Day 32. NE: pioneers, Pony Express, geodesic domes, amazing space

by Kevin May

There was little sorrow to be felt leaving town. Nebraska wasn’t a state that I’d had particularly high expectations of, but I had hoped for something a little more elevated than a brush with Lucy does Lincoln.

I’d also hoped that coffee might have been available at the motel in the morning, but their generosity only went as far as free pornography. The breaking of dawn saw me escape towards the delightfully named town of Friend, with its convenient population of 1,111. Such specific numbers were not unusual as cited populations, but the figures were rarely so round at the same time. It made me wonder how often they bothered to update the signs.

Nebraska was another state that seemed largely comprised of huge flat fields. It would have been as dull as Iowa if it hadn’t been for the birds. These birds were startling, they didn’t so much flock as swarm.

All along the route they would suddenly appear as one black mass, and then just as quickly disappear down onto the ground. It was impossible to see how they achieved this remarkable feat of co-ordination, at speed and with no obvious lead bird. It was perfectly synchronized but with no regular shape, like a plague of locusts working its way across the countryside.

I had set out so early that it was only just gone nine when I pulled into my first port of call, the small prairie town of Minden. I would have been there even earlier, but I got caught behind a slow moving truck that I had been unable to overtake.

I probably could have tried, but today wasn’t the day to get arrested. It was far too cold and windy. I had also concluded that it wasn’t worth risking an accident. If I were to die in the course of this trip, I definitely did not want it to happen in Nebraska.

The streets of Minden were as quiet as you would expect at that time on a Sunday morning. An “open” sign on the main highway directed me four blocks south to JJ’s City Café. It sat on the main square, in the middle of which was a tall and imposing old courthouse with a white dome.

American flags all around beat in the gusty wind that had picked up. It was chilly when I got out of the car, and I was pleased to have been able to park close to the café door. Inside the  temperature and atmosphere were warm. The inside of the windows were smoked with condensation. I snuggled in to a booth and awaited a proper home cooked American breakfast.

Four blocks away was the Pioneer Village, a museum that charted the development of America from a newly independent nation through to its emergence as the world’s number one superpower. Its 20 acres housed 28 buildings and 50,000 exhibits dating back to 1830.

It covered anything that touched American life, from decorations and furniture through hobbies to transportation. It included the oldest combustion engine, the first Model T Ford to roll off the production line and the first jet aeroplane. A number of original historic structures, such as Minden’s original church and a sod house, had been rebuilt around a village green.

One building housed an extensive collection of correspondence and you could watch demonstrations of some traditional crafts like blacksmithing and broom-making by hand. It was all intriguing and the time whistled by. I spent half an hour just reading through letters to Nebraska’s senator sent by various Presidents from Eisenhower to Clinton.

Three hours had disappeared while I was in the museum and I still felt that I had only scratched the surface. It was close to lunchtime and so I needed to get going. I motored north in search of the Interstate. My goal was Gothenburg, a town that not surprisingly had Swedish origins, but before I got there a roadside sign warned me that there was a monument ahead and that I was not to slow down.

Blatantly flouting the law I did, and I can’t say that it was worth it. The sign was more memorable than whatever the site was supposed to be. The Great Platte River Road Archway Monument? Answers on a postcard please.

Gothenburg was home to an original Pony Express Station, a compact hut which now doubled as a gift shop selling predictable paraphernalia. The woman running the place gave a quick lecture to me and a couple of other visitors on the history of the Pony Express. Reprints of the old recruitment posters were available, citing the requirement for “young wiry fellows under 18, preferably orphans” and wages of $25 a week (at a time when the average salary was just a dollar).

I drove due north and then dog-legged via Anselmo to Dunning. This part of the world felt a lot like England, with rolling hills and familiar-looking trees. When I had telephoned to book the room, the woman had warned me that there was no food to be had anywhere around those parts and that I had best eat before or bring some of my own.

She had suggested stopping in Thedford, 47 miles to the south of where she was and the last major town that I would pass before I got to her place. As major towns go, Thedford proved to be pretty minor. A sign announced: “Welcome to Thedford. Fuel. Food. Lodging. Churches.” It was Sunday I suppose.

With supplies in place I continued north into the wilderness of enormous Cherry county, one of the largest fifty counties in the whole country. It was bigger than Rhode Island and Delaware put together, spanned two time zones but only had one town of any note, called Valentine.

I listened to an interview on the radio with a woman who had been in the first tower on the storey where the terrorist plane had hit the building. She’d been on the other side of the building from the impact and had managed to get out just before the collapse. She had had to crawl in pitch black across devastation-strewn offices and pick her way down various staircases as there wasn’t one that led all the way down to the ground floor.

The interviewer asked if she wanted revenge. She didn’t. She thought that the first thing that was needed was to understand why there were people out there in the world who hated Americans so badly that they could have done this. Until that could be understood nothing could be done about these problems.

The place I was staying at was 17 miles short of Valentine and a couple of miles back from the highway. There was no obvious landmark to watch out for so I had to keep an eye on my mileometer. If I hadn’t turned off by the time I was 48 miles north of Thedford then I’d have missed it.

Thankfully, I managed to find it at first time of asking. At the end of a long track was a building that looked incongruous to say the least. The technical term for it was a geodesic dome, and it looked like a spaceship had landed.

At first I couldn’t believe that this was Lovejoy Ranch but there wasn’t another building for miles, apart from an old barn. As I parked, the door opened and a middle-aged woman came out and introduced herself as Cheryl.

She showed me into and around the house. She lived there alone and I was the only guest staying that evening. I had been offered the choice between the King and the Queen sized bed. I had opted for the latter, on the basis that even my lardy backside barely justified a King sized bed to itself. I didn’t see the other room, but the one that I ended up with could have slept a small troop of Scouts.

Cheryl explained that her husband’s great grandfather had come out to Nebraska in 1884 in the days when the government had offered 150 acres for every five that were planted with forest. Unfortunately, her landholding had diminished through it being divided up among all the children as it was passed down, and now all she had left were about 4000 acres. The old man must have put down an awful lot of trees.

Cheryl was keen that I go for a walk while it was still light. In one direction the hills rolled away forever, and I walked until the house was just a dot behind me. This was isolation of the highest order. I was in a field by myself and, not including Cheryl, tens of miles from the nearest person on earth.

An hour and a quarter had passed by the time I returned to the house, where Cheryl was in the kitchen baking. She didn’t look that much older than me, but had two grown-up children. Her son was pursuing love interests in South Dakota and her daughter was married and lived nearby. She and her husband used Cheryl’s land for ranching and in return looked after Cheryl’s cattle for her.

It was a precarious way to make a living as there were only two points in the year when any real trading was done, following weaning in the Spring and Fall. Cheryl’s annual income was largely dependent on meat prices at those points in time. These fluctuated significantly, according to climatic and economic factors beyond her control. I got the impression that she was weary of the business.

Cheryl asked if I had any photographs of my nearest and dearest. I had brought a small album of 24 snaps in case this question ever came up, but Cheryl was the first person whom I’d met who had enquired.

As I went off to fetch the photos, she asked what she could get me. To my surprise, it was a reference to alcohol. I had become accustomed to middle-America’s revulsion at social drinking and had just accepted that it would be another dry evening. The choice on offer was between scotch and gin.

The conversation became as free-flowing as Cheryl’s measures, and soon three hours and four gins had slipped by. She was very easy going, extraordinarily so for an American. Usually I found them quite intense and in your face but there was a contentment about Cheryl that was even more startling given that she’d not had the easiest of lives.

Also unusually, she was more interested in listening than talking about herself. Her only words were in response to things that I said. She tried to help me out with some of the holes in my story. She reckoned the birds that I had seen swarming earlier that day were red wing blackbirds and she wrote down the name of the parasitic ivy from Alabama on a scrap of paper (that I lost almost immediately).

With a casual disregard for any English concept of distance, Cheryl explained that she used Valentine, 17 miles to the north, for her “day to day shopping” but that for “more important purchases” (her example was a bucket), she would go to Denver CO. According to my rough calculations, that was almost 500 miles away. I learnt that it was also the nearest international airport, with Chicago being the second nearest. I gulped, and hoped that I didn’t need to swing by a Hertz in the near future.

When the conversation turned to September 11th as sooner or later it had to, I repeated a point that I had made on a number of occasions previously: I couldn’t imagine what could incite you to jump out of a window a hundred storeys up in the sky. However hopeless you saw your position to be, jumping only guaranteed you one fate.

Cheryl said she could understand it perfectly. She’d been in a fire and it was terrifying to the point that you lose all sense of proportion and just become desperate to get out. It doesn’t cross your mind how high up you are, you need to go and can worry about whether it’s ten, a hundred or a thousand feet on the way down.

Their original ranch house had burned down in 1979 and it was in this fire that she had lost her husband. She had lived for a while in a mobile home with her small kids and then decided to get the place built where we were now sitting. She wanted something completely different – environmentally friendly and energy efficient – which was certainly what she got with her geodesic dome.

I stepped out on to the deck for a cigarette. It was a perfectly still and clear night. I stood shivering for my addiction and gazed at the sky. I had never realized that so many stars even existed.