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Thursday, 31 March 2011

It all seems very simple, looking back. It wasn't.

It took me until 2009 to decide that I might just be able to afford to take six months out. That was largely thanks to the series of books I've been writing, which I'll get around to later. For the first time since I was writing for Emmerdale, back in about 2000, I was solvent. Nothing in the bank, you understand, but no outstanding debts. Ask any writer: that is success.

I plunged back into the red and headed west to attend the annual Mari Sandoz conference, held at the little college town of Chadron, out in the Panhandle and barely a hop, skip and a jump away from the area where she grew up. I'd attended a couple of times previously. In 1996 there was the hundredth anniversary of Mari's birth, and in 2005 a rather special one for me: I was inducted as an Admiral in the Nebraska Navy - largely thanks to the lobbying of my dear friend, the late Mary Ethel Emanuel, who knew and liked some of the things I'd written about the Cornhusker State.

Okay, there is no Navy in Nebraska. We understand that. And I do not wear a tricorn hat - although I would, if asked to. But I do have on my wall a scroll stating my rank and according me certain privileges of office, and I do carry in my wallet an ID card signed by the Governor. I'm still waiting for the chance to pull it out and confound an over-eager Highway Patrol officer.

So, March 2010. This time, I tell myself, I am going to hustle. I am going to chew the ears of any ranch folk who show up at the conference - plenty of them do - and plead my case. Have you got a little old cabin or shack, out on the range, where a Limey writer can read, reflect and compose.

The conference barely lasted forty-eight hours. I stayed at a delightful frontier period hotel, owned and run by another dear friend, Jeannie Goetzinger. If ever you get to Chadron, check out The Olde Main Street Inn ( with its brass bedsteads, creaking stairs and weathered timbers. Imagine General Miles staying there at the time of the Wounded Knee outbreak - because he did. And then relax in the Long Branch Saloon and drink a glass of wheat beer while Jeannie sits and spins her alpaca wool - or lamb's, or rabbit's, or dog's hair - and talks about the history of the place.

We'd had the scholarly papers, we'd had the Friday night faro and blackjack games, and here we were, Saturday morning, and almost everyone had gone home. And had I hit pay-dirt? Had I hell.

"So what is it you're after?" There were just four of us: myself and a group of three academics from Colorado and South Dakota restoring ourselves from the bottomless coffee-pot.

"Oh," I said, probably sounding more forlorn than I meant to, "I was looking for a place out in the hills where I can spend six months thinking and writing and...."

I was interrupted by the sound of a number being tapped into a cell `phone. "You need to talk to my brother."

It turned out that this lady's brother was busy calving, but his wife would be in town later having her hair done and would meet me for coffee.

An hour later she was describing the former ranch house, now a hunting lodge, that they have down by the river and explaining how much they liked to share the great life they had out there. So why didn't I come out to see it?

I loved the place instantly - and as soon as I say that I am reminded that in an earlier post I referred to a leaking roof and a malfunctioning shower. Well, there were a few drips, not that they bothered me; and I was more than happy to bathe in the prettiest river on the Great Plains. So maybe I exaggerated. Okay, I used to write soaps....

We struck a deal: tenure for six months for the cost of utilities, so long as I didn't mind occasional parties of deer and turkey hunters, plus a party of lady trail riders. Who, me? A writer - and a bloke?

So, the three photos at the head of this posting - and again, bear with me: there must be a way to shove them around so that they sit next to the passage that refers to them, but this blogging greenhorn has yet to find it.

Top left is the full frontal view; that's me taking my ease out front. Beside it is a shot of the picnic chairs, pointed towards the sunset. I'll be there, beer in hand, many a lonesome evening. The third picture is what you see as you approach the house: to the left a barn, to the right a large cattle shed where the calving will be taking place around the time I show up - which is in seven days.

I suppose I'm slightly jumping the gun in showing the house when I've yet to arrive there, but the fact is I did check it out and did stay there a few nights. When I got home from that trip, full of my good news, I found I had further cause to celebrate. I had earlier applied for a Wingate Scholarship ( to fund my spell in the Sandhills, and here was a letter inviting me for interview in London.

There is a tide in the affairs of men, etc etc... Six weeks later I got the good news: they liked my project and would fund me. There was only one way of responding response to that. Yee-ha!!

Monday, 28 March 2011

Nine days to departure, and I am slowly getting on top of things at home. Not the kitchen, which looks as though a stream of people in muddy boots have been tramping through it - that’s because they have - and not the desk, which has been neglected while I donned said boots and sorted out the allotment. I can report that it is now in fine fettle: all freshly dug over and planted with onions, peas and beans, with spuds to follow later in the week.
Time to introduce my heroine Mari Sandoz (left), and explain what attracts me to her, because this entire six-month gig is rooted in a love of her work and a fascination with her life.
The picture I’m posting is of a bronze statue which adorns the Sandoz Heritage Center (yes, I know, Centre) at Chadron, some eighty miles or so from where I’ll be staying.
I got to know Mari's work twenty years ago after I'd driven up the Santa Fe Trail from New Mexico and had my first look at Nebraska. I'd read a great deal about my childhood heroes, the cowboys and Indians who fought it out on the Great Plains, and by the time of this trip (1991) I had got interested in the explorers, hunters, fur-traders, prospectors, scouts and soldiers who mapped out the West. By now I was becoming interested in the stoic heroes of what they call the farm frontier, the sod-busters, the dirt farmers who tried to wrest a living from 160 acres of windswept prairie - and mostly failed.
I came across three particularly interesting people who had grown up on the Great Plains in farming communities, all of them women, all them writers. One was that fine novelist Willa Cather, who grew up in Red Cloud, some way south of where I'm going to be staying, near the Kansas line. A second was Laura Ingalls Wilder, who wrote the Little House series and whose life was far less happy than the books suggest. Then came Mari Sandoz, whose early life in the Nebraska Panhandle informed her entire writing career.
Let's start with some snapshots from Mari's life. Her father, Jules Ami Sandoz, a Swiss medical student, ran away from home when his parents tried to put a stop to his amorous dalliance with a (female) railway clerk. In a fury, he crossed the Atlantic, headed west until there were no more people, then claimed a homestead in the Nebraska Panhandle, right beside the Niobrara river.
Let's not beat about the bush here: Old Jules, as he was known, was one cantankerous sonofabitch. He had already abandoned one wife and driven a second mad when he married a third, who came mail order. Even if she was willing to live in a hovel with a leaking roof in the middle of nowhere, she was not going to have her husband skinning muskrats on the kitchen table and leaving her to clean up the guts - let alone the fact that he neither washed nor shaved, had been crippled in a well-digging accident, and still carried a wound that constantly oozed a malodorous pus. She took a train back east. The fourth wife would surely have done likewise had she not found herself pregnant. The first of her six children was Mari, born in 1896.
At three months Mari was beaten black and blue by her father for crying too loud. At eleven, when she told him she'd had a story published in the Omaha paper, he locked her in a snake-infested cellar. Fiction was for serving girls. When she was fourteen he decided there were too many people around. He sent her, with her ten-year-old brother, to watch over a new spread he'd acquired, deep in the Sandhills with no neighbours in sight. He packed them some flour and beans, a gun and a few other odds and ends. It was May. See you in September, he said, and left them to it. Free of his domination for a season, free to wander from dawn to dusk in pursuit of game, Mari fell in love with the Sandhills, with the endless vistas of grass and sky, the song of the meadowlark.
Her father may have been mean and dirty, but he was educated. With the children all needing new shoes he frittered away an entire inheritance on a set of phonograph records - to teach them the value of good music and remind them of their European heritage. Despite his cultured background - or because of it - found he had more in common with the Native Americans than with most white people, and would frequently have veterans of the Wounded Knee Massacre (1890) and even the Little Big Horn (1876) gathered at his table to trade, smoke tobacco and tell stories - perhaps unaware that a little girl was crouched by her attic door, listening to every word.
Aged 16 Mari ran off to be a teacher, at 18 she got married, and at 23 was divorced, taking herself off to the state capital, Lincoln, to be a writer. How she laboured for success - and achieved it - is an epic story in its own right, and I dare say I'll get into that some time in the future. Her very best work celebrates the Great Plains in general, the Sandhills in particular, but always the people - Native and white - who populated the area in those stirring frontier times. It was the 'warts and all' portrayal of her father's life that got her launched. She followed Old Jules with a superb biography of Crazy Horse and a series of books that chronicled, among other subjects, the decline of the Cheyenne people, the growth of the cattle trade, the exploits of the buffalo hunters and the Battle of the Little Big Horn. Every one reflected her deep attachment to the Great Plains landscape.
I've posted a couple of photos of typical Sandhill scenes (above). One is taken in the vicinity of Mari's grave, just visible in the distance. It overlooks the spread she and her little brother watched over, that summer of 1910. The second, of the fence-post, speaks to me in some way I cannot yet put into words. Somewhere down the line I expect I'll find out how to integrate these images with the text. For the moment, they sit where the blogspot designers decree that they must sit. Being a well brought up sort of guy, I will just be grateful for the chance to get them up there in some sort of order - and ask for my readers' indulgence.
I hope this hasn't been too 'scholarly'. I am interested in all aspects of Great Plains life - from the weather to the scenery to the cowboy culture and ranching practice, not to mention the individuals who contrive to make a living out West. I know that already a number of local characters have expressed an interest in meeting the crazy Limey who's coming to stay - and while I have been warned not to believe too much of what they tell me I can't wait to make their acquaintance. So I expect to wander to and fro in these essays, between daily life on the ranch, the weather, my explorations along the banks of the Niobrara, and what I'd call more cultural matters. In my next posting I think I'd better describe how I came to obtain the tenancy of the old hunting lodge. That's quite a story in itself.
But right now... lunch.

Monday, 14 March 2011

I'm still learning about uploading photos. On the left is a typical of a stretch of Sandhills range, below it a shot of the Niobrara, just a mile or so from where I'll be staying. The contrast between the two is really quite astonishing. From above the river what you see, extending for mile after mile is... grass, grass and sky. Drop down a hundred feet, perhaps two, to the river and you're in a different world. I'll post more pictures later.

It’s now 23 days until my departure, and I have started packing.

I’m fairly well used to preparing for a western trip. As I said before, I think this is my fifteenth. I usually take very little in the way clothing, which I pack in a medium sized suitcase along with any books, maps and papers, and plenty of foul-weather gear. I take a full set of camping equipment: tent, sleeping bag, stove, axe, mug and spoon, water containers, my collapsible three-legged stool and a soft, black, satiny pillow from Black’s. These I put in a general purpose hiker’s back-pack. Then I add a few odds and ends such as rope, water purifiers, my handy little flint and steel, a plastic tub with a bit of birch-bark or resin in it, and a few matches. I have a mild obsession with lighting fires with a flint, and a sense of failure every time I use matches. But then I’ve always been fascinated by fire. One day, when I’m running out of things to write about, I dare say I’ll relay a few stories from my mis-spent youth.

I used to pack a nifty little Mora knife, a present from a Swedish friend which accompanied me on hikes and bike-rides for thirty years. On my carborundum block I could work up a razor-sharp edge which would keep for weeks. Then one day a couple of years ago as I boarded a train to Paris, the Eurostar security people declared its four-inch blade illegal and confiscated it. I’ll buy something in a hardware store when I fly into Rapid City. Americans are perhaps too laid-back about knives - you can buy some huge ugly things in the shops over there - but we Brits surely veer the other way, towards neuroticism. What do the authorities think a sixty-year-old writer is going to do with a knife, other than cut a little kindling, slice his way through the odd steak - and defend himself against thieving security guards.

Although I’ll be staying in the hunting lodge I expect to sleep out in the open as often as I can. The ranch I am staying at comprises 6100 acres, spread along several miles of the river, so I’m not short of places to build a fire and bed down for the night. I’ll be packing a lightweight tent, but I doubt I’ll use it much. I often sleep out when I’m hiking, and have grown to prefer it: you can travel a lot lighter that way, you can bring your day’s walk to an end when you feel like it, rather than having to plod on to the nearest hotel; and your experience of the night, the sky, the air, the sunrise - and, yes, the weather - is that much more elemental. If I do get a good soaking, I’ll rarely be so far from base that I can’t get home in two or three hours, and I’ll have a bivvy bag with me.

People have been asking, am I not worried about wild animals? To tell the truth I’ll be more worried about the cattle. Around May time the heifers will be turned out onto the open pasture with their youngsters, and if my experiences back home are anything to go by, the calves will most likely be (a) curious and (b) skittish. But the range is divided by several barbed-wire fences for better management of the fragile grass cover, so I should be okay if I keep a note of where the herd is grazing from week to week.

The only other critter that might bother me is the brown and white horse that seems to wander freely about the ranch. I don’t know its name yet, but he - or she - showed some interest in me when I was visiting last year, until I offered it a carrot, whereupon it tossed its mane, snorted, and took off. Horses know damned well when you’re unsure of them - although a spell amongst the veteran rodeo riders of Utah and Nevada a few years ago gave me a little more confidence in that area. As to any rattle-snakes that may lie in wait for me under tree-stumps or rocks - well, to quote an old joke, I guess they’ll just have to take their chances. When I first met the ranchers they offered me the use of .22. I instinctively declined, but may change my mind - not because I am scared of sidewinders, rather that it might make for a better story if I accepted. Besides, I have fired a .303, back in my sixth-form days, and rather enjoyed it. I got a pretty decent grouping, as I recall.

Well, I am slowly getting the hang of this. I’m going to try to update this every few days before I go, and fill in a little more background on how I came to be enamoured of the Sandhills. Tomorrow I’m off to Leeds where my son is going to explain to me how to make best use of a blog, and how to exploit Facebook to my advantage. I am also going to grit my teeth, swallow my pride and request an introductory course on twittering. I have it on good authority that that’s the way forward. I can hardly wait.

Tuesday, 8 March 2011

I leave for the red house in thirty days.

My blogging career is about to start. I feel strangely nervous.

I am a professional writer who has been advised, cajoled, nagged and all but bullied into taking this step. I know it makes sense, particularly as I am at an important juncture in my career, but I have been reluctant. It's new. It requires effort. It may go wrong. However, it's time I got started.

After forty-four years of writing, twenty-five as a pro, and seventeen as a fully self-employed practitioner, I have finally achieved what I set out to achieve - by a combination of good fortune and considerable endeavour. I have made time and space in which to write what I wish to write, from the heart, based on direct experience, without having to worry about getting it published conventionally, or making money out of it. And I'd like to share it with whoever finds it interesting or entertaining. I do not wish to put a penny into the hands of publishers, agents or VAT men. They've already had their cut.

In about four weeks I leave England and fly out to a remote cattle-ranch in western Nebraska. There I will move into what used to be a family home, built of hand-made red-paintedconcrete blocks eighty or ninety years ago, but abandoned in around 1980, since when it has been used as an occasional hunting lodge. It sits eight miles up a dirt road, 30 miles from the nearest grocery store, and has no phone signal or Internet access. The roof leaks, the windows rattle, and the plumbing is idiosyncratic; but it has an electricity supply, lights, a freezer, a stove, and a cold cellar ideal for storing beer. It will be my home until October. It sits beside the beautiful Niobrara (the Native name: it means Running Water), and is shaded by the broad-leaved trees that grow along the river-bank, all the way across the state to the point where it flows into the Missouri.

Beyond that, I will be surrounded by the Sandhill region, 20,000 square miles of grass-covered dunes populated by cattle, deer, coyotes, eagles, and a few scattered ranchers. I expect two visitors, and occasional hunting parties. Otherwise it's me and my supplies - and the tools of my trade.

I've been in love with this area for twenty years, have crossed it by car, bus, train and bicycle, but have never spent more than a week or two there. I have been enchanted by the western States for thirty years, with the idea of the West - the Wild West - for over fifty, since we got our first TV in 1958. In 1980, when I first travelled across the Plains, by train from Chicago to L.A., with stops at Lawrence Kansas and Albuquerque New Mexico, I started to wonder what it must be like to live out there in that great emptiness, in one of those seventeen western states, each of them unique, each of them distinct, each of them unimaginably vast. I now have the chance to find out.

In later posts I will talk about how I came to know the Sandhills, their history, and some of the literature they have inspired; I will talk about how I came to hold the ID card of an Admiral in the Nebraska Navy, how I came to know the generous ranchers who have offered me the use of their old lodge, and how I came to be in a position to afford such a venture.

My blog will consist of a number of strands.

There will be my daily journal: how the weather is, how the grass is doing, and what I see as I hike, camp and sleep out - in the hills or along the river.

There will be posts about my career as a writer, and what I did for thirty years previously, touching on the 50-odd jobs, from rat-catcher to immigration officer, from freight-train guard to university lecturer, from parks gardener to racecourse bookie.

I will also be writing about the ranch: the people who run it now, their daily work, and its history: why it has its own cemetery; and how the old schoolhouse was swapped for a used dish-washer, later for a pile of hay bales. I will visit the original log cabin that the first settlers built, way back in the late 19th century.

Then there's my original inspiration: the great Nebraska writer Mari Sandoz, the daughter of pioneers who grew up not thirty miles from the red house and wrote some of the very best western literature, including a biography of Crazy Horse and the tragic story of a doomed people, Cheyenne Autumn.

As part of my work in the red house I aim to write up the longhand journals I have compiled during fifteen road trips out west since 1991 covering somewhere in the region of 40,000 miles, perhaps posting some of the best stories from them.

I suspect this is a little long for an opening entry, but it can't be helped. This trip is the culmination of a career-length endeavour, the realisation of a life-long dream. It may be that posting this a full month ahead of my departure is a little premature, but I'll be adding updates on my preparations.