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Saturday, 30 April 2011




In a moment I’m going to talk about the waterfalls, meadows, and babbling brooks featured in the photos – yet another surprise and delight when I went exploring today. But I left off yesterday salivating over the prospect of lunch, and I can report that it was damned fine. So fine that I’m going to rhapsodise about it for a moment. My children, people close to me – they can skip this bit. If they can’t recite it by heart by now they haven’t been listening all these years.

Take four slices of bread – my own, home baked. A few slices of cheddar cheese. A stack of jalapeno peppers. Make `em into sandwiches, and smear each surface with a little bacon grease. (One of the most useful things my old man taught me, back in the 1950s, was to conserve bacon grease, even if you had to scrape it off your plate.) Now stick the sandwiches in a dry frying-pan over a medium heat and toast each side until the cheese has melted and the bread is crisp. Wash down with coffee.

And while we’re at it, let’s talk about coffee. Drip machines, filters, percolators? Phooey! What do they give you? Washing up. What you want is a very, very large spoonful of fresh ground beans. Drop it in a heated china mug, and pour in your water. Leave it to stand. Read a newspaper. Take a walk around the room, then nudge the mug a few times. Attack the crossword. Maybe drag a spoon gently across the surface of said mug and then, when the grounds have sunk to the bottom, blow any remaining ones gently away from you, purse your lips and start sipping. Sure, you may get the odd bit of grit between your teeth, but I guarantee this: that brew will hit the spot. And all you’ll have to clear up is one dirty mug.

Okay, explorations. I’d spotted some pine trees away to the north of the dusty road that takes you to the highway, and that interested me. I have yet to find any around our part of the river. These were east of the ranch house, but until I’d had a word with Matt I wasn’t sure they were on his land. They are, he said, and that’s a neat walk down the draw.

It starts off as deep gash in the earth, a bare sandy declivity that plunges a hundred feet in a couple of hundred yards. Suddenly the vast open grasslands are gone from view, the wind is silenced. It’s you, the sand, the sky, and a few animal tracks.

And then the first seep of water comes in from the eastern side of what is almost a canyon, and with it the first splash of green. Another few minutes’ hiking and you’re in amongst tall deciduous trees, and pines – but most of those are already on the upper slopes, silhouetted against a blue sky. Two or three more springs feed the main stream – which is never more than two or three feet across and a few inches deep.  There are little meadows, waterfalls, four five six of them, which have gouged great chunks out of the limestone. The trees are now clad in honeysuckle (just breaking into leaf) and wild grape (still in winter retreat). It’s a very different world down there.

Mostly I walked in the stream, emerging from time to time to get around another cascade. Even so it took me no more than forty minutes to get down to the spot where this creek slid into the main stream of the cool, olive-green Niobrara. It looks like a fine place to make camp later on, when the nights have warmed up a little (it’s 37 again this morning). There’s a level grassy area on one side, the sheer white limestone bluffs on the other, and no shortage of firewood.

I sat for some time, listening. A woodpecker was hammering away, a dove coo-ing, and something – an elk? – making a distant dry barking sound. And there were the two watercourses, the one babbling, the other, wider, stronger, quieter, giving out the occasional ‘glup’ as it cleared a submerged rock.

When I find places like this – and there are plenty, if you care to look for them – I am reminded of the many, many Americans who’ve looked at me and frowned and asked, ‘Nebraska? What you wanna go there for?’ I am reminded of the Nebraskan resident – he could’ve been a native - I met over breakfast at Bushnell some years ago, after I’d cycled from one end of the state to other in a late September heatwave. I told him I was doing it because I wanted to know what it was like out there. I can still see him, rubbing his chin and looking out the window at an endless vista of dead grass as he said, ‘I can tell you what it’s like out there, man. It’s desolate. De-so-late.’

I guess it all depends how far you’re prepared to dig.