WAHOO – Seth Varner and Austin Schneider’s quest to visit all 531 communities in Nebraska came full circle.
After starting with a stop in Ithaca on April 22, the pair of college students and best friends ended their journey, which they called “Visit 531 Nebraska,” in their hometown of Wahoo last Friday.
The duo drove through town in a Jeep, waving to small groups gathered along downtown streets and stopping for pictures with an inflatable pig.
The final destination was Dairy Queen, where Varner and Schneider are seasonal employees. A group of family and friends, including their parents, waited to welcome them.
They received a key to the city from Mayor Jerry Johnson, something that is given out rarely, the mayor said.
Johnson is proud of the college students’ accomplishment and the way they promoted Wahoo along their journey.
“The Wahoo name got touched in 531 towns,” Johnson said.
Jennifer Woita, executive assistant for the Chamber, presented large baskets full of goodies from the Wahoo Chamber of Commerce to the pair.
“Thank you for putting Wahoo on the map,” she said.
The journey started with Varner, who loves to travel. Varner has a map in his room with a pin in every state his family has visited during vacations that are planned by Varner. When his family’s summer trip was cancelled by the COVID-19 pandemic, he was bummed. That’s when he came up with the idea to visit every incorporated community in his home state.
“It’s so Seth,” said his mother, Leigh Varner.
Varner enlisted the help of his best friend since childhood for the journey. Varner and Schneider were living at home in Wahoo attending the University of Nebraska at Omaha online this spring after the college was shut down for the pandemic.
At first they visited most of the towns in Saunders County. Soon they began to venture out on longer trips. Varner mapped out the entire journey to maximize time, money and fuel. The big push came at the end, when they headed across the state to the Panhandle and other points west. On July 7 alone they visited 32 communities in the western part of the state, putting about 650 miles on their car that day.
Early on in the journey the duo started a Go Fund Me page to solicit funds to help with the cost of gas and lodging when overnight trips were necessary. Their employer, Dairy Queen in Wahoo, was especially generous, donating $100 to their fund and working the pair’s schedules around their trips. Owner Tom Rustermier and Manager Jacob Pokorny said they were glad to help the kids, who have worked at the restaurant since they were in high school.
“I had as much fun following their journey as they had on their trips,” said Pokorny.
In every town, Varner and Schneider were photographed by a landmark or sign that showed the name of the community. The most unique sign was in Greeley, where their sign proudly proclaimed that the community has “562 friendly people and a few old crabs.”
They also hit most of the major Nebraska landmarks along their journey.
“I figured if we were making the trip out there, we might as well,” said Varner.
The duo also made it a point to take their picture in front of every county courthouse in the state, which in at least one case was hard to find. In Brewster, they took a picture with a building they thought was the Blaine County courthouse. Schneider said he questioned whether or not the structure was actually the courthouse, and did some research that night. Turns out, it was a church. But they found the actual courthouse nearby and got their photograph.
“We went back the next day,” Schneider said.
As college students, Varner and Schneider drive cars that aren’t exactly brand new. They switched off between Schneider’s 2004 Mazda 6 and Varner’s 2003 Ford Taurus. Both vehicles held up well after racking up nearly 9,000 miles.
“They both survived,” said Varner. “Shockingly.
Social media helped the duo gain notoriety, funding and followers. Varner started their Facebook page on May 4 after they had already visited 65 towns, so he blew the page up with posts early on. The social media site gained a steady stream of followers along the journey. Varner shared a post on Nebraska Through the Lens, a site that focuses on photographs of the Cornhusker state, and gained 6,000 followers in one day.
Sitting down for interviews became a common occurrence as the duo traversed Nebraska. They were the focus of stories on nine television and six radio programs and did “countless” interviews for local newspapers.
“We did about half the newspapers in Nebraska,” said Varner.
Varner and Schneider enlisted a rotating group of about nine friends to accompany them on some of their trips, including Varner’s brother Josh. They also met friends from Wahoo in Burwell and reunited with college friends in Scottsbluff.
Another travel partner was a stuffed Energizer bunny, who appeared in many of their photographs.
“We thought it would be funny to have a mascot with us to take on the trip,” said Schneider.
The quest has inspired others to embark on similar ventures, said Varner, making them “trendsetters,” he added.
Even though the pandemic has closed some businesses across Nebraska and made traveling more challenging, people are rising to the occasion to see their home state.
“There have been dozens of people say they are exploring towns from their cars,” said Varner.
One young fan in particular has been enamored with the duo’s quest. A young boy from Kenesaw named Blake who loves Nebraska history began following their Facebook page religiously. His mother contacted Varner and Schneider and the pair talked to the boy via Facetime.
“We’re like his role models,” said Varner.
The duo inspired hospitality in nearly all of the towns they visited. They were welcomed with signs, parades, parties, meals and many, many gifts, including dozens of t-shirts boasting the names of Nebraska communities.
“I have a whole new wardrobe for the fall and I’m happy about that,” said Varner.
Schneider and Varner not only picked up souvenirs on their journey, they also gained knowledge about their state. They learned about unusual laws, like the one in Blue Hill that makes it illegal for a woman to wear a hat that would scare a timid person. While eating an onion.
They also learned there are several towns whose names are similar. Like Springfield and Springview. And that there are actually 529 communities in Nebraska. An official government website’s total had included Seneca, a community that unincorporated in 2014, and Elkhorn, which was annexed into Omaha years ago. But they visited them anyway.
Whatever the number, the communities across Nebraska embraced Varner and Schneider with open arms. They felt connected to each town, and learned that Wahoo’s ties reach across the state.
“Every person we talked to I think had a connection to Wahoo,” said Varner.
Although the Visit 531 Nebraska journey has been completed, the trip will continue for these young men. Varner said he kept a journal and plans to turn it into a book.
“It will include stuff we saw, people we talked to and fun facts about the area,” he added.
Their next venture is back to college. The duo will be roommates at UNO, where they are studying business administration.
But first, they will finish the summer serving ice cream cones and Blizzards at Dairy Queen. As the restaurant’s sign said, “Come back to work now.