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Thursday, 17 April 2014

The Red House On The Niobrara: A Second Free Preview.

I'm still selling copies of my e-book - but slowly. Next year I plan to visit Nebraska, do a series of lectures in smalltown libraries and sell hard copies of it.

Here is an extract which explains where my interest in the Sandhills came from  and how I managed to find the Red House.



 
 

Staking a claim

 
The red house used to be someone’s home, but that was a long time ago. It was abandoned by the original settlers in the 1940s. Since then it has been home to one or two temporary residents, a number of hunters, and a lot of wild animals. All that’s left of the people who owned the place is a handful of photographs hanging on the walls and a few pencilled notes on the staircase that leads down to the cellar where the bull-snake has taken up residence. The heights of various children, the count of heifers, calves and bulls, a telephone number or two. Back then, when eight blonde boys and girls lived here with their Danish parents, the place was full of life; now, you could be forgiven for thinking that its only role is to celebrate death. The people who come by, seasonal hunters who stay a few days in April for the turkeys, November for the deer, like to leave their trophies around the place. I wouldn’t advise arriving here at dead of night, as I did, bumping and lurching down that sandy two-track under a full moon to see the eight-foot tall gate-posts wreathed in whitened deer antlers, the crux of the apple-tree piled high with bleached skulls, the shreds of polythene flapping against the naked windows, the bats darting to and fro to the accompaniment of the coyotes, holding their choir practice up on the bluffs.

Even now that I’ve got used to the place a night such as I’ve just had can be unnerving. With the wind whistling under the eaves and the rain lashing against the roof, I had to grab my torch and run up to empty the buckets that catch the drips in the attic. Back downstairs where I sleep, on the living-room floor, the lightning illuminated them all in turn, the whole damned menagerie: the elk’s head, the raccoon, the badger on the coffee table with its tail held out behind it. Those are like old friends now, but the snarling lip and bared teeth of the coyote, high up there on the north wall and lit from below, that still bothers me, as does the bob-cat, languidly stretched out on a dead branch beside the door, right fore-leg dangling, its eyes seeming to follow you wherever you go. Throw in the rattle-snake skins stretched out over the window-frames, the severed feet of an eagle gathering dust on the little wooden shelf, the occasional mouse scampering back from the kitchen - sure, they have on occasion prompted me to pull the sheet over my head, close my eyes and turn my face towards the wall.

In daylight it’s a different proposition. In an ocean of sunlit grass, twenty thousand square miles of it covering the largest dune complex in the western hemisphere, I have the rare luxury of shade, the shelter of broad-leaved trees. I have firewood aplenty, bluffs to steady the wind’s progress, and I have the Niobrara river. It’s a Native name, and means Running Water. It’s spring-fed, constant, shallow, swift, serpentine, unpolluted. I have too the sky, limitless, always changing.


                                                *          *          *          *          *

People are already asking me why I’m here, and how I found the place. I tend to give them an abridged version. The whole story’s too damned long. If I look back for one particular incident that triggered all this I need to go back over half a century, to my uncle, who burst in on our uneventful lives on an outer London council estate with a whoop and a yell, picked up our mongrel bitch by the scruff of her neck and declared that she was “just an old ham-bone.”

He was an American. I correct myself: he was a Yank – and by that I mean that he embodied everything we imagined an American ought to be. He was loud, cheerful, sun-tanned, friendly, generous. We assumed he was rich. He had no time for formalities, nor for that awful British restraint that held us so tight back then.

He’d met my father’s sister in the 1930s, in India, where they were both missionaries, and whisked her off to the States, first to New Jersey, later California. When he rose to be director of the mission society he’d come by every two years or so on a round-the-world trip. This was the mid-1950s. I was still in primary school. He brought us gifts, none more exciting to my young imagination than a series of stereoscopic images from his native country. Those Viewmaster cards of Yosemite National Park, the Grand Canyon, Niagara Falls, Mount Rushmore, the giant redwoods and such wonders, planted the notion in my mind that there was a magical land out there where everyone was bronzed, wealthy and contented, and every natural feature was huge, magnificent and accessible. They made England - the England I knew then - seem drab, cramped, unimportant. The seeds of fantasy he sowed in my head would soon be nourished by the westerns we watched, nightly, on the television which arrived in 1959.

My father wasn’t fond of the Americans. Like many a veteran of the late war he felt aggrieved that they’d waited – just as they had in 1917 – to join a European conflict  when the tide was about to turn, then taken all the credit for victory. His brother-in-law’s gifts prompted him to show off his own collection of historical artefacts, items brought home by our sea-faring ancestors. There was a Chinese pagoda which we had to assemble by stacking successive pieces of pinkish stone on top of each other; and once it was up we had to be careful not to jump on the floorboards, lest we make it wobble and bring it crashing down again. There was a copy of the Bible in Chinese, a set of ivory elephants, the smallest no bigger than your thumb-nail, a brass rose-bowl from India which we had to polish with Duraglit whenever we had visitors. And then there were the autographed photos of Buffalo Bill and Annie Oakley. These, my father told us, were a gift to our great-great uncle, who captained the ship that brought the celebrated showman to England in 1887, the year of Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee, when she came out of mourning and consented to attend the show at Earl’s Court.

I’m going to resist the temptation to explain in minute detail the meandering paths along which my fascination with the West led me, and how, over thirty years and a dozen road tips, my interest started to focus on the Great Plains, then Nebraska, and finally this sparsely populated, western corner of the state. I dare say a few stories about that journey will percolate through in due course, because when you’re in a place as remote as this there are days when very little happens – at least, nothing very noteworthy.

The fact is that over the last ten years or so I started to cast around for a place such as this. It was a simple enough idea, but it seemed an almost impossible dream: a little house in the middle of nowhere, uninhabited but weather-proof. It had to be slap-bang in the Sandhills, and it had to be one that a writer could afford. In the end it fell into my lap the way a thing that is meant to happen generally does. It came easily, suddenly, out of thin air, just when I was about to give up hoping. And it came at precisely the right time. After twenty years of struggle as a jobbing writer, I finally had enough money to allow myself six months away.

Before I go on, I need to put this all into some sort of context, so let’s start with Cherry County, which embraces a chunk of the northern Sandhills to the south and borders South Dakota to the north. Each one of its 5,000 square miles is home to a single inhabitant, on average. So my neighbours are well scattered. The ranch-house where my hosts Matt and Kitty live is out of sight, about a mile and a half from me. It can take me as much as ten minutes to drive up there, depending on conditions along the sandy two-track.

There’s another ranch about two miles further east, as the crow flies, but that’s still a six-mile drive, four if you cut across the pasture. Up-river is a cousin’s place, four miles west of here, but a twenty-five mile drive. There are very few diagonal roads out here, just north-south or east-west, following the old survey lines.

Our county town, Valentine, is, by the standards of western Nebraska, large, having a population of 2800. It’s seventy-five miles away to the east, so to go there and back you’re looking at close to half a tank of fuel. It has grocery stores, diners, several gas stations, a few motels, a bookshop and a library. It has the only stop light along a 200-mile stretch of Highway 20 between Ainsworth and Chadron.

Our nearest town, Merriman, is fifteen miles. It has a post office, a ranch supplies store, a bank, a cafĂ© that opens fourteen hours a day, a bar, a gas station with on-duty mechanic, a hair-dressing salon open one day a week, an elementary school, an air-strip… and 118 inhabitants, most of whom knew who I was before I even showed my face.

As to the ranch, it is modest in size. 6,100 acres. That’s a shade under ten square miles, enough to feed roughly 350 head of black Angus cattle and a small family. There’s one center-pivot which irrigates 130 acres where Matt raises a thousand bales of hay in a good year – alfalfa, millet, or triticale. There are no hired hands. If extra help is needed, at branding time, for example, or haying, everybody gets roped in: neighbours, friends, relatives, visiting British writers.

Now that I’ve got started on this, maybe I should introduce the woman whose life and work inspired me to come to this particular spot. I could try and weave her into my narrative, artfully, but I’d rather lay some solid, expository foundations. I’ve travelled in these parts often enough to become wary of artifice. It just isn’t the cowboy way.

When I first visited Nebraska, in 1991, I was most interested in Willa Cather, the novelist who grew up in Red Cloud in the 1880s and wrote so beautifully about the pioneer moment on the prairie, especially in My Antonia. In 1993 I was invited to give a paper at the annual Cather Conference, held that year in Hastings. I was at the time trying to get a foothold in the academic world. Fortunately, it didn’t work out. Broke my heart at the time, but I know now that it wouldn’t have worked for me. I just have to plough my own furrow.

By the time of the conference I had started reading more widely amongst writers from the Great Plains: Hamlin Garland, Bess Streeter Aldrich, Laura Ingalls Wilder - people like that. The one who was gripping my imagination – and speaking to something in me that I didn’t quite understand yet - was Mari Sandoz, whose biography of her father catapulted her to fame and gave her the freedom she’d always craved, to write about the history of her region. She dedicated the rest of her life to that task, and produced some classics. I’ve brought with me a copy of Crazy Horse, also Cheyenne Autumn, and of course the one about her father, Old Jules, probably the book I like best of any I’ve ever read.

Mari grew up in the Sandhills region, moved away in her twenties, and is buried on a bare hillside, surrounded by grass, soapweed and sky, some thirty-five miles south-west of here. She was born in 1896, the first child of Jules Sandoz’ fourth wife. He’d abandoned his medical studies in Switzerland back in 1881 after a fight with his family, sailed to the States and headed straight for the frontier, determined to go beyond the line of settlement. He was confident he could scrape a living with his gun. He was an excellent shot, and game back then was plentiful, even though the buffalo were already on the edge of extinction.

He fought with a first wife and left her, pregnant, in the town of Verdigre. That’s in the north-eastern part of the state, not far at all from the point where the Niobrara empties into the Missouri. Heading upstream, he ventured into and through the remote and forbidding Sandhills. Settling on the flat lands beyond the north-western edge of the hills, he married again. This woman, Henriette, was soon in the insane asylum, a fate suffered by many a desperate, lonely, frontier wife - let alone one with a husband as violent and bad-tempered as Old Jules. So he sent for a third wife, Emelia, who came mail order from Switzerland. She stayed two weeks and slipped away when he was out hunting. She saw no resemblance in the dirty, bearded, lazy man, now crippled after a fall down a well-shaft, to the scholarly gentleman who had written her such elegant letters, boasting of his land holdings, education and status in the new community and admitting to one small failing, that of smoking a pipe.

Wife number four fell into his opportunist grasp when she arrived at the railroad depot at Hay Springs to meet her brother Jake, whose homestead wasn’t too far from Jules’ place. But Jake was busy at something and didn’t show up – a woman, some say. On such accidents of fate whole histories revolve. Jules took her back to his place, and soon talked her into marrying him. He had, after all, a timber house, and fertile land. In no time he had her cleaning up, working in his fields, and carrying his baby.

We’ll come back to Mari and her father – and her five siblings and overworked mother – in due course. Right now I want to recall the circumstances which led to me finding this place. I want to emphasise that for me, a Brit, America remains a land where anything is possible, and that Americans, particularly westerners, are still positive enough in their outlook to respond to a person who demonstrates a spirit of enterprise. Show a sense of adventure and they will start cheering you on. As a great nation, their moment may be passing, but out West they still respect anyone who displays a bit of pioneer spirit, even if he is past his prime.

They have a Mari Sandoz conference each year up at Chadron. It’s a town of just under 6000 inhabitants, 10,000 when the college is in session. It’s ninety miles or so from here by road. When you get that far west you’re out of the Sandhills. You’re seeing yellow sandstone bluffs, dark pine trees fringing the tops. Wyoming is just along the road. The first time I came by there I half expected to see Alan Ladd ride out from behind a boulder on horseback. That was in `93. In `96 I returned for an event to commemorate Mari’s hundredth birthday, and somehow kept returning. In 2006 they inducted me as an Admiral in the Nebraska Navy. They tell me it’s an honour doled out to all and sundry, but I’m proud to be on a list that includes Mari Sandoz. I still carry the laminated ID card they gave me, and have the scroll hanging on my study wall.

In 2010 I prepared to attend one more conference. It was time, as they say around here, to shit or get off the pot. If ever I was going to find my hideaway, I needed to put the word out. I stayed, along with a number of  academics, in the Olde Main Street Inn. Never mind the cute spelling. This place, by U.S. standards, is ancient. The floors are crooked, the bedsteads are made of brass, the radiators of iron; when you turn on the shower in your room you wait a full three, four minutes for the water to run hot. The bar is long and straight, and out in the middle of the dining-room they have a stone-lined well. It’s got a suitably exotic history to go with all that. At the time of the Wounded Knee trouble, in 1890, General Miles stayed there. Later it was home to itinerant railroad men. Under its current ownership it’s found a place on the National Register of Historic Places.

The conference was over. It was Saturday morning and only a handful of us were left eating cinnamon rolls and coffee, down in the bar. The proprietor, the Olde Main Madam as she likes to call herself, had just finished cleaning her flintlock rifle and was squinting along the barrel. I was feeling as if I was on the brink of failure. Three more days and I’d be flying home with nothing to show for the entire trip. Just a great gaping hole in my bank account. And I was blaming myself. I had failed to be as pro-active as I’d intended. The fact is, I’ve got through life without ever learning to hustle. I’ve just been someone who has looked for opportunities and tried to make sure I’m in a position to grab them when they come along.

Over breakfast one of the academics asked the question. ‘What exactly is it you’re looking for?’ I spelled it out. Solitude, peace, time. Me and the hills and the sky. A camp-fire at sundown. A chance to experience a bit of what Mari experienced, get to understand her attachment to that landscape out there and divine the spirit of the place. A shack would do, so long as it’s watertight – and cheap.

She took out her cell phone. ‘You need to talk to my brother,’ she said.

An hour later I was sitting in the coffee shop around the corner. I was talking, not with Matt but his wife Kitty, who was in town getting her hair seen to. ‘We have a place,’ she said. ‘It’s not five-star, y’understand.’

Monday morning I drove east, turned south on Highway 61, then west three miles on the dirt. Met her at the ranch bungalow and did the final mile and a half in her pick-up, down the dusty, rutted trail towards the bend in the river. Half an hour later we were shaking hands on a deal. So long as I paid for the utilities, I could use it as long as I needed.