Nebraska

_C1_3166.JPGI 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.

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_C1_3157.JPGOne-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.

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IMG_2613.JPGThe 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.

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_C1_2779.JPGNext 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.

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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.

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The eclipse

_C1_2959-Copy.jpgThe dimming of the sun was imperceptible at first, even as the moon gnawed it into a crescent. But slowly the light changed. Colors became less vivid and more gray. A few minutes before the sun was completely blocked, everything looked as if I were wearing sunglasses. Pieces of light in trees’ shadows took on the same crescent shape as their source. And in the final seconds before totality, the day darkened by the second around me as the sun’s last sliver disappeared. The moon seemed to lock into position, leaving only the white tendrils of the sun’s outer atmosphere and an orange glow along the horizon.

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_C1_3032.JPGIt’s easy to see why early humans greeted solar eclipses with fear and alarm — who wouldn’t think the world was ending? I stared at it trying to convince myself that it was real: an inky black, almost perfectly circular hole seemingly speared through the sky itself, surrounded by filaments of light like a cosmic flower. For almost three minutes in the middle of the day, Venus and some stars flickered, crickets chirped, the orange glow illuminated columns of rain to the south. I was literally jumping around with excitement. Between photos, at least. I worried obsessively for days that clouds would block the show. But the clouds cleared, and in tiny Exeter, Nebraska, I saw my first total solar eclipse.

_C1_3084-Copy.jpgIf you missed it, you get another shot in 2024. I have much more to share from the trip to Nebraska, South Dakota and Minnesota this past week and a half, so stay tuned, and thanks for looking.

Dan

Geometry

IMG_8099Fuzzy tendrils reach out from a blossom’s golden innards in a Strawberry Hill Farms potted plant in Columbia, Missouri. The farm might be the biggest plant nursery I’ve seen.

IMG_8101Columbia’s where my grandparents live, at least when they’re not out at the farm. Until a little more than a week ago, it had been maybe a decade since I was there. Their house is almost exactly how I remember — the carpet, the board games on the shelves, the crowded kitchen bar my grandma always apologizes for. The place felt a little smaller than I remembered.

It was an extended weekend of driving, first to Columbia, then up to St. Joe, where my friend Mike makes cookies and hangs out with his shy cat named Henderson.

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IMG_8169From there it was up to Lincoln, Nebraska, of course. It’s been too long for each of these places.

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IMG_8324I’ve known each of these places for years, but they aren’t the same as before. Their shapes always change. It’s the same for people and their stories, I suppose.

IMG_8172For example, take this sister and her two students, running through a big, empty field toward a Science Olympiad event just because that’s what you do in big, empty fields. Science Olympiad is a competition with a couple dozen different topics and challenges, and back in my middle-school and high-school days, I was a massive Science Olympiad nerd.

You can clearly see I’m not a nerd anymore. But the point is new nerds and new coaches have come in. Now one of my old teammates is an event supervisor, and my old coach comes mostly for old times’ sake, and they’re both working on bigger things. The state competition still happens in Lincoln, but the town has changed, too, especially downtown. Time and other forces have nudged and stretched everything’s shape.

IMG_8207The university’s new features include a rock-climbing building and a roving skateboard gang. At least some of the same trombone players are still around to climb with.

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IMG_8377I’m sorry it’s taken so long for this post, and to make it up to you, I plan to have another up today or tomorrow from yesterday’s Razorback Greenway opening here in Northwest Arkansas. Take a look, if you like.

Thanks for looking!