Roughly the midway point of US-20’s long cruise across Nebraska, Ainsworth (pop. 1,635) has something of an identity problem, if its slogans (“Welcome to the Middle of Nowhere” and “Where the Sandhills Meet the Niobrara”) are any guide. Ainsworth also calls itself the state’s “Country Music Capital” and hosts a popular concert and festival in early August. Ainsworth’s Middle of Nowhere Festival, held in June, is celebrated with a Main Street parade, a Wild West-style trail ride, and a black-powder rendezvous—where living-history fans reenact the muzzle-loading, fur-trapping frontier era. Whenever you come, eat big burgers at Big John’s Restaurant (1110 E. 4th St., 402/387-0500), along US-20.
East of Ainsworth, US-20 runs through an especially scenic section of the Sand Hills around the artsy hamlet of Bassett before following the Elkhorn River 66 miles downstream to the town of O’Neill (pop. 3,663). Nebraska’s official “Irish Capital,” O’Neill hosts a popular St. Patrick’s Day parade and celebration (the town paints shamrocks on the side of the police station and at the intersection of US-20 and US-281). It also has a fascinating history: The town was founded in 1880 by Irish settlers led by John O’Neill, who commanded a brigade of black infantrymen during the Civil War and afterward became involved in the Fenian raids on still-British Canada.
Because it’s a fascinating part of the country, fairly detailed coverage has been directed at the places along US-20 across most of northern Nebraska. The same cannot be said of Nebraska’s far northeast quarter, but there are a couple of interesting detours.
Six miles north of US-20 via Hwy-59, from a well-signed junction two miles west of the tiny village of Royal (pop. 60), you can watch paleontologists at work uncovering giant fossils at Ashfall Fossil Beds State Historical Park (402/893-2000, daily May-Oct., $7 entry plus $6 per day Nebraska Park permit). Unusual for a fossil bed, the skeletons here are preserved completely intact because the original residents—including prehistoric herds of rhinoceros, camels, and saber-toothed deer—got caught in a volcanic eruption some 12 million years ago. Since the bones haven’t been disturbed, you can get a clear sense of the creatures’ size and the sheer numbers of their populations around a prehistoric watering hole.
If you want to learn more about the fascinating human histories and cultures of the Great Plains, head south of US-20 across the Winnebago and Omaha Indian Reservations to the tiny town of Bancroft, where the John G. Neihardt Center (888/777-4667 or 402/648-3388, daily, free) exhibits the personal collection of Nebraska’s poet laureate and writer of the Native American classic Black Elk Speaks.