Jon de Vos: A phenomenal pair of phenomenons
April 11, 2008
We were driving, not lost, just a bit disoriented.
Suddenly, my wife said, “I know where we are. Leon’ s Grocery is right up here on the next corner. We need to stop and get some apple sausage.”
I looked over at her, “It’ s been 30 years since you tricycled the mean streets of Lincoln, Neb.; 25 since you’ ve been in the neighborhood and more than 20 since you bought apple sausage at Leon’s. I remember going into Leon’s with you. It was old then, there’s not a chance it’s still here.”
“Of course it’s still there. That’s why we packed the ice chest. Oh, look, there it is.”
We went in. I stopped and looked around, “Well, it still looks old,” I said. She grinned and wove her way familiarly back to the butcher counter. Two decades fell away as I followed her through the neighborhood icon where she grew up.
The tallest thing on the Lincoln, Neb. skyline is The Sower, the 19-foot tall statue that graces the top of the State Capitol building. Phoenix-like, this is the third capitol building risen from the ashes of the former two that decayed prematurely and were demolished to make way for the 400-foot tall building finished in 1932. Until 1969, the capitol was the tallest building in the state and even today, it is surpassed by only two other taller buildings, both in Omaha. The Nebraska capitol is the second-tallest capitol building in the United States, only the Louisiana State Capitol in Baton Rouge, at 450 feet is higher. The U.S. Capitol, by comparison, rises a mere 288 feet.
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One way to drive to Lincoln is by following a roadmap. If you have a navigation system in your car, the other way is to enter “runza” and follow the prompts. Runzas, for the uninitiated, is a German-Russian sort-of hamburger dating back at least to the late 1700s. A runza is a hand-held sandwich with a filling of ground beef, sauerkraut or cabbage, onions and seasonings. Typical of Teutonic efficiency, it’s a hamburger meal already baked in its own bun, ready to be handed out to hungry field hands. It’s a runza in Nebraska, but oddly enough, the same sandwich across the border in Kansas is called a bierock, a word linguistically related to the pirogi, a similar and perhaps better known repast. In Nebraska, it’s baked in a rectangle, in Kansas it’s baked round. Same sandwich.
It’ s commonly thought that Ray Kroc was the Henry Ford of fast food, opening the first McDonald’ s franchise in Des Plaines, Illinois in 1955, but the fact is that Sally Everett opened the first Runza Drive-In in Lincoln in 1949.
Driving to Lincoln, somewhere in the wilds of I-80, I pointed to the sky and said, “Look at all the ducks.” My wife looked over at me as if a new species crawled out from under the carseat.
“Those are Sandhill cranes,” she said, staring at me down her nose.
I knew that. And later I found out more. At nine million years old, Sandhill cranes are the oldest living birds on the planet. Every March they stop off along the Platte River basin for about a month to rest and gain weight for the last leg of their trip. Farmers are happy to see them clean the field’ s of last year’ s seed, preventing unwanted volunteers in the spring. Local Chambers of Commerce are happy to see the locals clean the pockets of tourists who come to watch them. They sleep in the water (the cranes, not the tourists) and nighttime densities along the Platte have been estimated at 24,000 cranes per mile. Then, around April 10th, the entire flock of a half million birds take to the skies, heading northwest to their destinations in Canada and Siberia, flying 200 to 500 miles per day.
So, next March, if you plan on seeing this incredible natural phenomenon, you should go the extra hundred miles into Lincoln and get some apple sausage from Leon’s, another natural phenomenon.
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