CRAWFORD, Neb. — There is a place in Nebraska that you reach by bumping west down a dusty one-lane road, inching to your destination as the sun sets so brilliantly purple-red over the green bluffs and sand-brown peaks and valleys that you want to bring every person who ever said the state is flat and boring to this exact spot and yell, “Look!”
You cannot talk on your cellphone at this place. You cannot watch ESPN. You can’t even pick up much more than static on the FM dial. You are a good half-hour drive from the nearest town and nearly three hours from Interstate 80, where people whiz by unaware. This place will confuse your car’s GPS. It will confound your iPhone-addled mind.
At this place in Nebraska, here is what you can do: You can wolf down biscuits and gravy for breakfast along with a slice of strawberry-rhubarb pie that will make you weak-kneed. You can hike to a nearby national geologic park that looks like the surface of Mars. You can hike back, through rock formations and prairie and bluffs, and devour barbecue ribs cooked over a roaring fire pit for dinner.
As the sunset lights the sky on fire, you can sit on the porch and make the acquaintance of fossil hunters and turkey hunters and stargazers. By starlight you meet people, like yourself, who need to take a deep breath once in awhile. Guests who have discovered that this spot — this place called the High Plains Homestead — is the perfect place to breathe deeply.
The High Plains Homestead is not exactly a bed-and-breakfast, and not exactly a guest ranch, and not exactly a restaurant, either. It is all of those things, and many other things too.
It is an oasis in the middle of the untamed, undiscovered northwest corner of our state.
It is the nearest thing I have found to heaven in Nebraska.
“I always say that this place is beautiful, when it ain’t tryin’ to kill you,” says a grinning man wearing a black cowboy hat.
The cowboy is named Mike Kesselring, and he and wife Linda Kesselring, along with Mike’s folks, had the idea to build this one-of-a-kind place two decades ago. If you are a charitable person, you might describe their idea as audacious. If you aren’t, you might call it totally insane.
Consider: Mike and Linda decided to construct a series of six guest rooms, a two-bedroom cabin, a restaurant and a little imitation Old West village in a spot 18 miles from the nearest town, which is the metropolis of Crawford, population 969. Most of that 18-mile drive is country road that quickly turns to muck in the rain and drifts shut in the snow.
Only an abandoned farmhouse stood on the spot, which meant they needed to build everything from the foundation. Also the electricity went out almost daily. Also the telephone cut out when the wind blew. Also there was no guarantee of running water.
So Mike and Linda got to work in a way that reminds you of their hardy pioneer ancestors, except with Chevy pickups and George Jones songs in the tape deck. They dug a well 550 feet deep, struck water and didn’t complain when that water smelled strongly of rotten eggs — it’s the sulfur in the soil.
“In California and Arkansas they charge extra for that sulfur,” Mike says. “Here we give it to ya for free!”
They had the county string the power lines as best they could, bought a lot of candles and didn’t bellyache when the power went out four times, then 40, then 400.
They did indeed build this place, and lo and behold, a few people did start to come. They bumped down the country road that turns into a miles-long driveway, curious, wondering what they were getting themselves into as the radio station faded into static.
Outdoorsy types came because Toadstool Geologic Park is only 9 miles up the road. It’s called Toadstool because the rock formations look like giant toadstools. It offers a hike through the Mars-like environment of peaks and ravines that opens onto the Oglala National Grassland — nearly 100,000 acres of pristine high country prairie that reminds you this wilderness existed for millennia before we carved it into pastures and fields and cities. Toadstool is breathtaking. It is soul cleansing. It is maybe the most beautiful spot in the entire state of Nebraska.
College professors and amateur fossil enthusiasts came because the Hudson-Meng Bison Kill site is only 3 miles down the road. It’s called the Bison Kill site because 10,000 or so years ago, hundreds of bison met their maker either because Native Americans drove them over a cliff or because they perished due to natural, mysterious causes. Today the site is one of the largest archaeological digs of its kind in the world, as well as an education center open to the public each summer.
And history buffs came because Fort Robinson is only 20 miles from here. Fort Robinson is where the U.S. military — including the Buffalo Soldiers — fought the Indian wars. It’s where, 140 years ago this year, the famed Lakota chief, Crazy Horse, got bayoneted in the back as he allegedly resisted arrest.
Locals came because Mike and Linda started to cook what they refer to as family meals: buffalo steaks on the grill, or ribs, or burgers, followed by a slice of Linda’s transcendent pie. Mike and Linda keep the prices low, and people drive an hour or two for what’s probably the best Saturday night dinner in a five-county area.
“I don’t know if there’s a word for that business model,” Mike says. “The way families do dinner, I guess. That’s the way we want to do it here.”
City folk came to stay in one of the Homestead’s eight rooms because it is exactly the opposite of city life. On a recent three-day trip we saw deer, antelope, wild turkeys, migrating ducks, longhorn cattle, a pair of donkeys and at least three wildly hospitable black farm cats. We saw a possum waddling into the tall grass, a badger sprinting out of sight, a hawk circling its prey and a male prairie chicken doing its funky mating dance, which looks like the “Wild Kingdom” version of any dance floor in a college town, except the prairie chicken wasn’t wearing Axe body spray.
One day my wife, Sarah, glimpsed a meadowlark improbably perched on the entrance sign that says “High Plains Homestead” to sing its meadowlark song. At night, when we crawled into bed, we heard coyotes howling somewhere in the pitch-black darkness.
“We think everybody deserves a place like this,” Mike says.
There are many reasons to come to High Plains Homestead, but none of those reasons fully explains why people return again and again.
One couple, from Minnesota, have been back every summer for the past 19 years. Most of the homestead’s rooms are booked on summer weekends — call now if you want one — and crowds of people show up for steak or buffalo on most weekend nights.
And dozens of Omahans drive the eight hours across the state to visit High Plains Homestead each year. Omaha-area residents like Brad Woodle, who lives in Papillion and owns Jim’s Moving and Delivery Co. in the city.
Woodle first stayed at the High Plains Homestead during a November deer hunt maybe 15 years ago. Then he stayed there to deer hunt the next year, and the next.
Then he started bringing his wife and two teenage kids out to High Plains Homestead each May. During the day they hiked the trails. At night they sat as a family on the porch with no TV, no iPhones, no distractions.
“We sat on the deck and watched the sun go down,” says Woodle, whose children are grown now. “It’s just kind of … peaceful.”
The return business has something to do with Mike and Linda, who run this place like the favorite country aunt and uncle you never knew you had. Mike grills the meat, shows you where to hike and hunt and tells the jokes at breakfast. Linda books the rooms, makes the pies from scratch and shakes her head in mock horror at Mike’s jokes.
On a recent trip we watched as a couple from Orlando, Florida, perused the Kesselrings’ selection of buffalo hides for sale, picked one out and then pulled Mike into the elaborate and highly entertaining process of attempting to ship a gargantuan beast’s hide from a place without a FedEx rep to a state not known for the sort of subzero temperatures requiring the world’s warmest blanket.
Mike told me later that he and the couple ended up driving into town, laying the buffalo hide across the main street in Crawford, covering it in plastic and then roping it tight enough so they could fit it in the biggest box the owner of the hardware store could find.
They might never use that blanket. It doesn’t much matter, Mike said.
“They are going to be telling that story the rest of their lives!”
So it has something to do with the hospitality, and the other guests, and yes, the pie too.
But, at least for me, the biggest draw is the nearly indescribable feeling you get here when you are awakened by the sunrise, go for a jog down Sand Creek road and watch as the wildlife and the wilderness itself awakens before your very eyes. It’s the feeling you get when you sit on the porch, a cheap light beer in hand, and stare up with your loved ones and your new friends at the glittering stars.
And it’s the feeling when you turn left into the entrance to High Plains Homestead and bump toward this singular spot as the sun sets purple-red over the spring snowcapped bluffs and the rocky ravines and the waving green grasslands.
I have been to Paris, and Tuscany, the Big Easy on a sweltering summer night and the Big Apple on a postcard-perfect fall Sunday. But when I think of my favorite places, a spot will also be reserved for a sort-of guest ranch and a not-quite bed-and-breakfast located 18 miles from the nearest town in extreme northwest Nebraska.
I tell Mike this, and he ponders it for a moment.
“Out here you need to be resilient, independent,” he says. “You need to understand and appreciate the help of others.
“That’s kind of what made Nebraska what it is, isn’t it? The one-finger wave comes from somewhere, don’t it?”
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Food critic Sarah Baker Hansen is from Omaha. Columnist Matthew Hansen grew up in Red Cloud. As a married couple they travel Nebraska to share with each other little-known people, unexpected stops and memorable foods. Come along and discover more of what the state has to offer in "The Better Half," an occasional series prepared with support from the Nebraska Community Foundation.