After more than a year in lockdown with my out of control mind, a few days in Willa Cather’s Red Cloud, NE helped me decompress and put aside the crazy. It’s a tiny spot on the map, plopped down in a sparsely-populated, very politically Conservative state. With a population of 1,095, the town is so quiet I half expected skittering tumbleweeds. I drove so long without seeing another soul, I began to suspect the Rapture had left me the sole representative heathen in possession of all the bounty – a prospect that appeals, friends. I didn’t test the theory, but I suspect a person could stand in the middle of pretty much any highway in Nebraska for hours straight with zero danger to personal safety.
Things are a bit quieter there.
Joking aside, Nebraska is ruggedly beautiful. It’s peaceful, and the people I met were unfailingly friendly and kind. On a couple side-trips from Red Cloud, I pulled over to check my GPS was behaving because it seemed to have problems navigating with multiple destinations. Two of those times, locals pulled up to ask if I was okay, seeing I was a woman traveling alone. One Nebraska farmer didn’t just confirm I wasn’t in distress, he invited me to come back and see his house all lit up at Christmas – all 25 feet of Peace on Earth.
These are not things in the Chicago metro area. This is not the norm. I gathered that in Nebraska, it is.
My Red Cloud trip was as close to unplanned as it’s possible to be, without running the risk of finding myself without lodging. I rented a charming, tiny home via Airbnb and checked that the Willa Cather sites would be open in the middle of the week. That was it. I figured there were groceries to be had, a couple restaurants, all the basics. And there were, but I didn’t realize how early the sidewalks roll up. Arriving just after 4:00 p.m. the first day, once I’d settled in I thought dinner in town sounded appealing, seeing as I hadn’t stopped to eat on the 10-hour drive, fueled by Triscuits and cheddar cheese alone. Unfortunately, a quick Google revealed the grim truth: Red Cloud does have a handful of places to find food but all of them – except Subway and a gas station that serves pizza – were closed or would be closing in the next few minutes. The local population doesn’t support restaurants open all day every day, as is the case where I live. There is a wine bar, curiously, but as it turned out they’re open only Thursday through the weekend. And I was not there Thursday through the weekend.
While I said I planned nothing, I had packed a few groceries – food for a couple meals, plus granola and shelf-stable milk for breakfast. Pandemic food, basically. I learned my lesson. I wasn’t going to starve, but it was disappointing there was no charming little cafe on main street serving home-cooked food, as I’d dreamed of in my imagination. That was true of the entire trip. I availed myself of Subway once, from sheer necessity and convenience while out driving around. Otherwise, I stopped at a bar and grill for a burger my last day, hoping for some of that Nebraska corn-fed beef. You know how on TV you’ll see the stranger walk into a restaurant and people stop talking, turning to look? That. I grew up in a very small town that could smell an outsider. I get it. I’ve also travelled a lot and been the only American, even more uncomfortable than walking into a spot small-town locals hang out. There’s no malice in it. It’s not my favorite thing, but you get over it.
Considering I didn’t actually check the map to gauge the distance between the place I rented and the Cather sites, I serendipitously found myself a 10-minute walk from her childhood home – almost literally around the block. Before you go thinking that’s miraculous, remember – Red Cloud is SMALL. There is literally one North-South road, one East-West road. If ever there were a town with my name written all over it, it’s this. Even I cannot get and stay lost in a town of this size.
The place to start touring Cather Country is the National Willa Cather Center. It’s on Main St. You cannot miss it. It’s outsizedly huge in Red Cloud’s downtown. The museum is phenomenal. I cannot overstate how impressed I was by the holdings in the museum, the short film introducing her life, bookshop, and town tour that, at $ 20, is one of the best deals it’s possible to get anywhere. I’ve been to a lot of author’s homes, in the U.S. and abroad. This is one of the most impressive set ups I’ve seen, as far as amount and quality of information and access to resources. It says a lot that I went to Red Cloud with a vague idea Cather was important and left feeling an obsessive need to learn more.
She was a fascinating human being, in so many ways. A precocious child, Cather’s intellectual interests were indulged and encouraged by her family. Virginians who left partly because of their Union sympathies. the Cathers arrived in Red Cloud when she was nine years old. At the time, some of the major buildings hadn’t yet been built. Real estate was her father’s business, and he set up his office in the downtown area.
Young Willa loved music and was active in school productions held at the Opera House. She read extensively, and this tiny town of rural immigrants fed her imagination. The people she knew became characters in her books, not always in an entirely flattering light. But her passion for Red Cloud and support of its institutions even after she’d moved away endeared her to them. They may not have approved of everything about her, but the townspeople had great affection for Willa Cather.
I fell for her, too. Between the museum, the tour, the books I bought and have started reading, and drives around her dramatic Nebraska landscape, I developed a literary crush on this larger-than-life editor, critic, novelist and writer of short stories. She’s enthralling, as much for her adventurous, world-traveling spirit as the deceptively quiet, focused fiction she wrote about the place she grew up. Willa Cather did not write solely of Nebraska, but her most famous works are portraits of the citizens of Red Cloud.
I selected Edith Lewis’s bio of her partner from the pile of books I staggered out of the museum carrying, flying through it too quickly to fully digest. Willa Cather Living: A Personal Record is just that – a somewhat rough sketch of Cather the writer, created by the person who knew her best and lived with her for decades. Lewis writes about some of the works, not delving into literary criticism or deep study. There is nothing written of their relationship, not one personal anecdote, which disappointed me. I wasn’t looking to be titillated; I’d hoped Edith Lewis would relate everyday stories, informal portraits of what their life together was like. The book is anything but intimate. Lewis refers to her partner formally as “Willa Cather” throughout, never Willa, never Cather. It was a good introduction, if biased.
Deeper study will need to come from other sources.
My few days in Red Cloud gave me what I needed: quiet respite, the peace of solitary wanders through the stately Great Plains, and the opportunity to become acquainted with an iconic American writer. It left me with more questions than answers, more avenues to investigate than epiphanies – which is precisely the way I like it. I never want to reach the end of all roads leading toward literary exploration.
Hold that thought, Red Cloud. I just may be back someday.