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Wednesday, 27 April 2016

'There Used To Be A Guy... But He Died.' Sample Chapter.

It's been a few weeks since I launched this book, in which I record the bike-ride I undertook across the state of Nebraska, back in the Fall of 1994. (http://amzn.to/1T3XxRP) Here's a sample of what you may be missing.

The Nebraska Sandhills
I woke up at six, stinging, my arms and legs burned by yesterday’s sun. Before checking out I visited a grocery store and bought some sunscreen.

The day’s weather looked good. Sandals and shorts kind of good. I still had plenty of yesterday’s lunch supplies left so I packed the bread in one of my boots, cheese in the other, stuffed clean socks into each, and strapped them on top of my air-bed and the ring-binder I was using for a notebook. I set off under a bright sun, in cool air. The fields were full of yellowing soya. The first hill of the day hurt like hell.

For the first few miles I retraced my steps, heading back over yesterday’s road in order to pick up Highway 4. At Verdon I began what would become more or less of a ritual, stopping at the post office to write home. Even the tiniest townships out west maintain a post office, sometimes no more than a room off someone’s lobby. There’s always a United States flag flying outside, and generally a warm welcome inside. There’s information too. Where can you get breakfast? Where can a guy camp? Anyone in town to fix bikes? 

I breakfasted at Country Joe’s. Two eggs, three pieces of bacon, hash browns and wholewheat toast. Greasy, hot and sizzling. Yes. My spirits, like my energy, like the land itself, were riding a wave. When I walked out into the sun I was ready to tackle that road once more.

This looked like being a shorter ride than yesterday. Burchard Lake, some forty-five miles on from Falls City, was my destination. There was supposed to be a campground there; basic facilities. The going was good. It wasn’t yet one o’clock when I rode into Humboldt (pop 1003). I found myself wondering who changes the population figure on the sign you pass as you enter these towns, and how often. Do they run out with a rivet gun and a set of fresh numbers after each death? It was an appealing idea.

Humboldt, perhaps only notable for its central square, its shade trees, the fountain, the gazebo given to the town in 1872, is one of many towns a traveller might easily miss. It’s off the highway, although not far off. And although there’s not much to it I’d been on the road long enough already to appreciate those basics: water and a  patch of shade.

Children were playing on the swings as I ate my lunch in the city square and tried to see whether I could dredge from my memory any worse eating experiences than yesterday’s burger - leaving aside England in the 1950s and ’60s, that is. There was the roadside diner somewhere in this very state where I ordered a BLT, only to be told they were out of bacon, and being served instead a slab of lightly fried inner-sole. And there was Detroit railroad station one bitter April morning in 1980, on my first ever experience of the U.S.A. – a breakfast bowl of Michigan chile purchased from a machine, warmed through in a coin-op microwave and washed down with lukewarm instant coffee. 

Just as I was grimacing my way through such memories, World War Three broke out, or so it seemed as the midday calm was rent by the ear-splitting wail of a siren. Nobody else seemed perturbed. It was just the town’s way of informing the good citizens – and any passing cyclists - that lunchtime was over.

Humboldt to Table Rock, across the Big Nemaha river, was only seven miles. From there it would only be ten or twelve to the lake. Suddenly the day had a leisurely feel to it. I realised that if I had the nerve I could make every day a gentle forty-miler. But what if something went wrong, or if winter struck early? On a day like this the idea seemed ridiculous, but it can happen. If I decided to stretch this trip out to late September, I realised, I could quite conceivably be hit by real cold. Early the previous October Caroline Sandoz had written to me from up in the Sandhills and mentioned the first snow having fallen, and remarked on what a good late summer it had been with the leaves still on the trees.

For the moment, however, I was back on the road and feeling almost relaxed. There was very little traffic, and what there was gave me plenty of room. I had each leg of the day’s trip measured out on the map. Yes, I was still buried away in the far south-east corner of the state but today’s run would be taking me into Pawnee County. I’d been counting miles; now I could begin marking off counties.

Table Rock is another off-the-highway town built around a grassy square. In a little bar I treated myself to a cold draught beer, an American pint, for seventy cents. As I cooled off I opened my Complete Roadside Guide to Nebraska and saw that there were a number of museums in town. I asked one of the guys at the bar where they were, and whether they were open.  ‘Nope,’ he said. ‘They’ll be shut, now that summer’s over.’ He could see I was disappointed. ‘But if you want to see them old Earl can show you round.’ 

‘Earl?’

‘Yeah, Earl Wilcox.’ 

‘And where can I find him?’

‘Why, ain’t he out there cutting the grass in the square?’ I looked blank. ‘Well, he’ll be around. Try his house. It’s a block north and one west.’ 

I have learned to look - if not stupid, then at least hesitant. That way people are more likely to get down off their bar stools and take you outside and point you in the right direction. And as the man climbed stiffly to the floor, who should show up but old Earl himself. 

I didn’t note Table Rock’s population, but it’s not above a few hundred. For its size, then, it has a truly remarkable collection of old buildings, some native to the place, others imported from around the county, and all crammed to the rafters with historic artefacts. Most of them form one side of the square. With his bunch of keys at the ready, Earl took me on the dime tour. I didn’t ask for it, but he seemed to know it would be good for me.

We started at the old country school house, hauled in from a neighbouring town thirty years ago. From there we moved to a pioneer cabin built in 1854, dismantled, moved and rebuilt log by log; thence to the 1893 Opera House. The Opera House was already failing in the 1920s - probably due to the coming of the moving pictures - when it was bought up by the Z.C.B.J., the Western Bohemian Fraternal Association. This part of Nebraska, as Willa Cather recorded, was settled by large numbers of Czechs in the late nineteenth century. When Earl was growing up on his folks’ homestead there were still numerous families who spoke Czech, and indeed at their Saturday night meetings the language was still heard. But now, he remarked, you’re more likely to hear the sounds of south-east Asia around town. There are thirty or forty Vietnamese families living in the area, many of them working at the Campbell’s soup plant.

All the buildings Earl took me into were treasure-troves of antiques and curiosities, but the huge prefabricated warehouse, or Quonset hut, which we visited after the schoolhouse, was quite remarkable. I have been in many a State Historical History museum which would have looked pale and insubstantial next to this collection of farm implements, antique tractors and automobiles. There was a 1924 McCormick tractor with iron tyres; there were Model T trucks and cars, Model As, a 1937 Graham, a resplendent 1960 Edsel, a Canadian Co-op tractor sold through the Farmers’ Union; and at a more prosaic level there were muck-spreaders, well-drillers, hay-racks, and of course a sod plough.

The sturdy sod plough, drawn by oxen or horse, is the tool which broke up this land of tough prairie grass in the three decades following the Civil War. Riding through fields almost groaning under the weight of ripening corn, soya and milo, it’s worth remembering that this was part of an area once known as The Great American Desert. Pioneers heading for the goldfields of California or the rich farmlands of Oregon in the 1840s and ’50s were only aware of Nebraska’s deficiencies, its lack of the raw materials with which to build houses, fences and barns - notably timber - and the inadequate rainfall, certainly west of the hundredth meridian. The fact that the tall grasses in the east and the shorter, hardier grasses to the west supported the enormous herds of buffalo and deer which roamed the plains didn’t exactly escape their notice, but it wasn’t going to persuade them to set up home in such a bleak, treeless landscape.

It was only in the 1860s that significant numbers of settlers started advancing along creeks and rivers into eastern Nebraska, as late as the 1880s that the western portion of the state would be opened up. And once the timbered river bottoms had been occupied and the straighter trees cut for buildings, the sod-house became the norm for new arrivals. The grasslands that had once supported millions of buffalo now provided the material to build houses and barns for the pioneer farmers.

My guide was raised on land which his English grandparents had settled as homesteaders.  In his young adulthood he worked eighty of their original 160 acres, sixty as pasture, twenty under cultivation. Hearing this reminded me that a part of the purpose behind my trip was to gain a sense of the pioneer experience and to test my own theories about the frontier moment. For all I’d read about the Great Plains it seemed to me that I would never get the faintest idea of what that land really did to people unless I got out and felt its physical impact. So far it was feeling huge and lonely, but essentially kind.

Table Rock’s range of exhibits was all but bewildering. Earl, in a spirit of true western hospitality, read aloud to me the legend on each and every display, and I took brief notes on guns, flat-irons, hay-burning stoves, buffalo robes and wooden potato mashers. He led me through an old post office, a dentist’s surgery and a general store, pausing to show me a display of canes made from roots dragged out of hedge bottoms. And then Earl was talking about his father and lamenting the fact that he’d failed to keep a record of some of the old stories he used to tell.

Below the Opera House was a deserted bowling alley. As we descended the steps to the basement, a toad hopped across the dusty floor. Earl remembered that when he was a high school kid, before the days of mechanisation, he was paid five cents a line as a pin-setter. This place closed some thirty years ago, but the scores from the very last set of games played there were still on the wall, roughly scribbled in chalk.

We called at the office of the old Table Rock Argus which ran from 1882 until the day, August 13 1974, when editor Rudy Denft died suddenly and the Pawnee Republican took it over. It all seemed to epitomise the decline of a small town: school defunct, newspaper closed down, bowling alley shut; there was even a deserted Catholic church, St John’s, opened 1877 and closed 1968. Inside it was a tiny vestibule where the youngsters were sent for Sunday school during the sermon. It had three seats and a chalkboard. There’s something so very seductive about these little towns: the peaceful shade of the town square, the slow pace of the elderly residents, the cars parked at an angle outside bank and barber shop and bar. The very idea of people a mere hundred years ago building a town to a plan, around a square, and setting out trees to give relief from the sun, seems almost quaint – but to a sun-burned traveller it feels as thought it was all done with love.

Earl shook my hand, wished me well, and gave me his card. ‘If you get in any trouble, you give me a call,’ he told me as we parted. I went to my bike, swung that weary leg, and was on my way once more.

This second day out would turn out to be the last one on which I was able to dawdle to any extent, if you can call forty-three or forty-four miles dawdling. About an hour before sundown I found the narrow little road that led through fields and woods down to Burchard Lake. It had been a cloudless day and it was still hot. With the end in sight I was, suddenly, quite exhausted. The final undulations that led to the State Park nearly finished me off. Each hill looked as though it ought to have been the last: the trees were ever thicker, the silence denser, the occasional call of a wild bird that much more startling. But, as I was to find over the next two hundred miles or so, there is always one more hill.

It’s strange how the very limits of your energy always take you just as far as the point of arrival. When you get there you know in your aching bones that you could not have gone a single yard further. And so I stopped on an acre or two of mown grass, bounded on two sides by trees, leant my bike against a marker post of some kind, and started to throw my camping gear onto the ground. No good putting off the chores: it would be dark in an hour, and in any case my legs were about to seize up. 

I had my little two-man tent up in minutes, had the sleeping-bag inside and the air-bed laid out on the grass. It took about three hundred steps with the foot-pump to inflate the thing satisfactorily. Generally when I’m going through this I ask myself if I really need it, especially as right now, with the sweat dripping off my brow and stinging my eyes. But I knew, from bitter experience, how badly adapted my body is to sleeping on the earth. I’m all bones, and they bruise easily. How I have envied my children, who just collapse onto the ground and sleep like little animals.

The sun was sinking and dusk setting in as I lit a small fire and prepared a meagre supper: a can of ravioli, some coffee and a can of peaches. The midges were out already and I covered my exposed parts with an insect repellent, wondering how effective it would be.

My dinner tasted good, and the brew was wonderful. It’s the most cowboyish thing there is, to squat by the light of a campfire sipping scalding coffee from a tin mug, and then swill out the grounds and hurl them into the embers. Before turning in I got on the bike and rode up the hill to see if I could find the lake. Reminder to myself: always go a little further, no matter how tired. Beyond the rise was the kind of scene I would hardly have dared hope for, the lake stretched peacefully between gentle reaches of wooded land, perfectly still in the evening light and marked by a single pair of ripples where two men in a fishing-boat were heading for home. Along the several miles of shore were, at most, two or three camper vans, and the smoke from a single fire hidden in the woods. The sky was streaked with purple clouds across a pale blue wash. I sat for a while taking in the silence and then wheeled my way home, down into the damp hollow where I’d pitched my tent, my only consolation being that to reach any of the choicer camping-sites around the shore would have involved several further miles of cycling.

I suppose I slept, but I seemed to be awake right through to two o’clock in the morning. I tried to read, but found that my torch batteries were just about flat. The air-bed was over-inflated, tight as a drum.

Far worse than those discomforts, however, were the noises. I’m a city man, born and raised in more or less urban surroundings. I have been awoken by cats singing love-songs, by the odd owl, but more generally by train whistles and the yells of drunks walking home from the pub. Once in Sweden I spent a wakeful night in the woods listening to the barking of elks. But at least I knew what they were. This night began with the crickets chirruping, a lullaby compared with what was to follow. 

What followed was a cacophony of yips ands yowls, cackles and wails, hoots and baying, all interspersed with the insane laughter of what might have been man or beast. I racked my brains to remember what kind of wildlife the early travellers out west - Parkman, Irving, Twain and the rest - reported. Were there hyenas? And what did a loon sound  like? Why would a pack of hounds be baying in the woods down here, and why would they, twice in the night, fall suddenly silent as if dead, only to erupt into a further blood-curdling racket? Did I really hear human voices in there? Hunters using decoys?

Somehow in the middle of all this I summoned up the courage to get out of the tent to take a leak. I consoled myself with looking forward to a view of the stars which would undoubtedly be hanging so low and bright as to be within my reach. That’s the way they are in all the books. I eased myself out of my snug sleeping-bag, unzipped the inner tent, reached out to unzip the fly-sheet, drenched with condensation, and tumbled onto the damp grass. As I made my way towards the nearest tree - it would seem unnatural to urinate anywhere else - I looked up at the sky. From horizon to horizon it was cloudy.

I got up at first light. I’d carefully set the tent to face the dawn, Indian-style, and indeed the clouds had thinned sufficiently for me to see the light spreading from behind the trees. I decided not to brew up more coffee. I wanted to move on. The idea was weighing on me that I ought to get into a routine of doing most of my riding in the early part of the day, unless the weather changed. But the only forecast I’d seen spoke of higher temperatures, up in the nineties. So I poured most of my remaining water into my little saucepan and washed myself all over. My arms and legs were immune to it, smothered as they were in sun oil, sweat, dust and insect repellent. By the time I’d got packed up, drunk the remains of my water and loaded the bike, the sun was once more visible, but the air was chill and I was uncomfortably cold as I fought the stiffness in my legs and puffed my way up the succession of hills that led me back to the highway. 

My legs, I’d noticed in the night, were more than merely stiff and aching. They felt solid, dead, like lengths of fallen timber, something I’d never felt before. It was as if I had wrought some permanent change over them. Out on the highway, with a nice nine miles to ride to the first town, Lewiston, I cheered myself with thoughts of breakfast.