Pilgrims and Tourists

This is an essay that I had originally submitted to a couple of literary journals. As is the norm in the publishing industry, I was rejected by both of them. I still like this essay a lot and decided to post it here. I suppose some might find it a bit pretentious, but I was reading Annie Dillard and Kathleen Norris at the time. Although unconscious of it then, I suspect it is a poor attempt at emulating their style.

Markdown (the html flavor that WordPress uses) doesn’t lend itself to footnoting. I will therefore put the footnotes here. I referenced four works:
– Belden C. Lane, The Solace of Fierce Landscapes: Exploring Desert and Mountain Spirituality, New York, Oxford University Press, 1998.
– Wendell Berry, Standing on Earth: Selected Essays, Ipswich, Golgonooza Press, 1991), p. 22.
– The Berry quote was found in John Chryssavgis, Beyond the Shattered Image: Insights into an Orthodox Christian Ecological Worldview, 2nd ed., Light and Life Publishing, Minneapolis, 2007.
– Ray Davies, Other People’s Lives (2006) on the v2 label, Track 7, “The Tourist” and Track 9, “The Getaway.”

rock top land

This time we entered Capitol Reef by wending our way down the Grand Staircase toward the Fremont River. I was looking forward to this return trip to the largely undiscovered Capitol Reef National Park in central Utah because I had been utterly captivated by this land on a previous trip. It is neither as photogenic as Bryce Canyon nor as dramatic as Zion farther southwest, but this meant fewer people. It was as much the forgottenness as the beauty that drew me. This time we were extending our exploration from Capitol Reef into the Escalante, or Grand Staircase—a massive rock up-thrust of a magnitude that is simply incomprehensible. The combination of the lonely grandeur of the desert and the geologic mystery of this region were irresistible to one who had discovered the power of the desert several years before.

I had grown up in the semi-arid region of northeast Montana where cactus and yucca captured tumbleweeds in their thorns and competed with sagebrush to survive. I lived along one of those endless ribbons of cottonwood trees that marked the occasional rivers in the region, but I spent my days, both at work and at play, in the barren Larb Hills or riding my bicycle into the shimmer of heat that swallowed the highway in front of me. Back then I took it all for granted.

Much later, having moved to Kentucky for school and then to the lush Flint Hills of Kansas for work, I recognized a yearning to return to the happy solitude of that emptiness. It was in this memory of childhood that I began to realize the empty quarters were spiritually powerful. I began to wonder if I were not a lesser person for having forsaken those quarters.

My youngest years – just on the edge of memory – were spent in Sheridan, Wyoming. Sheridan lies in the transitional area between the barren and arid plains stretching past Gillette to the east and the Bighorn Mountains to the west. As I cultivated the memory of that happy solitude of emptiness, an idea revealed itself. I had also spent some time at a Crozier monastery in Nebraska and there discovered the spiritual discipline of rigorous fasting, particularly water-only fasts, which some of the monks practiced as part of their discipline. But fasting in the temptatious city, full of billboards, glorious smells wafting from restaurants, and candy bars at every gas station counter, proved beyond my weak-willed ability. My new idea was to spend a week in the Bighorn Mountains with only a tent and sleeping bag, a prayer book, water – lots of water – and a camp stove for brewing herbal tea.

Much of the Bighorn range is arid and the tree line – that elevation above which trees can no longer grow – lies at a fairly low elevation because of the arid conditions. Much later I learned that Belden Lane calls such places “grotesque” and “wild” terrain, a sort of “vertical edge” to civilization in much the same way that a traditional desert creates a horizontal edge for the civilized world. At this stage of my life I knew little of the language of purgation, nor of the theology of what some have called the indifference of God that can only be discovered in an indifferent and hostile environment. My early spiritual tradition equated mountaintops with spiritual ecstasy. But what I experienced in the Bighorns was a glorious divine indifference that eroded my ego down to a more appropriate size and contoured my soul into a shape that was prepared to collect droplets and dew of divine presence rather than the expected rushing winds of ecstasy.

Such seeming divine indifference requires attentiveness to discern the almost invisible presence that is there. The magnificent solitude of the empty quarters calls for a different perception. This was not David dancing the Ark of the Covenant into Jerusalem, nor was it the not-yet-Apostle, still called Saul, blinded by the overwhelming divine light. “Be still, and know that I am God” (Ps. 46:11). This command stands in stark contrast to the shattering of the spear and the breaking of the chariots that occurs in the previous verse. This is Moses in the cleft of the rock, bereft because the storm, the wind, the lightning were all agnostic ecstasy. But Moses waited. He needed balance and steadfastness before he finally heard the Silence.

By this time in my life I had just begun to read the darkness of St. John of the Cross and brightness St. Gregory Palamas. On the grotesque and wild, but exceedingly empty yet expansive mountaintop, I glimpsed that they were saying the same thing. I also knew beyond anything to which I could put words that this was The Word, there from the beginning. I knew that grotesque was the correct description and that “grotesque” was precisely the same thing as “beautiful” in the same manner that blinding darkness was the same thing as the eternal brightness of day … and I knew that this silence was very good.

Capitol Reef

At this point in my life I had no idea so many other people heard that same mystical whisper. From the days of the “desert fathers” to the latter wanderers from Sinai to Sedona, otherwise well-adjusted people sought out these inhospitable lands; people were drawn to the emptiness. These were lands full of brutal summer heat, bitter winter cold, and piercing wind that could divide bone and marrow while eroding the very soul to its unpretentious essence. It never occurred to me that civilized people who had grown up in civilized places would hear that same lonely call which I remembered from my uncivilized childhood and now experienced powerfully on the barren northern edge of the Bighorn Mountains. And not knowing this great tradition, afterwards the experience remained but a dull ache of memory.

Eventually I became more conversant with desert spirituality and that old dull ache of a memory began to turn into a longing to experience the desert, not just as “comfort food”—a return to the familiarity of childhood memories—but as spiritual nourishment. My sister-in-law taught school in the Navajo Nation and on a trip to see her we decided to spend some in Utah. It was a wide-ranging expedition in which we day-hiked everywhere from Capitol Reef to Glen Canyon to El Malpais, just west of Albuquerque. With textbooks, prayer books, and knapsacks in hand, it became wonderful exercise for both the body and the soul.

Specifically, the time in the wilderness was expansive. Specifically, for the first time I was able to parse the openness of the wilderness that I had experienced riding my bicycle into the shimmer of heat that swallowed the highway in front of me when I was in high school. The empty spaces didn’t stretch a person thin, as did the expectations of job, church, and society; rather, they beckoned one to unravel the tangled threads of a life whose strands had been turned this way and that. And because it was expansive in this manner, it was liberating.

And here I was again—here we were again—wending our way from the mountains down into the Utah desert to once again unravel the tangled threads of our life. The arid, empty quarters were no longer just my childhood memory, a thing of the past; they were a wayside rest to prepare me for whatever may lay ahead. Toward that end Brenda was reading John Chryssavgis, Beyond the Shattered Image. And as we followed the lonely road into the heart of the Escalante National Monument, she read out loud a passage from Wendell Berry that Chryssavgis had quoted:

Apparently with the rise of industry, we began to romanticize the wilderness—which is to say we began to institutionalize it within the concept of the “scenic.” Because of railroads and improved highways, the wilderness was no longer an arduous passage for the traveler, but something to be looked at as grand or beautiful from the high vantages of the roadside. We became viewers of “views.” And because we no longer traveled in the wilderness as a matter of course, we forgot that wilderness still circumscribed civilization and persisted in domesticity. We forgot, indeed, that the civilized and the domestic continued to depend upon wilderness, that is, upon natural forces within the climate and within the soil that have never in any meaningful sense been controlled or conquered. Modern civilization has been built largely in this forgetfulness.

She meant well, but that brief recitation ruined any hope of this trip being a spiritual pilgrimage … that is, unless, a pilgrimage is merely a tourist vacation dressed up in a camel hair cloak. Now I could only sit back in the breeze of the air conditioning and enjoy the view. The mystical had evaporated as surely as the soda flat that lay to the left of highway.

rock top land

Brenda shared the quote because she didn’t hear Wendell Berry in the same way I heard him. She was in a place not unlike Lucy Pevensie transported to Narnia, and just as Lucy heard that she could not tame the lion, so Brenda heard that we could not tame nature. Just as Lucy recognized that a tame lion is no real lion at all, so Brenda recognized that domesticated nature is not nature at all, just an extension of the back yard. After reading Chryssavgis, she was ready to cross the fence out of the manicured back yard and try to find the Wilderness.

But I didn’t hear Lucy Pevensie when I heard Berry; rather, it was Ray Davies ringing in my ear. Davies, founding member of The Kinks, and now pursuing a successful solo musical career, is one of the best observers of life unvarnished among contemporary song writers. His song, The Tourist is a biting look at the rootlessness of modern life, and how we, ignorant of place but full of hubris, bang about the world as if we own and understand it: “The Empire State is so very tall / And the Taj Mahal has a pretty dome / And everywhere that I go I say / I want to make it my home.”

And yet, in spite all the urbanity of Ray Davies’ tourist, the song is deeply melancholy. The tourist wants to make everywhere his home, but because he is merely passing through, nowhere manages to be the place where he fits best.

Davies puts his finger on one of the failings of modern society: with such a life we have no home, never attaching ourselves to the joys of place and neighbor nor buckling down to deal with the associated troubles. It’s easier to just move on (or to make our “great escape” as Davies says a couple of tracks later in the song, The Getaway). Rather than people on a pilgrimage, we moderns have become pilgrims with no place—in other words, tourists. And, to bring this back to the point Berry made, we bring our “place” with us. Our place is located with our mp3 player, cup holder, cooler, and change of clothes in the trunk. As long as the A/C is working, the cooler is stocked with water and food, and we are within 100 miles of a gas station, we can make anywhere, no matter how natively inhospitable, our “place,” only to move on in the next few days.

And if this is the case, this condition begs the question, “What is the desert?” In the time when desert and an active or even militant spiritual life went hand in hand, the desert was a spiritual tool because it was the habitation of all that stood opposed to The Garden. It’s not that it wasn’t cultivated—and it certainly wasn’t—but rather, it was beyond the possibility of cultivation or any human management. It was the abode of jackals and demons. But with our technology we no longer fear jackals and with our education we no longer believe in demons.

So let’s reframe the question. Rather than focus on the desert, let’s ask what stands in opposition to all the good that God has given us. St. Anthony went to the land of jackals to battle the demons that stood between him and the fullness of God. Where is our land of jackals? What stands between us and the fullness of God?

Of course the answer to that question is as varied as the persons who ask it. That was the case in St. Anthony’s time as much as it is today. But I am asking this question in the comfort of my air conditioned car, traveling forty miles per hour across a very well maintained gravel road that cuts straight and true, with few surprises (and no real obstacles!) right through the heart of the arid Escalante uplift. From St. Anthony’s perspective (sans road), this is every bit the forsaken desert as the Sinai. From my perspective (comfortably on the road), it’s both as curious and glorious as the “Empire State which is so very tall and the Taj Mahal with a pretty dome …”

What stands between us and the fullness of God? Possibly it’s the automobile itself. Possibly it’s the ability, because of the rise of industry “to romanticize the wilderness” to “institutionalize the concept of ‘scenic’” (to frame the question in Wendell Berry’s words), and finally to escape the responsibilities of place, community, annoying neighbors, and the dullness of making a living day after day in a neighborhood that is not nearly as romantic as a ski lodge in Park City, nor as scenic as the red sandstone cliffs of Sedona, nor as urbane as Santa Fe.

If I would have never left Montana and was still working in the arid and empty Larb Hills north of Fort Peck Reservoir, then possibly the arid and empty places would have been my desert where I struggled against jackals and demons in search of the fullness of God. Instead, I packed up my automobile and moved to Kentucky, and to Kansas, then to Alaska, and on to Nebraska … How can a wanderer such as that make a pilgrimage? For while I still have so many places which to go, I no longer have a specific place from which I come.

When Brenda read Wendell Berry in the midst of the massive rock stair steps of the Escalante, I realized that I am no St. Anthony. I cannot make pilgrimage into the desert to fight my demons when I am so accustomed to traveling to the desert to escape the demons with which I am so familiar.

Jim - Malpais

If I’m going to be a tourist, I shouldn’t pretend otherwise. Meanwhile, I ought to fight tooth and claw, to embrace the wild fullness of God in the domesticated world where I live (in contrast to the wild world where I vacation). Such a stay-put pilgrimage is not nearly as romantic as southern Utah or the Bighorn Mountains, but it is in tune with my life. I have seen the “grotesque and wild.” I have clambered up to “the vertical edge.” And for me they’re not scary, but scenic. Now it is time to come home, to stay home, until I can find divine fullness here in this noisy, busy place. In the midst of the noise of society, the potential of the quiet stillness of God remains as profound as it did for Moses on the mountain, for St. Anthony in his hut, and for the monks on the Holy Mountain.


Why I Don’t Recommend Princess Cruise Lines

I’m no expert on the subject .. just another ignorant and opinionated blogger. But for what it’s worth, I ran across this picture in my collection and thought it a worthy addition to my cruise ship series. This, by the way, is why I don’t recommend Princess Cruise Lines

In Honor of Cruise Ships

First there was a Costa cruise ship that ran aground while the captain was evidently flirting with a blond lady. Yesterday there was a fire in a Costa cruise ship engine room, leaving the ship helpless in pirate waters north of the Seychelles.

So before all the cruise ships sink to the bottom of the deep blue sea or are taken over by pirates (arrrgh!!) I thought I should post some cruise ship pictures. Such times may be but a memory if things continue in the industry.

I replaced the old header photos with a dozen new ones. The headers will appear randomly on the site with each refresh of the page. Since refreshing the page is a bit of a crap shoot for bringing up pictures, I’ve posted them below.

Two cruise ships docked somewhere in the Caribbean

A frigate bird floats in the air looking for a morsel along the beach.

The "Lawn Club" -- real grass on the top deck of the Celebrity Solstice.

The harbor at St. Maarten - the Dutch side of the island

Going to heaven? No just boarding the ship from the Zodiacs near Walrus Island in Canada. Cruise Ship? not exactly. One probably ought to call it an "Expedition Ship."

A piece of driftwood on a local lake. I wonder if it could sink a cruise ship? Good thing they don't sail Crystal Cove Lake!

A pelican looking for a handout

A street vendor in the Casco Viejo District of Panama City

Joshua Tree blossoms after a March thunderstorm in the desert

A Tiger Swallowtail butterfly resting in some ivy in the Colorado mountains

A father and son playing chess in the library of the Norwegian Spirit

A turtle in the Sabine River on the Texas-Louisiana border

Granted, they’re not all cruise ship pictures. But variety is the spice of life.

Navajo Holiday Traditions

We were invited to travel south to the Navajo reservation for a Navajo Christmas.

We’re not planning on going down, but we were curious just what a Navajo Christmas might be like. So we asked.

Well, everyone’s going to dress up. … And it turns out, the Golden Corral is open on Christmas Day in Holbrook, so Christmas lunch for the whole clan will be there.

Sort of weirdly reminiscent of James McMurtry’s Choctaw Bingo. Not acquainted with this Americana classic? Here’s all eight and a half minutes of this bit of Oklahoma strangeness on Youtube. Maybe northeast Arizona isn’t that different from eastern Oklahoma. If the Golden Corral has WiFi, this can be your Christmas lunch entertainment.

Tired of Empty and Meaningless Thanksgiving Greetings in your Inbox? Here’s a post about beer.

We made a quick trip to Montana in order to take care of some family business. While there I discovered a plethora (maybe even a surfeit) of locally brewed beers. I’m no beer connoisseur, but I do like the uniqueness of a locally brewed beer, and I’m always in search of a good porter, because porters are so hard to find in the United States.  (… turns out that there’s at least a dozen different porters brewed in Montana.) So I went back to the motel and did a bit of research. According to the Beer Me! web site, there are thirty-two different breweries in Montana.

I’ve developed a relationship with the front desk clerk, who is quite knowledgeable about both Husker football and Malta Mustang basketball. Being from Townsend he has suffered many a defeat at the hands of the once Mighty Malta Mustangs. I don’t think they’re as good as they were back in the day of the “3M Company,” but evidently they’re still a force to be reckoned with in Montana basketball.

When we got back from our big birthday bash on Wednesday night, the clerk asked where we ate (the Montana Ale Works) and that led to a discussion of regional beers. The Montana Ale Works features 40 regional beers on tap on a rotating basis. (Since there are quite a lot more than 40 good regional beers available by the keg, they rotate.). Quite frankly, this astounds me. Who knew (other than Montanans) that Montana was such a Mecca for microbreweries? How come a state as sparsely populated as Montana has so many breweries? You’d think it was the Milwaukee suburbs or something. So I made this very comment to my new best friend, the motel front desk clerk.

And it turns out that my new best friend, the front desk clerk is also very wise, for lo!, he had an answer to my question.

Montana is where they grow wheat, barley, hops, and have fabulous tasting spring water polluted only by golden aspen leaves, brown trout, and may fly larvae (and Exxon brand crude oil, if you happen to live along the Yellowstone River below Laurel, but that’s another story altogether). In other words, resources are local, of excellent quality, and abundant, and therefore cheap. Thus it makes perfectly good sense that Montana should be the home of 32 different breweries.

(But is Wolf Point, Montana, smack dab in the middle of the rez, really the best place to locate a brewery? Some of the reservations in South Dakota and Iowa strictly prohibit – and vigorously attempt to enforce – both alcohol sales and possession. But the Assiniboines of Fort Peck aren’t the Brule Lakota nor the Winnebagos nor Omahas. Each nation makes their own rules. I suppose it’s no different than six breweries in Missoula, smack dab in the middle of a university. I do find it very amusing that the first successful concoction of the Missouri Breaks Brewery, located in the middle of the Fort Peck Rez, was India Pale Ale. That must confuse the local school children: Are those real Indians?)

Oh, and by the way, after trying four of the local brews (one can only do so much “research” on a very short trip) my favorite so far is Cold Smoke Scotch Ale brewed by the Kettlehouse Brewery of Missoula: Dark, rich, with more than a hint of blackstrap and it actually is quite smoky. I also had a sip of a very fine Oatmeal Stout that was so smooth and rich it was almost decadent, but maybe a bit too sweet. Unfortunately, I don’t remember who brewed that one.

And, by the way … Happy Thanksgiving. May your sage dressing be moist, your cranberry sauce be abundant, your ecumenical worship service not be overly heretical in its attempt to be inclusive and cooperative; and may your garage remain intact after the younger generation incinerates the hedge and basketball hoop in a foolish attempt to deep-fry the bird just like Guy Fieri did it on t.v.

The Sand Hills in Autumn

When we drove to Scottsbluff last weekend we took state Highway 2 from Dunning to Alliance through the southern Sand Hills. I have been across U.S. 20, through the northern Sand Hills (O’Neill, Valentine, and Chadron) many times but this was my first trip on Highway 2. The elevation is lower in the south so the Sand Hills have a rather different character to them. This results in a huge difference between the two areas.

The Ogallala Aquifer lies below the Sand Hills. What I did not realize is that the aquifer is very close to the surface.  This region is semi-arid and appears quite desert-like along U.S. 20 to the north. The sand dunes are covered with short grasses and vegetation suited to the dry alkaline conditions and as a result, the dunes are very stable. But when the wind blows the air still becomes gritty from all the sand. The first time I drove through the Mojave it reminded me of Valentine, Nebraska.

Because the elevation is lower in the southern Sand Hills, the aquifer sits right at ground level and the region is covered with lakes and wetlands, many of them strongly alkali. While it is technically arid, just as further north, the growth is quite lush in some areas because of the aquifer. We drove through during the fall migration and the number of waterfowl (and other birds as well, no doubt, but they weren’t as visible) was astounding. Most of the lakes were covered with ducks and wading birds.

Most striking to me was the contour of the land. When the road went over a hilltop so that it was possible to see several miles about, the hills looked like the bottom of a sandy ocean bay when one snorkels above it. The effect of wave action was unmistakable. Of course, the wave action came primarily from wind rather than water, during the periods when there was little or no vegetation and the dunes “migrated freely” around western Nebraska. (See Thinking Like a Dune Field for an in-depth explanation of the Sand Hills phenomenon). But whether from wind or water, the waves of grass-covered sand, with lakes and marshes in between, were mysteriously beautiful as they shimmered in the afternoon autumn sun.

Of course the Sand Hills are in the news now, not because of their beauty, history, or wildlife, but rather because of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline which will eventually (if it is ever built) carry oil and gas from Alberta and North Dakota to refineries in Oklahoma, Texas, and Louisiana.

Just a note on terminology: There is already a pipeline that passes directly through the Sand Hills (and directly above the Ogallala Aquifer) called the Keystone pipeline. The Keystone has been operational for a couple of years. The proposed Keystone XL is an extension of the existing pipeline (ie, Keystone Extension Line).

Brenda recently completed a Master Naturalist course sponsored by the University of Nebraska. Although neither the Sand Hills nor the pipeline were the focus of the course, the subject came up frequently. It was particularly interesting to me that her instructors with particular expertise in the Sand Hills and the aquifer were of the opinion that the Ogallala Aquifer is far more resilient than most people assume. The aquifer is quite capable of cleaning up and neutralizing stuff that gets poured on top of it (such as crude oil, if the unthinkable should happen). According to the Nebraska Natural Resource District literature about the Sand Hills (written before the current brouhaha over the Keystone XL), the real aquifer damage is caused by small dams (such as those created for livestock ponds), water wells, roads, and other surface damage to the Sand Hills. Areas that are disturbed often dry up, sometimes temporarily, sometimes permanently. The mechanism that causes this is still not understood.

But quite frankly, all the technicalities don’t interest me a great deal. It was the lake alongside the road with two dozen duck butts sticking up in the air as their shameless owners browsed the lake bottom, that I found utterly fascinating. It was the curlews, sandpipers, and avocets darting along the shore in search of bugs that caught my attention. It was the hope of seeing the pelicans (which seemed to have already moved to warmer climes – not a pelican in sight this trip) and raptors (which were abundant) that kept me interested over the endless miles of western Nebraska.

But since I’ve brought the subject up, I will weigh in on the pipeline. Have you ever seen or read about the environmental damage we humans have created on the Saudi peninsula as we have drilled for oil? Of course, that’s a long way away, so we can pretend it’s not happening. Is western Nebraska any more holy than the Saudi Peninsula? (Well, granted Tom Osborne comes from western Nebraska, but technically he’s not a Sand Hills boy, he’s from the Platte River basin.) Modernity inevitably results in a certain amount of environmental degradation.  And I would argue that we’ll cause a lot less degradation if we drill it in and ship it through our back yard instead of somebody else’s backyard half way around the world. If we do it here we’ll actually care about it and thus keep a much closer eye on it.

And, by the way, this assumption may be grossly inaccurate. To see the wanton destruction in certain parts of northern Alberta is rather shocking. We humans haven’t exactly done a good job of keeping the Canadian tar sands region pristine. But I will still argue that we have a better chance of cleaning up our own back yard than we do a peninsula half way around the world.

So, to the extent that I care, I’m a supporter of the new pipeline. Furthermore, if they’ll let me rest my binoculars on the pipeline so that I can get a good look at a few thousand ducks and a few dozen raptors, I’ll truly be a happy camper. If I can sit on the pipe line while curlews dive bomb me and squack their little beaks off, I’ll be in ecstacy.

But somehow I suspect that leaning on a pipeline with a pair of binoculars in one’s hands is a terrorist activity. And from that perspective, the pipeline (whether for or against it) is the least of our worries.

I intended it to be about Scott’s Bluff Nat’l Monument, but somehow it ended up being about food.

Our trip last weekend to Scottsbluff was mostly an opportunity to scope out a part of the state that neither of us were familiar with. While in Scottsbluff we wanted to take the walking trail that goes up Scott’s Bluff. It’s a 1.6 mile trail that starts at the visitor center (pictured) and ends at the top of the bluff (about 400 feet, base to top). There’s an additional mile of trails at the top which lead to overlooks of Scottsbluff and Gering to the north, Wyoming (and Laramie Peak, when the weather isn’t hazy) to the west, and the Wildcat Hills to the south.

The weather was far from ideal. The temps were in the 40s and low 50s and the wind was howling. We had to crouch-walk out to the north viewing area because the wind would have blown us off our feet if we tried to stand straight and tall. So we didn’t spend a lot of time on the top of the bluff, but the trail was mostly protected from the wind, so the walk up and down was very enjoyable.

This was a particularly notable journey of discovery for me. We were cold and hungry when we got off the bluff, and there was a Runza just down the road from the National Monument entrance. We stopped off there for a warming bowl of chili. I have been a big Runza fan ever since moving to the region back in the mid-80s. For the uninitiated, Runza is a small fast food chain based out of Lincoln, Nebraska. Its signature item is a bierock (which they call a Runza). I discovered bierocks when I went to college in Hays, KS, county seat of Ellis County and the center of the Volga German migration back in the late 1800s.

In celebration of their heritage, every little town competed to have the best Oktoberfest.  Munjor, Schoenschen, and Ellis all had big street fairs. All the churches sold bierocks and all the bars (along with the Missouri Synod Lutheran church – ie, the German Lutherans – who had a beer permit … how cool is that!) sold beer. Most Oktoberfests are merely an excuse to get drunk, but Oktoberfest in Ellis County was more about the bierocks.

At this point some definitions are in order. A bierock is a meat-filled pocket pastry originating in Eastern Europe. Both the Germans and Russians claim to have invented it. It was the Volga German community that brought them to northern Kansas and southern Nebraska.  Of course, meat-filled pocket pastries are not unique to the Germans. The Scots have pasties. The Slavs have pirogues. The Latinos have empanadas. I would argue that the Asian egg roll is of the same species – meat and cabbage rolled in dough (in this case, rice flour). A Runza is simply the trademarked name of a commercially developed fast food bierock.

One of the best parts of living in Hays was bierocks and shortly after we moved to Blue Rapids, KS (which was only an hour south of Lincoln, NE), I discovered Runza’s version of the bierock and have been eating them with some regularity ever since.  The closest Runza restaurant to our house is 40.2 miles away in Wayne. I have been known to drive over there for lunch. That’s nearly thirty years, on and off, of occasionally stopping by the Runza restaurant. Eating chili last Saturday in Gering, Neb beneath the wind-swept shadow of Scott’s Bluff, was the first time I have ever darkened the door of a Runza and not ordered a Runza.

Runza Restaurants have award winning hamburgers; they regularly win the “Best of Lincoln” competition, beating out the really great and funky bar burgers served along “Q” Street. I have, on several occasions, gone into a Runza with the intention of ordering one of those award winning burgers, but I’ve always ended up getting the Runza instead. While I am still unable to give you a report on the quality of their burgers, I can tell you that their chili is quite tasty (not stellar, but certainly tasty), and their side salad is one of the best fast food side salad’s out there.

It’s a good thing the Volga Germans settled a hundred miles south of the Platte River and the Oregon Trail which followed it through Nebraska. I suspect if they could have had bierocks, chili, and award winning hamburgers in the shadow of Chimney Rock and Scott’s Bluff, most of them never would have made it to Oregon.

Mille Bornes – Husker Style

I had motel points worth a free night that were due to expire at the end of October, so Brenda and I decided on a road trip to the western end of Nebraska. Geologically, historically, and for bird watching purposes, western Nebraska is a big deal, but it’s a long way from South Sioux City. I always figured that forays into western Nebraska were going to involve at least a three-day trip (two travel days and one day to explore). So this weekend we blocked out three days before the expiration of the free room (that would be Tuesday) and the prediction of the first big snow storm out there (that would be Wednesday).

We’ve arrived back in Siouxland none the worse for wear. Our Conestoga wagon broke one wheel, we cracked the tongue, lost a mule, and only a single milk cow died on the arduous journey up the Platte River to Scott’s Bluff. (Just kidding – although I did have to air up my tires in Scottsbluff – granted, I’m sort of a city slicker, but I figure that’s probably about as hard has repairing a Conestoga wagon wheel.)

Being a native son of Montana I tend to think of Montana as big and everything else, except Texas and Alaska, as not measuring up. In my maturing years I’ve discovered that Florida, from Pensacola to Homestead, is shocklingly big. I also suspect that driving California south to north is also no mean feat.

But today’s subject is Nebraska, and I’m here to report that Nebraska is big! We drove as direct as one can drive from South Sioux City to Scottsbluff. Being regular shoppers at the Cabela’s store in Omaha, on the way home we took a slight southerly detour through Sidney to visit the Cabela’s mother ship. (Dick Cabela’s stuffed bull elephant is pretty cool by the way. I wonder what the taxidermy bill was on that thing?!?! But put it in the store instead of the den and, besides not having to build a bigger door to get it into the den, the elephant becomes a tax write-off.) Then, from Sidney, we drove a direct route back to South Sioux City. The total trip was 1013.8 miles. (Okay, that’s slightly farther than a thousand milestones, and the French count in kilometers instead of miles, but that’s a minor distraction, and besides, I don’t know how to say “one thousand thirteen milestones” much less “one thousand six hundred thirty-two kilometer markers” in French, so I’ll stick with “Mille Bornes” in the title.)

More about the trip later, but I did take a photo of the iconic Chimney Rock, which will adorn my blog header for the month of November.

About That Deer I Shot …

In writing a previous essay about flooding on the Musselshell River, I said that I shot my first deer on the Musselshell. Since the essay was about the flooding and not about hunting deer, I didn’t check that sentence for historical accuracy. But after I thought about it I realized that my first deer had to be harvested in Philips County, not Rosebud or Musselshell Counties. I didn’t turn 12 until after we moved to Malta, and once in Malta, we never travelled that far south to hunt.

And this brings up the subject of memory and how it works. Based on other memory debacles (for instance, here and corrected here) I’ve thought about this quite a bit and have developed some theories. Certain memories are particularly vivid while others tend to fade into the scenery of one’s life. When something triggers a recollection of an event, that recollection naturally gets drawn to one of the vivid memories even if it properly belongs to some other context or time frame.

I have very few memories of Sheridan, Wyoming where I learned to toddle, to balance on porch railings, to tumble off porch railings, and even break my arm. (Yep, I remember that itchy cast.) I also remember the sledding hill (which I was not allowed to sled down, at least from the top). But my most vibrant memories of Sheridan were trips to Ranchester and Decker, two towns where my dad preached regularly. Ranchester, in my memory was a Norman Rockwell sort of place and Decker, with all that red dust on the roads, rattlesnakes hiding under rocks, and endless miles of open range to explore with the older boys, was a young adventurer’s paradise …

… Well, at least I think that’s the case. What I remember specifically was the gigantic slide at Ranchester burning my bottom on particularly hot days, burning grasshoppers in the hot sun with a magnifying glass (that was not my fault, by the way!! My brother, who was six years older, along with his ruffian friends instigated the whole thing – I was still swaddled in innocence, not having even started kindergarten yet), clearing the school house of rattlesnakes before we could go in and have church, and the man who ran the chainsaw store in Decker, who lived in the basement of an unfinished house, and had a Ford Bronco (or some such 4WD) with a removable fiberglass top.

Then we moved to Laurel where dad was a pastor and later an instructor and administrator at Montana Institute of the Bible. I started school in Laurel and moved to Malta halfway through my fourth grade year. Being so young, I don’t remember a lot about Laurel either. But some of the most vivid Laurel memories are associated with dad preaching in Musselshell and Melstone. Dad and my brother would take the rifles along during hunting season.

The most remarkable memory (in my mind), which is possibly my earliest clear memory, began with a false assumption. We used to go camping in the Big Horn Mountains when I was but a wee lad. I had always assumed that those trips were to the Shell Canyon on the windward side of the mountains above Sheridan. Several years ago, on a trip west Brenda and I took US 16 over the Big Horns to Worland and then to points south. It was a perfect day and we pulled into a National Forest campground (Meadowlark Lake Campground, for any nosy relatives who might want to correct this particular memory) to smell the pine-scented mountain breeze and stretch our legs. As we pulled into the parking lot I knew I had been here before. I knew which trail led to the lake and which one went to the biffies. I sat on a log fence, having a distinct impression that I had climbed up this fence and sat precariously on this log a long time ago. I went to a particular campsite and sat down at the picnic table, having a very strong sense that I had eaten breakfast at this very picnic table years before.

This experience discombobled my memory matrix, so when we got back home I asked dad where we used to take the camper when we camped in the summer. He told me we usually went to a campground on a lake to the west of Buffalo on the western slope of the mountains. That would have to be Meadowlark Lake campground. Surprisingly, I have a remarkably clear memory of that place which I thought was somewhere else.

In review, there are a couple of things worth noting. Other than the tragic grasshopper incident (which obviously wasn’t my fault!) my most vivid memories have to do with road trips. For whatever hidden psychological reason (with which a psychiatrist would no doubt have field day) my most vivid childhood memories are attached, not to where I lived, but to other places that I went. I therefore find it interesting that to this day I am not a home body. I love to travel, and if I can justify the time, I will always travel by car rather than air. I love airplanes, but I love driving far more.

And the second thing, to which I have already alluded, is that I have a handful of vivid memories from throughout my life. Those vivid memories act like magnets, and when I reminisce, I almost always attach a newly remembered event to one of those vivid memories. After that initial moment I can often redact the new memory in order to properly place it in the past, typically by a process of elimination.

I do remember several hunting expeditions, but I am quite hazy about which ones I participated in and which ones I only observed because I was too young. I’ve also heard stories around the table (such as my oldest brother’s killing two deer with one shot) and it’s easy to incorporate family stories into my own personal history. The circumstances of my first deer remain hazy enough, that I will probably never remember the details.

So in the end I appeal to the preface of a memoir written by Phil Long. His life story, as related in the memoir was truly memorable and remarkable, but he began with the following caveat that I should probably attach to this web site: Not all the stories in this book are necessarily true, although they should be.

Flooding on the Musselshell

I decided to take the scenic route home from Bozeman and went north to US Hwy 12, which follows the Musselshell River. I drove through the towns of Harlowton, Ryegate, Roundup, and Musselshell, all of which have suffered rather severe flooding this spring.

This pasture (the left side of the picture) behind the broken levee along the bank of the Musselshell River (the right side of the picture) caught my attention because of the “No Hunting” sign of the power pole. “No Fishing” may be more to the point this summer. Just to the right of the frame the cattle guard that used to sit at the road entrance has obviously been dragged up the hill, so that it didn’t wash away along with the road and fence line it was a part of.

While the actual flooding is not as dramatic as what we have seen on the Mississippi in early spring and the Missouri right now, it is far more dramatic for anyone who has grown up around the Musselshell — a gravelly, trickle of a stream which is normally deep enough to hold fish, but shallow enough to walk across.

Just to the west of Roundup highway crews were directing traffic through a spot where water was still flowing over US 12. There were several spots where the road base was obviously saturated and the road surface was beginning to buckle.

But the most poignant scene I saw all morning was this hay pasture (the front of the photo) with the normal bed of the Musselshell River in the back, hugging the distant hill. The raging waters have tossed the irrigation equipment all akimbo and, until the river subsides significantly, still has the pipe and wheels in its watery clutches. Although outside the frame of the picture, farther up the hay field the remainder of the perfectly aligned pipe and wheels still sits at the edge of the hayfield, waiting to do its work.

And, as my brother pointed out, except for a couple of warm days, this has still been a cool spring. If we get a sudden hot spell, this scene could be multiplied up and down the western states.

Of course, as a wag from a previous generation pointed out, all news is local. Driving along the banks of the Musselshell is not only an exercise in remembering my childhood. (My very first deer was shot within sight of the Musselshell River!, but I digress.) I was also thinking about the fact that all this water is going to flow through Siouxland later this summer.

Oh joy.