Nebraska’s Ocean

Until the final two days of our May trip, we were not aware that Nebraska, a landlocked state, has its own ocean. Confused? So were we. If we had been blindfolded and dropped in this location, we might indeed have deemed ourselves at the beach of a vast sea, stretching from horizon to horizon. With our toes digging into fine sand and touching the edge of an immense body of water, we were able to relate to “Nebraska’s Ocean,” one of Lake McConaughy’s playful monikers (another is Big Mac), even after we learned that it is “only” the state’s largest reservoir, twenty-two miles long and four miles across at its widest point. Created by impounding the North Platte River behind Kingsley Dam which was constructed between 1936 and 1941, the reservoir provides and controls the water supply for agricultural use, and generates energy via a hydroelectric power plant.

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The lake has become a major destination for vacationers as it offers boating, fishing, hunting, and camping. With numerous campgrounds, particularly along its northern shore, the main difficulty for us in choosing a campsite would have been an embarrassment of riches. Instead, by following the suggestion of the friendly receptionist at the visitor center, we enjoyed the smaller and less busy Lake Ogallala campground at the foot of Kingsley Dam. A stiff breeze was blowing all afternoon on the day of our arrival, and an impressive storm illuminated the surrounding night sky, but only touched us with brief lightning, claps of thunder, and a few heavy droplets. In the wake of this unsettled front followed two calm nights and days.

    Our daytime hours were filled with birding, reading, writing, and simply hanging out to enjoy the scenery. As we traveled during the week before Memorial Day weekend, the unofficial beginning of the summer season, we knew we would have to deal with increasing numbers of campers, but we were fortunate to have considerate neighbors, so that all we heard at night were the hoots of owls and the shrieks of grebes. As Nebraska’s feathered denizens differ from Colorado’s, I relished the opportunity to familiarize myself with more Midwestern species.

My most memorable avian encounter happened not at Lake Ogallala, but at “Big Mac.” As one of the few inland breeding sites of a rare species, portions of the beach are off limits to human use during the summer months, but the birds in question occasionally venture outside. On our second evening, we took a couple hours to explore stretches of the north shoreline, where several had been sighted. After two or three unsuccessful stops, I made one last effort and strolled down to the water’s edge. Wishful thinking sometimes makes us see things that are not there, which was the first thought that crossed my mind when I saw a diminutive bird chase away a Killdeer, nearly twice its size. My heart skipped a beat when, staring through my binoculars, I grasped that I was, indeed, looking at a Piping Plover, one of an estimated 8,400 individuals worldwide, all of which live in the Americas. Of the two existing populations, one breeds at the Atlantic seaboard in the Northeast; another prefers lakeshores and rivers of the Great Lakes and the Great Plains. In the Great Lakes region, they are considered threatened; in the other two endangered. Adding this little lifer was a big deal, and, according to my husband, my formerly tenuous mood improved immediately. I hate it when he is right!

To avoid the weekend crowd, we slowly packed up on Friday morning, then bid Nebraska goodbye, grateful for a week packed with many new impressions and much food for thought.

A Child of Nebraska’s Sandhills

One of my favorite American writers, Willa Cather (1873-1947), put Nebraska on the literary map when she immortalized the state in several novels. I have previously reported on our literary pilgrimage to her childhood home. Thanks to my husband, who has read several books by a second Nebraska author, our recent visit to our neighboring state also included a second literary pilgrimage.

Mari Sandoz (1886-1966) was a daughter of Nebraska’s Sandhills. She grew up on an isolated homestead along the Niobrara River until the age of fourteen, when her parents moved the family to a second homestead, even more remote than the first. Her formal education ended after eighth grade, but she was a determined autodidact and lifelong learner. Following a brief marriage and divorce, she moved to Nebraska’s capital, Lincoln, at the age of twenty-two, where she spent many years, similar to Willa Cather. In another parallel, both women left Nebraska for the lure of New York.

Mari loved to write even as a child, but her parents not only discouraged her passion, they even punished her for it. When she won a prize for one of her short story submissions at the tender age of twelve, her father, Jules, a stern, opinionated, and violent man who considered writers “the maggots of society,” beat her badly, a treatment she had to endure throughout childhood. Undeterred, she continued to compose in secret, until she lived on her own. In Lincoln, while working as a teacher, she also attended classes at university, despite the lack of a high school education. And she wrote, submitted manuscripts, and suffered rejection after rejection. Reportedly, she burned seventy-plus manuscripts in 1933, before she moved back to the homestead after her father’s death, to live with her mother. Two years later, the publication of her first novel, Old Jules, ironically based on her complicated relationship with her father, was a career-turner, and the associated $5,000 award afforded her the freedom to write full-time thereafter.

Her canon includes at least twenty-one major works of fiction, non-fiction, biography, and essays, and many of her books are still in print. One of the benefits of her upbringing was exposure to Native Americans who lived in the vicinity, visited and exchanged stories with her father to which she was privy, and which caused a deep and abiding interest in and concern for the fate of the Indians. Many of her works deal with their history, such as Crazy Horse and Cheyenne Autumn. She was sympathetic to their situation, outraged at their mistreatment, and concerned for their future on reservations, and became an outspoken (outwritten) American Indian Advocate.

A selection of Mari Sandoz’s publications

Several critics faulted Mari for taking liberty with history. Even though many agreed that her writing was based on actual, well-researched facts, she was censured for inventing dialogue and details to fill in the blanks; for creating overly sympathetic characters; for being exceedingly enamored with the Indian subjects of her stories. Her detractors might have reflected the unwillingness of a country to deal with a black stain in its history.

Chadron State College in Chadron, about twenty miles east of Fort Robinson, houses the Mari Sandoz High Plains Heritage Center, one of our destinations during our recent trip to Nebraska. It is a fitting tribute to one of the state’s exceptional daughters, offering an honest evaluation of her life and accomplishments, but also of the controversy regarding her critical reception.

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We finished our pilgrimage by driving through the Sandhill country of Mari’s girlhood, passing near the site of the first homestead, then spending a few hours in the neighborhood of the family’s second home, which also became Mari’s final resting place.

As we sat on a bench next to her grave, overlooking the wide valley where bison and Indians once tread, where settlers put down roots, where Mari developed her talents in secrecy, where her mortal remains have mingled with Nebraska’s soil, where a gentle breeze caressed the green hills, we recalled one of the quotes highlighted at the museum: “Mari had a talent – a talent for catching and bringing to life the stories that blew across the plains like the everpresent and enigmatic wind.”

Fort Robinson

The Cook Collection and its connection to Sioux Chief Red Cloud at Agate Fossil Beds National Monument mentioned in my previous post served as the perfect transition to and preparation for our next stop, Fort Robinson State Park. Located in the ruggedly beautiful Pine Ridge landscape of northern Nebraska, close to South Dakota, it was the site of momentous events that determined the fate of several Plains Indian tribes.

Fort Robinson was established in 1874 and served multiple functions until 1947. It played a major role in the era of the Indian Wars of the late 1870s, and the ensuing banishment of regional tribes onto totally inadequate reservations – the sad reality repeated time and again all across the country. As was typical, the fort was established near an Indian Agency, in this case, the Red Cloud Agency. Agencies were supposed to provide food and additional supplies to Indians who had “agreed” to cede their land to the US Government, or to exchange it for land considered less valuable, until something of value was discovered. This befell several Sioux (Lakota) groups, who had been guaranteed possession of the Black Hills in South Dakota, in a treaty. Like most other treaties, this one was broken after the discovery of gold, and the Lakota rose up in defense of their land and way of life, fighting bloody and bitter battles, until they were outnumbered and outweaponed.

When the combined forces of multiple native tribes defeated General George Armstrong Custer and his 7th Cavalry in the Battle of the Greasy Grass, as it was called among indigenous peoples, but more commonly referred to as the Battle of the Little Bighorn, on June 25, 1876, Crazy Horse, among the best-known leaders of the Oglala Sioux, became one of the most-hated and sought-after men. Custer was considered a national hero since the American Civil War and his death contributed to the resolve to deal with the “Indian question” once and for all. Following loss of land and bison, the center around which the Plains Indians’ life revolved, Crazy Horse eventually surrendered in 1877. Though he was guaranteed safe keeping, he was instead stabbed to death at Fort Robinson in a sequence of events that has sparked heated debate to this day.

A few years later, in 1879, a group of Northern Cheyenne, attempting to return to their homeland in Montana Territory, were imprisoned at Fort Robinson, after fleeing from a reservation in Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma), where they had been deported. When they were threatened with transport back, they attempted to flee, thinking it better to die near home than to live in a strange, inhospitable place. And die they did, as the text on a number of commemorative plaques reminded us.

Compared to the ugliness of humans’ actions against fellow humans, the area’s natural beauty stood in stark contrast. The rocky splendor of the Pine Ridge, the lush vegetation, the various animals in the vicinity, including a herd of 150 reintroduced bison, seemed somewhat surreal in the context of the region’s tumultuous history.

After several days of inclement weather the sun showed again, and we slept in the tent without the risk of getting soaked, having the primitive camping area adjacent to the developed campground basically to ourselves. Very near to where Crazy Horse was murdered, and where the Cheyenne Outbreak started, we breathed the same air and gazed at the same stars as the First Americans, whose spirits are said to linger in their native lands.

Nebraska’s Sandhills

Having previously traversed parts of Nebraska, my husband and I had read about its Sandhills (or Sand Hills), and heard them mentioned by friends as an attractive destination. In May of this year, we explored Nebraska’s panhandle, which abuts Colorado’s northeast corner and which is home to the western portion of the Sandhills. Without much research, we did not know what to expect. Would they resemble Colorado’s Great Sand Dunes, or New Mexico’s White Sands?

Nothing could be further from the truth. Rolling hills they were, but from a distance their sandy substrate was not immediately obvious. As a result of wind and time, plant seeds have been transported and deposited there, taken root, and transformed a barren aggregate of granules into a landscape of lush, green mounds and valleys. They cover an area of about 20,000 square miles and occupy an elevation that ranges from 1,800 feet in the east, to 3,600 feet in the west. Teeming with wildlife typical of the Great Plains to which the Sandhills technically belong, and being part of the Central Flyway, I encountered several birds for the first time, or, in the case of the Ring-necked Pheasant, reacquainted myself with a species that used to be common in Germany during my childhood, but whose numbers there have since declined.

Our flexible itinerary underwent adjustments when two successive days of not merely rain, but downpour, foiled some of our plans. From Oshkosh, where we had spent the night in a motel, rather than in the tent as desired, we reached Chimney Rock National Historic Site and Scott’s Bluff National Monument, both located along the North Platte River, and both significant landmarks for those traveling overland on the Mormon Pioneer, the Oregon, and the California Trails. While we learned much about those emigrant trails and their travelers at both visitor centers, we caught only wet glimpses of the outdoors, instead of hiking it as intended.

Likewise at Agate Fossil Beds National Monument, where our journey took us next. Its visitor center offered information not only about local fossil finds, but also housed the impressive collection of one of the local settlers, James. H. Cook, who befriended Red Cloud, a well-known Sioux Chief. He donated many personal items to Mr. Cook that are representative of the Plains Indians culture and offer valuable insight into everyday life and native customs.

To complete our circle back to Oshkosh, I chose a route leading past Fort Robinson and Chadron, then to and through Crescent Lake National Wildlife Refuge, which promised a wealth of birdlife, as did several smaller neighboring lakes dotting the map. Unbeknownst to us, even though we had left the rain behind, the plentiful precipitation of four-plus inches in twenty-four hours, in addition to high water tables from previous rains, had resulted in the flooding of low-lying stretches of a number of roads. The birds loved the expanded watery realm and were thick not purely in the usual ponds, but also in the temporary bodies of water created by the rains. This windfall (or, to be exact, waterfall), afforded me close looks at a variety of waterfowl; at the elegant Upland Sandpiper, previously glimpsed only once; at an American Bittern, an elusive bird, and an addition to my life list. It pretended to be a reed, as is its wont, but did not call. For an opportunity to hear its unusual vocalization, please click on the link to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

These heady experiences came, however, at the cost of several white-knuckled, heart-skipping moments, on account of multiple water crossings. Our old and trusted Subaru with nearly 225,000 miles on the odometer did not let us down, and we breathed a sigh of profound relief when we realized that we did not have to wade through calf-deep water to seek help to get towed. In retrospect, it was foolish and entirely uncharacteristic for us to continue on this route, but once we had forded a couple of flooded segments, we did not want to turn around and re-live those. I was also beguiled by the avifauna which might have impaired my judgment, but my husband, a birder only by association, did not even get a similar pay-off as I, and had to maneuver the car through the watery depths to boot.

Honey, I appreciate your never-ending support and your willingness to accompany me to locales that allow me to indulge in my favorite hobby.

A Visit to Catherland

Willa Cather (1873-1947), one of my favorites among America’s great authors, spent her formative years between nine and sixteen in Red Cloud, in south-central Nebraska. The scenery of the Great Plains seared itself into her psyche and suffused much of her writing. She might be best known for her so-called prairie trilogy, which comprises O Pioneers! (1913), The Song of the Lark (1915), and My Ántonia (1918), but others among her twelve novels are redolent of that setting. In the early 20th century, when pioneer life along the American Frontier was not considered worthy of literary pursuit, Willa Cather broke the mold and became herself a pioneer, with regard to theme, women’s central roles in their spheres, and her hallmark prose, evocative of place.

Even though American Indians had survived, even thrived, in the challenging environment of the High Plains, for those on a quest to conquer the West following the Civil War, this land posed a conundrum. Unlike the agricultural areas in the eastern states and in Europe, it was seemingly barren. Many settlers concurred with the impression of the first explorers traversing the area in the wake of the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, who had referred to it as “The Great American Desert”.

For Willa herself, it wasn’t love at first sight. When she arrived in Nebraska’s Webster County in 1883 from her birthplace in Virginia, the transition from the green lushness to the semi-aridity of the High Plains was confounding. She reminisced later, “This country was mostly wild pasture and as naked as the back of your hand. I was little and homesick and lonely and my mother was homesick and nobody paid any attention. So the country and I had it out together and by the end of the first autumn, that shaggy grass country had gripped me with a passion that I have never been able to shake.” Her eventual fondness of the native flora is epitomized in a 1921 interview, “There is one book I would rather have produced than all of my novels. That is Clements Botany dealing with the wild flowers of the west.” While Willa Cather sings the praises of the raw beauty and intricate design of that carpet woven of native wildflowers and grasses, she simultaneously admires the soil’s arable potential and refers to the generosity of the earth willing to subject itself to the plow and to human industry, to yield a harvest that benefits humankind, provided it is treated with understanding and respect.

Sparked by my own acquaintance with a number of Willa Cather’s narratives, and fanned by my growing fascination with the Great Plains which also occupy a vast portion of Colorado, I finally fulfilled the long-held wish to make a literary pilgrimage to Red Cloud in October 2015. Thanks to the Willa Cather Foundation, it is possible to tour original sites and buildings important in the writer’s life which she immortalized in many of her stories, along with some of her contemporaries.

Willa Cather`s childhood home

Willa Cather`s bedroom in the unheated attic

The later Cather Family home. Willa wrote in the second floor bedroom whenever she visited Red Cloud.

Since nature plays such a prominent role in her work, I was profoundly moved by the Willa Cather Memorial Prairie. These 612 formerly overgrazed and herbicide-treated acres had, nonetheless, never been touched by a plow. Acquired by the Nature Conservancy in the 1970s, they were subsequently transferred to the Willa Cather Foundation. Located a short distance south of Red Cloud, they exemplify the successful restoration of a portion of original grassland. It is heartening to see a biome revert back to its original state, albeit only with a concerted effort. It took and still takes many hands to pull or burn invasive weeds and to reintroduce native grasses and wildflowers. Controlled intermittent grazing simulates the cyclical visitations by American bison when they still roamed vast regions of the continent.

Willa Cather Memorial Prairie

Like the pioneers who inhabited Willa Cather’s universe, the present-day caller is greeted by the picturesque prospect of rolling hills rippling in Nebraska’s relentless breeze. I am confident that she would embrace this natural treasure named in her honor. Just as we devotees want her stories and characters to live on, so should the landscape which gave them life.

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