If Omaha seemed a bit like an unloved yard, with tarp-covered rusty engine parts and the car up on blocks for years, surrounded by pieces of broken plastic toys extruding from the dirt next to a house with windows never washed and 3 questionably running cars in the drive; then Western Nebraska appeared as the brilliantly brazen wild field beyond, with blackberries, butterflies, barn swallows, sumac, centipedes and rattlesnakes, before real estate developers find it and cull its grasses and trees to build charmless subdivisions of identical paperboard houses with matching aluminum siding, concrete driveways and lawns of non-native bluegrass soaking in chemicals that kill those darned pests – native plants and critters.
Truly, we didn’t find much reason to venture forth from our homestay with sweet Judy Fili in Omaha. The two local natural food Coops no longer exist; They’ve been replaced by Wild Oats and Whole Foods, which is better than nothing i guess but there seems to be in Omaha no particular interest in organic food or buying local that we could see, and no particular push to recycle or “go green,” aside from an organic coffee shop and a natural food store next door to one another in Benson. Probably just as well since we had a lot of catching-up to do for YERT video of Maine. And a lot of cooking to use up the remainder of Mark’s corn! (I made corn chowder and Ben made frittatas.) Before we left, we interviewed Judy at home (after helping her start a compost pile in her backyard! YAY, Judy!) and caught a couple people on the street outside a coffee shop, who apologized to us that we would not find anything more interesting in Western Nebraska and said that we might as well just drive straight on through the rest of the state as fast as we can.
We thanked them but naturally couldn’t heed their advice! Though now called the corn-husker state, Nebraska used to be called the Tree Planter’s state and is the home of Arbor Day! Heading West with high hopes of planting trees, we landed for the night at a B&B Ben found online called Whispering Pines in Nebraska City, where Jeanna, the owner and hostess, stayed up late watching for us and offered us treats and lemonade when we arrived. It was a beautiful little place, with a wraparound porch, settees all around, well-kept garden with pond and resident bullfrog, huge beautiful pines and a hottub out back where we lay and looked up into a starry starry night before hitting the most sumptuous and comfortable bed I have lain in so far, with the softest linens. Ben stayed up in bed reading Nebraska magazine with his LED headlamp on. The next morning we woke to a gourmet breakfast of…what else? Corn frittatas. We had to laugh but Jeanna’s frittatas were delicious, with Asiago cheese, garlic and basil and served with fresh coffee, juice and homemade coffeecake. Mm-mm. I had a wonderful conversation with Dean, the groundskeeper (also Chair of the Chamber of Commerce of Nebraska City), a real salt of the earth guy who lost his farm years ago when interest rates soared skyhigh but who did what he could to get through it, and came out on the other side genuinely grateful for Life and hopeful for America’s future, with a commitment to honesty that I have seldom seen. Ben said that Dean’s handshake felt like his word. There was a couple visiting Jeanna from TX with their bicycles and their cat, and Stan, a C.S. Lewis expert with twinkly eyes and a powerful cologne, came to breakfast late and merrily joined the conversation. As we got ready to leave, full of good food and good chat, cards were passed around, and hearty hugs, and we got in Rachel Carson and waved bye for now to people who no longer seemed like strangers.
On to plant some trees at Arbor Day Foundation and Farm! OK! This is a great place to go to learn about how and why trees are important. I highly recommend this place to anyone in any of the contiguous states who is looking for something interesting for their kids to see and learn about. It was great. We learned all about how Nebraska was replanted with trees, and got to see how the seedlings are cultivated and processed for shipping to members in other parts of the country. (Here is Kathy, giving us our Colorado Blue Spruce seedlings.) We went up in a giant treehouse, climbed through logs, imitated birdcalls and played the YERT theme on the giant marimba. We wanted to stay longer, there was much more to see, but alas, YERT time flies so after natural Apple icees and a shared piece of pie, we were off…to find a place Ben had read about in Nebraska magazine the night before: the Dancing Leaf Earthen Lodge, in Wellfleet, NE.
When we ran into heavy rain, darkening green skies and crazy lightning, we stopped at Sapp Bros to wait it out, and maybe get some food. Here we ran into our first major roadblock regarding trash. When we asked the waitress if she could “hold the paper” when bringing our meal, she told us it was “against the law” not to fold paper napkins with the silver. When I said we would go get ours out of the car, she said that that was against the law, too. “Against Nebraska law?” I asked. “No, the store. Just like you can’t bring in food from outside, same thing.” I was about to say it was most certainly NOT the same thing but Ben pulled my arm and said to let him handle her, cause i was turning red which he didn’t think was helping. I was getting peeved. We all ordered food that we could eat with our hands, while she looked nonplussed. Oh man did my stomach hurt after the white bread grilled cheese-product w/fries. (Totally NOT an environmental dinner choice – but there weren’t any on that menu.) Incidentally, she didn’t get any sweeter but she did say, “Good luck” as we paid our bill, with a smirk that hinted she didn’t expect us to find any, and that she’d be there if we needed any told you sos come July of ’08. smile.
It was chilly and dark when we got to Dancing Leaf Lodge, and Les and Jan Hosick were up waiting for us with flashlights. We followed them down a path that wound away from the house through damp trees and brush, stopping only to look up and see a midnight sky glittering with a million bright stars, and the Milky Way, bright as the absent moon. “Wait till the mornin,” Jan said, “You people are in for a treat.” We bent down to walk through a long, low passageway and Jan pulled aside the cloth flap to reveal a warm round room with built-in benches, rosy candles in the firepit, bones and deerskins covering the dirt floor and a hole above us right to the sky. We had never seen anything like it. They left us, and we laid on the grassy roof for awhile stargazing, saw the most splendid shooting star with a long red tail of sparks, then bent back inside, doubled up deerskins and lay down to rest. Don’t think I slept for a minute – there was something that felt so amazing about being in this hut built as closely as possible to the hundreds of Native American earth homes found in archeological digs around the area. I haven’t the space here to tell all the things that we learned there but I will say that lying there imagining what it could be like to live totally off the land, and totally in community with people and with the natural world, I had a moment of thinking that we are capable of more than we know. Because we have already been there.
And I have to say, I hope that real estate developers keep on believing what most people in Omaha told us before we headed West – that there’s nothing to see in Nebraska West of Omaha and you might as well drive just as fast as you can till you hit Colorado. good Travels.
For more Nebraska YERT photos, go to http://picasaweb.google.com/julied.evans/Nebraska