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The wanderer is awed by a thunderstorm rolling across the prairie

The storm was building in the distance, but there were stars directly overhead. I had sat out enjoying the warm evening and marveling at the wind waves through the short grass prairie. Evening comes with a storm building to the west. The blanket I lay on was still warm from the afternoon sun, and the only sound was the wind rustling the grass.

I had been hitchhiking my way up to Mitchell to travel further west on I-90. The last ride I got was with an older couple that was planning to stay at a campground on the Niobrara. The campground fee was pretty reasonable if you had no car and only a tent. You could get a shower as well. The experience of such big skies was new to me. A couple of bottles of beer, a blanket from my backpack, and a quick walk up the bluff to look west. One felt very small here.

“Care to have dinner with us?” asked Jim. He and his wife had picked me up outside of Lincoln in their older Subaru wagon with the ‘Imagine Whirled Peas’ sticker on the back and plastic dinosaurs glued to the dash. The ride was mostly small talk as I looked out the window for hours driving across the rolling landscape, the windows open in the hot Nebraska summer.

“Sure, I’ll buy some beer for us. What kind do you like?”

I settled on a six-pack each of dark beer and craft brewed pilsner. That the thing about college towns, they always had something different. They had brought some bratwurst to cook on the campfire. As the sausages slowly cooked skewered on sticks propped over the fire, the breeze would waft the sweet smoke from the burning pine into my eyes. Cottonwood leaves would rustle and flash near the river.

“So, how’d you come to be hitchhiking? Aren’cha worried about the danger?” Sue asked looking at my worn backpack and tent.

“Not really, I suppose. You can think of everyone as you friend or everyone as your enemy. It doesn’t really matter much. I prefer to think of people as friends.”

I took a long swig of my beer. “Besides, aren’t you the ones in danger picking up a shiftless person like me?” I laughed.

“We’ve come up here before. See, Jim is a biologist, and he’ll be collecting tomorrow in the river. Never saw a hitchhiker way out here though. They’re nearly always going West or East on I-80.”

Jim added, “I’m still doing research at the U. I’d like to say that is where Sue and I met, but we actually were a couple in high school, too. This is a working trip. Sue came along when I was a student. Now it is a habit.”

He looked at her with deep and clear affection. “We went to junior prom together, and here we are, over thirty years later.”

“How did you come to be here?”

“In college, we wanted to save the world, together. Maybe we could go some place exotic like Tuvalu. He could help build a sustainable ecology, and I could teach. But really anyplace would have worked as long as we were together. We’d been students so long that the real world seemed very distant.” Sue took a long sip of her beer. “It didn’t work out for us that way, but I ‘m not unhappy.”

“Our parents didn’t want us to get married until he was done with school and got a job,” Sue added. “Student loans to be repaid and a generous offer to teach on tenure track put a damper on those plans.”

“Any children?”

“No, we tried. It just didn’t work out for us.” Sue looked away. “Anyway, we fell into a routine. But I couldn’t ask for a better partner in life. He is always there for me. I hope to be for him.” She looked at him with a glow to her eyes.

“So where do you want to be ten years from now?”

Jim interrupted, “This place can be stifling. People don’t want to think about the world far away, and they don’t see the world we have here. Once, this was a sea of grass and a world away. Now it is cornfields, tractors, and a closed mind.”

Sue went on, “We went to spring break in Cancun more than a few years back. We had such a good time. That is where Jim proposed.” It was obvious that Sue was a little tipsy. “He was so good looking; tan and wet from the ocean. I knew he was the one for me. Fires on the beach and all those drinks, it was a continuous party. We had such fun, and it’s been great ever since. But we came back home. It is where our families were.”

She looked into the fire, and her expression changed. “I want to be that old couple holding hands walking in the park.” She looked at Jim, “I wanted children running around and making noise. Most of all I wanted you,” looking at Jim. They reached out their hands to each other.

After a silence, I shuffled my feet and the moment was broken.

“Anyway, if we can’t save the world, I hope we can be happy together. Now, where are you from?”

“Nowhere, everywhere. You name it.”

“No one’s from nowhere. You’ve gotta have a family, friends … girlfriend?”

“I just needed to move. Home means nothing to me anymore.”

“Well, I hope you find what you are looking for. You look sad sometimes. It’s in your eyes mostly. Anyway, it’s time to eat. That’ll cheer you up.”

Later, alone on the blanket, I thought about what she had said. I ‘was’ sad. I try to hide it with my poker face, ‘don’t let them get too close.' I looked closely at the waves of grass and saw that there was a small berry plant mixed into the endless sea of yellow. Small purple berries clustered around a stem. The animals had not yet found them, but it wouldn’t be long. Winter would be here before you knew it with the cold wind whipping through the stubble above the snow. The pheasant would glean for lost grain; small pickings, mighty small pickings.

One can get lost out here; the emptiness, the majesty, those thunderheads off to the west slowly but inexorably moving closer. You couldn’t hear the thunder. The purple and green flashes of lightning through the clouds lay witness to the storm. The crickets were starting to chirp. ‘Is a Cricket good luck?’ The grass pokes through the blanket crunching as I shift my weight. I noticed the sand burrs clinging where they could. ‘Is that what we do, cling onto things?’

‘Crazy Horse rode through here. Did he feel the great emptiness? Was he looking for something new or something he always had?’ The grasshoppers were starting to move with the cooling breeze; running before the wind rattling the black and yellow wings. ‘Do they dream at night?’ Does the pronghorn dream of other pronghorn? The Lakota moved here after they were pushed from Minnesota. Did they long to go home or was this now their home? Will I be taking a sand burr on a great adventure? Does it want to go?’ Nighttime and the big emptiness bring these jumbled thoughts.

The prairie is big; unbelievably big. The effort to find someone, to hold them, in this vastness, dominates. You must fight; constantly fight the loneliness. ‘University had taught me to look for facts, only facts. Feelings were the enemy of truth. They need to be stamped down, hard. Locked away in a small box. Try to do that; just try. In the middle of the night, the data, the facts just don’t matter. You are small and alone.‘

The thunderhead was closer now, and you could hear the low rumble in the distance, ‘one, two, three, … ten seconds after the flash.’ It was getting darker, and I could hear the occasional sound now of people preparing the camp for the night and the rain. There would be no drinking around the fire. People had paired up, made families, and have lives. They would sleep well. The night wouldn’t disturb them.

I walked back to my tent. It would storm tonight. I would be moving on.

 

 

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