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Friday, 29 July 2011

I didn’t realise I had been feeling low. Maybe it was a hangover from the previous day’s efforts on the north face here; or the poor night’s sleep that followed, when I kept waking up and smelling paint. I was up at five o’clock and didn’t really feel 100% until the afternoon. Then a succession of good things happened, and I was walking on air. It started with getting my teeth back from the dentist in Gordon. Okay, I had to part with $116, but suddenly I felt at ease about talking to people, making phone calls, smiling. Then I had a call from A and learned that she is, finally, a grandmother. Two weeks after the due date, her daughter-in-law gave birth to a ten-and-a-half-pound boy. Following that came a text message from my younger daughter, who recently finished at art school in London. Her final piece of work has been assessed and she has a First Class degree. I shall  take the train down and celebrate with her as soon as I get back.

The weather remained cool and cloudy into the afternoon, and I realised that the heat too has been weighing heavy on me. It struck me most forcibly when I was driving back from Gordon and spotted the herd of longhorns that graze on the north side of Highway 20. Every time I’ve seen them so far it’s been so hot that I haven’t wanted to get out of the car, but here we were, four o’clock and it was barely 80 degrees, with a nice breeze blowing. I pulled by the Historical Marker that I’ve been meaning to read ever since I got here, and went across the road to where several dozen cattle were munching grass and switching their tails.

They were surprisingly skittish at first, hurrying away as I approached. But after a while, as I walked slowly along the fence-line, they became curious. Just like me. I dare say these are mixed-blood, and I’d be interested to know whether the rancher who owns them breeds the longhorn strain into them for commercial reasons or out of sentiment. They certainly are a striking sight.


Back at the car I took a few moments to read the marker. It records the opening of the Sandhills – to cattlemen, that is – and in particular the story of the Newman ranch. Here’s where I wish I’d done what I generally do, and photographed it. But I didn’t. Very roughly, then, the story goes like this. It’s the late 1870s and this fellow Newman is running cattle on the lower land around here, making sure to keep them well away from the hills, which to his eye look barren and forbidding. (At that time, let’s not forget, this areas was marked on maps as The Great American Desert.) Then comes a severe winter, with blizzards and a hard freeze. When it’s over Newman sends his men out to round up such stock as might have survived. Those that stayed in the lowlands had been decimated, but, penetrating the hills, the men found a whole bunch that had not only kept themselves alive but actually thrived. Nobody ever looked at the Sandhills quite the same way again.

Just a few miles on from the longhorn herd I stopped the car again. I’d seen a crew putting up hay just a few days ago, and was aware that they were doing the old-fashioned thing, making ricks or hay-stacks. I’d come across a few of these to the south of Valentine, but that was several years ago. The gate to this pasture was open, and I was able to walk in. Just for a moment it felt a little like being back in England, with green grass and the smell of damp soil underfoot. It was the kind of spot we’ll often stop to picnic when we’re out on our bikes. I still enjoy telling people out here that my country would fit neatly into Nebraska; and that we are home to a population of 60,000,000; and that we have plenty of open space where you can get away from them all. I’m not sure I am always believed. The big difference between our farmland and Nebraska’s, I’d say, is that at home if I were out walking I’d expect to see a farmhouse every mile or so, often more frequently – unless I were out in the uplands, in sheep country. There you can walk a very long way and not see a soul. And of course the good thing about living in a more densely populated country is that you can plan a day’s walk, or a week-long hike, and build it around places to sleep, eat or grab a cheering pint. I know from bitter experience – namely, riding a bicycle across this entire state from the Missouri river to the Wyoming line in 1994 – that it can be a long, long ride between watering-holes. I still remember the day I cycled 32 miles to find a place that served breakfast.

Talking of which….

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