Thursday, June 26, 2008

Mitchell Pass, Neb.

Chimney Rock--the Eighth Wonder of the World, as emigrants called it

Jail and Courthouse Rocks, Neb.

Ruts at the base of Windlass Hill, Neb.

Windmill outside of Ogallala, Neb.

Landmarks of a former age (Part 3)

Calves in the grassy draws, the early morning sun slanted crosswise across the Nebraska sandhills layering contrasting swaths of light and shadow over a protuberant and gullied terrain. One and a half centuries ago a man named T. Parker traveled this same route and saw these selfsame hills and valleys and felt the warmth of the same morning sun and carved his mark on a naked bluff a hundred miles from here, and his presence somehow lingers if not on this hallowed trail then in my mind, a stranger but an invited guest nonetheless. Sojourners together on the western road.

I think of him often as we stand beside the road photographing an old wooden windmill and listening to the sweet fluted notes of a western meadowlark, or staring up a deeply-eroded gulch where wagons were once lowered from the heights by ropes and prayers. He was no relation but a name found decades ago inscribed on Register Cliff near Guernsey, Wyo. The shock of that encounter lingers to this bright day as together we at last come to the landmarks that captivated a fledgling nation.

Windlass Hill is the first such mark, contoured in the early sun and painted with wildflowers and sagebrush. We strip the silvery leaves from the plant and inhale deeply its pungent aroma and stride toward the crest, the trail nearly vertical as if designed to prove its perpendicularity. Coming down in a fully-loaded wagon must have been death-defying, but the base was reward enough in rich meadows and cool springs, the most famous of which is Ash Hollow a few miles downstream. It’s here that any questions of where the west begins are answered in the incontrovertible presence of yucca, Rocky Mountain juniper, black-billed magpie and two-tailed swallowtail. The east is behind us.

The hill and springs were merely obstacle and replenishment. The real landmarks are yet to come, those that dominated horizons and imagination and earned the recognition that eastern humidity and the prairie itself were departing, that a new land was hoving into view. The North Platte below Ash Hollow might be a ribbon of clear blue water with the air above speckled with terns and swallows of every kind, but the green blush of vegetation dries up rapidly as the gently rounded knolls erode into rocky bluffs and the river lies naked beneath a blazing sky. Portions of it are now forested with Russian olives, an unknown species when T. Parker rolled through. 

Neither were the signs marking today’s westward trail, of course: “Merrill County—livestock friendly,” read one, leading us to question whether the cows and horses were personable or if the county itself welcomed domesticated stock in preference to, say, the unwashed masses of humanity, like birders; another said “Mitchell’s—Guns, Ammo, Crafts.” 

“Must be married,” Jim said grimly.

And then there were the signs that became a ubiquitous presence wherever we stopped: “Warning: Rattlesnakes common in this area.” We laughed at them for the government’s penchant for stating the obvious. We warned each other in grave overtones whenever we stepped from the vehicle, as if snakebite were a certainty. We ridiculed the political correctness that made such signs necessary as a hedge however slight against base and frivolous lawsuits. We laughed across Nebraska and halfway through Wyoming to Independence Rock, where Chod had a very close encounter with a prairie rattler. After a sobering moment where we almost got serious, Jim and I cracked up and asked him if he’d bothered to read the damn signs.

“There aren’t any here!” Chod snapped peevishly. And, indeed there weren’t. Go figure.

The Courthouse and Jail were the first real geologic wonders of the trail, massive rock fortifications jutting from the sandy plains in an impressive array nevertheless all out of sorts with impressions left on today’s travelers. Many emigrants wrote that the stretch between the rocks and Scotts Bluff were the most scenic in the world. I watched for them long before they came into sight and then had to agree with Jim’s assessment: “This must be one of the least photogenic rocks in the world.”

In all fairness they looked better from the south, but a vast prairie dog colony filled with burrowing owls created a living foreground every bit as good as the vista. A dusty backroad took us over the rocky spine of the Wildcat Hills and descended into the Platte valley where we found a vast shimmering playa filled with shorebirds and waterfowl. In the distance the thin spire of Chimney Rock raked the sky. 

It was yet miles off but still riveting, an inverted funnel with a broad whitened base and a thin conical shaft rising 120 feet. No other landmark on the Oregon Trail so captured the wonder and awe of the emigrants, and for today’s expectant travelers it is no different. My first view of the obelisk was set to the music of screeching yellow-headed blackbirds, piping avocets and a chorus of frogs that wove a wild and primitive soundtrack into my consciousness. 

Scott’s Bluff, a few miles farther, was even more stunning. Today’s highway wends through majestic Mitchell’s Pass even as the original trail did, flanked by Eagle Rock and Sentinel Rock as if gateways to Wyoming. Indeed, atop the bluff one can see the faint blue triangular outline of Laramie Peak—the Rocky Mountains at last.

We were at the summit taking photographs when a park ranger approached Chod. He was hunched over a cactus with his lens a few inches from a scarlet blossom and glanced up as a shadow fell over him. The ranger was slim and fit and garbed in an exquisitely starched uniform.

“That’s a prickly pear,” he announced, enunciating each word slowly as if Chod were an idiot. The temperature on the crest plunged a good 30 degrees.

“I lead prairie tours,” Chod said icily. “I know what this is.”

The ranger disappeared without further ado.

Jim and I looked at each other and then at Chod. He was clearly irritated.

“That’s a prickly pear,” I said.

“Oh, shut up.”

(To be continued)

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Almost the West (Part 2)

Jim once said that the greatest thing ever invented was the automatic dishwasher, followed in short order by the washing machine. “But” he admitted, “I’m lazy.”  

My own list is both long and fluid, its nature and substance changing with varying situations and fluctuating interests, such as the week we spent tenting in hot, humid South Carolina and felt upon our return that nothing could be finer than a simple refrigerator. I’d stand in front of the fridge grinning like an idiot while opening and closing the door, marveling each time at the miracle of cold beer and food without the mess of ice. For this moment, though, I’d rate paved roads as one of the preeminent inventions in history, and motorized vehicles to wend them.

I-80 across southern Nebraska, a modern four-lane superhighway paralleling the green ribbon of the North Platte River, speeds us toward western skies. Beneath us was once another road, a broad sandy path a mile or more wide, dotted with white shapes like “sailing vessels I had often seen on Lake Erie,” wrote Phoebe Judson in 1853. Dr. Thomasson declared it “level and smooth as a plank floor.” Rebecca Ketcham, writing in 1853, said it was as wide as eight or ten common roads back in the States, and with a little work could be made into one of the “most beautiful roads in the world.”

It’s impossible to drive this stretch without thinking of the emigrants who risked everything to start new lives in the west. Their experiences are as fresh today as they were back then, kept alive in journals and diaries and collected in such works as “The Great Platte River Road,” by Merrill Mattes. No other book so fully captures the excitement, wonder and hardship of travelers on the Oregon Trail through Nebraska. And to think: if conditions were favorable, they managed 40 miles a day; if not, 10 could be hoped for. We’re rocketing along at 70 miles an hour, a fact that puts the westward movement into stunning perspective. 

Nor could they run from supercells and tornadoes, as we did. Lightning killed oxen or stampeded cattle, hail knocked them senseless, wind sent wagons cartwheeling. After particularly wet storms the flat valley turned into a quagmire, miring wagons up to the axles. 

There are other parallels between the emigrants and our own codgernautical journey. Mattes remarked that the endless shimmering valley had a hypnotic effect upon travelers. “The monotony of the Platte makes one drowsy,” Peter Burnett wrote, and Rebecca Ketcham offered, “We are all afflicted with drowsiness.” One hundred fifty-five years later, Chod and Jim collapse on their hotel beds in the town of Ogallala and fall asleep at once. I have a brief pang of doubt about journeying with my elders and then digging my binoculars out of my duffel slip quietly out the door. 


Where does the West begin? Somehow I missed the 100th meridian, the fabled longitudinal demarcation bisecting the nation, but on a small pond behind the hotel I find a western grebe. The medium-sized waterfowl keeps company with a lesser scaup and a raft of coots, swimming lazily in circles or tucking its black-crowned head beneath a wing. I’m a little tired myself but unwilling to subject myself to a darkened room just yet, and so make my way around the pond on a hard-packed trail. The grebe is the first western species seen so far, leading me to wonder if the west is really more imagination than destination. An absurd idea, quickly quashed. For most of my life I lived in the west and considered myself a westerner first and an American second and the gap between the two was distant indeed. Wide as the Platte, to coin a phrase. Here in this small Nebraskan city I’ve lost my bearings even while retaining a modicum of cardinal directions, thanks mostly to the wooded path of the river. I decide that the bird will have to do: I’ve left the east behind. 

Without mountains on the horizon it’s never that easy, of course. When I break out of the trees a dirt road separates me from a line of small cottonwoods, their leaves clattering in a breeze. I want to dip a foot into the river but it’s evident what I’m seeing are sandy channels watered only during snowmelt, and the river somewhere beyond a menacing growth of waxy fronds of the triple-leaf variety. It’s a bit early to chance a rash so I strike off to the right, the sun at my back casting a shadow far before me like some animated caricature pumping its arms and legs in a skeletal jitterbug. 

Behind me the parking lot fills with travelers seeking shelter for the night. I imagine the wooded bottoms filling with wagons, the creak of harnesses and iron-shod wheels and the pungent aroma of cookfires. They, too, looked for the west even as I do now, and it comes to me that their west began with the sentinel rocks lying ahead. Perhaps boundaries are precise only on maps and never on the ground where our lives unfold. On the heels of the thought a bobwhite flushes and sails across the road. I hear the slurry whistle of an eastern bluebird. Eastern and western kingbirds chitter and scold. A pewee perches on a naked limb not 10 feet away and I cannot tell its orientation until it utters a thin trill identifying it as an eastern species. In the fading light an olive-sided flycatcher, larger, darker, with a streaked breast, cuts loose with a quick, three beers!, a sentiment I wholeheartedly ascribe to. The bird is as misplaced as I am, caught in a place that’s neither east nor west but somewhere in between. On the banks of the Great Platte River Road, we’re all emigrants still.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Flee the wind (Part 1)

Afterwards, Lori asked if I’d had fun, and I said, for the most part, and she asked what I’d liked best. I thought for a long moment and then took her in my arms and said, coming home.


Our codgernautical quest was supposed to be about companionship, about photography, about birds and birding, about floras and faunas not our own but montane, desert, prairie, sandhill, riverine. It was about the American West and the emigrant movement that opened this nation even as it signaled the beginning of the end for its native inhabitants. It was about exploration and adventure and getting away. It was all that and more, and less even, and carried its own weight of loss in things we left behind but never fully abandoned, fixed in each breath we took, each thought, each dream, a second shadow accompanying us to the West.

We launched with certain things understood as potentials, and the shadows they cast were long and grim: atmospheric conditions ideal for the formation of supercells and long-path tornadoes; our house under construction and Lori’s job demands more than anticipated, Jim’s wife awaiting biopsy results. It was, in retrospect, probably unwise to depart when we did. That I write this with the perfect clarity of hindsight is a given that must be understood. It is the underlying principle for all that follows, the glue that binds this tale.

(For mine is the godlike eye seeing the past in its entirety and poring over its structure, scrutinizing minutiae, actions, subtle nuances of inflection and intonation, striving to determine patterns and geometries pertaining to our ultimate fates, and in all ultimately failing. An inconsolable deity, encumbered by incomplete notes and recollections, prejudices, fears and fallacies, burdened with unanswerable questions and perhaps more content for it, with a latent yearning for simple slumber without dreams. A mere mortal after all.)

And so we went, our horizons before and behind indefinite from an excess of humidity, the sky above ponderous with rain, the fields below drenched and riven with gullies like raw bleeding wounds. A dam breached. Pastures submerged. Evidences of a changing climate and harbingers of more to come, and the western skies darkening with each passing mile.

Cows on the road were the first danger. I’ve driven that section of Highway 36 a hundred times or more and never encountered any form of wildlife save a family of raccoons late one night, and yet that solo free-ranging bovine was merely the first. More followed, leading me to wonder about the alleged mystical ability of mammals to forecast violent weather or natural catastrophes, normally manifested in an edgy restlessness, if you believe the tales. Jim said that several times he’d crossed snakes on that road and every time thereafter encountered heavy rain. Some sixth sense, perhaps, touched by atmospheric pressure, temperature spikes, even unknown qualities science can only surmise. And all the while the word “supercell” stuck in my brain like a bur, and I turned it this way and that as if to dissect it and in doing so lessen its menace.

It seems a distinctly Midwestern term. Residents from other parts of the country must think it something else entirely, a particularly efficient form of battery or maximum security prison housing the worst of the worst. To a Nebraskan, a Kansan, a resident of the prairie states, supercell is a bogeyman word, a nightmare with which to threaten unruly children, a curse, its every syllable and vowel dripping with evil. If any comfort can be drawn from the idea of a supercell, it’s that the devil unleashed is blind and unwitting, preying without favor or remonstrance on righteous and unrighteous alike.

It’s possible the cows were a warning. As we ate a quick sandwich at a park in Norton, we sniffed the air and felt in our bones its very instability. By the time we crossed into Nebraska the skies were black and the wind rising. Several lonely houses scarred with past storm damage went past, a storage shed reduced to twisted sheets of metal strewn across a soggy field, trees smashed flat or whipped to bare stalks. A large falcon winged by and we tracked it but could not agree on an identification, peregrine or prairie. Our attentions irrevocably diverted  toward that which moved to intersect us.

Some thunderstorms can be avoided, some not. This one spread across the earth consuming everything in its path and rumbling cavernously spit fire and darkness. In my mind the word supercell gained ascendance like a supplication or invocation to a disaffected spirit. A midnight wall of water raced toward us. Jim cursed gripping the wheel white-knuckled and stared balefully out the windshield on a world gone amorphous and liquid. Jagged forks of lightning exploded in the sudden night as if some great machine were short-circuiting, and us trapped within, but faintly, ever so faintly, our eyes trained on a paler shade of gray to our left, a safe haven if we could reach it. Chod flipped the radio to a channel static with blips and beeps and advisories. Hail ricocheted off the hood like bullets.

“Should we pull over and wait it out?” Jim yelled.

Before we could answer a sign passed spectrally announcing Red Willow State Recreation Area. The announcer broke in warning of a tornado on the ground at the selfsame location. Its direction almost matched ours as did its rate of speed. Jim accelerated and tersely told us to watch his back but there was little visible in the rear view mirrors but a pluvial twilight laced with fire.

So we fled and the storm pursued, but roads follow cardinal points and storms do not and after a while we broke free, and with all thoughts of tenting abolished we at last joined the green ribbon of the great Platte River Road and turning followed it toward the West.

(To be continued)