We were just outside Valentine when the screaming started.
It was late April. I had been driving for five hours. Sarah rode shotgun, finishing a food review and occasionally sighing when I requested yet another episode of “This American Life” to be played on the car speakers.
We had left Omaha that morning, giddy with excitement about our longest statewide car trip for “The Better Half,” our book about Nebraska.
But as we drove west, the sunlight turned to clouds. The clouds turned to rain. The rain turned to drizzle. The drizzle turned into a full-on freaky spring blizzard.
I white-knuckled the steering wheel and gritted my teeth, frustrated that we were now driving 30 mph, fearful that we would have to stop far short of our destination, furious that we had taken a World-Herald company car — a Ford Focus — instead of a vehicle built for a snowstorm.
Sarah loves snow. She seemed delighted by the snowstorm. From the passenger seat, she made a throwaway comment about our great snow adventure.
I erupted like Mount Pinatubo.
Later, neither of us could remember what we were really screaming about. Both of us could remember that all the fire breathing fogged up the Ford Focus’ windows.
I tell you this story to confirm that World-Herald food critic Sarah Baker Hansen and I are like most married couples. We occasionally fight, and it becomes more likely when we are locked together in a compact car for the better part of a day.
I also tell you this story to point out what happened next:
After nearly 10 hours, we made it to Crawford, Nebraska, which is a half-hour or so from the Wyoming border. There, it was again sunny. Over the next week, we reported stories about the one-of-a-kind hotel High Plains Homestead, where there’s no TV, radio or cellphone service. We hiked and snapped photos of Toadstool Geologic Park. We ate first-rate barbecue, pie and a dessert called the Tin Roof Sundae, invented in tiny Potter, Nebraska.
We did all that for work, our work being two dozen stories and nearly 100 tips on places to stay, eat and go for “The Better Half,” a book that you can find in many Nebraska bookstores.
As we traveled the state this spring and summer, meeting fascinating people, eating great food and drinking several of Nebraska’s finest beers, we learned a few things, too.
We learned that the state of Nebraska is indeed much more than the people whizzing through on Interstate 80 will ever realize. Those people do not get to kick up their heels at the Norden Barn Dance, or stare up at the glittering Sand Hills sky at the Nebraska Star Party, or visit the graves of White Buffalo Girl and Richard “Two Gun” Hart — two incredible Nebraskans whose stories every Nebraskan should know.
We learned that so much of our state’s story can be told through its food. The evolution of the Runza teaches us about our immigrant past. The mom-and-pop joints serving Vietnamese pho near Lincoln’s North 27th Street teach us about our immigrant present. The Napa Valley chef who chucked it all to open a restaurant in Dodge and the Indian-American couple who opened an authentic Indian restaurant in a burned-out truck stop near Overton taught us that some Nebraskans are still dreamers. Some of us still strive to be pioneers.
We met plenty of people battering the image that Nebraska’s best days are past: The two young O’Neill businessmen arising at 5 a.m. to make high-end copper mugs and sell them on the Internet; small-town brewers in Ord, Valentine and Broken Bow who have poured their sweat and savings into the idea that Nebraskans want something besides Busch Light; a motley crew of Willa Cather fans, longtime residents, young go-getters and my own relatives, who have renovated Red Cloud’s Main Street and re-energized my belief in my hometown’s future.
None of these people thinks the fight to save Nebraska’s small towns will be easy. All of these people think it’s a fight worth having.
We learned all these things, but mostly this: If you think Nebraska is flat, boring and dusty, if you think this state has nothing to offer, then you need to get out more.
Honestly, we needed to get out more. It’s so easy to get caught in your own Omaha neighborhood — in our case, the Old Market — and forget about 77,000 other square miles in this state.
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Richard Hart's real name: A good old-fashioned American mystery
He entered the Chicago courtroom on Sept. 21, 1951, wearing his signature white 10-gallon hat, looking like a cowboy from another time, which he was, and also was not. Ever since anybody could remember, the man in the white hat had been an outsized character in his corner of northeast Nebraska, a lawman whose real-life story seemed ripped from the yellowed script of an old Hollywood Western. Read story
Runza: The story of one of Nebraska's most treasured foods
The tale of that beloved Nebraska meat pocket — sometimes called a bierock — is about much more than a sandwich you’ve ordered in a drive-thru or inhaled during halftime of a frigid Memorial Stadium football game. Read story
Their American dream – an Indian restaurant inside a Nebraska truck stop – attracts diners from all over
At the Jay Bros., a stop along the road east of Lexington where there are no houses, there is no Subway or Starbucks, and hardly any people. There are only the Chaudharys and their most unlikely version of the American dream: a central Nebraska Punjabi-style Indian restaurant, Taste of India, inside a truck stop. Read story
At Scratchtown Brewery in Ord, Nebraska, locals drink to newfound success of once-dying town
Here, in this town of 2,100 people, three business partners — an electrician, an ex-banker and a former Omaha Chamber of Commerce exec — are brewing what may be the best craft beer in the entire state. Read story
Art made them famous. Murder shaped their lives. A hotel in Nebraska links their pasts
They both looked out this window. That’s what you think when you duck down and peer out the bedroom drapes of a nondescript stucco hotel on Cozad’s Eighth Street. Read story
Speakeasy in the ghost town: How a Nebraska native is quietly transforming his rural steakhouse into a fine dining establishment
Crunch through the gravel parking lot toward the door, push through a dim entryway and into a small bar decorated in hunter green, wood and old Nebraska Cornhuskers photos. Order yourself a barrel-aged Manhattan. A plate of house-cured pork belly. A steak so perfectly cooked and beautifully charred that you’d wager you’re somewhere in Chicago or Omaha. Read story
Howells, Nebraska, has only about 550 residents — but two Catholic churches
Howells, Nebraska, is in fact the last small town with two Catholic parishes in the entire Omaha Archdiocese. These two Catholic churches of Howells are a quirk of fate, an oddity of American immigration, a faded symbol of long-forgotten ethnic strife and also a newer symbol of this town’s persistence and cooperation. Read story
At Eat Restaurant in Dodge, Nebraska, population 600, chef serves small-town food with a big-city twist
It doesn’t quite make sense, at first, why this chef who spent most of his career cooking in Napa Valley and Sonoma, California, is running a restaurant in a Nebraska town of about 600. But once you sample the menu, it starts to become a bit more clear. Read story
Down a country road in untamed northwest Nebraska, visitors can find the opposite of city life
There is a place in Nebraska that you reach by bumping west down a dusty one-lane road, inching to your destination as the sun sets so brilliantly purple-red over the green bluffs and sand-brown peaks and valleys that you want to bring every person who ever said the state is flat and boring to this exact spot and yell, “Look!” Read story
In the most unlikely place of Lewellen, Nebraska, one family is reshaping the town through its funky business empire
Hang a left off Highway 26, enter the first Main Street business you see, and you find co-owner Cynthia Miller on roller skates, skidding to a stop at the counter to grab chicken salad sandwiches and giant slices of strawberry rhubarb pie and then gliding across the room to deliver them to hungry diners. Read story
'A food destination'? In Scottsbluff, the Emporium — 'an elegant little restaurant' — appeals to locals, visitors drawn by nearby landmarks
It’s just not locals who are wild about the Emporium. It’s caught the eye of tourists from across the U.S. and from as far as France and Australia who have come to western Nebraska to follow the Oregon Trail or see Chimney Rock. Read story
Potter, Nebraska, population 300, preserves its rich legacy as the home of the Tin Roof Sundae
This small diner in a village of 300 is where it all began. Harold Dean “Pinky” Thayer stood behind the same counter at the same soda fountain where Alaree and Max sat this summer. It’s where Thayer came up with the Nebraska-made concoction, piling those now iconic ingredients into a soda glass, and perhaps gazing up at the ceiling after his first bite. That’s how his daughter, Kathy Thayer Heine, said he came up with its name: the tin roof refers to the decorative tin tiles that still sit above Sundry diners’ heads today. Read story
20 years ago, Red Cloud, Nebraska, seemed all but dead. Now the hometown of Willa Cather is changing its fate
As a first lady speaks to a packed house in my hometown, as she praises Red Cloud’s most famous resident and then snips a ribbon officially opening the biggest thing to happen here in my lifetime, my mind keeps drifting from this surreal present to a fading teenage memory. Read story
Atkinson store keeps the holiday spirit alive all year long by offering an eclectic assortment of Christmas decorations
The disco reindeer is what got me. I had previously been on the fence about Something Special by Marilyn, the only store in Nebraska featuring two floors and roughly 4,500 square feet of small-town retail space jam-packed with Christmas trees, Christmas ornaments, Christmas villages, Christmas Santas, Christmas baby Jesuses, Christmas Magi and virtually everything you ever needed or did not need in order to celebrate a very merry Christmas. Read story
The 'oldest tavern in the state,' locally owned Columbus bar hasn’t changed much since 1876
Glur’s, named for second owner Louis Glur, has been family owned for most of its 141 years in business. And though its past certainly touches on Nebraska’s cowboy era, it’s beloved today not just for its place in history but also because it’s still run by a local. Open the squeaky old door and you’ll still find a place that provides townies with a cheap cheeseburger and a cold beer any night of the week, just as it always has. Read story
2 Holt County friends craft copper mugs, sell them online, forging potential path for rural Nebraska
“We couldn’t do this in Brooklyn,” Matt says. “I don’t even know if we could do this in Omaha. … Here you go down to the hardware store, the guy works with you, talks to you about your business for 15 minutes, slaps you on the back and tells you he hopes to buy a set soon. The small-town support is what helped make this real.” Read story
At annual Nebraska Star Party, astronomers gather in Sand Hills for an unobstructed view
In 2017, perfect stargazing is as rare as a surfer’s killer wave or a sommelier’s perfect bottle of wine. But the Nebraska Star Party is the astronomer’s version of the Oahu waves or the vineyards of Bordeaux. Read story
With no experience, family keeps hotel, cafe and small Nebraska town from shutting down
That dedication can be expected from Mandy and her husband, Dale, who, with no experience in either hotels or restaurants, took over the architectural gem to ensure it stays open — and Bassett, population 562, stays on the map. Read story
Norden Barn Dance, a 117-year-old tradition, is a two-step back in time for locals and visitors
The beer is ice cold and $2. The dance floor is getting crowded with rosy-cheeked ranch hands and two-steppin’ grannies and city slickers who earlier today were tubing the Niobrara. For the 117th year in a row — the 87th year inside this very barn — Keya Paha County is hosting a barn dance. It does, indeed, feel like a cure for whatever ails you. Read story
'This is the last frontier': At a 5,000-acre organic ranch in Nebraska's Sand Hills, the buffalo still roam
Dave’s way of life, the land he owns and the food he raises have attracted the attention of tourists from as far away as Europe, who want to take in a slice of the Plains; of healthy eaters, who track Dave down to learn his ways; and of chefs, who come to Dave for the bison meat. Read story
Thanks to immigrant families, Lincoln's Vietnamese food scene is thriving
Lincoln’s Vietnamese dining scene is second to none, thanks to families who immigrated to Nebraska decades ago and opened restaurants to support their own community. Now those spots support the whole capital city with soup, banh mi sandwiches, tea and hospitality. Read story
Omaha left South 24th Street for dead. Now a new generation of immigrants has it booming again
This street was long ago wounded by the demise of its biggest industry — the biggest stockyard in the world — and its main reason to exist. It was long ago abandoned by department stores and taverns, and long ago fled by the grandchildren of immigrants who moved to Hanscom Park or Millard or Papillion. Omaha left South 24th for dead decades ago. And yet, in 2017, it is oh-so alive. Read story
World-Herald food writer answers her most-asked question, 'What's your favorite restaurant?'
My favorite restaurant smells like sourdough starter, candle smoke and some unidentifiable, slightly stale scent that wafts in from the Old Market alley. In the summer, it’s a warm breeze on the patio, a glass of cold rosé and my favorite saffron rice and baked salmon. In the winter, it’s all twinkling Christmas lights and colorful ornaments dangling from the ceiling, with red Bordeaux and hearty boeuf bourguignon. Read story
This year we took turns driving. We got caught in snowstorms and thunderstorms and windstorms ... all in Valentine. We listened to too many episodes of “This American Life.” We talked for hours — about the stories we were working on, about our pasts and occasionally about our future.
I watched Sarah, a Burke High graduate and an Omahan her entire life, shoot the bull with dozens of people who would never live in Omaha because it’s too crowded and too loud. I watched her buy a pair of cowboy boots.
She indulged me when I wanted to stop at Fort Robinson and stand at the site of Crazy Horse’s death for a second time. She walked along as I tried (with limited success) to play golf at Valentine’s Prairie Club during that aforementioned windstorm.
Together we watched the sun rise over the gorgeous Scotts Bluff National Monument, and the sun set over the Oglala National Grassland. We ate chicken-fried steak at the Bassett Lodge and organic buffalo steak from a ranch near Rose, and also boeuf bourguignon from La Buvette in the Old Market.
I have thought a lot in the past few days about what we learned as we did this. My thoughts have been jumbled.
There was that weird hunt for Jisa’s cheese near Brainard, during which Sarah believed me to be yelling, “Jesus” at the top of my lungs when I was in fact yelling “Jisa’s” and motioning frantically to my right. There was our shared delight at learning that Chadron has a wonderful coffee shop, the Bean Broker, that doubles as a wonderful happy hour bar.
There was that awful day at High Plains Homestead where we watched the sunset together after one of our best friends called to tell us his baby had died.
Through that haze of memories, one thought keeps poking through: Sarah and I have both lived our entire lives in this state. As adults, we have turned down other jobs to stay. And yet I don’t think we have ever tried to fully understand our home state, its pride and inferiority complex, its simple pleasures and its urban-versus-rural grievances, its stereotypes and its reality, until this year.
When I asked Sarah about what she had learned, she brought up the near-continual kindness we experienced this year as dozens of Nebraskans from every corner of the state gave us hours of their time, invited us into their homes, trusted us with their stories and, in fact, seemed truly humbled — truly honored — that we wanted to tell them.
I don’t think we have ever been as fully Nebraskan as we became in 2017.
I also think we became even more married in 2017, if that makes sense. Spending hundreds of hours in a compact car and dozens of hours enjoying small-town Nebraska cafes will do that.
“I think it’s pretty impressive that we were able to do this and basically never got into any arguments or tiffs over the book or project (except for that one snow day),” Sarah emailed me after the project was over. “I honestly enjoyed working with you a lot, and I feel really lucky to have been able to do this together. I’m proud to have both our stories in the pages of one book.”
I enjoyed it, too. I’m lucky, too. And I’m oh-so-proud to share our stories — our great Nebraska adventure — with you, too.