Nebraska Feed

300 Miles to Ranching Country for a Funeral

The weather report indicated that there was a chance I was going to drive into a snowstorm.  I didn't relish the thought.  Obviously.  But I still left my house at 5:30 a.m. Friday planning to drive almost 300 miles into north central Nebraska ranching country to attend a funeral of a woman I'd met twice.

Agatha Forsyth was the wife of one of my United Church of Christ clergy colleagues, the licensed lay pastor Diana Jahn.  Diana I have interacted with numerous times over the years at denominational meetings, always enjoying my conversations with her.  My fascination has always been that she was serving as an openly gay clergy person in a tiny country church.  There was a time when she and I were the only openly gay UCC clergy in the state.  I deeply admired in 2015 when she signed our Ready-To-Marry statement and the Lincoln Journal-Star focused on how even this small rural church was gay welcoming.

So, to honor my colleague, in more ways than one, I wanted to travel those hundreds of miles into a snowstorm for her wife's funeral.

IMG_20190329_130608768_HDR

Purdum, Nebraska lies deep in the Sandhills, far from any major towns or highways.  The Sandhills are one of North America's most interesting and unique landscapes, though often overlooked for more dramatic mountain vistas.  The grass covered hills and small lakes and ponds make this ideal ranching country.

A few years ago Diana and Agatha were already living and ranching in Purdum, having moved there 13 years ago from Maine, when the church needed a new pastor.  The congregation itself asked Diana to become their pastor.  She received the training and was licensed to the church.

The forecast had predicted rain changing to wintry mix for most of my drive, but that held off.  Because of flooding and washed out roads and bridges, the quickest route wasn't the most direct.  I traveled west along I-80 to Grand Island, Nebraska and then turned northwest for more than two hours along the Sandhills Scenic Byway of Highway 2.

In Broken Bow, Nebraska, almost four hours into my journey, sleet changing to snow began to fall.  It quickly became very thick, covering the road, and making travel slippery.  I began to contemplate turning around.  I feared driving into more remote country (and spotty cell coverage) with bad weather.  Plus, the snow was slowing me down such I feared I wouldn't make it on time, but I only had a little more than an hour left to travel, so I continued forward wondering what to do, when suddenly the heavy snow let up and the road became easily traversable again.

An hour later there was a lovely moment as I rounded a bend in the road which lies in the river valley of the Middle Loup--the Burlington train was moving west along rails lying beside the highway, a lone cow was grazing in the foreground, the Sandhills were rising in the background, and Classical music was playing on the radio.

IMG_20190329_101424709_HDR

I arrived in Halsey with time to spare, so drove on past my turn to see the Nebraska National Forest.  If you are puzzled by the idea of a national forest on the Great Plains know that the forest was hand planted.  While driving through the forest, a massive hawk flew majestically overhead.

Purdum, an unicorporated village, lies 18 miles north of highway 2 at Halsey, and those 18 miles are directly through the abrupt rolling hills of the Sandhills.  What a fascinating landscape with almost no trees or shrubs and only the occasional turnoff for a ranch.  I wondered what the drive will be like in a few weeks with green grass and wildflowers.

IMG_20190329_102936890

And suddenly there's Purdum, with the church as the primary public building.  The place was full, as it seems the surrounding community all turned out.  Nine of Diana's clergy colleagues were in attendance, almost all from the eastern side of the state, so we shared our adventures in driving that early morning.

The music for the service included "Somewhere Over the Rainbow," Whitney Houston's "I Will Always Love You," Bette Midler's "Wind Beneath My Wings," and closed with k. d. lang's version of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah."  One of Agatha's friends celebrated "this marvelous, crazy woman."  The eulogy was delivered by a local woman who talked of how central Agatha and Diana have been not only to the church but the community.  Near the close of her remarks she thanked Agatha and Diana for teaching the community "not to judge."

And I found myself crying after those words as Bette Midler sang on the recording.  Here in the remote ranching country of the Sandhills was this wide, inclusive, gay-affirming embrace of the Christian church.  In a place that stereotypically it would be least expected.  And it was being honored and celebrated.

IMG_20190329_124521355

After a delicious country funeral lunch with multiple pasta and jello salads (maybe 7 of the latter?) and a smorgasboard of desserts (I limited myself to three), I got on the road for the return trip.

The radio kept warning about the snow in western and north central Nebraska, but I hadn't needed a coat in Purdum and there was very little precipitation until once again I neared Broken Bow where it started in almost the exact same place it had stopped for me en route almost four hours before.  Now Broken Bow was covered in what looked like 3 inches of snow.  It snowed until the other side of the town.  In my entire 600 miles of driving it snowed only in Broken Bow, both coming and going.  So odd.

In Grand Island I stopped for coffee with the Rev. Stephen Mitchell and his husband.  Stephen has been pastoring our UCC church there since last year, but we hadn't yet had time to really sit down and get to know one another.  I needed the stop, as I was beginning to tire, but the rest fortified me for the final leg home. Stephen and Paul have 30 grandchildren.

I told Stephen I had joked with Michael that morning, "I'm on my great gay clergy tour of Nebraska, seeing all three of us."

I arrived home around 6:30, 13 hours after leaving.  Michael had fixed a delicious dinner of roast pork.  After dinner it was my night for bedtime routine with our son.

IMG_20190329_124500625

 


Anne Boyle

Anne Boyle

Today I attended the funeral of Anne Boyle, former Public Service Commissioner and Chair of the Nebraska Democratic Party and husband of former Mayor and current County Commissioner Mike Boyle.

Michael and I met Anne and Mike shortly after we moved to Omaha when she was running for Lieutenant Governor.  And then whenever we saw them, usually at some sort of public event advocating for progressive causes, especially LGBT equality, they greeted us warmly as if they had known us for many years.  They helped make us feel at home in Omaha.

It was immediately impressive to us, who had been LGBT activists in Oklahoma in the Aughts, that these prominent public officials were such staunch advocated for LGBT equality.  That had not always been the case even with Democratic politicians in the first decade of this century.

Sometime last year our family was out to dinner at La Buvette and Anne entered the restaurant.  She saw us, her face lit up, and she came over to chat.  My mother was with us at the time, and she had a nice chat with Mom, but what I remember most was how she engaged 3-year-old Sebastian in conversation.  Even he remembers it, as I showed him Anne's picture and asked if he remembered when he last saw her.

Anne was a political force but always kind and compassionate.  Her funeral was filled with memorable stories and observations on her character.  I appreciate Jeff Koterba's cartoon in the paper this week, where a young girl asks her Mom, who is preparing to read a bedtime story, "Instead of a story, can you tell me more about Anne Boyle?  About her boldness and advocacy, her integrity and compassion?"  Those are four virtues I'd like to be remembered for.


Great Plains Bison

Great Plains BisonGreat Plains Bison by Dan O'Brien
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

What have we done? This well-written book is about one of the great ecological catastrophes in human history--how human beings have in the last few centuries ruined the thousands years old ecosystem of the Great Plains. Not only did we slaughter the bison to near extinction and commit genocide against the nations of the Plains, we ruined the entire habitat with our plowing, irrigation, pesticides, GMO crops, etc. If you thought the sad part of this story ended a hundred years ago, and we began improving things after the Dust Bowl, O'Brien's book will surprise, for the catastrophe continues apace.

But he is a good writer, with a beautiful imagination, so this is not a depressing read. Hopefully it is a call to action for those of us who love the Plains.

View all my reviews

Loss of a Nebraska Legacy

The Nation details how the current governor of Nebraska, billionaire scion Pete Ricketts, is dismantling the unique legacy of Nebraska state politics--its bipartisanship as embodied in the unicameral Senate.  

It didn't take long after Michael and I moved here for me to begin expressing my regard and admiration for this system.  Particularly coming from the dysfunctions of Oklahoma politics, which have worsened since 2010.  In Nebraska crazy bills generally never made it into serious contention, must less passed.  All Senators of all parties could hold leadership positions and have say in legislation.  Pragmatic rather than ideological solutions to problems were the pursued.  Bills killed in committee weren't surprisingly brought back to life the final day of the session.  Citizens were actively engaged in the hearing process and were fully informed of a bill's progress through the legislature.  And there was a spirit of working together.

I've often spoken highly of this system, as a committed convert, to people living elsewhere.  So sad to see it endangered.


Between the Rockies and a Hard Place

Between the Rockies and a Hard Place: A Drive Along the 100th Meridian from Mexico to CanadaBetween the Rockies and a Hard Place: A Drive Along the 100th Meridian from Mexico to Canada by Alan Wilkinson
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I picked this book up in 2016 while in Red Cloud, Nebraska intrigued by how an Englishman might perceive the Great Plains.

The book has some interesting moments, but there is not a lot of depth of exploration of terrain, culture, or people. In fact, the author keeps complaining that he doesn't have the time to do that.

The best chapters are near the end. He is better acquainted with Nebraska, for instance, and so writes well about it. The chapters on the Dakotas are good. The earlier chapters less so.

The chapter on Oklahoma was the worst. I felt he spent no effort on trying to understand western Oklahoma but was rather in a hurry to get through the state. He traveled along the westernmost roads in the state, but I too have traveled those roads and know that while bleak there are also interesting discoveries worthy of richer exploration than what is given here.

But I'm glad to add another title to my abiding interest in better understanding the history, culture, and geography of the Plains.

View all my reviews

It Was Glorious

And then it was total and the small crowd gathered on the village green exclaimed in wonder and our son looked up and pointed and squealed and said "The moon."

Plan A was hatched long ago--to go to Kearney for the weekend and visit our friend Tarae.  But this spring we finally got around to booking, there were no open hotel rooms.

Plan B was to head south from Omaha with friends to one of the small towns.  Weeks ago I had researched and presented a variety of options.  Then the weather forecasts got worse and worse for southeastern Nebraska.

We met for brunch on Saturday and made our plans.  We'd head west from Wahoo on highway 92 in order to get past the clouds.  We'd stay north, hoping to avoid much of the traffic.  St. Paul would be our planned destination, though we might stop elsewhere or keep traveling depending on the conditions.  We'd pack a picnic and just drive.

On Saturday we learned that Michael's dad was driving up from Oklahoma City and might try to meet us somewhere, though he ended up watching it in a small town in Missouri.  My sister and her family were coming from Shawnee with plans for St. Joseph, Missouri.  On Sunday, when they were halfway to St. Joe they decided the weather forecast there was too risky and made a last minute change of plans for Grand Island, where they somehow found a hotel room.  The turned northwest and spent the entire day driving.  Yesterday we were only thirty miles apart but never saw one another.

"Let's leave early," John said.  "We'll be over at 7 a.m."  So we awoke at six and finished the packing we had begun the night before.  We ended up running late and didn't depart till shortly after 8.  The traffic heading west from Omaha was constant, but not too bad.  There was a long line of cars on 92 but all going the speed limit or faster.  At every major highway a few would turn south.

As we drove we enjoyed mostly clear skies, but could see the massive cloud cover to the south over the path of totality.  Toward the north was crisp and clear.  Every time we stopped for a potty break the convenience stores were packed with other eclipse travelers, including people from all over.

When we got to St. Paul Sebastian played on the playground at the city park while we discussed whether to stop there or continue south west.  I wanted to stay because it was a good, big park where Sebastian could enjoy himself. But I was outvoted.  We continued on to Dannebrog, Nebraska's Danish capital.

Eclipse

On the small village green we spread our picnic blanket beside the gazebo.  About forty people were gathered there, mostly locals but a handful of folks from across the country.  The Danish Bakery across the street was open.  The firehouse had opened their restrooms to the public.  Children played and dogs sniffed each other and photographers set up tripods.

Most folks were quiet, eating lunch, chatting with family and friends, and occasionally stepping out of the shade of the trees to look up at the sun and moon with their eclipse glasses.  Eventually the crescents formed through the shade of the trees and everyone began to marvel.

The temperature began to drop, the light was similar to dusk, the cicadas began to make their evening noise.  Someone exclaimed they could see Mercury, and we all looked in that direction.  Everyone began to quiet down and get in their perfect spot.  Sebastian sat in my lap.

Then, totality, and the small crowd exclaimed their wonder.  Sebastian looked up and pointed and squealed and said "The moon."

What glory.  The solar flares and the corona.  What glory.

Then our puppy pooped and before some girls who were running around stepped in it, I grabbed a poop bag and collected it.  Humble action in the midst of glory.

And then the moment passed.  And we eventually returned to our picnic chairs.  There was a hushed awe and joy to the crowd. Eventually groups began to pack up and leave, and we waited till the moon had completed its journey over the son, resting in the wonder before beginning our return trip.

Everyone else in my car napped as we drove home.  At Osceola the traffic was bumper-to-bumper.  I worried that we'd be hours getting home if it stayed like this, but it opened up again after Shelby.  At every highway intersection some headed north and others from the south joined our line. 

It bottled up again at Wahoo because of an accident.  Then at Yutan it took us 30 minutes to go 5 miles, so I decided to try a detour and headed north on dirt roads to the next highway, which was fortunately completely free of traffic.  We crossed the Platte at Valley and got home around six p.m.

What a joyful, beautiful day.


Great Plains Geology

Great Plains Geology (Discover the Great Plains)Great Plains Geology by R.F. Diffendal
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I picked up this enjoyable book in the bookstore at Agate Fossil Beds National Monument in the panhandle of Nebraska while on our recent vacation. That night during my insomnia I began it and have been snatching bits and pieces since.

After helpful introductory chapters, the bulk of the book is a series of descriptions of prominent sites throughout the plains. This makes it a good travel guide as well. A handful of those sites we had seen on our trip.

The three most interesting things I learned reading the book--

1) The Black Hills was a single dome uplifted at the time of the Rocky Mountains uplift and then weathered down to create the peaks and valleys.

2) At Scottsbluff National Monument is not an uplift. The "original" floor of the plains was the top of the bluff. The plain lying far below is in fact erosion from the Platte River. The author said to stand atop the bluff and realize the unimaginable amount of sediment that has been washed down river and ultimately to the Gulf. Maybe Louisiana was made from Nebraska?

3) The Guadalupe Mountains in New Mexico and Texas are ancient coral reefs. Carlsbad Caverns is the remnant of those reefs.

View all my reviews