A Taste of Prairie Magic
This week’s great road-trip food comes from Chadron, Nebraska (pop. 5,591)
Flat and full of endless corn fields. If you ask someone to describe the state of Nebraska, they will probably mention those two characteristics, to the extent they would say anything at all.
That is a shame. Anyone who has driven, cycled, or hiked across this diverse state knows those cliches are misleading, if not outright wrong.
Learning that fact was one of my two surprises from a trip in the spring of 2014. After a very nice dinner in Valentine (pop. 2,760), my friends and I cruised west through the expansive darkness along US Route 20. We arrived in the city of Chadron relatively late at night, but we did gain one advantage when we entered the Nebraska Panhandle. Chadron lies in the Mountain time zone, so we gained a free hour.
Despite a tight schedule the next day, I decided to cash in that extra hour to do some exploring around sunrise, retracing part of our journey.
The sunrise (see above) eventually revealed beautiful grasslands and rolling hills. The view and the fresh air reminded me that Chadron sits at an elevation of almost 3,400 feet. Flat? Please! The change in elevation from Omaha to Chadron is greater than the change in elevation along the same US 20 from Boston to the Berkshires in western Massachusetts, and no one who has driven the Berkshires or the Hudson River Valley nearby will ever confuse that area for flat terrain.
Sitting within about 15 miles of the South Dakota border and an hour’s drive east of Wyoming, the area around Chadron leaves you with a profound but fulfilling sense of remoteness. You feel found rather than lost.
The back part of the picture above, taken near Chadron, looks reminiscent of a desert landscape, and that is also no surprise for the Nebraska Panhandle. Cornfields? Please! In addition to wide-open grasslands, Nebraska is home to the largest sand dunes complex in the western hemisphere.
Exploring for coffee
Sunrise, however, is not the one word that defines the transition from early-morning exploring to a productive day. That important keyword is coffee, which long ago stopped being a mere mixture of ground beans and hot water. It is a ritual-filled experience that I eagerly seek out, even on road trips to remote places.
So where do you indulge in that experience in Chadron, a true oasis in what is essentially a reclaimed desert?
The answer lies downtown in the Chadron Commercial Historic District, within the Mildred Block Building.That building once served as a bank, but for roughly a decade, it has served as the home of the Bean Broker. One look inside and you could easily think you have teleported to Seattle or San Francisco or Manhattan.
You don’t need to catch your breath at the Bean Broker, because in Chadron, you didn’t lose your breath to begin with. So the coffee experience here enhances the peace. It starts with the fixtures and décor, and continues with the service and the menu options. To take the time to nurse a 20-ounce latte was truly an unexpected pleasure.
These pictures date all the way back to 2014, but the Bean Broker is still going strong, even through Covid. The coffee house offers live entertainment and a wider range of food and drink to make it an all-day destination.
The Bean Broker changed ownership in 2019, and the new owners plan to enhance the already-strong reputation.
“I want it to be Chadron's living room,” new co-owner Dave Feddersen told the Rapid City Journalin 2019. “Doors open; everyone’s welcome. Not just to Chadron but to everybody coming through. The bikers, the travelers, the tourists. We want to wave the flag and say ‘hey, come look at downtown Chadron, Nebraska.’”
Some final thoughts about US 20
Route 66 gets a lot of well-deserved attention. As you have seen in my previous posts, some of my favorite places in the country lie along the Mother Road. But Route 66 has no monopoly on history.
US 20 remains the longest road in the United States at 3,365 miles. The nearly coast-to-coast journey starts near Fenway Park in Kenmore Square in Boston. US 20 was the major east-west access route to Niagara Falls before the interstate highways. Further west, it leads you to hidden gems such as the charming Main Street of Galena, Illinois and the Field of Dreams in Dyersville, Iowa. After crossing through the Nebraska Panhandle, it leads you to Yellowstone and then winds its way to the Pacific Ocean in Newport, Oregon.
In other words, US 20 might be our country’s most drivable history book, covering almost 250 years from the Revolutionary War to today and passing through some of our most beautiful natural and environmental treasures.
Frank has road-tripped for over 25,000 miles in the United States. He keeps going despite all those miles, because he knows he has still only scratched the surface of what this country has to offer.