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Friday, 13 May 2011

As my old rat-catching mate Walter would have said, ‘By heck, if it gets much colder I shall `ave to put on another pair of braces.’

[Note for American readers: braces = suspenders.]

I thought I’d seen the back of this weather, but here I am sitting at my desk, the heating full on, wearing five layers: T-shirt, shirt, thick fleece, goose-down jacket, waterproof coat. Then there are my trusty moleskin trousers and a thick sort of felt hat with ear-flaps. Outside, under the apple tree, whose blossom lies bruised and battered, my thermometer has hovered between 42 and 43 degrees since yesterday morning. The wheelbarrow, which last week was full of cow chips, is now full of water. I’d say we’ve had close to an inch and a half over the past twenty-four hours. The  rain has more or less stopped, but the wind, whistling down from Canada, persists.

So, yesterday, as the rain swept in over bluffs, Chainsaw Phil and I had a point to prove. Two of the hunters, fresh from the 91-degree heat of Georgia, took a look out the window, stowed their guns and drove to Mount Rushmore; the other two stayed home and watched action movies. We Brits, determined to show our vigour and fortitude, decided we would go hiking – after we’d paid a visit to town.

I’m getting to like Merriman. And I’m starting to find more to do down there. For a town of 118 souls it’s a regular little beehive of activity. First call was the post office - where a huge parcel awaited me. Actually, it was the Chainsaw’s sleeping-bag and tent – ordered in response to my promise of hot weather and a camper’s paradise out along the Niobrara. After we’d signed for that we went to the garage to put another $60-worth of gas into Mercy’s thirsty tank and hunt up Don. I needed to tell him how right he’d been about the spare tyre the other day – that it did indeed show up in Kitty’s dad’s yard. He nodded his head. ‘Yeah, I told ya. I’ve known him long enough.’

From there we leant into the screaming wind and staggered around the corner to ranch supplies. I’d not met the lady in there before, but as soon as I mentioned mouse poison she looked me in the eye and said, ‘Guess you’re up at the red house.’

Now how would she know that? ‘Why,’ she said, ‘ya drove up in Kitty’s dad’s old Chevy, that’s how.  `Sides, everyone who stays up there complains about the mouse problem. That’s $2.89… plus your tax.’

Exhausted by this social whirl, we repaired to the cafĂ© where I ordered the lunchtime special. Ribs in barbecue sauce – with hash browns, and green beans, and biscuit, and a trip to the salad bar. Ribs? I’d call it a generous portion of a pig that happened to have a couple of bones in it. That was at , and I didn’t even think about food again till eight at night. It could be some kind of record.

We were now ready to face the elements, although I had a cunning plan to avoid the worst of them. The remarkable thing about this area, as I have tried to intimate, is that it contains several distinct micro-environments. We gritted our teeth, leaned forward at 45 degrees, and trudged toward the tops, before descending to the riverside about a mile from home as the crow flies. Down amongst the cedars we found much calmer, more temperate air. With my many layers on I was at one time moved to unzip a few inches of my raincoat.

We now followed the river-bank around three or four sharp curves, squeezing through the overhanging branches, inches from the fast-flowing stream. Along the way I spotted two or three encouraging signs that there may be good times just around the corner – and that leads me to the photographs.

I have scoured both my plant books and been unable to identify the yellow flower. It seemed common enough on the chalky bluffs, and I suspect it may be of the cabbage/mustard family. But, yes, so wild wet and windy were the conditions that  I knelt down, snapped and pressed on while I still had control of my fingers. The lovely mauve flower is some kind of sweet pea; and below that, instantly distinguishable by its black stem and gorgeous scent (when crushed) is the common peppermint. Could be very useful if it ever warms up. Mint juleps, anybody?

But… warming up. It ain’t gonna happen today, so we are taking a leaf from the hunters’ book and going on a trip. Tell you all about that tomorrow.

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