Looking back on the changes in your life can be sobering. If you want to feel a twinge of aging without the comforting glow of nostalgia, take the time to realize that from 1972 until today, is halfway from 1922. Doesn’t seem possible, does it?
In my travels across America, I’m one of those that prefers the two-lane highway to the bland sameness of corporate monotony that lines existence all along America’s great interstate highways. It takes a little longer, but give me the two-lane every time.
It’s a little “The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost, mixed with a few hundred horsepower under the hood of someone’s Detroit dream. Only they’re not made in the Motor City any longer. Even that has changed with the passage of time.
I read “Blue Highways” by William Least Heat Moon soon after it was published back in 1982. I found a kindred message in his travels to the past along the forgotten highways that crisscross the continent.
It wasn’t until a decade later, that I found my own version of Least Heat Moon’s observations on U.S. Highway 20 as it rolls across the top of the Nebraska Sandhills.
There is something special about this narrow stretch of asphalt. Heading east from Lusk, Wyoming to Valentine, Nebraska is a study in Americana at its best.
Lusk, Node, Van Tassel, Harrison, Crawford, Chadron, Hay Springs, Rushville, Clinton, Gordon, Merriman, Cody, Nenzel, Kilgore, Crookston, and ultimately, Valentine, where my wife’s grandmother Esther B. Hahn lived created a time for reflection along the endless miles of rolling grassland. It’s a 220-mile drive from Lusk to Valentine, the tiny, barely inhabited towns break up the distance in eerily patterned intervals.
I write “eerily” because these tiny towns exist in exactly the pattern that one of my favorite geography professors, Dr. Jordan Louvier, described in his Spatial Relations class. The idea of a hinterland, with huge cities like Denver, Kansas City, and Salt Lake City sharing almost equal distances between them was easy enough to understand. But the placement of large towns that aspire to become something they never will such as Cheyenne, Rapid City, Casper, and Billings are all examples of intercessor zones outside the cities that create the patchwork of existence in this hinterland concept.
Living in Fremont County, we don’t have the options those dazzling urbanites do in Seattle or Minneapolis. We don’t even have the basic amenities you can find in Twin Falls or Omaha, we share a similar lifestyle and ultimately a similar fate to the Sand Hills.
The people clinging to life along Highway 20, probably don’t think in those terms. They think about their children and grandchildren who have moved far, far away.
I call it the diasporas of the plains, and it’s a sentiment shared by many others. The children leave, the old folks stay behind, and the towns get smaller and smaller until they don’t exist at all.
Henry, Nebraska is one of the saddest examples of this. Wedged between Torrington and Scottsbluff it once had a thriving business district, a couple of banks, two implement dealers, a drive-in movie theatre, and a handful of bars that served the ranching and farming community.
Aside from a single bar, none of that exists any longer. The same is true along the 220 miles of US 20 with boarded up businesses, consolidated schools, and life dependent on the delivery truck.
I heard “Family of Man” by Three Dog Night in the fall of 1971, here are the key lyrics.
“This tired city was somebody’s dream. Billboard horizons as black as they seem, four level highways across the land, we’re building a home for the family of man.”
As desperate as Crawford, Henry, and Kilgore have become, or even the small towns we know here at home may seem, they were once somebody’s dream.
I wrote of discovering the remnants of parking meters in Shoshoni a few years ago before the crumbling remains of the old downtown section met the wrecker’s ball. That’s how dreams, become faded memories and then cease to exist at all.
There is a farmhouse east of Shawnee, Wyoming, just across the county line that separates Converse and Niobrara.
I noticed this crumbling relic on an April afternoon in 1980 as I drove from Laramie to Lusk for a job interview as a teacher and coach at Niobrara County High School.
The wood was warping, and the few panes of glass that remained were thickened at the bottom as old glass always does. Atop the three room house (yes, I’ve stopped a few times and poked around inside) is a brick chimney that loses a brick or two every few years. The howling Eastern Wyoming winds work their magic on the loose bricks as the sun and dry climate destroy the mortar holding it in place.
That old farmhouse, with the rusting cans, the remains of an outhouse out back, and other detritus was once the dream of some strong, enterprising young family. When it came to an end I don’t know. What I do know is that every time I drive by, and I’ve driven the road from Orin Junction to Lusk and back hundreds of times, I daydream a little about what happened to the people who tried to scratch out an existence on the dry grass plains of windswept Niobrara County.
On a whitetail hunt along the Bison Basin Road from Sweetwater Station to South Pass one October day I stopped to glass an area along the Sweetwater River from a bluff a few dozen yards above it. I didn’t spot a buck, but I did find something intriguing along the river bank. It was a couple of sections of corrugated sheet metal flapping in the wind.
I hiked down and discovered someone’s home, albeit a home in the briefest sense of the word. The “home” was a dugout above the river. It was just eight feet wide, seven feet deep and about 12 feet long. The door opened south towards the river and the rest of the structure was underground, protected by that flapping sheet metal.
Someone lived here. There were still remnants of shelves along the wall, and a frame for either a bed or maybe a table had collapsed into the rock floor. Dreams that once were, but are no more.
The magic of these faded memories is that there is always someone out there thinking they’ve found their own version of the American Dream in something that most of us wouldn’t give a second look.
Let’s finish with a trip back a century-and-a-half to the Old West, and a time of dreams beginning and ending.
A lone cowboy rides along with the wildlife in the Marty Robbins song, “Man Walks Among us.” The end of an era is clearly on his mind, “Soon will be gone all the desert. Cities will cover each hill. Today will just be a fond memory, man walks among us, be still, be still.”