Elm Creek, Nebraska © John Lillis
Nebraska is situated in the Great Plains of the American Midwest, where agriculture is a way of life. The level land of the east is ideal for farming, while the western area of high dunes and small, shallow lakes is dotted with ranches. This divide is evident to some degree in personality as well as in physical terrain. The hub of Omaha ties one half of Nebraska to the Midwest, while many in the western half staunchly identify with the more rugged Old West heritage. Most travellers to Nebraska are probably not after big-city action. Those who are have only one and a half options: Omaha, the state's largest city; and the nearby capital of Lincoln. Famous as the home of financial genius Warren Buffett as well as really great steaks, Omaha may be a far cultural cry from New York City, but it has a world-renowned zoo and a buzzing arts and entertainment district. Lincoln is a small and fairly sleepy state capital but it is transformed from small-city peace to football-fan pandemonium with every University of Nebraska Huskers' game.
The true gems of Nebraska lie in its natural beauty to the west of the commercial centres and underwhelming flatlands. Early each spring, the Platte River in south-central Nebraska is a stopover in the massive migration of the sandhill cranes, the largest gathering of this kind in the world. Watching the ritual dancing of the cranes as the sun sets over the water is a breath-taking sight. Next up in the journey west are the Nebraska Sandhills, a remote, rippling area of grass-covered dunes and isolated ranches.
But it is in the far panhandle region of Nebraska that the landscape truly becomes remarkable, jutting up into rocky columns, sheer buttes and pine-covered canyons. This is wilder land, where skirmishes with Native Americans continued long after the east was settled, where Crazy Horse, leader of the Lakota, was killed at a lonely frontier outpost. The geography culminates in Scotts Bluff and Chimney Rock, unusual limestone formations that tower above the surrounding land. Both were major landmarks for pioneers on the Oregon Trail, the wagon roadbed of which is still visible. This is not the only lasting impression man has left on this landscape, however. When the thrill of the natural environment wears off, having come this far west, travellers might as well visit one extremely odd man-made addition: Carhenge, a life-size replica of Stonehenge constructed entirely of old cars.