Welcome to Cody, Neb., a town too tough to die

Snow, glorious snow. Lots of shoveling, grunting and sweating. Gimme more snow.

Snow, glorious snow. Lots of shoveling, grunting and sweating. Gimme more snow.

Note: It’s Thursday, Nov. 21. Week before Thanksgiving. We’ve been home for too many months. I’m afraid to count them.
Updated note: It’s Thursday, Feb. 13. If I was afraid to count the months back in November, I’m terrified now. We’ve been freeloading at Chez 531 for more than five months. Time, she is a wanton will-o-the-wisp. Unless of course you think of Time as a man, which it dawns on me you might, because Father Time. In that case he’s a heartless dickhead.
[Updated update: It’s Monday, Feb. 17. There’s still a lot of snow piled up outside. So I don’t feel too guilty. No more updates. Really.]
Because I haven’t gotten shit done lately. I promised Chris, my therapist, I’d write for five minutes today. That’s right, I have a therapist. Things are that bad. Or maybe that good.
Updated note: I think we got a foot of snow last night. Hopefully more to come tonight. Max doesn’t go to kindergarten much anymore. He logged two hours last week. This week he’s done six. He had a 2-hour delay Monday, followed by two full (three-hour) days. No school today. Likely none tomorrow. Oh, and about Chris: A couple months back, we agreed to go for 20 minutes a day. I fell apart. Immediately. Caved in like a flat roof under 100 feet of wet snow. Things are not so bleak now.
Over the on-again, off-again course of this absurd odyssey, I realize now that Pennsylvania has been a dead zone for productivity. Why? When you’re on the road, everything is alive, immediate and viable. When you put several months between you and the narrative of the road, a deadness festers in the ever-growing canyon dividing then from now. And so here we are.
Updated note: My dealer, Dr. Monheit, has incrementally upped my dosage of legal speed (aka Adderall). I’m up to 15 mg twice a day. I’ll never make Michael Crabtree my bitch, but maybe I’ll finish this. Usually I only take just one a day, because, you know, high blood pressure runs in my genes. Dr. Monheit never has much to say. He carries a burden the size of a Volkswagen Beetle to the office with him every day. I try to humor him. In the five minutes I see him each month, I try to elicit at least one smile. Poor Dr. Feelgood don’t feel all that good most days. Anyway, I’m in the battle now, trying to breathe life into the canyon of death. Yet the time, it slips away. Ain’t it funny?
In the dead zone. The leaves are bare. The trees stark sentinels. Nakedly they await the harsh winter. And I’m in a chair in an office chatting with Chris Carbo, my friendly interlocutor at the head-shrinking shop. He’s in his 30s, and I’m confessing my Twitter problem. For some reason this makes me feel like a total pussy, like I’d be more of a man if I copped to a drug problem, a booze problem, a sex problem 0r anything but this: I got myself on Twitter and I can’t get off.
Updated note. Damn, this has been some kind of winter. I’m loving every inch of snow. But I feel a trifle guilty, because Tom Breslin, aka Becky’s dad, isn’t loving this nonstop festival of snow. And he’s a wonderful guy. Sneaky bastard, though. A couple hours ago, as I was preparing to write, I told Becky to keep an eye on her dad, because I knew he’d try to slip outside and shovel snow without telling anyone. She went downstairs and found his office empty. I knew it.
He was out in the street, bundled up like Dr. Yuri Zhivago. He wielded his favorite shovel. I knew he’d do this. I knew because it’s the kind of shit he does. I especially knew he’d do this today because Becky and I got in an hour or more of shoveling without him this morning.
This living with off the in-laws situation is more sweet than awkward, but I feel dirty every time Tom thanks me for doing some trifling task or other. I want to say, “Hey buddy, maybe you hadn’t noticed, but we been freeloading here for going on six months now. You don’t have to thank me.” But I don’t, because I don’t want to draw his attention to this sorry fact if he’s inclined to overlook it.

As for Twitter, I killed that habit cold turkey. Months ago. Turned out Twitter wasn’t my problem. It was just an electronic red herring. 
Now I wish I could get back into it, just in a measured, decent sort of way.

That's the neighbor's house across the street from Chez 531. Yes, it's been an awesome winter so far.

That’s the neighbor’s house across the street from Chez 531. Yes, it’s been an awesome winter so far.

But I’m back now, battling my predilection for wasting time. Hell, I’m not mining manganese. I’m not digging ditches. How bad can it be? If I got paid  $15 an hour for eight hours a day, I’d gladly do this. Twenty would be better, though.
I also hang on bitterly, if a bit reticently, to the notion that this story is worth the telling. When you’re on the road, the  two-dimensional, binary world presented by the liberal conservative sycophantic, corporate media dissolves into nothingness. The flat universe fills with air. People come to life and reveal themselves as three-dimensional creatures. And I love them.
Updated note. I still believe in that last sentence, however trite it may sound now. And it’s nearly Valentine’s Day. If you’re reading this, I love you. And thank you. I’m in my underwear, in my mother-in-law’s house, but I’m not typing in the basement. So there. Things are good. 
I now return to the middle of June, aka eight months ago. Damn, that scares the shit out of me. We spent a couple nights in Cody, Neb., the “Town too tough to die.” That was too good to pass up.

The road to Cody
We stumbled upon Cody blind, without premeditation, having no idea it existed.
It was Tuesday night, June 11.
On Monday morning, after I’d completed a solo walking tour about Fort Hays State Historic Site, we drove north out of Hays, Kansas. We arrived there Friday night and, lucking into a serendipitous power hookup at the town park, stayed for a free weekend of camping and baseball.
We left Hays heading north on U.S. 183. And damn, was it ever hot.
It was the kind of sizzling heat that brings to mind the evangelical notion of Hell.
The temperature in Hays that day peaked at 104 degrees. It is Hays’ hottest June 10 on record.
In less than an hour we were in Stockton. Arn Lytle, my Sunflower State Virgil, had briefed me about this town founded by former slaves who left Kentucky after Reconstruction. We searched north and south, east and west through Stockton and found not a single reference to the town’s black founders. I was incensed. What kind of historical whitewashing had taken place here?
Alas, I later realized Stockton was the junction where we would have turned left to head for Nicodemus, which lies 20 miles west of 183. Nicodemus, and not Stockton, was founded by former slaves. That there’s what my Georgia friend Anthony Williams would call a brain fart.
I blame the heat. Because, you know, it was hot.
As for Nicodemus, it seems right proud of its history. Sorry we missed it.
We continued north and stopped in Phillipsburg to write and mail a couple postcards. We parked across E Street from the post office. Still hot.
Sweat beaded on my forehead. Sweat soaked my T-shirt. Sweat trickled down my chest and invaded the crevasses in my belly fat. It was disgusting. And hot.
We got back on 183 north, in search of cooler climes. In a half hour we were in Nebraska. We stopped at Boomer’s Dairy Barn in Alma for milkshakes and temporary relief.
We made lamentably quick work of the milkshakes, then got back on 183 and drove until we picked up Interstate 80 at Holdredge and headed west. One hundred miles from there we exited at North Platte.
It was dark. The seething temperatures had softened. We stopped at McDonald’s, but the heat had beaten me. I curled up in the Behemoth and napped while Becky and Max surfed the Internet beneath the arches.
No doubt North Platte has its peculiar charms. It was the terminus of the Union Pacific Railway for a year, until Laramie came online.
We didn’t see any of it save the McDonald’s and Walmart. A travesty, to be sure.
The world’s largest rail yard? Didn’t see it. The Golden Spike? Nope. Same goes for the North Platte Canteen and the Buffalo Bill Ranch.
We found our way to the Walmart, though, marking the end of our five-day run of camping with free electrical hookups. Kansas had been a magical land of free-flowing power. It was our first Walmart stay since Arkansas.

******

We squandered Tuesday morning on nothing in particular. Eventually we made our way to U.S. 83 north and didn’t stop till we reached Valentine, hard by the South Dakota line. We bought groceries at Henderson’s IGA, then stopped at the Alco discount store. Becky bought a digital camera card while I gave Max his first driving lesson.
Sprawling and sparsely populated, the Alco parking lot was the perfect venue for a 5-year-old’s first driving lesson. What could go wrong?
We frittered away a couple hours in Valentine, a sleepy town on the High Plains with fewer than 2,500 residents. I was too new to these parts to recognize Valentine for what it is: a regional hub. It is the seat of Cherry County on the northern fringe of the Sandhills, which I knew little of but was destined to learn more about.
We survived Max’s debut as wheel man. Having patronized the IGA on the eastern edge of town, we stopped at Scotty’s Ranchland Foods on the west side. We filled up the tank. And the hours melt away.
Try as I might, I can’t account for most of Tuesday. Valentine is 130 miles from North Platte. By the time we skipped out of town, night had fallen.
Soon all was darkness, save the spectacular streaks of lightning which danced and glowered on the western horizon. Just a thunderstorm, probably a hundred miles away, yet we were freaked out. Sometimes you get the heebie-jeebies on the road.
In any case, we’d been jittery about storms since Louisiana. Our paranoia peaked when we hit Tornado Alley not long after a twister killed 25 people in Moore, Okla. Our families and friends fretted and told us to be careful, and after what happened in Moore, well, you couldn’t be too careful.
Now every flash of lightning in the far-off sky spelled tornado. Desperate to put in for the night before we drove headlong into bad weather, we stopped briefly in Nenzel, a whisper of a town 30 miles west of Valentine. There wasn’t really anywhere to park our lumbering galoot of a vehicle, so we kept going for another seven miles till we stumbled into Cody.
When we saw the welcome sign billing Cody as “A town too tough to die,” we had a feeling we were in the right place.
No sooner had we turned off 20 were we in the city park, which much to our surprise included several RV hookup sites. Strangely, it looked as if the campground was filled to capacity. But as we circled the dirt driveway we saw the last spot on the western edge. We pulled in gratefully, shut off the engine and hunkered down for the night.

DSCF4761

June 11, Cody, Nebraska
I awoke before Max and Becky, slipped out of the Behemoth and took a stroll about Cody. It looked kinda dead for a town that’s too tough to die.
Not that it wasn’t pleasant. Bird songs circled in the wind, mingling with the voices of fellow campers. The wind is a constant accompaniment to life in Nebraska’s Sandhills. Yellow-breasted hummingbirds chased each other across the playground.
America looked idyllic in the light of day.
Cody’s an apparition, a memory twisting in the High Plains wind. The Bargain Bin at the corner of Nebraska and Cherry appeared ready to blow away.
I pushed on the Post Office door. Locked.
A man pedaled by on a bicycle. He carried a laptop and issued a businesslike “good morning.”
I gave up and returned to the park, which is remarkably tidy. Paper towels in the bathroom. Bars of soap. Someone is watching over this forlorn town.
I met Josh, the maintenance man. He’s the guy who keeps the restrooms in soap and towels. Josh said his uncle bought a place out here in 2008, and last year he escaped South Carolina with his two small children and didn’t stop till he got here.
He likes the town’s getaway quality. Speaking of getaways. Ron Schneider has a good story. I’ll get to that later.
After breakfast, Becky and Max accompanied me on a return trip to the post office. I asked the postmistress whom I might find to tell me about Cody. She sent me across U.S. 20 to the Sinclair gas station, where Ron Schneider holds court.
I stumbled into an easy-going cribbage game. You might have thought I had an appointment. I had barely introduced myself when I found myself sitting in a chair and being regaled by Ron Schneider, owner and raconteur.
Cody once was the definition of a whistle-stop town. It sat astride the Chicago and North Western Railway’s Cowboy Trail, another wind-blown village on the fathomless plains that you never heard of unless you happened to live there.
When the Depression plunged the Chicago and North Western Railway into bankruptcy, the bad news was plain on the depot wall. After six decades of service, the railroad pulled out for good in 1943. Cody’s been dying ever since.
By the end, the stretch of track here was a mess.
“They used to have sections of track here where the engineers would have to walk in front of the train and inspect the track,” he says. “They had some 5 mph limits here. It didn’t matter how fast they went. They used to fall off the track at least once a week between here and Omaha.”
Cody had a population of 408 in 1930. It is now lucky to count 150 residents.
“The agent here was name of Cody, so at that time the train would just come into the whistle stop and leave the mail with Cody,” Ron Schneider says.
When Schneider’s maternal grandfather arrived here in the late 19th century, there were no Sandhills as we know them today.
“In the late 1800s, these Sandhills were still dunes,” he says. “This was a desert. He said you could ride a horse out over the hills, and a week later you could still see your tracks in the sand. The last 150 years the rainfall has increased and put us back into grassland.”
His father, Henry Schneider, died in 2001, three months short of his 100th birthday. Henry was a gentle, hard-working man. As far as Ron knew, his dad did little else but work. He was a teenager before he knew his dad could play the piano.
Henry Schneider got married and bought a place south of Cody in the Niobrara basin. He eked out a living for a while as a dryland farmer. He was a thinking man’s farmer, and he got to thinking there must be a better way than working 18-hours just to get by. He had six sons and two daughters to feed.
“He was one of the first ones in the country to have rubberized tires on his tractor,” Ron says. “He was the first guy with a combine threshing machine.”
Those technological advantages helped, but he still struggled. Henry Schneider had done some reading about irrigation wells and learned about an invention that might change his life. He became a pioneer in the use of self-propelled irrigation pivots. I didn’t even know what a pivot was until I met Ron Schneider.
Frank Zybach, the Nebraska-born innovator who invented the self-propelled pivot irrigation system, came out to the family ranch and installed the pivot system he had sold Henry Schneider.
Zybach’s invention enabled Schneider to take advantage of submerged sea which lies 200 feet below the surface of the Sandhills. One hundred million years ago, this region was under water, part of the massive Cretaceous Seaway that stretched from the Arctic Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico.
“Dad went from raising 15-20 bushels per acre up to 150,” he says. “Finally he wasn’t getting hurt. He wasn’t worrying about tomorrow.”
Over his seven decades, Schneider’s seen his beloved Sandhills change in front of his eyes. The climate is changing, and with it everything else.
“Back when I was a kid, we had three or four weeks when it never got above zero,” he says. “Now we only have four or five nights a year where it gets below zero. Seventy years, it’s changed quite a bit. It’s hard to believe it changes that fast.”

Ron Schneider stands tall against the grain elevator which once served Cody, Neb.

Ron Schneider stands tall against the grain elevator which once served Cody, Neb.

I thanked Schneider for his time. We made our way across the street and stopped in at the Circle C grocery store. One afternoon four years ago, two teachers at Cody-Kilgore High School had an epiphany.
Now for the first time in 15 years, Cody residents aren’t forced to drive 38 miles to Valentine to buy eggs and bread and butter and flour. Students helped plan and construct the straw-bale structure, and now operate the Circle C with oversight from Mary Van Winkle, a Nenzel native who took a significant pay cut to come home and throw herself into this singular mission. We bought some cheese and tortillas and walked back to the camper and made quesadillas.

*********
Twilight settles over the Sandhills. There is enchantment in the air. I stand outside the Behemoth and admire the way the ebbing light plays on the old grain elevator.
Ron Schneider swings slowly through the park in his white GMC 1500. I know it’s him because big Rex, his copper-colored lab, peers at me out of the truck bed. He makes a second pass. He asks if I want a guided tour of Cody.
Of course I do.
He spins around town, then turns north toward South Dakota. Soon we leave the pavement and rumble over a dirt-and-gravel path that rumbles through the Rosebud Sioux reservation.
Tall, lush waves of grass roll across the landscape with a hypnotic splendor. Short bluestem, long bluestem, reed canarygrass, switchgrass, porcupine grass and many more. Together they rise and fall with the omnipresent wind, sucking up the fading sunlight and casting ghostly shadows, spinning the landscape into a tableau of sparse enchantment.
A red-winged blackbird perches on a tallgrass shaft. A pair of golden larks hurtle and tumble after each other.
He was a science major at Chadron State. He taught for a while, but grew bored. Felt like he was babysitting. His first wife died when he was 22, leaving him with a 2-year-old son. He’s seen tough times.
His eyes are deep-set, his voice soft but strong just the same. When he was a kid, he stuttered. You wouldn’t know it to hear him now.
He carries a lifeline on his hip. He went to the Mayo Clinic in the spring of 2007. He was on the list for a heart transplant. Then he was rejected.
“My mother was the problem,” he says. “She didn’t build my heart right. I had a three-chambered heart. The septum between the upper chambers is gone. Hanging there in rags. In four years my heart went from normal down to barely functional.”
Now he’s got a heart pump for a permanent companion. HeartMate, same one Dick Cheney uses.
“It’s getting to be a part of me,” he says. “This is my destination. I’m running on two 14-volt batteries. Three years now it’s never missed a beat.”
A jackrabbit bounds along the reservation road. A memory surfaces. When he was a boy in Niobrara River country, he shot a lot of jackrabbits.
“In the evenings we’d take our spotlights out and our .22s and hunt jackrabbits,” he says. “The mink farms up in South Dakota would buy all the rabbits we could shoot to feed their mink. We shipped out three van loads of rabbits in one week. Rabbits here were awfully thick.”
He says Cody was some kind of town, once upon a time. The dance hall still sits on the edge of town, white and quiet as a church. It wasn’t always that way.
“They used to have what they called the White Elephant dance here once a year,” he says. “And it was wide-open here in Cody. That dance hall over there was full of gambling and drinking and fighting.
“When I was in grade school I remember going to the White Elephant dance, and the only way I could get in was get on my hands and knees and crawl through the crowd. It was crowded. We had people here from Chicago coming out. It was advertised in the Chicago papers.”
He swings the truck around and heads back to town. We drive by the white sentinel of sobriety on the hill, Hunts Chapel United Methodist Church. Rex rides in the back. We don’t wear seat belts.
“There used to be two lumber yards here, two grocery stores, a newspaper,” he says. “It changes, but it doesn’t really change. I wouldn’t live anywhere else. It’s peaceful.”
A doe bounds across Chestnut Street. During Prohibition, they say you could get a drink just about anywhere here, anywhere but that old Methodist Church.
“We tore down an old building for scrap and we found a bunch of still parts down in the basement,” he says. “One of the older guys in town said that building at one time was a bar. He said they used to sell bootleg liquor out the back of this bar. They had a trap door out the side of the building. We stripped the inside walls out and we found the trap door. He was right. Someone would put a bottle in there and the money, and then come back an hour later it’d be full. They used to have a couple trainloads of sugar come in here every week. All for hooch. We had some pretty good whiskey makers here.”
We drive past the old hardware store, the grocery store, the old fire hall, the old library. Not much here is not old.
He pulls into the park. I am flush with the magic of the road. I shake his hand and thank him profusely. He calls me “young man.”
I wish. I love you, Ron Schneider, even though you set me up.
You surprised me in the gloaming, when you knew I would find it impossible not to fall for the Sandhills.
When he was a young man, he liked to fly his plane above these hills at dusk, admiring the way the bluegrass absorbs the ebbing day and illuminates the landscape with spectral shadows.
Winsome, that’s a good word for Ron Schneider’s Sandhills.

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