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43.12 Hours in Kearney, NE

Updated: Mar 29

Every March, over 500,000 sandhill cranes converge on this city in central Nebraska to fuel up before continuing north to their nesting grounds.


Now I can hear what you're saying, "you went to the middle of Nebraska to see a bunch of birds!? What's next going to Vermont to see the foliage?" Well yes, I saw a bunch of birds, and I'm proud of it, but I want to be clear, I am entirely too young to see foliage.


Friday

3:06 pm

First sandhill crane was sighted off of I-80 in a cornfield. The two or so weeks they are in Kearney are spent during daylight hours in cornfields gleaning¹ corn and using their trowel like beak to forage for rodents, snails, insects, and frogs.


3:11 pm

Arrive at the Great Platte River Road Archway Monument (colloquially known as "The Archway"). It is a bridge across the I-80 that houses a series of life-size dioramas that you can walk betwixt and amongst with the most striking one being the entryway. The whole place is about the pioneers and their trek west via the trails that ran along the entire length of the 310 mile Platte River.

The Archway (inside and out)

The $15 for civilians ($12 for Vets) seemed a little rich, though it brought up deep philosophical questions that were discussed with the two Subscribers that were accompanying us:

  1. Are Mormons Christians? - Most Mormons think they are, but most Christians think they aren't.

  2. What is the Lincoln Highway? - Running from Times Square to Lincoln Park in San Francisco, it was the first trans-country highway designed expressly for automobiles.

  3. How come we never heard of it? - The deep state.


5:30 pm

A pre-crane drink was in order and somehow McCue's Nebraska Taproom was selected. Its gimmick is that it only sells beer brewed in Nebraska. For some unknown reason I instead went with an Old Fashioned made with some Nebraska whiskey or another. When it arrived in a glass filled with crushed ice, I knew I should have went with an Orange Dreamsicle Vanilla Bean Blonde Ale. It was also incredibly sweet, like it was made for a child.


The place requires you to provide a credit card prior to ordering. When I asked if is was "because I don't look trustworthy?" the server replied that it was the only way to allow ordering via her tablet. I found the whole idea rather inhospitable, though Mrs. AAR thought it rather efficient.


Our rather untrusting server was from Jersey and when asked "what exit?" was flummoxed. As was I, as I've never met a New Jerseyite who didn't know or wasn't insulted by this joke.


Our exit-less server subsequently mentioned we should dine at . . .


6:30 pm

Alley Rose for a fine club sandwich. In an effort to get the local 411, I asked our server the best place to see the cranes, to which she less than helpfully replied "the Platte River."


7:40 pm

Sunset was 7:51 pm. After dinner was finished and the bill hurriedly paid, we were now racing against time and crane. The plan was to hit the Iain Nicolson Audubon Center at Rowe Sanctuary to see the cranes return from foraging during the day to spend the overnight in the shallow portions of the Platte River. En-route we saw a bunch of people filling the viewing platforms at the Richard Plautz Crane Viewing Site located directly north of the Platte River. So we joined our fellow birders and waited for the cranes. The idea being if we didn't see any cranes, we wouldn't be the only ones.


At first there were only a few cranes, but minute by minute there were more and more, the air was filled with their trilling, with flocks flying directly overhead, but not one damn crane could be bothered to set down anywhere near the viewing platform. I spoke with a couple from Omaha, who said when they visited last year they hadn't seen any cranes land in the river, which made me feel considerably better.


8:15 pm

It was getting cold and I had to go (if you know what I mean).


8:45 pm

Hot shower.


Saturday

7:30 am

Due to a series of unforeseen events we arrived at a railroad crossing underneath I-80 looking at a very long and very slow train. We were now 20 minutes to the Iain Nicolson Audubon Center at Rowe Sanctuary and ten minutes to sunrise (when the cranes start to go airborne). So we turned around and decided to take the longer but uninterrupted way.


Well about five minute later we crossed the Platte and noticed a thousand or so cranes standing on a shallow sand bar, so we pulled over to the side of the road directly next to the "No Parking or Stopping" sign and started observing.

Cranes Over the Platte

This location, where Shelton Road crosses the Platte River, has been subsequently named the AfterActionReport.info Sanctuary Viewing Site.


8:30 am

We pushed on to the the Iain Nicolson Audubon Center at Rowe Sanctuary, which has four blinds that can be used to surreptitiously view the cranes. As they need to be booked well in advance, I mention them only for reference purposes. The place was undergoing a $12 million renovation but had a welcome tent with a welcome propane heater. Dudley did a fine job explaining the mind of the crane, its environs and that all migratory sandhill cranes pass through Kearney on their way north, due to the shallowness of the Platte River, where the cranes can sleep at night safe from predators.


9:15 am

For scientific purposes we returned to the AfterActionreport.info Sanctuary Viewing Site to see if all the cranes had departed. They had.


10:00 am

Per Dudley's recommendation, breakfast was taken at the Breakfast Cart. The place was as unpretentious as it was crowded, we were lucky to get a table. Our server mentioned that she can immediately tell who is here for the birds and who isn't. I asked her what she thought when she first saw me and she quickly replied "birds." I think her analysis might have based less on seeing me and more on hearing me². Great service with food made with love, which unfortunately delivered me the finest meal of my 43.12 hour visit.


11:59 am

Walgreens to buy a birthday card for a Subscriber (Happy Birthday Harry!).


12:34 pm

Nap time for some but a Kearney walkabout for others. I occasionally read a blog called Walks the World, where the author chronicles his walks through areas of this world where few tourists tread. So I decided to do the same to try and see the real Kearney.


Which led to the Palm Garden Lounge (est. 1935), which was visited in order to get the word on the Kearney street. I was attracted to this dive bar due to a large neon sign with a palm tree on it. I was concerned it might not be open, but thankfully it had been for over two hours and just as unsurprisingly was quite well attended. Prior to entering, my wingman on this journey was talking about the highest common denominator: what is our purpose on earth, but once at the bar was able to downshift into a conversation about the lowest: college sports.

Palm Garden Lounge and Denizens

3:14 pm

Like every tourist destination in the U.S., there is a house built for the richest man in town that subsequently was sold, then converted to something else and has now been renovated to show how rich folks lived back in day. In Kearney this place is called the G.W. Frank House. We joined a guided tour in progress that was given by a coed who in a monotone voice read about each room from her iPhone. When I subsequently mentioned to a subscriber that it might be more educational to give the tour without reading word for word from a script, I was chided as "she's only worked there for five months."


I found two historic accoutrements on the dining room table that were noteworthy:

  • Spoon warmer: used by filthy rich people so their soup spoon wouldn't excessively cool their soup.

  • Celery holder: used by filthy rich people to hold their celery upright³.

Instruments that rich people used to prove that they had more money than you

4:30 pm

Planning session cum happy hour back in our lodgings, where the nighttime crane viewing, as well as pre and post viewing sustenance was scheduled.


6:30 pm

A guy at the Palm Garden Lounge mentioned that Cunningham Journals on the Bricks was the best bar in Kearney (as well as the most confusingly named). He might have different expectations from a bar, as it was just an ok place that happened to have eight large TVs mounted above the bar, like something out of Houston Mission Control. One of the larger screens displayed the Guinness World Record Channel, which showed videos of various records being broken. It would have been interesting but all of the records were so esoteric as to make you think you were watching an SNL skit: "Longest Tyrolean Traverse Over a Lava Lake - 329 ft. 11.76 in." and "Fastest Half Marathon Wearing Ski Boots (Female) - 3 hr 35 sec." It made me think that maybe I could set a world record "Most Sarcastic Comments Made While Drinking a Coors Light at a Bar in Kearney, Nebraska (Male) - 75."


7:30 pm

A patron at the Breakfast Cart recommended the Fort Kearny Hike and Bike Trail for optimal dusk crane viewing. As I stood on the southern bridge over the southern channel of Platte River I wondered if cranes were adverse to landing anywhere near a bunch of humans with cameras and binoculars. Many of the craners brought their dogs, which I'm thinkin' can't help the process. Well, I may be on to something, as much like the Richard Plautz Crane Viewing Site, I saw plenty of flying cranes but no alighting ones.

Moon Over the Craneless Platte River Middle Channel

Note: It might not have been the best idea to drink a pint of beer just prior to visiting.


8:45 pm

Everybody I spoke to (including a fellow day drinker at the Palm Garden Lodge) said Cunningham's on the Lake was the best restaurant in Kearney. Even though its sister restaurant wasn't all that, I figured it would be an upscale version, with upscale clientele, upscale lake views (and possibly with some cranes?). It was not. It was exactly like Cunningham Journals on the Bricks, only more of it. To include more noise. We immediately ducked out and escaped to . . .


9:00 pm

A cursory review of the internet revealed that Coppermill Steakhouse & Lounge, was well reviewed and even more importantly located nearby. I should've run from this place as soon as I met the indifferent host. Hey, I'm sure you don't want listen to me crap all over another restaurant, so I'm going to crap all over . . . myself.


Why do I too often visit a strange city and end up eating at a crappy restaurant? In my defense numerous locals had recommended Cunningham on the Lake, and Dudley the crane guy had done me solid with the Breakfast Cart, but my charred steak, the loud music and cold service (the place was physically chilly) was a real bummer. I was pissed off at myself for paying steakhouse prices for an Applebee's experience, as Jimmy Buffett would say "but I know . . . it's my own damn fault."


I'm not sure how it will be accomplished (though I'm quite sure without the benefit of TripAdvisor reviews), but I subsequently made a vow before God that I will do a better job at locating better meals while traveling.


Sunday

9:15 pm

All that being said, I went out on the high note by having a coffee (black) and a muffin (peaches 'n cream) at Barista's Daily Grind on 2nd Ave. Everything from the piping hot coffee, to the leather wingback chairs, to the delicious nosh, the exuberant service and the scintillating conversation with fellow Subscribers made this place an AAR Must Coffee. Possibly motivated by Jesus, the entire staff was so full of energy, pride and teamwork, that I briefly thought about going back to work. I'm not exaggerating, as the barista mentioned she had dreamed of working at the place since she was a little girl.

Barista's Daily Grind and Denizens

Lodgings

Who makes the lodgings reservations? Normally I do, and then am occasionally criticized for their subtle indications of economy. I guess one way to handle it would be to book pricier accommodations, but then again another might be to delegate the responsibility.


When Mrs. AAR was reviewing the options with our Subscriber/Travel Companions, I was surprised to hear her mention that the Hilton was too expensive and that we should go with Edn Hotel Kearney. When I saw the price ($75/night tax incl), I became a little concerned. A concern that wasn't assuaged by the photo contained in a subsequent confirmation email from Expedia.

The free Breakfast Lounge as mentioned by Expedia

In the end, it wasn't really that bad: clean, a comfortable bed, scaldingly hot water and free warm hard boiled eggs for breakfast. Bottom Line: the nicest cheapest place I've stayed in since that Motel 6 in Paris . . . Texas.


Notes:

1. It might be advisable to wear long underwear next year and thicker socks (and a flask).

2. The Lodge Restaurant might be good local place to eat dinner.

3. A stop at the mellifluous Iain Nicolson Audubon Center at Rowe Sanctuary at dawn or dusk at least once during a sandhill craniacs visit might be advised.

4. Kearney is pronounced: /ˈkɑːrni/ KARR-nee and was named for a pre-Civil War general. Kearny, NJ is named for his nephew who was killed at the Battle of Chantilly. Why the different spelling? A typo by a Nebraska postmaster back in the day.



Endnotes: I wanted to provide some very specific details that while vaguely interesting did not contribute to the overall narrative. Perhaps just wait until the end to read.


¹ glean, verb (glēn), gleaned; gleaning; gleans. Synonym of glean, intransitive verb:

1: to gather grain or other produce left by reapers

2: to gather information or material bit by bit

² My ever so slight NY accent, greatly softened by years of diction exercises ("Recently, Robin read a review of the newly renovated restaurant") and some travel, might have betrayed me, otherwise with the exception of Maputo, Morocco, and Tokyo, I generally blend.

³ The celery that Mr. Frank ate cost more than caviar, as the varieties of celery back in the 1890s were difficult to cultivate and did not ship well. I think that lack of refrigeration might have also played a role in its cost.

More Cranes Over the Platte


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Linda Bell
Linda Bell
4月02日

Ya just never know.... We did this trip in 1994, back in the day when the Kearney and Grand Isle NE farmer folk were just getting used to the idea of "birders." We were on our way to our daughter Amy's wedding in Minneapolis on March 26. The food was beyond awful -- I think we even had a greasy dinner at the Coppermill. Not a lot of choices. But the real contrast was the weather! We were in Colorado March clothes heading into a Minnesota March. But the hot humid stagnant air along the river had us taking off anything we could and still remain clothed. It was in the 80s as I recall, and miserable bugs arr…

いいね!
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It appears the food as improved, though the weather was considerably less temperate.

いいね!

Love the honest reviews! Soooo refreshing. (Plus, helps remind me that I don't have to do/see everything that comes across the desk)

いいね!
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William Dawson, thanks for the kind words. My Mother always said honesty is the best policy.

いいね!

I liked your world record comment at 6:30PM. Also, a neighbor friend (northern California) goes to Nebraska every year to escort visitors around the cranes. His pickup has a CRAINIAC bumper sticker and he retired from running some non-profit crane organization in Nebraska.

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You neighbor friend must really like cranes, as to be honest once is more than enough for me.

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