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Goodnight Nebraska

Mari Sandoz had left from there, had been away for quite some while before she wrote the books that put her on the literary map as a Nebraskan author. Something about being away from there makes you think about it more, appreciate it differently, makes it make sense when you meet other ex-pat Nebraskans and feel a spark of kindship.

Nebraska's an odd state. There's a strange solidarity amongst its people, one which can turn coldly and hostilely insular and xenophobia. But the flip side of that coin is that Nebraskans tend to see one another as allies, especially when met far away from their flat homeland. Many years ago, Todd and I took a road trip out west. At a filling station in southern California, another customer, upon noting the NE license plates on Todd's car, piped up with a hearty, “Go Huskers!” When pressed, the man said he'd originally hailed from near North Platte, and still followed Husker football when and as he could. During my second term at York University, a new student moved into Constantine House, a young UNL alumnus who warmed to me despite the fact that all we had in common was a Nebraskan provenance.

It's odd, that Nebraskan brotherhood. Several of the local cyclists are ex-Nebraskans, and each time I meet another one, and we discover one another's flatwater roots, we probe each other for geographical clues; east or west, nearest big town, Class A, B, or C for sports, and so on. There are Nebraskan shibboleths…how do you pronounce Beatrice (the town, not the name) or what constitutes an acceptable wave when meeting another motorist on a county road (two fingers off the wheel will do). Every region has its quirks, every state has its slogans and points of pride. Nebraska is no exception.

I've been a Kansas Cityian for coming on seven years, gone from NE for over 8 years, but when people ask where I'm from, I'm “originally from rural northwestern Nebraska, about halfway between Alliance and Chadron.” That ruralness, the remote, back-country setting of my childhood and adolescence was a pretty significant mould for the person I am now. There are certain things you take away from an isolated upbringing—a stronger-than-normal self-reliant streak, an unnerving lack of hipness, and an almighty toleration for positively miserable weather. I think people who live in remote areas acquire a sort of fatalist/nihilist/zen streak from staring down the void on a daily basis. When you live out on the high prairie, you're never too far from a vista that's like the wild version of a Japanese rock garden. A yellow stubble field of perfectly spaced ridges that seem to narrow and cross as you sight along the horizon, or a white dirt road that seems to arrow along over the land up a shallow hill and down, a straight line, but conforming to the topography it traces. You come to accept a whole lot of nothing spacing you out from your fellow man, from where you are, and where you might next go.

I've been reading a book that's really striking me. The book in question is Goodnight Nebraska by Tom McNeal. It's pretty obvious that the author spent some significant time in Northwestern Nebraska during the early/mid 1990s. The story is basically set in Hay Springs, if you backtrack the geographical clues…the distance of “Goodnight” from Chadron and Alliance, for example, and the sports teams they play against (Rushville, Crawford, and Hemingford). It's a class C school, essentially equidistant from Chadron & Alliance, and on HWY 20. It's Hay Springs. From time to time the book trips me out…McNeal assumes that western NE is remote and obscure enough to go ahead and use real business names that still exist. Anderson's clothing and Ahrens' jewelers in Chadron, for example. Moreover, he references a frisson that passed through the community back in '95. In the book, a “Tina Fuhrman” from Hemingford has shaken the local gossip tree by appearing in Playboy in a “Girls of the Big 10” issue. In real life, the Fuhrman twins, Rachel and Becky, shook the local gossip tree by appearing in Playboy in a “Short Girls Special,” an article dedicated to photos of petite ladies 5'2″ and under. Those who catch these references to a reality they know will be pleased, maybe even a little flattered by the attentions paid by the author ,and those who don't know the area may still feel the solidness of their veracity.

But it's not just the “hey I recognize that bar, I graduated with the Playboy girls” thrill that's charming me, however. It is how well he has nailed the local patter…the old farmers shootin' the bull down at the café, the ladies gossiping after church, the way locals weigh up a newcomer, and try to assimilate or decimate him, depending on how he fits in or doesn't. The way the kids dream of breaking away, becoming more cosmopolitan, the way they ultimately don't.

I left, as many of us do, arrogantly knocking the dust off my shoes and vowing to make something big out of myself. Of course, as is the case with most of us, I soon fell into the ruts of ordinary life, doing nothing that would especially shock or surprise the folks back home, except, perhaps, the divorce and some of the bike wrecks. The inclination to cling to my community (nowadays mostly other kinda-underground cyclists), and the stolid instinct for self preservation soldier on in me. You might take the girl out of Nebraska, but you can't get the Nebraska out of the girl.

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