I was born in Missouri, but I’m from Nebraska. It was home from third grade to college graduation. I wrote my first essay, took my first photo on a digital camera, spent hours after school in quiz bowl practice, picked up a trombone for the first time, went to prom and grew up, mostly in a town right outside Omaha with cornfields down the street from my house. But I never saw the state’s Sandhills like this, splashed with millions of yellow flowers.
One-fourth of the state, or around 20,000 square miles, is covered with sand dunes held in place by a blanket of grass. These Sandhills are probably most widely known for their cranes and their ground water: The political fight over the proposed Keystone XL oil pipeline from Canada, which has gone on since my college days, raged the loudest here thanks at least partly to the hills’ high water tables. The hills, as I found out, also erupt with native plains sunflowers when conditions are right.
Gentle hills and fields might what many people imagine when they think of Nebraska, but I spent most of my Nebraska years in the more urban east near Omaha and Lincoln. Almost two-thirds of the state’s 2 million people live in or around those two cities. Lincoln, home of good friends, my alma mater and the state’s towering limestone and marble capitol, was my first stop this trip.
The photographic star of this leg, though — besides the eclipse — was Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo. It’s been called the world’s best zoo, and I was always thrilled as a kid when I got to visit its aquarium and huge, living indoor rainforest. I’ve missed its vivid colors and relatively spacious exhibits since my visit to Tulsa’s zoo three years ago. I’ll never get tired of going.
Next I swung by Omaha’s historic Old Market. Shops, restaurants and breweries line its cobblestone streets, including in one of my favorite spots, the Passageway.
After that, it was back to Lincoln for a bit, then west and north through those old Sandhills. Much more rugged scenery in the Badlands and Black Hills of South Dakota was up next.