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.

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

The old backyard

IMG_2525.JPGThere’s no mistaking a southwestern Missouri creek. I’ll always recognize the high-pitched clink the fist-sized rocks make when I walk on them. Many of them bear tiny round or cylindrical fossils — some rocks are essentially nothing but fossil. Crawdads and snails and fish flit or crawl over the creek bed. The water itself, cool and clear, gleams golden and reflected green. I’ve known these creeks, like Bull Creek above, since my earliest memories, and my dad has known them even longer. It was good to get back a couple of weekends ago.

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IMG_2490.JPGI’m heading up north again in a couple weeks for the Aug. 21 solar eclipse that will sweep from coast to coast. Click that link for detailed maps on where to see the total blockage of the sun by the moon — you can bet I’ll have about 1,000 photos to share, but it sounds like photos won’t do this cosmic event nearly the justice it deserves. If you can go and decide to do it, watch out for tens of thousands of others doing the same. If you don’t, you’ll at least get a partial eclipse no matter where you are in the country. But there’s no way I’m missing this thing; I’ve been looking forward to it for more than a year.

See you on the other side!

Dan

The Devil’s Eyebrow

1.JPGWay up in northeast Benton County, between Beaver Lake and the Missouri border, stand a few thousand acres of rugged forest, exposed rock and spring-fed streams called the Devil’s Eyebrow Natural Area. It’s only an hour’s drive away, but I’d barely even heard of it before last week.

That changed while I worked on a story in today’s paper about how northwest Arkansas’ plan to preserve open and natural areas as it grows is showing results. As the last piece of that article, I needed some photos, which meant a couple hours of hiking and exploring a new, beautiful place. I mean, I’ll do it if I really have to, I guess.

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3.JPGMy generous companions were Jennifer and Isaac Ogle, who introduced me to the wonderful experience of hiking with people who can spot, name and enthusiastically describe almost every plant, animal and rock I’d want to photograph and learn about. Jennifer Ogle works as a land management specialist with the Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission, one of a long list of groups that have helped manage or expand Devil’s Eyebrow and other lands around the state. She told me the area’s name comes from an old prediction that it would be easier to run a railroad on the devil’s own eyebrow than through these hills. I think the name kind of fits with the arching bluffs, too.

One more thing about it — I was a little worried the woods would be bone-dry after weeks of temperatures in the 90s and no rain, but fortunately at least two springs ran cool and clear and quick, supporting crawdads, fish and at least one small water snake.

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4.JPGThank you, Ogles, and thank you, Devil’s Eyebrow. I’ll have to go back sometime.

Dan