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Jon de Vos: A wing and a pirogi

Jon de Vos / The Friday Report
Fraser, CO Colorado

I was driving around the suburban streets of Lincoln, Neb., not exactly lost but not exactly found either. Suddenly, my wife said, “OK, now I know where we are. Leon’s Grocery Store is just ahead on the next corner. Let’s stop and get some apple sausage.”

I looked over at her, “It’s been a few decades since you tricycled the mean streets of Lincoln and bought apple sausage at Leon’s. I remember going into Leon’s with you in the dawn of civilization, right before we were married. The store was nearly a historic monument then, there’s not a chance it’s still standing.”

“Of course it’s still there. That’s why we packed the ice chest. Oh, look, here it is, pull into the parking lot.”



We went in and I looked around, “Well, it still looks old,” I said. She grinned and wove her way familiarly back to the butcher counter. Time fell away as I followed her through the neighborhood market just a few blocks from where she grew up.

The tallest thing in the Lincoln is The Sower, the 19-foot tall statue that graces the top of the State Capitol building. Two previous capitol buildings were demolished to make way for the 400-foot tall building, completed in 1932. Until 1969, the Capitol was the tallest building in the state when it yielded to two taller buildings in Omaha. Today, the Nebraska Capitol is the second-tallest 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.



The best way to get to Lincoln is to enter “runza” into your GPS and follow the prompts. Runzas are a German-Russian hamburger dating back to the late 1700s. It’s a hand-held sandwich with a filling of ground beef, sauerkraut or cabbage, onions and seasonings. Typical of Teutonic efficiency, it’s a meal baked in its own edible wrapping, ready to be handed out to hungry field hands.

It’s a runza in Nebraska but in Kansas it’s called a bierock, a word linguistically related to the pirogi, a common hand-pie throughout eastern Europe. In Nebraska it’s baked in a rectangle, in Kansas it’s baked round, but it’s still the 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, Ill., in 1955, but the fact is that Sally Everett opened the first Runza Drive-In in Lincoln in 1949.

Driving to Lincoln, somewhere along the wilds of the majestic I-80 river, I pointed to the sky and said, “Look at the ducks.” My wife looked over at me as if a new species had slipped into my seat belt.

“Those are Sandhill cranes,” she said, staring at me down her nose.

Long pause, “I knew that. I just meant, you know, like ducks, generically.” I kept my eyes on the road but I could feel the skepticism hanging in the air like a cloud of bird flu virus. Another flock flew low overhead, “So, you really think those are what kind of cranes?”

Well, turns out my wife knew a lot about Sandhill Cranes. At nine million years old, they 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 cranes clean the pockets of tourists who come to watch them. They sleep in the water (the cranes, not the tourists) with nighttime densities along the Platte estimated at 24,000 cranes per mile. Then, around April 10, 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 at speeds up to 50 miles per hour.

So get going. If you plan on seeing this incredible migration, you should go the extra hundred miles into Lincoln and get some apple sausage from Leon’s, another natural phenomenon.


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