Tuesday, September 30, 2014

To Red Cloud and back

September has been a mix of different things including a recent trip West. 

It wasn’t bigtime West as one thinks of the magnificence of mountain peaks or the sublime shimmer of turning aspens along steep canyons but that’s not the point. 

Our rambles put us across the Missouri River and for me that’s where the West in attitude and inclination begins.

The trip was fun and relaxing with many sights seen and things done. It started out as a chance to visit a few places we’ve wanted to see for a long time.This included (my choice) Red Cloud, Nebraska.

Red Cloud is the girlhood home of Willa Cather, the author who through books like My Antonia helped me to appreciate the prairies and Great Plains. 

Before I found Cather my conception of the Great Plains, and Nebraska in particular, was not favorable. You usually can’t fathom what you don’t experience, and this was an area I didn’t know firsthand.

The vast region which slopes to the Rockies held no romance for me, and therefore no interest, until Cather’s words transferred its color and reality from the turned pages to my mind. 

Once latching on to the idea of prairie as beautiful in its way the prairie with its native grasses, history and culture has become a subject of growing and continuing interest to me.

Willa Cather came to Nebraska at nine from the verdant state of Virginia. Transplanted at an impressionable age she was to find and mine in Nebraska all the material she would need for her writings. 

Many of her novels are set, or set in part, in this marginally populated region which many years later, and not so very flatteringly, came to be called “flyover country.”  

Her descriptions of the land, hospitable and challenging by nature and by the season, with its bounty of planted orchards and field crops, and winters of wind and hunkering down on widely scattered farms amid creeks and arroyos, cracked open this part of the world to me. 

It was as if I physically annexed these millions of acres of the middle West to my own Midwest perspective.  

Farewell  I 35 and 80 70, this time we aren’t going to use you, we said. And we mostly stuck to our word, resisting the convenience of the interstate systems which expedite travel time. 

Instead, we studied maps for state or county roads that linked the small towns. The routes were sometimes winding and sometimes slow but they put us smack dab in the countryside and this suited us perfectly this time.

We especially enjoyed the designated scenic byways. Iowa's Highway 44 is named the Western Skies Scenic Byway. It’s a name to thrill to. 

The name is evocative of the big skies we came for and the long horizons that are a nightly show as the sunset spreads its flame for all to see.

As we pointed the car toward Nebraska it came to me why my folks went West every fall. They went in September after the summer place was shut at Labor Day and the family, from all our different places, had made our summer visits.

They went West when grasses start to get that burnished color and leaves are starting to turn. 

Their long driving vacations in the mild Western air under cloudless skies would have been a tonic to them, facing (like all Minnesotans) the long winter ahead.

They could get the sun-stoked West deep into them before settling in back at home and waiting for flurries to announce the next season.

Travel educates is the conclusion we come to every time.On the return we visited Kansas City with its fountains, plaza district, art galleries, and so many other places to take time for, that another trip specific to Kansas City is in order.

Northern Missouri is the country of Jesse James, Calamity Jane and horse-drawn buggies (among local farms are those who practice simpler ways.) Southern Iowa is the birthplace of labor activist John L. Lewis.

Red Cloud, Nebraska, the original impetus for the trip, proved to be the means of finding many other places and personalities, past and present. 

Sights and names pique interest and lead to self-directed learning. City is good, and the places one lives, but there are times when to be out in open spaces fills us with the whole sense of being alive.

Fall here proceeded apace in our absence. The deck was half buried in fallen yellow leaves. The leaves were soggy, indicating a shower had passed through rather recently. 

Trip completed, it’s always good to be home as I step out to sweep off leaf debris.

Ro Giencke – September 30, 2014

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