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Wednesday, 16 September 2015

Chicago - Denver - Fort Robinson, Nebraska


 

In camp, brewing up
We left Chicago on the two o’clock train Monday – and, to everybody else’s huge surprise, arrived in Denver bang on 0714h Tuesday. Well done, Amtrak. Sunday yielded one major disappointment: we walked down to 8th and Wabash to spend an evening at Buddy guy’s blues club, but found it closed for a private party until 10.30 pm. Too late for two old geezers who had things to do Monday morning – namely, a very informative walking tour around some of Chicago’s earliest tall buildings, those put up in the first two decades after the fire that wiped the city out in 1871. We plan on signing up for another such walk on our way back through in about four weeks’ time – and we’ll make that trip down to Buddy guy’s at last.

I’d been fretting about how we would get from Denver’s Union station to the airport with two heavy bags, A’s fiddle and a small back-pack apiece. We’d had conflicting advice, most of it suggesting a really difficult journey. In fact, we stepped off the train onto a newly-constructed concourse with a bus terminal adjacent, and there, before our very eyes, was a dedicated airport bus (half-hourly service). We got out there for eight-thirty, were able to collect our car early, and hit the road. A few hours later we arrived at Fort Robinson, Nebraska, where we pitched our tent, lit a fire and cooked steak.

This morning, after I’d nailed down the final version of the talk I’m giving at the Bean Broker on Friday, we set off to explore this site of an old cavalry fort, established in 1874 and kept in use until after the Second World War, during which it served as home to the K-9 corps.

Home of K-9, the Canine Corps
 
Back in the 19th century, of course, it serviced the Red Cloud agency, where defeated Plains tribes received their allowance of cattle, blankets, flour, etc – or some approximation to it. It wasn’t exactly UNESCO. The signage around here, however, seems to offer an un-reconstructed version of events from a white viewpoint. There was the laughable remark on one of them, to the effect that this place ‘was a powder-keg’: yes, on one occasion a group of hostile ‘chopped down the flag-pole’. This is where the Northern Cheyenne were held captive, and where Crazy Horse was killed; or murdered – take your pick.

Fort Rob was also the place where Mari Sandoz’ father, the irascible Old Jules, was taken after  he fell down the well-shaft – with a little help from his friends. Here he was treated by Walter Reed, the young surgeon who would later discover a cure for Yellow Fever. When he told Jules he would have to amputate his septic leg, Jules memorably retorted that if the good doctor did so he would shoot him so fast he would stink before he hit the ground. I’ve always loved that story, so I was pleased to find this photographic portrait of Reed, even more so when, having taken the picture, I looked at my camera and saw the message ‘blink detected’ flashing at me. Maybe he was winking.

The legendary Walter Reed
 
Unfortunately, our tour of the fort amounted to little more than a visit to the office; all the exhibits close during the week, it being September. Instead we walked out to the site of the old agency and around the site of the POW camp they had here from 1943-45. That’s always fascinated me, the idea of some German being captured in the Libyan desert and effectively waking up in western Nebraska to sit out the war. It had to be better than the Eastern Front. One of these days I’ll write a story that comes to me every time I visit this site.

Bluffs to the north of the Red Cloud Agency
Tomorrow we’re taking an early morning hike around the bluffs, then in the afternoon driving east to Chadron for the Mari Sandoz conference. We’ll be putting up at the Olde Main Street Inn, drinking beer with the Olde Main Madam herself, and hoping to touch base with some other Sandoz devotees.