Monday, April 7, 2014

Celebrating Arbor Day a Little Early

Heading Home
April 6, 2014
Calamus, Nebraska to Columbia, Missouri 

We bid a fond farewell to the Switzers and hit the road after breakfast Sunday. 

The spare landscape of the prairies has grown on us, but by midday, we have left the sand hills and the prairies behind, and reentered a world with rocks and lots of trees. 

In fact, by lunchtime we are celebrating trees, as we dine at an Adirondack-style lodge owned by the National Arbor Day Foundation in Nebraska City, the birthplace of Arbor Day on April 10, 1872. 
Our table is next to a window overlooking Arbor Lodge State Historical Park and the 52-room White House replica home of J. Sterling Morton, the man who originated Arbor Day in America.  On the first Arbor Day back in 1872, one million trees were planted in Nebraska. 

I can remember getting a tiny seedling tree at school each Arbor Day, although Dick says they never gave kids trees to plant in the Arizona desert. Those little seedlings are still propagated on the campus of the Arbor Day Foundation here, and distributed nation-wide.  What percent of those trees ever survive to maturity?  None of the seedlings the Ward girls brought home from school and planted in the back yard ever survived more than a month or two.

Playing Chicken

Highlights From The Amazing Nebraska Prairie Chicken Festival
April 4-6, 2014
The Switzer family hosts the Nebraska Prairie Chicken Festival on their 20,000 acre ranch in the sand hills of Calamus, Nebraska, about 1,500 miles from Savannah, not counting our scenic diversion detours.  

Is it worth the drive?  OH YEAH! 

The headline acts of the festival are the Greater Prairie Chickens, and their less flashy relatives, Sharp-tailed Grouse.  Both species have chosen spots on the ranch to use as leks--little arenas where the males compete in dancing and jumping contests to see who gets first rights to claim the females for mates.  

To see the males strutting their stuff, we get up at 4:45, layer up, and drive out to the ranch in time to catch the 6 a.m. bus that takes us out to viewing blinds placed near leks that the birds use year after year.  We go to a Prairie Chicken lek on Saturday morning, and a Grouse lek on Sunday.  

Here are the stars of the show:

The male Greater Prairie Chickens make an eerie droning sound that can be heard up to a mile away. 
They also squawk and squeal and carry on as they challenge each other, bending low and expanding their bright orange tympanum, which pushes their neck feathers up like bunny ears, then they have jumping contests to compete to be the alpha male. 
The winner gets the center part of the lek as his territory, but there is a constant competition to move up in the pecking order.

 The Sharp-Tailed Grouse raise their tails, spread their wings and do a sort of shimmy as they stamp their feet rapidly and vibrate their tail feathers to make a rattling sound while they laugh and hoot. 
They prefer their lek to have tall grass, so they are harder to photograph than the Prairie Chickens.

The lek action quiets down by around 8 a.m., and we head back to the ranch for a hearty pancake breakfast in the barn both mornings.

But there is much more to the festival than just these birds and breakfasts!

We begin shortly after noon Friday, April 4 with a three hour guided bird tour around the sand hills. We see eight different species of ducks, hundreds of beautiful white pelicans, and many other birds.  When we arrive back at the Switzers’ big barn to register, there are lots of vendors and environmental advocacy groups set up to welcome us with information and opportunities to purchase locally made items.  We enjoy a long conversation with a Raptor Recovery representative who comes with five “ambassador birds,” including this beautiful kestrel.

We sample a luscious Argentinian wine that sells for $150 per bottle, commissioned by the folks from the Morgan Ranch (the Switzers’ next door neighbors and good friends) to accompany their Wagyu Beef, which sells for up to $150 per pound.  Our barn dinners on both Friday and Saturday night feature Morgan Ranch Wagyu beef--it is wonderful.  

After dinner Friday, we have two outstanding presentations--one on prairie preservation by a Nature Conservancy expert who is also a talented nature photographer; and the other by a professional photographer who has been shooting Prairie chickens and Sharp-tailed Grouse here for years.  He uses his photographs to explain the intricate display behaviors we will see over the next two days.

The last activity of the evening is stargazing with a professional astronomer--a unique opportunity, since the Nebraska sand hills are one of the least light polluted spots in the continental United States.  We are too tired to stick around to look through the telescope, but we can appreciate the stars shining brightly in the clear night sky with our naked eye. 

Saturday is a very full day. 

After Prairie Chicken watching and breakfast, we head out to tour a beautiful conservation award winning 15,000 acre cattle ranch managed by Homer Buell and his son, the fifth and sixth generation Buells on the ranch (his brother has 15,000 acres next door--they split the 30,000 acre family spread).  After Homer gets on our bus and guides us around his scenic fields and pastures, explaining how he manages his lands and herds, we return to his barn for lunch, where he and his son share statistical analyses they do tracking every detail of their cattle’s lives and movements (all are radio-tagged for easy logging). 
Every cowboy needs a computer, it seems--cattle ranching today involves a lot of statistical analysis and number crunching, in addition to riding the range.  Speaking of riding the range, Homer told us that he finds it faster and easier to do most ranch work riding 4 wheeler ATVs, but he keeps horses, because it makes it easier to hire ranch hands--most prefer to ride horses.  

After lunch we visit a research ranch owned by the University of Nebraska, where we learn about their prairie chicken research--we view shots of predators caught on their trail cameras,  and see how they set traps on a lek to catch females so they can tag them and put radio collars on them to track their movements.  Then we hike around the ranch a bit, enjoying the sunny "warm" afternoon.

There is lots of entertainment when we get back to the barn at Switzers'.  A bird photographer shares a very entertaining presentation of his death-defying adventures getting “that perfect shot.”  After seeing the blizzards and far below zero temperatures he is willing to go through for his art, we feel a little sheepish about thinking that our adventures braving 30 degree temperatures in a sheltered blind for a couple hours are a hardship.

A Lakota Indian drums and sings a native dance tune based on the dance of the Prairie Chicken, and shares stories and history. 

While we enjoy our big barn buffet dinner, a country western band plays, and soon they get the dance floor filled with people who live around here and know how to dance to boot scooting music. 

The band leader, Joan Wells, was the Women’s World Champion Trick Roper in 1979 and was inducted in the National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame in 1989.  After she finishes playing with her band, she gives us an extraordinary trick roping demonstration--running that rope all around her, jumping in and out of one rope and two, twirling three ropes at once--she could do anything with those spinning ropes. 
Yee-haw--though it has been over thirty years since she earned her big silver championship belt buckle (and she has let  that belt out quite a few notches since then), she still has the moves--you go cowgirl! 
I love it when she muffs a complicated trick dancing through two spinning ropes.  As she picks the tangled rope up and restarts, she says, “Well, I got all my feet but one through there.”

The evening festivities end with a campfire, but we are too tired to attend--we need to rest up before our 4:45 alarm clock wakes us for the grouse.  

When it is all over after breakfast Sunday, we leave amazed at how much fun, entertainment, good food, new adventures, learning opportunities, and scenic photo ops the Switzers have squashed into less than 48 hours. 

Saturday, April 5, 2014

A Snowy Day in Nebraska

Thursday, April 3, 2014
Day  5
Kearney to Burwell
We are up at 4:45 a.m., so we can get back to the Audubon crane blind by 6 a.m.  The goal is to get in the blind before the cranes take off, then prepare to capture the dramatic moment when they all rise as one, known as a “blast off.”  This morning is colder and windier than last night, and there is a steady misty rain that we are sure started as snow when it dropped from the clouds.   

When we leave the preserve building to walk to the crane viewing blind,  it is pitch dark,  and no lights are allowed, so we wallow and trip in bushes a while before we find the trail, then a woman behind us literally bumps into us, because she can see no better than we.  She asks if she can hold on to Dick, and he becomes the blind leading the blind to the blind--at least for the several minutes it takes our eyes to get adjusted to the darkness.


The wind blows mist and cold into the blind, and we are chilled through our many layers, as we wait in the dark to see if there are any birds roosting nearby.  As the sky changes from black to charcoal to lighter shades of gray, we are happy to see lots of cranes nearby.  Just as we never saw the sun set last night, we never see it rise this morning, so there will be no colorful sky in the background of our blast off shots.  And, actually, we never see a blast off, either.  The cranes just hang out on the sandbars, in no hurry to get to breakfast.
After over two and a half wretchedly cold damp hours in the blind, we pack up our gear and hike back to our cars, with plenty of photos, but not the big moment we all hoped for.
The road to Burwell runs pretty much straight north through corn fields and cattle ranches, with grain elevators and farm stores marking our arrival at the towns whose names appear in tiny type on the map. In typical style, it takes us three hours to drive 97 miles, because we keep stopping to photograph abandoned farm buildings and rural landscapes that are too picturesque to pass up.

The sleet turns to snow, and  our early wake-up call catches up to us--by the time we get to Burwell, we are yearning for a hot lunch and a nap. 
 We know we picked the right lunch spot when we walk in the door of the Sandstone Grill and see two tables of certifiably senior ladies playing cards in the front of the restaurant and a side room is filled with people having a business lunch presentation.  A huge case filled with home-made pie slices in about a dozen different flavors is right by the door, reminding us to save room for dessert.  We can’t resist a warmed up slice of strawberry rhubarb pie with a scoop of vanilla ice cream.  And, we like it so much that before we leave we make a reservation to come back for dinner tonight. 

We walk out into fluffy snow flurries.  It is definitely time for that afternoon nap.

 We check into our home for the next few days--the Rodeo Inn--authentically family owned and run, with a 1960s motor court vibe from the road, but thoroughly modernized room interiors.  For the first time in at least a month, we actually spend a whole afternoon napping and  reading and doing not much of anything useful.  We are refreshed and ready for another round of early morning wake-ups to see those prairie chickens!


Friday, April 4, 2014

A Nebraska Native’s Point of View

April 3, 2013
The day before we left Savannah to begin this grand adventure, I was at a juried quilt show where a group of Nebraska-inspired art quilts by Dorothy Heideman-Nelson captivated me.  Now that we are in Nebraska, I can appreciate even more how well her artwork and her artist’s statement capture the spare beauty of the landscape.


Nebraska Winter Cornfield

“What is more mesmerizing than watching the moving vanishing point formed from the straight rows of a cornfield when driving down the Interstate 80?  You catch the flickering pattern even with your peripheral vision. The impeccably straight lines are evident from the first leaves breaking through the soil in spring to the stubble remaining during the cold winter months.  Drifts of snow catch on the remaining stalks and against fence posts:  precious moisture for the next year’s crop.”

Dorothy Heideman-Nelson

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Onward to the Sandhill Crane Capital of the World

Wednesday, April 2, 2014
Day 4
Salina, KS to Kearney, NE
No hail, no tornados--as is so often the case, the dire warnings of the local weatherman on last night’s newscast are unfulfilled, and we travel safely beneath overcast skies that at most spit a little mist on us every once in a while.
Our somewhat monotonous progress through the dreary winter farmlands is abruptly arrested as I spy a wondrous mural carved in brick while we wait at a traffic light where Highway 81 intersects with the main street in Concordia, Kansas.   It turns out that this is “The Longest Sculpted Brick Mural in the US,” commissioned by the Cloud County Historical Society Museum to pictorially represent the county’s history, using bricks made from local clay produced by a local company, Cloud Ceramics.  The design was developed and carved by an internationally known ceramics artist, Catharine Magel.

We learn all these facts, and lots more, by stepping inside the door that lies in the middle of the mural, where we find a combination history museum and tourist welcome center.  A very perky and knowledgeable staff person, Tammy, greets us warmly and tells us all about the art and history of the wall.   Then we spend a while exploring its intricacies on our own--there are pheasants and fossils;
lots of sunflowers, because Kansas is “The Sunflower State”; sheaves of wheat, because Kansas produces more wheat than any other state; a big train, because in the great migration westward it was hard for a town to survive without train service, and trains have stopped at Concordia since 1878.  

Concordia’s renovated train depot is now home to the National Orphan Train Museum. 
The museum is dedicated to collecting and telling the stories of Orphan Trains and the children who rode them.  Beginning around 1850, huge numbers of immigrants came to this country seeking their fortune in New York City, only to find unsafe or poorly paying jobs and poor living conditions in overcrowded tenement houses.  Due to their parents’ destitution, death or desperation, tens of thousands of children lived on the streets of New York--up to 30,000 at any given time. 

Charles Loring Brace founded the Children’s Aid Society in 1853, and soon thereafter began sending orphaned and abandoned children by train to far flung rural locations, where foster parents could offer them a better life. 
Prospective foster parents would fill out a form requesting a child with certain characteristics (age, gender, and so on), a match would be made, and the parent would get a number in the mail.  Then, when the Orphan Train came to town, all the prospective parents would come to the depot with their number in hand to claim the child with a matching number sewn on their clothing.  

The foster families were monitored once yearly to ensure that the children were not mistreated, but, sadly, siblings often were separated and given to different families in different towns.  Between 1854 and 1929, there were 200,000-250,000 orphaned and abandoned children placed out through the Orphan Train Movement.

The Museum has large photographs of a dozen or so Orphan Train children with labels beside them providing their memories of their childhood.  Their stories are touching and heartbreaking, but mostly have happy endings, as they grow up in happy homes where they are treated just like birth children, they marry and raise children, and sometimes even find long lost siblings decades later.  

Perhaps the most poignant aspect of the museum is a small section with beautiful studio portraits of orphans that are in the foster care system today, accompanied by little bios telling about the children’s personalities and needs, and their wishes for a forever family to call their own.  
This is an abandoned grain elevator beside the tracks by the Museum.  There is a much bigger and less photogenic one just up the tracks a ways.  Lots of places in New England and in the South the tallest structures in town are the church steeples.  Here in Kansas, it is just about always the grain elevator.  

We wish we could stay longer in Concordia--it is the site of a former WWII German POW Camp that we’d like to explore, too--but we have to make our way to Kearney, the “Sandhill Crane Capital of the World.”  We have a 6 p.m. reservation in a blind on the shore of the Platte River where we will witness an amazing spectacle of avian migration.

To prepare for spending two hours in a blind watching the cranes, we don our long underwear and multiple layers of clothing beneath our down parkas, and we pack hand warmers and toe warmers that we have to brave this sub-40 degree weather, thanks to a wonderful store clerk at Dick’s Sporting Goods in Salina, who went into the back room and dug out a box of miscellaneous warmers “left over from back when it was cold.”

On the way to the Audubon Sanctuary, we pass thousands of sandhill cranes feeding on waste corn on the ground in the stubble-rowed fields outside of town.  The Sanctuary is along the Platte River, where the cranes will come to roost for the night--as they have done for at least a couple million years, based on fossil evidence. The river is shallow with lots of sand bars where the cranes feel safe, because they can see and hear predators approaching.  


Our guides tell our group of about twenty the rules of the bird blind--be very quiet, no flash photography, no putting long lenses or your head out the windows of the blind, and no leaving early--we will walk to the blind together, and we will stay there until the cranes have all returned to the river from the corn fields.   There are an estimated 175,000 cranes around who will all converge on this stretch of the river, but there are no guarantees about exactly where and how they will choose to congregate on any given night.
As expected, there are no cranes on the river when we get to the blind, but as the sky darkens with approaching sunset, squawking gabbling clouds of cranes come in waves, landing far upstream at first, then working their way toward our blind.  Spooked, they rise in a shrieking explosion of flapping wings, then cautiously make their way back twenty minutes later. 

After 8 p.m., it is too dark to see them clearly, but the cranes are still unsettled--milling and wading and flying about, using precious energy they need to save up for their big migration north to breed in northern Canada, Alaska and Siberia.  Within a week or two, they will all be gone on a good south wind, the final wave of over 500,000 cranes that have stopped to refuel in Kearney on their great migration north this year.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Kansas Contrasts

April 1, 2014
Day 3
So many farms, so many fields, so many miles of barren prairie, with urban interruptions so brief and far between--that’s Kansas for us today. 

Around Topeka we are ready for some tedium relief, and Ron Lessman’s Truckhenge is just the ticket.  To get there, we turn left at a big scrapyard and head a couple miles down a narrow country road where half the houses look uninhabitable and the rest clearly are inhabited by litterbugs.

Ron’s yard is full of trash, too, but his is artfully arranged. 
Plus, a resplendent peacock greets us as we turn into the drive, fanning his tail wide open and preening for us.  Any house with pea fowl roaming the grounds has class.  
Ron greets us when we get round to his back yard, and tells us the tale of how his yard art came to be.  The short story is that Shawnee County health and zoning officials got after him to clean up his yard, and when they told him to pick up his trucks, he decided to take their orders literally, and pick them up, then plant them back down in the ground the way he saw it done in Texas at Cadillac Ranch.  Then, for good measure, he spray painted them with anti-establishment slogans.   

For an encore, he lined up and spray painted a bunch of unseaworthy fishing boats Cadillac Ranch style, too.  

He may have also read about Howard Finster or visited Paradise Garden, because Ron’s architectural elements made using beer and soda bottles remind us very much of Howard’s garden structures (except that Ron's have no religious references). 

Ron’s house is an amazing tribute to recycling ingenuity.  He tells us he figures it is pretty much impervious to tornados, because it is made of metal held down real good and has no angles to catch the wind.  It is wired up with lots of power--there are 27 electrical outlets in the kitchen alone, he brags.  When I ask him why he needs so many outlets in the kitchen, he smiles knowingly and delivers a one word answer--“Options.” 

It is an oddly whimsical place.

Our next stop in Topeka is the opposite of whimsical--the Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site, located in the old Monroe Elementary School, a  school for Black children back in the day.  
Brown v. the Board of Education was a suit filed in Kansas in 1951, then bundled with four other segregated education lawsuits from other states (so that the ruling would not appear to be picking on any one part of the country), and argued before the Supreme Court, which unanimously ruled that separation was discrimination. 
One message here is that the schools were the battleground, but our broader society was the target.  After the Supreme Court ruled, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 were passed.  Integration and equal rights efforts expanded throughout our country in all spheres of public life.  Other countries, like South Africa, took a page from our playbook.  All very heady positive stuff sprouting from this one Supreme Court case.  

But, then there was a sobering addendum, somewhat buried in the pages of a notebook on a shelf beneath an inspiring exhibit panel.  Here’s an update on how the Supreme Court’s ruling impacted the Topeka schools:  25 years after the ruling, Topeka Schools were not in compliance, and the school system was taken to the Supreme Court twice more before finally being found in compliance for the first time in 1996.  Looking at the country as a whole, the South is the only region where Whites typically attend schools with a significant number of Black students.  There is still much work to be done beyond the courtrooms.
We are in Salina now, and hoping not to have an unwanted adventure in the next 24 hours.  We just watched the local news, which included a weather report predicting possible nickel to quarter size hail tonight and a tornado chance tomorrow.