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First impressions

June 17, 2009

My husband got a job offer. His first “real” job offer, for a tenure-track position with the University of Nebraska. Only this position was not located on the main Lincoln campus – it was located at an extension and research center in Scottsbluff, waaaaay on the western edge of the state. There is no university campus in Scottsbluff, and the community college doesn’t have a study abroad program, so there is no obvious route to my desired study abroad career. The population is about fifteen thousand (about twenty five thousand including contiguous Terrytown and Gering). I do prefer the atmosphere of smaller towns to big cities, but I wondered how conservative the place would be, and whether I would be able to make friends as a childless, married mid-thirties woman. Before husband accepted the job offer, I needed to head out to Scottsbluff and check it out.

It is a long, long drive from Illiana to (eastern Illinois) to Wyobraska (western Nebraska) – sixteen hours, most of it on dull, flat I-80. But around about where I-76 drops south into Colorado, the landscape changes. Big, rolling hills covered in grasses crowd up on either side of the highway, with cattle and old-fashioned windmills silhouetted on hillcrests. The sun was setting as we left the interstate and headed north on highway 385, and the green-gold quality of the light reflecting off the grasses and rare tree was like nothing I had ever seen. We caught glimpses of outcroppings called Courthouse Rock and Jail Rock. West on Nebraska 92, we saw Chimney Rock dark against the sky – an iconic landmark featured on the Nebraska state quarter.

The gold-green quality of the light was amazing. After all the flatness, Chimney Rock is a welcome visual diversion.

We arrived at our lodging, The Hanlon House B&B, which also serves as a tea room, art salon, and concert venue. (Many businesses here seem to multi-task.) A concert by a young, Asian pianist was just wrapping up. The proprietor, Suella Hanlon, greeted us with hugs. Well! So far it seems the Scottsbluff has an art scene and is friendly and welcoming to boot.

The next day, we wandered around the main street, Broadway, which we heard referred to as the “trading district”. There were plenty of empty buildings, but lots of life in the downtown, with stores selling appliances, craft supplies, clothing, shoes, jewelry, sporting goods, and antiques, and a grand old movie theater, though not much was open on a Sunday. The deserted trading district, the wind blowing grit through the streets, and several murals contributed to my impression that this was a ghosty western cattle town.

Murals downtown with a Wild West flavor

The locals are proud of their city, and many folks we spoke with mentioned the history of the region: Scottsbluff and Gering were railroad towns, surveyed by the Union Pacific and Burlington railroads in the late 1800s, and the Oregon Trail, Mormon Trail, and California Trail settlers passed this way, as did the Pony Express. Hm. Yes, lots of history, but all these people were passing through. Makes one wonder about what led people to stay.

Next we drove up the main point-of-interest: Scotts Bluff National Monument, which rises some 800 feet in Scottsbluff/Gering’s backyard. There are walking paths up to and along the top of the monument, as well as hiking opportunities in the nearby Wildcat Hills. Cool. I would like living near this kind of outdoor activity.

The view of Scottsbluff/Gering from atop the monument

Updraft, wall cloud, lightning, a greenish sky. What an exciting moment to be 800 feet up!

But then some weather activity kicked up. Greenish storm clouds appeared in the west. We headed back down the monument, and tornado sirens went off. The radio reported a funnel cloud sixty miles west, softball-sized hail 30 miles west. We trundled down into the National Parks Service basement, along with several other tourists, including some Danes who found the wild weather highly interesting. That day brought mainly heavy rains to the Nebraska Panhandle. Apparently strong storms are nothing new to this wild west corner of Nebraska. All the car dealerships have their cars under cover. A couple old-timey farmers we spoke with mentioned that the region would be “paradise, if not for the wind and the hail”. Duly noted. If we move here, we’re getting a garage. And a basement.

The following day we visited another local jewel, the Farm And Ranch Museum, which drove home the agricultural roots of the region and highlighted the history of some of the major local commodities: dry edible beans, sugarbeets, corn, wheat, potato, and beef . . . there are lots and lots of cattle around here. Most of the recommended restaurants feature beef prominently on the menu, and the classy Emporium Coffehouse and Café (my favorite so far) is no exception. Which left me one further question about Scottsbluff . . . huband and I don’t often eat meat – is it possible to acquire tofu in this town? We visited the grocery store. Affirmative.

Sure, Scottsbluff is a little small and lacking in some of the amenities I’ve grown used to from college towns: a variety of international foods, weekly art films, trendy coffee shops, locally brewed beer, drunken students spilling into the streets on weekends (okay, so I won’t miss that last one). But, there is a lot of interesting scenery and wildlife and opportunities for outdoor recreation. There is an art scene and funky local businesses. There is no insane automobile traffic. I could easily get to Denver, Colorado, or Cheyenne, Wyoming, or Rapid City, South Dakota in a day. The people here seem pretty friendly. And, yes, I can buy tofu.

I think I can live in Scottsbluff, Nebraska. All I need to do is find my vocation there.

UPDATE: Farm And Ranch Museum joined forces with the former North Platte Valley Museum to become Legacy of the Plains Museum at 2930 Old Oregon Trail in Gering. See the Legacy of the Plains Museum website for the most recent updates.

Copyright 2009 by Katie Bradshaw

6 Comments leave one →
  1. Will permalink
    March 29, 2010 9:03 pm

    Just discovered your blog via the mighty Darla Heggem (The facebook Queen!). As I read your “first impressions” post, I was taken back to my first trek out here. I, too, am from college towns and the big city. It was a slight shock at first, but some your observations are things I’ve come to love about Western Nebraska. I’d love to hear your thoughts after you’ve been here a year! Looking forward to reading you in the days to come.

    • Katie Bradshaw permalink
      March 29, 2010 9:20 pm

      FB Queen Darla’s posting quadrupled my blog traffic. 🙂 Glad to have you as a reader, and hope we’ll get to meet and compare notes at some point.


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