Nebraska: A Different Kind of Great Outdoors

Backyard bonfire In case you missed it, in 2012 we moved from one Midwest city, Minneapolis, Minnesota, to an even more Midwest city, the solitary Lincoln, Nebraska. Both are very flat, no-nonsense, Midwestern places to work and live, but one contains a surprising number of things to do outdoors, despite its consistent lack of altitude. Most of these things to do involve H2O, whether in liquid or solid form. I’m talking about the land o’ lakes, of course. It was there, among the water and snow, that I soaked and froze my butt off. I also started to appreciate the gentler side of nature, one that’s without ocean or mountains but still 100% natural. And 100% cold.

Lincoln, which appears on a map to be the absolute center of the US, surrounded by more country than any other point, is lacking in altitude and all other forms of topography. As of 2012, it was declared to be the furthest I have ever been from things to do outdoors. In that first year here we camped out just one night in 365. Abysmal. For someone who dreams of retiring to a yurt, that was a bit of a downer. But I’m better now. I’m over it. After a year and a half in the flatland, I’ve decided that nature is in the eye of the beholder, and lots of other deep thoughts about perception and attitude.

What has taught me this great wisdom, you ask? I got desperate. First, I built a fire pit in our backyard. We have bonfires and roast mallows whenever we want now. And Nebraska is totally OK with that.

Second, I bike everywhere. Like Forest Gump, but on a bike. Previously, I would come in contact with the elements mostly during carefully planned excursions. I think that’s how it works for many outdoors folks. Before and after the big trip, we’re in a house or a car or other man-made structure for weeks or months, breathing conditioned air full of asbestos and other unnatural nastiness, dreaming of an adventure. But bike commuting puts you outside daily – more oxygen, more wind, water, earth. More elements in your face than on all your regular outings combined. Ironically, before coming to Nebraska, I never spent so much time outside.

Lincoln is connected by a nice, paved trail system. When I was a kid, we called them green belts, strips of grass, trees, and trails that usually protect creeks from residential areas and other development. Lincoln has a bunch of them, and most of my 8 miles to work are on them. This week I was biking just after sunrise and I jumped a red-tailed hawk perched near the creek. Not a big deal, until he decided to cruise along with me for about 30 seconds! I could have spit on him, if I were a camel. Of course, he could have pooped on me, so we called a truce. We were buddies, enjoying a little slice of green space in the middle of the city. Nebraska’s birds of prey are very courteous. They make you feel like Mary Poppins, or pretty much any of the Disney princesses.

Finally, to fit in, I’ve also started hunting. I’m a convert. I’ll describe the experience some other time because I’d get sidetracked by how strange it is to go from loving nature to also killing and eating it, to go from granola-eating tree hugger, to venison-eating gun slinger. Actually, I’ve only bow hunted so far. And I caught my first buck from a tree stand, last fall, so I am still hugging trees, sort of. The point is, hunting has taken my appreciation for the outdoors to a new level.

A good friend of mine has been my mentor through the conversion to hunting, helping me ease into a hobby, maybe even a lifestyle, that most people who hunt, I imagine, are raised with. I realized that I was stepping into something very strange and new when we were walking through the woods and my friend picked up some deer droppings and squished them between his fingers. “Squishy poo,” he said, was fresher and meant that deer had passed by recently. I had to raise my eyebrows to their maximum height on this one. A father is no stranger to squishy poo, of course, but I usually avoid skin-to-poo contact if at all possible. I guess handling deer feces is something I’ll have to get used too.

Anyway, this is all to say that Lincoln and Nebraska are both very livable, even for a former Californian (said while doing a hang-loose hand wiggle). The outdoors here are just a different kind of great. They’re great big, empty, windy, and isolated, with an occasional tornado. People may not get it at first. Without the mountains or lakes you end up focusing more on the dirt and the animals and the air and the deer poop. It’s less exciting, yes, and sometimes a little bland, but still filling and satisfying. The outdoors, that is.