Across the Sandhills

Late July, 1989 and I had been driving west out of Lincoln for days, across what seemed to be an endless stretch of Nebraska State Highway 2. It was as if the Sandhills somehow broken the bonds of time and space and extended themselves far, far, past the Wyoming and Montanan borders, all the way to Alaska, as if I had been on that road for most of my short life.

Or maybe it was just the sun. It never seemed to fully set. It would curtsey towards the dunes and and grass sea, but the hem of its brilliance never deigned to touch the ground. If was as if the very idea of daylight refused to be dirtied by direct contact with the soil. Only the kiss of the sun’s heat was allowed communion with that filthy disc that whelped us.

The whole world had a fever and the whole world was a boiling sea of sand and golden rhizomes, spotted with giant stone toadstools, a giant and ancient Mad Hatter’s Tea Party, spread as far as the Golden Eagle could see from her high redoubt of a thermal.

And across this endless sea, ran a ribbon of tarmac and upon that tarmac drove a 1963 Dodge Dart convertible with a broken fuel gauge and a dented gas tank. A Dart that flew as true as any flicked from the wrist of a drunken Irishman on a soggy night in a Corkish pub. It flew true to its arc and stopped for naught but its destination, what would of course, be a bull’s eye of unknown composition.

What’s between the hand of the thrower and the target is the empty of the unknown and I was sure that I was adrift in it. Every eight hours or so, I would encounter a town, all of which were filled with gaunt, taciturn people with the hollow eyes of those who have seen too much of the empty horrors of being in isolation together. I would eat at the cafe, fill my Dart with gas at the station and ask about the next town or the stone toadstools that filled the grass and sand sea around us. Answers were in short supply, as most folks in these parts hadn’t left town for years and no one could explain why their license plates all were for Nebraska county 95, even though Nebraska only has ninety-two counties. They said it had always been that way and none of the county clerks ever bothered to ask why it shouldn’t be that way.

“Emil says the plates arrive on the coach and who is he to question the folks in Lincoln about something that’s always been the way it is,” the man running the gas station in Starbuck, NE said.

“How long have you lived here?” I asked.

“All my life. I ‘ve been to Carcosa, the Hooky County seat, a few times. Once to get my driver’s license, once to get married and once to serve on a jury,” the gas man said.

“Jury? What was the case?” I asked.

“Terrible business. The Reverend Spengler led his congregation out to The Toadstools where they all took communion on top of a toadstool everybody calls ‘The High Yellow.’ But the sacramental wine was bad, some say poisoned by Spengler, and it sent the congregation into a terrible state of fever and they all turned on each other, tearing and biting great loads of flesh and muscle from each other and bashing heads and limbs against the hard rock of The High Yellow until the toadstool was slippery with blood and offal. Then the Reverend Spengler, who wasn’t even touched during the madness, soaked everyone with gasoline, the dead and the living and set the whole goddamned congregation on fire, right there on top of The High Yellow. There wasn’t a place in the county where you couldn’t see that awful black smoke or smell the sweet odor of death and meat on a fire. The Reverend, according to Sheriff Caratzas, sat in the middle of the fire, but didn’t have even so much as a scorch mark on him when they found him, asleep in the ashes, right on top of The High Yellow.”

“What was the verdict?” I asked.

“Not guilty by reason of none of it made any goddamn sense and if the Reverend Spengler could survive that fire, then any justice we could mete out would surely just bring down the wrath of whatever took those people away,” the gas man said.

“That’s one hell of a story,” I said.

“Yeah, I suppose it is,” he replied. “You could always go to Carcosa and read about it. The Hooky Courier has all the back issues with the full story of the burning and the trial in their back room. Just tell Bob Booge that Kenny from the Sinclair sent ya and he’ll get you set up. But tell you the truth, I don’t think you’d want to do that. I’m the only juror from that trial left alive and it seems like anyone who had anything to do with that damn business has either gotten sick or gone off or just went missing. It’s like penance must be paid or something. But who am I to say. It probably sounds like a bunch of Sandhills humbug to ya.”

I asked Kenny for directions to Carcosa and he said I just needed to keep heading West on Nebraska Highway 2 for twenty miles or so and Carcosa would be the next town.

“You’ll know you’re almost there when you see an old rusted grain auger that looks like a dinosaur,” Kenny added.

I paid for my gas, then went to the cafe that was part of the station and filled up on a hot beef with french fries and gravy. Maps had long become useless, so I hopped into the Dart and headed west again on route 2, headed to Carcosa.

I’d been driving for what seemed like an hour when the grasslands and dunes suddenly gave way to a thick forest of Cottonwoods, Oaks and White Pines. I drove through the trees for another ten minutes and then they thinned out and a river bridge appeared ahead. Halfway across the bridge there was a sign with an outline of Chimney Rock and, in big, sans-serif letter, the legend, “WELCOME TO THE GOOD LIFE. NEBRASKA.”

I looked in my rear view mirror and all I saw behind me was Iowa.

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