- Written by Andrea Gross Andrea Gross
In my years of traveling I’ve flown over Nebraska many, many times. I’d look out the window and see neat plots of farmland and the winding ribbon of the Platte River, but not much else.
I wasn’t surprised. After all, what else is there between the Miracle Mile of Chicago and the mountains of Colorado? Last summer my husband and I decided to find out.
A former state slogan asserts that “Nebraska is where the West begins” and, as we soon learn, it begins just a few minutes after we cross the Missouri River Bridge that runs between Iowa and Nebraska.
There, in the middle of downtown Omaha, bronze bison crash through buildings, Canadian geese fly through the air, and a giant wagon train prepares to depart for points unknown. More than 100 larger-than-life sculptures, arranged in two nonadjacent but coordinating parks, provide a glimpse of what the pioneers were about to face.
As we fill up our gas tank, a typically pragmatic Nebraskan puts it another way.
“Once those pioneers got to Omaha, they didn’t have much choice. They were pretty much in the middle of what is now the United States, not counting Alaska or Hawaii. No matter which direction they turned, they had 1,500 miles to go before reaching the country’s edge.”|
Our journey suddenly sounds embarrassingly easy. We only have 450 miles to go before reaching the western edge of Nebraska, and we’ll be traveling in a Honda rather than a covered wagon.
But before leaving the town where the West begins, we have to see where Warren Buffett — arguably Nebraska’s most well-known citizen — began.
We drive by his home at 5505 Farnam St., where he has lived for nearly 60 years. It’s a nice enough house — two stories, brick, attached garage — but not exactly a billionaire’s estate. According to Zillow, a similar house would sell today for $875,000.
Buffett stories and sightings are easy to come by in Omaha. An elderly gentleman tells us that he asked the billionaire if he’d ever used senior discounts. He enclosed a stamped, self-addressed envelope with his query, and Buffett answered immediately.
“I did get in as a senior citizen at the movies the other night,” he wrote, “and take note: I used your stamped envelope for the reply.”
A woman says she saw Buffett and Microsoft founder Bill Gates, the world’s wealthiest person, at Petrow’s, a family diner replete with fountain bar, where they each ordered the value-priced daily special.
But for a quick snack, Buffett is said to prefer Dairy Queen, a holding of his Berkshire-Hathaway company. He usually orders a small Dusty Sundae, which is soft vanilla ice cream topped with malted milk powder. We decide to splurge by spending 60 cents more for a large. Omaha is one place where we can afford to eat better than a billionaire.
Following our grand indulgence, we head west on Interstate 80, roughly paralleling the route taken by nearly a half million settlers during the mid-19th century. The Great Platte River Road, as it was called back then, was the main path for the Oregon Trail, the Mormon Trail, and the Gold Rush Trail. Today it’s an interstate trail for modern travelers.
We get another sense of the country’s vastness at Kearney’s Archway, a two-story museum that, as the name implies, arches over the interstate.
Inside, a host of exhibits detail Nebraska’s transportation history, from wagons to trains to speeding cars.
About 25 miles past North Platte, where we stop to see Buffalo Bill’s ranch and Union Pacific’s giant railroad yard, a small sign advises us that we’re about to enter Mountain Time Zone.
We have to adjust our watches as well as our mindset, for it’s here that the West of our imagination really begins. The neat plots of farmland filled with rows of corn become vast fields filled with grazing cattle. And the traffic — as well as the number of rest stops — thins out.
Off to the north are the Sandhills, a seemingly endless rolling prairie that covers nearly a third of the state. Highway 2, which bisects the region from east to west, is ranked as one of the 10 most beautiful highways in the nation.
Interspersed amongst the cattle ranches, there’s water, lots of it. In fact, the Sandhills are a recreational wonderland, filled with rivers and lakes that are perfect for fishing, swimming, tubing, and — my favorite — tanking. This is a Nebraska specialty that consists of using a feeding tank meant for livestock, outfitting it with cushy seating, and taking it on a float down a river.
Thoroughly relaxed and slightly damp, we return to Interstate 80 and head out to Wyoming. We’ve driven the length of Nebraska and one thing is certain: The best way to see Nebraska is by car — not through an airplane window.
For more on Warren Buffett’s favorite haunts as well as other great Nebraska destinations, see www.traveltizers.com. Photos © Irv Green unless otherwise noted; story by Andrea Gross (www.andreagross.com).