Nebraska’s Sandhills and Popcorn Days cause us to backtrack

 Nebraska’s Sandhills and Popcorn Days cause us to backtrack

The biggest surprise we have encountered on our Open Mike extended road trip for the Family Motor Coach Association has been Nebraska.

Yeah, there’s a lot of corn. The University of Nebraska Cornhuskers chose an apt nickname. But what has captivated us the most about this state and compelled us to backtrack on our route and stay an extra day have been the Nebraska Sandhills.

The Sandhills are surprisingly unknown to most people, even to the many in Nebraska. But they are the largest area of sand dunes in the western hemisphere. Over 20,000 square miles in extent, the Sandhills are fragile grasslands that are wild, sparsely settled, desolate, and beautiful in unexpected ways. They cover nearly 26% of the entire state.

We heard about them from an old journalism pal, Barney McCoy, who I worked with in Detroit and other places and who know teaches at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln. McCoy heard me doing a radio interview the other day with a station in Lincoln and called to catch up, telling me in passing that before we left the state, we needed to see the Sandhills.

So we drove back west a hundred miles to the town of  Kearney, and then jutted north and northwest another hundred to explore this very remote region. The Sandhills are cattle country, not farm country.

While a Type A or C motorhome could navigate the state roads, particularly Nebraska Highway 2 which is the official route through the Sandhills, they’d be hardpressed to stop or explore the country roads and dirt roads that jut into the most spectacular of the Sandhill territories. Our Type B Roadtrek was perfect.

The Sandhills are really sand dunes, covered in grass. As far as the eye can see, they gently undulate, unbroken but for an occasional windmill. Some of the Sandhills are over 300 feet in height, but most are gentle, rounded mounds of green-gold, appearing as waves of grass, interspersed every now and then with free-ranging cattle.

The early pioneers considered the plant-anchored dunes of the Sandhills were long considered an irreclaimable desert. In the 1870s, cattlemen began to discover their potential as rangeland and in many places you will be surprised to see Longhorns, like Texas.

Another distinction about the Sandhills: Because they are atop the massive Ogallala Aquifer; there are numerous shallow lakes in low-lying valleys between the dunes. Thus, the Sandhills, are largest and most intricate wetland ecosystem in the United States.

On route to them, we stopped at the Great Plate River Road Archway in Kearney. I-90, which the archway traverses, is a stone’s throw from the old Orgeon Trail west, as well as the California Gold Rush Trail and the Mormon Trail to Utah. It is one of the most engaging exhibitionsof history I have experienced and we shot a video there Friday that shows what it was like in the first RV… the covered wagon.

But what is amazing to me is how they built that archway right over one of the busiest interstates in America. And they did it, essentially, in one night. The Archway opened in 2000. But it was put in place in an amazing feat of construction ingenuity.Uusing giant multi-wheeled transporters, the 1,500-ton, 309-foot structure was rolled across the highway in one piece on the night of Aug. 16, 1999. The interstate was closed for eight hours while the archway was locked onto its support platforms.

Inside, is a multimedia masterpiece, designed by a Walt Disney team from Orlando. It traces the covered wagon trails west, then takes us to the railroading age, the linking of the country by the telegraph and the construction of an interstate highway.

From the archway, we moved into the interior of the state and the Sandhills, arriving at sundown in a place called North Loup, Nebraska, population 290 (the sign saying 360 is wrong). Why there? That was for another video. North Loup holds an annual celebration for a key crop growing in the region – popcorn.

It proclaims itself as the popcorn capital of the U.S., although at least two other places in the country make similar claims. But where North Loup trumps the competition is tradition. It’s annual Pop Corn Days celebration stretches back to 1901. Everybody gets free popcorn all weekend long. There is a junior rodeo, street dancing, vegetable judging and a horseshoe-tossing contest.

We took it all in, spending Friday night boondocking in our Roadtrek at the back of the parking lot of the local ballfield, where we were awoken by those showing up for an 8 am softball game.

No matter. You need to know me to understand that I think popcorn is the perfect food. I love popcorn. North Loup was paradise for me.

The videos we shot at the archway and in North Loup will have to await editing next week.

After leaving North Loup, we looked at the GPS and see we have 816 miles to cover to get to Indianapolis and the Family Motorcoach Association’s 87th Reunion and Motorhome Showcase by Sunday.

It’s pedal to the meta time….

Meantime, here’s some Photos from the Sandhills, the archway and of a popcorn crop in North Loup. It was overcast and misty but still, you can get a sense of the pristine beauty of the place. The picture of me wth the video camera out in a popcorn field shows me interviewing Charles Zangger, who is one of the biggest popcorn growers in the world. the popcorn he grows amounts to about a quarter of all the hybrid popcorn sold in the US. He’ll be in a video I’ll be editing over the next couple of weeks.

 

Mike Wendland

Mike is a veteran journalist who, with his wife, Jennifer, travels North America in a small motorhome, blogging about the people, places, joys and adventure of RV life on the road. He enjoys camping (obviously), hiking, biking, fitness, photography, kayaking, video editing, and all things dealing with technology and the outdoors. See and subscribe to his RV Lifestyle Channel on YouTube, where he has hundreds of RV and travel related videos. His PC MIke TV reports, on personal technology are distributed weekly to all 215 NBC-TV stations.

4 Comments

  • Mike,
    Thanks for the info on the Great Platte River Road Archway. Its been awhile since I went through that part of Nebraska. As an easterner, I found the dramatic change in Nebraska terrain to be amazing.

    Put southern Colorado on your radar, an visit the Great Sand Dunes National Park, near Alamosa, Colorado. Do plan to avoid mountain passes in the area during late afternoon. The afternoon thunderstorm may bring significant snowfall even in July and August!

    John Lockhart
    Dillsburg, PA

  • Mike,
    Thanks for stopping in on Popcorn Days. I’m always a little suspicious of people who are excited about our Popcorn Days as I think they’re secretly having a laugh at our expense. Popcorn Days is a great thing to be a part of, but I have no idea how it comes off to an ‘outsider’. Probably a little silly and more than a little quaint. I’m glad your enjoyment was genuine. North Loup is a pretty great community that deserves good press.

    I look forward to your videos.

    Dr. Carl Lundstedt
    –the biggest guy who was in the popper.

  • We loved it. Will get the video edited early next week. Seriously, it was one of the most enjoyable stops of our tour. We spent a lot of time with Chuck Zangger and were fascinated by how much goes into growing popcorn. It was great to meet you. Please tell everyone how much we appreciated being welcomed so and Jennifer and I both both hope to return again.

  • Hi Mike.
    Just found your link on twitter. There are some stunning photo’s on your blog.
    I live in the UK. We have some nice countryside here but the scale and diversity shown in your photo’s makes me feel pretty envious.
    Keep up the good work. I will definately be back for more 🙂

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