Like brave 19th century pioneers who settled this wild land, the Great Platte River Road Archway Monument -- its name officially shortened to just The Archway in 2013 -- has endured horrible adversity and celebrated day-by-day victories. A victory is when the parking lot fills and the gift shop is abuzz with souvenir seekers. Or when Jack Nicholson was filmed in a scene here for the movie About Schmidt.
Adversity? Try attracting speeding drivers to stop at a privately-owned, $64 million "log bridge" arching over busy I-80 -- when there was no exit off-ramp.
The Archway is a comparative newcomer to heroic-scale Great Plains tourism, opening in 2000. Using giant multi-wheeled transporters, the 1,500-ton, 309-foot structure was rolled across the highway in one piece on the night of Aug. 16, 1999. The interstate was closed for eight hours while the archway was locked onto its support platforms. (Team Roadside was caught up in the tangle, on our way from the Birthplace of Kool Aid in Hastings, Nebraska to the Ice Replica of Sonja Heine's Heart -- now melted -- in Omaha).
The exit access problem was a shock to investors, no doubt; the workaround was a winding service road from a public exit several miles west (The Arch didn't get its own exit until 2013). Teepees and wire buffalos decorate the roadside. "Oh Shenandoah" plays on loudspeakers in the parking lot.
The structure -- a dream of Nebraska's last living three-term governor, Frank B. Morrison Sr. -- was designed by a Walt Disney team from Orlando.
Under a giant log arch, the two story lobby escalator -- the longest in Nebraska -- spares modern pioneers a stair climb, and leads up into the Archway's multi-media experience. Statues of Lewis and Clark era guides stand along both sides, pointing the way up. The impressive entrance leads through a moving video display of the prairie.
Once up, in a big, cavernous space, we are transported back to the first white man exploration of Nebraska, as they traveled west the hell out of Nebraska. A periodic thunderstorm adds to realism. Off to one side, a large video of a field suddenly erupts with a buffalo stampede, a la Glen or Glenda.
Another large diorama tells the story of the doomed Mormon Handcart Expedition, an obscure historical footnote receiving more play these days in the region as Mormon tourism has grown.
Next is a more settled time, as the white man subdues the Indian. The overland stage coach as a way across Nebraska is chronicled. A train clanks overhead along a trestle bridge -- it's the coming of the transcontinental railroad, transporting people through Nebraska all the faster. Earphone acoustiguides provide explanations of each diorama; without them, all we hear are animal and train noises.
At this point we've reached the other side of the archway, and climb a flight of stairs to head back over the highway. The era of the highway and car travel are highlighted. An early Auto Camp is depicted with muddy ruts, as the "Lincoln Highway" becomes a conduit for families and traveling salesmen.
A wing-finned 1961 Cadillac convertible is parked, the driver a blissful male driver mannequin, a copy of Jack Kerouac's On the Road on the passenger seat. A drive-in movie theater screen shows a concocted '50s educational short (familiar scenes from Rick Prelinger's Futurama and Autorama archives) explaining how Nazi Germany's autobahn impressed General Eisenhower; as President he proposed 41,000 miles of our own interstate system.
The Lincoln Highway exhibit gives way to today's I-80. A roadside cafe lathers on more retro touches.
A small display, no doubt sponsored by Omaha's Level Three Communications, shows a manhole cordoned off for maintenance. Inside is a video-loop of a worker laying optical fiber; it's the information superhighway!
At this point, we are directly over the interstate, facing east. There are some windows, with pointable radar guns. We clock a procession of trucks, SUVs and cars and can see that, thanks to the interstate, folks are traversing Nebraska faster than ever -- at 74, 78, 79, 82 mph.
We exit down to the entrance to wander the gift shops and snack bars.
The Great Platte River Road Archway Monument is immaculately presented, very professional, but the dioramas -- eh. The place could be packed with more stuff, and maybe visitors could help those Mormons push a handcart or two.
Still, the owners earn points for building the log bridge, now an undeniable part of the interstate. Of all the landscape-altering edifices promised by towns and developers in recent years, the Archway is a reality. And to take it down, they'd have to close the highway again.
The Archway must be doing okay -- it was visited by group of Saudi and Japanese investors and American bankers that are planning something similar for I-35, south of Dallas. Learning from the Archway's mistake, the guard said they're going to get Texas state help, which will include their own exit.