The Nebraska Department of Economic Development, which provided the photograph, incorrectly identified a round barn pictured in the July 13 Travel section. It is the brick Radford barn near Newark, Neb.

I used to think that the term "Nebraska Division of Tourism" was an oxymoron.

Smug in my ignorance, I would chortle in my best East Coast Sophisticate manner if anybody suggested the idea of taking a vacation in Nebraska, of all places. Nebraska? Sure, it leads the nation in popcorn and alfalfa meal production; it has the world's longest test track for tractors and the world's biggest round barn. But somehow, the Cornhusker State didn't have much appeal as a spot to take the family on a long-awaited vacation.

Then one day, responding to some strange whim, I answered an ad from the Nebraska Division of Travel and Tourism and wrote off for some literature. And shortly thereafter I found myself motoring happily westward on I-80 along the banks of the Platte River, soaking in the lovely vistas of lush green fields rolling away toward the distant horizon under an enormous blue-and-white marbled sky.sw sk

It was Nebraska, and it was beautiful.

In a literary sense, I had already known that Nebraska was one of the Earth's beautiful places. I had learned this unlikely truth by reading the wonderfully evocative Nebraska novels of Willa Cather. In a series of books describing her childhood among the pioneers who settled this once-wild state, Cather painted a captivating portrait of the prairie landscape.

Cather wrote of the "tawny Nebraska autumn," of the fierce winter days when "the snow did not fall, it simply spilled out of heaven like thousands of featherbeds being opened," of the early spring afternoons when "all the world about us was a broth of grey slush and the guttered slope between the windmill and the barn was running black water" and of the "breathless, brilliant heat" of summer, when "it seemed as if we could hear the corn growing in the night . . . a faint crackling in the dewy, heavy-odoured cornfields where the feathered stalks stood so juicy and green."

It was really a Willa Cather pilgrimage that drew me to Nebraska. After arriving in the worldly, big-city surroundings of booming Omaha, I set out westward along I-80 toward the little settlement at Red Cloud, where Cather had spent her childhood at the turn of the century.

Traveling westward across the plains from Omaha, I was replicating one of the great epics of American history: the daring journey of tens of thousands of pioneers who trekked across plain and desert in the 19th century to carry the American spirit westward and bring to fruition the "Manifest Destiny" of a growing United States.

The major westward thoroughfare in those days went right through the heart of Nebraska -- the Platte River, so named by the French because it cut a flat course across the plains, making transit relatively easy. Along the Oregon, Oxbow and Pony Express trails on the Platte's south bank, along the Mormon trail on the north bank, moved the pioneers who built a nation.

Nebraska is acutely conscious of this era of its history -- so much so that every county seat seems to have its own pioneer memorial or museum. For a schoolchild who is studying American history, a trip to Nebraska is a delightful chance to walk the trails of America's westward expansion.

At the state historical museum in Lincoln, the Homestead National Monument in Beatrice (site of the first 160-acre tract claimed under the Homestead Act of 1862) and such scenic spots as Scotts Bluff National Monument and Chimney Rock National Historic Site, there are inspiring monuments to these hardy forebears who rode the wagons west.

As a government buff, I could not resist a stop at the 400-foot-tall granite state capitol building in Lincoln, known as the "Tower of the Plains." It is a fascinating building jammed with heroic paintings, sculptures and mosaics; just about every square inch of wall seems to have some uplifting quotation etched in large letters. Beneath the great tower is the chamber of the Nebraska legislature, the nation's only "unicameral," or single-house, legislature.

A few blocks from the capitol is Lincoln's new world-class hotel, which is called the Cornhusker but which would fit just fine in Washington or New York under a glitzy name like "Ritz Towers" or some such. From the top floors you get a wonderful view of the capitol tower and the vast fertile miles of rich Nebraska farmland stretching out behind it.

A few blocks past the Cornhusker is a small but lively restored section of retail shops and restaurants called the Haymarket. It's smack in the center of the stockyards/warehouse district and it's a fun place to spend an evening. Here or anywhere else in Nebraska, you're really obliged to order the succulent home-grown steak; after all, this state leads the nation in beef cattle production.

A few miles from the capitol, on the grounds of Bryan Memorial Hospital, is a memorial to Nebraska's most dramatic contribution to national politics: Fairview, the home of the "Boy Orator of the Platte," William Jennings Bryan, who led a great populist political campaign that swept the nation -- and who lost three presidential elections in the process.

On a Saturday in the fall, the only place to be in Lincoln is atop the high bleachers of Memorial Stadium on the campus of the University of Nebraska, where the Cornhuskers in their flaming red uniforms play a brand of football that almost invariably makes them one of the nation's top teams. If you can't get a ticket for the game, you can tour the big campus while you wait for the students to come back from the game for their victory celebrations.

There was no game during my stop in Lincoln, so I set out for the trip to Red Cloud -- an easy, interesting drive, first westward 90 miles along I-80 to Rte. 281, then south about 60 miles. As if to dispel any notion that Nebraska might be a drab spot to travel, the state has created a fascinating "Museum Without Walls" along the highway -- a series of avant-garde statues at various rest stops along the highway.

But the most beautiful part of this trip through the heart of Nebraska was Nebraska itself. Endless acres of dark green corn and bean fields spread out all around me, the crops waving in a lilting dance before the sweet-smelling west wind. Way, way off to the north, a powerful storm sent bright daggers of lightning across the tops of the distant hills. Big pavilions of cottonwood trees arched across the rushing rivers.

When I reached Grand Island -- springtime home of the last surviving flock of migrating whooping cranes -- I turned south off the interstate for a pleasant trip through farm country. By the time I reached Red Cloud -- a town named for the Oglala Sioux chief who was one of the few Indians to win a war against the United States -- I felt as if I had left the rush and hurly-burly of high-speed travel behind. I was entering Willa Cather country.

Given its fine appreciation of the pioneer forebears, it is not surprising that Nebraska should maintain a touching memorial to Cather, the poet laureate of the pioneers.

The state historical society maintains a museum and five restored homes here, some of them the very houses Willa Cather wrote about it novels like "My Antonia," "Song of the Lark" and "O Pioneers!" On the first Saturday of May each year, the Willa Cather Pioneer Memorial and Educational Foundation holds an annual conference focusing on the great novelist's Nebraska stories.

Taking a short trip from the sublime to the -- well, to the not-so-sublime, I traveled five miles down the road from the Cather memorial to the old Percy Rasser farm, which was billed in my tourist literature as having "the largest round barn in the United States." It's a large barn, all right, and it's definitely round, with a little round cupola on top, and it's listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

My Nebraska journey ended shortly after my tour of Red Cloud and environs, but by then I sorely wished I had left more time for exploring this scenic and varied state. The literature I received from the Division of Travel and Tourism (P.O. Box 94666, Lincoln, Neb. 68509) told of great sailing, swimming and fishing in the big man-made lakes like Lake Swanson, 150 miles west of Red Cloud, and Lake McConaughy, near Ogallala on the western high plains.

I could have gone hiking on the bluffs above the Missouri River, where Lewis and Clark used to camp at night, or tramping through the sand dunes in McKelvie National Forest. Or I could have camped out in Nebraska National Forest on land that was virtually treeless a century ago, and is now the nation's biggest human-planted forest.

On my next trip to Nebraska, I'll definitely travel through the cowboy-and-Indian country near the Colorado and Wyoming borders. I'll be sure to stop by the ranch near the town of North Platte where a young cowpoke name Bill Cody earned himself a national reputation -- and the nickname "Buffalo Bill" -- with his shooting prowess. I'll want to visit famous Fort Niobrara, now the center of an unspoiled wildlife refuge.

But wherever I travel, I'll keep an eye uplifted toward the the vast Nebraska sky and the burning midwestern sun at its center. That was the feature of the wide-open Nebraska landscape that first caught Willa Cather's eye when she arrived here as a child from Virginia.

"I had the feeling that the world was left behind, that we had got over the edge of it, and were outside man's jurisdiction," Cather recalled later about her first days beneath the big prairie sky. "This was the complete dome of heaven, all there was. Between that earth and that sky I felt erased, blotted out . . . That is happiness, to be dissolved into something complete and great."