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Thursday, 21 April 2011

Plans to take the Mari Sandoz trail

It’s 41 degrees and heavily overcast, the wind is whistling through the timbers, and a large barbecue stand with gas bottle has just attempted a cartwheel across the yard. This is clearly destined to be a writing day, despite the fact that my legs are itching to get out and walk. Hence the pictures: one of my attempt to stabilise the runaway barbecue – nifty, doncha think? – and the other of my desk, where I’ll be spending the bulk of the day. I haven’t yet got it down to the squalid condition of my desk at home, but give me time.

My trip to town yesterday was good. I got a warm reception from Sarah Polak at the Sandoz Center, and a fresh copy of the Sandoz Country Tour map and guide. The trail takes you to a number of significant sites. It takes you to the old ‘river place’, that is, the first Sandoz homestead by the Niobrara (a way upstream from here). One of the delights of that spot is to sit atop Indian Hill, where Mari used to seek escape from the drudgery and sporadic brutality of her daily life, and muse on better times that might lie ahead.

My partner and I took this trail last year and decided the guide could do with some fine-tuning. Yep – we got lost. According to Sarah, she had a graduate student last year working on precisely that project, but he (she?) managed to leave town without handing over all the files that had been compiled. I’m making that a small project for the better weather.

I also noted the telephone number of the woman who owns the land where Mari’s grave stands, overlooking the site of the second homestead, where old Jules grew his fruit orchards. I’d like to camp around there. However, I’ve never forgotten a cowboy I met in a bar in eastern Montana some years ago. Nice friendly guy, but when I told him I liked to hike, and added that in Britain we have a ‘right to roam’ – that is, we can access farmland so long as we don’t damage fences, crops or livestock – he looked me up and down, stroked his moustache, and said, ‘Let me tell you something, friend. You set foot on private land hereabouts and the first sound you hear will be the warning shot.’

From the Sandoz Center I went to the Olde Main Street Inn to meet up with the owner, Jeannie. Jeannie is a remarkable individual, and a pretty sharp judge of character. She rode a large and noisy bike as a youngster and to this day accommodates a number of bikers who come each year for the Harley rally up at Sturges, South Dakota. These days she’s a calm, self-possessed type; my guess is she’s aiming for ‘matronly’ somewhere along the line. She put on a pot of coffee while I filled her in on my news. It was of course in this very bar that I made the contact that landed me with this tenancy.

As for her – well, the establishment is still for sale, but she’s in no great hurry. In any case, she wanted to tell me about the goings-on around town. She showed me a four-page letter she had printed out and sent to the city elders (I use the term loosely) and the press in response to the activities of the police chief, whose HQ is right next door. It seems that this small town of a little over 5000 souls requires ten police cars. The previous incumbent managed with four. And the modus operandi seems to have changed too. Previously, a beat copper might call in at the bar from time to time, drink a coffee and chew the fat. He was considered an ally. The new tactic is for two officers to enter the bar, at night, pull out a video camera and make a film and sound recording of everybody at the bar. People are even filmed as they walk home, questioned, breathalysed and asked for ID. And it’s driving custom away. ‘My take is down 30%,’ Jeannie told me, ‘and it’s the same at the other bars in town. They got this guy from somewhere in the southwest corner of the state. So keen to get rid of him they wrote a glowing letter of recommendation – and we wound up with him.’

And there was I thinking we were hard done by in the UK with our speed cameras and video surveillance on the street. I should add that Jeannie gave me permission to write this up.

A topical note on gasoline prices. Yesterday I filled up the vehicle. $74.62. Youch! Later, when I was flipping through some of the notebooks from my trips west over the past twenty years, I found myself complaining about $1.64 gas in Dodge City, Kansas. That was 2001. Ten years earlier, in 1991, I’d filled up at $1.15 a gallon - and was wistfully remembering the days of 89 cent gas, when I lived in Albuquerque.

So, a 45% rise in ten years to 2001, and from there to now – 250% and still rising.

Okay, to work.

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