Back in May, on our gradual journey East, we drove through Western Nebraska on our way between Colorado and South Dakota. Our expectations weren’t very high, but the sliver of Nebraska we got to see was full of rich history and surprisingly dramatic landscapes. When we were making our way back West we had the option of continuing through Kansas from Kansas City, Missouri or turning north to Lincoln, Nebraska. Nothing against Kansas, but after what we saw of Nebraska I was interested in exploring more, and Lincoln had two factors in its favor: friends to visit, and the State Capitol.
I first learned about the Nebraska State Capitol last year when I was researching the Los Angeles Public Library for a writing project. In 1920 New York architect Bertram Goodhue designed the first skyscraper capitol building, the “Tower on the Plains”, before working on LA’s Central Library. I was intrigued by Goodhue’s close collaboration with the architectural sculptor Lee Lawrie and muralist/mosaicist Hildreth Meiere, whose distinctive Art Deco work is familiar from Rockefeller Center in New York as well as the LA Library, and I was excited for the chance to get to visit the Nebraska State Capitol in person.
On our way to Lincoln from Kansas City we took a slight detour to visit Homestead National Monument of America. While I had general knowledge of the US Homestead Act of 1862 and the extraordinary western expansion of the United States that resulted from the offer of free land, the contemporary visitor center did a great job of portraying the diversity of the claimants, the harsh conditions they faced, and the devastating impact this had on displaced Native Americans.
Our home for the next few days in Lincoln was Camp A Way, a spacious and shady RV park with a large dog run and fun amenities like a giant chessboard and water games in addition to the pool. We explored a couple different parks and playgrounds in the area, and the compact but gorgeous Sunken Gardens, a Depression-era project that put local unemployed men to work transforming a neighborhood landfill into gardens. We got to shop at Trader Joe’s for the first time in months, which I was unreasonably excited about. It was delightful but almost eerie to be in a Trader Joe’s that was practically empty compared to what we’re used to in Southern California.
We all had a great time connecting in person with friends who Chris and I haven’t seen since before any of our four kids were born. We met up in downtown Lincoln for an early dinner at Lazlo’s Brewery, ice cream at Ivanna Cone, and a walk around the revitalized historic Haymarket District near to the University of Nebraska.
I could see the State Capitol, which dominates the Lincoln skyline, throughout our stay, and on our last day in Lincoln I finally got to visit up close and inside. The kids and I arrived for one of the regularly scheduled free tours, but found a school group on a field trip instead. We listened in for a bit, then explored by ourselves. While we (OK, “I”) missed out on learning more of the history and symbolism of the architecture and artwork, it was still wonderful to see the gorgeous murals, mosaics, stonework and sculptures up close. It’s an incredible public building that seamlessly blends function, form, art, and meaning.
We got to see our friends one last time for a fun dinner at their house, then were on our way to Wyoming. After an overnight in Valentine, Nebraska our route took us through parts of Badlands National Park in South Dakota, which we visited in the spring. It was a rainy and foggy day so the view wasn’t great, but I was still thrilled to get a glimpse of the unforgettable rock formations and colors of the Badlands again.
Our next stop was Sundance, Wyoming near Devils Tower, the nation’s first National Monument established by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1906. Another new Monument, new state, and new liquor laws. Coming from California where you can buy beer, wine, and liquor in any grocery or drugstore, we’ve had to figure out the rules in different states where liquor and sometimes wine is only available in designated stores and/or at certain times. (Not that we need to be able to buy booze 24/7! It’s just another layer to the usually interesting and always time-consuming experience of shopping in new stores in new town every few days, with limited storage space. And that’s limited storage space for a household of four people and two dogs. Not just bottles of alcohol.)
When I was grocery shopping at the local market in Sundance I was told that the town was too small for a state liquor store, but that you could buy bottles at a bar. I drove a couple miles to the nearest establishment and walked up to the bar, where a couple patrons were chatting with the bartender. Feeling illicit, I asked if I could “buy a bottle here”. Everyone present heartily replied in the affirmative, then the bartender invited me behind the counter and into an adjoining room that sure enough was a liquor store, albeit an intimate and well-curated one, complete with counter, register, and even a drive-thru window. I made my purchase and said goodbye to the friendly locals. Somehow it’s not the same going back to buying a bottle of wine anonymously at CVS.
Devils Tower is a place you’d know from photos, or from the movie “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”, even if you don’t know its name or where on earth it’s located. This iconic monolith rises from the surrounding Black Hills in such a dramatic fashion it really does feel other-worldly and possibly menacing, or at least intimidating. The name seems to makes sense. In fact, several Native American languages refer to the Tower as a bear’s dwelling, and the landmark was identified as “Bear Lodge” on the first scientific exploration of the Black Hills in 1857. However during a geological exploration in 1875 the name was changed to “Devil’s Tower”, based on reports that an unnamed Indian tribe called the site “Bad God’s Tower”. (The apostrophe was dropped after a clerical error that apparently was irreversible.)
Native American tribes have long opposed the name Devils Tower for its negative connotation, as well as the presence of climbers on what is considered a sacred site. The National Park Service asks climbers to voluntarily refrain from climbing during the month of June, a culturally significant time when many (though not all) ceremonies traditionally take place.
During a mile-long hike around the base of the Tower we could observe up close the remarkable hexagonal columns of igneous rock and tumbling boulders, as well as sweeping vistas of the surrounding grasslands and Ponderosa pine forests. Devils Tower is strikingly similar to Devils Postpile National Monument in California, whose hexagonal columns of basalt rock seem to both rise up and melt away from the cliffside. I’m no geologist, but I’ve always had an artistic appreciation for rocks in all their forms, and both Devils Tower and Devils Postpile are fascinating places to visit.
Before departing Sundance we had one more excursion to the town of Lead, South Dakota and a wonderful hike in Roughlock Falls State Nature Area. The Black Hills have unexpectedly been one of our favorite places on this journey, and it was nice to get a chance to revisit the area and experience another stunning piece of its natural beauty.
Next up: Montana lives up to the hype.