Sunday, July 26, 2015

a few words for Nebraska

Nebraska doesn't have much of a reputation. For many, it's just the flat area you drive through to get somewhere else. But during my recent trip it provided some genuine, and some quaint, tourist attractions.

Norfolk, Nebraska. The only town of over 20,000 - and not much over - in the northern half of Nebraska, Norfolk is a fairly prosperous and bustling place, madly proud of its biggest claim to fame, that it's the hometown of Johnny Carson. A main street bears the supplementary name "Johnny Carson Blvd.," and there's a sign marking his childhood home on it. Downtown in a parking lot is an affectionate if badly-painted mural of his career. The Elkhorn Valley Museum in town has a room devoted to a Carson display. There's many photographs, his collection of Emmys, and a TV set running clips from The Tonight Show, with a huge comfy couch in front. We were there for well over an hour and it did not repeat. I'm not a huge Carson fan (though my brother is), but I enjoyed this. Carson had affection for his roots, and you can rent a viewing of a documentary made of a return visit he made in 1982. Also learned from the museum that another media figure was a native of Norfolk: Thurl "They're grrrrreat!" Ravenscroft.

Ashfall Fossil Beds State Park. I'd read about this site in Bill Bryson's Short History of Nearly Everything, and had it on a mental list of places worth visiting if I ever was in those parts. Though out in the middle of uninhabited nowhere, it's only an hour's drive from Norfolk. It's a 10-million-year-old water hole that was covered by ash from an explosion of the Yellowstone caldera, and is packed solid with the fossils of ancient rhinos (rhinos, in Nebraska?) and even weirder animals such as saber-toothed deer, a variant I would not have thought necessary. The keepers have built an enormous shed, for weather shelter, over the main fossil bed. It's cool inside on a hot summer day, even without air conditioning, and from the walkway you can look down at the mass of exposed skeletons, with among them the occasional undergraduate on summer internship, slowly chipping away and learning to be a paleontologist. Looks like this. A bit creepy, but an even more vivid display of fossils than La Brea.

Tilden, Nebraska. A nondescript wide-spot-in-the-road village that we quickly passed through on the way back from Ashfall. I only looked it up afterwards out of curiosity for its name: was it named for Samuel J. Tilden, Al Gore's predecessor in having the presidency stolen out from under him? It was, but even more surprising was to learn that what I'd just passed by was the birthplace of L. Ron Hubbard.

Wahoo, Nebraska. Speaking of birthplaces, this smallish but more substantial town with the silly name (I kept saying "Yahoo"; it's actually an Indian word for a local shrub) has an unusually large cluster of notable native sons, all of them honored in the county museum: Darryl Zanuck the movie producer, Howard Hanson the composer (my biggest interest), an early pro baseballer named Sam Crawford, and Nobel-winning geneticist George Beadle, who's of interest to me because, after he took a visiting professorship at Oxford for a year in the 1950s, his wife, Muriel, wrote a book about her experiences as an American housewife living in austerity Britain and dealing with Oxford social customs. It's a delightful book, as can be discerned from its title, These Ruins Are Inhabited. Anyway: my brother tells me that Dave Letterman used to make jokes about Wahoo being his "head office," and downtown there's a large sign designating an adjacent phone booth (with the phone ripped out) as the place.

Licorice International. It's a store in the vintage shopping district of downtown Lincoln that sells packages of dozens of varieties of licorice from little bins. Many have more delectable flavors than default licorice, like pineapple.

Gerald R. Ford Birthplace. A presidential site listed in very few tourist guides, but well worth visiting for buffs. The house in the more palatial section of Omaha burned down years ago, and the site is now a gardens with grecian-style plaques engraving the names of all the presidents. There's even a small museum of Ford's connection with Omaha, in the form of display panels in an outdoor kiosk. Walk by it and a motion sensor will trip off a recording of Ford's voice telling you about it.

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