May 29, 2023
I’m finally retired, at least from forestry. Earlier this month, I traveled back to Nebraska to say farewell and thank you to my friends and coworkers at the Nebraska Forest Service. They gave me a super sendoff as I shift into my post-retirement vocation as a writer. That career in forestry provided much fodder for the short stories I’m collecting for an upcoming book.
After the retirement party, I returned to my old stomping grounds in the Nebraska Sandhills to visit some of my favorite people and places. Springtime in the Sandhills is an experience to remember.
First, there’s the prairie itself—rolling, grass-stabilized sand dunes stretching from horizon to horizon, shallow lakes in the valleys between the dunes, and an occasional blowout to remind me there’s a dune field beneath the yet-brown, warm-season grasses that will green up in another month.
Western meadowlarks fill the grasslands with melodic song, while yellow-headed and red-winged blackbirds color the marshes. Orioles, horned larks, killdeer, prairie chickens, and snipes abound. A burrowing owl hangs out on a fence post under a deep blue sky as turkey vultures catch the air currents above. The shallow lakes sometimes yield a rare glimpse of shy trumpeter swans and here, also, north-bound Canada geese often take a break.
Humans are sparse here; cattle outnumber them by far. Generations of family ranchers have left only a light footprint. Each ranch occupies hundreds or thousands of acres, and gravel or single-lane asphalt roads snake their way over and between the dunes to connect home places separated by miles. I can drive for hours without meeting another vehicle, except perhaps a tractor or a rider on horseback.
I visited good friends at two of these ranches, one in the northern Sandhills and the other near the western edge, at the end of a miles-long, one-lane paved trail. Springtime is asparagus season, and one family treated me to wild asparagus (bacon-wrapped) and the other to their fresh, garden-grown version. Heavenly! Both also shared their tender, tasty homegrown beef, grilled outdoors. Nothing tops that.
There is much to love about the Sandhills, but what I miss the most is the wide-open spaces and opportunities for solitude—a wonder-filled solitude that never feels lonely. Although I live in the Appalachian Mountains now, the Nebraska Sandhills will remain forever in my heart.
Springtime means fresh asparagus!
Photos by S. G. Benson