There Used To Be A Guy But He Died
Injury-Time Ltd., 2016
How could anyone resist a title like that? I couldn’t, and the title justifies itself in the first few pages of this saga of Alan Wilkinson’s 630-mile bicycle ride across Nebraska, from the lowest point to the highest in the state. The lone stranger rides into town as the wind blows tumbleweeds across the dusty street. Taciturn as any hired gun, and saddle-sore, he’s looking for— well, I won’t ruin the surprise.
Wilkinson is English, and has visited Nebraska many times since developing a fascination with the west as a child; he speaks regularly at gatherings to discuss the work of Mari Sandoz in Chadron. But despite my own heroine-worship of Sandoz, we’ve never met. Through his writing, however, I’ve come to enjoy his wry and muted sense of humor, and his deft way of picking holes in American conceit.
Why would anyone ride a bicycle across Nebraska? The author says he’d like to emulate the experience of the Oregon Trail as pioneers saw it, “pitting myself against the elements and attempting to compare the actual experience of crossing the Plains with the feelings I might have when it was over.”
He gets his wish; he’s blasted by heat, scoured by dust, and worn out by the sheer effort of propelling himself across the plains. Like those pioneers, he writes, “To be honest, I wanted to surrender. But there was nothing to surrender to; nowhere to go. . . . It was only by pressing on, that I was able to keep my spirits up.” If we Americans could talk to those among our ancestors who followed the Trail, surely they would say the same.
Along the way, though, Wilkinson accomplishes something I didn’t expect: he brought me to tears. He attends an event where more than a hundred “middle-aged Americans” join together in singing “Over There.” For the honorary Limey in the crowd, dressed in cowboy boots and denim jeans, the song is ironic: Sure, the Yanks are coming, “Chewing gum and silk stockings and chasing our women. Muscling in.” Hearing those voices, though, Wilkinson realized more fully the “heroic and self-sacrificing nature of the commitment.” Through his eyes, I could see those Great Plains farm boys, one of whom was an uncle I never knew, cheerfully putting on his uniform to fight for an ideal.
This book is subtle; no car-chases, lightning strikes or other drama. He even downplays a dog bite. If I hadn’t already been a fan, Wilkinson would have won me over when he said he’d been tempted to slip in some incidents from more dramatic trips, but he resisted. What the book does offer is an honest assessment of Western people. Wilkinson used to be a freight train guard, so he pays particular attention to trains, but he also provides a considerable amount of Nebraska history, and recommendations on the best books to read about the subject, all the while suffering from the heat and exposure.
When he finally jolts down gravel section line roads to arrive at Panorama Point, at 5, 424 feet the highest point in Nebraska, Wilkinson triumphs:
Here for the first time I could see what it must have been like to arrive in an ox-drawn wagon and at last, after all those hundreds of miles, start looking around for a place to settle. It would be a feeling of true freedom, simultaneously exhilarating and terrifying. With no reference-point, no neighbor, in those days no crossroads, a pioneer would have a very real sense of what liberation meant: not just alone-ness, but total self-reliance. It’s this self-reliance that makes westerners such dyed-in-the-wool conservatives.
Many writers have written travel tales that, as the hackneyed phrase goes, “share with me,” a lot more than I want to know about the writer’s sexual preferences, fears, triumphs or problems. Wilkinson lets me far enough into his mind so I can appreciate his reason for riding, but he doesn’t drag me down into a personal abyss. He’s honest; getting this book ready for publication some years after the ride, he says he’s tried, “to stick to the way it felt then, rather than the way it looks now. Back to my journals and maps, and no fabricating.”
A conscientious reviewer always proves her perspicacity by mentioning something negative about the book, so here goes: I wanted a map. Sure, I have a perfectly good Atlas, but Rulo, Wilkinson’s starting point, isn’t on it, nor are some of the other towns he mentioned. Sure, I could find Red Cloud, Willa Cather’s home town, but my map doesn’t tell me exactly where Dix is.
As long as I’m here, I’d like to applaud Wilkinson’s The Red House on the Niobrara, the book in diary form he wrote while experiencing life in a hundred-year-old hunting lodge, also in Nebraska. He’d barely moved in when he was hit with a genuine April blizzard as only the Plains delivers them; then his road washed out. Wanting to live like a pioneer, he planted a garden. In true Plains style, hail destroyed his first effort and grasshoppers his second.
Still, like the real pioneers, he persevered, getting acquainted with the locals by helping them with their work and drinking in their bars. He probably made the neighbors nervous by camping out at the gravesite of Mari Sandoz, but he also wrote a fine book demonstrating his real relationship with the land and its people.
Find The Red House on the Niobrara on Kindle for $4.95, or paperback for $13.95.
There Used To Be A Guy But He Died is available on Kindle for $4.95 or paperback for $10.95; and if you want to read more of this deft writer’s work, look for Alan Wilkinson’s blog at http://walkinonnails.blogspot.com/
Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House Writing Retreats
Hermosa, South Dakota
© 2016, Linda M. Hasselstrom
# # #