ALONG THE PLATTE
I recuperated for three days at Fort Kearney while waiting for Ken, an old friend, to join me from Iowa. He would walk with me for three days. What I feared at first would be an intrusion, turned out to be a wonderful break from the tension of being alone as well as a new point of view, another set of senses to perceive the world around us.
The effect of the three day walk in Ken was startling. He arrived with the tensions of normal daily life assaulting him fearfully. After every snack along the way, out came his toothbrush; after all, weren’t the bacteria there just waiting for a stray food particle to attack his teeth? At every rest stop, down would go the plastic ground cloth; didn’t I know that the smallest dirt smudge would irritate his skin? And so it went, hour after hour. But by the end of his last day I knew that the trail had worked a miracle on both of us. Ken actually forgot to brush his teeth the whole day, and I had come to wait eagerly for the ground cloth to come out before sitting down!
I reread my journal entries for those three days with amazement. So much happened! So much variety! A few examples:
I’ll say this for Ken, he appreciated all the beauty, all the time, even the most subtle beauty: the soft mist hovering low over the fields and cottonwoods in the distance along the Platte, the medley of fragrances we enjoyed for three days, the bountiful variety of grasses that I had not ever taken time to specifically examine. Ken collected seeds from them and then I looked, really looked at the prairie grasses closely for the first time and beheld their microcosm of loveliness.
A few miles down the road we found a bloated dead black mother cat, and nearby, as we walked, abruptly we were beset by insistent imploring meows. Ken, not a cat lover, communicated an instant “Oh no! but I was determined NOT to ignore those imperative pleadings. Sure enough, there crouched a desperate black kitten peering up at us from a deep culvert. It scrambled up to me, and I picked it up and carried the purring and crying wee thing. What a nice kitten! I insisted Ken take a turn carrying it for a way, much to his discomfort (since he hates cats and loves dogs), and thereafter, he took revenge by making a HUGE fuss over every dog we came upon for the rest of the walk! Finally I tearfully left the kitten at a farm.
We watched a large number of huge fish (apparently spawning) in irrigation ditches. They roiled and flipped and charged about in determined circles. The water was so shallow that their top fins were completely out of the water.
We stopped to rest a long time by an old barn. Only later did we notice the avalanche of ticks that had descended upon us and the poison ivy that carpeted the old barnyard.
One night we camped in a very active barnyard. Chickens, turkeys, cats, kittens and dogs ran around together all over the place. I put my sleeping bag down over some hollowed dirt that the chickens had rounded out. It was perfect for fitting hips and shoulder into, a kind of barnyard contour chair. Only later did Ken let on that he was horrified with my chosen spot! The barnyard din and the harvester in the next field that ran all night reminiscent of New England snow plows, kept Ken awake. I slept like a log in my chicken hollows.
The second morning after an early start, a pickup pulled up next to us and a farm family offered us a breakfast of fresh fruit, strawberries, oranges and bananas. They had seen us walk by and had gathered the fruit and come looking for us. I had been raving like a pollyana to Ken about the Nebraska farm hospitality and it bloomed for the two of us just as it had for me as a woman alone.
Our third day turned rainy and dreary. We trudged on endlessly past fields, the rain penetrating every wettable fabric, the sweat and condensation under our rainwear soaking us from the inside. Ken had sprouted blisters and my feet were sore. The whole drudging walk had become an ordeal. Ken spotted the tongue of an old wagon for sitting down. We both sat there under rain, in the middle of nowhere, heads in hands, despair. There was not even the drama of danger to spark us. This was a slow endless drizzle, without even the hint of lightening. I found throughout the trip that sometimes the most ordinary times were really the hardest. No heroism, no danger, no great obstacles, just patient enduring.
The road was straight as a ruled line. There appeared to be a house in the distance miles away. Ken declared with awe, “It’s the longest looking road I ever saw.” Finally, because there was nothing else to do, we got up and toiled on toward the distant house. We passed it and lay down by the side of the road in the grass. I immediately fell asleep and awoke an hour later to ... clearing skies, sunshine. Such as the small gifts on the trail.
We camped in a tiny graveyard, the site of the Plum Creek massacre. We used the last of our precious water trying unsuccessfully to prime the ancient water pump. Just as we were getting annoyingly thirsty a tiny speck appeared on the line that was a road. A farmer in a pickup truck who’d passed us earlier, was coming to check on us, talk, and bring extra water. The overalled farmer in his pickup rode to the rescue, a modern day Lone Ranger and Robin Hood rolled into one.
At dusk that same farmer, Roy, returned a third time with the local newspaperman who interviewed me with a long monologue of his own. Darkness fell and the reporter remembered he’d forgotten to take my picture. Roy groped his way through the darkness to his truck and returned with a weak flashlight which he shined on me while the man focused his camera. “OK, I’ve got it now,” said the photographer. Off he clicked the flashlight and I sat in pitch blackness waiting as if blindfolded before a firing squad. Then, FLASH! Out of the darkness exploded the flashbulb and the act was done. Months later I saw that funny picture, me ghostly white and startled in a field of blackness. As they were leaving, Roy reminded the reporter that he hadn’t asked my name. “Oh yeah. What’s your name?” he asked pulling out pencil and paper for the first time that evening. I heard a brief crinkle and scratch as he wrote in the dark night.
Next day a tame deer, wearing a red ribbon around its neck daintily tripped across a cornfield to greet us and then stayed and walked with us for a way. I trembled before his aura of exquisite fragility.
Ken was lame; there was no doubt about that, so we crossed to the north side of the Platte to Lexington where Ken planned to get a ride back the 35 miles to Ft. Kearney. We both spotted a Kentucky Fried Chicken store and lusted for it as the Holy Grail itself. When we finished our meal, we tried to rise, but our muscles and stiffened during the feast. Lurching and thrusting our bodies we finally managed to get onto our feet before the startled eyes of the other customers. With my first bizarre step, Ken burst into hysterical laughter at my grotesque appearance and seeing myself through his eyes, I joined him. Totally out of control, we doubled over with hysterical laughter at ourselves. It was hopeless; convulsed and gagging we couldn’t stop. It was the second time in three days we had found our physical predicament ludicrous enough to incapacitate us with laughter. Finally we pulled ourselves together and staggered out of the store, two crazy limping ghouls. I felt freer to laugh at my predicament because Ken was with me. In the past, alone I would have surely been carted off to a psychiatric ward. With Ken, all the stored laughter came out in a wonderful orgy of comic relief.
With utter propriety and innocence we shared a motel room in Lexington. The receptionist eyed me with distaste but treated Ken respectfully. Her double standard annoyed me. The next morning, we parted and I was on my own again.
The Oregon Trail followed the south side of the Platte and the Mormon Trail the north side. I followed highway 30 up the north side for a few towns. It was my first experience on a major highway and it was a rude awakening. Right away there sprung up a mutual tension between me and the fast heavy traffic. We were competing for the same skimpy strip of concrete on which to roll our wheels. There was no shoulder on the road side, only a three inch drop and stiff weeds. I tried dragging my cart off the little ledge for every car that passed but my progress slowed nearly to a stop.
Still under the influence of benevolence around rural farming roads, I glimpsed the flash of a waving hand and waved back with a big smile. As the car came abreast of me I realized that the hand was a fist being shaken at me in anger. I was ashamed and embarrassed by my naivety. I gave those uncomfortable feelings careful thought for many miles and decided that the naivety of expecting friendliness from people was nothing to be ashamed of. Lather, hostility toward me made me feel hurt and angry but never again ashamed.
Day by day I inched my way from town to town upstream alongside the Platte River. From Lexington to Cozad I bend double as I battled into a steady headwind. The sensation of pressing so hard against such a resistant wall of air was unfamiliar to me. Finally, I sought rest and shade in a rare clump of trees and learned something about wind on the Great Plains. The valiant little band of trees arched and twisted grotesquely under the windy onslaught. The silvered leaves turned belly up as the branches streamed forth in a spasmodic tension. Accompanying all the visual motion was the crescendo sound of swishing and moaning leaves. This was the wind I knew in the east, noisy and visual, gusty and unpredictable among the foliage. The alien sensation of wind I had experienced earlier on the road had lacked the old familiar wind accompaniments of sound and waving branches. The western wind from my eastern point of view was spooky, silent and invisible, a steady mute wall of resistant air to be pushed against. It sapped my strength quietly and masked the sun’s heating effect as it coolly dehydrated me. I gained a new respect for the wind that day.
That night, lying limply in Cozad, the wind subsided and the dew settled heavily on my sleeping bag, so heavily that it saturated through the bag and my clothes to my skin. Not a drop of rain had fallen but I might as well have slept through a cloudburst!
To Gothingburg 11 miles. It was a glorious day, but my legs ached from yesterday’s battle with the wind. Arrived in town and the heat hit.
As with the wind, my eastern background did not prepare me for the western sun. I was learning how quickly the sun could do its insidious damage. In June, when the sun’s rays are most direct yet the temperature and humidity fairly comfortable, I dressed as an easterner would, shorts and bare arms. Yet by the time (noon) that the heat suddenly descended like a sledgehammer, the damage was done. The last mile before reaching town should have been a simple 20 minute walk but it became an anxiety laden race with a nameless urgency. The last hundred yards became an almost impossible obstacle of distance.
In a near panic I obtained directions to the nearest supermarket, a Jack and Jill , and fled into its air conditioned interior. From inside the darkened store I peered fearfully through a side window into the blazing sunlight. I was nearly paranoid with my sudden fear of the sun. Like a horror film its power and omniscience seemed relentless and inescapable. My personal sense of isolation increased as I was surrounded with dozens of people oblivious to the menace I perceived. They went about their normal shopping and even walked relaxed and smiling outside into the glare. How dare they be so stupid! Didn’t they know any better?!
I walked up and down the aisles cooling down and calming down. I sensed that I needed help but was too confused to know what I needed or how to ask. I decided to pretend I was normal and my fumbling inquiries among store personnel brought casual directions to a KOA campground, ”just a few miles across town.” “Just a few miles!!!!” It might as well have been the other side of hell to me!! After a few more failed communications, turned myself and my golf cart toward the door and walked bleakly out into the sun with vague intentions of heading toward a campground.
With extreme effort of will I tried to remain calm. People on the sidewalks around me were going about their business normally. I felt invisible and out of touch with them. I felt I had to keep moving, and then disaster struck; a traffic light turned red. I had to stop and wait. What a stroke of frightful luck! There was no shade. The sun bore into me pressing me downward. My tight control screamed on the edge of panic. Then finally the light changed and I bounced my cart over some railroad tracks and headed aimlessly away. After a few blocks I turned back and pointlessly retraced my steps only to turn down another street. After a few blocks I changed my mind again and headed in a new direction. In a daze I passed an empty newspaper office, at some point wandered in and out of Jack and Jill again, headed toward a park and reversed direction once again. Some shred of rationality remained within me said sternly, “Barbara, stop this foolishness and take care of yourself NOW!”
In the end I stumbled into an old motel where I lay in the hot but soothing darkness and shivered violently while drifting in and out of a stuporous sleep for many hours. I ate six sugary donuts that I had bought sometime during the day.
Late that night I awoke and finally “came to” realizing fully for the first time how irrational and dazed I’d been since just before I’d arrived in Gothingburg. It was a sobering realization, alarming. I wrote in my journal.
My mind was not right when I got here. Was I tetched from the sun? I feel afraid, uneasy, weary. My mind is off. Yesterday I had a high and today I’m in a low. I’m worried about my eating and my health and the desolate areas ahead. Why am I so unstable today? Things are infinitely easier than when I had the pack, but still not as easy as I’d hoped. I think this bed has bed bugs.”
(Sleeping outside with bugs all around was fine with me, but having bugs inside a motel room seemed the height of degradation!)
About a week later when approaching Ogallala I experienced my first bona fide “hot dry wind” as the natives refer to it. I again had walked many hours in reasonable comfort because of the cooling effect of the “dry wind.” There was a vague sense of being assaulted by a dangerous sun rather than acute physical torture that the muggy east serves up. Toward mid-afternoon I felt queasy nausea and a vague but persistent urgency. I was wearing long pants and sun hat but my forearms were exposed to the sun. I ripped out the hem of the sleeve to cover another inch of skin, but even so small an area as my lower forearms exposed to the direct sun tormented. It wasn’t just the hot sensation; it was feeling of sickness and poisoning that is hard to describe. The old Gothingburg sensation of mental confusion descended. I misread my map, took a wrong turn and followed a dirt lane a futile two miles to a dead end and had to back track, swearing profusely as I shed a few tears of frustration and rage. Later that night, safely encamped in the shade of a farmhouse, I soberly pondered the sun factor while anticipating the months and deserts ahead.
I tried to make it 24 miles but the sun was scalding and the wind blowing a dry blast that even seemed to make the wheat rattle. After a while I almost panicked. I felt confused, sick, swollen, burned. The sun was my enemy. It bore through my bonnet, through my Desitin smeared nose and actually burned through my shirt.
A few days later the brutal sun forced a halt at 10:30 in the morning. I sought refuge in an empty bathroom in an empty campground. I pressed my legs against the cool cement floor. I drifted into a confused stupor, repeatedly falling asleep sitting up. A pile of broken ceramic tile lay on the floor in the corner where I longed to lay my head. I remained up-right fearing that if I were asleep in a public bathroom with my head on a pile of broken tiles, I’d taken as a drugged vagrant, which, of course, was not far from the truth! As the long day wore on I wrote in my journal as my mind cleared.
The heat stopped me before Brule. I saw migrant workers wearing long pants and shirts. Maybe the sun is a bigger enemy than the heat. My face is burned despite my bonnet, and the skin is swollen, not to mention my dementia!! A hot dry wind can make it reasonably comfortable, but the sun’s effects continue. Now I’m hiding from the sun in a campground bathroom absolutely terrified of the heat outside, and as I look out I see people going about quite normally, a man cleaning his car, two motorcycle people (with jackets!) and long pants! Someone is nuts and I fear it is I! Something has to give with this sun phobia of mine. So I go out and it’s like stepping into a blinding blast furnace,” and I turn and flee back inside again. When the sun sets that evening, I felt like I was coming out of the effects of general anesthesia as my head cleared and I rejoined the world of the human race.
My sun fighting policy took shape during those brutal Nebraska June days. Taking a tip from the Arabs, I put on a search for white cotton loose flowing clothes. There were surprisingly hard to find even in the sun baked west. Finally, later in Wyoming I got it all together: white baggy cotton long pants shortened to “high waters” for ventilation, white cotton loose shirt with the sleeve arms slashed for more ventilation, wide brimmed light straw hat (or loose peaked bonnet in case of wind), sunglasses, sunscreen lotion (I used opaque Desitin on my nose with a decided clown effect!) During the hot months I started walking before dawn (4:30 am) to be able to get my 20 mile allotment in before noon if necessary. I drank gallons and gallons of water routinely, even when not especially thirsty. The dry western air evaporates sweat before it collects on the skin giving the sensation that one isn’t sweating much. Dehydration can occur quickly without steady fluid replacement, and I believe it considering how little I peed on those days.
The importance of white clothes was dramatically demonstrated by the between my white shirt and my checked shirt, the checks absorbing the radiating heat onto my back like an oven. My cotton pants were so superior in absorption and cooling to my part synthetics that I mailed home the non cotton as they are useless in the summer. By mid summer coping with heat and sun was well under control.
Another possible cause of my heat stupors might have been “sugar comas”
It suddenly occurred to me that my problem was not only the head but my old enemy, sugar. I had been steadily increasing my sugar intake under the heading ‘carbo loading’ (a marathoner’s gimmick). The rationale being that I need more carbohydrates for energy, but it had gotten out of hand. In towns I’d head like an addict for the nearest store where I’d buy a half gallon of milk and a big bag of cookies (like double stuffed Oreos or French Vanilla creams). Then I’d go somewhere and devour the whole bag and milk after which I’d drift inexorably and irresistibly into my stupor, falling in and out of sleep for hours.
Those times when I tried to keep walking, the desire to lie down and sleep was so strong that I could hardly remain upright. I would fight the urge to lie on the shoulder of the road by closing my eyes for three or four steps over and over. This phenomenon lessened as I cut down on my sugar binges, but my cravings for sugar assumed astronomical proportions whenever I walked past the cookie aisle.
Coincidentally, about the time I was thinking of my great sugar connection, I wandered into a macabre family situation while stopping at a farm for water and rest. The old woman of the house had developed severe diabetic with periodic frightening symptoms of blindness, diabetic coma, retinal hemorrhaging, leg ulcers and crippling. She seemed somewhat confused and childlike, senile. She confessed that she wasn’t supposed to eat any sugar but that often she couldn’t resist it so ate it anyway. While we were chatting, her grown son, a teacher, came home with a bag of a dozen of the most sugary, creamy, chocolaty assorted donuts I’ve ever seen. He offered me one, left the bag on the table next to his mother, and departed. Giggling childishly the old woman grabbed two donuts saying, “I think I’ll still be able to see a little bit if I eat only two.” I was appalled at her self destruction and her son’s acquiescence. I left with a shudder, eager to get away from the sinister household.
The little towns along the Platte are as unique and vivid as different children. In Brady, I camped in a tiny pleasant town park. In the evening I joined the townsfolk and farmers as they gathered casually for the girls’ softball team practice, surely a slice of pure Americana. After everyone had gone home I unrolled my bag and prepared for a peaceful night’s sleep. “It was quite a feat getting sleep here! The tennis court spotlight, the street lights, railroad lights, motel lights and feed factory lights were blazing in my eyes from every direction all night. The trains ran faithfully all night and whistled (screeched) their codes continually as they passed through town or stopped at the feed factory. When the trains left, the all-night machinery from the factory ground on in a steady grating throb. I’m sure it was noisier than downtown Manhattan! Brady, population 257!
Along a short stretch of road near Brady I saw a long bright plastic peach colored flower on the shoulder of the dry barren road. I spied another about a hundred feet later and soon a third. “How strange!” I thought as I bent and examined the long series of petals more closely. “Perhaps a box broke loose from a truck.” In the distance I spotted another bright peachy dash of color on the dry gravel. I bent to pick it up and gasped, puzzled. The waxy looking, gaudy plastic flowers were alive, growing from a root! Within a mile a mile they disappeared; I never saw them again on the trip. Such were the pleasant and unpredictable surprises I found along the trail.
I learned that money (alas, mostly pennies) was found on the roads within a half mile outside towns. Once in Utah on the desert I found a huge bag of cookie cutters. There must have a hundred different kinds. Already loaded with water and equipment, I had no choice but to leave them behind, regretfully. I was always puzzled by the great assortment of clothes along the road; men’s, women’s, children’s, all kinds.
In one spunky little town I was directed to an old hotel. It was a non descript white building with a small neon sign saying simply “Hotel.” I entered the lobby and was struck with the atmosphere, the smell of squeaky clean Nebraska, unpretentious and practical. So what if the wallpaper was a “not-yet-quaint” 25 years old! If it still did the job, why change it! I rang the silver button bell on the simple desk in front of the “ring for clerk” sign. From the back wall emerged a serene woman walking with a dignified carriage. She looked directly into my eyes and said pleasantly, “May I help you?” Growing forth from the left side of this woman’s head was a tumor that rivaled in size her original head. It’s lumpt contours were marbleized with the delicate blue tracings of blood vessels beneath the soft skin. “Yes, I’d like to rent a single for tonight if you have any.” The little hotel was overflowing with construction workers, she replied, but one would leave later and a room would be ready in the afternoon. With respectful deference, I asked for permission to sit a while in one of the ancient chairs in the lobby. I didn’t know it then, but I sensed that this was no ordinary hotel clerk. In fact, this women presided over the old hotel like a queen; it was her domain from cleaning to policing and she did it all with an air of unquestionable royalty.
The old hinges on the front screen door squealed nostalgically and a man wobbled in sheepishly carrying a brown paper bag. “Shame on you,” said the woman with pleasant aplomb, “you know I don’t allow drunks here.”
“Why, I’m not drunk,” said the man with an earnest smile. He sat on the old leather couch respectfully. There upon followed one of the most astounding exchanges I have ever heard. The woman stood before him with confident dignity while her gleaming tumor wobbled massively. The man sat as a pupil before a teacher listening.
Didn’t he know that drink would never solve problems, that it just made them worse? Didn’t he know that the Lord would give him strength to bear any problem without drink? On and on they went with references to family problems rebutted with exhortations to heed the Lord. Finally, offering herself as an example the woman said, “Look at me. I’m a perfect example. Because I’m close to the Lord, I’m in good health!” ... Well, I had to admit that there was some truth in that statement. It took a person of extraordinary mental health to meet the public daily, run and clean a hotel full of construction workers and command an instant respect while sporting a gigantic grotesque tumor on the side of one’s head!
A few people I saw and heard in that hotel were each more peculiar than the last until I pictured the whole scenario as a Fellini film. What was I, a 37 year old suburbanite, wife and mother doing there unknown and alone? I reveled in a most delicious feeling of escape from conventionality.
In this hotel with all these kooks, I have left my cart and everything I own in a downstairs hall. I must be crazy, but the place is Nebraska immaculate and for some unfathomable reason I’m not afraid. Have to share bathroom and shower down the hall (so that night I became daring and inventive and peed in the sink in the room) (May the old woman with the tumor and God forgive me!) But even the alcoholic and the double headed woman simply seem like plain ole human beings, not really so different from you and me. It’s another side of American society we proper people seldom see. Meantime I will jam the chair against the door (to keep it shut and block the big crack) and ponder how crazy this world is. People have assured me that long before now I’d run into the impossible, heat, terrain, desolation, snakes, no water, no shade, murder, etc. They’ve proven wrong. What more can I do than to feel my instincts and judge by what I see for myself. So far I’m scared by other people’s stories more than by what I’ve experienced.
Last night at the hotel was novel I guess it’s the mid-plains version of a flop house. Off and on during the night I was aware of the drunk down the hall having DT’s, moaning and jabbering wildly. I stole out of there at dawn, my cart creaking deafeningly. Later I heard that a murder had occurred on the next block that night, wife shot husband. I ate at the trucker’s café at 5:30 A.M., me and 40 men. I ate and left, set out dodging trucks and pickups, friendly and hostile and tried to get into my rhythm, which was hard in coming.
I began to seek out old hotels as interesting and affordable. In one town along the Platte a fine old hotel was on its last legs. There was no construction boom nearby, and as far as I could tell there were only four people in it the night I stayed; the desk clerk (who waitressed nearby and ran back when a rare customer like me showed up), a lost and lonely man who had one whole hall to himself, old Jake and me. The lonely man said to me, “If you smell something down the hall, that’ll be old Jake.” I never did whiff old Jake but that was just as well; being almost alone in a big old hotel at night was plenty spooky enough.
It was a perfect setting for a heavy gothic murder mystery with lots of suspense and horror. It’s amazing how one’s own head creates the atmosphere. Later when I phoned home in the lobby, suddenly it all seemed safe and friendly, the maroon carpet and dark paneled walls cozy instead of a funeral.
What good luck, I’ve found a cheap hotel and what a flop house it is! $6.30 a night owned and run by a nice old man with no teeth, beard stubble and bowed back who does the cleaning. He cleaned my room and made my bed while I conversed with two alcoholics in the lobby. My room (shared bath down the hall) is so very shabby and dirty that I had a brief flash of nausea. It must be discouraging to run a flop house, the odor of pee, human feces spilled on the box springs, vomit on the blankets and splattered on the walls. The sheets and towels are clean, and I assume it won’t kill me here, so I stay.
I am leery about the door, cheap lock easily opened with a credit card. In cases like this (incredibly) I coolly go over contingency plans, hit the would-be intruder over the head with lamp or glass shelf or chair or waste basket. This room even lacks a good weapon. The last motel didn’t even lock, but I rigged a good barricade and had a lamp handy. From the plush casino, to the ditch, to this flea bag hotel.
The best accommodations for the price were in Bridgeport, Nebraska, where a huge room with two double beds can be had on the third floor for $6 a night.
Sat in the lobby chewing the fat with old men and feeling very much at home. One, a cook, brought me a sandwich. The sandwich gives me Goosebumps knowing the old man who made it, but my philosophy is anything given in love or thoughtfulness or kindness won’t make be sick, so down it goes. Not bad … ham, cheese, lettuce and mayo on white.
“You’ve got to have a dream.
If you don’t have a dream,
How are you going to have a ‘dream come true.”
An important incident occurred early Sunday morning on a lonely stretch of road east of North Platte, This is how I wrote of it in my journal.
I awoke at 5:00 AM as I told myself to do and it was still dark. It sure is a lonely whistful feeling to be waking up while it’s still dark so far from home in an unfriendly town! I decided I wasn’t going to walk on that damned highway 30 in the pitch dark so I waited till 5:40, about 20 minutes before dawn. The sunrise was super over the darkly etched barren sand hills. My left foot was very sore. I was alarmed at the unsavory characters on the road, many more than usual. Then a souped up car (big tires, shiny new custom Mach painted with stripes) pulled ahead, stopped and backed up to me. In it were four long haired, rock band looking young men. The car was a swirl with pot smoke, the occupants’ heavy lidded, slow speaking stupid jerks. Two started combing their hair when they stopped. Then came the stupid slow witted remarks to which I responded with all the firm and direct neutrality I could muster. “What’s your name?” “Come in here with us, Barbara. You could take off your boots.” “Do you know my name?” “Who did you sleep with last night?” “Here’s room for you right in here. We’ll give you a place to sleep.” “Do you want to sleep with us? Come on in here.” This continued pointlessly until I said an assertive “goodbye” and strode away with them still babbling. They finally left with squealing tires and I had to admit that I was afraid, full of revulsion, furious and immediately converted to an anti-long hair, anti-marijuana, anti-punk rock zealot. I was afraid because I was alone and vulnerable, few cars on the road at that hour, no farms for 9 miles, etc. Because of their mind altered state, I felt I was not communicating with rational real people. I tried to hang on to my fury and dissipate my fear in case they returned. I breathed easier as and hour passed… and then they returned. They alternately accelerated and braked and zig zagged all over the highway as they sped directly toward me. Then they swerved off the pavement and headed straight at me. At the last second they steered back onto the highway laughing stupidly and went on. In 480 miles of walking those are the first mean, bad, hostile, people. Others have acted heartlessly, but it has been out of fear toward me, not meanness. These jackasses were simply rich (car), horrid, drugged scum.
At that point I was scared and furious. Today I could easily embellish the story to suggest a narrow escape from rape or a premeditated hit and run. Since the incident I have spent considerable time trying to evaluate its actual danger, and in total honesty I cannot paint it as a close call. There is a vast difference between being coaxed or threatened and actually being raped or hit by a car. I can only rely on my own honest assessment which is that I was not in any great danger.
Almost all media reporters asked somewhat hopefully if I’d had any “trouble”, the code word for rape, and have sighed with mixed feelings when I report a firm NO. There goes a possible juicy story … A few times when pressed hard by incredulous reporters, I mentioned this North Platte incident and it was seized upon as the major thrust of the story. Although I never knew what lay ahead, I felt that the greatest and most important news of my trip so far was the vast reservoir of kindness in the American people so easily tapped by a lone traveler like me. A woman was walking alone on the public highways day after day unharmed.
At Ash Hollow, Nebraska a vibrant family from Ohio on their way to an Alaskan adventure were absolutely exultant by the safety of my trip thus far. “Why that’s wonderful news!” they exclaimed, “that’s not only great news, it very important and deserves banner attention.”
But reporters print what sells and there was a definite palpable interest from many people for a gory anecdote from me. One woman a thousand miles later leaned forward toward me and asked conspiratorially “Tell me, have you had any... uh... you know... trouble?”
“No, not really,” I answered cheerfully, “and I think that’s probably the vital lesson from my trip, that a woman CAN do what I’m doing and have great adventures without being molested.”
“But,” she pressed on undaunted, “surely there must have been times when you had some very bad moments.”
“Oh, I’ve had some very bad moments, all right, but they weren’t from anyone trying to assault me.”
“Really now,” she coaxed, “there must have been SOMETHING along those lines that scared you?”
“Scared me. Oh, well, yes, but that was months ago and I don’t really think it even deserves to be told.”
I told the story briefly about the North Platte encounter without any dramatic flair, but apparently that was enough. A few hours later this woman’s husband came home to meet me, and he had no sooner opened the front door when this woman rushed forward breathlessly saying. “Oh, Walter this is Barbara, and my God, did she ever have a bad scare!!”
I remember the town of North Platte itself pleasantly enough. I splurged on a safe motel room and fell asleep only to awakened later by a friendly newspaper reporter who had been called by the motel owners. We went outside for pictures and resumed the interview in the room. Only after she left did I sit down and notice with a startle that my pants were fully unzipped. I smiled ruefully trying to imagine the picture that would appear in the next day’s paper. After the trip many months later I did see that picture which, of course, gave no indication of the egg on my face.
I took a good look at myself today and have to conclude that after nearly 500 miles of walking, my body has not changed one bit. Now that my sunburn swelling is gone, my leg muscles are just as they always were. Ken said I hadn’t changed and the reason is probably genetic. This is a whole new concept for me to adjust to, but on second thought, I rather like it. It means that in truth I am really a very ordinary physical specimen, just like many pioneers were. It means that to struggle 500 miles does not require any great musculature or even undeveloped muscle potential. Even a very, very ordinary person can (and did) do it if one wants to. Mind and desire can make up for a lot of absent muscle. Of course, most people wouldn’t want to do this, and that’s OK too.
Also, I’m getting a new perspective on people and what types seem to get the most out of life (and what characteristics are deadeners). In every type of case I see, I used to be the wrong way. It sounds simple minded but the most important traits are trust, optimism, openness, eagerness and kindness. Suspicion, fear, timidity and hostility are the deadeners.
The farmers and men on the road who give an approving smile, a healthy wave and aren’t afraid to pull out to give me more room are a big contrast to the frozen faced women who are afraid to leave the lane and see my strangeness as danger. Some of the women, however, are paragons of plain heartfelt kindness in bringing and packing extra food, showing genuine sympathy for physical weariness, etc. The healthy happy people take chances, extend themselves, find delight in newness and have a reserve of trust. The unhappy people are very careful, very self protective, cautious with fear and suspicion of strangeness. I have not found any common pattern. Both types are found in small towns and cities, men and women, young and old, rich and poor.
I crossed back to the south side of the Platte only too glad to have reentered the farmlands and put highway 30 behind me. Some friendly eager children rode bikes out from the distant clump of trees that was their farm expressing a healthy curiosity as to who or what I was. With effusive hospitality they invited me to camp on their farmland for the night. Later when I pulled my cart into the drive, the parents were as warm and casual as the children. I arrived on a special day. That evening there was to be a community 4-H meeting there for teaching hog judging to be followed by an old fashioned barbeque. “My cup runneth over,” I sighed as I lay dreamily in the shade resting and waiting for evening. I heard a stir and looked up to see a peacock stepping daintily less than two feet from my head. The strains from Saturday Night Fever wafted across the farm becoming forever the theme song for my joyful journey. Later I described that evening in my journal.
There was a healthy acceptance. Before I knew it, I was swept into this farm community group and driven in the big pickup with the women up to the hog pens where we were all given rating cards and had a talk on how to judge hogs! The farmers are very masculine and picturesque. Mystique hovers around them, blue jeans or overall and hats and cowboy boots and belts, etc. I could hardly believe that I was sitting on the fence of the hog pen with a judge’s card in my hand while peering intently at these squealing pigs while trying to decide if all that bulk was muscle (good) or fat (bad). “Muscle ripples; fat shakes. Muscle is round; fat is square.” The ground in the showing pen was a swirling pig manure pulverized powder that we breathed and walked in and settled all over us. In another hog barn the manure is hosed out and it stands like pale brown sludge a foot thick as it oozes down a slope day by day. Two kids stepped in it half way to their knees. The stench is overpowering to a naïve eastern nose so that the air actually feels thick with it. And when the breeze is right (or wrong) a whole house can be permeated with it; even the food tastes like it. But back to the hog judging.
I kept thinking of the kids. The farm way of life is as harmonious and satisfying a family role style as anything I’ve seen, but it is only one style and woe unto the person it doesn’t suit, because there is no other style handy to observe. I was dismayed at the way the pigs are treated, the old callus attitude so shocking to a humane society educated easterner. The pigs are kicked to move them. If the panic stricken rustily squealing pig wanders out of the area, kick it back! If you want it to turn around or walk, kick it! The pig squeals louder with every kick. At one point a panicked pig was blindly running down the pen and nearly everyone got into the act so that it was being kicked from every side, at every side, head, belly, etc. Back to the kids; some were obviously not cut out for the role, wore fearful, worried, upset, distasteful expressions as they tried to become good farmers; i.e. kick the pigs. One boy would run out and kick the pig viciously for no reason, wearing the excited, fearful yet satisfied expression of a hunter. Perhaps this is similar in function to the Maasai killing a lion or the old Apache learning to torture, part of becoming a MAN, learning to be callus! We went to a pen with mothers and piglets and the kids again tense, seemed to get a charge out of chasing the mothers (showing off) and getting the animals into a bellowing turmoil. One sow was lying motionless. “Ma, there’s a dead one here. It must be that crippled one. Is it dead?” “Wait, I’ll see.” Poke, poke, pig moves slightly and flaps ears. Kid backs up and kicks it repeatedly as hard as possible. Pig responds feebly.
Later back at the barbeque, I mentioned it was great but I felt sorry for the pigs. There was a roar of amusement. “I can see you’ve never tried to load them into a truck. They’re the most ornery creatures on earth. I’d give you one day at them and you’d change your mind quickly.” I laughed. It was probably true.
Jane, my hostess, related what must be a common lament of hog farm wives. A few years after she was married, she longed for a proper green grassy front yard. After weeks of careful seeding and watering and nurturing, her yard began to look respectable. She hovered protectively over it daily. While away shopping one day, the hogs broke through the fence and headed straight for her precious lawn. By the time she returned, the smooth green had been transformed to a brown rutted mess. She sat down in the middle of her ravaged dream and sobbed inconsolably. She told her husband that she couldn’t stand to live like that. A green grassy lawn was important to her. Her husband, pushing other matters aside, then immediately went to considerable time and expense to construct a sturdy hog proof fence, and on that luscious green grass is where we had the neighborhood barbeque that warm Nebraska evening.
I woke up before dawn and torturously forced myself up and out and on my way. The agony turns to exhilaration the second I hit the road. It is very cold. I shiver and walk faster crunching along the gravel road. The pale bluish light gives a shadow black and white TV look to everything. Then in the east a faint pink glow at the cloud smeared horizon. Dew is on the wheat and corn. The pink becomes a bright peach and spreads pink and peach and touches the fields which seem to be sleeping. I walk on in this exquisite dramatic yet subtly changing beauty for a mile, two miles, an hour. The sun slips a silver edge above the dark horizon and then quickly comes up, a gleaming ball and wakes up the fields with its quickening shafts of gold, orange and yellow light stabbing out. My shadow is 200 yards long over the alfalfa. Another hour and the greens are fragrant and bright before giving up their dew drops jewels. Clear and crisp and suddenly I’m a little girl long ago on the first day of school, startled by the unaccustomed earliness of the hour and the unexpected cool crispness of the air. Yellow school busses and yellow pencils and new crayons seem close and real. Then I’m changed and a young woman in the high Sierras or the Rocky Mountains, breathing gulps of the cold air which seems so contradictory to the vivid colors bathed by the bright sun. The wheat had become the soft feathery green of a thick new blanket. How can I describe how it lay in gentle strips over the dirt. Red winged blackbirds hovered over me chirping in dismay as I passed through their territory. A white husky malamute joined me reveling in the new day as much as I. He would plunge into a wheat field and his plume tail would be all that showed as it bobbed jauntily through the parting wheat heads. I saw a deer in the early morning. It stood in the road, antlers and all and watched me approach. When a dog barked it took off faster than the wind in light springy kangaroo leaps across the fields so far.
The kill deers nest in the moist ditches by the road and as I approach they “lead” me away by cheeing and running, keeping a few steps ahead of me.
The constant inspiration was the vastness and scope of the earth that a single glance could encompass. I could see the rolling pasture land stretching invitingly forever. I was seeing it briefly through the wondering eyes of a pioneer on a wagon train. The sun touched my back and warmed it and later I peeled off my extra shirts.
An old graveyard sat triumphantly at the top of a perfectly rounded hill facing the sun. The green pasture beside it was brushed vividly with a wide stroke of yellow wild flowers. Walked through fields with freshly stacked green alfalfa and hay, giant green loaves of bread, each one high as a shed, here and there on the gentle hills.
Later that day the heat descended. The dog still followed getting tired and thirsty. We were joined by another funny looking dog, small, virtually no hair, bright pink (sunburned?) skin showing through, ugly brilliant pink block nose. Heat. Saw some hippies camped. One guy naked, scrambling into his trousers. Ate lunch and on to a highway. Prevail upon two young guys to drive the dogs home. The dogs were bewildered by the traffic on the paved road. They’d never seen a paved road before. Good miles and big heat. Land changes to up and down hills, advancing waves.
MISSING TEXT ? shingled old HUGE barn!” My heart accelerated and I breathed rapidly as I approached the lovely neat flowered grounds and the happy old house.
The most crucial part of every day, the time that always found me tense with hope of acceptance yet fear of rejection was the afternoon or evening when my energy allotment for the day was depleted and I desperately needed a spot to camp for the night. I would search farms and houses yearningly for clues indicating nice people. Somehow I would emotionally attach a great symbolic significance to things such as profuse flowerbeds, friendly dogs, children’s sandboxes, red tricycles, or , as in this case, a big old barn newly shingled… Knock, knock... an older woman answers. (She said later that she thought I was a Jehovah’s Witness) Thank God! She smiled! Things go well. The tension dissolves in floods of relief. She’s a widow, has survived two husbands, is in her 70’s (looks 50), calls me “Kid’. “You can stay here with me tonight, kid, and we’ll have a ball.” She talks with vibrant animation and tells the tale of her life.
Ella Jorgenson Miller’s parents came from Oklahoma to the sandhills to homestead, an awesome undertaking which partially failed. The sandhills wouldn’t grow crops, so they moved to Paxton. My body relaxed as my mind gave itself completely to the marvel of Ella’s remarkable love story.
“When I was 17 years old I met a 17 year old boy, Ray, on a train trip. We were together about two hours, and you know how young kids are, well we wrote and exchanged pictures for a few months. Then we just kind of lost touch. Years later my daughter found his picture up in the attic; I had almost forgotten who it was.”
Ella and Ray had gone on, each with their separate lives, each marrying, each raising a family and living in different states. After 40 years on the farm, Ella’s husband was killed in a tractor accident. Meantime, Ray lost his wife to lung cancer.
One day Ray, a retired railroad man, was traveling through Paxton and faintly remembered that Paxton was where that 17 year old girl from more than 40 years ago had lived. He stopped and inquired about her at Ole’s Big Game Bar and was directed to widow Ella’s farm just outside of town. Ella wasn’t home so Ray left a note in her mailbox. They exchanged letters and arranged a meeting.
“Well, you can imagine I did have butterflies in my stomach,” Ella continued, “I mean after 43 years we sure didn’t look the same. Well, he drove up, and do you know how I broke the ice? I just went right up to him and said, Remember how we used to sign our letters, ‘love and kisses’? Well, I’m finally going to give you a kiss right now, and I gave him a big kiss, and that broke the ice and we hit it right off. He had such a good sense of humor. When we went into the house I went to the attic and brought down that same picture he’d given me 43 years ago and he just couldn’t believe I still had it.”
After 43 years of separation Ella and Ray were reunited and married. They had a joyous eight years together… and then Ray died. Irrepressible upbeat Ella allowed the only shadow I ever saw cloud her face when she said, ”I only wish we’d had more time together. I just don’t understand why we couldn’t have had more time together.” After a pause Ella turned to me with an infectious grin and said, “Well come on, kid, let’s go out and see the barn!” I unlimbered my stiff legs and followed.
On the way to the barn we walked past her exquisite flowerbeds and vegetable garden and through the chicken yard. The chickens, happy to see Ella, strutted around us in a happy cackle. Ella, like many of the farm women I met, thoroughly enjoys her chickens. We paused in the hen house to gather a few warm brown eggs. But the barn, the pride of the property, dominated the scene. It stands empty now and would be gone but for Ella’s fine and stubborn appreciation of its historic and aesthetic worth. Her friends and even the roofers urged her to tear it down. She had a hard time finding a contractor who would even attempt re-shingling its high arching roof. Three large cupolas were removed from the top to make shingling easier, but otherwise it stands pretty much as it did in 1911 when erected. It is a Sears precut, hauled beam by beam to the farm site. We stepped reverently and quietly from the hot bright sun into the cool dark interior. Shafts of light beamed through the darkness to illuminate the brick pattern of end sawed blocks of the wood flooring in the horse stalls. Ella stood and gazed saying, “I can see it as clear as yesterday, all the horses here, and back there are the stanchions where we milked the cows.” We climbed the stairs to the loft where I nearly fell over backwards. Up, up soar the majestic curving beams to … to … way up there, the peak, a vaulted cathedral, awesome!
Vivacious Ella kept up a lively chatter, bustling about as she led me back to the house where like a mother hen she set me in a reclining chair and put on some soft music (Tijuana Brass) for relaxing. I dozed lazily until Ella announced that she was taking me on a tour of the sandhills around Paxton. We picked up Grace in town, “a widow lady like me’, and we were off.
Grace, a spunky 80 year, looked 55 and acted 35. If my trip was laid out in heaven, surely this was the day entitled “Life Begins with Widowhood: Great Old Women of Nebraska”! Grace, the third super senior of the day had her own remarkable story. She too survived two husbands. Her first died young leaving her with five small children which she raised alone and well in Paxton by working 40 years in the local food market. The children are all grown, college educated, and scattered about the country. Then at about the same time that Ella was marrying Ray, Grace had a chance meeting on a bus trip, a man who had gone to her high school in Paxton “about a zillion years ago.” They too were married... and he died within five weeks. Grace chuckled and laughed as she told this, as if life were too ridiculous to fathom! Earlier Ella had showed me the local cemetery and mused, “Look at all these names on these stones; every single one is familiar to me. I can see every one of those people just like yesterday with all the memories ...” All the death talk was done with a kind of matter of fact enjoyment, a celebration for life back then as well as now. It was a whole new concept for me.
In the car through the sand hills the reminiscences flew between the two old friends. “Here’s the house where there were those two sisters who did the suicide and murder,” “Oh, remember when that house and the one next door were built! The pride of Paxton!” The house was on the edge of town, shabby now but Victorian in flavor and once obviously graceful and beautiful. “Oh, there’s the old swimming spot the Lion’s Club fixed”, which to me now looked like a mud hole. “My my, here’s Wind Bluff Hill. When I was a kid, my brother and I used to have to go up there to get the cattle, and we thought it was higher than a mountain. Look at it! It’s really nothing, but how we felt like really something when we got to the top! I can’t tell you the hours we spent climbing there.” Both women roared with healthy laughter.
I listened with rapt attention to the remarks about the sand-hills as we drove deeper into the now empty stretches. I have never felt quite so inexplicably drawn to an area. As far as the eye could see, under the pale blue wash sky were the gentle treeless undulations of dry wispy grasslands. To my unaccustomed eyes every little hill appeared identical to every one beyond it or behind it or beside it, and yet I felt an insatiable desire to go over the next one and the next one farther and farther, deeper into the sand-hills. To lose ones bearings here would be disastrous. To live here would be unthinkable, and yet these were the very hills that the pioneers so bravely tried to homestead in their tiny little soddies. Grace and Ella recalled how the now empty lonely road once had homesteads and sod houses dotting its edges. All evidence of their existence was now gone except a rare clump of trees a hopeful pioneer had once planted. The soil had been too dry and sandy to make a go of it. Once the prairie sod was broken, it was vulnerable to wind even in the wet years. Ella turned the car back toward Paxton, but I vowed to come back someday.
For dinner and breakfast, next morning Ella fed me and fed me from her vast store of home canned foods from her garden. After a warm hug from Ella, “Goodbye, kid,” I walked down and out her long drive with a last look at the big barn and the wooden windmill, past the little cemetery where Ella buried two husbands and on to the west.
Ogallala, the next town, sported a newspaper that invited and got participation from its readers. Within a few hours after arriving the paper had received four calls from citizens tipping it off to my presence. The reporter later said that when the phone rang again he was tempted to simply pick it up and say, “I know, I know, I’ll get to her as soon as I can.”