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Saturday, 2 July 2011

I’m sitting in the lobby at the Cornhusker Hotel, about ready to hit the road west. This morning, at nine o’clock, I went with A.  at the airport, had a farewell cup of coffee, and said goodbye. It’s going to take a time to get used to being alone again. But… I’ve done it once and I’ll do it again. We’d had breakfast here with Ron Hull, a friend of many years now, a former NPR man who sits on the boards of both the Willa Cather and the Mari Sandoz organisations. He’s invited me to attend the Sandoz board meeting at Alliance towards the end of July. I’ll look forward to that. With luck – and a following wind – we’ll have that Old Jules Trail website up and running by then, and will be able to discuss ways of linking it to the Center at Chadron.
Yesterday we looked around the capitol building. It’s just a short walk from here, but with the temperature reaching 102, and a strong wind blowing, any kind of walking was hard work.

I always find the capitol building an inspiration. It’s not just the architecture, which creates a sense of towering ambition when seen from the outside, with an interior space not unlike what you’d find in a European cathedral; it’s also the way the art, sculpture and inscriptions celebrate aspirations and values that seem uniquely American.

“The Salvation of the State is Watchfulness in the Citizen.” You could say that we ought all to be mindful of that, and you would imagine that everybody would agree; it’s hardly controversial, whereas the epigraph that runs along the wall above the judges’ seats in the supreme court is really quite stern in its tone. I wonder how many appellants have sat and pondered these words while the learned judges listened to the arguments for and against them: “Eyes and ears are poor witnesses when the soul is barbarous.” It seems a remarkable word to use in such sober surroundings. I should imagine it has made many a person sit up straight and ponder the seriousness of the occasion.

Our guide was quite a character, very knowledgeable but managing to convey the many facts at her disposal with a light touch, always breaking off when she thought we’d reached saturation point with an enquiring ‘Shall we?’ a she ushered us on to the next point of interest. And she kept breaking off from her discourse on the art, architecture and history of the building to engage with the various wedding parties who were lining up to take photos beneath the rotunda. When she saw a bunch of young ladies in beautiful dresses sitting on the marble tiled floor with their glasses of wine, she had to know why. ‘Because it’s co-ol down here,’ they answered -  and for once they didn’t mean ‘groovy’. She told them that if they were too warm they should stand at the doors of the Chamber, where the representatives meet every year in January to hammer out the legislation. ‘Oh right,’ one of the girls said, then asked, ‘why’s that?’

‘`Cos all the hot air’s gone.’

Later we walked several blocks to the university campus and visited the natural history museum in Morrill Hall. They have a huge sculpture of a prehistoric mammoth outside, and A. tried to convince me that its size tallied with the fossilised bone that Chainsaw Phil and I dug out of the draw several weeks ago. I was dubious, until we walked inside and saw in front of us a mammoth’s tibia, just three feet long and looking remarkably like the fragment we now have in the red house basement.

On days like yesterday you soon find yourself scurrying for shelter. By late afternoon we were back in our room showering, and didn’t venture out until the evening, when the temperature had dropped to a more bearable 93 or so. We took a stroll over to the Haymarket district, over by the old railroad depot, where warehouses and workshops dating from the last century have been re-invented as coffee-shops, galleries and eating-places. We lounged a while in Michael Forsberg’s photographic gallery. I found that an interesting experience. Here we were, surrounded by his gorgeous images of Plains and Sandhills scenes, and I found myself unwilling to take them in. I think I was feeling a little bit proprietorial. I am now familiar with those plants, these animals, that particular cloud formation. And I have my own images – many hundreds by now. Few of them will ever hold a candle to his masterful pieces, but they speak to me now in a way that somebody else’s never will.

We ate in an Indian restaurant and walked home in the dark. Home? I mean back to the hotel. And then  it was morning, and time for leave-taking. See you in three months. Yes, see you.

Now back to the road.

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