There’s No Place Like Home

There is this magical place that I found. The food is inexpensive, the people are friendly, and the bucolic landscape recalls a simpler time. The airfare is expensive and this remote land is difficult to reach, but the inhabitants are friendly and generous and, surprisingly, happy that you have come to enjoy their small slice of paradise. So where is it? (Hint: although cows are numerous, it isn’t India; although the people speak a convoluted form of English, it isn’t Fiji; and although the cuisine centers on beef and football is king, it isn’t Brazil). The answer: this Shangri-La is known as Nebraska.

Located dead center of the continental United States, Nebraska is one of those anonymous patchworks of brown and green field that appear from a plane passing above as an endless puzzle of squares with the occasional circle breaking the monotony. Normally, as I fly over the middle of America, I slide my window shade up just enough to see that we haven’t yet reached the more interesting landscape of the Rocky Mountains or the eerie sepia deserts of Arizona before returning to my book. Yet, recently romance has guided me to explore this seemingly generic hinterland. This has led me to many discoveries and the realization that this often overlooked state is as exotic as anywhere that I have visited.

My most recent trip took place over the Memorial Day weekend. Little did I know that no place more actively celebrates the true spirit of Memorial Day than Nebraska. Growing up, Memorial Day weekend meant it was time for my parent’s boat to go in the water and to open up the cottage in Cape Cod. As romantic as this sounds, what it really meant was frantically fixing things on the boat, throwing on a coat of bottom paint, and then waiting anxiously to see if the boat would float. It always did, although the maiden voyage from the launch to the mooring nearly always revealed some irritating problem, usually in the form of a malfunctioning engine or running aground due to mistiming the tides. By the time we managed to reach the mooring, it was often dark, so we would return to the cold, damp cottage to crawl through cobwebs in a quixotic attempt to turn on the water and power. Needless to say, all of this is nothing like Nebraska. For one thing, the only water we saw in Nebraska was either a cesspool that passed as a river or a bunch of rainwater lying stagnant in a ditch. Seven years of drought have no doubt devastated the obviously tiny sailing community of this water-deprived region. Aside from the lack of an ocean, it also turns out that Memorial Day was intended to memorialize dead soldiers. As a result, instead of scrubbing resilient mold from the cabin of a small sailboat, I found myself on my knees in a cemetery scrubbing bird crap off of gravestones. But I am getting ahead of myself.

The journey from Los Angeles to Omaha is always an adventure in itself. It turns out that it is easier to fly from LA to Tokyo than to Omaha. Not being considered a booming metropolis by the uppity latte-drinking snobs in California, there are no direct flights available to Omaha from LAX. Instead, a layover in Denver, Phoenix, Dallas, or Chicago is required. For this trip, I opted for Denver. With the worst of the winter weather behind us, I hoped that the risk of catching the last flight from Denver to Omaha would not be punished with an unwelcome nights stay in the mile high city. The first leg went smoothly, aside from a roughly one-hour delay for reasons that were not deemed important enough to explain. Perhaps fortunately, after having booked a single hour layover, Frontier Airlines notified me a couple of weeks before the flight that the time of the second leg of my itinerary had been pushed back three hours – instead of arriving at 8:30 pm, I would now be touching down at 11:30 pm. So much for trying to leave work early to get in at a reasonable time. The layover in Denver turned out to be even longer since tornadoes were passing through the area. The flight eventually departed, although we were forced to fly far south of the rumb line to Kansas to avoid inclement weather and, even then, the turbulence was enough that our complimentary in-flight drink was cancelled. I finally arrived in Omaha around 12:30 and my lovely girlfriend Megan gamely met me at the airport.

On Friday, following a morning of work (Megan), sleeping (Aaron), a haircut (Aaron), and teriyaki bowls (both), we began the three-hour drive from Omaha to the small town of Shelton, Nebraska, where Megan’s grandmother resides. The drive took us through a never-ending series of farms, barns, and pro-Jesus signs. While the rolling landscape inspired a quiet calm, the sky overhead appeared turbulent. Dark clouds swirled, hulking cumulus clouds raced by, and occasional downpours reduced visibility to frighteningly short distances. The roadside ditches overflowed and some farms resembled shallow ponds. Approaching Shelton, the traffic became sparse and the already open spaces of Nebraska became even more so. We finally arrived in the late afternoon between downpours to find a quiet little town of charming homes clustered around several blocks. Megan’s grandmother lives in a beautiful home at the center of town. Megan’s mother and aunt had already arrived, so we took advantage of the break in the weather to tour the town. Since the town only extends a mile and a half in any direction, the tour didn’t take long. Driving down Main St was a rapid fire of local landmarks – the library, the new fire station (the old one burned down), the police station, the closed gas station forever frozen at $2.47 per gallon (the owner had a weakness for gambling), the market, and the many houses that Megan’s relatives either owned, lived in, or had strong opinions about. Many of the homes were lovely Victorian buildings that were obviously once beautiful, but that had suffered from lack of adequate maintenance. Bisecting the town were a series of railroad tracks and seemingly every half hour a UP locomotive trailed by an assortment of coal cars, grain hoppers, and container cars would barrel through town. Next, we drove out to the farm that Megan’s family owns. To my untrained east coast eyes, it looked like an expansive field of well-tended dirt, though I’m sure it is much more impressive during harvest. I was pleased to learn that the large metal contraption that apparently irrigates the field is called a “pivot.” The highlight of the farm is a solitary gravestone that was put up along the Oregon Trail that passes through town. The marker was for a woman who perished during the treacherous journey, allegedly due to poisoning by Indians (a fact that is inscribed on the tombstone). According to legend, after the woman died, her husband returned to the east coast – presumably the only place that could make gravestones in those days – and hauled the heavy stone on a wheelbarrow back to the site where his beloved wife passed away. Oddly, several small trinkets were placed on the grave including a miniature Eiffel Tower and a Christmas ornament. Having seen Shelton, we headed into the relative metropolis of Kearney (pronounced “Carney”) for a substantial dinner.

Saturday began with a run around town (literally), following by a tasty breakfast of storts, a German delicacy that is something between crepes and pancakes with the appearance of scrambled eggs. Properly satiated, we set off for “the Arch.” Not to be confused with the shiny eyesore in St. Louis, this tasteful Nebraska attraction is a large red structure slightly resembling a palatial barn that spans the highway. Apparently, the arch that connects one side of I-80 to the other side of the interstate is meant to represent Nebraska’s role as a gateway to the west. A couple of reenactors greeted us at the entrance. Reenactors are creepy under any circumstances and these two men were no exception. One man looked like a gold miner who had been homeless in Santa Monica for the past 10 years. His compatriot appeared to be a civil war soldier who had been struck by lightning twice. Having met up with some of Megan’s relatives, we ascended the escalator and began working our way through the museum describing the history of Nebraska. The museum focused on the convergence of the Oregon Trail, the Mormon Trail, the transit of the 49ers, the Union Pacific railroad, and the Lincoln Highway. Just as Nebraska is now considered a fly-over state, it seems that throughout history Nebraska has served as a place that was passed through to get somewhere else. The highlight of the museum were a couple of windows overlooking the highway. As we watched cars pass below, their speed popped up on a speedometer. We were disappointed that the fastest car was only going 81 mph (the speed limit was 75), but on Memorial Day weekend the state troopers were out in full force and it is possible that drivers were slowing down to take in the monstrosity spanning the highway.

For dinner, Megan, her mom, her aunt, her grandmother, and I went to a local steakhouse called “The Sportsman.” This place was fantastic beyond description. For starters, the walls featured a mingling of model ships and glowing beer signs. Our octogenarian waitress had a thick German accent and the furniture called to mind a cozy hunting lodge. The prime rib came in two sizes – the Ladies Cut (14 oz of beef) and the Men’s Cut (16 oz of meat). This made ordering easy since no self-respecting man could bear the humiliation of being emasculated in front of four women. Each meal came with entry to the salad bar and hash browns, as well as a small bottle of wine (merlot for men and white zinfandel for women). Earlier in the week, I had enjoyed a steak dinner with colleagues from work at Mastro’s, a posh Beverly Hills steakhouse that charged $45 for prime rib, not including sides. The prime rib at The Sportsman was far superior and cost less than $12 apiece. I am proud to say that I managed to finish my entire meal and my dignity remains intact for another day.

Sunday was a day devoted to Megan’s extensive family. The house was full with her grandmother, mother, step-father, uncle, two aunts, two cousins (plus one spouse), four kids, and a dog. Despite the large crowd, the house was well-suited to the demands of such a big and diverse group. Everyone functioned well together and, astonishingly, everyone was able to agree on decisions about places, times, what to eat, and numerous other logistical nightmares that a less cohesive group would have struggled to achieve. If my family were to attempt such a large gathering, alcohol would undoubtedly play a crucial role to sooth over hurt feelings and drown the small stresses that only loved ones can create. Unless they managed to slip away for quick tipples of strong drink when I wasn’t paying attention, the whole weekend was completed without the help of booze – an impressive feat all around.

Yet, as functional as Megan’s family was, we still sought some quiet and escaped to the cemetery to clean gravestones. We began by edging the weeds around the stones and progressed to wiping down the stones until they shone in the bright Midwestern sun. Just as you never realize just how big a boat is until you have scrubbed every single inch of it, cleaning numerous gravestones in that cemetery helped me to realize just how many relatives Megan has in Shelton. Even a beloved parrot found its way into the cemetery. The job was rewarding, if not glamorous, and our good work was completed when we helped to arrange flowers around each relatives plot.

Having basked in the silence of the graveyard and paid our respects to the dead, we accompanied Megan’s uncle and cousins to the farm for some shooting. We stuffed our ears with cotton and then took aim at a couple of empty Coke cans we propped up against a tree. I took 12 shots from a .45 and two from a rifle. Since this was my first time shooting a gun, my results were less than impressive. On one shot, the can fell, although it might have been the result of a strong breeze. According to one onlooker, I hit the cans three times with the .45. I personally couldn’t tell were the bullets went and I’m not even sure that I managed to hit the tree. With the rifle, I was a far better shot and I peppered the church bulletin that served as a target. Despite only wheeling off a couple of shots, Megan is far more of a natural shooter and if anyone ever gets gunned down in our presence, let the record show that I am a lousy shot and she is a crack shot.

On the morning of Memorial Day, the whole family drove over to the cemetery and attended the short ceremony. During the service, the names of all of the deceased soldiers were read, a gun salute was fired, and taps was played. Since we were still in Nebraska, lunch consisted of more meat. In the afternoon, the group began to disperse and Megan and I drove back to Omaha so that I could catch my flight home.

As with all of my visits to Nebraska, the time passed too quickly. Megan’s family was extremely kind and I didn’t endure any of the hazing that I partially expected. The toughest question I got was asking where we were going to be married – an odd question considering we aren’t engaged. Someone else asked what the time limit is for common law marriage, an even odder question since we don’t even live in the same state, nevermind the same house. Still, premature wedding plans are preferable to the alternative.

Aside from being touched by how welcoming Megan’s family was, I was also moved by what a nice small town Shelton is and I can understand why it is such an important place for Megan. In many ways, the closeness and sense of community reminds me of my own experience with Onset, Massachusetts. There is a comfort in being surrounded by family and knowing everyone in town. In addition, the nice memories associated with various places come flooding back when we return. It is comforting to realize that as our lives continue to change, there is a special place that is constant and that will always be there for us when we return. No matter where we go or what we do, it is always nice to have a sense of home.

3 Replies to “There’s No Place Like Home”

  1. Aaron-
    My dad sent me the link to your site… Good piece on Nebraska- reminds me of my trips to Iowa with the wife. I do enjoy the simplicity of the small town/farm life.
    Glad you ate the ‘men’s cut’ prime rib as you were dead on- “no self-respecting man could bear the humiliation of being emasculated in front of four women.”

    Hope things are going well, and hope you get to finish your epic journey sailing around the world.

  2. I think I’ve seen the Oregon Trail grave stone of which you speak. If memory serves me correctly, the rest of the unfortunate victim’s party perished in an unsuccessful attempt to ford a river. The losses included 2 wagon axles, 4 sets of clothing and 57 bullets as well as Stupid (drowned), Smelly (drowned) and Cheese Pizza (dysentery).

  3. Ryan Waggoner says:

    WOW! I haven’t checked in on the site in a while and thought I’d use my summer break to catch up. It looks great. Since your wedding seems to have already been planned, have you decided on kids names yet?

Leave a Reply