“This is beautiful country when it’s not trying to kill you.”

A nervous guffaw escaped me when I heard Mike Kesselring say this, because like all good jokes, it’s deeply rooted in someone’s truth.

The sun was just starting to set on his High Plains Homestead, casting soft light on that dirt road that led me to Mike’s and his wife Linda’s remote retreat near Crawford, Nebraska, tucked into the extreme northwestern part of the state.

Surrounded by the wooden plank buildings that they’ve artfully scattered on the windswept prairie to recreate an old West “cowtown,” the Kesselring family’s Drifter Cookshack had just served me chicken directly from the outdoor grill, followed by their famous cinnamon pie. (If it’s not famous yet, well, it should be.) And let’s face it: Even when spoken in jest, truth always goes better with pie.

Deep down, I knew what Mike had meant. That old human-condition adage “that which nourishes us can also devour us,” can apply to anyone anywhere, but rang a little truer out there in western Nebraska where wildfires and raging winds are common dinner speak.

But there was something else there in that place, an even bigger truth that I didn’t even know I’d come searching for, but found there on my westward journey. At some point, out there under the vast expanse of Nebraska skies, around food cooked over an open outdoor flame, in the midst of conversations with this authentic and unapologetically hardy people, I discovered a resilience of spirit and a sense of adventure that this heartbreakingly beautiful landscape may sometimes try to rid you of, but will only succeed in making you feel even more alive.

The Kesselrings’ property, flanked by the dramatically rugged Badlands and trees of Pine Ridge, is a little off the beaten path. Some people (like me) would say that’s preferable. I would tout that it’s worth the drive down a long quiet road for a home-cooked meal, a good night’s rest, and a visit with friendly proprietors.

Following in Their Footsteps (and Wagon Ruts): Retracing the Paths of Our Cowboys and Pioneers

I’m not egotistical enough to think I was the first of my kind. To be honest, the universality of my wanderlust plight was probably what drove me to Nebraska in the first place. I recognize that so many before me have come to a similar crossroads in life and died inside to see what lay just on the other side of that western horizon. “Go West,” I’d always heard, and so I did. Over the course of five days, I motored down solitary back roads to try to experience landscape that so much of our country’s history and western expansion is based on.

Quite frankly, the western Nebraska landscape shocked me. I had come there expecting to traverse a flat, grassland prairie and not much else. Instead, I discovered rising bluffs, buttes and other geologic wonders that must have given the Oregon Trail wagoneers quite a start.

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Scotts Bluff National Monument, not to be missed by history buffs and outdoor enthusiasts, is a 3000-acre park located on the south side of the North Platte River. Steep bluffs loomed around my rental minivan like guardians as I approached, and I was awed that modern day drivers can still steer their cars right through Mitchell Pass between the bluff walls, the same route the early settlers took toward the Rocky Mountains. To my utter amazement, the remnants of wagon ruts still remain there, hearkening back to the days that the emigrants used Scotts Bluff as a directional guide to the west.

Similarly, about a 30-minute drive from Scotts Bluff, the monolithic, limestone pillar Chimney Rock, rises from earth like a navigational beacon. In fact, way back before GPS, the pioneers used Chimney Rock’s spire as a towering landmark to ensure they were headed in the right direction. (It showed up in more settlers’ journal accounts of their wagon train journeys than any other landmark.) Sadly, Chimney Rock has lost thirty feet from its height in the last 150 years, a product of erosion and lighting strikes, so you better see it while you can.

And of course, I couldn’t pass up a trek to Ogallala, a true cowboy town that was the end of the trail for cattle herds being driven westward on the Texas Trail. The town gained notoriety in the late 1800s for its seasonal, lively bunch of cowboys who came through every summer and frequented its saloons, hotels and sometimes, ahem, more tawdry establishments. (The town was made even more famous by its mention in the CBS mini-series “Lonesome Dove,” based on the novel by Larry McMurtry.) If you visit, don’t miss Boot Hill, a cemetery overlooking the town where many of these cowboys are laid to rest.

I, too, eventually reached “the end of the trail.” I flew home to Georgia via the Denver airport, which is just a short car ride to many western Nebraska destinations. I’ll never forget the Nebraskans I left in my wake, however—they who happily showed me around back roads, fed me heartily and told me the stories about our country’s heritage that I’ll never read in history books.

If you ever get to that crossroads, and find yourself looking west, just go. They’re still waiting there with more stories, and there’s plenty enough pie to go around.


Where to Hang Your Hat

The Monument Inn & Suites is an ideal place to circle your wagons, so to speak, and get your bearings. Equipped with modern amenities such as your own in-room Keurig, wireless Internet and a daily hot breakfast, this place might be your best bet if you need to stay “connected” while still being in the thick of the western wilderness. This hotel is in easy driving distance to Scotts Bluff National Monument, Chimney Rock and the Oregon Trail.

1130 M St., Gering, NE 69341 | 308-436-1950 | www.monumentinnsuites.com

Scottsbluff Barn Anew Bed and Breakfast is a renovated, 100-year old barn that is just minutes from Scottsbluff and Gering. They offer four guest rooms and a gourmet breakfast. For the more adventurous of spirit, guests can stay in their cozy sheepherders’ wagon.

Scottsbluff, NE 69357 | 308-632-8647 | http://barnanew.com

High Plains Homestead offers Bunkhouse accommodations as well as their Sand Creek Cabin. The bunkhouse rooms keep with their “cowtown” theme with colorful names like The Cowboy, The Homesteader, The Saloon Girl, The Warrior, The Hunter and The Caballero.

263 Sandcreek Road, Crawford, NE 69339 | 308-665-2592 | www.highplainshomestead.com


Where to Rustle Up Some Grub

The Drifter Cookshack at High Plains Homestead

263 Sandcreek Road, Crawford, NE 69339 | 308-665-2592 | www.highplainshomestead.com

The Steel Grill Restaurant & Bar

2800 10th St., Gering, NE 69341 | (308) 633-1020 | www.facebook.com/pages/The-Steel-Grill/149237835129540

The Tangled Tumbleweed

1823 Avenue A, Scottsbluff, NE 69361 | (308) 633-3867 | thetangledtumbleweed.com


Where to Steer Your Wagon

Windlass Hill

Ash Hollow State Historical Park, P.O. Box 70, Lewellen, NE 69147-0070 | 308-778-5651 | outdoornebraska.gov/ashhollow/

Chimney Rock National Historic Site

Nebraska State Historical Society

P.O. Box F, Bayard, NE 69334-0680 | 308-586-2581 | www.nebraskahistory.org/sites/rock/

Scotts Bluff National Monument

190276 Old Oregon Trail, P.O. Box 27, Gering, NE 69341-0027 | 308-436-9700 | www.nps.gov/scbl/index.htm

Knight Museum and Sandhills Center

P.O. Box D, 908 Yellowstone Ave., Alliance, NE 69301 | 308-762-2384 | knightmuseum.com

Legacy of the Plains Museum

2930 Old Oregon Trail, Gering, NE 69341 | 308-436-1989 | legacyoftheplains.org

 

PHOTOGRAPHY BY JENNIFER CARTER

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