Go at night. Let the little ones sleep, and you can pretend that the landscape is interesting. — Forum user “Jasid” at arstechnica.com, on driving through Nebraska via I-80

“Oh, yeah, the hills might still be green.” The woman staffing the visitor center points to my map. “Make sure to fill up on gas in Thedford, though. Not much after that.”

From here in Broken Bow, it’s over 60 miles to Thedford. Beyond Thedford, it’s over 200 miles more to Alliance, the next town with a population greater than 100.

It’s a lot of nothing. I’m excited for it.

Most motorists take I-80 across Nebraska, from Omaha in the east to Pine Bluffs in the west. For a majority of these 400 miles, I-80 meanders lazily alongside the Platte River. The eastern portion of the interstate transverses flat fields of corn and green grass. The western portion, on the other hand, is decorated by flat, heavily irrigated fields of corn, yellow grass, and lone patches of rock.

Simply put, I-80 in Nebraska is the stretch of U.S. highway cross-country travellers dread most.

But my map shows 20,000 square miles of land that refute the opinion of your average motorist—that Nebraska makes for six hours of dull scenery. So at mile marker 312, I leave the interstate and head northwest on Nebraska Highway 2, the Sandhills Scenic Byway.

I had to stop and verify that the Sand Hills were, indeed, composed of fine, well-sorted sand. The sand makes for poor soil that can't support much besides grass.

I stop and verify that the Sandhills are, indeed, composed of fine, well-sorted sand. The sand makes for poor soil that can’t support much besides grass.

Outside the visitor center in Broken Bow, my map is almost blown from my hands and into the plains. I hunch down into my car—one of only two vehicles in the parking lot—and drive west.

Twenty miles later, the spell of the Midwest is broken—hills, as far as the eye can see!

They’re not the gentle, rolling hills of Iowa farms, nor are they the long, broad ridges and buttes of Wyoming. Instead, they’re…lumpy. Their wavelengths are short. Their distribution is unpredictable. Grass covered mounds of sand, they remind me of beach dunes, separating a crowded boardwalk from a crowded New Jersey beach.

The irregular, rolling forms of the Sand Hills cover over one-fourth of Nebraska, but most cross-country motorists never see them.

The irregular, rolling forms of the Sandhills cover over one-fourth of Nebraska, but most cross-country motorists never see them. Now that’s it’s September, they’re not all that green anymore.

If the Sandhills look like dunes, it’s because, well, they are dunes.

Or perhaps the correct tense is “were.” As recently as 1,000 years ago, the Sandhills were more like parts of the Sonora Desert, 1,000 miles to the southwest—actively migrating dunes. In modern times, the grasses and shrubs of the plains have established themselves, freezing the dunes in place. (These same grasses fuel Nebraska’s multi-billion-dollar beef cattle industry—with six million head of cattle, the state has three times more cattle than cowboys and cowgirls.)

The sand itself tells a story of dune stabilization and reactivation going back at least 10,000 years. During “megadroughts,” the Sandhills area was a desert, but during wetter periods, wetlands and grasslands took over. When dunes were active, their migration dammed streams, creating the area’s many lakes. Today, these lakes and wetlands help fill the Ogallala aquifer, which supports the agriculture of the Cornhusker state.

A freight train lumbers by, pulling over a hundred cars, overflowing with coal from Wyoming’s Powder River Basin.  I watch the car’s odometer: 0.1 mile, 0.5 mile, 1.0 mile…1.3 miles later, the full length of the train has past. Another engine is attached to the train’s rear, ready to push half of the cargo up one side of a hill as gravity carries the rest down the other side—without an additional engine, these mile-long trains wouldn’t make it far without splitting in two.

Train cars full of Wyoming coal stretch over a mile into the distance along Nebraska Highway 2.

Train cars full of Wyoming coal stretch over a mile into the distance–Nebraska Highway 2 follows the BNSF Railway.

I zoom past a dirt road that veers off to the south, toward a forest—a rare sight in Nebraska. It’s part of Nebraska National Forest, the largest stand of human-planted trees in North America.

Blinking, I notice a flash of color in my rear view mirror—a gas station. Suddenly, the street is lined with houses. Is this already Thedford? I ask myself. The last 70 miles had flown by in a way that’s impossible on the interstate’s charmless corridor of rest stops and big rigs.

But it’s getting late, and unfortunately, most of the road west of Thedford goes through private land. Reluctantly, I turn south, back toward I-80, to seek out someplace legal to camp for the night.

On the way to North Platte and the interstate, I pass a sign for a “Scenic Overlook.” A scenic overlook? In Nebraska? I swing the car around, ready to shed my preconceptions about this state once and for all.

From the overlook, I see the road laid out before me, and a bridge over the Dismal River, which meanders away to the south. In all directions, the Sandhills extend to the horizon.

How far do they go? I consult my map. The Sandhills are represented by a large swath of pale orange. Had I stayed on Nebraska Highway 2, I would have been treated to 200 more miles of views like this.

Proof that Nebraska has scenic overlooks. U.S. Highway 83 winds through the hills, south to North Platte.

Proof that Nebraska has scenic overlooks. U.S. Highway 83 winds through the hills, south to North Platte.

But something else catches my eye. A wedge of the map, from North Platte westward, isn’t quite orange. I squint, trying to tell apart the colors, which appear almost identical in the fading light. It’s tan, which the map’s legend designates simply as “The Wild West.”

“The Wild West, huh?” I mouth silently.

Some say the American West begins beyond the Mississippi. Others argue you’re not in the West until you stand in the shadow of the Rockies. For me, the West begins right here in Nebraska, where corn fields give way to pasture, and rattlesnakes slither through the sage.

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