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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.

Cranes%28flock%29But 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.

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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.

09.08.29 Bcv F0051But 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.

If I digress it’s only that I want you to grasp that this place rises like a silo of stewardship, like a beacon of civic purpose that lights up singular regard for “place”.

In one museum of heritage buildings, among the old rail depots and barns, there’s a “Mormon handcart.” That’s a rough-formed two-wheeled wagon that stowed a lot of family belongings and got towed by guys themselves in harness across the trails that merged here from the east and continued destiny-bound west till they diverged ultimately to Oregon, California, and Salt Lake. Sometimes when the guys could go no farther, their widows hitched up. Nobody hereabouts doubts that this was a very big story about American exceptionalism, and about the lore of American can-do. If America was born in Florida in 1513 when Spain showed up, and if re-born a second time at Plymouth Rock, then Fort Kearny in the mid-1800s reburnished America’s heritage zeal in a way that few of us from elsewhere anymore know much about.

09.08.15 Bcv F0019At the Archway across I-80, that saga of Manifest Destiny gets dramatized with lifelike displays that combine surging music, iconic voices, flickering campfires, the whoosh and crackle of calamitous storm and the hugger-mugger that only artist-designers steeped in the story could shape.

The museums, the restored opera house, the endless hopper cars that speed coal through downtown and surrounding Buffalo County all combine in a mix of America’s past and America’s present that will dizzy you with thoughts about what else is going on between American coasts that we might also know little about.

You will, by the way, hear more about Kearney in 2013. That year marks the 100th anniversary of the Lincoln Highway, US 30, America’s first transcontinental road that for the first time linked towns east to west across the country. Kearney will be the center of celebrations for the event, located 1,733 miles from both Boston and San Francisco. The Lincoln Highway, different from today’s interstates, connected downtowns and helped them prosper.

Kearney will make sure that transcontinental celebrants also find their way downtown. That would be to The Bricks, a prosperous retail center ever since the highway came through. It’s got shoe stores and clothing stores, a hardware store, jewelry, a dog grooming center, pottery, antiques, flowers, a music store, quilts, lighting, western wear, a thriving six-day-a-week afternoon paper and – as if everyone’s waiting for one of those gullywashers -- a scuba shop. Notably, none of these are chain stores. Kearneyites love to shop here and hang out (though they’ve also got a mall north of town).

Best for me was the range of restaurants from Tex’s Café decked out in linoleum where the waitresses call the ranchers “Hon” and “Dear” to Alley Rose, with chandelier lighting, a baby grand piano, a Wine Spectator reputation, and plush booths where ranchers get to wear their Stetsons while slicing up cow. I loved Tru Café, a post-hippie mostly organic hangout for food, beer and wine and weekend music, The Garage, and Thunderhead Brewery, with a greed-arousing red ale on draft.

So, what’s missing?

That bed-and breakfast and a second or third.

Jane Goodall comes as often as not for the cranes. This year it was Audubon President David Yarnold. The museums do their special thing, ditto UNK, ditto The Bricks. But you need somebody someplace to give it all voice, redolence.

As a visitor, you need to be able to immerse yourself in it all. You need somebody informed about this town and its rare stewardship to talk to you, to tell you what’s really worth visiting, to hitch you to the heritage and declare personal witness with morning coffee.  You need to compose your own music, if not necessarily for piano performance, then for playback in the MP3 that’s your own imagination.

TO MAKE PLANS  Contact the Kearney Visitors Bureau, 1007 N. 2nd Avenue,
Kearney, NE 68847, 308/237-3178,

©Phoebe Bright (the nom de plume of a globetrotting Floridian)

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