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Wednesday, 15 June 2016

I bring rain, thunder, a power outage.

I started this in a laundromat on Hwy 79 – Black Hills to one side, Grasslands the other.

After the storm at Windbreak House
I was in South Dakota. Hermosa, to be precise. It’s a Spanish word (but you knew that), and it means handsome (and if you didn’t know that you do now). Now I’ve finally, finally met up with Linda Hasselstrom, rancher, environmentalist and writer. We have corresponded patchily since 2002 when she read a part of an email I sent to a mutual friend declaring Mari Sandoz to be a better writer, in some regards, than Willa Cather. She wanted to use a paragraph or two for an address she was giving at the Sandoz Center.

I arrived mid-morning. We traded books and talked, over lunch with her husband Jerry, about our respective work ventures. Hers include online writing tutorials and writers’ retreats. She has been interested to hear about my self-publishing endeavours, and her response has encouraged me. I learned that the two books I sent her didn’t announce themselves, to her eyes, as self-published. She seemed impressed with their quality and wanted to know how I did it, and she made notes as I answered.

I stayed the night in the retreat – formerly the ranch-house – prior to making the long drive to Boulder next day. I instantly wished I could have stayed a week. It’s commodious, comfortable, crammed with fascinating books and surrounded by things I like: tall trees, rolling grasslands, auto-gates, a rhubarb patch, grey wooden and metal remnants of the old times – outhouses, wind-pumps, shovels – and cows, one of which was licking a new-born calf as we headed out to lunch. By the time we got back he was walking around, exploring this wonderful thing we called the world.

And then, of course, there’s the sky. When I arrived it was a pale blue, and half covered by ragged white cumulus. The temperature had dropped 25 degrees since Saturday to a breezy, pleasant 73.

Before I go on I need to say something about the retreat and workshop at Fort Robinson and Chadron State College, run by two professors at CSC, Joe Coughlin and Matt Evertston. But what to say, without descending into hyperbole? Do I talk about the setting – we stayed in the hundred-year-old officers’ quarters the first two days and nights; about the visiting writers, Kim Barnes (fiction) and Robert Wrigley (poetry), their challenging workshop sessions and stunning readings; about the other writers attending – talented, charming, dedicated and always willing to share; about the later sessions in the elegant surroundings of the Mari Sandoz High Plains Heritage Center; and what about my talk, Sunday morning 0830h?

I will say that I was as nervous as a kitten going into that. 90 minutes about me and my writing life? Would I bore the pants off people? Would I get lost down one of the many byways that I’ve trodden over close to fifty years since I first decided I wanted to write, seriously? I need not have worried. I was amongst friends, old and new. They laughed in the right places, applauded warmly at the end and took the trouble to tell me, individually, how much they enjoyed the session. What more could I have wanted?

Old log cabin, brought in piece by piece to serve as a centre for Plains botanic studies

Back to Windbreak House. Shortly after my walk around the botanic reserve (pictured), black clouds swirled in from several directions, the peace in the house was broken by the sound of urgent voices warning of winds and hail in Custer County – some kind of automatic emergency warning system that kicks in independently of the radio being switched on. Then the wind blew, very hard, first from the west, then, it seemed, from the east. And it rained - seven-tenths of an inch, I found out later.

When the power was cut I realised that it had implications beyond the lights going out. There was no gas ignition for the stove either – nor any water, it being delivered by a pump, I guess. Fortunately I have with me my alcohol stove, and inside it a flint-and-steel, so I was able to light a jet and boil up some soup – after I’d burned all the hairs off the back of my hand. Jerry came by with a head-torch and the news that ‘several’ posts have been knocked over, possibly by a tornado, and a resumption might take some time – days, possibly. In fact the supply was around two in the morning, waking me from a blissful sleep.

I’ll post a few more words about this over the next day or two. For the record, I have sold about 30 books, given away a few more, and placed a copy each of The Red House on the Niobrara, ‘There Used to be a Guy… But he Died’ and Between the Rockies and a Hard Place – in Chadron Public Library. My offer was gratefully and graciously received by the librarian there. At this stage in my life, having my books read is more important than receiving an income from them. I like the money, but I wrote these for another purpose, to celebrate a place that has a hold over me.


  1. But did you see that tornado you've been longing for, Alan? (I heard there was one nearby, one that gnawed through barns and houses, sent detritus floating across the grasslands like a plastic bag floating in the wind.) I suppose you'll simply have to return if your funnel once again eluded you. Lovely musings! Godspeed, friend.

    1. Hi Carey. It did look as though something was brewing up, and Linda did say she's hardly ever heard wind so violent; but, luckily or unluckily, no twister. Do you know Deb Lux? You must do. She was going to fix me up with a reading in Rapid, then quit her post. What's the story? Maybe better email me at

  2. You missed the tornado by only about 10 miles, Alan, as we discovered the next day. If we'd been out on the highway looking, we might even have seen the lightning bolt that hit the pickup on Highway 79 very near the tornado. Yes, it did chew up power lines and buildings, but there were no injuries.


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