“A man on foot, on horseback, or a bicycle will see more, feel more, enjoy more in one mile than the motorized tourist can in a hundred miles.”
~ Edward Abbey
My summer road trip was based on visiting my eighty-five year old mother. She was the final destination however, she was also part of my journey. Our relationship has been a challenging trip for both of us from the very start.
There is a book about my home town. The title, Love and Terror on the Howling Plains to Nowhere, pretty much sums up my entire childhood.
Eventually, a documentary was produced by the same title. Of course the talented local author, Poe Ballentine, did not write a story or produce a movie about my experience in Chadron, Nebraska.
The book is a true account of his life, his family, quirky towns folk, and a horrific murder that happened in an desolate prairie town. A bizarre crime that was never solved.
The “Mayberry” police force screwed up the investigation so badly they gave up and proclaimed the death a suicide even though the victim had been tied to a tree with barbed wire, started on fire, and buried in a snow drift. A real Houdini, that dead guy.
The murder/suicide victim, Steve Haataja, was a math professor at Chadron State College. Word on the street (and in the book) was that he was gay.
Home Sweet Home.
Murder and mayhem aside, my hometown is the only place I know that has not changed much in the last sixty-five years. The population of the town is a steady 5,500 give or take. The county seat of Dawes County. According to Outside Magazine, it’s considered to be one of the most isolated locations in the world. I read the article with interest, being a subscriber who knew exactly what that meant. Long brutal winters, tornados, hail storms, drought, fires, floods, wind, heat waves, and a hell of a long way from anywhere.
Mom, the head cheerleader, married the quarterback the weekend after she graduated from high school. What could go wrong?
As a nineteen year old mother of a colicky baby who screamed nonstop (that would be me), she found herself on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. No running water, electricity, or indoor plumbing.
My running joke is, “When you begin your life on the Pine Ridge, there is only one place to go from there.”
Oh, and there is the well known fact … There’s no one lower on the social economic ladder than a white person on an Indian reservation. And, the Pine Ridge still is the poorest, most desperate reservation in the country.
Don’t even get me started on my birth father. Or, grandfather, who taught me to light and smoke a cigarette at age three for his entertainment. I could smoke before I could tie my own shoes. Shoe tying turned out to be more problematic. No Velcro back then. Smoking was a breeze. I finally quit for good at age thirty. It wasn’t easy.
Mom’s story is, once I reached school age she insisted we move to town. By that time my younger sister was a preschooler, and she was pregnant with number three.
All of these factors may have had something to do with our rocky start.
My mom and I drove country roads for an entire afternoon. She drove. I’m not allowed to drive because she doesn’t trust me behind the wheel. The wide-open landscape in early summer was tall green prairie grass and black angus cattle. The Pine Ridge dotted with Ponderosa in the distance, puffy white clouds, and the bluest of clear blue skies. Every direction, open space.
As mom’s car crept slowly along to keep the dust cloud down on the dirt road, she talked about fence lines, what land belonged to who. Do I know these people? She talked about cutting and baling alfalfa. To a casual observer it seems a straight forward task. Not so. There are many considerations including moisture, temperature and timing. In her opinion, someone was cutting too soon. She talked about the government program that paid farmers and ranchers to plant olive trees. “Waste of money, they soak up ground water and need to be pulled up.”
Who cares if the lush foliage provides a habitat for wildlife on the open prairie? Not my mother.
The windows were down and the familiar voice of a meadowlark drifted across the alfalfa field sending me a message, “Welcome home.”
Home? Not here. No way! EVER!
Chadron Nebraska was a place to leave, not live. I had begun plotting and scheming to get out of town around the age of six. I made my escape by joining the United States Navy the week I turned eighteen.
The next morning mom and I walked a trail that meandered behind the college through knee high grass and around a large stagnant pond. Turtles slipped off logs into the water, frogs croaked, and an impressive legion of various birds twittered and flitted. Red winged blackbirds, woodpeckers, swallows, warblers, and a mountain bluebird made their noisy appearance. No binoculars or sneaking around required. A bird watchers paradise.
The quiet of the place, the slowness of our pace, made me aware of the open space. Whatever was happening anywhere else was not a part of the natural scene that unfolded around me.
I don’t remember my mother and I ever taking a walk together. At the age of eighty five she has become quite the walker. Better late than never.
On a whim I decided to take a trail ride. As a child I was obsessed with horses. Now, an hour on horseback would be enough to satisfy my yearning for another five years. Mother drove me to the oldest state park in Nebraska. She waited in the car. Side note, when I was a child she didn’t drive me anywhere. Her mantra, “You got a bike and legs.” Back then nobody hauled their kid around. Not in a snow storm or 108 degrees. Now she wants to be my personal chauffeur?
Chadron State Park is celebrating a Centennial. I could tell there had been a lot of house keeping to mark the occasion. Roads refinished, cabins refurbished, dead trees removed after a couple of serious fires.
I jokingly asked the ranger at the front desk if I was too old for a trail ride.
“As long as you’re over six I don’t care.”
I was the only rider. There was no crowd, no line or wait. Two good natured young wranglers introduced me to Joker. Blind in one eye.
One of the boys asked if I needed a step stool to mount up.
“God I hope not!”
He laughed, “A lot of folks do.”
The guys and I rode along and chatted about where they were from, their families and why they decided to attend Chadron State College.
One of the wranglers stated his reasoning to his overweight trail pony, “It’s a long way from my parents and hard to get here.” That should be a student recruitment slogan.
The other wrangler was a criminal justice major.
“Have you studied the math professor murder mystery here in Chadron?”
Unbelievably he had not heard about it. Not in any of his Criminal Justice classes? I told him about the book, Love and Terror, and suggested he read it.
“I’m not much of a reader,” he replied.
As the special education teacher that I am I suggested, “Get the audio book, or watch the documentary. I would think it would be a topic of interest especially because the crime happened in this very town.”
He shrugged. “Maybe next semester.” He seemed more interested in a cold beer than a cold case.
One-eyed Joker and I plodded mindlessly. Bare-bones bluffs in the distance where wild fires decimated acres of healthy pine trees. A whitetail doe bolted from a brush pile (Joker didn’t notice), and a little grey fox scurried across the trail. The meadowlark song brought back innumerable hours of my life spent on the back of a horse. This moment felt like home.
I handed each wrangler a generous tip for being kind to an elderly lady. Me!?
“Beer money,” I smiled, then paused. “Oh shit, you’re too young for beer, buy a burger.”
They hooted showing genuine appreciation and movie star teeth. Made my day.
Back to mom waiting for me in the car. Other than the trail ride, she and I stuck together like glue. For six days. Two days longer than planned.
She insisted I attend mass with her on Sunday morning. I knelt, I stood, I sat, I tried to listen, I did the Hokey Pokey, and I turned myself around. That’s what it’s all about.
I learned how to play chicken foot. With dominoes and her friends. Okay, it was fun.
She cooked beef, beef, beef, and bacon. I ate it. Okay, I liked it.
This is what I thought I knew:
Growing up on the “howling plains to nowhere” was hell on earth.
My mother loves me but she has never liked me.
I love her, but I’m defensive as hell and hate being micro-managed.
This is what I learned:
Growing up in the wide open space of a prairie town wasn’t that bad.
My mom is still trying her best to like me.
It’s time for me to let this shit go.