It was supposed to be about books. Pictures can be removed from frames. Furniture can be disassembled and shipped. Nice, expensive stuff can be left with trustworthy people who appreciate nice, expensive stuff. But if you’re moving overseas, books are tricky. They’re bulky, heavy, and expensive to ship. And what if they’re damaged or get damp during the long sea journey?
Mind you, dear reader, I had already brought many books to New Zealand. But to the scholar or book lover of a certain age, every book is meaningful. Some of the books in my Omaha bedroom were meaningful simply because I remembered when I bought them twenty years ago (no, I hadn’t read them all, but surely I would, someday). Some were signed by their authors; others were signed by thoughtful friends. So I needed a plan. When my parents were still alive, I could take back a few at a time, avoiding the big decision. But my father passed away last year, and now it was time to … to what? To accept that a great volume in my life had closed, and the next volume was opening in a different part of the world. Indeed, it had opened some chapters earlier, but I was too fond of Volume One to just let it go.
And so this trip to Omaha would be about books. And then a curious thing happened. I was in Los Angeles, preparing for my onward journey, and I saw an article about the annual migration of the Sandhill Cranes. In early spring, cranes and other birds from across Mexico and Texas converge on a thirty-mile stretch of the Platte River in south central Nebraska. They stay for three or four weeks feeding up for their great journey north to Canada and Siberia, where they spend the summer. The article noted that the cranes had arrived late this year, and large groups were expected to linger around Kearney over the Easter weekend.
Kearney is about three hours’ drive west of Omaha. I hadn’t been there for years, probably decades, but it had been on my radar for its significance to another great migration: nearby Fort Kearny (without the second e) was an important site for nineteenth-century migrants on the Oregon Trail. For people as for cranes, it was a point of convergence, where the many trails to the east came together into one great trail that followed the Platte some 300 miles west to Fort Laramie in Wyoming and then separated in various directions, geographical as well as philosophical: on to fertile Oregon, or gold-fevered California, or sacred Utah. This human migratory history is commemorated in many places, but it received a new focal point when the Great Platte River Road Archway Monument opened just outside Kearney in 2000.
But this visit home was supposed to be about books! But when was I ever going to be in Nebraska again when the cranes were here? And … it was Easter weekend. I arrived in Omaha Friday evening, booked a hotel in Kearney for the following night, and left early Saturday afternoon.
There isn’t much to see along Interstate 80 west of Omaha, and even less once you’ve passed Lincoln. And with a 75 mph speed limit, it’s best to keep one’s eyes on the road. Still, there’s a kind of wonder in the Great Plains in early spring. The corrals of brown and white cattle, the strong light of a low sun on fallow fields, the way a chilly morning turns t-shirt warm by noon, the sublime sight of a thunder storm twenty miles in the distance. It’s a landscape I will always associate with minor league baseball crackling on an AM radio. Unfortunately on this Holy Saturday all I can find are scary radio evangelists and scarier NPR cooking shows.
Near Grand Island I pick up a gravel road that follows the Platte River. During the day, the cranes leave the communal security of the Platte’s sand banks to dine on waste corn in the nearby fields. And it’s here, among the reedy remains of yellow corn stalks, I see a dozen dabs of grey. My first sighting of Sandhill Cranes. It’s potentially anticlimactic—I can see why carloads of teenagers would be bored silly by this parent-ordered outing—but to my forty-something eyes and the large portion of my brain still devoted to Nebraska, it’s magical. Closer to Kearney, at the National Audubon Society’s Rowe Sanctuary, I manage to nab a place in one of their viewing blinds for the following morning.
Suddenly I have to shift gears. I had planned to visit the Archway Monument the following afternoon, but it seems they’re closed for Easter Sunday. So I hurry over, even though it’s 4:45 pm and they’re closing in fifteen minutes. But the generous staff encourage me to take my time. I stayed 45 minutes and could have stayed longer but for guilty feelings.
The Great Platte River Road Archway Monument was the dream of the late Governor Frank B. Morrison. Morrison was something rarer in Nebraska than a Sandhill Crane—an admired Democrat. His dream was finally realised in the form of a monument to western migration that arches across Interstate 80 a few miles east of Kearney. Architecturally it echoes the forts that once dotted the Great Plains and perhaps nods to the covered bridges that more often cross a river or stream. A remarkably long escalator brings the visitor to the first of a series of rooms describing travel on the Oregon Trail. There are historical objects on display, but the main focus is on large dioramas that fill each room. Mannequin travellers push their wagon through the mud with Chimney Rock (an important signpost on the journey) in the distance. A video re-enactment of stampeding buffalo reminds visitors of the many animal migrations that once but no longer cross North America. Other dioramas commemorate the 1848 gold rush, the 1856 rescue of Mormon travellers caught in the snows, and the extraordinary if brief (1860–61) existence of the Pony Express mail service. A second floor of exhibits takes us from the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869 to the creation of the interstate system in the twentieth century. Oddly, the exhibition ends with an ersatz diner and drive-in, as if there was nothing to add after 1960. It’s enjoyable and occasionally evocative, a good place to spend an hour breaking up the long drive across Nebraska, but it’s more comforting than challenging. Visitors are given headphones that describe each exhibition space, and as you pass from room to room, the narrator’s voice fades into static, eventually replaced by the next narrative. A bit like tuning that old AM radio.
One diorama stayed with me. One corner downstairs presents an abandoned, broken-down wagon, surrounded by the detritus of the journey—all the beloved objects brought from home that, as the travel grew harder, were jettisoned to the roadside. Agricultural implements, the bones of overloaded oxen, family china, a piano, a pile of books. I stared at that pile of books for a long time. No, my modern migration across the Pacific Ocean has none of the tragedy and uncertainty of those travellers on the Oregon Trail. But for a moment I was reminded that migration is inevitably about loss.
After a delicious dinner and even better conversation at Kearney’s best pizza place, I made an early night of it. And at 5am the next morning I dressed, drank hotel coffee, and drove through the chilly, starry darkness to the Rowe Sanctuary. When my group reached the blind, the river was already alive with the purrs and chirps of waking cranes. Hundreds were roosting on sand banks a few hundred feet away.
I thought that seeing the cranes might fill my heart with pride the way a Nebraska football championship never could; but that’s not quite right. It filled me with appreciation for a landscape that seemed so uninteresting when I was young. The muddy, meandering Platte seemed a synecdoche for all the shortcomings of the Midwest—we couldn’t even get a river right. Now, as I watched the light rise, and the darkened landscape turn blue and copper, and the river fill with the sounds of avian life, the Platte stood for all the things I couldn’t appreciate when I was young, things that were now leaving my lines of future sight. And, while it was glorious to finally see this miracle of nature, I knew this wasn’t something that could be taken in once at one sitting (or standing). Like a great work of art it demanded repeated viewings, time to step away and reflect and return. And I had squandered my chance, cheated myself out of the opportunity. Something so wonderful had been three hours from home, and I ignored it.
A sudden whoosh, a rising volume of calls—a nearby group of cranes rise into the air, disturbed by—who knows what? a camera flash, a coyote on the shore—and our island follows the leaders. Into the air they rise, the calling growing louder, and all seemed to be off. Only they weren’t. Most of them rose into the sky and then decided—what? that it was a false alarm? That it was too damn early to leave the roost? In any case, most returned to the sand bank, a little livelier in the growing light, dipping their feet into the icy water, dancing with the neighbours like athletes loosening up, but not yet ready to depart. Half a dozen pelicans kept them company. When we left them an hour later, many were still there, waiting for the right moment. A dramatic departure might have been memorable, but I’m glad they stuck around a little longer.
That afternoon I drove back to Omaha. I went through some two hundred books that afternoon, putting aside about thirty that were truly special to me. I’d find a way to take them back to New Zealand. And the rest? The next day I took them to my favourite bookseller. Reader, I sold them.