Thursday, May 31, 2012

Sand Hills

I got away for a long weekend, but it was a journey to the Sand Hills of Nebraska that I’ll never forget and that I’ll always feel good about.
by Charlie Leck

While I luxuriated in Nebraska’s beautiful Sand Hills region for a few days, the pace of interesting and significant news seemed extremely furious.

  • The President misspoke about Polish death camps and the embarrassment lingers in Washington and resentment seeps out of Poland.
  • The campaign in the recall election in Wisconsin roars on and fascinates political observers all around the nation.
  • The Donald (not the Duck, but the Trump) baffles everyone (including Mitt Romney) with his continued insistence that the President was probably not born in America.
  • The conflict in Syria has reached a boiling point – perhaps a fever pitch – and something is going to break there (and soon).
  • The financial crisis in Europe casts a large shadow across the continent and threatens to destroy the great economic experiment of the European Union.
  • Here in Minnesota a credit-collection agency is facing tough criticism and questions regarding its practice of badgering patients in a local hospital.

 Oh, the issues about which the crazed blogger can write!

However, I was removed from nearly all of the news down there in the technologically isolated northwestern Nebraska, 70 miles or so below the South Dakota border. There were infrequent wi-fi and poor cell phone connections that wouldn’t allow an examination of the Internet and there were no national newspapers to be found in the scattered little communities – no Starbucks or corner bistros either.

Short of hiring a small private plane that would be capable of landing on short, farmfield landing strips, the transportation of choice is one’s car and a 600 mile drive through western Minnesota, South Dakota and then a dip down into Nebraska – a 10 hour voyage if one presses the accelerator seriously.

I’ve never thought of South Dakota as a very attractive state – with the possible exception of the Black Hills in the far western part of the state. Nor have I ever conceived of Nebraska as a very eye-catching place at all. I spent time in both of them as a young man and perhaps tastes and conceptions change as one gets older and sees things with less demanding and more mature eyes. Our long drive through South Dakota, from the eastern most border, near Brookings, to the little community of Winner, just west of the wide Missouri River and Lake Francis Case, significantly changed my mind about the state. The rolling meadows and plains sparkled under overcast skies; and the subtle shades of greens, yellows and reds looked splendid, rich and mellow. My eyes were popping at the natural beauty and wonder of what I saw as we rolled on. South Dakota seemed so lush and rich. I remembered it as brown and unvaried. The eventual drive down into the Missouri River basin was nearly mesmerizing. There were so many pleasant bursts of color and shadows. Hold on, I told myself, as the car rolled west of the little community of Platte on Highway 44. I’d been here many times when I didn’t understand much of anything and the landscape bored me. Now the meadow-like pastures exploded with dazzling beauty.

The Missouri River flows through the center and heart of South Dakota, right through the community of Pierre (pronounced “peer” out here), the state’s capitol city. Then it continues its journey south and southeast to Yankton (where I went to college) and Vermillion (home of the University of South Dakota and Sioux City (Iowa) and then south to Kansas, forming the eastern-most border of Nebraska. It will flow into the Mighty Mississippi just outside of St. Louis and then flow on down to the Gulf of Mexico.

“The Missouri is my favorite river,” one of our fellow-travelers said as we rolled along in the car. I’ve never thought of having a favorite river. I was sympathetic to his opinion, however, as we descended the hills into the river basin.

What a mighty river the Missouri is – and how courageous and strong it looks. What is more stunning than a mighty river? It has carved its own path through the rocks and soils of the land and created its own bed though which it will course for centuries and centuries. I was nearly overcome by the shadows that crept upon the river bluffs and I wondered how I had missed this spectacular picture when I was a young man – how I had not been so taken by it then as I was now.

The sun was getting low in the eastern sky, so we should have stopped the car to take photographs of the coursing river, but we were travelers bound for an evening’s rest closer to Nebraska. So, the car rolled on, crossing the river and climbing to the flat plains beyond it to the west. Along the highway we passed an area where a vast herd of Bison roamed over the meadows and the sight left me awestruck and thinking about the numbers of the mighty animals that must have once roved here. These are not wild animals, mind you, but they are part of a commercial herd being raised for eventual slaughter and butchering. Only a very small number of wild bison remain and animal conservation agencies and foundations continue to work on the project of restoring thousands of these creatures to the wilderness. Yet, even in these farm pastures along Highway 44, they are quite a sight for the traveler to see and they moved me deeply.

Risen in the morning, refreshed, we left Winner, South Dakota and dropped south on Highway 83 to Valentine (the Heart City) and then down Highway 97 into the Sand Hills of Nebraska, where we ended our journey near the little village of Mullen. This is cattle country and thousands of Black Angus and White Faced steers and cows, trailing calves with them, roam the sandy meadowlands here.

Had I been in control of the wheel and brake pedal, I would have stopped countless times to photograph the bison and the cattle roaming over the spectacular patches of grass and sand; however, our captain was more concerned with ports in the little towns where he could photograph county courthouses and older buildings that showed off date of construction markings. The stops bored me silly. I was more interested in the meadowlands and the birds and animals that lived upon them – and in the old, creaking windmills that scattered out upon the countryside, drawing precious water into huge tubs that refreshed and sated the thirst of the cattle herds.

As I looked around at the isolation of the surroundings, I wondered how an extraordinary and famous golf club could exist here. For years I’d read about Sand Hills Golf Club and now we were in the Dismal River region and very close to it. I need to admit that I felt a pumping excitement inside my body. I’ve had the good fortune to play some of America’s most famous golf layouts (from Cyrpress Point and Pebble Beach in Carmel and the Olympic Club in San Francisco, to Pine Valley and Baltusrol in New Jersey – and the Old Course in Saint Andrews, Seminole and Jupiter Island in Florida, Oak Hill and Rochester Country Club in upstate New York, Pinehurst Number Two in North Carolina.

Yet, I’ve been wondering for years about the Nebraska golf course designed by, and built under the supervision of, Ben Crenshaw and Bill Coore. It opened in 1994. How could a golf course rated so highly by all golf authorities and experts exist in such an isolated and unpopulated place? It simply left me in awe when my eyes first fixed on it and roamed over it. I’ll say it flat out: I have never walked upon a golf course anywhere in America that left me so moved and awed. It was as inspiring as the Old Course itself and I could, if my old body would allow it, play upon this Nebraska golf course every day for the rest of my life and be perfectly happy. Cyprus Point and Pine Valley were marvelous, peaceful places, too; but the business and busyness of the world found little ways to intrude upon your golf time even at those two lovely places. Nowhere on the course does that happen at Sand Hills. Below you can find a video report on CBS Sunday Morning about the extraordinary club. It features a little tour of the features of the course with Jim Kidd, who was the golf professional there at the time and is now the General Manager of the golf course [Windsong Farm Golf Club] right next to our property here in Minnesota. Jim Kidd is one of the finest gentlemen a fellow could ever meet and one of the most incredible representatives of this sport in all of America. He has sterling credentials and an inspiring reputation. It’s also inspiring to watch him play the game. If you love golf, you’ll really like this video and it will be a good way to meet Jim Kidd and Sand Hills Golf Club.

We stayed at the club, in little cottages right next to the small, friendly and precious Dismal River (a description of the little river is appended below). Dining was perfect here and so was all the help – from the young ladies who greeted us at the door when we drove up, to the waitresses in the dining room, to the massive and kind starter near the first tee (with the most awesome mustache I have ever seen) and to our terrific and talented forecaddie out on the golf course. Two and a half trips around the golf course filled me with a peaceful joy that is difficult for the non-golfer to understand; but those of you who love the game will get completely what I’m saying. I cannot thank enough the neighbors here, who are members at Sand Hill, for making my visit possible and so perfect. Thank you neighbors – thank you so very much. Everything about the trip – nearly everything – was so very perfect and I am now a big, big fan of the Sand Hills region of Nebraska.

I, too, now have a favorite river and it shall always be…

The Dismal River
[from Buffalo Bill, the Dismal River and the Nebraska Sand Hills, by Dean G. Kratz]
The Dismal River is a spring fed short stream that flows quietly and peacefully through the Nebraska Sand Hills. Its pace and its depth is always the same. It never overflows and it never dries up. Amazingly, it is one of the most consistent rivers in the world…
The Dismal River is one of those “clear, steady streams” that “seeped out in little veinings,” and “headed southeasterly for the Platte.” It became somewhat prominent during the Indian Wars because of the Battle of Dismal River, but today it is rarely visited and seldom viewed. It is seen and known only to the occasional canoeist, the townspeople of Dunning, Nebraska, where it empties into the Loup, and the travelers on Highway 97 (very few), who cross the river on the way to and from Mullen, Nebraska and beyond. The people who see it most are golfers: the guests at the Sand Hills Golf Club where the Dismal meanders unpretentiously behind the Club’s cottages and those at the Dismal River Club where the deck from the clubhouse looks down on the Dismal River Valley,…

Why not become a follower?
If you read my blog regularly, why not become a follower? All you have to do is click in the upper right hand corner and establish a simple means of communication. Then you'll be informed every time a new blog is posted here. If all that's confusing, here's Google's explanation of how to do it! If you don’t want to post comments on the blog, but would like to communicate with me about it, send me an email if you’d like.

No comments:

Post a Comment