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Friday, 24 June 2011

Wild Camping at Mari Sandoz' Grave

We had an excellent trip to the grave-site: fair weather (apart from the statutory night-time shower), few bugs, and a gorgeous sunset. This morning we were up and out of the tent at 0540h to watch the rising sun illuminate the underside of a grey veil of cloud, but despite the early start here we are, almost noon, and only just back home.
We arrived last night just as the sun was disappearing behind the hill on which Mari Sandoz chose to be buried. We would have been earlier, but along the way – as we have now come to expect – we were delayed, this time by buffalo.


I’m not suggesting that they stepped out into the road and halted the traffic or anything, simply that we still find them an arresting sight. I wondered whether this was part of the Ted Turner herd, but had no way of telling.

The ground down at the old orchard place wasn’t the best for camping.  Each possibility we inspected was either uneven, stony or infested with poison ivy. In the end we opted for a level patch of ground with no noxious weeds.


The fact is that wherever you camp down there you are surrounded by this huge sweep of emptiness that was once the Sandoz home place and orchard. Knowing that Mari loved this spot enough to be laid to rest here is an inspiration – as you can see when you read the inscriptions in the visitors’ book beside the grave.

When we were packing up the car in preparation for this trip, A. remarked that it’s far better to camp from back-packs. I know what she means. There’s this temptation to throw everything you can think of into the back of the vehicle and assume you’ve got the job done. When you know you have to carry everything – all day, every day, as we did in the Pyrenees a couple of years ago - you take great care to get it dead right.


We thought we’d kept things fairly tight this time – possibly too tight, but even so the back of the car was pretty packed with stuff. Still, at least we could light up our methylated spirit stove and cook on the tailgate. Supper was cold salmon and hot tagliatelle – home-made by the gal who has the farm shop along Hwy 20 outside Chadron, I should add. It was just at the point when we were ready to serve it that we realised we had no eating irons.

Frederick Jackson Turner, the 19th century historian, was among many observers who characterised the westerner as tough, self-reliant and… resourceful; and I pride myself in having some of those traits. So here, to demonstrate how the rugged pioneering type adapts to life in a wilderness, are my pasta servers, fashioned from last season’s dry sunflower stalks.


These multi-use artefacts, I should add, also serve as something between a chop-stick and a fork – and occasion manic, self-satisfied grins on the part of the manufacturer.

I’ve noticed, going through our photographs night after night, the constant presence of beer bottles, and because of my strict upbringing I feel forced to note that, this being a vacation of sorts, we generally allow ourselves one at sundown. 

While we’re touching on the subject of my younger days, I should say that a lot of this camping out and roughing it malarkey represents nothing more than the fulfilment of my boyhood dreams. I always wanted to do this stuff, but as a ten-year-old didn’t really know how to. I tried, after a fashion, but generally concentrated my endeavours on the fire-lighting aspects – on one occasion setting ablaze a neighbour’s hedge, on another to a small section of coniferous forest. (My brother did the chimney one time and brought us a brief celebrity as a shiny red fire truck pulled up outside the house and dowsed the inferno with hoses). I cannot easily express the joy I have found in this latter-day playing in the woods (and hills, and mountains, and rivers). Nor the satisfaction I get from it being safe, legal and affordable.

After supper we climbed above the gravesite to take in the views. I’m quite pleased – very pleased – with some of the photos I’ve taken this trip, but when you want to record the size and spread of these sandhills I don’t think a camera can ever be adequate. But we try... and here offer a standard-issue sunset picture with soapweed, and another with human interest.



This morning, after we’d broken camp, we walked around the hay-meadow and ventured into the remnants of the Old Jules orchards. The trees, which were smothered in blooms a month ago, have succumbed to some kind of pest. No fruit has set that we could see.


So we set sail for home, stopping off at Gordon for breakfast. This evening we are calling in at our neighbours, the Morelands, and will doubtless pick up a story or two. I realise that we haven’t had much news from the ranch recently. It’s haying time. Matt started cutting a week or two ago, got halfway and had to suspend operations while all that rain was falling, but has now got that lot baled up and looks to be busy cutting the second half. Here he is turning the windrows yesterday.


Tomorrow we make another attempt to hike to that spot where the wagons were burned in 1875. If we make it I will reveal where the great-grandson of one of the victims now lives.