RSR ~ ESSAYS
To my right, broken pieces of macadam slide down into a weed choked culvert. Sentinel mullein stalks and phalanxes of goldenrod push through cracks in the weathered surface. Along several of these pre-interstate highways of central Nebraska, mute evidence of the first roads through here is writ upon the curving Sandhills rise and fall. For reasons known only to highway engineers, and perhaps pork-barrel politicians, long stretches parallel older adjacent pioneer roads rather than overriding them, even those that follow the same grade.
“Ghost roads” I jot in my journal, one hand on the wheel as I slide up one slope and down the next. In my mind’s eye I see model-T Fords chugging up the hill beside me, furniture laden Dust Bowl trucks stalled, steaming, attempting to escape the wrath of the persistent wind, broken down wagons from even older ghostly trails across the harsh Nebraska landscape. Occasionally I pass rundown stucco gas station-motels replete with rusty pumps, windowless diners, and devastated farmsteads, home to hosts of phantom memories. Profligate Sandhills prairie does its best to erase the traces of memorial remnants, but I imagine that other generations of drivers on these less-traveled by-ways will still be able to sense the tracks of ghosts long after their passage fades from sight.
Speeding down rte. 27 from Gordon, I glimpse a worn wooden sign on a side road indicating ‘Sandoz Books’ a few miles in. I’d heard that Caroline Sandoz Pifer, executor of her sister Mari’s literary estate, operated a little bookshop/museum after the renowned Nebraska author’s death in 1966. I hook an abrupt left turn, wheels spitting dust, hoping the sign will lead me to first-hand information about Mari Sandoz. Several miles down the unpaved avenue, I regret my impetuousness. Deep ruts in the sandy path threaten to swallow my vehicle: I balance one wheel off the side, the other in the center, steering with sweaty palms.
At a steep grade, my tires start to spin in loose sand. As the car slips left, I steer right and gun the engine, maneuvering the rest of the way up the dune. At the crest, I stop and shakily walk to the passenger side and pry tumbleweed from the wheel well. Blossoming red, freshly nudged from its tentative roots, the plant looks nothing like I would imagine from my stockpile of old Western movie footage memories. The wind buffets me, shakes even the car. But for my modern conveyance, I could be a late 1800’s homesteader on my way to a claim, like Mari’s father – subject of her most renowned book Old Jules – and the dozens of others who Jules subsequently persuaded to settle nearby. In a lull in the blowing, a meadowlark calls from over the crest of a dune. A slant of motion overhead catches my eye, plummets to the ground; red-tail hawk in primal hunting mode. Closing my eyes, I picture this place a hundred years or so ago. Opening them, I’m convinced that little has changed but the lay of the dunes.
As I drive forward, the road seems more solid, less rutted. About where the bookstore should be, fruit trees appear, old fencing, birdhouses affixed to both, grey-sided outbuildings tumbled and worn, and then a more modern looking home. No sign ‘Sandoz Books’ greets me as I park and stride towards the door. Before I can reach the buzzer, the door opens and a middle aged man appears. “Looking for Caroline?” he asks, then proceeds before I can answer “She’s up at the nursing home in Gordon you know… Hasn’t lived here in some time… This is a private residence now…” Noticing perhaps the sink of my shoulders, he adds “Books and such are up in Gordon too… Have some water?”
We chat a few minutes, the new owner expresses gratitude for the work Caroline and family did to bring trees to this place, and for the work the trees have done to bring the birds. Caroline, with a degree in botany from the University of Minnesota, created a haven for both wild and domesticated life. I learn that a tribute to Mari’s work, including a number of the artifacts saved by Caroline, operates at a local print shop run by a friend of the family. I bid farewell and head for the next leg of my ghostly journey. With a taste of the Sandoz way of life through Caroline’s legacy, an informed sense of Mari’s existence still eludes me like a will-o-the-wisp trailing away with the wind.
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Bathed in lucid afternoon light, I sit on a simple wooden bench, gazing across at the tan and sienna hills. In the valley to my right a mass of greenery, trees – fruit trees in fact – rises in a place where miles can pass without sign of anything taller than the ever-present bluestem. Behind me a single headstone also stands out, the significant granite slab out of place in this otherwise austere landscape. In a day out traveling ghost roads, I’ve arrived at an appropriate place.
Earlier, another simply appointed sign beckoned me off the beaten track of rte. 27: ‘Mari Sandoz grave site.’ On the drive in, a passing pickup truck slipped by in a cloud of loose sand. The driver lifted a hand in greeting, her determined face like something out of a Walker Evans photograph from the Dust Bowl years. Eerily, I recalled a picture of Mari from the dust jacket of one of her books. I shook off the image and drove the rest of the way to my destination.
Thus I arrive at my resting place with Mari Sandoz, author of an array of non-fiction narratives including her well known familial memoir centering on her father Old Jules, a cycle of historical works including The Beaver Men and The Buffalo Hunters, and a set of novels, among them Slogum House and Capital City.[i] Niece Celia Sandoz Ostrander Barth (it was her in the truck, I speculate) and family now tend the homestead and the fruit trees in the valley planted by Mari’s father. Located on this barely passable dirt track, this is less a tourist’s destination than a devotee’s pilgrimage.
Mari’s last wish was to be buried where her spirit could gaze out across the hills she rambled and loved up close and from afar (during the many years she lived and wrote in New York City). I come here to place myself in the land where she so often placed her work. Reading through guest entries in the wind-tattered pages of a spiral notebook, I discover I’m not the only one who was moved by Mari’s writing. The testimonies of young women who’ve found in relevance in words written five or six decades ago particularly strike me. A number of works of gripping social commentary encompass the Sandoz canon. In this remote peaceful valley that was this writer’s refuge, I become lost in thought about a novel that outlines what was once her scourge and outrage.
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Sandoz’s most ambitious and audacious political work, Capital City, is set in an imagined capital in a made-up state. The city of Franklin and the state of Kanewa are a compendium of Midwest states and their capitals meticulously researched by Sandoz. Taking place in the turbulent times in the Great Depression just before World War II, the novel opens with the ostentatious ceremonial coronation of Franklin’s Emperor and Empress; an annual excuse for the Hoi Poloi to lord their riches and the rabble to make a buck on the festivities. From Herb’s Addition, a shanty-town for the poor squatters and disenfranchised, Hamm Rufe; 40-something Socialist-leaning publisher of a Farmer’s Insurance newsletter and protagonist of the novel – gazes out over the action with ‘the Coot,’ a former banker who’d lost all in the 1890’s depression. Thus the story’s defining tension is laid out, provocatively characterizing the class and land struggles that fueled the Depression. In the novel, the incoming Emperor turns up mysteriously dead in a men’s room stall just before his coronation, police brutally assault the Labor Day parade of workers, a picketing striker is shot, an immigrant boy run over by a speeding car; signal events in a chain-reaction that flashes and burns through the rest of the book.[ii]
“That Hitler, he knows how to handle labor.” a character grouses at a later gathering of Franklin’s social elite. The comment is indicative of a late 1930’s socio-political climate that bordered on Fascism; that admired the tight-fisted control of the means of production and of those who advocated for a fair deal for the workers.[iii] Sandoz’s mythic setting and story differ little in degree and tone from present tensions between the moneyed elite and the hardscrabble Sandhills farmers. Neither story resolves such tensions – ranchers still struggle to make ends meet on land left in the hands of ever fewer owners. But with no small irony, the economic forces which threaten the Sandhills may be part of what ultimately helps keep it safe: modern cattle ranching can support just a few hardy souls, while mimicking closely the actions of the original bison.
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From the old Sandoz homestead, I embark on a roundabout journey towards Valentine National Wildlife Refuge. It’s several hundred miles of extra driving but I want to soak in every vista I can of the Sandhills. Like a spaciousness junkie, I’m on a binge and I don’t want the high to stop. Valentine, my ultimate destination, is – alongside Crescent Lake – the only other large segment of the Sandhills under Federal wilderness protection (unless one counts multi-use forests and grasslands under the National Forest Service aegis).[iv] I zig south onto rte. 27, zag east for a spell, loop north, then spur east again before turning south at the town of Valentine, doggedly driving the 25 miles towards a camp site at the state park at Merritt Dam straddling the Niobrara River.
As I pull off at the first grassy area, headlights flash up from the reservoir and a monstrous pickup truck towing an over-sized motorboat coasts to a slow crawl alongside me. I see only the glow of a cigarette and the dash lights illuminating the undersides of two Stetsons. Suddenly I feel quite vulnerable. When after an ominous moment, engine idling, the two finally cruise away I resolve to spend the night in a motel room.
Backtracking to Valentine, halfway I pull off the side of the road on a long straightaway to calm my nerves. Shutting off the engine and lights I’m stunned not by the blanket darkness but by the bright clarity of stars more bedazzling than any I’ve seen in years. In the cool evening, moisture wrung from the desiccated air releases a lingering hint of sage mingled with the scents of a hundred other late-fall prairie plants. A nearby coyote yips and yodels, his wavering crescendo winds to a whimpering murmur. If I breathed deep enough, I think I might suck down a star or two like errant gnats, so near do they seem to loom overhead. It’s tranquil and awesome enough to make me wonder whether to u-turn back to risk the campground once more, good ol’ boys be dammed. Almost enough, as another pickup barrels around the bend down the highway bearing down on me to remind me that, after all is said and done, I’m a stranger to this land and guest to no one. I am rootless in this prairie wind.
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I don’t wholly shake off the unsettling mood of my aborted Merritt Dam camping search the evening before till my morning coffee has cooled in the cup holder, sun halfway up the windshield. Turning at a casually marked entrance for Valentine NWR, I travel once again on one lane pavement, lolling over the curvaceous hills with windows rolled down even with a chill wind hurtling through. Raggedy skeins of geese crisscross, hopping from lake to lake like K-mart shoppers seeking a blue light special. Dozens of lakes, marshes, fens and mud-holes, each serving up its own fine cuisine of killifish, minnow and snail dot the area encompassed by Valentine. Traversing hundreds of miles of spare, dry Sandhills terrain over the last while, I am tempted to think of the region as a sub-Saharan clone; treeless expanses and ceaseless sandy slopes connote a desert feel. But both Sandhills NWRs testify to the presence of the underground sea we call the Ogallala Aquifer.
This presence is especially apparent when I climb to the top of a hill surmounted by a CCC era fire tower opposite refuge headquarters at Hackberry Lake. From what may be the highest point for miles, I scan each direction for minutes at a time, drinking in the vast undulating folds of tan and sienna hills, punctuated by the tourmaline flash of the lakes, teal reaches of myriad marshes, emerald calm of ancient fens. With every vista I become more intoxicated. An hour here passes like a minute elsewhere.
A range of fens, road-less and closed to all public entry draws my eyes again and again. Passages of murderous thoughts and deeds of dark characters skulking around foggy marshy terrain in Shakespearean epics conjure my working knowledge of fens. Biologically though, the fens of North American landscapes bear life and produce peat domains rich in nutritious runoff percolating from heavily mineralized soils. Less acidic than its wetland cousin the bog, fens support a much more diverse array of plants and animals.[v]
Sustained by an Ogallala aquifer severely threatened by agricultural, municipal and industrial depletion, this area seems stable and vibrant for now. However, I can’t help wondering what else would be drained from this stunning vista if these nurturing waters were drawn down for center-pivot irrigation in semi-arid lands, golf-course watering in high desert communities, and coal plant cooling in sun-soaked regions hundreds of miles from here. Should ever the Ogallala be pumped dry, it would not be Sandhills roads alone which would take on a ghostly visage.[vi] In such a dire event, I imagine a symbolic blood being drained from these living lands, as if these hills rang with the resonance of resilience and ecological integrity.
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[i] Stauffer, Mari Sandoz: Story Catcher of the Plains.
[ii] Sandoz, Capital City.
[iv] "National Grasslands Visitor Information"
[v] "Valentine National Wildlife Visitor Information," (Valentine, NE: United States Fish and Wildlife Service, 2005).
[vi] The story might be much like that portrayed by Marc Reisner, Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water (New York City: Penguin Books, 1987).