Steca lands a gig with the Forks Orchestra, so we drive up together. On the way, we make a stop at Mabel Murphy's where we have soup in a room with two fireplaces, a hardwood floor, and a view of cold ground and patchy snow out back.
Mom and I stop in to listen to the one of the rehearsals, and catch parts of a few pieces including, notably, the end of Bolero. Bolero's a stirring piece, but tends to drive musicians a little crazy as they're reduced to repeating the same thing for many hundreds of measures at increasingly ridiculous volumes. Knowing this, I didn't find myself too shocked to discover that its composer, Ravelle, had been struck with a kind of degenerative disorder of the mind that left him obsessed with simple, repetitive themes. They say he was at a beach house and about to go outside, when he suddenly turned, walked to the piano, and plunked out the Bolero theme. The beginning of the end for him.
Steca also ends up eating at the Dakota Harvest Bakery four times while she's in town, thus proving that it's perhaps the only place that's really worth eating at.
But my trip at home is destined to be short. Back on 2nd March, I got a text from Ajonja:
Any chance I could convince you to come Sandhill Crane-watching sometime withing the next couple of weeks?
Which led to planning…
I would say we could meet anywhere, but probably anywhere between mid-Iowa and Lincoln would be best? I will admit I have more of a “let's drive til we see cranes!” approach than a definite “this is how crane-spotting works” approach.
So Steca and I drive back south to Minneapolis, arriving around midnight. I sleep at the Coop and, five hours later, wake up and walk over to Argyle and pop on a Jefferson Lines bus heading south.
Hours later, we've hit Iowa and South Dakota. The trip's transfer point is a little bus depot in a very hot, dusty, wind-swept town. I buy a "Tuna Sandwich Lunch Packet" and squeeze the tuna onto little crackers. The bus is warm, stuffy, and smells unhealthy inside.
Eventually we hit, and follow, the bluffs downstream to Omaha, where Ajonja and I have agreed to meet.
Since she doesn't have a cellphone, our rendezvous location is to be “beneath the tallest flowering tree in the park closest to the middle of the town”. Step One for me when I get off the bus is therefore to find a library. On the way, I discover that Omaha is unexpectedly pretty.
The library not only tells me where the park is, but turns out to be right next to the park! Having discovered this, I step outside to wait for Ajonja.
By which I mean, to find the tallest flowering tree.
Which turns out to be difficult because every tree is flowering.
Eventually, I satisfy myself that I've found what must be the tallest tree and settle myself beneath it to wait. I pass the time by learning pennywhistle tunes from a book Steo's lent me. Particularly: The Pigtown.
After about two hours have passed without Ajonja appearing, I begin to become paranoid. Perhaps there is another park that's even closer to the center of the town? Perhaps there's another tree in this park which is even taller, and she's waiting for me beneath that one? There are so many ways this rendezvous could go awry!
I stalk around the park a few times, checking beneath the trees. And, on the final circuit, find her standing by the tree I left. Our plan was fool-proof after all. We hug, briefly admire the flowers, and then set off for the car in a buisness-like way. It's adventure time!
Our first Quest is to find Ajonja a map for her new car. And this won't be easy. It needs to be a map that lives up to her high functional and aesthetic standards, which is one of the things I appreciate about her. We go inside about three gas stations and a Wal-mart, rejecting map after map before settling on an unsatisfactory staple-bound road atlas of Nebraska. It's not the thick, spiral bound Rand McNally she wanted, but it'll have to do. During these stops, I pick up some munchies and we buy a gallon jug of water.
And then we drive west. And keep driving west, following highways, but never interstates.
Have you ever smelt burning rubber? That's the smell coming off of the brakes as we screech to a halt in order to inspect a historic marker by the road.
As it gets near midnight, we agree that it'd be good to find a campground, and I locate a few on the map. We head for the nearest one, which is down a winding side-road. After several miles of winding, trying to interpret bad signage, and having our hopes that it'll be “just around the next bend” repeatedly dashed, the clock hits midnight. Ajonja turns her head and says, “Okay, we should stop now.” And then takes the next right-hand turn down an even narrower side-road. I'm about to ask what we're doing, when she turns again, down an even narrower road. We pass a house with people in front of it (why are they out at midnight?) and I suggest we stop to ask them where the campground is, but Ajonja simply shakes her head and turns down an even smaller road. This plunges steeply down a hill into an RV campground.
We slowly drive through it past RV after RV without seeing any signs of life. Even the tow-able RVs don't have cars next to them. Altogether, it's really kinda creepy, and we say as much. It's as though everyone's simply vanished. We park between a couple of smaller campers on the farside of the campground, turn off the car, pop the trunk, and begin digging out supplies. At that moment, we hear another car come down the hill. We glance at each other, softly shut the trunk, and crouch behind our car. The other car slowly glides by without stopping and parks somewhere down the road. We don't hear or see it again.
With the tent erected, we go to sleep.
In the morning, we're awakened by the early-rising sun and the sound of practically every bird on Earth singing outside our tent. We listen for a while. Occasionally, there's a kind of deep, booming bird call. It's gotta be coming from a big bird. Could this be what a Sandhill Crane sounds like?
We poke our heads out. The big bird calls are not coming from birds. Not by a long-shot.
Within mere minutes, we're back on the road leaving the Mystery of the Abandoned RV Campground behind us.
Of course, just a mile or so down the road, we find the campground we were looking for the previous night. It's right on the edge of a beautiful reservoir on which hearty breeze is whipping up little white-caps. The whole scene's beautiful and I'm somewhat miffed that we didn't wake up to it, but, then again, it could just as easily not have been here. And then what would we have done?
As we continue west, the land becomes drier and more spare. Increasingly, the fields sport large irrigation apparatii. Ajonja complains of the ruinous effects of certain farm subsidies. We stop in a small town and I mail a few postcards, then leave the wrong way and have to turn and come back.
We've been passing, and continue to pass, the miles by singing all of the old folk songs and poetry we can remember. When we run out, we'll go miles without saying anything, just watching the rise and fall of the land.
Somewhere along the way, the road crosses a river and we detour into Nebraska's only National Forest. You probably have a certain conception of a what forest is, and so did I, but, if you are like me, your conception of a forest would not match what we found ourselves in. Around us, short (~20 foot), bushy pine trees scatter the landscape with perhaps thirty or more feet between each trunk. The water scarcity of the area must play a part in this. We drive up to a fire watch tower and then head back to the highway.
Another time we stop at an old, delapidated gas station. The proprietor has a wrinkly face and a raspy voice. He moved down here from Minnesota, he says, where it's wetter. “Where are you from?” he asks. “Omaha,” we reply. Back in the car we comment on our shared belief that questions of this nature, while understandable and probably innocent, also seem regrettably prying.
Further on, we cross the Platte River. Anyone of a certain age has experienced how hard it is to cross this with a train of ox-drawn wagons and, looking at it, I'm reminded of the horrors of lost equipment and ruined powder.
Then the landscape gives up all pretense of being arable and degenerates into sparse grasses and high hills. If this part of the state receives just a few inches less rain per year, the grasses will die and the sand dunes beneath break loose and wander the landscape as a desert. Earlier Ajonja had told me that “the Sand Hills are f@$#ing beautiful.” And it's true.
As we go deeper, our road runs parallel to the old highway. At times it looks almost driveable, but mostly it seems as though it's being quickly reclaimed by nature.
Near the entrance of the park there's a wee info billboard and a cubby of pamphlets, one of which—a map— shows a dotted road meandering off into the sandhills past what look to be lakes. Since we haven't seen any cranes yet, it seems reasonable to seek them out by the water.
So we turn onto an unmaintained gravel road covered with fist-sized rocks and follow it deeper and deeper into the hills.
But, when we finally do find the lakes, there are no cranes in them. Hundreds and hundreds of pelicans, yes, but no cranes.
More driving brings us back to better-maintained roads without (thankfully!) a flat. We pass by a US Cooperative Observing Network (maybe even a US Historic Climate Network) station and find ourselves wondering how its temperature sensors can possibly be relied on, given the variable albedo of its box.
Turning into the park HQ, we use the bathrooms, and I talk with the ranger guy. The cranes, he says, are not in this park. They're all down in the south part of he state, a good four hours from here. Coming out, I relay this to Ajonja. Then we get back into the car and do it.
Hours later, we're in the south part of the state and following the interstate so Ajonja can be home for work the next day. The sun is about to set, and we're feeling bummed that we didn't manage to find the cranes. Which is when we see a sea of gray dots in the field next to us. A sea that keeps going and going. As if on cue, a V passes overhead, visible through the sun roof. Before us a great arch of stylized birds passes over the interstate. We have made it.
As we pull into Lincoln, Ajonja explains that her housemate is really rather anti-visitor. So much so, in fact, that it'd be better if I didn't stay at her place. We drop by anyway, and I pet Pegasus the cat (who jumps onto your lap only after you rub fingers together in the “money sign”) while we look up maps of nearby campgrounds.
We end up driving to the campground of the city fairgrounds, where I unload my sleeping bag and the tent, and say good-night. It's only as I'm watching the car pull onto the road that I realise that the tent poles are still inside. But, oh well, I always have garbage bags. The campground turns out to be completely abandoned and surprisingly unsheltered. Being visible from so many directions makes me nervous, so I jump a ditch, push through some bushes, and find a more sheltered area in a back corner.
Situated there in a stunted piece of land between the city sewage treatment plant and the highway, with bright lights all around, I go to sleep.
In the morning, Ajonja tracks me down and we drive hurriedly to Omaha where she deposits me at the library before turning around to get to work. I try to print my tickets off on the library computers, but find that there are none available! A phone call to Jefferson Lines solves the problem: they take my info over the phone and email the tickets to me. Turns out they need to be purchased more than a couple of hours ahead of time.
With less than two hours to kill, I wander about looking for breakfast and cannot help but visit the Union Pacific headquarters building from which they manage a lot for trains.
Breakfast at the building's just ended, and the dining facility doesn't look interesting enough to be worthwhile anyway. I go out onto the street and describe the kind of place I'm looking for. The first few people suggest a Starbucks, but the last one points me the right direction.
And it's perfect.
Then it's just one exceedingly long bus ride back to the Forks. I arrive late at night, but in plenty of time to make my niece's science fair presentation the next day.
Over all, I've put in 1903 miles in less than three days… but at least I saw cranes! (And my friend.)