It was Feb. 24. Then I turned around and it was Feb. 26.
Already Feb. 27.
Nay, March 6.
Editorial update: It’s March 30. Enough said.
Not so long ago, things were looking up. I had turned an imaginary corner in my tortured, half-century war with myself.
Turns out there’s always another wall.
Today (March 6), seeking resuscitation, I walked three miles into a gentle but unsettling wind to make my long-delayed return to the Paoli House of Bitterness. Thank the devil almighty for the cozy winter gloves Becky’s sweet mom gave me for Christmas last year. The temperature hovered around 30 degrees, and the sun was shining, but it was damn cold. My fingers would’ve been screwed without those gloves.
I hadn’t wanted to walk; I wanted, as always, to have walked. In some corporate pharmacy somewhere, I read that walking helps lower blood pressure.
Becky offered me a ride. I declined. She mocked me for my insistence on shuffling into the late-February gloom, but I knew I’d feel better about myself when I got to Paoli.
Only this time I didn’t.
My pedestrian triumph was Pyrrhic. Fortuna had a nice, little chortle at my expense.
I trudged to the Paoli office of the world’s most ubiquitous peddler of overpriced coffee, dodging cars on Route 30 because I refused to traverse the blackened hillocks of ancient snow that left the sidewalks impassable, only to find a note taped to the door informing me that, much to the regret of management, the shop had closed due to a mysterious power outage.
I muttered “fuck,” turned around and began walking in the direction from which I’d come.
I might have taken a train to Exton or Devon, which the author of the note suggested I do.
But I’d come too far to not turn back now.
Why do I walk? Is it just Luddite sentimentality? Perhaps. The anachronistic, bipedal mode of transportation just seems to suit the cinematic loser of my imagination (a character I merged into long, long ago).
Mostly, I like to imagine the curiosity I inspire in everyday folk who pass by in their Lexuses and Mercedes as I shuffle in and out of their vision, my 51-year-old, broken-down corpus hunched forward, its considerably more-athletic-looking shadow lurking behind, shoulders sagging beneath overstuffed pack and nose pressed into a book as if I were some 19-year-old traipsing through a tree-lined college campus.
Which reminds me of a Quincy Jones quote I came across in The Seattle Times one day while on a ferry to Seattle in 1997:
“Inside every 60-year-old man is a 19-year-old boy saying, ‘What the hell happened to me?'”
I was 34 then, closer to 19 than 60. Things change in a hurry. Time is a steamroller from hell.
At least the breeze was at my back now, and the return walk passed without undue mental anguish. I holed up at the Easttown Public Library.
Now I turn back to Cody, Nebraska, a town too tough to die.
In addition to Ron Schneider, who took it upon himself to be my personal tour guide, there is the Circle C Market.
July 12, Cody, Neb. – Yesterday afternoon, after a visit with Ron Schneider at his Sinclair gas station, we crossed Highway 20 on our way to Circle C, the little store Cody hopes can triumph over unenviable odds. The sun, fat and intemperate, hung above us like a tangerine lollipop that had lost its stick.
The Circle C Market sprang to life in a simple, one-story building that sits astride a flat patch of land between the Cody park and U.S. 20. It oozes the idealism and insouciance of youth.
As we approached the front door, we were greeted by a woman in a Nebraska Cornhuskers T-shirt. Her smile, flagrant with Midwestern goodwill, washed over us like a benediction. Then she held the door open until we crossed the threshold.
Becky whispered, “she’s in the film.”
“She” is Tracee Ford, who teaches Spanish and art at Cody-Kilgore School.
Roughly 80 attend Cody-Kilgore in grades 7 through 12. They come from all corners of a sprawling, sparsely populated landscape. It is a rolling sea of tallgrass prairie and lowing cattle. The Cody Kilgore Unified School District serves an area spanning two time zones, three area codes and 533 square miles.
More than four years ago, Ford commanded a desk at a student fair with fellow teacher Stacey Adamson. As idle chit-chat gave way to daydreams, they considered what might be done about Cody’s seemingly intractable stagnation.
With the railroad long gone, the population here went into a freefall after World War II before leveling off around 150 at the dawn of the new millennium.
Ford and Adamson each had tried to recruit new residents only to fail miserably. The shared similar frustrations. When they touted Cody’s comfortable pace of life and its Leave-it-to-Beaver aura of unlocked doors and trusted neighbors, outsiders invariably listed the lack of a grocery store as a primary impediment to moving in.
The nearest supermarkets, Scotty’s Ranchland Foods and Henderson IGA, are in Valentine, a 38-mile drive east on U.S. 20. When people around here talk about going to town, they’re talking about Valentine.
Neither takes credit for the birth of a notion. Instead, Ford and Adamson recall the moment that led to Circle C as a shared epiphany.
“We said to ourselves, ‘we need a grocery store,’ ” Ford said.
That was the seed that blossomed in this Sandhills village in the spring of 2013. The Circle C Market sits in the shadow of hulking structure which once served as Cody’s grain elevator and now is a halfway house for neighboring crows and bats. It is constructed with straw bales and sided with brown stucco.
While students rang up sales, we adjourned to an adjacent classroom. Ford’s eyes flashed to life as she talked about the Circle C. Light sneaked through the blinds and threw a shadow ladder at our feet. She says she’s always been a dreamer.
“I’m an idea person,” she said. “My husband always shakes his head and say, ‘you need to come back down to earth.’ This is the first big idea I’ve had that I’ve seen come true.”
She’s seen more than that.
She’s seen remarkable transformations and personal rebirths. Students written off as unreachable snapped to life in the face of real-world challenges. Alienation gave way to enthusiasm. Kids who previously had no use for school threw themselves into the project with surprising gusto. They cut up straw bales and hammered nails.
Students took ownership of the fledgling market. They drew up business plans and developed marketing strategies. They applied for grants and building permits. They designed an appetizing website.
Then they trained their determination on state officials.
The state, which owns the land, refused to lease it for the project. Student emissaries traveled to Lincoln to deliver a presentation. Impressed officials had a change of heart and extended the school a 99-year lease.
The community fell in behind them. Teachers went out into the Sandhills and pried contributions out of ranchers. Town fathers landed a USDA grant to help build the store. Students scored a rural development grant for equipment and educational necessities.
The kids manage every aspect of the store. They ring up customers, stock shelves and place orders from vendors.
“They’ve gotten to experience things they never would’ve done before,” Ford said. “For me, that’s the best part.”
At long last, Mary Van Winkle is home.
She grew up seven miles east of Cody in Nenzel, a roadside abstraction against which Cody seems like a small metropolis. She graduated from Cody-Kilgore in 1979.
Nowadays, Nenzel boasts a population of 20. It was 28 when she was a child, and her family accounted for half of it.
Nenzel once held the distinction of being the smallest incorporated town in Nebraska. Her father owned Dick’s Bar on Main, and the family lived in an attached residence.
Her grandfather was mayor for 63 years, serving until his death in 1992. Her great-grandfather was a Nenzel.
Van Winkle arrived home on March 4, her first day on the job as manager/advisor for the students who are the lifeblood of the Circle C.
She appears to be a perfect fit for the role. She has long been a champion of lost causes and rank long shots. She’s old enough to have lived through the June 1962 tornado that flattened little Nenzel.
“My family lost their home,” she said. “My folks purchased the local bar that same year. I’m a bar brat. I grew up in a bar, literally. My dad built the house right onto it. And I say that really with great pride. Because that’s reason I am who I am today, because I lived in the public from the time I was little.”
The market represents more to her than just a job or a quixotic experiment. It is symbolic of a way of life.
“Either you decide you want to fight for the way you want to live or you watch it go by the wayside,” she said. “That is what this is all about.”
She is the youngest of 10 children. She is flush with a sense of community, one deepened by two decades working on nearby Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota.
I asked about life on the rez, and she responded with a quiet defiance.
“Economically speaking, yeah, it’s sad,” she said. “You know the problems, they’re very apparent. But they’re very kind and generous people for the most part.
“If you’re just passing through and look, sure, you’re going to see the alcoholism, the drugs, the torn-up houses, the broken-down cars. That’s what the surface shows, but it doesn’t tell you about the people. It’s just so different from the white man’s world, in terms of what’s of value. Family is first and foremost, always.”
She’s never been one to take the easy way out. When she lost her job on the reservation, she found a job as a social worker in long-term care. She worked as a 911 dispatcher and did the books for the town of Kilgore. All while attending school.
Before Circle C lured her home, she worked as a nursing-home administrator in Ainsworth, 82 miles east of Cody. It was a good job, but it wasn’t home.
“It’s hard to explain to people that haven’t grown up here, but it’s in your blood,” she said. “Like any place that’s home.”
The store opened its doors on April 29. Almost a month later, Nebraska Governor Dave Heineman came to town to celebrate the grand opening.
The plans for the store transcend supplying Cody residents with staples.
“We kind of forget this ourselves, we’re so caught up in getting the grocery aspect going, but it’s actually a store and an entrepreneurial center,” she said. “And the next piece of this is to bring forth that part of it. We want to feature local trades people, craftsmen, any locally done items, we want to figure out how we can incorporate that.”
Reservations? She had a few. None were big enough to deter her.
“My dad used to have this saying, ‘Nenzel is where two fools met.’ That’s the way I feel about this market.
“It was so important for me to come home. On my first day, I walked up to the school and Tracee was the first to great me. She came running down the sidewalk of the school going, ‘You’re here! You’re here!’ It’s not every day you’re greeted to a job like that.”
Like Ford, she has been overwhelmed by the way students have thrown themselves into the project.
“That’s where my heart is, with the students,” she said. “I just want them to know the world is just as open to them as anyone else. You just hope you show them they’re more than capable and that you believe in them.”