Gathering “Gathering from the Grassland”

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Gathering from the Grassland: A Plains Journal, is my most recent prose book. With publisher Nancy Curtis of High Plains Press in Glendo, WY, I’ve been working on it for several years.

In order for me to get copies of the book as soon as it was printed, we agreed to meet in Lusk, Wyoming, between our two ranches. We’d have lunch at The Pizza Place, and catch up on our personal and professional news. She’d hand over my author copies– 5 clothbound and 5 paperbound– and we’d discuss how we will each encourage sales of the book in the coming months. Many publishers, large and small, don’t do much promotion. High Plains Press supports its authors in dozens of ways, including buying lunch in Lusk– the New York City of our neighborhood.

LMH car detail 2017So “One Misty, Moisty Morning,” as Schooner Fare puts it, I loaded a handful of CDs, jugs of water, a rain coat and coffee. With Bob Seger, I declared at the top of my lungs that I was headed for “Katmandu;” If there’s a good song about driving to Lusk, I haven’t found it, but I won’t be surprised if this post generates suggestions.

When Jerry and I lived in Wyoming, I drove five and one-half hours from my ranch to Cheyenne regularly, but since we moved to my ranch home, my trips have been rare.  So I was delighted to hum a “Prairie Lullaby” (Stephanie Davis) as I headed “Beyond the Horizon” (Bob Dylan.) Since I’ve made this drive hundreds, if not thousands, of times, I knew I’d see familiar scenes, but would also surely see the unusual.  And the Wyoming breezes– “Four Strong Winds” from all four directions– would keep me alert.

CDs in car 2017We’ve had some frequent, though small, rains around home, so our hills are fairly green for this late in the season, though not nearly as vivid as those “Green Rolling Hills” Emmylou Harris was singing about. “Under a Rolling Sky,” (Michael Martin Murphey) the sun blazed red, stained by the smoke of fires in Montana and other areas west of us. Thick gray smoke muffled the outlines of the Black Hills and cast a nasty yellow tinge over the grass. I hummed with the “Rollin’ and Tumblin’” (Bob Dylan) clouds as I turned west on SD 18, and zipped past Hot Springs. I soared up to Coffee Flats while Janis Joplin crooned about “Summertime.”

And there I got a surprise: two bicyclists! Each wore a helmet, and a skintight outfit striped in bright colors; their panniers bulged. Heads down, oblivious to the “Thunder on the Mountain,” (Dylan) they were headed west.

Just how much did they know about the arid country ahead of them? From Edgemont, it’s almost sixty miles to Newcastle, and almost seventy to Lusk, WY. There are no towns or settlements along the route, and most of the ranch houses are a considerable distance from the highway. At Mule Creek Junction, 21 miles west of Edgemont, a rest area offers water and “rest,” but little else.

Wyoming Highway near Lusk stock footage

As I accelerated past them– not in the “Mercedes Benz” Janis was warbling about– I tried to visualize what the bicyclists might be seeing. That “Peaceful Country” (Murphey) looks spectacular from that high plateau: down toward the tree-lined Cheyenne River and Beaver Creek drainages. Silver-blue sage sweeps up the hills, and many of the gullies are jagged and deep. With their heads down, would the riders see anything but their feet and the pavement?

When I drove this route nine years ago, I often thought of Murphey’s “Hardscrabble Creek” as my eyes followed ranch roads winding from the highway into the distance beyond the sagebrush. Often a beat-up car or pickup was parked beside the gate. I knew if I got into that vehicle, I’d find the keys under the floor mat or behind the visor, where ranchers always leave them. The transportation wasn’t abandoned, but meant the family had a child of school age who drove to the highway to be picked up by the school bus headed for Newcastle or Lusk. Is the ranching population aging? I saw few vehicles beside the ranch roads on this trip.

LMH autographs GATHERING 2017In Lusk, I parked on the wide street in front of The Pizza Place, and chose a booth that allowed me to see the front door while I wrote in my journal. When Nancy arrived, we enjoyed our visit and our pizza, noticing as the place filled with folks headed to a local funeral, or just having lunch in their work day. Then we explained to one of the waitresses that we’d like to keep using the booth awhile to sign books. “No problem,” she said, and we started lugging boxes of books in from the car. Once in a while after that, a waitress would peek around the corner, but they left us alone for more than an hour as I signed books, and smiled when we refilled our water and tea glasses.

After I’d signed books Nancy will have on hand for customers who ask, we transferred the boxes of books I’d bought at my author discount to my car, so I could head home and begin selling them. One of the most pleasant features of Lusk is those wide streets: two women with boxes of books could move safely from one car to the one behind it without being run over by a semi-load of hay.

Periwinkle Patent Leather Clogs“I love your purple Crocs!” I said to Nancy. “I had to give mine up for tougher shoes.”

“Everyone says that,” she said firmly, “but I am not wearing Crocs. I am wearing Periwinkle Patent Leather clogs.” Publishers have to be precise.

Independent authors and publishers need to “Try Just a Little Bit Harder,” and I promised to do so as I sang along with Joplin’s throaty vocals, accelerating out of town.

Rumblestrips stock footageWyoming highway officials, among whom Jerry used to be numbered, know the hazards of this two-lane highway that winds through the sagebrush. They’ve thoughtfully placed rumble strips—corrugated asphalt that make a terrible racket when your tires hit it–on both edges of the highway, AND in the middle. The purpose is to wake up dozing drivers, or perhaps alert those who are texting.

I noticed them first when they were applied to Highway 79 that goes past my house. Before sunrise, when I’m still trying to sleep, a truck hitting the rumble strips sounds like a helicopter landing on my bed.

Rumble strips and cattle or sheep that climb through fences to graze the right-of-way aren’t all that keeps a person alert on this highway. I heard a Whoosh! as another “Greenie”—Wyoming slang for speeding Colorado cars with green license plates–raced past in a no-passing zone.

I slammed on the brakes to let the idiot pull in front of me seconds before he would have been obliterated by an oncoming truck. I was angry, but I put on my “Secret Smile,” (Murphey) satisfied with being a life-saver. In the past, I may have exceeded speed limits occasionally, but no longer. I’d rather “Give A Little Bit Back” (Davis), relax, enjoy the scenery, and arrive safe and alive at home.

Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House Writing Retreats
Hermosa, South Dakota

© 2017, Linda M. Hasselstrom

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Gathering Windbreak JournalMy first published book, in 1987, was a diary of a year on my plains ranch. Windbreak: A Woman Rancher on the Northern Plains was published by a small publisher, Barn Owl Books, and featured my observations of the work and life I was leading then. Over the years hundreds of readers wrote to me with thanks for letting them see ranch life.

Now, thirty years later I’ve published another book in journal form: Gathering from the Grassland: A Plains Journal (High Plains Press, September 2017). Much has changed in the intervening decades, especially because I am no longer involved in the daily chores of raising cattle. A central part of this journal is my research into the diaries and records left by my ancestors on this ranch on the plains. ​I learned things about my relatives, their history, and this land that I never knew.

I’m more convinced than ever that it’s essential for us to tell our stories, not only for our blood descendants, but for those who will come after us in this world. Write for your children and grandchildren so they will know how you survived this life, and write for yourself.

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High Plains Press is offering a special limited-time discount for early orders. If you order directly from High Plains Press by September 20th, you’ll get a $5 discount on the limited edition hardcover.

trade paper — $19.95 plus $4 shipping
limited edition hardcover — $29.95 — Your price = $24.95 plus $4 shipping

Go to the High Plains Press webpage for my book Gathering from the Grassland

Special Offer Gathering from the GrasslandClick on the “order now” button for the limited edition hardcover.

Select how many copies you want. (Volume discount on shipping.)

Be sure to use the comment box if you would like a personalized inscription beyond my signature (for instance, “Happy Thanksgiving, Aunt Nellie”) in any of the copies you purchase.

Enter the voucher/coupon code LINDA.

Click on the “recalculate” button to update the amount due, then proceed with your payment.

(Sorry, there is no discount on the paperback edition at this time.)

Thank you and enjoy the read!

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Book Remarks: Wilderness Fever

Wilderness Fever: A Family’s Adventures Homesteading in Early Jackson Hole, 1914-1924.
Linda Preston McKinstry with Harold Cole McKinstry
Foreword by Sherry L. Smith, Ph.D.
(Glendo, WY: High Plains Press, 2016)

WildernessFeverMcKinstryMost Americans think of homesteading as having occurred in the 1800s. We can all picture the wholesome farm families sitting on the seats of wagons pulled by oxen, the billowing white canvas covering all their possessions. Possibly a milk cow is tied to the back of the load beside a crate full of chickens. On the horizon— is that cowboys, or possibly Indians?

Some parts of the West, especially including western Wyoming, stayed wild longer than, for example, the Dakotas. And for Linda Preston McKinstry and her husband Harold Cole McKinstry, homesteading began in 1915 when they left bureaucratic jobs in Washington, D.C. and took advantage of the government’s offer of “free” land.

McKinstry, called “Mac” of course, grew up in North Dakota and had studied agriculture and Linda was a home economics teacher when they settled in Jackson Hole. In several ways, they were not typical homesteaders. For one thing, they were thirty years late for the peak of homesteading. Both were well-educated, and most importantly, they had money. If homesteading hadn’t worked out, they could have gone elsewhere and done something else. Having a ready supply of cash also allowed them to have luxuries such as Valentine’s Day cards and gifts for each other on special occasions.

Still, their lives were hard and demanding. This book is composed of letters they wrote to Linda’s mother, which retain the freshness of experiences just lived, and from memoirs they wrote years later. Besides the dangers of their chosen lifestyle, with no doctor, no telephone, and only rare mail service, they had to become adept at planning ahead. Once winter dumped several feet of snow on their remote home, they knew they wouldn’t be able to leave for months. They ordered groceries to be shipped to the nearest settlement, Victor, Idaho.

Think about this list: 500 pounds of white flour, 100 pounds of cornmeal, and 75 pounds of whole wheat flour. There’s your bread and pancakes for the season. Several hundred pounds of potatoes. 25 pounds of navy beans, 10 pounds of macaroni, and 25 pounds each of prunes, dried pears, figs, and dried apples. One 24-can case of tomatoes. 12 cans each of corn, string beans and salmon. 10 pounds each of lima, red kidney and chili beans. 14 pounds of noodles. Add in 50 pounds of brown sugar, 300 pounds of white sugar, 10 pounds of coffee and a little tea, and you’ve got your menu for the winter.

On this diet, the McKinstrys cut ice, skied and snowshoed, and drove starving horses through drifts twice as high as the horses. In November one year, they ordered 500 pounds of potatoes. Two ranchers drove to Victor to collect a supply of potatoes for themselves and neighbors. Because of the extreme cold, the potatoes had to be unloaded and kept close to a fire each night to keep them from freezing.

They supplemented their diet with elk shot near their home. In order to eat meat in the summer, Susan had to can it, which required packing it into quart jars that had to be kept covered with boiling water on the wood-fueled stove for several hours.

Because few fences existed in the country where they lived, Mac was constantly searching for their strayed horses and cattle, sometimes in extremely cold weather conditions. Travel required hardships and risks most of us can’t even imagine today. This meant that when anyone was traveling through the neighborhood, they’d stop for a visit— and every visitor had to be fed, and sometimes bedded down in the tiny, poorly-insulated log cabins that served as their homes. Linda writes often of expecting only Mac for lunch only to have as many as 10 people show up expecting to be fed.

Yet their youngest daughter reported that the couple loved the lifestyle, and only left it when they had three children who needed schooling. In addition, they believed it was likely that Yellowstone National Park would absorb their ranch, making it impractical to continue improving it.

One of the fascinating aspects of the book is the comparison and contrast between Linda’s and Mac’s accounts of the same events, allowing us to see how the life affected both of them. The book designer helped the readability immensely by reserving the outer third of each page for the notes that might have been turned into annoying footnotes, providing additional information on the text, as well as information describing the photographs in the book.

For me, the hardest part of the reading was that the authors wrote often in passive voice— but that was the style of the times, and probably also because they were writing about their past, looking back at their adventures. “Thanksgiving Day was spent at the ranch,” they write, rather than “We spent Thanksgiving Day at the ranch.” But these are small matters.

Read this book for a clearer understanding of homesteading, and to enjoy the astonishing steadfastness and adaptability of these two heroic explorers. Their adventure was reality for most of our pioneering western ancestors.

Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House Writing Retreats
Hermosa, South Dakota

© 2017, Linda M. Hasselstrom

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Book Remarks: There Used To Be A Guy But He Died

WilkinsonGuyDiedThere Used To Be A Guy But He Died
Alan Wilkinson
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.

WilkinsonRedHouseAs 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

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