Cowboy Trail bridge/ Plains Trading company in Valentine, NE, south on 83 through Valentine National Wildlife refuge to Sandhills Scenic Byway to Burwell (sandhill suites and sandstone grill) – the Nebraska Sandhills

(Sadly Covid did happen and was happening when we were there in mid-September….wonder if attitudes/practices have changed since I wrote this:)

Great to get away to a land where, as Dirck aptly put it, Covid didn’t happen…or so it seemed in Burwell, NE. Few cases. No masks. Busy restaurants and shops. An old car show. Tiny town movie theater showing “American graffiti” in exchange for “ a good will offering.” Felt like we were in “Back to the Future.”

And we finally “get” the Sandhills. I thought they’d be like the Flint Hills in Kansas but they cut a broader swatch through this state and look like more concentrated mounds than the more spread out mounds of the Flint Hills. The Sandhills look shaggier version too. They’re small sand dunes covered with short grass prairie (not tall grass prairie as found in Kansas. The wind was out in full force, pushing the grasses (and us) this way and that. We drove on two-lane largely empty roads and one “auto route” off highway 83 to get a feel for the Sandhills’ lonesome vastness.

In Valentine, we stopped at a great bookstore with the un-bookstore sounding name the Plains Trading company. It had a broad selection of regional books, crafts and homemade goodies. Picked up a book with an irresistible title. ”love and terror on the howling plains of nowhere” byPoe Ballantine, a memoir set in Chadron NE (the book was as good as the title!)

Dirck and I also did a little bike riding, quickly learning that wind is a major issue. We rode over the dramatic Niobrara Rail Bridge converted part of the Cowboy Trail outside Valentine, with panoramic views of the river valley.

Here in Burwell, we rode to the small and famous rodeo grounds (100th year in 2021) and around the dusty town and the square lined with viable small businesses, bars and hopes. We’re at The Sandhill suites, a boutique hotel (believe it or not) in an old brick building. Still feels like an old apartment building with a shiny patina. Fun to be here.

Dinner was perfectly cooked steak and delicious pie (burgers looked great too) at the renowned Sandstone grill, connected to our hotel. It was packed with large groups of non-masked diners on a Saturday night. We were clearly tourists in our masks. It felt wonderful and scary to eat inside a restaurant, which we have not done since March. We decided to take the risk since this area has so few virus cases. But never totally relaxes. Earlier I found an old Windsor style chair in a shop (another rare experience for us these days), going inside a shop) and the owner insisted on bargaining even though I was happy to pay the asking price of $75. “$60?” I asked. “$62.50,” he replied. “Let’s shake on it.” I shook his hand before fully realizing that I haven’t touched a strangers hand or almost anyone’s hand since March. I used hand sanitizer soon after.

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