A Trip to Kearney, NE with an Adventure Race to Boot
There are certain places I expected to find myself when I moved to Omaha to begin working on Omaha.net full-time. I pictured interviews in the Old Market and trips to community events in Benson. If I tried hard, I could even project myself into an Omaha as yet unknown to me: perhaps a gallery opening in Council Bluffs or a hole-in-the-wall restaurant on the outskirts of Florence.
But I never expected to find myself driving a golf cart at night with blackened swimming goggles covering my eyes in Kearney, NE. Call me shortsighted, I guess. Literally. I just didn’t know what Adventure Racing was all about.
I came to Kearney on a weekend trip from the city. Omaha is blessed with a plethora of day trip and weekend trip options. In the coming months, this column will explore a whole host of exciting things to do, none more than 2-2 ½ hours away. And yet, my first entry is virtually guaranteed to be my most unique. Join me, and I’ll spin the tale of just how I ended up in Kearney.
You Have Died of Dysentery. Go Back to Omaha.
For those of you who don’t know, Kearney, NE is located about 175 miles west of Omaha, on that majestic stretch of highway known as Interstate 80. It’s not a large town by most measures, about 30,000 people, but being the home of the University of Nebraska at Kearney affords it certain luxuries. There is a hospital, its older section built in a beautiful Spanish mission style, and the Museum of Nebraska Art, the state’s official art collection. There’s even a pro sports team, the USHL Nebraska Cranes.
The Great Platte River Road Archway Monument is also there, and it’s hard to miss. Would I travel to Kearney from Omaha for it alone? No, probably not. Is it possible that the museum’s organizers are placing undue emphasis on the the phrase Great Platte River Road where the rest of the country is content to call it the Oregon Trail? Possibly. But as I string you along toward our Adventurous climax, it makes a pleasant stop.
Without a doubt, the coolest thing about the GPRRAM, other than its eye-catching, highway-spanning, archway construction, is that seemingly all of the employees sport bushy, outlandishly virile, hillbilly beards. Well, all the male employees at least. It really sets the tone, and simultaneously makes you wonder what its like to go in for a mortgage refinancing with facial hair that stretches to the mid chest:
Cue: A respectable looking small-town bank. A cup of steaming coffee sits on the desk.
Banker: It’s not that I don’t like you Mr. Morganston…It’s just that for someone in your line of work…you know…prospecting, cattle thieving, etc….Well, we just can’t ease the terms of your loan beyond two points above prime. I sorry. I hope you understand.
After paying $10 for one adult, a price, which must be said, detracted from my enjoyment of this otherwise pleasant $4.50 museum, I noticed a odd familiarity with the man who took my ticket. Apparently, his beard/suspenders/six shooter trifecta was so impressive that the museum plastered his face 40 feet tall on the side of the building. Finally, a worthy foe for the giant tiger that graced the Mutual of Omaha building earlier in the summer.
The archway will take between 60 – 90 minutes of your time depending on your interest in reading and sitting. You do get a cool headset for your money that pipes in site specific audio as you move through the museum. It’s a neat trick, but it actually makes reading the many signs rather distracting. Due to its low quantity of actual artifacts, but generally slick presentation, I’ll settle on a middling grade for the Great Platte River Experiment.
Of course, the GPRRAM was but an oddly shaped amuse bouche to the real business of the day.
It’s Time Fer Sum Adventure Wrasslin’!
As someone unfamiliar with the town (OK fine, with most of the Midwest, but don’t tell anyone!), it was important that I scout Kearney. Team Olympia Cycle, sponsored by Olympia Cycle (no, really) on Hamilton and 40th, was to consist of Beth, Stacey, and myself. Beth, who’s parents still live in her hometown, nearby Lexington, 35 miles away from Kearney, had to bow out due to illness. This left Team Olympia with Stacey, an Idaho transplant, Beth’s boyfriend Mick, an Omahan recovering from a life threatening motorcycle accident only eight weeks prior, and me, a relatively fit and deceptively handsome web writer/East Coaster. Serious scouting was in order.
Adventure Racing is a test of fitness, mental acuity, orienteering ability, and zany adaptability. This particular race, dubbed the Bootleggers Night Adventure Race, also had the added caveat of being held in the dark. Right. No problemo.
Races take place mainly on bicycle, where groups must combine puzzling clues with general map reading, arriving at checkpoints to stamp cards, complete challenges, or gain more information. Thinking that parks would likely feature in the evening’s events, we toured the local green space.
For a city its size, Kearney has a vast park system. We passed by manicured ball fields, pristine jungle gyms, convenient bike trails, and a variety of lakes, all in addition to the facilities set aside specifically for university use. If you’re in Kearney, definitely check out Cottonmill Park, a beautiful combination of swimming, fishing, boating, picnic space, and trails, easily accessible from downtown by car or bike. It was also the site of some canoeing during the race…
…Ahh, yes, the race. My belly filled at midday with an inauspiciously chosen stromboli and caesar salad combo from Old Chicago, I spent the afternoon “scouting” i.e. trying to remember street names and landmarks while generally feeling drunk on cheese. As the protein, carbs, and nineteen cups of coffee from lunch settled, I began to feel empty, jittery, and wired. It was a feeling I hadn’t felt for years, since running track in high school, and it wasn’t just the almost illegal amount of caffeine in my system. It was race feeling.
I took a spin around the parking lot to check my bike, and grabbed some video while my competitors looked on as though I was the neighborhood pedophile out for an afternoon stroll. Whatever. I sacrifice for you, dear readers. My bag packed with a spare inner tube, a first aid kit, and gels, bars, and liquids of potentially alien origin (Beth’s a clinical dietician, so I’m guessing they were relatively safe), I felt ready, while still being entirely unsure of what I was getting myself into.
This is what I was getting into (we’re in black, white, and blue):
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From there, we ran to our bikes in one laughing, elbowy group. Grabbing our first info packet on the way, we looked at our maps, and raced off into the town, a crepuscular bike mafia outfitted in spandex and light. It was on that first street that I fell in love.
A bike to my left, right, and front, my teammates just behind me, legs pumping, I distinctly remember thinking, “I can’t believe Lance Armstrong gets this feeling all the time.” I was jealously full of adrenaline. If you’ve never raced a bicycle at speed with a bunch of other like-minded people, let me tell you, it’s truly exhilarating owning the road, making turns as a school of fish, controlled by some shared midbrain hidden deep within our evolution.
In choosing between the first of two checkpoints, the race en masse eventually split near the town graveyard. After a series of stops, and a new info packet, we eventually found ourselves on the west side of town, aiming for Meadowlark Park.
Despite the directions indicating that we should follow signs for the BMX track, it was not until we reached the end of the parking lot that I realized what the organizers intended for us to do: we were going to race through the course. At night! My body’s reaction to the initial drop-in? This is not a good idea, immediately followed by boyish glee. I so, SO wanted to catch air over the tabletops and take the banked turns high, all the while realizing that this was a terribly dark time for delusions of grandeur.
The BMX course was the first in a series of inventive obstacles that really made the night great fun. We soon arrived at a driving range where I realized I would have to pilot a golf cart blindfolded as my teammates shouted instructions. Then, we solved a series of math problems corresponding to hole numbers on a golf course, running roughshod over the full 18 to collect our precious stamps. I hadn’t had that much fun navigating a golf course at night since a legendary game of manhunt in the early 90s.
In all, we took compass bearings, cut across parking lots, grabbed cell phone pics for bonus points, waded in a shallow lake to grab a floating stamp, and generally had a grand time. Though we quit well past midnight and near the back of the pack, over four and half hours in and with more course ahead of us, I considered the experience a resounding success. I’m told the Bootleggers Night Adventure Race was not “typical” for an Adventure Race, but I can’t really say what would be typical in this crazy sport.
There are distances, called short course and long course, for every ability level, from a couple hours to a good half day. Fun themes abound, too, like the Warrior Challenge coming up in October, where everyone apparently kits out like Nebraska sits just upstream of the Mekong Delta. Always wanted to test yourself but realized during middle school gym class that the Army just wasn’t for you? You really should give Adventure Racing a try!
A Morning at the Farm
The next day, after waking at Beth’s parent’s house, we were treated to a good country breakfast: biscuits and gravy, egg casserole, and a chocolate cake for the Lutheran Church’s fund-raiser later that night that we weren’t allowed to touch. We stopped by the farmer’s market and sampled local honeys, giant zucchinis, colorful jams, and decidedly un-local Kolache, a Slavic pastry produced by a farmer’s wife from an immigrant recipe handed down for generations.
We also toured Beth’s father’s retirement farm, and left with bags and bags of fresh picked corn, potatoes, apples, peppers, onion, garlic, green beans, beets, and flowers. He says it “keeps him sane” after years working as a USDA meat inspector. My hobbies usually require that no photography be present. His hobby could feed a small village. To each his own, I guess.
On the way out of town, we spied a small, unmanned farmers stand. Mick explained that you took the vegetables you needed and left appropriate payment in the bowl by the tomatoes. I liked Adventure Racing, the pretty picket-fenced houses that make up parts of Kearney’s suburbia, even the cheese bomb I received from Old Chicago. Still, I don’t know if I’ll ever come to Kearney, NE again. So, I’ll take from Kearney the joy in knowing that we live in a world where a small, unmanned farmer’s stands still exist, selling honest vegetables to an endless cavalcade of weary adventures headed home.
And I guess, for what it’s worth, I’ll take some pride in now living in a state where these things exist, too.
This month’s Daytripper is about more than just Kearney, and it’s even about more than just Adventure Racing. It’s just a reminder. Omaha is a great city. To fully appreciate it, sometimes the best course of action is to leave, stop, smell the roses, and return. If you find a spirit of competition, human camaraderie, and genuine kindness out there, like I did, you be sure to bring it back, OK?