The Past, Alive and Well in a Persistent Wilderness

January 18, 2024

Last September, I flew to Omaha on a research trip for my next book, a novel, Valentine, Nebraska, the story of homesteaders based on my grandmother’s life. At Alamo car rental they said I could choose any Dodge Challenger I wanted. I picked the white one with Texas plates, good cover for my east coast liberalism.

I drove 300 miles through the Sandhills to Valentine expecting monotony, but frosty nights mottled the prairie grass red and gold. Tawny spent cornstalks flanked by brilliant yellow alfalfa fields covered the bottomlands. I suspect my grandmother, Lyda, also marveled at the hilltops where green grass rose, turned brown half-way up and bled pink at the tips.

I expected loneliness. But when the Challenger proved no match for the overgrown dirt road that led to the former dairy Lyda ran, the manager at the Comfort Inn put me in her ATV and drove down the sandy rutted tracks. I reached for the roll bar.

When I arrived at the general store in Sparks near where Lyda lived as a child, two old men stood outside and fawned over the car as I got out. I was looking for the Petersons. Oh, yes, we have Petersons here.

They brought out a photocopy of an old map and located a rectangle with the handwritten name Otto Peterson, Lyda’s brother. I walked the steep banks of the Niobrara, a wide shallow river where my grandmother and her siblings gathered buffaloberries and no doubt cooled off in the river.

I drove west on the same three-hundred-mile route my grandfather took to deliver hay and horses to Fort Robinson just before the Massacre at Wounded Knee in 1890. On my way back, a storm raged over the buttes and followed me east to Valentine. I sat for half an hour outside my cabin at Lord Ranch Resort surrounded by rugged sandhills. The wind shook the car and lightning flashed unabated.

At the nearby ranch where my grandmother worked as a hired hand at age fifteen in the early 1900’s, a jolly man opened the door. I said, “Our grandmothers knew each other. Your mother hired my mother to work here.” We sat for over an hour at his kitchen table trading stories. He walked me to the car and pointed out an old cement outbuilding where my grandmother likely lived.

At home a week later, I thought I would have a lazy Sunday reading the newspaper, but the story spilled out all over it.

And a new beginning emerged.

Lyda took no notice of the purple clouds that rolled toward them, or the curtain of rain that burst like charcoal dust from beneath. Thunder rolled in the distance and her sister Sadie hissed at her to hurry up. Lightning spiked all around them.

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