I had always thought of myself as a flatlander, born in Miami, raised near Tampa and eventually nestled into the piney woods you’ve heard me talk about so often here in the panhandle of Florida.
Truth is, a person doesn’t know squat about flat until they’ve been to Nebraska.
I was there in November of 1999. It was a couple of years after Buck had retired from corporate life and I had sold my business. We were living most of the time in the drop dead gorgeous high altitude Smoky Mountains, near Asheville, North Carolina.
Buck was raised from a child in the crib into the traditions of Southern hunters. No, I don’t hunt. And that’s not what this story is about. But a hunting trip to Wyoming, Montana and Nebraska is the context.
We flew into Rapid City, South Dakota and spent the first night at the venerable Alex Johnson Hotel. They make a mean room service hot fudge sundae. The next day we drove to Newcastle, Wyoming, stopping along the way for a visit to Mt. Rushmore. Shortly before arriving at our destination in Newcastle, I began to feel a strange tingling around my lips. While Buck checked us in, I sat in the rental car and flipped down the mirrored visor.
“Oh, no,” I murmured, one look confirming my suspicion. My right upper lip was puffed out, like some collagen shot had hit wide of the mark. No problem breathing, but the dread thought of anaphylaxis crossed my mind. “What’s going on?” I thought. Our journey had led from nowhere to the back of beyond, it seemed, and when lunchtime had come and gone with no prospects, we had stopped at a gas station convenience store and picked up a prepackaged mystery sandwich, which we shared with a small bag of chips and a Diet Coke. I thought for sure I must be having an allergic reaction to some type of preservative in the sandwich.
Because of allergies to certain types of grass and trees in North Carolina, at the time I carried an Epi Pen, designed to deliver a life saving dose of epinephrine in an emergency. I’ll never forget my Pensacola allergist, Dr. Stephen Kimura, telling me earnestly, that if I was having any trouble breathing and felt “a sense of doom” — to uncap the pen and stab myself in the thigh without hesitation. Oh, great.
Well, in addition to the Epi Pen, I always carried a packet of Benadryl around, clearly a less drastic measure. Once we got into the motel room, I popped a Benadryl, found a phone book and dialed the local hospital emergency room. Luckily enough, I spoke to a responsive young doctor who suggested a regimen for the Benadryl, along with an ice pack on my face, and that if it got worse or I had even a suggestion of breathing difficulty, to use the Epi Pen and get to the hospital immediately. He pointed out that the Epi Pen would buy me a few minutes, but was not an ultimate solution.
The Benadryl and ice worked, and the crisis passed. A few days later, we drove to Miles City, Montana. It was unseasonably warm, with seventy degree temperatures in the great grasslands. Usually by November there would already be snow. I remember seeing great threshing machines, the air clogged with grass clouds. By the time we reached the Best Western Inn, my lips were swelling again, this time accompanied by itching eyes and throat. Great.
I spent part of our time there doped up with Benadryl and the rest visiting the good folks at the Little Sisters of the Sacred Heart Medical Clinic. Turns out the great grasslands in warm weather is not a safe place to be for someone with grass allergies.
We drove back to Rapid City and spent another night at the Alex Johnson Hotel, then drove into Nebraska for a stay on a ranch near Chadron. The road was long, absolutely straight, flat and monochromatic. Buck has some sort of inner global positioning capability that led us to the ranch turnoff. Once on the property, the ranch house where we would be staying with a group of about six other hunters was five miles inside the property. The owners, a family with several children, raised cattle there, too.
There was no phone at the ranch, so no email capability. I had packed along my Yamaha electric keyboard, so at each stop along the way I could find a corner someplace, plug in, put on the headset and make music. A lifesaver.
The ranch house was kind of cramped for space, and the “private” bath we had been promised turned out to be what you might call “semi-private” — just me and seven male hunters. A woman and her husband lived there. She handled the cooking and cleaning, and he handled details for the hunters. Breakfasts were heavy. Lunches were heavy. Suppers were extremely heavy. What they called “salad” was boiled macaroni with Blue Plate salad dressing. Pork was served at every meal, and I’m not talking about the newfangled “lean” pork. This was old-style, swimming in hog fat pork. After a day and half, I felt starved for any kind of vegetable morsel with some freshness to it, and went in search of something green.
As I was leaving, one of the guys cautioned me about getting too far away with bad weather coming in. He said it was turning, and snow was forecast. That seemed absurd, given the temperature, and besides, I was in full escape mode, ready to blast out of there in that little white rental car. My one concession to caution was to throw a jacket in the back seat.
Turning off the ranch property on the main highway, just in time I remembered to check the odometer reading and mark it so I could find my way back through the monotonous terrain. Then I hit the accelerator like a bat out of hell, freed from the cloistered ranch house. By the time I had driven 10 of the 22 miles into Chadron, it was clear the weather was turning fast. Wind, drizzling rain, temperature dropping, and the horizon disappearing into a solid gray wall.
But headstrong and hard-headed, I was determined to make my rounds: first by stopping at the tiny local storefront library to use their computer and check my email and the news headlines, and then to the corner IGA grocery store. Victory! I came away with two bags of salad greens, a couple of small tomatoes, and a bag of carrots, plus two oatmeal cookies and a cup of hot coffee to sustain me for the drive back in what had become a driving snow.
Darkness was coming on, and I drove as fast as I safely could, caffeine and fear attenuating the rapid beat of my heart. I did make the proper turn onto the ranch property, but by this time it was fully dark, contrasting dramatically with the white blanket of snow, obliterating the two-track road to the house. Suddenly I heard a loud noise, almost like a train, and then realized in shock that the sound I was hearing was the feet of running cattle. They were all around me and my compact car, snorting and stomping black figures in the whiteness of the snow storm. Where was the road?
An impossibly bright light blinded me. It was a huge snow plow, manned by the ranch owner. A four-wheel drive truck pulled up behind me, filled with four of the visiting hunters, the ones I had dubbed “the Georgia boys.” They were thin, very pale and white, all with dirty -blond hair, cliché drawls, and the deceptively gentle manner of stone killers. Like proper boy scouts, however, one took the wheel, calling me “ma’am” — while the others freed the tires from the rut where the car was stuck — and somehow, all together, got me back to the ranch safely.
At suppertime that night, I made a big salad for everyone. We said grace over the bit of something green, a shared moment of camaraderie on that snowy night in Nebraska.