(Or How I Ended Up in Chadron, Nebraska of all Places)
By Poe Ballantine
In 1994, a small but prestigious magazine called The Sun published a story I had written about my ability to read souls as a child. They paid me $200, more than I’d made as a writer in the preceding ten years. I was thirty-eight years old and had just quit Iowa State University in a last-ditch but short-lived attempt to make something respectable of myself. I liked Iowa, but the air was too wet to breathe and I was restless and unhappy with myself for having failed in all my attempts to make something respectable of myself. And I honestly thought that the story was no good, that I’d just been lucky, that a cross-eyed intern had made a mistake or someone had felt sorry for me or drawn my name out of a hat, and that it likely wouldn’t happen again. Weary of dreaming and living in little rooms alone, I decided that I didn’t want to live anymore. Where I would die I didn’t know, but I borrowed an old car and headed west to find out.
I’ve lived in many big cities, but because I can’t afford them anymore and I’ve been robbed twice in them and I like to avoid alienation, desperation, altercation, beggars, and filthy lunatics leaping out from alleyways whenever possible, I’ve gradually become inclined to small towns in the middle of the country. It’s all about the people, as Flannery O’Connor used to say. The machine of society and progress is all very fine, but the machine knows or cares precious little about your happiness or sanity. For optimal profit and efficiency the machine would rather pit you against another, and do you think it cares who wins or if you end up a filthy lunatic leaping out from an alley? I’ve grown to appreciate the simplicity and humility of being poor, or perhaps I’m just good at it. Either way, it’s easier to be a bottomfish with a modicum of dignity in rural mid-America than it is in teeming urbia, where the poor are quickly marginalized, stigmatized, subjugated, and asked to work two jobs so they can make the rent.
Quite by accident those 25 years ago in my sojourn west in a borrowed car headed for Oblivion I stumbled across Chadron, Nebraska, population 5,800. I had never paid much attention to the High Plains of Nebraska, lumping it in with my overall preconceptions of the state as a dull and desolate territory of livestock and rippling green cornfields. So I was surprised when I was greeted at 3400 feet with light ponderosa forests, rugged cowboy and Indian faces, scarlet and lavender hills and bluffs. There was snow on the ground, the people at the gas station were friendly, the rents listed in the newspaper were cheap, and both the breadth of the sky and the magical quality of its light buoyed my mood. A mile to the south, behind the local state college, I discovered C-Hill, a prominent landmark from which one might observe a dozen constellations cranking majestically across the night sky.
Entranced, I rented a little shack not far from the railroad tracks and got a job as a cook at a hotel called the Olde Main Street Inn, built in the railroad boom and Indian-killing heyday of the 1890s. From one of the last unvandalized payphones left standing in America I talked to the editors of The Sun, who seemed thrilled to hear from me, though I couldn’t imagine why. With the two-hundred-dollar story payment I bought a month’s rent, a six-pack of good beer, a roasted chicken and a night of drink at the 77 Longbranch Saloon, which I describe in my 2013 memoir, Love and Terror on the Howling Plains of Nowhere, as a “cowboy-Indian-biker-police-gay bar.” More importantly I sold another story, for $300 this time.
I should’ve stuck it out in this town of good luck (my first fan letter!), attendant muses, welcoming, hardy people, lasting friendships, pine woods, cheap rent, colossal skies, uncannily silver cathedral light, and written the Great American Novel. And yet, still restless, I stayed just six months, moving on to Arkansas, then California, Kansas, Wisconsin and Mexico, continuing to sell stories to The Sun, netting more each time as their subscription base grew. In1998, one of these stories was included in the Best American Short Stories anthology, which eventually lead to not one, but two book contracts.
In Mexico in my middle forties, still alone and infected with the travel bug, I met a woman who would be my wife. After living in at least seventy cities and working over eighty jobs, it appeared that my days of itinerancy might at last be over. My wife-to-be had never seen the United States and since I did not want to have to call her parents to report that she’d been assaulted or killed by a skateboard gang, Chadron with its safe streets and kindly folks, spectacular cloud formations and sunsets like layered forest-fire cocktails, seemed like the ideal place. I got my old job back at the Olde Main Street Inn, where I’d cooked seven years before. My son was born. I bought a modest house across from the railroad tracks for $33,000.
Once returned to the High Plains of Chadron and its sylvan hills and nourishing Springs of Helicon, I began to publish books, my lifelong goal. With each book (there are seven at present count) comes a tour—colleges, libraries, bookstores, and book clubs—and I’m frequently asked to explain why I live in Nebraska. The tone of the inquiry usually implies distrust in my judgment or concerned suspicion that I have somehow been shanghaied or otherwise egregiously misplaced in a heretical act against my will.
I understand this question perfectly. For decades I held the same fixed and oversimplified corn-and-porcine views of Nebraska. And I also know from having tried to answer this question a hundred times over the last sixteen years that no amount of fresh-air-big-sky-cheap-rent-friendly-people-silvery-light arguments will satisfy my listener, so I’ve stopped trying. In fact, I encourage those who’ve become disenchanted with the Lotus-Eating Stampedes that have recently overrun their cities, to not come here. We have tumbleweeds and rattlesnakes, tornadoes, baseball-sized hail, wild Indians, exotic thorns, legions of rednecks and laconic cowboys and hayseeds, bitter winters, unbearable summers, a steady scouring wind that even on a short walk will clean your teeth, and we’re an hour and thirty-six minutes from the nearest mall.
My son, Tom, now sixteen, is a Space Child. When he grows up he wants to be an astronaut. His first word at the age of one and a half as he stared intently over my shoulder at the bright disk in the clear and gelid Nebraska sky was: moon. He understands the laws of gravitation, orbital eccentricities, can cipher the geometry of celestial bodies, knows the constellations, the habitable moons of Saturn and Jupiter, which days of the week and the months are named after planets, and all the names and light-year distances of the neighboring stars. He has taught me the difference between civil, nautical, and astronomical twilight, the difference between civil, nautical, and astronomical dusk. Every chance he gets and in possession of the exact time of sunset (which he keeps track of daily on a dry erase board in his bedroom) he ascends C-Hill and raptly watches the horizonal descent of our central solar system star. Afterward he steeps himself in the three tiers of twilight, and as the planets appear in the heavens, he names for me each one.
Growing up in San Diego—surrounded by buildings and trees under a canopy of ocean mist, city lights, and drug haze—I was barely aware of planets and stars. The sun went down but I was never quite sure where, nor did I particularly care. I never developed a proper sense of direction. As a city boy and a rat scheming among the other rats in our prized hierarchy of animal conquests, I had what I considered more important things to do: charming the lady rats and maintaining a fine drug haze to filter out those infernal stars.
An astronomer from England (I’ll call him Rick) and his troupe of avid English eclipse hunters came to Chadron a year ago to station themselves at the Olde Main Street Inn for the total eclipse of 2017. Not expecting anything outside of a routine rustic Midwestern experience they were surprised and impressed in the same way that I had been upon my first exposure to Chadron. My son the Precocious Space Child and Rick the English Astronomer hit it off and the two spent long hours pointing at celestial bodies, discussing the myriad details of the upcoming eclipse, and jabbering about sidereal versus relative time.
The astronomer and his entourage were so enchanted with the amiable denizens of Chadron, the character of the hotel and its owner, the high empyrean skies, the forests and bluffs and especially the ethereal quality of the light, that they returned recently to visit us. For three days over dinner or pints or walks through town we gabbled at each other like mental patients, Tom and Rick scanning the firmament and teaching us laymen the finer points of cosmology. Did you know for example that most of the water on earth came from comets and asteroids? That most of the elements on the periodic table migrated to earth long ago from the explosion of distant stars? That the very components of the earth and therefore the very components of ourselves are of extraterrestrial origin? We are all, in other words, space children. We have all, in other words, been fathered by the stars. Look up and behold your history!
Rick works for the European Space Agency, an institution homologous to NASA, but in his spare time he voluntarily tours the UK trying to encourage and enlist children of school age into the sciences, which are dearth these days of talent. But the children, he says, all want to be on television. And you can’t blame them, he says, for the cities have closed up around them, the stars in the oranging skies have grown faint, wildlife has retreated or gone rogue, housing developments like flocks of bleating sheep continue to creep across the land razing the countryside and clogging the horizons. Rick fears that these urban youth disconnected from their natural origins and fastened firmly to a monolithic belief in technology as the solution to all problems have not had the quality of their lives improved, nor are they better or happier people. Television for many of these children is the only visible light in their drug-hazed heavens, or at least that’s where all the stars are.
In the meantime, as Good Time Charlie laments, everyone is leaving town, and yet the small towns, the farms, the ranches, are the last vestiges of the familial sensibility that many of us have hurriedly and even gleefully left behind. Smaller, especially agricultural, communities, like the one I live in, are bound foremost by codes of coherency: cooperation, neighborliness, hard work, mutual respect, and self-reliance, often referred to by urban dwellers as “thorns in our side.” Cultural codes, however, are no different than genetic or legal codes in that their principles have evolved and are preserved and transferred over long periods in the interest of the health and survival of the organism, communal and individual. In the metropolis these codes have mostly been discarded (in San Diego we rats generally referred to altruists as “chumps”), for in the city, of course, you can do whatever you please.
Recently I completed a month-long book tour. Tom accompanied me. I started in San Diego, the city where I was raised, then moved north to L.A., where I lived for a year and a half, the Bay Area, where I’ve stayed with friends and family for weeks at a time over the years, Portland, my publishing base, and Seattle, where my wife (who could only join us for nine days) wanted to use the women’s restroom in a public park but couldn’t because it had been hijacked by a skateboard gang. We spent most of our travel time caught in traffic, the cameras on the stoplights taking pictures of us, the drivers jockeying aggressively as if they were in a motor race. I can drive like this too. I know how to be impolite to succeed. I know how the impersonal machine of society works. But why would I choose to be like this?
In Portland, forgetting that cooperation is the cardinal rule of coherent society and having lost connection with the past and probably also reality, black-masked anarchists shouted obscenities and pounded on the windows of the restaurant where we were having dinner. First it was language and symbols that separated us from the animals, then controlling fire cleaved us further from our natural provenance, then the division of time and the ability to persuasively lie for fun, profit, and high office wrecked us for good on Abstract Island. From there we launched headlong with blind faith into the imaginary salvation of progress and the future while anarchists shouted and pounded on our restaurant windows. I wanted to stick my head out the door and ask these well-meaning but addled and uprooted creatures bent on taking everyone down with them to list for me all the successful anarchic systems of governance throughout history, though I understood that they were airing grievances much deeper than any of them probably understood.
Tired of locking every last thing down and still having it stolen from me, sitting in traffic for an hour to move three miles, and constantly scanning the skyline for vampires, I, the hardened and chronically long-faced city slicker, welcome the vagaries of the small town: that surreal time of quiet that settles around us most evenings, the genuinely smiling faces, the raucous clamor of migrating geese overhead, the antelope grazing peacefully in the distance, a neighbor stopping by with a bottle of wine or a locally dressed ham or three pounds of fresh basil, or the way my boy runs with joy up C-Hill to watch the sun go down.
Unlikely to become a cattle rancher, a wheat farmer, or a freelance writer, Tom reluctantly admits he must eventually leave his beloved birthplace to pursue his astronomical dreams. He thinks he might attend a university with access to a major observatory, Arizona perhaps, New Mexico, possibly Hawaii. Rick says that Caltech is the place Tom ought to be, though that would mean living in L.A., and as much as Tom identifies with Asperger’s Urbanite and Caltech theoretical physicist Sheldon Cooper on the Big Bang Theory, he’s not sure he could do it.
My son is not socially facile, he shrinks in crowds, doesn’t dance or kiss, would rather be alone or with me or his mother, likes to stay in (usually composing music on his iPad) on Saturday nights. Since the third grade he’s been fond of walks along the railroad tracks. The cargo and passenger trains quit running here long ago though the rail cars in strings of sometimes a hundred still rumble through to the “roundhouse” for maintenance and repair, so we have trains most times parked across the street from our house on one or more of the six tracks, rattling and chiming in the thunderstorms and providing an ideal break against the sharp northern winds.
Like the animals that frequently hide out in between the parked trains, Tom appreciates these secure, private spaces where few humans go. Wild turkey, deer, and owls are common sights, antelope and eagles now and again. A few weeks ago to my surprise and delight we encountered a family of peacocks, which we learned later were escapees from the ranch two miles east. My boy claims to have once seen a wolf. He is honest to a fault, so I imagine he did.
More people than ever in America have lost their homes: they were priced out or displaced by gentrification; their farm was bought out or deemed too much work; the mill closed and their jobs went elsewhere; chasing after the pleasure that does not please, they were seduced by palm and orange trees, seasonless sunshine, tiny ornamental lawns, and storybook ideas of an easy life and a nearby ocean they can probably no longer reach. In many cases the city grew up around them to become a hostile stranger.
Chadron, the town I discovered accidentally a quarter century ago on that quixotic quest to forever end my days, is the place where I belatedly awoke from an egomaniacal slumber. It is therefore the place where I am most grateful to watch my son grow. Unlike most city kids, Tom understands firsthand where food comes from. He understands through his observation of climatic elements such as extreme cold and violent storms how environmentally fragile his situation is and how reliant he is upon others. He is keen on the seasons and their relationship with the sun and in turn the sun’s relationship to the order of all living things. In his studies of the heavens visible most nights from his front yard he sees not cold dust, exploded matter, unbreachable distances, and randomness manifest, but vibrancy, connectivity, and divinity. He understands that without the past the future has no meaning.
I’ve little doubt that for education, career, bookshops, beignets, Asian food, jazz clubs, independent movie theaters, and the chance to be a dozen different selves, Tom will one day leave for the big city and perhaps stay. My hope is that he will never lose his awareness of the natural world he was born into, a world that took me the better part of a lifetime to find.
Poe Ballantine lives in Chadron, Nebraska and is the author of seven books including his most recent, Whirlaway (2018). His work has appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, The Sun, Kenyon Review, and The Coal City Review. In addition to garnering numerous Pushcart and O. Henry nominations, Mr. Ballantine’s work has been included in the anthologies The Best American Short Stories 1998 and The Best American Essays 2006.
top photo caption: Chadron, Nebraska Sunset, copyright Diana Robinson Photography