The Sandhills Scenic Byway, or Nebraska State Highway 2, encompasses 272 miles from Alliance to Grand Island, Nebraska. It is one of the loneliest stretches of highway in America, with vistas of grass-stabilized sand dunes in every direction. There are some attractions – historical museums, a vineyard, and a working cattle ranch, for example – but it is easy to get lost in the stark beauty that surrounds you. The Sandhills feature primarily dry grassland, but also include lakes and wetlands fed by a groundwater reservoir. They are grazed on by a large quantity of livestock.
The Sandhills are also a migratory stopping point for hundreds of species of birds, most notably Sandhill Cranes. For about six weeks every year, four-fifths of the world’s Sandhill Crane population rests in the Platte River Valley.
Cars zip by sparingly. At several points, I pull over and photograph the surroundings. The silence and solitude provide a strange sense of comfort and freedom. Every so often I encounter a small town, most consisting of just a few shops or buildings with a handful of houses sprinkled in the distance. These towns are invariably located just off the highway and across railroad tracks, which run alongside the highway. In a blink of an eye it’s back to miles and miles of dunes, sometimes dotted by cows or windmills, and then out of nowhere another town appears. It’s Sunday, and in every town it seems all the shops are closed.
The first town I visit is Ellsworth. A gigantic Justin (brand) red boot stands out against the flat, uncluttered landscape. No doubt it’s a way to pull in customers to Morgan’s Cowpoke Haven, established 1898, which sells Western wear, hunting and fishing supplies, guns, and other staples for the ranch.about:blank
Soon I cross into Grant County, welcomed by an attractive painted sign featuring a cow and the tagline “This is no Bull.” Ashby is marked by several aging and vacated buildings; a post office, a beautiful white church, the lumber company, and CaLinda’s Pot Shop & Art Gallery (which offers handmade gifts, art work, and “Sandhill Solar Sundaes & Moon Pies) are the viable businesses of note.
Just about a mile up the road is the Ashby Cemetery. It is on a section of land sandwiched between the highway and train tracks. Out here in the Sandhills, that fact does not lessen the silence one would expect in most any cemetery. There’s Bernard A. Boots, who was a US Army Sergeant in World War II and married his sweetheart Edna in 1945; Baby Boy Stevens, who died in 1944; Steven R. Hebbert (1963-2015), whose gravestone is etched with an image of a cowboy on a horse; and Kenneth Hampton (1928-2008), a lifelong Sandhills resident and rancher who could “spot a good horse from 10 miles away,” according to his obituary.
The next town is Hyannis. A wonderful black and white metal sign reads “Welcome To Windmill Country Hyannis Ne.” Like some of the others, it partially exists on a hill. There’s the Grant County Courthouse, Hyannis Elementary School, the faded-looking Village Apartments, and the curious KD’S Jumble Shop. The local high school mascot is the Longhorns; the football team that fall would finish 5-4, and it was involved in some lopsided affairs – winning the opener 78-6 against Potter-Dix, for example, while falling to Riverside in the finale 79-0.
According to the Hyannis Hotel’s website, “Hyannis was one of the heaviest cattle shipping points on the Burlington railroad line. The town was also the commercial and social center for a very large area of the sparsely populated western Nebraska. Constructed in 1898, the hotel became a gathering place for people near and far including ranchers who brought their cattle to the railroad for shipment.” Inside, visitors can saddle up at the bar and stay overnight for $70. The walls are decorated with a “history of the Sandhills way of life.” But like everything else I’ve encountered so far, it’s closed on Sunday. The town’s grocery store? That’s closed, too.
My final stop is in Thedford. This charming little town of just over 200 people features one family’s home whose yard is decorated with garden decor and license plate crafts (for example, a well with a roof made out of plates, birdhouses made of plates) – compelling to me as I’m a collector. In Thedford you can stay at the Arrowhead Lodge and Cafe on the cheap ($40 for a single), and the town also endears itself to me as it has a Sinclair station with a Sinclair fiberglass dinosaur.
As I complete by journey by going as far east as Hazard before turning south for Kansas, I imagine how some people find the scenery invigorating and beautiful, while others would call it one of the most boring drives of their lives. I subscribe to the former.
The Sandhills is a near-religious experience for me. It asks for nothing, gives hardly anything, and is very nearly devoid of all services for the traveler. It makes me feel smaller, but bolder. In the evening I arrive at Kearney, a city of about 30,000 that lit up and after miles of the Sandhills looks like a metropolis.