I’ve been intrigued with the panhandle of Nebraska ever since my father-in-law took me turkey hunting near Crawford, Neb., many years ago. So, what better time to revisit a region of the state that I’ve come to love than during the outbreak of a pandemic. The rolling Sandhills and grasslands make up the northern and western parts of the state. It was hundreds of miles of driving two-lane highways with only my thoughts and sparsely populated towns along the way.
My wife encouraged me to go on my solo road trip adventure.
I didn’t have an agenda on what turned out to be more than a 1,000-mile journey. I just planned to point the car north and west until I reached the northwestern boundary of the state then work my way south and east until I reached Interstate 80 then east and north until I was back at my in-laws’ house.
I did know I wanted to see the Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge and the mighty Niobrara River, which is a tributary of the Missouri River. I would drive by the Oglala National Grassland near Harrison, Neb., a national reserve, to get to the northwestern-most part of the state and make it to the iconic Chimney Rock National Historic Site near Bayard, Neb., which is featured on the back of the Nebraska quarter.
I had it in the back of my head that I would stop along the Platte River and see what I could photograph of the annual sandhill crane migration. Every March, some 600,000 sandhill cranes stop along the Platte River on their journey back north. These stork-like cranes stand 3 to 4 feet tall and can have a 7-foot wingspan. Seeing and hearing hundreds of thousands of birds along the Platte River and surrounding farmland is pretty amazing. It’s something everyone should experience at least once in their lives.
The sky stayed gray pretty much the entire trip. Although, the setting sun burned off enough clouds to make for a pretty good sunset as I got to Chadron, Neb., home of the Chadron State College Eagles.
My adrenaline was pumping as the clouds broke, and I was chasing the light in search of a suitable location to capture the scene. I pulled onto a gravel road and noticed how the amber light was falling on a pasture and fence. The sun was setting fast so I unpacked my 600 mm lens and framed the scene to accentuate the amber glow streaming into the lens but still able to see the line of fence.
The most memorable stop on the adventure I didn’t even plan on visiting. Toadstool Geologic Park sits at the end of a gravel road in the Oglala National Grassland. It is about a 20-mile drive off Highway 2 out of Crawford. I was just about to leave the town of about 1,000 people when the sign caught my eye. Getting farther and farther down the bumpy, rutted road, I thought about turning back several times. The thought of breaking an axle or a wheel flying off and being stuck in the middle of nowhere with spotty cell service was not appealing. However, I pressed on and was rewarded with having what is considered the Badlands of Nebraska all to myself. All I heard was the wind, the occasional bird and the sound of the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway Co. line in the distance. I emptied my photo backpack and packed up my ancient Speed Graphic 4x5 camera and about seven film holders for a total of 14 shots of black and white film. Even with my work cameras that can achieve 12 frames per second, I always look for that decisive moment. Using a 4x5 takes that to an extreme. Luckily with scenic photos, there aren’t decisive moments to capture (or miss) but it forces you to slow down and be more deliberate in your framing and exposure.
After driving hundreds of miles, I only interacted with seven people the entire trip. That’s what I call social distancing.
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