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A prairie prologue

  • NEW YORK TIMES
    Dusk falls over the Sand Hills along Highway 61 north of Ogallala, Neb.
  • NEW YORK TIMES
    Bales of hay dot the Sand Hills, a Natural National Landmark in north-central Nebraska.
  • NEW YORK TIMES
    The 20,000 or so square miles of sand dunes covered with short grass is “without a doubt the most mysterious landscape in the United States,” writes the author Jim Harrison.
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In 1954, as an impetuous, irascible 16-year-old, I got my first view quite by accident of Nebraska’s Sand Hills. In my sophomore year of high school, it had occurred to me that the lakes and forests of Michigan were too small for my burgeoning personality. I was an athlete of sorts, a student leader, but also an addict of Faulkner and James Joyce. Throw in Rimbaud and Dostoyevsky and I was an absurdly premature powder keg and felt I should look in a far field.

With the help of the only teacher who didn’t think I was nuts, I wangled a job at a resort in Colorado by saying I was a college student, a small fib. My mother gave a resounding "no" to my trip. My father, however, said "yes," and that was my trump card. He was a government agronomist but had a somewhat shaky youth. At my age he was working as a shovel man on a cross-Michigan pipeline, camping out even in winter. I often think of this hardship compared with my own rather flimsy problems.

Over an arduously goofy summer in which I discovered that college girls necked more intensely than the high school girls back home, the most memorable event was slopping coffee all over the saucer of Earl Warren, the chief justice of the Supreme Court at the time. I was embarrassed, but then I had never seen a famous person in real life.

To the despair of my parents, I decided to hitchhike home from Colorado in hopes of an adventure of some sort. I shipped my trunk ahead with my $1,200 in tip change inside. Leaving town at dawn, I went to a truck stop and asked for directions. Route 30 across Nebraska sounded best. In hitchhiking it is best to keep to your general direction, even though going the other way to California seemed attractive; maybe I could go swimming with bathing beauty Esther Williams.

A long day of short rides brought me outside Ogallala on the south end of the Sand Hills, a National Natural Landmark in north-central Nebraska. The name would make most people think they were going to see sand dunes rather than lush, green rolling hills that cover more than a quarter of the state. But sand dunes in fact are what they are, stabilized by tall and short grass that grows from them.

The impact of some 20,000 square miles of these hills unsettled me completely. It is without a doubt the most mysterious landscape in the United States. You begin to doubt your sensibilities, and if your car doesn’t have a compass, carry one along for the detours you’ll take to resolve your overwhelming visual curiosity.

There had been no more intelligence to my stop in Ogallala than liking the name because of my study of American Indian cultures and history. To the north I saw a long row of cottonwoods, and I guessed they lined the North Platte River. It was now evening, and I decided to sleep near the river in my minimal bedroll, an Army blanket wrapping a sheet. I climbed a fence, a simple act that I recognized later predestined the writing of 1,200 pages of fiction in my novels "Dalva" and "The Road Home." There was no blast of light, and I wasn’t hearing Beethoven in my head, but I was feeling giddy and overly dramatic and far too brave to walk back to Ogallala and check into a motel. The Platte was wide, shallow and sandy, certainly not the trout river it was up near its beginning in Colorado.

I found a patch of bare, sandy ground, unlikely cover for rattlesnakes, and smoothed out a spot for my bedroll. I wanted a campfire, but I was already trespassing and feared a grass fire like those used to drive the buffalo hither and yon. I was cold and damp all night and got up several times to exercise my way back into warmth. There was a lovely half-moon that was strong enough to make the landscape glow. That and the sound of the running Platte were enough to allay my discomfort. The moon buried itself in the river as it does in Chinese poems.

I was fine as long as I didn’t think about the future and my unrealistic ambition to become a poet and novelist. When the moon set in the pre-dawn hours, it became truly dark and I was at first frightened by the sound of heavy breathing. But then, as an ex-farm boy, I recognized the odor of cattle. It was OK as long as it wasn’t an unruly bull, which would have been snorting immediately. In the first dim light from the east, I could see a circle of curious calves surrounding me. I muttered good morning and several ran for it.

That was the night I fell in love with the Sand Hills. I celebrated by carving the mold off a piece of cheddar and opened a can of 19-cent Boothbay sardines, a standby in my youthful hikes. There were severe thundershowers early, but that helped get me a long day’s ride all the way to Brainerd, Minn., where I spent the night trying to sleep on a picnic table in a park while a number of stray dogs growled at me. Finally, a spaniel with a good heart jumped up on the table and cuddled with me, helping to raise the frigid temperature. I had been accepted and the growling dogs departed.

There are a number of good ways to enter the Sand Hills. I usually drove from northern Michigan and could make it in a day and a half, but then I’m fond of road trips. I liked entering Nebraska up west of Sioux City, Iowa, and taking Route 12 across the top of Nebraska with my destination being Valentine in Cherry County. I have friends there, and it has a very good steakhouse, the Peppermill, and a number of decent motels. The route is good for what ails you. There is relatively no traffic, and you can stop on a high hill between Verdel and Niobrara, where there is a fantastic view of the Niobrara River emptying into the Missouri River in a grand marsh. The whole road is sparsely settled and a specific relief from our crowded areas. This is true of Nebraska in general. It reminds you of a place we like to think we used to be, and even of a place we’d all like to live in now. Over the years the Sand Hills have become a state of mind when I don’t want to be where I am, like London or Los Angeles. I have entered Nebraska from all four directions, and they all work.

If you’re in a hurry or live distantly, you can fly into Omaha or the state capital, Lincoln, where you must stop and visit the notable State Office Building, the first in the United States to incorporate a soaring tower rather than the classic dome. The 400-foot tower has an observation deck from which you can look out over Lincoln and the surrounding plains. The building is a true architectural adventure; I’ve spent a full day wandering within it.

The drive from Lincoln or Omaha into the Sand Hills is pleasant and easy. Another good way is to fly into Rapid City, S.D., and take Route 79 and 385 south to Chadron, Neb. It is a beautiful road from which you can see the Black Hills mountain range. About halfway down you can detour and drive east to visit Wounded Knee, the site of the shameful massacre of the Sioux. When you reach Chadron, rather than driving immediately for Valentine, detour west a short ways to Fort Robinson, a grand old fort and an Army remount station that once held as many as 5,000 horses for the U.S. Cavalry. The fort is the site of the death of Crazy Horse. It has been restored, and there is even a limited number of rooms for rent for tourists.

There aren’t all that many roads in the Sand Hills, so it is easy to crisscross them all. There are 500,000 cattle, far more cattle than people.

The Sand Hills area is our last great prairie. Your trip will be elevating, taking you into an unmarred part of our past.

By Jim Harrison, New York Times

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