Farther Along writers head to Red Cloud, Nebraska

Notes on the way to Red Cloud

“I seem fated to send people on journeys,” Willa Cather wrote.

Since 2002 our Farther Along group of women have written together, traveled together to writing retreats and walked beside each other through life’s messes and triumphs.

This time, three of us are taking the scenic route, driving to Red Cloud, Nebraska, where we will meet the rest of the group. They are flying in.

We will write where Willa Cather lived and sought inspiration for much of her writing.

Carol, Dottye and Kay will be sharing some of our observations here.

Carol Henderson

Heading Out

Dottye texted at 6:38 a.m. to see what time we were planning to leave.

Not that early.

In fact, I was still asleep.  I had driven from Chapel Hill, North Carolina, to Kay’s house in Winston-Salem the evening before. Sometime in the morning, we were picking Dottye up at her place-about an hour north. 

Dottye had been packed for two weeks and already had her bags out by the curb. “We’ll be along,” Kay texted back.

Kay and I got up and sipped strong coffee on her back terrace, watching the hummingbirds dart at her feeders, wondering if they’d still be around when we returned in three weeks. We also wondered if the symphony of cicadas would have quieted. We were ready. The question was: would all the stuff of all three women fit in the car?

I love what Susan Orlean writes about how she travels: “I pack and repack; I am shamed by how much I’ve packed and then, as penance, I force myself to remove a few items; then I capitulate, put everything back in, add one or more things just to be safe, and at last, burdened and beaten, limp to the airport or the train station or the parking garage with my gross overload. Why do I do it? I’ve decided that it is a sort of passage I have to make before making my true passage—it’s my ritual of clinging to the familiar before entering the unfamiliar, my resistance to leaving the comforts of home for the displacement of travel, of being a stranger embarking on exploration.” from My Kind of Place

Looking at the piles in her front hall, Kay rejected a few items. I decided I could leave a pile of journals I hoped to read through on our retreat. No. We’d make final decisions at Dottye’s. We could always leave excess at her house.

We arrived at Dottye’s mid-morning, the car already feeling pretty full.  But she is our seasoned car packer (and trusty driver). She masterfully tucked our many small bags, odds and ends, and our bulging carry-on luggage into the back and spare seat of my Subaru Forester.  We only left a few odd things behind.

The itinerary for this first day was basically getting us together and launched and putting miles and a few states between us and our familiar.

We crossed the New River also known as the Kanawha. It’s one of the five oldest rivers in the world and runs east-west unlike most other rivers in the East, meaning it carries flora and fauna from its Western North Carolina source into the Ohio River and the Midwest instead of the other way around.  

We could dedicate this blog to rivers but, well, won’t. We are, though, kind of obsessed. Dottye had put together a three-ring notebook on the history of all the rivers we would cross on this trip. From my perch in the backseat, I would read to them about the geology, trade routes, floods, and dams as we crossed.

Inspired by a book I’m reading called Waterlog, by Roger Deakin, who set out in 1996 to swim through the British Isles, I decided I’d take a dip in each river. Though we crossed the meandering Kanawha several times that first day, we were high above the banks and often in densely urban and industrial areas. Who knows what drained into that muddy meandering ribbon of water and how would I gain access? Maybe I should have left behind that bag–of swim gear.

Few in West Virginia were wearing masks, including the guide at the welcome center who directed us to a booklet about Charleston, WV, where we hoped to find a lunch spot with outdoor seating. From the car, we called several eateries listed in the guide. At the most appealing place, the phone rang and rang and finally a message came on saying, “Not available at this time.” Others had new Covid hours, closing early or only open a few days a week. We kept striking out and ended up eating Kind bars from the car stash, deciding we’d find an early dinner somewhere in Huntington, our stop for the night.

No sooner had we settled into our Inn room than Dottye’s daughter-in-law Jonni called, a bit frantic because her daughter’s daycare was closing that day at 4 p.m. (it was already 3 o’clock) for two weeks. Covid outbreak. Dottye, who often babysits for 4-year-old Tayson, shrugged. What could she do from West Virginia but call a few friends at home to try to help set up care.  

We sat on the queen beds, helpless and kind of gloomy on the gray afternoon. Both Kay and I help with grandchild care too. Were we going to get bad news about our grands’ schools?

Road trips and Covid.  Not a great match. We knew that. But this trip was planned pre-pandemic and early in the summer of 2021 we thought the virus was waning. Then we said: We’re all vaccinated and mask devotees. And we agreed that if we found ourselves in uncomfortable situations, or feeling unsafe, we’d simply pivot and change plans. As a friend told me, “We’re living in a ‘penciled in’ world these days.”

We were excited to be heading to Lexington, Kentucky, in the morning. Unlike today when we basically packed up the car and moved from point A to point B, we had plans for tomorrow—to go to the Mary Todd Lincoln home and to tour Ashland, the sweeping estate of the U.S. statesman, Henry Clay. And we were staying for two nights with old friends.

Carol Henderson: River Plunges Revisited

After a long drive on super narrow shoulder-less roads to the must-experience Raven Run nature preserve, we decided against the 2-mile hike out to an overlook high above the Kentucky River. No way to swim unless I decided to swan-dive to my death from a height of 70 feet. We told one of the guides we wanted to get to a river bank. He suggested we drive to a roadhouse called Proud Mary, not too far away, and with a kayak launch spot. We could definitely get in the water there, well I could.

The Kentucky’s current ran swift in this spot. I figured if I entered the water I’d be swept fast down river, under a mammoth bridge, and who knows if I’d be able to make my way back to the landing. The water wasn’t inviting, brownish with parts of several swamped tree branches above the surface. I nixed the idea and settled instead to collect some river water in the little bottles Dottye had brought along. For what purpose? Ah, just to have them. To water our favorite shrubs or potted plants when we got home—blessings or baptisms from our trip?

We wandered into Proud Mary’s for a cool drink and a sit by the water before heading back into town for dinner. As we sipped iced tea one of the new managers stopped by our table to greet us. We saw he was making the rounds. I asked about swimming in the Kentucky.

“Definitely don’t,” he said. Fallen trees and other debris create dangerous whirlpools. The current is swift here. Polluted silt from the roadways and the two big bridge traffic are another problem. And he said sewage from a lot of older properties along the river flow straight into the water—the systems grandfathered in long ago. He told me there were places where the water was cleaner and started naming some spots miles from where we were heading.

Maybe I won’t need that bag of swim gear on this trip. Luckily we were driving and I didn’t have to cram swim wear into a carry on for flying.