In which Katie reckons with the things she lacks: control over the weather, fortitude to sleep in her truck in sub-freezing temperatures, time necessary to “write it all”…whatever the hell “it all” may be.
The Weather Channel recently informed me that parts of the Midwest are witnessing 20-40 degree record lows for the month of October. This type of cold is apparently unprecedented for the region. Daytime highs sit in the low thirties, overnight lows in the teens, and the wind chill makes me wish homo erectus had never chosen to stand up straight.
I really prided myself on the premise of “roughing it” for a majority of this road trip. I was determined to save as much money as possible by living out of my truck, cooking camp stove meals and spending hours writing while perched on my tailgate in the crisp fall sunshine. But for the last four nights, I have either checked into budget hotels or taken guest room offers from strangers. My camp stove sits in my truck, hardly touched, while my wallet slowly empties to pay for Econolodges and to supplement the granola bars, apples, carrots and peanut butter I’ve been subsiding on. Camp stoves are apparently frowned upon in hotel rooms.
At first I thought maybe I wasn’t being tough enough, that maybe I just needed to dig deep and harness the young hearty outdoorswoman in me. I had all the necessary tools to live out of my truck. I had the enthusiasm and determination to keep the small cab organized and comfortable. I was so overly prepared that I felt a little ridiculous for squeezing so much stuff into my backseat (and then reorganizing it all in my front seat every night before crawling into my sleeping bag).
But I was closing in on the end of my second day at the Lazy A A Ranch in Blue Hill after getting a grand tour of the ranch’s operations from Jennifer, my aforementioned port in the road trip storm. A gentle spit fell from the sky. The cold clung to my jacket and Carhartt pants. It was already dark outside, and dinner was shaping up to be another peanut butter and jelly sandwich if I didn’t find a good place to use my camp stove. Jennifer offered to let me use it on the patio sheltered by their second-story deck, but asked if maybe I just wanted to sleep in their basement bedroom and have some bacon and eggs for dinner instead.
This was similar to other offers I had been refusing from the few interviews I had already conducted. I was (and still am) determined to maintain objectivity throughout this reporting process. I politely declined every time the “guest bedroom in the basement” or “guest house out behind the barn” was offered up by whoever I had just stopped questioning. But it quickly occurred to me that Jennifer was not involved in my project. And then something else occurred to me, something that no amount of second-hand camping purchases or tough chick gumption could have helped me avoid.
I was really cold and really hungry.
Jennifer loves to joke that she can’t seem to stop picking up stray animals. She must really mean it, because I followed her into the house with my tail tucked between my legs, shivering a little and salivating a lot at the idea of a steaming plate of BFD and a queen-sized bed. I was rewarded for my reliance on creature comforts with a crisp golden waffle nestled under the eggs and bacon, previously unadvertised and all the more appreciated.
I left the Lazy A A the next morning and looked ahead at a long weekend of interviewing all around the Platte River Valley. The weather continued to shock everyone, not just me. I heard Nebraskans everywhere commenting on the cold front – in convenience stores, in a coffee shop that supplied my wifi one morning, in the bakery next door that supplied my lunch, everywhere there was a buzz about how brutish the climate was. This made me feel much better and less wimpy about my choice of accommodations. I got out for five miles on the dirt road in front of the Lazy A A and again two days later on the rail trail in Kearney, both in 30-degree weather, both reaffirming my need to sleep indoors.
A few nights passed in budget hotels, a few days were spent driving to farms and wetland restoration plots to talk with sources, and it dawned on me that I was barely getting any actual writing done. I had so many ideas twirling around in my brain and so much to talk about, but by the time my days ended, I couldn’t help collapsing on the starchy bleached sheets and falling asleep to the sounds of clanking HVAC units and loud hotel neighbors. But my circumstances were about to change drastically, as I geared up to move into my funky home for my last night in Nebraska.
Thanks to a random connection made on Facebook while I was crowdsourcing some interviews about farmers and wetland restoration, I was headed to Terry Lee Shifferns’ Dancing Crane Writer’s Retreat in Gibbon, Nebraska. I have fallen in love with this state since I turned onto Jennifer’s property at the Lazy A A, and I was going to punctuate my time here by staying in a fully furnished eco-yurt in the trees, a space dedicated to all things storytelling and crane migration. I felt like one lucky girl as I barreled down the road towards Terry’s home.
When I walked through the door, I realized that I was, in fact, the luckiest girl in the world. The wood pellet stove flickered across the spacious room, and essential oils pumped into the air from a diffuser on the kitchen table. The yurt was full of vintage furniture, decorative tapestries and wall hangings, floor lamps, a queen bed and a writer’s desk, rocking chairs and an overstuffed couch. And everywhere the eye landed, there were books.
Books about cranes, books about migration, books about wildflowers and yurts and trees and wilderness. Books about the Central Plains, books written by Central Plains authors, books written by Central Plains authors about the Central Plains. Poetry anthologies, short story collections, novels, creative non-fiction, coffee table picture books…the whole yurt was alive with the written word.
You know you’re meant to be a writer when being surrounded by the thoughts and words of others helps you better collect your own. I stood here alone, but I could feel the influence of every storyteller who had nested here before me in the year since Terry opened the place. I could feel my brain and my right hand growing heavier, needing to unleash ink on paper quickly before I fell into that tricky literary trap of choosing reading over writing. I couldn’t believe I only got one night in this place.
But first, a celebration. I opened a bottle of red, blared some Patsy Cline and cooked the medley of farmer’s market vegetables that had traveled from Missoula with me. Red angus cows mooed in the pasture and cornfields just beyond the deck of the platform, and a cacophony of geese, ducks and sandhill cranes crescendoed over the apex skylight of the yurt. Trees shook outside the windows, symbols of the Platte River Valley lowlands whose groundwater resources are robust enough to support arboreal life, unique for the state of Nebraska.
Cows, crops, wetlands, and migratory birds. Here, in this place, I was surrounded by my project. I had spent a year on background reporting, reading research abstracts, fumbling through preliminary phone conversations with biologists and restoration ecologists and farmers and ranchers and government employees, and it all had come down to this one focal point. I could twirl in a circle like a princess and see my project, living and breathing and mooing and whooping in real time, coming at me from all directions. I could collapse and let momentum carry me forward, the way the cranes ride on morning thermal rises to achieve cruising altitude.
But momentum will have to wait another day.
Snow now falls outside, and the roads to Kansas freeze over. I settle into the yurt for a second night, rendered immobile by this strange cold front that has followed me since I got to Bismarck. My Kansas plans are currently postponed until the highways are more passable, which could take one more day or three. Who knows. This one is entirely out of my control. My truck home sits in the driveway, ready to accommodate me whenever the weather decides to permit outdoor sleeping again. And if it never does, then I’ll leave a breadcrumb trail of memories across a string of Econolodges from Kansas to Texas and back to Montana again.