Come Drive with Me
Driving west near Grand Island, across the braided Platte one more time,
my–our–road begins its lone stunning uphill path across Nebraska.
We pass train after train, intense-orange engines, cars heaped with black coal.
Then suddenly, Sandhills! Anchored by Little Blue Stem grass,
a finger of sandhills pokes at the western edge of Broken Bow.
Miles of undulating hills, Sand Lovegrass, Penstemon, Prickly Poppy.
Dismal River, blissfully unaware of its misnomer, bubbles up
from Ogallala aquifer, gathers underground water for seventy-two miles
before depositing its cool trophy into the Middle Loup at Dunning.
As we drive up and down sandy hills towards Alliance,
the aquifer peeks out of every valley: lake, puddle, marsh, flowers.
The windmills are oddly short, as if clear water erupts from a tiny earthly poke.
Shall we take a sandy side road, immerse ourselves in these hills? Yes!
We named this trip “Golf Nebraska.” Golfing was our “hook” for driving one place rather than another, but the whole idea was to see the Nebraska Sandhills, one of the largest stabilized dune areas in the world. These sand dunes cover just under 20,000 square miles and about 275 miles as the crow flies across Nebraska. Formed by blowing sand over 5000 years ago, these hills are now stabilized by grasses and comprise the largest contiguous grasslands area in the U.S. In one of nature’s odd jokes, this semi-arid land covers one of the world’s greatest aquifers, which creates rivers and streams. In some low-lying areas the aquifer peeks through as lakes and marshes. The landscape is open but hilly, sandy with blowouts, often looks empty and everywhere powerful and beautiful. Several of the world’s greatest golf course designers looked at this land and saw links golf courses, almost Scotland style.
Broken Bow: Our sandhills drive starts in Broken Bow, Nebraska, where we are warmly welcomed for breakfast at the City Cafe.
The breakfast ladies will show you
the best place to sit
at Betty’s City Café.
And the boys on the patio
at the Arrow Hotel
will send you a welcoming
“Hello Girl” as you grab
the table beside them,
nursing an afternoon brew.
Having trouble finding the first tee
at the Country Club?
Don’t despair, Dorothy
will show you the way.
And when Molly drops her
backpack with her mom
at the Bonfire Grill,
she’ll gladly share her
skateboard so you can
take a spin around the square.
Welcome to Broken Bow.
We want to play two types of courses along Highway 2: nine hole municipal and eighteen hole classic links courses. We start with the little course just outside Broken Bow and enjoy a delightful nine hole round. The course is scenic, interesting, and friendly. After the round we strike up a conversation with a man who tells us he is a member of the exclusive Sand Hills Golf Club near Mullen. We do our best to wrangle an invitation to play at his course knowing that an invite from a member is the only way we will ever get to play there. Alas, no such luck.
Between Broken Bow and Dunning, the hills become larger and more imposing, covered with prairie grasses but quite treeless. We relish the stark beauty of the landscape and variety of wildflowers—Prairie Phlox and various Mallows along the road, Penstemon and Prickly Poppy growing in the sandy blowouts along the hillsides. Every ten to fifteen minutes, a coal train passes us in the opposite direction, taking coal from Wyoming eastward.
Dunning: As we drive deeper into the sandhills we approach Dunning, where the road crosses the Dismal River just before its waters join the Middle Loup River. The Dismal River is a short (72 miles long) river that bubbles up from and is fed by the Ogallala Aquifer, cutting a deep eastward swath through the sandhills from southeast of Mullen and Thedford through Dunning. The sandy cross-section of the dunes—cut into the hills by the river just south of Dunning—shows off the composition of these hills.
So deep clear wide constant,
aquifer waters bubble into sunlight
forming an icy blue pool.
We are all floating.
Subterranean, so much life,
water below, semi-arid land above
engraved by emerging twin rivulets
born in this underground gift.
North and South forks split valleys
once disputed by Sioux and Pawnee, now
cradle families on sun-kissed grasslands,
roots as deep as underground seas.
Dismal’s waters flow from rivers to oceans.
Teenagers on horseback ride into twilight.
Our waters, our tribes, our children, leaving.
Leaving us, Nebraska weeping.
Kim Sosin, from Fine Lines, Summer 24(2), 2015, p. 22.
Leaving Dunning, we pass Halsey and smile at the Nebraska National Forest, the largest (222 square miles) human-made forest in the United States. Just before reaching Thedford, we decide to take a short southern diversion on Highway 83 to see the Dismal River Valley. Standing on a large hill on the north side of the valley, we admire the beautiful sweeping green valley sprinkled with trees (mostly red cedar, an invasive species) into the treeless grasslands of the sandhills on the southern side of this valley. This short river traverses—and is the namesake of—one of our most anticipated Sandhills golf courses, the Dismal River Golf Club.
Thedford: Our next stop west is Thedford. If you decide to play golf in Thedford, consider this: You may not see a soul out there on the course. Our first hint came when we left a phone message with BJ who returned our call and gave us instructions on how to tee it up in Thedford, a town of 188 hearty souls. In the center of town is an historical plaque and bronze statue commemorating a sad event, “the little girls lost.” In 1891 Tillie and Retta Haumann, ages 8 and 4, were lost in the hills walking home after a visit to an older sister’s place. Three days later, Retta was found alive, but Tillie did not make it after walking 75 miles before dying. Before golfing, we visit the Thedford Art Gallery on the north side of Highway 2 and mingle with a group of Red Hat ladies enjoying the talents of local artists whose works are on display.
We follow BJ’s instructions to a tee, heading first to the big Sinclair station on the east side of town where we tell Ginny that we need a cart for nine holes of golf. “Half a day” she says, “that’s fifteen dollars.” We drive a few miles to the course, drop our greens fees into the wooden box in the shed, get the cart. Just as we have been promised , the Thedford Golf Course is a little gem. Three holes are tree lined and “traditional” and the other six are classic Sandhills links golf. Beauty abounds and conditions are perfect. Only a little local knowledge could improve our golfing experience.
Mullen and Dismal River Golf Course: We head west to Mullen on Highway 2 for our next golf stop, Dismal River Golf Club. However, on the way to Dismal River, we continue further south on Highway 97 to stop by the Sand Hills Golf Club where we feel perfectly welcomed to spend our money on some merchandise bearing the iconic S H logo. The Dismal River course is even further west and even more remote, truly in the middle of Nebraska’s Sandhills.
Many of the roads off the highway are narrow, made of sand, and a little scary; however, for the first sections of the narrow roads to the Sand Hills and Dismal River Golf Courses, a paved surface cuts through the dramatic scenery. We feel a serious case of nervous anticipation at the thought of playing golf in those dunes!
Our reservations allow us to play the two days surrounding our overnight stay, but we opt to practice on the first afternoon and play on the second. After practice, we join twelve other golfers in the dining room for a delicious meal of Nebraska steak. The rustic yet fancy cabin provides a most comfortable setting for a good night’s sleep.
The Dismal River golf course is like something out of 17th century Scotland: high grass, rolling hills with natural sand bunkers, occasional trees, a meandering creek, and no tee box markers! We love it and only get lost once, unable to find the women’s fifth tee box. From our first drives, we realize our conventional scores are going to be on the high side, so we invent a new scoring system involving points for drives in the fairway, for escaping a bunker in one shot, for closest to the pin on approach shots, and for fewest putts. We maintain our self esteem and concentrate on the beauty that surrounds us.
After two days of rather wild golf, we return to Nebraska Highway 2 in time for lunch at Big Red’s Restaurant in Mullen, a quite good lunch! At some point in our continued drive, we watch yet another BNSF train pass a series of sandy blowouts on its business of carrying coal eastward.
Although these blowouts appear to be the start of an erosion process that will wear down the entire hill, vegetation such as Penstemon takes hold in this sand very quickly and embraces it long enough for the stabilizing grasses to get a start. Naturalists are working to expand the endangered variety of Penstemon called “Blowout Penstemon.” Other dazzling varieties are also happy there, as our photo shows.
Hyannis to Alliance: As we continue on Highway 2, we pass through the small (about 200 people) village of Hyannis, the county seat of Grant County (about 600 people). Continuing towards Alliance, we notice a big change in the terrain. The Ogallala Aquifer is so close to the surface here that any dip or valley reveals ground water–over a million acres of wetlands are in the Sandhills, mostly in this western area. The map above shows the numerous lakes and marshes just east of Alliance, an area thus filled with shorebirds and the insects on which they feed. This part of our trip ends at Carhenge, a high-plains replica of the rather more famous Stonehenge in England. You need a sense of humor here. For the greatest (and longest) experience, visit at the summer solstice!
Through the Sandhills
We drive west, keeping pace
with an empty coal train
under an uncluttered sky,
the earth, too, almost barren.
Even the towns seem sparse–
Ashby, Bingham, Ellsworth, Lakeside–
not much to them.
The land between takes on
a calming shade of green
reminding me of Capulin volcano
a place where I found peace.
Darker greens appear
along streams and hedgerows
punctuating a landscape
so subtle, it defies description.
Even my mind becomes uncluttered,
set free from worries, choices.
And my heart? Overflowing
taking all this in.
God, it is gorgeous.
Janet Rives, from The Avocet,Fall 2017, p. 27.
BIOS: Kim Sosin is a Professor Emerita of Economics at the University of Nebraska Omaha. Her interests include writing and photography/art photography. Her poems and photographs have appeared in Fine Lines, Failed Haiku, Voices from the Plains, Landscape Magazine, The Heron’s Nest, Wanderlust Journal, Ekphrastic Review, and Sandcutters.
Janet Rives resides in Tucson, Arizona. She retired as professor of economics from the University of Northern Iowa. Her poems have appeared in Lyrical Iowa, Ekphrastic Review, Sandcutters, The Avocet, Unstrung, The Blue Guitar, Fine Lines, Voices from the Plains, and Facing West.
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