The quietest place I love in America is just about anywhere in the Nebraska Sandhills. The western horizon lingers along Highway 20 beyond Newport, as tantalising as a hummingbird, then escapes like an impetuous character. Row crops give way to mixed pastures and meadows that unburden themselves into spectacular unfenced meadowlands east of Bassett, dwarfing the open road. Dunes rise to claim the whole world, spilling farther and farther outward to a destination we could never reach. I commit to the generativity and delicacy of the Sandhills, respecting its part in the world and my own. In the stillness here, I learnt how to be.
My husband Harry and I wandered into the Sandhills after a long day’s drive away from our grain farm in eastern Iowa when we fled a grief-stricken time nearly twenty years ago. Each focus point in the sky and every fresh breeze drew us beyond the present moment we couldn’t evade on our own. Mountains would have been obstacles without relief. A walk through a city or even a well-loved forest would present only constant distractions. The Sandhills looked the same, no matter what I felt. Our pacing slowed. My nervous system relaxed as the scale of the world expanded and the scope of our lives diminished. In the arid heat of late summer, every tear vanished.
We had driven west on Highway 20 one especially hard day when we needed a break from everything that hurt. We left on a typical farmer date: closing the door on our routines and going somewhere to look at machinery or implements that might improve our operation. We never suspected that checking out a tractor Harry had seen on the internet would lead us toward a spiritual reckoning and resolution of our troubles. Our trip could have ended at Manzer Implement in Osmond, Nebraska, a short 300 miles west of our home, but the tractor didn’t suit us. Harry bought a hat instead and we stayed overnight nearby.
Intrigued by the area, we returned to the state the following month after attending a soybean producers’ meeting in southwestern Iowa. Over the Missouri River and beyond Omaha, we picked up Highway 2 that crisscrosses Nebraska to the northwest through the Sandhills along a 272-mile National Scenic Byway. The fertile cropland of the southeast transitioned into undulating sand dunes, ranch vistas, and protective windbreaks that characterise the central range. Occasional rivers and ponds glistened with celeste water mirroring cloudless skies. Trains hauling coal from the Powder River Basin in Wyoming to points east and caravans of wheat harvest crews headed north demonstrated how most people only pass through the Sandhills.
“Welcome to the Middle of Nowhere” was an honest billboard slogan outside Johnstown at the time. The minimalist geography made few demands on our frail psyches. Surprise, anger, curiosity, or distress flowed equally as we drove through environments that varied like incoming ocean waves or flames flickering off burning wood, buffering my sorrow over the loss of a relationship with our daughter. A heated incident with her about limits in the home had swept us off our feet one afternoon after high school graduation that summer, littering our world with confusion and despair. This splintering apart unsettled us. I had no place for those feelings. Without a tether to our old life, we drifted.
Much to our surprise, what started as an innocent meandering powered by grief has evolved into a recurring migration through the Sandhills that activates our souls. We don’t have to hurry to see it or plan to visit during a certain season. It just is. This simplicity reorders me every time we visit. Resistance is not a successful strategy here. One native Sandhills plant, the endangered Hayden’s penstemon, grows only in blank spots called blowouts where grass clumps slip off the dunes because of erosion and overgrazing. Mourning feels stark like these empty craters. The Sandhills taught me to abide with the losses alongside the goodness that grows back.
We eventually bought a cottage as a second home in Long Pine, named by indigenous peoples for the pine bluffs along the creek as wazi háŋska wakpala in Lakota, and mazi-snede wachishka in Omaha. Euroamerican explorers, settlers, and the army moved into the region with the Black Hills gold rush of the 1870s and the railroads in the 1880s loaded with freight and passengers. Ranchers would ride with their cattle to the Omaha stockyards on sale days. The town’s population hit 1200 in the 1920s when Chicago & Northwestern operated a steam locomotive rail hub here that could tap the town’s plentiful water. After diesel locomotives were introduced, the maintenance yard and roundtable in Long Pine were phased out. One last train passed through in 1992. Developers converted the 16-mile rail corridor between Bassett, Long Pine, and Ainsworth into a segment on the recreational Cowboy Trail across northern Nebraska.
Will the next decade yield prosperity, tumbleweeds, or more days like today? The protected Long Pine Creek watershed remains popular for hunting, trout fishing, and its Seven Springs water, marketed as “the best water you’ll ever taste,” a key selling point for us. About 300 families, vacationers, and retirees now consider Long Pine home. Three nearby counties are among the top ten least populated counties in the United States. A melancholy spirit pervades ranch country as much as an aura of timelessness. Friction between these two forces is like grief on a beautiful day, like static on a wire that signals energy on the line.
The Sandhills is a sublime and eerie landscape, the largest sand dune formation in the Western Hemisphere. The body is a friable crystalline sand stitched to the earth by more than 720 kinds of plants that shelter timid and clever creatures. As outsiders we would say, incorrectly, that the land is covered with grass. “Covered” is loosely accurate; there are many kinds of grasses. A cream-coloured sand is visible between clumps. Short grass, tallgrass, and sandhill prairie grass systems stabilise the dunes. Networks of fencerows and windbreaks of deciduous and coniferous trees and bushes mark property lines and protected zones. Pastel flowers of all kinds enrich the ecoregion with sweet nectars and leaf structures for every wild thing. We could get a bird’s eye view by flying over these 20,000 square miles of rolling prairies but we’d miss what it feels like to walk along the sand and have our hair ruffled by the breath of God.
We think we see everything in these expansive panoramas but we only encounter impressions of a stupendous reservoir that floats our lush and buoyant world called the Ogallala Aquifer, a billion acre-feet of paleowater that reaches into Texas and New Mexico. This aquifer fills a six-million-year-old formation across 174,000 square miles. The water table suspends the surface and reaches three hundred feet down where continents shifted to shape this enormous container of time and space. Rivers, lakes, creeks, and vast subirrigated meadows make up what we see as “the land” in the Sandhills as much as forms created with sand and soil. Roaming the hills on foot releases the extraordinary sensation of walking on water — unsinkable — on an upside-down world. We would not drown; we would be carried away on the current of the river of life.
The Sandhills hold meaning but no particular meaning, a shapeshifting power hovering here and then there, skimming like a damselfly over a thousand lakes or creeks, descending like a monarch into a meadow, licking the sweet clover like a cow, vibrating each heart-shaped cottonwood leaf with sunlight along a slick field edge saturated from below ground. Meadows glimmer with lusters in greens and violets and yellows and every imaginable tone of gold and copper in a wetland ecosystem that invites every living thing. The exhalation of wind is often the only sound, evoking the uninterrupted transit of time.
The constant movement of air through the Sandhills — from ever-so-slight whispers to blow-your-hat-off whirlwinds — touches everything with the same pressure, easing each being a little farther toward something. Every swell lifts our sights beyond the dashboard. Trees fall out of view as if plucked out like weeds. Pine and juniper canyons cut by creeks fill a rich evergreen swath, revealing a mirage or an oasis or a small town. Wave after wave of air riffles the marshy prairies with the same mesmerising action in all directions. If it weren’t for fence posts and telephone poles tacking the dunes down, flight would be the next impulse, levitating us into the atmosphere.
Intercontinental weather systems march across the sky from the western mountains, as if the thunderheads are Trojan Horses that spill out dazzling electrical strikes and inches of precipitation. Unavoidable floods, blizzards, hail, and tornadoes torment everything. But not every winter day fills with the mess of an ice storm nor is every spring afternoon sullied by torrential rain. Splendid days distinguish a place. A good day in the Sandhills is captivating and accessible. Yet it is not a museum; we can never see it all.
There are five million more cattle than people in Nebraska. Ranch, range, and conservation management techniques control most of the movement of livestock and water across the delicate Sandhills. Circle pivot irrigation systems mark out a hyper green zone of grain and soybean crops for animal feed in some townships. Short windmills pump water into aluminium tanks in fields where cattle spend afternoons knee deep in the overflow, a bulky mass of detached contentment. Cows may lift their heads to see people passing by on the road or they may not. They respond to their ranchers on their daily rounds but not much else. The plaintive calls of calves bellowing remind us of their presence in the valleys beyond where we can see.
Volume is an issue and an asset in the Sandhills. Thousands of starlings whirl over cattle feedlots in late afternoon breezes sparked by the setting sun. I imagine the animals converging aloft with the birds in improbable murmurations that lift even the dreariest thoughts. Yet ammonia from manure penetrates the air around feedlots near towns. These enterprises take advantage of the open space, abundant water, and fertiliser for animal feed crops. Cattle operations are one of the few employers here. The Ogallala Aquifer offers an astonishing but not endless supply of water. Without water, there would be a lot less life and very different work.
There is no destination without sorrow or conflict on earth yet hope creates places like the Sandhills where a mystical conversion of our healing took root. Nibrathka is the indigenous Otoe word for flat water, their description of the Platte River that cradles the southern section of the Sandhills. Many Nebraska watercourses are shallow, braided streams like the Platte or loopy channels of openness and vulnerability originating underground. Here my harsh edges, burnished and wet, flatten like a river pebble. The less we do here, the greater its impact on us.
Time for Grief
Time, a supposed healer of grief, transformed my lament over lost years with our daughter. The twilight zone of Sandhills time surprised me: we gained an hour’s worth of living whenever we roamed the western section that stretches between mountain and central zones. Water from millions of years ago fills my glass at the kitchen sink in Long Pine. Sandhill cranes, representing crane species older than that spring water, still migrate by the hundred thousand through the central Nebraska stretch of the North American Flyway each spring. Instead of a trap for sadness, time became an open-ended hourglass that spreads beyond knowing: farther, deeper, higher, buried, and swirling underfoot like crystal ball bearings.
Prospecting for Cenozoic treasures in a Sandhills riverbed with Tom Sawyer, an amateur palaeontologist, restored my imagination. We met Tom at the vintage soda fountain counter in the Range Cafe in Bassett on his 56th birthday in 2006. “My wife Sandy won’t let me eat pancakes at home,” he chuckled, “so I thought I’d start celebrating my birthday right here!” He offered to take us fossil hunting with him in nearby Bone Creek and, just as he promised, we found remains of ancestors of all kinds strewn beside sticks and crop debris in the channel that squiggled alongside white sand bluffs stuck with shells, bones, and teeth. Tom identified pieces of transitional paleofauna and flora that created an image of an oasis where camels and rhinos had once lived in what is now Nebraska. Wonder displaced the shadows in my heart those first afternoons with Tom in the creek, showing us an aspect of the Sandhills we hadn’t expected.
Disorienting and fascinating, we picked up evidence that the little horse Equus once trotted in Brown County, as if it were the remains of the Pawnee legend of the tender boy with his mud pony. Pieces of tortoises, rhinos, camels, and hairy mastodons surfaced. Remnants of improbable creatures better suited to sketchbooks have also been discovered in the area, such as sabre-toothed deer, horned rodents, and flat-nosed, cat-toothed dogs. The finely crafted tools of nomadic hunter-gatherers who migrated through the region intermixed with forest sediments. I could envision hippos humped at the swerve in the creek. These relics of other eras extended my thinking so far beyond what I understood as north central Nebraska that, far from feeling threatened by such distant realities, a flush of intrigue blossomed. Images melded overnight into full-colour dreams with charismatic megafauna grazing among Angus steers and squawking Sandhill cranes roosting in palm trees.
When mystery unearthed me, I forgot about grief. I could see a blade of grass, a piece of camel, or a grain of sand as elements of value in their own right, parts of a larger whole that contributed to this locale over an immense reach of elapsed time. Time that was not lost or wasted, as I feared with our daughter, but time that has passed with its own marvels. Modern animals graze here now: wild and domestic species from ground squirrels and kangaroo rats to mule deer and white-tailed species, cattle, horses, and sheep, to exotic ruminants, pronghorn antelope, and bison. Loss occurs amidst vitality. The presence of things not seen enchants me. I become part of something lasting by loving it all.
Buying a home, attending a church, and making friends helped us join the stream of day-to-day life when we’d visit Long Pine. Meeting store clerks, migrant workers, ranchers, fishermen, and hunters taught us about Sandhills culture and traditions. The hierarchy between ranchers and row crop farmers felt similar to the city vs. rural tension in Iowa. The man driving up and down the streets in the vintage red Dodge pickup every few hours wasn’t the police or the mayor but a neighbour who likes to see what’s going on. Friends told us that the small town gossip and bickering among related families and workers on large ranches generates a brittle atmosphere of loneliness. Loose connections between people become like strings of barbed wire, transparent but guarded relationships that resist growth.
People are broken differently here than in farm country. Farmers lose fingers and limbs; they get caught up in augers and drown in grain bins. Ranchers lean with a hip thrust outward or a shoulder dropped forward from being thrown from horses or crashed by bulls. Since 95% of the land surface is open land partitioned by miles of barbed-wire fence, the uncontainable space can isolate vulnerable people who see no way out. Human interaction comes in small doses in the Sandhills where few people live. Each person here has a chance to be memorable.
Both ranchers and farmers spend long hours working alone or in teams that don’t talk much, tending animals who submit or resist. Internal demons tear families apart, money guzzled or gambled away. A widowed friend talked about how her husband felt fit for the job he took off the ranch after he came home from World War II, disturbed by what he’d seen and done. He took his dinner pail and rode his horse fourteen miles each day to the Civilian Conservation Corps Lookout Tower at the National Wildlife Refuge south of Valentine where he scouted for wildfires. Suffering can be disguised. There are days when it is not soft here. It’s not easy to heal hard things anywhere.
Country people share a grounded belief: another day will come. Once we drove by a Maybelline red, inflated helium heart that billowed at a ranch entrance. The balloon shook off the grief of COVID days in the wind. A handmade sign stapled to the locust post promised, “This too shall pass.” The repetitive nature of the Sandhills consoled me by expanding the range over which I could adjust to new conditions. Each grain of sand shifts the landscape in ways we only appreciate later. My memory of coming alive here endures.
One morning I awoke to a cinematic dream in which our son, thirteen years old at the time, came bounding onto the porch of our Long Pine house from the evanescent west. His whole being emanated an inner delight and a freedom of movement that he’d never experienced. Released by the suffering of his early years with his biological family and now the difficulties of being adopted into our family, he dashed into the house as if into the future. This divine vision of his ability to be transfigured by joy transmuted my own fatalism as a parent who’d lost hope. The Sandhills cultivated an openness in me to honour that blade of grass that grows within each of us.
Each time I leave Nebraska, I feel the grace of internal transformation. Travelling through the Sandhills builds my capacity to filter and absorb all that I can. My sensory receptors, dulled by overstimulation and the habitual patterns of everyday life, attune to a voluntary rewiring and recalibration. I spend most of my time receiving. While dwelling in particularity, I feel included in the biggest possible picture. My souvenir is a vital spiritual awareness of an expansive present moment, a glorious way of living that I learnt here. I can just be. I pay attention to anything or nothing. I listen.
I keep coming back because I love how I feel in the Sandhills. One afternoon I watched a plump honeybee forage on white clover in the front lawn. My mind began working before I could turn it off, reviewing random facts about bees, the coevolution of plants and insects, and remembering how our friend Dave tended his hives in West Virginia decades ago. The experience could have happened anywhere I encountered bees on white clover but something about the intimacy of the Sandhills lured me into the amber colour of luscious clover honey as it spilled over my mind and released me from the obligations of thinking.
My habitat was not exotic or foreign. I drifted into the heat, deferring to coexist with the bee. I waited for a hummingbird to visit the coral trumpet flowers on the fence line that opened silently. A robin stood on the sidewalk for a long time in the shade of a firebush as if it, too, needed respite. I could abide in the shared mercy of the shade, cooling off with a robin. The input in my mental file was basic: this is intermission, this is freedom, this is appreciating life as it is.
Everything is equalised here: there is nowhere to go and nothing specific to do. Wrinkles on the horizon stretch my ability to focus on soft hills in counties miles away without feeling a need to know or even guess the distance. My peripheral vision expands outward like a Cheshire Cat clock’s eyes that look in opposite directions simultaneously. I learn to obey, to tame my ambition, to allow an effortless following as if I am another cow balancing on the narrow path. I accept the model of the landscape and become emptied, vacated, exempt from ordinary service.
Sometimes I go to the Sandhills to die to myself, consenting to environmental hospice care when nothing else matters. Here I confess what I can’t say when dreams shrivel, casting off the unresolvables like debris left to scorch in the sun. Sand grains ease into every opening I have. Its nature reorganises my nature. Gravity, light, shadow, colour, texture, pressure, wind, night — I surrender to divine conditioning. I accept these influences as essential for my survival. Eventually I feel found, restored to my senses like a tide swelling. Waves of sunlight part the tall grass, leading me on.