I had spent
a bit more than a week in Ft. Collins, Colorado with our daughter Jessica and son-in-law Tait and now it was time to say good-bye. Jessica had been hospitalized for treatment with radioactive iodine, and I wanted to be there for her when she got out. When she got home Tait had a super-hero costume ready for her:
which stands for "Radioactive Girl." Last Saturday we got some family pictures with Jessica in her super-hero outfit, and then it was time to say good-bye.
It's interesting that the Dad in all this, who hoped he was going to be of some assistance while he was there, actually got treated awfully well by his recently hospitalized daughter and her husband, including several trips to the ice cream parlor. Thanks, you guys!
Yeah, saying good-bye was tough.
Western Nebraska. Blue-collar "Big Sky" country. The jagged greyness overhead, the jagged landscape. This is not the middlewest. Yes, they might grow some corn, but it is not Iowa corn. There is more sagebrush blowing across the road than corn husk. The land is cut with gullies and steep ravines and other signs of wear and erosion. Nothing stays where you put it.
The larger towns hang on surprisingly well. Alliance and Chadron (pronounced Shadron, I'm told) are longer and wider than you'd expect for towns out here. McDonald's and Subway and Pizza Hut have firmly established themselves, yet is is difficult to find the old-fashioned Mom & Pop cafe in either community. There are some empty storefronts in Alliance and Chadron, but not as many as I'd expected.
Part of the difference between the middlewest and the west, I suppose, is that the middlewest once supported a much larger agricultural population than the west ever has. And with the decline of the rural population in the middle west, the small towns suffered. The more you have, the farther you're going to fall. By comparison, communities in the west had smaller populations supporting them, and less to lose.
The wind out here. The tawny color of the landscape. The jaggedness of everything, including the raw-boned people who have to bet everything every day to make anything. Or that's how it looks to a fellow who knows what an Iowa corn crop looks like.
We don't have skies like this in Wisconsin. Is it that trees change the nature of clouds by changing the wind? Is it the long sweep of emptiness out here that creates the jaggedness of sky? Something is different. Something is very different.
This is a difference. The Pizza Ranch in Chadron has the brands from 79 ranches in the area burned onto pieces of raw wood and nailed to the walls of the dining room. I have eaten at a lot of Pizza Ranches, but this is the only one with such decoration. There is nothing more local than a rancher's brand. And here were 79 of them on display like works of art. Which, in a way, they are.
The folks eating at the Pizza Ranch did not look "western" - no cowbody boots, no cowboy hats. A lot of folks were in coats and caps for Chadron State College. Maybe some of the cheerleaders were having supper, and some of the football team. One fellow got up from the table and it was clear that my arms weren't long enough to wrap all the way around his chest. I think he was a running back. I think he'd run for maybe 279 yards that afternoon.
Several other people in the restaurant wore the garb of the Nebraska Cornhuskers. You want to belong to something.
On my way to Chadron, I'd stopped at Carhenge. Carhenge stands three and a half miles north of Alliance on Highway 87. You wonder why it's there. This is the second time I've stopped to see it. Perhaps we need to make a mark such as this on the landscape, a human mark, to stand against Courthouse Rock and Jail Rock and Chimney Rock, which are also found in western Nebraska, nearer the Platte River. Here in the great open emptiness, perhaps we have to raise our arms to the sky in supplication in any way we can. The emptiness is not so fearful, one supposes, if we can raise something against it, anything.
When I was north of Alliance on Highway 385, I saw a huge sugarbeet storage operation and stopped to take a few photos. I had to assume it was sugarbeets I was seeing, for none of the trucks were marked "Sugarbeet Haulers of Western Nebraska." I got confirmation later, when I saw a newspaper talking about the sugarbeet harvest and showing a photograph of sugarbeets. Yup, that's what they are.
I was angled towards home, yet I also wanted to spend some time in the Sandhills. I wanted to stand again at Mari Sandoz's lonesome grave site, listening to the wind, to what it has to say. There is nothing so lonesome as wind over a graveyard, the vast emptiness filling with a moan. Mari Sandoz was a writer I admire. Standing at her grave for a bit, to honor her memory, perhaps I'll recognize once again that this is what it comes to, finally: the empty lonesomeness of the grave.
The Museum of the Fur Trade and the Bordeaux Trading Post, a few miles east of Chadron on Highway 20, was open on Sunday morning, and I stopped to take a look. The museum has extensive information and exhibits about the fur trade, including maps with locations of every American Fur Company and Hudson Bay Company trading post in North America, all the way to the Arctic Ocean. There was a surprisingly thorough display about the history of fur trading in Greenland. A special exhibit about "Mountain Men" runs from August 2006 through August 2007. There were 200 at least muzzle-loading rifles and pistols in the "gun room," as well as the many weapons in the various displays throughout the museum. I like seeing the displays of clothing and especially the Hudson Bay blankets from the one point size to four and a half points. The museum gift shop has an extensive selection of books about the fur trade and fur traders (as wel as Hudson Bay blankets for sale, and other goodies), and I think I saw a library through another door, with several shelves of volumes that might be available to the serious researcher. The Museum of the Fur Trade Quarterly has published an extensive set of collection of materials.
The Bordeaux Trading Post was out behind the museum - the warehouse, the trading post itself, and the robe press used to bundle hides in packs of ten. The Bordeaux post operated from 1837 to 1876. Standing there among the remnants of it, I felt the strong insistence of history; across the fence from me, a herd of ordinary cows and a couple of horses.
You'd have to be a pretty dull fellow not to find something here to interest you.
You want it to mean something. You want it all to mean something. I am here in the Sandhills at Mari Sandoz's gravesite. The wind is blowing. Yes, there is a little snow in the air, a chill at the fingertips.
I would speak of the immense silence, yet there is a steer nearby sounding a mewling sort of beller. There is the rustle of wind among the grasses and dry prairie plants. There is the schrrr-schrrr-schrrr of my own imagination. And there is the essential silence of the grave.
We are like the wind, here but for the moment, then we are gone. Like a rabbit taken by the hawk. Like the hawk taken by time. Like Old Jules, Mari's father, and the other homesteaders who settled these Sandhills - gone. So soon gone.
One must make his mark. One must claw his message onto the pages of history. This moment should not be forgotten. These people should not be forgotten. Mari should be remembered and cherished. This place, the smell of it, the wind in it, the sense of loss here. This should not be forgotten.
The poet's task is to sing Lauds each morning, to sing praise again and again. To hold the small common things of life up for notice, to make them objects of astonishment, to cherish them and commit them to memeory, and finally - yes - perhaps to say good-bye.
If I didn't have loss and longing, what would I have to write about? I don't know. I have driven down six miles of dirt track to sit here at Mari's grave and listen to the wind, and I ask myself: why do I do it? What is to be gained? What do I want to take?
There is nothing I need. Rather, I feel that this should not be lost, this local moment, the history of this place, our memory of the writer who recorded it, Mari Sandoz. I can only hope that someday some poet will sit at my grave site thanking me for recording my local moments, and that at some day beyond that another poet will sit at his grave site to honor him, and that this line will stretch forever, the line of us grateful for the poets of our local moments.
Wind claws the grey sky. The sun breaks through and then is gone. The least flutter of snow appears and disappears. The sound of the grasses and the immense silence. The emptiness and fullness of everything.
I sit here writing Wind shakes the car. All I really want to say is: Thank you, Mari.
Thank you, Mari.
Mari Sandoz wrote, and managed a living at it. In contrast I am almost pathologically unable to write something that sells, as if selling it will spoil it. I want to write what I see, as I see it, with no temptation to alter it so I can make money from it. It's a strange predicament I've put myself in - I have to write about what I see, yet I am reluctant to offer it for publication for fear that in doing so the essence of it might be lost. I am fortunate to be in a position that I can write what I wish while Mary takes care of the bills. That is a tremendous gift from her to me, and I doubt that I show enough gratitude. Thank you, Mary.
Why do I feel as I do about my writing, this need to protect its integrity so fiercely? I think that even when I am writing prose - journal entry or essay or memoir - I am fiercely a poet about it. My prose is like my poetry: it cannot be sold; it is art, not commerce that I am embarked upon.
Yes, I know, it's a pretty silly writer who writes and resists publication. At least publication on someone else's terms. Publication on my own terms is fine.
Now I'm driving south through the Sandhills on Highway 27. Snow is flying at the windshield. At Mari's grave, I talked about what I do, what I'm doing, what it means for me to be a poet here, now, in this place, in this life. Yet one should not talk about what he's doing, so much as he should do it. Sometimes in these sacred moments, however, sitting at Mari's grave, for instance, we may consider what it is that were about. We can take the time to ruminate and to weigh what it is we're doing. These are holy moments.
I have to admit that when I look at this land and at the evidence of people trying to make a living in this place, out of these resources, I really don't know enough to make judgments about whether they should be puitting angus out in these bare Sandhills or not. Somehow the Sandhills seem sacred, yet what is holy doesn't count for much in the economic equation of everyday life. There are people here. They will continue to live here because this is their place, the place that owns them. Who am I to say No, you shouldn't irrigate so you can raise corn or alfalfa, you shouldn't overburden the land with grazing cattle. I don't know enough at this point to make such judgments.
In any case, I am not one to argue about what should be so much as I am one who has been put here to describe what is, what we have had, what has been lost. I think there is an essential difference between those who witness what life is, versus those who are here to argue that life could be different or better than this. I'm here to say: "This is what is."
I am on Highway 27 headed south. The road does not go straight. I think I know why. It follows the lay of the hills, old animal trails, the trail of people who walked through here a long time ago. It follows the natural course of things marching across the landscape. I'm content to follow it, this old pathway, this road.
And then I followed Highway 2 and Highway 92 across Nebraska. Folks, on the railroad tracks along Highway 2, between Highway 27 and Highway 92, I saw AT LEAST 15 trains. Trains headed east. Trains headed west. Trains sitting on a siding, waiting. It was almost nose-to-nose trains for 200 miles. Mostly coal trains. Those headed east were loaded with coal; they had two or three engines moving them. Those headed west were empty; they were longer and had a single unit powering them back towards the mines. One train headed west was made up of an engine pulling four other engines behind it. Trains. I've never seen anything quite like it.
I met poet and publisher Greg Kosmicki in the Old Market area of Omaha. Well, actually, he met me. He came up behind me and said "Tom?" I was standing near the corner of 12th and Howard, in front of Delice, a French bakery and deli where we were going to have lunch. Greg was walking over from work two blocks away. I turned. "Hey." We shook hands and went inside.
I ordered the chicken pot pie, which is not at all like the chicken pot pie you learned to eat in school. It's not near so juicy, and has more biscuit than crust. I also had a bowl of sweet potato soup that was terrific. And a glass of iced tea.
Greg ordered something equally as tasty, I'm sure, and a glass of iced tea. We found a table and sat down to eat and talk. Greg had an hour for lunch, then had to go back to work. I would be heading straight home from Omaha, an eight hour drive.
I tell you - an hour is not nearly enough time when two old poets get together. We'd never met before, and indeed hadn't had any contact before I published this appreciation of Greg's newest book, Some Hero of the Past, so we had a lot of catching up to do. We made the most of it - talked fast, we did.
I was going to take Greg's photo for posting here, but forgot. Sorry.
And then it was 12:30 p.m., time for Greg to get back to work, time for me to head for home.