Mel and I recently took a research trip for a possible new setting for a book. We have moved to the edge of the sand hills in Western Nebraska, and had been told that the real sand hills were to the east of us. We had a map. We had gas in my car. Mel had a rare day off when it was pretty. After church, we came home, ate, and piled our hiking gear in the car. We expected the drive to take about an hour–two at most–and according to the map, there were tons of hiking trails in the Crescent Lake Wildlife Management area. I felt bold, excited, ready for adventure. I usually do when I’m with Mel. Poor Mel has to bear the brunt of it.
We were eager to hit the trail, and since I was driving, I was paying more attention to the road signs. I found the sign that pointed to the road that would take us to the reserve. I turned onto it.
“Wait,” Mel said. “Are you sure we’re supposed to turn here?”
“Sure. I saw a sign.”
“Where? I didn’t see it.”
“Back there, honey. There was a turn lane and everything. That was it.”
He didn’t argue further, but I was so busy chattering about the pretty, tiny town we were driving through that I didn’t notice his expression. Or his silence. Or his slightly bugged eyes.
We followed the paved road several miles out of town until it became a sand road. Nice and smooth, but we did have to slow down because that sand was pretty soft. We saw a herd of mule deer. I stopped so Mel could take pictures, then drove on.
“Sweetheart, are you sure you saw a sign back there?” He asked after a few more minutes of ever-dwindling road.
“Yes, I did, but if you think maybe I turned too soon, we can go back to the last road and go east. Do you want to?”
His silence told me he really did, but didn’t want to admit he doubted me. So I turned around in the empty road–I was doubting a little, myself, since we’d seen one car in all that distance–and did some exploring. We ended up back at the town where we’d started and discovered we really had been on the correct road.
By this time, Mel was in his “grit it out” mode. He was determined to be enthusiastic for my sake because as we entered more deeply into sand hills, I was entranced, and was talking about the books I could set in a place like this. I LOVED the sand hills! Stephanie Grace Whitson once wrote about the land of the sand hills, and she was helpful in describing this place to me before we moved here. She sold me on the stark beauty of the place.
As the road continued to dwindle and we entered open range land–where we were actually entering private property with an easement for travelers on the road–we saw more mule deer, antelope, prairie dogs, dozens of kinds of songbirds, and of course cattle. And signs of bison. Big signs. Also beaver. And the sand hills rolled on forever, sometimes down to lakes too numerous to mention, sometimes hundreds of feet high–very few road signs, very few cars. In fact, we saw more mule deer than cars or signs. It was breathtaking. I finally noticed it had taken Mel’s breath away. Especially when the sandy road we were on was bordered on either side by lakes. Marsh. Mosquitoes. No hiking for us.
“If you’re feeling worried, we can always turn around and go back the same way,” I told him, though we had planned to make a circle and drive through the sand hills up to a highway and back home on paved road.
“No, this is great. I’m loving it.” He seemed to be saying it between gritted teeth, but perhaps I was reading too much into it.
After four hours longer than we expected, we reached Highway 2, a scenic route in northern Nebraska.
Mel sighed and slumped in his seat. “I never doubted you, sweetheart.”
“Of course you didn’t. We have the map.”
“Maps seem to be misleading.”
I agreed, but I was happy. I wanted to dream about the hundreds of square miles of wilderness and the peace and tranquility I saw there. Yep, I plan to set a book there. Or books. Who knows? Others are bound to be as entranced by this place as I was. Oh, yes, and Mel. Of course. Or perhaps I mistook his relief at finding a highway as enjoyment of the journey.
Maybe I’ll go alone next time while he’s working. He works a lot these days. But I have all the time in the world for another trip. Maybe I’ll try to grab him again if he gets another day off. We’ll see. If you’re ever in Northwestern Nebraska, I highly recommend that you take a detour into the sand hills. It’s like driving on an alien planet.