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Thursday, 30 June 2011

Red Cloud Nebraska

We are in Red Cloud – or, more accurately, in a tiny little cottage in a field on its northwestern edge. We arrived last night just as it was getting dark. The stars were out, fireflies were spiralling above the grass, and the temperature had dropped from the hundred mark, where it had hovered all day, to around 89.

There’s more to tell about yesterday’s journey, but first I’d like to tidy up a few odds and ends. I had intended, when I set out on this six-month adventure, to camp out as much as possible. So far, the weather has been against it, but on Monday A. and I finally managed to get out into the hills and get the tent up. We didn’t go far; that was never the idea. We just wanted to be somewhere where we would be surrounded by grass and sky. We found it where I’d hoped we might, at the top of a draw barely a mile from home. We put the tent up on a patch of level ground, scratched a hole in a sandy spot, and gathered firewood from under the cedars down below us.

The fire was keen, bright and eager. A steady breeze, a few wisps of smoke and the cool night air kept the insects at bay. We sat and watched the sun disappear, saw the stars come out, listened as a couple of coyotes tried to get a sing-song going, and finally turned in when the last of the light had gone. Perfect. In the morning, as the sun came up over the range, we brewed our coffee, packed up and hiked back to the red house to start preparing for our roads trip. I can think of no finer way to enjoy this magnificent landscape; and it doesn’t cost a penny.

Packing took longer than we’d imagined, but we still had the afternoon free, and decided to re-visit the draw where Phil and I had found the fossilised bone of  a mammoth (at least, that’s what we’re calling it). The rains had certainly altered the configuration down there. What had been a small meadow and a patch of reeds was now a sea of mud. We spent an hour or so clambering over the steep slopes hoping to find more fossils or artefacts, but soon lost heart. It was hot, and time was running out.

I’m galloping along. I need to. I want this to be a near-complete record of what I get up to out here, but today I have a sense of being a born-again Cather fan. She was the first Great Plains writer I encountered. It was here in Red Cloud that I gave my first and only academic paper in 1993, where I met Frank and Charlotte Wright, who wrote down Caroline Sandoz’ address on a piece of paper and sent me on to the Sandhills. There will be more to say about that, but it will have to wait a few days.

One more loose end; one more flower. The range around the red house is dotted with soapweed, or yucca; it’s peppered with them, and they are all starting to flower. But there are also a lot of prickly pear tucked away under the grasses, and on Monday we stumbled upon the first one we’d seen that’s come into bloom. It was a startling sight.

Getting on our way on Tuesday afternoon was yet another adventure. I was hoping Matt wouldn’t come by on his ATV and see what we were doing, because after the road had washed away he’d gone to all the trouble of showing us how to drive Mercy up the hill, around the cedars and onto the track at the top. But we were left with a great big ‘what if?’ What if we loaded her up, gunned the engine, charged the hill, and got it wrong, when we had a schedule to meet?

So we left the vehicle where it was, took the wheelbarrow, loaded up A’s back-pack, my case and the box of groceries and set off up the hot scarred trail, like some re-enactment of Mormons on their way to Utah…. I hope I’ve got that comparison right, and not offended any Latter Day Saints.

We got to our motel in Chadron late in the evening, and on Wednesday morning headed for Wahlstrom Ford to collect our hire car. Along the way we called in at Levi’s junk yard, parked perilously close to this sign, and we bought a spare wheel for Mercy. $21.40.

All this time I’ve been driving around without a spare. Levi’s had no tyre and doubted that they could get one, but A had another of her brainwaves (this is probably the difference between someone who completed her PhD and someone who didn’t). Why not ask Wahlstrom to do the job? The upshot is that they are fitting one on the new spare wheel while I’m out of town. That was good enough, but the big shock came when the mechanic asked me how much did I want to spend. ‘About $15,’ I said, by way of an opening bid, remembering that the first new tyre had set me back $90-plus. ‘That vehicle’s only got to last me another two three thousand miles.’

‘I reckon can do it for you for about $30,’ the guy said. I didn’t kiss him, but I could have.

So we left our Sandhills car outside the showroom alongside all those gleaming monsters and set sail for Red Cloud in our shiny red Ford Focus. I’ll talk about the town, and its most famous daughter, tomorrow.

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