The Nebraska Territory – Montana, Wyoming, and The Dakotas…

(This post is part of a virtual road trip, which traces the routes taken by characters in The Great Offshore Grounds. For more on that, go here.)

A few hours past Missoula the land changed again, flattening and turning brown, scoured by wind. They crossed the Yellowstone River, then followed it as it ran, north by north east, fed by the Yellowstone Lake. It had poured over the falls and through the Black Canyon before they ever knew it... p 60-61.

My travels through Montana, Wyoming, the Dakotas, and Nebraska have always been framed by physicality and history. Geology, as seen above, taught me that there were many living things here before I came, and before we all come. It also taught me that what is preserved is not an accurate depiction of the life that flourished because only the hard parts survive, the shells, the bones, the statues, belief systems that, when institutionalized and perpetuated, turn a point of view into a concrete thing, seemingly undeniable as truth.

Then they came to the great Powder River, which was fed by the Little Powder, as well as oil from pipeline breaks, Red Cloud’s War, and benzene as it joined the Yellowstone. The Yellowstone, which already had inherited so much, the Bighorn and the Wind and the Tongue, as it flowed toward the Missouri River, which had no choice either but to inherit the watershed as it drained toward the Mississippi, that unstoppable force. And maybe there just is no way out of history. No matter how much you want to come from a different story, you can’t...p 61

I grew up knowing that above all else, I was Czech-American. My grandfather made sure of that. The prevalence of other histories and nationalities were dismissed. Bohunk was an early word in my vocabulary, and when I read Willa Cather, it was my own personal story, even though it wasn’t. It was not the only history I was raised on. I was also raised on the American Indian Movement. We were big fans.

Digital image of original artifact.

I was taught about COINTELPRO as well as theories on rural uprisings like the Omaha Platform with all…their…complexities, and I understood that my history was not the only history, but only partly.

All of these ideas, ghosts. My Antonia, Little House on the Prairie, Agents of Repression, and the land itself, its badlands and Pine Ridges and coal-bed-proof of (extinct) life, histories that won’t let any of us go, these are things I tried to write into the “place” of the novel.

I tried scrying and got nowhere

Passing through the Black Hills, North of Mt Rushmore and Pine Ridge, south of the Bakken Shale basin and Standing Rock, they drove the Badlands…East of the coal beds, west of the Black Hills…In an unsparing white flash of midday light, they drove through miles of the cash crop ethanol, a pentimento of buffalo skins behind it, untanned and rotting in piles on the prairie; they, too, were shadows...p 62

I cannot help but think that we all live in Territories more than States. The borders keep shifting. There are waves of people and thought. Everyone wants to feel more certain in this, their own America. Livy and Cheyenne, the main characters in The Great Offshore Grounds, are no different.

The storm came from Nebraska. When the high winds began, they had to stop to wait it out. Tornados touched down and lifted. Mad ballerinas, storm goddesses, they danced across flat lands and flood plains. When the winds died, they drove again, racing power outages and wild skies…p75

If you want to read more, or read My Antonia or Agents of Repression or anything else your heart desires, think about supporting these two wonderful independent bookstores The Country Bookshelf in Bozeman, MT and the wonderful Francie & Finch in Lincoln, NE.

Next, Michigan…

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