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Monday, 23 May 2011

The party wasn’t what I expected – but then neither was the host. I’d seen Ken Moreland last year at the Cowboy Poetry event in Valentine, but I didn’t get to talk to him. A lot of these people who perform in public carry their ‘larger than life’ personality with them 24/7, and can be quite hard work. I wasn’t sure what we were in for.

But before we get into that, a word of explanation. The photos I’ve scattered through the text below have nothing to do with the Morelands’ place. The fact is, I didn’t take my camera over there. Put that down to my British reserve. The way I was brought up, it would have been deemed presumptuous, if not ill-mannered, to show up at a stranger’s place and start snapping. So… some studies of a Studebaker truck and an Oldsmobile pick-up which I came across at the end of yesterday’s walk, when I found my way back to the north side of the ranch house, right alongside Matt’s junk-yard

But back to Saturday night. The excitement began with the ride over to his place, which sits above the Niobrara just east and a little north of here. I’d had directions, but it’s probably a good job I didn’t try to follow them or I’d have got lost. Instead we followed our archer buddies along the dirt road, turned north across the pasture and through a gate, bumped along a two-track, through a second gate, past a vintage chuck-wagon and into the yard. Mercy, my trusty old Chevy Blazer, can cope with this kind of terrain, but only in a resigned wheezy, creaky kind of way. I worry that I might be attending her funeral before this trip is over. She’s already making noises that I wasn’t hearing a month ago. But all that happens to me on long walks these days, and we got there.

Ken is a tall man with a large white droopy moustache and a real friendly manner. Unlike most ‘personalities’ I’ve met, he is interested in other people; he asks you questions and listens to your answers. But the first thing that struck me when he shook my hand was the strong smell of beer.  Blimey, I thought, not even . Then, just as I spotted it, so did he: the bottom of his coat was dripping all over his boots. ‘Guess it ain’t the brightest idea to keep your beer in your pocket,’ he said, squeezing it dry and extracting a half empty can of Busch.

He took us into a sort of open garage. It looked more like an antique store, with various artefacts in bone, horn and metal on display, including a large cast-iron stove which, he informed us, used to live in the basement of the red house, but had originally come from Fort Robinson. Fort Rob is an old cavalry outpost - now a museum - about a hundred miles west of here. It’s where Crazy Horse was killed, and where old Jules was hospitalised after his friends dropped him down the well and crushed his ankle.

We didn’t linger in the garage. The wind, like the stove, was cold, so Ken took us through into a proper old-fashioned den. I can begin to list the contents, but that’s about all I can do. He had a collection of old books about the west, another stove, more ornate than the first; he had posters, photographs, paintings, an entire collection of those Time-Life books about the American West, whiskey bottles, beer labels, guns, antlers, knives, a brass bedstead – or was it iron? – and a human skull, believed to be 200 years old.  

This was the beginning of a tour that took us next to the bunkhouse, where there were yet more books and paintings, photographs from the old ranch days, a copy of the photo of Merriman’s main street, circa 1885, that hangs on the wall of the Sand Bar that we visited the other night. There was a display of arrow-heads, from ancient rounded ones to the more recent delicately crafted variety. Through the window was a breath-taking panoramic view over the range.

From the bunkhouse we took in the various accommodations – it’s a kind of guest ranch he runs out there –  after which we piled into our vehicles and drove down towards the river. With the archers, Chainsaw Phil, myself, Ken, his wife Sharon and their kids, we made up a party of a dozen or more.  We were going to look for Morel mushrooms. Now Phil and I had found one of these a couple of days previously and were led to understand we’d done pretty well – apart from the fact that we neglected to bring it home and cook it. So this sounded to me as though it was going to be a lot of looking around for not much return.

Local knowledge: you can’t beat it. Our path wound its way between densely packed trees close by the river, the trail ever narrower. And then, like a wagon train that had found the ideal spot to camp, we fanned out in a clearing, stopped and piled out.  Out came the plastic bags, and it was ‘let’s go get `em’.  

I guess we were down there an hour, maybe a little longer. And I’d guess we picked eight or ten pounds of the things, perhaps more. They were everywhere, poking up from amongst the dead leaves, around the fallen, rotten timber, the new ones a pale honey colour, the larger ones dark brown, almost black. And now - thanks to Greg the archer, who has just emailed it to me, a clutch of them ready to pick, and below that the bulk of the harvest in the Morelands' kitchen:

Back at the ranch, the ladies sliced them in half, washed and dried them, then dipped them in beaten egg and flour before plunging them into a deep fryer.  I have never tasted a fungus - anywhere, in my entire life – that tasted less like a fungus. If I’d walked into a restaurant and been handed a plate of these I would’ve sworn they were a species of fish; and a very tasty one at that.

Well, I’m not going to describe the entire evening. Let’s just say that the food was great, the company congenial, and that as we left Ken told me to call him and come over another time. I said that I would do that – so long as I could find my way across that pasture.

Tomorrow the Chainsaw and I hope to be flying. Up at five and away to Valentine. But it’s a weather-dependent activity, and just now the weather refuses to settle. So we shall see how it pans out.

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