Around 3000 people live in the city of Valentine. If you fired up your GPSr, programmed in 42 degrees, 52′, 25″N, and 100 degrees, 33′, 1″W, slid the homing gadget into the plastic grip Velcroed to the dashboard, and drove in the direction of the crosshair blips on your map of light, you’d arrive at the most northern border of Nebraska, smack dab in the center of the state line.
Each year in the month of February, thousands of hopeless romantics send letters to Cupid’s mailbox in “Heart City”to be embossed with one of three different Valentine cachets. The red ink postal stamp from America’s heartland adds a little fuel to the fire of a juicy Valentine’s Day.
If you think Nebraska’s a dull state, reset the synaptic button. Fire again. It’s one of my favorite places on the planet.
Kool-Aid and CliffsNotes and the Vise-Grip were all invented in Nebraska. The largest Powerball payout, $365 million, was split 8 ways on February 6th, 2006 by ConAgra workers from Lincoln. Both Malcolm X and Brandon Teena were born in Nebraska. As were Henry Fonda, Hilary Swank, and Marg Helgenberger, blood spatter expert and forensic supervisor Catherine Willows from the original CSI.
Need I say more?
Okay, let me go on to the 450,000 other reasons I fell in love with Nebraska – the sandhill cranes . Each year in early spring, 90% of the population traverse the Central Flyway stopping to fatten up and rest along the Nebraska stretch of the 310 mile, 10,000 year old Platte River. And they’ve been doing this for 9 million years.
At sunrise, 10 feet from the river bed, in the dark underbelly of a blind near Kearney, I’ve watched as the cranes roost on one foot, sleeping in 6 inches of water. I’ve seen them probe the grasslands, meadows, and farmers’ fields near Grand Island foraging for leftover corn, insects, earthworms, and rodents. I’ve listened from 7 miles away to the ancient and throaty rolling trumpet sweeping toward Rowe Sanctuary, and peered through Nikon binoculars at kettles of cranes staging over Gibbon, their gangly voluminous shadows eclipsing the moon in a single sweep of midnight dusk.
I saved the creme de la creme for last – I love Nebraska for her writers: Ted Kooser , the United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004 – 2006, Willa Cather , Terry Goodkind, DeBarra Mayo, John Neihardt, Weldon Kees, Ana Marie Cox , founder of the political blog, Wonkette, and Jonis Agee, Director of the Nebraska Summer Writers’ Conference. Maybe they weren’t all born Cornhuskers. But many lived most of their lives in the great Nebraskan plains.
How long do you have to live somewhere to call it home?
I’m a Minnesota transplant. I moved here in 1984. When people ask me where I’m from, I say, “I’m from Minnesota.” And sometimes, so as not to be pigeonholed, I add the caveat, “But I grew up Down South, lived in central Pennsylvania in my teens, and moved West to Montana in my 20’s. I’ve been around.” Creative license – I have to protect my image as a bohemian.
On my last road trip through Nebraska, my air conditioning died and I stopped to cool off at a rest stop just north of Red Cloud (the town is named for the great Oglala Lakota chief who was born near there) where Willa Cather grew up. Did I mention she won the Pulitzer in 1923 for One of Ours?
I struck up a conversation with Ella, a gray haired, bespectacled, 70-ish woman in a denim shirt and blue jeans (this is common in the Midwest) standing behind the map counter. I told her I was returning from a writing retreat in Taos and that on my first trip to the Mabel Dodge Luhan House in 2001, I stayed in the Cather room where Willa once slept on one of her pilgrimages to New Mexico.
I told her I read that Cather had met D. H. Lawrence in 1924. And wasn’t that the same year he and Frieda visited Mabel and Tony, bunked in the Pink House in Taos, and lived with Dorothy Brett at Kiowa Ranch near San Cristobal? Ella’s eyes sparkled. When she found out I was a writer, she talked to me for nearly 45 minutes, a reprieve from the dog day glare of August, about Nebraska writers and history. Her great, great grandparents homesteaded there. It is in her blood.
Willa Cather once said, “The history of every country begins in the heart of a man or a woman.” Maybe the history of every country can also be traced through the lineage of everyman who lives at the heart of its land.
Kearney, Nebraska marks the exact central point between Boston and San Francisco. Valentine, at the seat of Cherry County, sits dead center in the heart of America. Everything east and west is just an appendage.
Cupid knows. He shoots his letters off straight from Valentine.
-posted on red Ravine Wednesday, February 14th, 2007