Dear Nonnies (my most avid fans), Readers, and Nebraska,
Yesterday, I may have given you the impression that I give credibility to terrible slurs on the great state of Nebraska, and particularly to tasteless jokes that imply that living in Nebraska is the equivalent of death everywhere else.
I may have implied that Nebraska is not exciting.
I take full responsibility for the error of my ways. Although I have tried to draw attention to Nebraska's many genuinely exciting attractions, I shamefully undermined that effort yesterday by failing to stress that one can no more experience Nebraska from the I-80 transcontinental freeway than one can appreciate it from a 737 at 35, 000 feet, unless you have first deployed a parachute.
There is, indeed, more to Nebraska than I have let on, and this post is my effort to make amends.
Nebraska Haute Cuisine
No laughing in the back. Today in Nebraska, HWSNBNOTI (He Who Shall Not Be Named on The Internets, or Hoosen Benoti, for short) and I left the hotel, and the I-80. Along the way, after miles of nothingness, we passed by a little cafe.
I agree. It didn't look like much. We did consider that it might be better than it looked. Then we had a good laugh at the very idea.
But I got curious. And then I read the reviews for Laura Lee’s Double L Cafe
I persuaded Hoosen to turn the car around. There may have been a screeching of tires.
And that’s how we found the Double L Cafe. A place that people have been known to drive for four hours or more to visit for a meal.
How is that possible when it looks like this?
I know. I know. I don’t expect you to believe me, but this is a place to which I would take Louis Bromfield for lunch if he were still alive. It’s that good. This is caviar in a Spam can. There’s a bidet in the bathroom, and a counter made from laminated pennies. This is a place that defies stereotype.
My roasted peach salad: local greens, grown hydroponically, with roasted sweet peaches, peach compote, candied pecans, freshly-roasted natural chicken, and so much more, superb ingredients combining into a superb salad that was far better than I can possibly describe, but would have knocked my socks off in any restaurant, anywhere.
Yet, by description alone, it doesn't sound like fine dining. Neither did the day's special, fried chicken with mash. The Double L doesn't serve foie gras with weird mushrooms. Its menu just skirts the exotic.
What it does do is serve excellent food that delights foodies without scaring away regular folks with an intimidating menu. Take a look. Also note the non-scary prices.
And local? HWSNBNOTI's bison burger was made from a buffalo that had recently frolicked in fields two miles away. My vanilla malt, made from local ice cream, was the best I have ever had: Properly sweet and malty, but not super-sweet.
I enjoyed all of it, and didn't feel ill afterwards, as I do often do following restaurant food.
I asked our server, a cheerful middle-aged woman from Walla Walla, Washington, if she was the owner. “Oh, no,” she said. “The owner is in the back, cooking.”
I suddenly thought of all the atrocious food I have been served in hip Atlanta restaurants with absentee owners. In Georgia, the philosophy of restaurateur success is that you no longer have to work. Those of us not from the South are often really struck by this phenomenon: a business owner who doesn't know how to work the cash register is a real thing, and something we find astounding.
Laura Lee clearly has other priorities. Like cooking excellent foods with integrity, local and sustainable whenever possible, treating her staff properly (you can always tell when that's the case) , and serving her customers at a fair price. This woman needs a McArthur Genius Award, and deserves it more than some of the recipients.
The bill for an extraordinary lunch at the Double L Cafe was about $34, plus tip, what we normally pay for much inferior food.
And the customers? Local farmers in cowboy hats and baseball caps. Regular folk of all ages, including people who come specially for the food from towns and cities. But we saw no obvious elitist snobs other than me. The cafe has been open five years, a sure sign of success.
I think they've found the secret of bringing America together, one fantastic breakfast, lunch, or dinner at a time. And this is in Nebraska.
Bluffed at Scotts Bluff
Before leaving Nebraska, we detoured off the I-80 again to visit Scotts Bluff National Monument. Monument is such a weird word for this, as I hope to show you. Meanwhile, Scotts Bluff is one of the places that fourth graders and I “visit” when we pretend to be wagon train migrants in 1849.
So what is Scotts Bluff? An enormous wall of rock that suddenly arises from the prairie, it was known to local Indians as Me-a-pa-tew which, loosely translated, means Big Thing It's A Pain To Go Around. The migrants called it Scotts Bluffs, plural, which makes more sense since there's more than one cliff.
Scotts Bluff was a famous landmark on the Oregon/California trail. Until 1850, there was only a narrow and very rocky pass between the cliff called South Bluff, and the rest of it. Most migrants, especially if they had wagons, went around it to the south, a thirteen mile detour, and traveled through Robidoux Pass instead. Mr. Robidoux, who operated a blacksmithing business in the pass, quickly saw the possibilities for gold in 1849. He retired from blacksmithing, and rented out blacksmithing stations in his forge at high cost to other smiths. Speaking of absentee owners.
In 1850, however, the federal government, in one of those well-meaning but devastating bits of vandalism characteristic of Victorians, ordered the Army Corp of Engineers to make a way through Scotts Bluffs. This they did, blasting a hole just wide enough for a single wagon.
This led to long tailbacks of wagons, and migrants grumbling about how the job should have been done by private companies, who would have sensibly flattened the whole thing. Okay, so I made up the last bit, but the tailbacks and grumbling are true.
What you see today, the big hole then called Devil’s Gate, and today called Mitchell Pass, now accommodates a two-lane road.
There's also an impressive road that takes you to the top of the bluff on the right in the photo, the bit separated from the rest by the blasting in 1850, which is what most people assume Scotts Bluff is. We, um, they also assume the separation is completely natural. How silly. Haha. Ahem. Imagine anyone thinking that. Tut.
The road to the summit was built by workers from the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), one of FDR's New Deal programs, so it's more well-meaning vandalism. But since the road is there now, I do recommend driving to the top for a spectacular view. Sometimes, a bit of well-meaning vandalism isn't such a bad thing.
The wagon folks could not, of course, enjoy that view from the top. But they loved Scotts Bluff, and nearby Chimney Rock, because you simply didn't see sights like these in Poughkeepsie or wherever they were from. These massive weird rocks arising from a vast dry plain were very Western. The West truly begins in Nebraska.
Most wagon migrants traveled via Scotts Bluff. Fortunately, the visitor center at Scotts Bluff National Monument has remodeled its displays and reinterpreted the site since our 2018 visit, so they now better explain that experience. The exhibit is pretty simple (other federal museums on the route are a better bet if your time is limited) but they discuss the surprisingly complex relationships between Indians and migrants that historians have documented, as well as the fact that among the migrants were free and enslaved African-Americans, the subject of Sweet Freedom’s Plains, Shirley Ann Wilson Moore's fantastic book.
I'm writing a time-travel novel that makes it clear that it wasn't just white people crossing the plains. I am also clear that said white people were themselves a very diverse bunch, but, as the Scotts Bluff exhibit implies, often middle class. If you couldn't afford the $1200 it typically cost (in 1849 dollars!) to go West, you were best advised to sign on as a teamster or cook with a company of wealthier people, and work your way West, while perhaps smugly reminding yourself that you will soon be rolling in gold, so the richies can drop the attitude. Many of the richies on the trip had already calculated that there was probably more money in mining the miners than in mining gold (remember Ledyard Frink?) So they got the last laugh. As usual.
The Scotts Bluff National Monument has now gone to free admission! The young ranger at the gate was delighted to report this to us. “It means we're a lot busier,” she said, “which is great!”
Indeed it is.
Bluffed by Maps
As we left Scotts Bluff (the historic site, not the nearby town, which helpfully calls itself Scottsbluff) HWSNBNOTI suggested we turn right to go through Mitchell Pass and take the scenic route, rather than turn left and head back to the I-80 freeway.
“Google Maps says this way rejoins the 80,” he said, “and there's only ten minutes difference.”
What Google Maps failed to mention is that this alternate route eventually becomes a dirt road. By the time we realized we were committed, we had crossed the state line into Wyoming, and it really was too far, we reasoned, to go all the way back to Scotts Bluff. Anyway, it's just a dirt road. Shouldn't be too long.
What followed was a drive like something from Mad Max, on a dusty and bumpy dirt road in which we never passed another car or building. Not one. Not in forty miles.
Let me repeat that: Forty miles.
We considered whether our cellphones would remain functional, and whether, if the car broke down, whether anyone would find us before our water supplies ran out. Once again, I could imagine the westward migrants of 1849 collectively rolling their eyes at us.
And then we saw this . . . . And the entire route was allegedly a state road.
Fortunately, it was only another 15 miles before we found a proper road, and, with relief, took it, caring not where it went.
Emily, our Google Maps lady, kept bleating in her English accent that we were going the wrong way, that going via Cheyenne, WY, would take longer than the route she had carefully planned for us.
We shut her down. She is clearly a murderous floozy.
This is not the first time HWSNBNOTI and I have taken a lonely dirt road through Wyoming. But it was the first time we did it by mistake. Mistakes in the West can be fatal. As many migrants discovered in the 1840s and 1850s
Fortunately, for us, it only meant arriving in Salt Lake City at 12:30 a.m., somewhat later than anticipated.
Detouring from the I-80
Please don't use our experience as an excuse not to live on the wild side! The Double L Cafe involved no risk at all, even though we left the freeway. If you stick to the I-80 and never take the side roads, you will sometimes see great scenery, but mostly you miss the best. And while you may tell yourself you're seeing what the wagon migrants saw from the freeway, since it shadows their route, you will have a hard time picturing their experience. That's because, by and large, you're not going the same way they did. If you would like to follow in their wagon tracks safely, and have an enjoyable experience, it's honestly not hard. Use the guides that the National Park Service provides online and in booklets (if they still have those left). We did that in 2018. The NPS advice, including on safety, was solid, and it was an unforgettable trip. I mean that in a good way.
And much of the excitement happened in Nebraska.
By the way, I'm putting together a gift pack of fun stuff collected on this trip, and I'll be holding a drawing among my paid subscribers! A nice perk for supporters of Non-Boring History. And yes, you qualify if you sign up for a monthly or annual subscription during the trip! 😃