Tuesday, August 07, 2012

US Hwy 30: On The Nebraska Prairie

After staying up really late on Sunday night to witness the spellbinding coverage of Curiosity's delivery to the surface of Mars, I got a later start than usual yesterday morning. The drive on US Hwy 30 was pretty much the same as it's been for a while, with a so-so roadway rolling through endless fields of semi-parched corn, punctuated by the occasional passing train and quick glimpses of farm towns that have seen better days. I was happy to make it a relatively short day of driving, and stopped near the small city of Grand Island.

After setting up WHQOMFTM -- my new acronym for "world headquarters of me for the moment" -- I went into town to have a quick look around and get supplies. Grand Island is a fairly bustling little city just north of the Platte River, with a wide open layout under expansive skies, and hardly a tree to be seen. It's not actually on an island, because it moved from its original location on a nearby island that was formed by the Platte and the Wood rivers.

Now here's one of those little factoids you learn by traveling with Macgellan: That island is alleged to have once been the largest inland island in the world, but it no longer exists because the Wood river no longer has a western connection to the Platte. Isn't that just the way life goes? One day you're the biggest in the world, and the next day you don't even exist! A cautionary tale, indeed!

Anyway, I was delighted to find that Grand Island has a modern multiplex cinema, so I took the opportunity to catch up on some popular culture last night by seeing the new Batman movie. It was pretty good, but I have to admit it kinda confused me about who's who and what's what now in that film franchise… Anybody else?

I got a proper start this morning and explored the area in earnest. There's a ton of history around here, based on the region's prominence in the Oregon Trail, the Pony Express, the Mormon Trail and all the other facets of westward expansion and development on the prairie.

One of the city's most prominent features is the Stuhr Museum of the Prairie which bills itself as "More than a museum… A living history experience!" That claim is backed up by an "authentic railroad town" whose precise time in history is apparently either uncertain or variable, as evidenced by the bolted-on date on it's welcome sign.

The mock town itself is quite expansive, covering several square blocks and including all sorts of establishments. These range from the eponymous railroad depot to shops for blacksmiths, milliners, hardware, dry goods and the like. There are also a school, a town hall, a marshall's office and a newspaper. Each building is staffed by a person in costume. I did my best to get in character by having a sarsaparilla at the Silver Dollar Saloon, though it was difficult to really feel the experience because I was the only visitor in the town. Once again, I had that kinda creepy feeling I was in a Twilight Zone episode!

Elsewhere on the Stuhr Museum campus is an exhibit building that houses a collection of prairie-life artifacts and displays. It's not a very extensive collection -- nor particularly well documented -- but it does offer a good overview of the area's history. All in all, the complex is worth the hour I was there.

A better museum offering is located a few miles south in the town of Hastings, aptly named the Hastings Museum. Housed in a surprisingly large facility for a small town, this well organized and very well documented collection provides a much fuller understanding of prairie life. In particular, I was impressed with descriptions of adaptations that settlers had to make when moving from life in the east. Mostly, though, the simple factors of thematic layout and organization combined with ample descriptive texts made for a very worthwhile few hours.

Among the various other sights in my exploration today, I saw a short, "actual, undisturbed" section of the Oregon Trail. It's hard to photograph a couple of ruts in the dirt, so you'll have to use your imagination. The local feed lot isn't very photogenic either.

It's been a good day on the Nebraska prairie. I'm headed farther west tomorrow… Stay tuned!

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