Nebraska

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More than just prairies--it's pioneer history and top-notch outdoor recreation

Every year or two when I return to Nebraska, my home state, my country cousins call a family reunion, and they treat me to a big steak or prime-rib dinner at one of their favorite restaurants. I appreciate their generosity. But I'm also well aware my meal isn't going to bust their budget, no matter how poorly the season's corn crop did. A land of spectacular wide-open spaces and a strong pioneer heritage, much of Nebraska is - to use a common phrase here - "dirt cheap," especially in terms of vacation costs such as lodging and meals. You can have a terrific time on next to nothing. I'll show you how, on a fun-filled, six-day, 800-mile tour into America's pioneer past - with time out for a dip in a lake or a budget-priced round of golf. Well, perhaps I exaggerate about the costs, but only a little. I'll give you a good example:

This year the cousins took me to the Stockmen's Bar & Grill, a friendly saloon in Amherst, a tiny farm town near the center of the state. It's about 15 miles from the small city of Kearney in the Platte River Valley, where we all grew up together. My slab of prime rib, one-and-a-half-inches thick, all but filled my plate. Perfectly cooked, juicy and tender, it definitely was a hefty portion; the tab was anything but. With an all-you-can-eat salad, a baked potato, and a huge slice of cheese toast, my meal came to just $10.95 - and it was one of the priciest items on the menu. In Washington, D.C., where I live now, prime rib as good as this lists at $25 to $30 - and you have to pay extra for the salad.

How cheap is Nebraska?

In the little city of Beatrice in southeastern Nebraska, barely big enough to boast parking meters on Court Street, I stepped from my car and reached into my pocket for the quarter I expected to deposit. Wrong coin. In Beatrice, you get 30 minutes at the curb for just a nickel. Up the street, I took a peek at admission prices at the Holly Theater, which was featuring a first-run movie that went on to win an Academy Award. Most nights the adult fee is $5.50, about three bucks cheaper than what D.C. theaters are charging. On Sunday nights, though, everybody gets in for $3.50. Nearby at Tonka Lanes, a spiffy 16-lane bowling alley, a set of ten frames is $2.25 max per person; $1.85 for seniors. At the lanes near my home, it's $3.75.

"So what?" you ask. "Why would I want to go to Beatrice?" I'll get to this in detail later. But for the moment think of a visit as a chance to hike through an expanse of tallgrass prairie - as high as an elephant's eye. In this part of the state, the first covered wagon trains heading west more than 150 years ago navigated a vast sea of towering grass - some of it reaching eight or nine feet. It once covered millions of acres. Nowadays, most of it is gone-plowed under for crops. But just outside Beatrice, the National Park Service has nurtured about 100 acres of tallgrass - one of the few places anywhere you can see this prairie marvel as the pioneers did. When I was there earlier this year, a strong wind whipped the grass into frothy, oceanlike waves. No state tells the story of America's pioneers as evocatively as Nebraska, and the Beatrice tallgrass prairie is only one example. Here and there, sod houses - the legendary "prairie palaces" - still stand.

But back to cheap In the town of Fairbury, about 25 miles west of Beatrice, Kathy of Kathy's Cut-Ups, a family hair salon on sleepy Fourth Street, quoted me a price of $5 for a basic haircut; $7 if I wanted special styling. I won't tell you what I pay to have my hair cut at home, but Kathy would have to work nearly half a day to get what my stylist earns in 30 minutes. By the way, Wild Bill Hickok, the legendary gunfighter and lawman, launched his career in Fairbury by shooting a man to death in 1861. You can learn all about it at Rock Creek Station, a state historical park that preserves an authentic Pony Express stop. Here, too, you can still see the deep ruts cut by the wheels of countless prairie schooners passing through.

Up in the beautiful Sandhills of north central Nebraska, massive 5,000-acre Calamus Reservoir at Burwell is where many Nebraskans - my cousins among them - go on vacation to swim, fish, boat, and to play golf on the nine-hole course at lakeside. This isn't Pebble Beach, where an 18-hole round costs more than $300 per person. But with the same sun beaming down, water views, and good companions, you might have just as much fun at a fraction of the expense. At Calamus, 18 holes sets you back an easy $18 weekends, $14 weekdays. "Visitors are flabbergasted," says Steve Senn, one of the course founders and owner of the Rodeo Inn (308/346-4408) in nearby Burwell.

So far, I haven't mentioned lodging rates. They're cheap, too. At Senn's tidy 15-room motel, a night for two in summer is $32. Up the road at 16-room Bosselman's Pump & Pantry Motel (308/346-4607) it's just $39.95.

Why is Nebraska so inexpensive? It's a big state, but the population numbers only 1.7 million, so there aren't a lot of folks competing to fill up motel rooms. And much of the economy is based on farming, which has good seasons and bad. Instead of spending in the good years, farmers tend to save for the bad. And incomes overall are generally low - for example, the state ranks 42nd nationally in teachers' pay - which keeps prices down. Recently Business Week cited a report showing Nebraska was one of the least expensive states in which to do business, based on the cost of labor, taxes, and energy.

To keep your costs down, my central Nebraska itinerary steers clear of the big eastern cities of Lincoln (the capital) and Omaha (my birthplace). Book your flight to either - they're only 60 miles apart - but get out into the western countryside quickly. Omaha is served by Southwest Airlines (800/435-9792), and car rentals there tend to be cheapish. At the first state park you visit, purchase a $14 annual pass (per car) for all state parks and recreation areas.

Wide-open spaces

Before we get on the road, I want to clear up a myth about my home state. "Nobody ever takes a vacation in Nebraska," my friends tell me. "There's nothing out there but flatlands, cornfields, and cows." What do they know?

They've never been there.

Yes, there are cows - after all, this is prime beef country-and cornfields aplenty. And yet the green of the fields and pastures - every shade of green - is a constantly pleasing prospect. Far from flat, Nebraska is a land of rolling hills stretching off into the distance. Countless streams wander the countryside, which is splashed liberally with lakes and ponds, many open to the public for recreation. Their shady banks are a respite from the sun in summertime.

But what really draws me back is the incredible immensity of the open spaces. To some, such emptiness might be stupefying - farmhouses are widely scattered and in many places trees are so few you can almost count them. But I find the solitude a release from the everyday clamor and clutter of urban life. It makes the spirit soar. Out here, I actually enjoy driving a car. Get on any of the back roads, and you can travel for miles without seeing another vehicle. When you do, it's customary to offer a friendly little wave as you pass.

I like the down-to-earth quality of my fellow Nebraskans, and the homespun welcome visitors get here in America's heartland. A chance detour because of roadwork took me into the little central Nebraska farm town of Hershey at about noon on Sunday on my latest visit. A small sign in the town center pointed to the Volunteer Fire Department's annual fund-raising spaghetti feed, and so I stopped. Admission was a voluntary contribution; I dropped $5 in the pot for a home-cooked "all-you-can-eat" spread. Everybody knew everybody but me, but I was greeted eagerly by one person after another curious as to where I was from and how I'd turned up in their midst.

For more visitor information, call 800/228-4307 or log onto visitnebraska.org.

Pioneer paths

Day 1: After landing in Omaha (or Lincoln), head immediately southwest for Beatrice, about 100 miles away. The attraction here is the Homestead National Monument of America (402/223-3514), site of the tallgrass prairie. No entrance fee. This verdant parkland marks one of the first 160-acre plots granted free to settlers under the famous Homestead Act of 1862, which opened the prairie to farming. More than 100,000 homesteaders made claims in Nebraska. Their successes and failures combating drought, grass fires, locusts, harsh winters, and the sometimes unendurable loneliness of the prairie is the story told in the visitor center's excellent museum.

Stay at the 39-room Econo Lodge (402/223-3536), $40; the 44-room Victorian Inn (402/228-5955), $40; or the 64-room Beatrice Inn, which has a pool (800/232-8742), $41. On weekends, farm folk fill Sirloins and More, a cafeteria, where a half-pound rib-eye steak comes to just $8.29 with an all-you-can-eat salad bar. At the Beatrice Inn, the heaping roast beef plate at lunch is $5.25.

Days 2 and 3: Head west via Fairbury (25 miles) and Red Cloud (another 75 miles) to Ogallala, an additional 150 miles.

In Fairbury, you join up briefly with the famed Oregon Trail at Rock Creek Station State Historical Park (402/729-5777). Once the site of a Pony Express station, the 390-acre park preserves the deep ruts of the wagon trains as they crossed a small stream snaking among several small hills. An easy three-mile trail into the prairie is a welcome chance to stretch your legs. Exhibits at the visitor center's first-rate museum argue strongly that Wild Bill Hickok, glorified in legend, began his career with a cowardly attack on an unarmed man. If you stay in Fairbury, an inviting town of shady red-brick streets and Victorian mansions, try the 44-room Capri Motel (800/932-0589), $32 to $40. At the Stable Restaurant, an eight-ounce sirloin steak is $8.49; the porkchop dinner $6.59.

On to Red Cloud, the sleepiest of farm towns but renowned as the childhood home in the 1880s of novelist Willa Cather. She often borrowed from her Red Cloud years for evocative books such as My Antonia, about the state's pioneer past. Her parents' tiny, two-story gabled home is still standing and open to escorted tours (adults $5) offered by the Willa Cather Pioneer Memorial (402/746-2653). As the oldest of seven children, she was awarded a private room in the attic - a surprisingly cramped space by our standards. If you want more time in Red Cloud, stay at the 17-room Green Acres Motel (402/746-2201), $34. Dine at the Palace Lounge; the chicken dinner is $7.75.

You'll have more lodging choices in Ogallala, where you might want to tack on another day or two to spend more time at 35,700-acre Lake C. W. McConaughy (308/284-8800), a state recreation area. Sand-covered swimming beaches ring the lake, which has a sandy bottom thanks to its Sandhills location. Many Nebraskans come to fish-either by boat (rentals available) or from the shore (cheaper). Don't miss nearby Ash Hollow State Historical Park (308/778-5651), where you can see more Oregon Trail wheel-ruts carved as the pioneers guided their wagons down steep Windlass Hill.

Stay lakeside at the 11-cabin Kingsley Lodge (800/883-2775), $55; in town at the very friendly 26-room Lakeway Lodge with pool (888/284-4431), $47; or the 45-room Plaza Inn (308/284-8416), $47. Join the townsfolk for dinner at Hoke's Cafe; chicken-fried steak is $6.95.

Day 4: Drive northeast via North Platte (55 miles) to Burwell, another 115 miles. State Rte. 91 east from Dunning to Burwell, which winds on empty back roads through Sandhills country, is very scenic. Grass-topped hills stretch for miles, their slopes providing rich grazing for the beef that is on every Nebraska menu.

In North Platte, take a look inside Scout's Rest Ranch, the home of Buffalo Bill Cody, at Buffalo Bill Ranch State Park (308/535-8035). The most noted Nebraskan of his day, Cody relaxed at his ranch here between his wild West shows. Horseback trail rides explore the adjacent countryside. If you decide to linger, stay at the 31-room Cedar Lodge, named for its stately trees (308/532-0970), $40.

In Burwell, take advantage of the cheap rates at the Calamus Golf Course (308/346-4331) and spend time swimming, boating, waterskiing, or fishing at Calamus Reservoir (Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, 402/471-0641), a state recreation area. Nearby, Fort Hartsuff State Historical Park (308/346-4715), a well-preserved infantry outpost on the plains, recounts the often tragic clashes between settlers and Native Americans. You might want to linger at Calamus for another day. In Burwell, stay at the Rodeo Inn or Bosselman's (mentioned earlier). Dine at the Maverick Cafe; two porkchops cost $7.95. In Ord, 15 miles south, stay at the quite spiffy 51-room Airport Motel (308/728-3649), $47. Dine at the Veteran's Club; the rib-eye steak's $10.50.

Day 5: Head for Kearney, 85 miles south. In summer, Fort Kearny Historical Park (308/865-5305)-the difference in spelling has tormented editors for generations - is the big attraction. Built to protect the Oregon Trail, it features a diverting introduction to the art of building a sod house. How did families keep the dirt from tumbling down from the ceiling into their food? They hung sheets overhead.

Stay at the new 59-room Motel 6 (308/338-0705), $52; 70-room Budget Motel South (308/237-5991), $48; or the 34-room Midtown Western Inn (800/333-1401), $52. Dine at big, bustling USA Steak Buffet; the adult buffet is $8.70; over age 60, $7.79; children 12 and under, 55: times their age.

Day 6: Return to Omaha (190 miles) to catch your plane home.

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