Through the winter dawn, a light flickers on in the gift shop at Calamus Outfitters near Taylor, Nebraska. Bruce and Sue Ann Switzer brew coffee and wait. Their children, Sarah Sortum and Adam Switzer, live with their own families now on opposite sides of the Switzer Ranch, but they come every morning for a family meeting. The headlights from their trucks announce their arrival, and a bell rings as they enter the shop. After pouring themselves steaming mugs of fresh coffee, Sarah and Adam each take a seat at the table with their parents, and another day on the ranch begins.

“That is probably the best time of day. I enjoy that more than anything, because it’s just us. Sometimes we talk about the day’s plans. Sometimes we talk about yesterday’s wrecks or fiascos. But it’s probably my most favorite time of the day and of the year, because we’re able to do that every morning. . .I get a lot of satisfaction out of that.” —Bruce Switzer

The Switzers ride horseback into the Sandhills. Photo by Mariah Lundgren.

The Switzer family lives on the eastern edge of the Nebraska Sandhills, an iconic region of the Central Great Plains. Defined by its rolling grass-covered dunes, the Sandhills are ideal for cattle grazing, giving rise to a rugged ranching culture. In 1903, Sue Ann’s grandfather, Alfred Scherzberg, together with his brother Arthur, purchased land and began homesteading in a sod house in the Calamus valley. Later, the Kinkaid Act made it possible to add land holdings, permanent houses, and expand their ranching operation. The family has been on the land ever since. Sarah and Adam both hope that their children will become fifth-generation Sandhills ranchers.

“I like the way the sun comes up some mornings—it’s really pretty—and I like the way the sun sets and I like the quiet evenings. . .We see the wildlife and we see the bright stars at night and we see the Milky Way. . .It’s special.” —Bruce Switzer

The Nebraska Sandhills rise from the north edge of the Platte River valley and spread to the west, encompassing nearly 20,000 square miles of contiguous wind-blown sand dunes—the largest such region in North America. This “desert in disguise” was formed about 80 million years ago after an inland sea retreated from the Great Plains, and stream-deposited sand from the Rocky Mountains came to cover the plains. About 30,000 years ago, as the region grew more arid, the streambeds turned into dry sand, and constant high winds reworked them into a vast dune field.

Fed by groundwater, Birdwood Creek snakes through the rolling sandhills. Photo by Michael Forsberg.

The giant dunes in the Sandhills are as much as 400 feet high and 20 miles long—the size of those found today in the Mojave Desert of southern California or the Sahara of North Africa. As recently as 800-1000 years ago, the dunes were bare and actively migrating. In modern times, the dunes have been stabilized by prairie vegetation, but there have been concerns that they would start to move again if prolonged drought conditions cause the Sandhills to lose their plant cover.

Two mule deer traverse a grass-covered dune. Photo by Michael Forsberg.

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