Nebraska Literary Road Trip

At the Nebraska-Kansas border.  Webster County, NE

To celebrate my birthday last week I decided to take a literary road trip to Nebraska.  I’m from Illinois, but have spent a lot of time in Nebraska visiting family & friends. We went at least once a year while I was growing up and the state has always seemed like a second home to me. I also attended the University of Nebraska-Lincoln for my masters in the early 1990s.

During the two years that I lived in Lincoln I took a weekly, day-long road trip.  If I couldn’t swing a whole day, I’d at least go for a few hours to blow the cobwebs of a week’s worth of academic work from my brain-housing-group.  I’d head out–usually west or north–and drive until it felt like it was time to turn around and head home.  No maps.  No time table.  No list of things to see.  I’d just drive down roads, turning here and there as the mood struck me and stop at interesting places along the way.  I never tired of the landscape and took pleasure in watching the changes from season to season.

Most people consider Nebraska as nothing more than fly-over country or they complain that driving through it is the pain you experience before getting to the pleasure of the Rockies, but I absolutely love the Nebraska landscape.  I always tell friends to get off of the interstate, drive a country road, and really see the landscape.  But although they look, most people can’t “see” the landscape in an appreciative light.  Scholars and writers have explained how early explorers and more recent visitors to the plains and prairies can’t really see the landscape because they compare it to their own more familiar landscape and judge the new landscape as lacking those things that they appreciate about their own, preferred landscape.

Reno, on the eastern edge of the Sierra Nevada Range.

After Lincoln, I moved to Reno, NV.  One day when driving home from somewhere I realized that I was angry and frustrated.  I didn’t know why.  I’d had a perfectly good day, things in my life were going well.  I then had a flash of insight and realized that I found the mountains to be rather irksome.  I appreciated the beauty of the mountains and was excited to live there, but realized that I’d been feeling boxed in, a bit claustrophobic.  I never saw the horizon.  I never really saw the sun set.  It just went behind the mountains and eventually it got dark.  I no longer got to see the big red globe of fire sinking in the distance. When I was sharing my realization with a friend, she told me about how her daughter, who’d grown up in Reno, went to Nebraska and felt completely naked and exposed in that landscape.

Do you have a preferred landscape?  Is there a landscape that you find psychologically unsettling?

I needed a Nebraska landscape-fix and so last week I took four days off and headed west.  I had a few places that I wanted to see again such as Red Cloud, Willa Cather’s childhood hometown, and a couple new places like Bess Streeter Aldrich’s home in Elmwood.  They’d just opened Aldrich’s home to tours before I moved from Lincoln to Reno, and I’d never made it there when the house was open.  It was nice to finally go inside and do more than peek in the windows.

For the rest of the month of March I’ll post the book-related highlights from my trip.  In addition to Cather’s and Aldrich’s hometowns, I visited libraries in Beatrice, Hastings, Plattsmouth, and Red Cloud and one of my old favorite bookstores, Bluestem Books in Lincoln, and (thanks to the recommendation of my friend Missy) a new favorite bookstore, The Haunted Bookshop in Iowa City, IA.


  1. Thanks, I was born in Nebraska and grew up there on and off, it really is a special place, I like driving through the sandhills and the pine ridge area also is pretty. As I often say, I never drank the 'kool-aid' that says mountains and oceans are the only beautiful things to be at, in or see. Each place has its beauty, each natural land or seascape has something unique about it. The positive isolation and freedom I feel driving on a lonely highway in western Nebraska is with scarce compare.

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