Valentine, Nebraska, way back in the 1800’s, in spite of its gentle name, was a rough town, full of red people and white people. I mean, Indians and Caucasians. No… Native Americans and European Americans. No…. I mean, First Nation Peoples and Invaders. Man, it’s tough to be pc these days.
Let’s just say Valentine was full of Indians and white crackers.
It was over 100 years ago, in a section of the country that is flat and treeless. There was free land available to anyone wanting to work for it. So, in 1885, a young man of 21 years named David walked west from Valentine into the wild.
In 1885, Valentine was the last stop on the rail line going west. After arriving from Sweden and getting off the train there, David walked the rest of the way to his claim, some 125 miles. Now, this was a time in history when Earth, according to the climate scaremongers, was a full degree cooler, so hopefully David had on extra layers. He also had a gun with him, unregistered.
We are having a particularly cold spring this year here in the heartland, and I think about David out there those many years ago, out in similar cold. I am in my recliner with a TV remote beside me. Above me I have the ceiling fan still on winter setting; it gently shoves the toasty, risen air back down along the walls to warm me as I sit before my laptop, a hot cup of coffee beside me. David had no ceiling fan, no TV remote, and no recliner. I don’t know if he had coffee.
I do know that for food, he shot jackrabbits as he walked along. His course west was plotted by the raised rail bed prepared for the coming track. I imagine he came in the spring of the year, so the most productive months would be before him.
I myself have a little postage stamp yard with a two-car garage to store all of my overflow stuff. David had 160 acres waiting on him, with all of his stuff on his back. By old age, he would parlay that into 2,000 acres.
I wouldn’t have made it as a homesteader. I get tired shoveling snow in my driveway. I complain if apples aren’t on sale. Whatever I had left back East would have called too strongly for me the first time life got difficult.
For one thing, I wouldn’t have been able to kill a jackrabbit. I have killed only one living thing in my life… well, one living mammal. (I have killed many fish and many, many insects).
You see, as a young man, I decided to try my hand at squirrel hunting. I had my grandfather’s 16 gauge and trees aplenty. I remember walking along, great white hunter that I was, and seeing bunches of squirrels up in the trees. I took aim… kablam!! Nothing. Squirrels jumped and danced around and complained at me. I raised my gun again, my aim dead on one particular little furry, gray fellow…. Kablam!! Bark flew off a couple of feet over from my target. I remember the intended prey turning towards me and saying something. It seemed to me he also lifted his little paw in some sort of gesture before turning away, completely unconcerned.
I reloaded, telling myself that he was gonna get it. I took aim yet again… kablam! Nothing. The squirrel turned toward me again, arguing and chattering, as if I was only bothering him and not trying to kill him, throwing whatever he was eating down to the forest floor before scampering higher into the tree.
I proceeded to empty the whole box of shells into that particular tree, and then the tree beside it, and then the one beside that. I never could have hit a jackrabbit like David had to.
After awhile, the squirrels must have gotten tired of me slowly destroying the tree branches in which they lived. I could hear their conversation up above in the foliage. I watched. I waited. I reloaded with my one, last shell. Finally, and this is how I know squirrels are Democrats, one lone, weathered old squirrel crawled slowly out onto an exposed branch. It was obvious he was almost blind, an elderly squirrel the younger ones were willing to sacrifice to get me to leave them alone. His sparse fur was matted and chewed by time, his gait slow. I killed him.
What David killed back in 1885, he ate. He had to. I decided it was the right thing to do, the honorable thing, to eat the old squirrel I had killed. I had been told as a boy that I had a little Choctaw blood in me, and it made me proud to think of eating my prey. It felt right. I thought of making a little garment for my sister’s dolls out of the hide. I would scrape it and tan it and stretch it out in the hot sun.
I had watched an uncle skin a squirrel a few years before, and I tried to do it from memory. I pretty much botched it, and after an hour or more, I finally managed to pinch only a palm full of meat from the carcass. I threw the now mangled hide under some leaves and walked away in shame. I think even the squirrels above felt remorse for the hunt. Surely the old guy had deserved a better end to his life.
Back on the Valentine trail, at night, David would build a fire and roast the day’s hunt. I know he managed to kill some antelope as well. I don’t know if he had some sort of tent, or if he slept out in the open. I don’t know what he did if it rained.
If you have ever been out in the country, way out in the country away from the city’s light pollution, out on a moonless night, and if you have seen the vast array of stars that come out in the dark of the black night, you know how glorious it is. Imagine a polished, inky blackness, with diamonds scattered upon it, some large, some small, but all glistening and winking at you. Through the middle of it all, you can see the thickness of the Milky Way as a concentrated gathering of jewels across the spectrum. It erases any thoughts of being an atheist, to be sure.
Anyway, I picture David out there on his own, in the dark, probably camped out a few minutes walk from the railroad bed. Maybe over in a draw so as to be out of obvious sight, I don’t know. I do know that when I go outside by myself, I get spooked easily. Had I homesteaded, the first night out in the lonesome dark on the prairie, I would have been in awe of the stars, and then the loneliness would have crept over me. I would have longed for the day. I would have longed for my home back in Sweden, if I had come from there. I probably would have turned back east with the first light of the new morning.
Even today, when I camp with others, I hear the yip yips of the coyotes out in the darkness, and I long for my recliner in my living room. I long for the feeling of being inside a building.
When David arrived at his claim, an immediate concern was shelter. Like so many, he built himself a sod house and dug a well by hand. Literally, by hand. I don’t know how many feet deep, but I can find the spot, now filled in, where he labored with a shovel and a bucket. The biggest hole I ever dug might have come to three or four cubic feet. For the public school students out there, that’s not very big. I busted sod once for a couple of hours when putting a garden in. I can only imagine the work it took to build shelter that way. Bottom line, I often pine inside for simpler times, but I wouldn’t want to have to work like David did.
In Me and George And I, Eddie is out camping with his friend, GW, in the middle of a clearing. The night has gotten on, and Eddie is pondering deep thoughts, finding it difficult to sleep, while GW is fast asleep.
“Eddie looked around and up into the air. The circle of trees around their little clearing stood as silhouettes against the dark sky, the only light the faintest glow of starlight permeating the heavens above him. The trees looked lonely, even though bunched together. They could never so much as talk with each other; they just stood there, existing, with nowhere to go.
“Off in the woods Eddie heard a cracking sound, or thought that he did. He looked in that direction. He waited.
“He looked to the fire, long burnt out and now smoldering, a few solitary embers making their presence public. He looked again to the woods to try and hear the crack again. He lay his head down and pulled the sleeping bag up to the middle of his chest.
“Eddie did not like the nighttime. He did not like being outside in it. Oh, it was fine in the early evening when the fire’s halo lighted up his circle of company, and the shadows were kept at bay. But now he found himself to be in those shadows. The stars were vast and far away. He wondered if God really did create it all, and if He did, why He created only one planet to live on. What was the reason for all that, out there? He then considered the alternative idea of everything having not been created by God, but just happening. That disturbed him greatly.
“The crowded stripe of the Milky Way itself ran across the black field of sky as a smudge. He tried to count just a section of stars in a small area, but soon grew confused as to which he had included and which he had not.
“He looked over at the back of GW. He wished he was as tall as his friend. He wished he was as brave as his friend, able to go to sleep so soundly outside in the dark. He pictured a bear ambling up from the circle of trees and dragging him away. He wished for the morning.”