The plastic tiara I am wearing in a photo taken by my daughter announces that I am, “Officially Retired.”  And I am. Well sort of. The tiara was a gag gift from my kids when they unexpectedly showed up at my house to give me a surprise retirement party. 

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Joe Burns shows off his "Officially Retired" tiara.

For more than 17 years, I have worked at the newspaper photographing just about every possible kind of news and feature story that I can imagine. For all of those years, I have thoroughly enjoyed being the “photo guy” that shows up to photograph Classroom of the Week and other school and community events. While I will no longer work regular news beats, I still will be around working on special projects and regularly writing feature columns accompanied by photos from some of my wanderings. I am hoping this will allow me to travel when and where I want, and still work as a photojournalist when there is an interesting photo opportunity.

My first post-retirement adventure was a short visit to the Niobrara River Valley near Valentine. Over the years, I have driven along scenic byways in northwest Nebraska and gawked at the Sandhills, but seldom actually left the main highways.  I have been to Valentine a number of times, but generally on my way to somewhere else. This time, I was looking forward to leaving the paved highways and get a feel for the timeless beauty of the region.

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Early morning fog partially veils trees above Smith Falls at Smith Falls State Park.

My first stop was Smith Falls State Park just 20 miles from Valentine. I have visited the falls before but never camped in the park. When I arrived on that Thursday, some camp sites were reserved for the weekend, but most were vacant. The campsites at the park are large and a number are located right on the river — perfect for groups who are planning to canoe, kayak or tube. The restroom facilities are modern style vault toilets and a new bath house is under construction and nearing completion.

Early in the morning, I followed the trail to the falls as the sun broke through low fog along the river. It was a peaceful, quiet and meditative experience.

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Cattle graze in the Sandhills at the Bowring State Historical Ranch.

After leaving the campground, I drove to the town of Merriman and to the Bowring Ranch State Historical Park. The ranch has been on my list of Nebraska places to visit for years. Due to COVID-19, the visitors center was closed, but the visit was a pleasant diversion and a chance to see what a working Sandhills cattle ranch might look like.  

Next, I headed west to Gordon, and then south along state Highway 21 into the heart of Mari Sandoz country. I have always been a fan of history and historical fiction and visiting the locales where the works are set. The region between the Niobrara and the Loup river valleys is the area where Sandoz grew up, and is the setting for her book about her father, Old Jules. About halfway between Gordon and Elsworth there is a turnoff to Mari Sandoz’ grave and a Sandoz family ranch and fruit farm. 

My plan had been to continue south to Crescent Lake Wildlife Sanctuary and then on to Ash Hollow State Historical Park. I bumped along winding trails linking Sandhill cattle ranches and followed the directional signs to the refuge until I reached a spot where the road was underwater for maybe a hundred yards. Maybe I could have made it, and then maybe not. I decided to turn around and retrace my path to good old Highway 2.

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Morning clouds above one of more than a dozen lakes at Valentine National Wildlife Refuge.

It was getting late, so I returned to Valentine, and the next day toured Valentine NWR instead. The area is beautiful, but the water table throughout the Sandhills remains high and some of the roads in the Valentine refuge are underwater as well. I followed the auto tour through much of the refuge and then walked a nature trail to the Civilian Conservation Corps Fire Tower built by the CCC in the 1930s. During the depression the corpsmen worked in national wildlife refuges, national parks and national forests for $30 a month and part of the pay was sent back to the Corpsmen’s homes. The observation platform at the tower allows a panoramic view of a number of lakes in the refuge.

The trip was a pleasant getaway, and I look forward to going back to Crescent Lake NWR and other sites that I was unable to visit on this short trip.  One of the pleasures I generally look forward to on these getaways is the chance to spend time in local cafes, taverns and restaurants. This was not possible on this trip due to COVID-19 restrictions. As in Washington County, many of these local establishments are still closed or open only for take-out. 

Before ending this little travel essay, I want to say thank you to those who have wished me well and also to say that this is not the last time that you will read my byline or see my photo credit. My relationship with the newspaper is something like that of a substitute teacher who enjoys retirement but also looks forward to getting back in the classroom once in awhile. I have and still do enjoy my role as a community journalist and plan to continue working as a contributing photographer and columnist. As I facetiously mentioned in a Facebook post, if there is breaking news and Managing Editor Leeanna Ellis lights the bat signal, I will most likely show up.

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