Once again the sun rose up out of the vastness of the Nebraska plains to flood its warming light over Ash Hollow. On this particular morning however it rose up by itself, at least as far as we were concerned. The distance remaining between us and our first real destination, Wind Cave National Park, was not all that great so we felt justified in sleeping in. I had been awake but lying on my cot for a short while when I heard the camper door creak open and Brad poked his head out to see if I was stirring. I stuck a hand out from under my blankets to signal that I was awake and Brad’s head retreated into the camper. I climbed up off of my cot and once again put on yesterday’s shirt. In a few minutes Brad reemerged with our wire contraption and we stirred a fire back up from the embers of the previous night’s blaze. A pot of coffee was quickly brewed.
Brad and I sat in lawn chairs which we had left out since the night before and yakked softly while we sipped our strong black coffee. The mosquitos were mercifully fewer than they had been the last evening and the sun quickly took the chill of the night off of the air in the shade underneath the cottonwood trees. The spring grass was reaching skyward on the rolling hills which surround the Hollow and the smell of fertile nature was a perfume which will make a traveller giddy if he will only stop long enough to smell it. Ginny came crawling out dressed but sleepy-eyed as we put the second pot of coffee on to percolate. I asked if she wanted for me to cook again but she shook her head and made some lame excuse about how I didn’t do eggs right and cooked my potatoes with the skins still on and blah blah blah. Brad laughed and said “I suppose you think we should eat at a restaurant this morning.” “I didn’t say that” Ginny protested. “I just think I want things made the right way today.” Ginny gave me a sly wink which I uncharacteristically caught onto right away. “I don’t have any objection to eating at a restaurant today” I replied. “It may be the only way that I can have a meal without burnt toast”. Ginny’s mouth dropped open and she lobbed a potato at me – not to hard though – which I caught and lobbed back at her. We both laughed at the same time and Brad said “OK, I can see which way this is going. Let’s saddle up and see what we can find in town”.
Saddle up we did and within a few miles we crossed the North Platte River and entered the beautiful prairie town of Oshkosh, Nebraska. We found a little cafe just off of Highway 385 with a sign over it with big black letters on a white field that simply said “EAT’. How does one turn down an invitation such as that? We pulled into parking spaces right in front of the cafe, which meant that either the breakfast rush was over or this was a terrible place to EAT. We didn’t really care either way and pulled open the big front door. Inside was the usual counter, a main dining room with about ten tables and a side room with seven or eight tables more. In a corner of the side room sat a group of four old men with plaid shirts, bolo ties, and the brown, leathery skin of people who have worked their entire lives wresting a living out of a fertile soil but a fickle environment that will bless your hard work one year but lay waste to that effort the next year with a late frost or too much or too little rain or any of a depressingly long list of calamities endemic to the life of a farmer or rancher. We were certain that they were solving all of the local problems and a good many of the world’s too.
Brad and I took our places in a booth right next to the front window while Ginny went straight to the bathroom to clean up a little before eating. Brad and I would take our turns when Ginny rejoined us. We ordered coffee, which turned out to be better than anything we could brew in camp, and then ordered our breakfasts. Ginny had already told Brad what she wanted so that we could keep things moving. I had my usual breakfast of kings: scrambled eggs, patty sausage, hash browned potatoes with two bowls of country gravy and four pieces of toast. I had been out of the Army for a little over two weeks at this point and was already beginning to add weight to the 132 pounds that I brought home from Vietnam. I have no idea what Brad and Ginny ate; I was much too focused on my own small mountain of grease which went quickly and effortlessly down the hatch. Every morsel of it.
We settled up with the waitress and returned to our vehicles. The plan had been to get a campsite at Wind Cave and then go and do laundry in Rapid City, but we decided instead to do the laundry in Oshkosh, so we found a laundromat and set our clothes and their sheets and blankets to sloshing and spinning and drying while we took turns walking in downtown Oshkosh. My turn was first and I fell in love with the place. Old buildings built at the end of the nineteenth or beginning of the twentieth centuries lined Main Street. The buildings were mostly brick and sported dates of construction on a cornerstone or the keystone of an arch. Big front windows showed off the merchandise for sale within; bicycles in the bicycle store, dresses in the dress store; rakes and shovels and a thousand other things of like nature in the hardware store. My mind drifted away to many of the books which I had read while dodging work at Fort Hood which were set in such places; “Dandelion Wine”, “Something Wicked This Way Comes”,” Winesburg, Ohio” to name a few. I walked slowly down one side of the street gazing into windows and sometimes ducking inside a doorway into a store which seemed to smell of its years of existence, and it was more of a comfortable smell of friendliness and familiarity than it was just the musty smell of passing years.
The warming sunshine on my face as I meandered down the street had a soporific effect and I was as much sleepwalking as not when I nearly stepped in front of traffic at the crossroads in the middle of town. The traffic light hung from its cables over the middle of the intersection and continuously blinked red in each direction. Coming to my senses, I wondered why they didn’t just put a stop sign on each corner. Maybe the light gave them flexibility, just in case they wanted to control traffic some day like their bigger cousins to the south in Cheyenne or East in Omaha. Stop signs would be cheaper and do just as good a job. Thoughts along those lines began to lull my brain back to sleep, and I only returned to the land of the lucid when I ran out of Oshkosh, Nebraska.
Businesses had turned into residences and churches and soon I was looking out over the green and sunlit rolling hills of the western Nebraska prairie. I crossed the street to begin my return to the heart of town. It was probably the last week of school because there were no older children to be seen. There was one large black dog whom I was keeping my eye on, but he was an old fellow lounging in the sunshine on a front porch who had other things to worry about than a gangly tourist walking in front of his territory. The old boy raised his head and launched a desultory “woof” in my direction, as if to satisfy some minimal demand of his guard dog duties, and then went back to dreaming of chasing birds and running with little boys and perhaps accosting an occasional mailman or two. He made me think of the old guys solving world problems over coffee back at the EAT restaurant.
I began to pick up my step a little bit because it would soon be my turn to tend the laundry while Brad and Ginny explored the town. There was not a throng on the streets but it was far from unoccupied. Mostly there were women, some of them with very young children parking at a diagonal in front of the store they intended to patronize, but some pedestrians who probably lived nearby and were enjoying their warm late spring walk. A few men would pass into and out of the hardware store and auto supply. My thoughts ran to how idyllic this scene appeared, while at the same time I knew that surface appearances can be most deceiving. Being inhabited by human beings Oshkosh certainly shared the same tangled relationships “enjoyed” by people everywhere else, but the uncomplicated look of that small American town at least gave the appearance of a more peaceful life than the one I had known up to that point and, now that I think of it, have known ever since.
I returned to the laundromat with the book I had been reading back in new Mexico, I still think it was Carlos Castaneda, and took up my post while Brad and Ginny began their tour of the town. The building was empty except for one customer at the far end and the attendant. I was content to read and stay within myself until the last load of wash finished and I found that I was a couple of quarters shy of enough to engage the dryer. The attendant gave me change for a couple of dollar bills and after thumbing the quarters into the slots of the dryers I resumed my reading. Brad and Ginny returned just before the last dryer, the one with their blankets, was finished. When that process was complete we folded and packed our laundry away in our respective vehicles and drove on to a store to replace a few items and restock our beer supply. Afterward we pulled into a service station before resuming our journey northward. Once again our service guy checked our air and fluids and whatnot, and once again my automatic transmission fluid was low. This fact drew the attention of Brad who crawled under my Mercury to take a look. Sure enough, the ATF was slowly dripping out from somewhere in my transmission. The leak wasn’t enormous, but would need to be monitored for the rest of the trip.
The low, gentle hills continued to roll past as we headed north and west and after a short while began to bunch up, first into foothills and then into the great, pine-clad range of the Black Hills. After three and a half days of desert and plains the rugged mountains with their high, cool valleys and the scent of evergreen on the gentle breeze was a welcome change. I knew that there were bison, or “bufflers” as we jokingly called them, in the park and I looked for them as we rounded every turn. I didn’t see even one that day and before long we turned into the narrow lane which led to the campground at Wind Cave.
We paid our couple of dollars for a camping permit at the log ranger shack which sat in the middle of the lane with traffic splitting and going around it on each side. A short way down the lane we crossed a bridge over a full and fast moving creek. On the other side of the bridge we turned left and quickly found campsite number 76. The first thing that we noticed was that the bathroom and showers was only about forty yards away; a welcome sight to three people with a lot of road on them. We put our food in the latched wooden pantry except for what needed to remain in the cooler. My cot was set up and the lawn chairs brought out and soon we had a proper camp. We took a long walk, threading in between the other campsites and tramping up and down trails on the fringes of the inhabited area. Eventually we felt like we had sufficiently loosened up stiff and cramped muscles and joints and returned to our camp.
After cooking some dinner we grabbed clean clothes, towels and soap, and headed for the showers where we spent a good deal of time scrubbing ourselves down. It felt good to be fresh and clean. Brad was tired and went to bed shortly, but Ginny and I went to an area where logs for seating had been placed in concentric semicircles and a ranger lit a large fire, which slowly burned while he gave a talk on the geology, fauna and flora or Wind Cave and the Black Hills. Afterwards we returned to our camp, said our goodnights, and I crawled onto my cot. It was a good deal cooler at Wind Cave than it had been at lower elevations and I awoke at some point in the night huddled and shivering. After rising and putting on my long johns and a sweatshirt I returned to my cot and blankets. Soon I was toasty once again and slept like the dead for the rest of the night.