Take a Heartland Road Trip!
Smack dab in the middle of America, this leisurely drive across Nebraska's Sandhills region includes winding rivers, gentle hills, and some fascinating folks.
Afterward, we grab a bite at the Rustic Tavern, in Mullen’s scruffy downtown. The kitchen is closed for remodeling, but the cook whips up a daily special in the smoker out back. This evening it’s BBQ brisket and the place is hopping with takers, many in boots and spurs (104 E. 1st St. Mullen, 308/546-2993). We order seconds before settling in for the night near Thedford at the Middle Loup River Ranch Guest House. There aren’t always animals, and most of the ranch is about 50 miles away, but what’s in a name? Besides, the two-bedroom place is comfy, all ours, and in the morning our host stops by with gooey cinnamon rolls (Highway 2, between Halsey and Thedford, 402/450-2268, middleloupriverranch.com).
Mullen to Nenzel
North up Highway 83, the Sandhills take on a vast, rugged beauty, dotted with pristine lakes and spring-fed marshes and sweeping wide in every direction. In Valentine, we turn west for Nenzel and our 12-mile nyobrafting trip (402/389-2242, 2theendsoftheearth.com). It ends up taking all day, including the part where our shuttle van runs out of gas and we somehow land at Father Neal’s brother’s place to see his four-acre vineyard and the new pine-paneled wine-tasting room occupying the ground floor of his house. They don’t have a liquor license yet, nor do they have a name for their label. Still, Father Neal and his brother are optimistic that this venture (unlike the family’s erstwhile weekend cowboy cookouts) will soon be raking in the crowds. Watch out, Napa. Tiny Nenzel is on your tail!