable but skittish. The farmer/historian in charge of our tour said even he couldn’t get the goats to eat out of his hand.

Wessels offers educational classes and facilities for weddings and special events. It costs $5 to tour the living history museum, but it’s worth that for sure.

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Our next stop was the Great Platte River Road Archway museum near Kearney. If you’ve ever driven across Nebraska on I-80, you’ve seen this place – and driven underneath it. The museum has a pretty cool design, with a stone-and-log bridge structure that spans 310 feet over the interstate.

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We had every intention of touring the museum. But it was getting late in the day. We wanted to get more miles behind us. And it cost $12. So we used the restrooms, walked around on the grounds, picked up a few tourist brochures, and got back on the road.

I am guessing the museum would be pretty interesting, especially for families with school-age kids or for anyone interested in the history of the Oregon, Mormon, and California Trails.

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We ended up calling it a night in North Platte, Neb. This is not a town I’d really recommend, but there are not a lot of choices along this stretch of the road. Our hotel was directly next to the Fort Cody Trading Post, which is, according to its website, Nebraska’s largest souvenir and western gift store. I thought it looked like the kind of place my dad would have dragged me at age 10 in 1969. And, in fact, when I did some research I learned that the place opened in 1968, so I pretty much nailed it.

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I don’t know why anyone would stop here today, but the damn thing is still in business. I also don’t know why William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody is considered one of the good guys, especially since he is purported to have killed 4,282 American bison in a period of 18 months in 1867-68, a feat I don’t find particularly heroic. But he was a “colorful figure” in the American West and performed in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show as well as being a rider for the Pony Express. So there you have it.

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OK, so back on the road the next morning, we stopped at Ogallala for a look at Boot Hill (above), which is essentially an Old West cemetery with a statue of a cowboy in it. (Again, my father would have loved it.)

Moving on, we headed to Lake McConaughy for a “scenic drive” along Hwy. 92, which I didn’t find particular scenic. And we had to wait FOUR times for very long coal trains to pass. I’m pretty sure three of the trains were the same one.

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We ended up in Ash Hollow State Historical Park, quite a bit northwest of Ogallala, near Lewellen. This place was surprisingly pretty and is historic for being on the California Trail. The area still has scars left by wagon wheels. We needed to get to Denver, so we didn’t spend much time in this area, but I think the hiking could have been very nice.

One place we didn’t stop along I-80 was Ole’s Big Game Steakhouse and Lounge in Paxton, Neb. I’ve been there a few times, and it’s worth a stop if you haven’t been there before. It’s sort of like eating/drinking in a natural history museum. The place is filled with big-game trophies, including a polar bear, elephant, giraffe, and other unexpected taxidermy animals – 200 in all — that both intrigue and disgust me. I mean, they were shot for sport, right? I don’t much care for that. Ole apparently killed animals on every continent during the 20th century. But they are beautiful animals, so it’s sort of like being in the Field Museum.

Anyway, you should stop there.

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