Better Half

Ben Truesdell and his father, Matthew, set up their telescope this past July at the Snake River Area Campground near the Merritt Reservoir ahead of the annual Nebraska Star Party, where Nebraskans revel in a night sky far from city lights. The Star Party was just one of scores of events and places that Sarah Baker Hansen and Matthew Hansen chronicled this past year for The World-Herald.

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.

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.

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