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Tuesday, 8 March 2011

I leave for the red house in thirty days.

My blogging career is about to start. I feel strangely nervous.

I am a professional writer who has been advised, cajoled, nagged and all but bullied into taking this step. I know it makes sense, particularly as I am at an important juncture in my career, but I have been reluctant. It's new. It requires effort. It may go wrong. However, it's time I got started.

After forty-four years of writing, twenty-five as a pro, and seventeen as a fully self-employed practitioner, I have finally achieved what I set out to achieve - by a combination of good fortune and considerable endeavour. I have made time and space in which to write what I wish to write, from the heart, based on direct experience, without having to worry about getting it published conventionally, or making money out of it. And I'd like to share it with whoever finds it interesting or entertaining. I do not wish to put a penny into the hands of publishers, agents or VAT men. They've already had their cut.

In about four weeks I leave England and fly out to a remote cattle-ranch in western Nebraska. There I will move into what used to be a family home, built of hand-made red-paintedconcrete blocks eighty or ninety years ago, but abandoned in around 1980, since when it has been used as an occasional hunting lodge. It sits eight miles up a dirt road, 30 miles from the nearest grocery store, and has no phone signal or Internet access. The roof leaks, the windows rattle, and the plumbing is idiosyncratic; but it has an electricity supply, lights, a freezer, a stove, and a cold cellar ideal for storing beer. It will be my home until October. It sits beside the beautiful Niobrara (the Native name: it means Running Water), and is shaded by the broad-leaved trees that grow along the river-bank, all the way across the state to the point where it flows into the Missouri.

Beyond that, I will be surrounded by the Sandhill region, 20,000 square miles of grass-covered dunes populated by cattle, deer, coyotes, eagles, and a few scattered ranchers. I expect two visitors, and occasional hunting parties. Otherwise it's me and my supplies - and the tools of my trade.

I've been in love with this area for twenty years, have crossed it by car, bus, train and bicycle, but have never spent more than a week or two there. I have been enchanted by the western States for thirty years, with the idea of the West - the Wild West - for over fifty, since we got our first TV in 1958. In 1980, when I first travelled across the Plains, by train from Chicago to L.A., with stops at Lawrence Kansas and Albuquerque New Mexico, I started to wonder what it must be like to live out there in that great emptiness, in one of those seventeen western states, each of them unique, each of them distinct, each of them unimaginably vast. I now have the chance to find out.

In later posts I will talk about how I came to know the Sandhills, their history, and some of the literature they have inspired; I will talk about how I came to hold the ID card of an Admiral in the Nebraska Navy, how I came to know the generous ranchers who have offered me the use of their old lodge, and how I came to be in a position to afford such a venture.

My blog will consist of a number of strands.

There will be my daily journal: how the weather is, how the grass is doing, and what I see as I hike, camp and sleep out - in the hills or along the river.

There will be posts about my career as a writer, and what I did for thirty years previously, touching on the 50-odd jobs, from rat-catcher to immigration officer, from freight-train guard to university lecturer, from parks gardener to racecourse bookie.

I will also be writing about the ranch: the people who run it now, their daily work, and its history: why it has its own cemetery; and how the old schoolhouse was swapped for a used dish-washer, later for a pile of hay bales. I will visit the original log cabin that the first settlers built, way back in the late 19th century.

Then there's my original inspiration: the great Nebraska writer Mari Sandoz, the daughter of pioneers who grew up not thirty miles from the red house and wrote some of the very best western literature, including a biography of Crazy Horse and the tragic story of a doomed people, Cheyenne Autumn.

As part of my work in the red house I aim to write up the longhand journals I have compiled during fifteen road trips out west since 1991 covering somewhere in the region of 40,000 miles, perhaps posting some of the best stories from them.

I suspect this is a little long for an opening entry, but it can't be helped. This trip is the culmination of a career-length endeavour, the realisation of a life-long dream. It may be that posting this a full month ahead of my departure is a little premature, but I'll be adding updates on my preparations.