Kearney needs a bed-and-breakfast.
The 1,500 motel rooms that line its I-80 exit do a good job of housing the convention and event crowds that visit this Nebraska city of 31,000 with its 5,000-seat auditorium midway between Omaha to the east and Scottsbluff to the west.
But those motels do next to nothing to put visitors in touch with a place that’s the best thing to come out of a prairie cornfield since husked ears boiled and slathered with butter, or salt-popped kernels that scent movie theater lobbies.
Among some 25 others, I lately stood slack-jawed while all the Sandhill cranes that a viewing blind could possibly frame danced and pranced among the 500,000 birds that for six weeks each late winter fly in to bulk up on the previous year’s corn stubble. Nights, they roost along the Platte River while migrating north, same as they’ve done for a hundred million years or so before ethanol. Those pesky birds that yesteryear farmers’ complained about have become today’s economic bonanza reaped from birders who travel here by the thousands.
Improved attitudes toward these cranes are only part of the impulse you might feel, the same as I, about this small narrowly known city that a B&B or two would surely further help to transform.
Kearney has an aspect that transcends anything otherwise familiar about Nebraska. Yes, Nebraska is the only state with a single-body legislature. It’s the home of Mutual of Omaha and of American investment sage Warren Buffet. Steaks? Big! At Omaha’s Eppley Airfield you can have ‘em shipped home in dry ice. In Nebraska, you don’t have to ask what’s for dinner.
But something more colors Kearney that, crane season notwithstanding, for all 52 weeks of the year raises goose bumps, something enigmatic that you can’t put your finger on but that you pick up surely as aromas from a distant kitchen. Something maybe once known, forgotten, and re-awakened.
In these days of instant messaging, Kearney comes on like seduction by typewriter. Its prairie waltz flows across a downtown kept busy by mom-and-pop stores, where vacancies fill like a dry gulch after a wet tornado -- a town cocooned by exceptional museums and heritage sites that no place with so few people could evince without deep care for its quality of life.
With a B&B – I’d say two or three – that Kearney soul would find vibrant expression. People stand out. You need only talk to a local to find how they form their civic mosaic in the way that a still life painting of fruits in a bowl can display more artistry than the panoramic view of an entire orchard.
Like the 6’2” bartender wearing high boots downtown at The Garage, a place with open-beam ceilings, open ductwork, two plush bars on two floors and a balcony overlooking main street. She’s planning a trip to Cambodia to name names in the sex trade. Also the lady in charge of education programs at the only museum that spans an American interstate highway and who seasonally sends her homegrown Granny Smith apple-granola to friends.
I must add about granola benefactress Ronnie O’Brien that she introduced me to an unknown aspect of Emily Post, the legendary etiquette queen. Seems that after Ms. Post early in the last century came through Kearney, she decided, as Ronnie tells it, “to bring etiquette to Americans west of New York.” That led to her epic 1922 bestseller, “Etiquette”. Ronnie, sometimes dressed as Ms. Post, joins costumed and long-bearded rascals known as “Mountain Men” who greet visitors at the Great Platte River Road Archway. They and a slew of volunteers help make this an inspiring mid-American Big History monument close on the order of the Gateway Arch in St. Louis.
About Kearney, too, you should know that locals have largely funded a performing arts center built out of an old junior high, another out of an old movie theater, and have installed the Museum of Nebraska Art in a vacated Beaux Arts post office. There on the eve of Audubon’s annual Rivers and Wildlife Celebration I listened to a talk by Paul Johnsgard, a dryly humorous scholar of cranes, followed by biologist and pianist Karine Gil, who performed her own rhapsody about the Platte River. Both she and Johnsgard teach at the University of Nebraska Kearney (UNK), one of only three UN campuses, this with some 6,500 enrolled students, faculty and staff.