The windswept emptiness of the plains gives way to a more rugged landscape in Nebraska’s Panhandle, part of the great superhighway for gold-seekers, emigrants, and Mormons traveling the Platte River Valley from the 1840s to 1860s. The Great Western Migration was the largest voluntary human relocation in recorded history. Some 400,000 people passed through Nebraska, often on foot, while traveling nearly 2,000 miles to California and Oregon. The most-remarked-upon landmark in their diaries was Chimney Rock, a 120-foot sandstone spire atop a 200-foot mound, which seemingly came out of nowhere after miles and miles of the vast prairie. “Towering to the heavens,” as one pioneer put it. (The Indians were less rhapsodic, calling it “elk penis.”)
Cutting north on Highway 385 you’ll come across a man-made (and decidedly more modern) landmark that is just as striking: 38 trashed automobiles from the 1950s and 60s painted gray and arranged in the exact size, shape, and conformation of Stonehenge, the 4,000-year-old site in England believed by some to be a solar and lunar calendar. Carhenge was built by Jim Reinders, a local engineer, and it allegedly “works,” meaning it marks the solstices and equinoxes.
The Agate Fossil Beds National Monument near the Wyoming border interprets the 19.2-million-year-old fossils from the great mammals that perished in the Agate watering hole. This land was part of “Captain” James H. Cook’s Agate Springs Ranch in the late 19th century, and his unusually enlightened attitude toward Indians made it a gathering place for Chief Red Cloud and other Oglala Lakota (Sioux). In return he received gifts such as Chief Red Cloud’s porcupine-quilled antelope ceremonial shirt and Chief Crazy Horse’s whetstone, all part of a small hut exquisite 200-piece collection on display.
Nebraska is at its roughest in the north-wentern corner of the state, sending a siren call to mountain bikers, hikers, and horseback rid-ers, The Pine Ridge Trail cuts a ragged 100-mile arc through the Pine Ridge Ranger Disrict and Oglala National Grasslands, running along rimrock ridges with vast panoramic outlooks. Bison roam Fort Robinson State Park, an active military post from 1874 to 1984 and the place where Crazy Horse, leader of one of the last bands of non-reservation Indians, was killed when he resisted arrest. Large groups who don’t mind sleeping on cots can stay in 1909 barracks; or, for more comfortable slays, individual cabins where officers were once housed are an option.