I have come to the conclusion that the negative attitude I hold toward all things Nebraska is starting to have a negative impact on my health. My family has an ongoing rivalry with heart disease, and heart disease seems to be winning. All of the males (and some of the females) on my dad’s side of the family have battled high blood pressure and I am no exception. I can actually feel my blood pressure rise when I get stressed, and I am constantly getting stressed. The stress gets so bad that, once it kicks in, I can’t concentrate. My thoughts flutter around my head like moths around a campfire. If I try to pull those thoughts into my psyche to concentrate on, the thoughts, much like the moths, burst into flames and are forgotten. The feelings of hopelessness then descend in waves, and I actually begin to question my sanity. Ever felt like you were going crazy? Not a good time. Stress makes me feel like I’m going crazy.
In order to try to alleviate a little of the stress I feel in my life, I decided to focus this entry on something about the panhandle of Nebraska that actually makes me happy. That’s right, I’m going to try to find a positive angle to follow on something. Finding something in the panhandle that I don’t perceive as completely sucking is not easy, but I’m going to give it a shot.
Nebraska is known for its beef: marbled, corn-fed beef that practically melts in your mouth. If you want a truly great rib-eye steak (perhaps the best rib-eye on the planet), and you want to experience that steak in a truly Nebraska-esque setting, there is only one place to go…
The Oregon Trail Wagon Train.
The Oregon Trail Wagon Train is a local landmark. It used to be known as “Gordon Howard’s” until the Howard family sold it. I’m sure that most folks are familiar with a chuck-wagon-style cookout. Many of the touristy places in the West and Midwest have these kinds of cookouts, but most of them serve crap like barbecue beef or barbecue chicken… you know, the shredded stuff that goes on a bun… and with most of them, you are paying for the experience (because the food sucks).
I remember going to the Flying T chuck-wagon supper last summer near Rapid City, SD. It was over $20 per adult, the food was not impressive, and the portions didn’t come close to filling me up. The staff was kind of rude and barked orders to the paying customers (which, I guess, is supposed to be part of the charm). There was some good-old country music after the meal (if you like good-old country music… which I don’t) and the band tried to hawk their CDs the whole time. I love Rapid City… the Black Hills are one of my favorite areas to visit… but I will never go back to the Flying T. There are much better places to eat in the Black Hills.
Anywho, back to a good chuck-wagon meal. At the Oregon Trail Wagon Train, the ambiance is pretty rustic.
They have a horse-drawn wagon and they take you for a short ride. Usually on the wagon ride, the driver will point out spots in the vicinity that were actually part of the Pony Express trail. It’s pretty cool to think that Pony Express riders used to actually ride so close to where you are about to enjoy your heavenly steak.
The “cowboy coffee” is plentiful and is cooked over an open fire.
When you get to the botton of your cup, you get a mouthful of grounds… which is the way it should be. If you ain’t chewing your coffee, it ain’t real cowboy coffee. All of the food is cooked over wood coals from a real fire… as opposed to a fake fire, I guess. The boiled potatoes and the green beans are cooking in these funky, homemade-looking metal structures, and the “grill” is loaded with fire wood. When they light the wood, you know that good times are getting near. See, this is the thing with the Oregon Train Wagon Train: you pay something like $22 per adult (same as the Flying T), but you are actually getting an honest-to-goodness rib-eye dinner that exceeds the quality of a steak you could get in a fancy chop house.
On my last visit to the Oregon Trail Wagon Train (which was a couple of weeks ago), there were a crapload of grasshoppers. I happened to notice a spider hanging in her web on the eave of one of the old buildings. I figured that, since my family was about to dine on some good grub, I would treat the spider. I grabbed a grasshopper and threw him into the spider’s web. Honestly, I didn’t figure the spider would mess with him, but I went back about fifteen minutes later and found the following:
I showed the kids (the wife refused to look) and they thought it was gross. You can actually see where she has her mouth attached to the hopper. You know she injected her venom into the hopper, waited for the venom to start dissolving the workings inside the exoskeleton, and is now sucking out the juicy remains. Awesome! The kids didn’t really think so… not right before dinner. Still, I thought it was pretty cool.
While I was playing with the spider, the wood on the grill had been started.
Now we were just waiting for the fire to burn to coals and the steaks would go on. There are some pretty cool things to check out while you are waiting for the steaks to start cooking. There is a path you can follow that takes you back to the North Platte River.
Usually this area is kind of mosquito-infested, but this late in the summer, I guess the mosquitoes had other things to do. There is a little fort for the kids (of all ages:) ) to check out. You can actually climb up into the watch tower and check out the grounds.
There is a old black lab that hangs out (except she seems to disappear at meal time) and she loves to have her belly rubbed (if you are so inclined to rub a dog’s belly… which I am).
There are a variety of old tools attached to the sides of the out buildings that are kind of fun to check out. The Oregon Trail Wagon Train also has a small gift shop and a small bar attached to the gift shop, so you can buy some overpriced, low-quality toys and nick-knacks right before you start downing the brews.
I usually avoid the gift shop and the bar. Why pay for a beer when there is all of that free cowboy coffee to chew on?
For the more sportsy people, there are a couple of horseshoe pits.
Yeah, I guess horseshoe tossing ain’t really a sport, but this is Nebraska, so horseshoe tossing is right up there alongside tumbleweed chasin’, cow tippin’, and sheep… uh…
… shearing? Besides, tossing a shoe from time to time can be kind of fun.
If you run out of things to do and are feeling a little bored waiting for the steaks to go on the grill, there is a multitude of spiders which I am sure would love to find a juicy grasshopper in their webs 🙂
Finally, the fire has burned down to coals, the coals are raked out nice and smooth, and the steaks get thrown on the grill.
Every time I have been to the Oregon Trail Wagon Train, the guys in charge of grilling the steaks seem to have a beer in their hands. Every time. And dinner is served 7 nights-a-week all summer long. I wonder if they are hiring?
The dinner bell rings, we all get in a line, and we proceed by the grill. They ask you how you like your steak done, and you get it exactly how you like it. You then get a heaping spoon of green beans and a large, red boiled potato. You help yourself to the available condiments (from which steak sauce is absent… and you better not even think about asking for it) and make your way to a table. Waiting for you on the table is a freshly baked loaf of the best sourdough bread in Nebraska.
After you gorge yourself on a hearty meat and potato meal, you head to the ice cream counter and get yourself a cone filled with delicious home-made vanilla ice cream.
While you are licking your dessert, you are directed to the campfire area where one of the steak cookers (half-baked on beer) will lead the entire dining group through several sing-along songs that are usually silly and probably quite fun (if you go for sing-alongs… which I do not).
We usually leave after a song or two and head for home, quite satisfied.
I promised myself that I was not going to bitch about anything at the Oregon Trail Wagon Train. This chuck-wagon-cookout is the best cookout-type place I’ve ever been to, and I am trying to manage my blood pressure. However, I am know for breaking promises… and it goes against my nature to not complain about something, so I’m gonna complain about the flies. The Oregon Trail Wagon Train is out in the middle of nowhere. You can see Chimney Rock from the cookout site, which is also in the middle of nowhere.
When you are in the middle of nowhere and you cook-up good grub, you are going to be invaded by flies. And I’m not talking about a few flies, I’m talking about flies of horror movie proportions. The setting is great, the food is awesome, but you are going to spend a large portion of your time waving flies away from your plate. I guess this doesn’t bother me too much. The food is worth the waving, but I kind of wish the owners of the Oregon Trail Wagon Train would do something about the flies. I don’t know what they could do, but if they could find something, I would not have a single bitch about the place 🙂
If you ever find yourself in the panhandle of Nebraska, I have a couple of things to let you know. First, I want to apologize that you are in the panhandle of Nebraska. Second, if you find the time, check out the Oregon Trail Wagon Train . It’s out of the way, but worth it. Besides, the entire panhandle is out of the way, and your here, so you might as well eat some good grub!