Fifty-nine years. Anna shook her head. It was that long ago that the family’s ’49 Chevy had pulled away from the driveway of the little white stucco bungalow on Willow Street and headed east. She had been eight then, waving cheerfully to her best friend, Peggy, as if they were going on vacation, not moving away. Forever, as it turned out. First, to New Jersey, where Anna had cried into her pillow every night for four miserable, homesick years. Then to a small town in Connecticut — better, but not Nebraska. By that time, she had known not to share memories of North Platte with her middle school classmates. The name always made them laugh, as if she had just said “Hayseed City”.
Suddenly, the roadside sign said “North Platte 155 miles”. It was really happening; she was going home. Maybe not exactly home; it was, after all, just a month-long visit, and then she would head back to Maryland, where she had lived for forty years but never felt at home. Would she feel at home in North Platte, after all this time? Certainly the town had changed, but so had she. Anna grimaced to herself, keeping her eyes on the highway as it narrowed into a perfect image of one-point perspective. The drive from Denver to North Platte — about three and a half hours, according to Google Maps — was already new. When the old Chevy had taken the family to vacations in Estes Park, they had followed the South Platte River on what passed for a highway in the early 1950s, before the interstate system had been finished. There was a time when she could have imagined returning to North Platte on a Union Pacific train — the City of Denver, perhaps. But passenger service to the city had been abandoned decades ago, and now her choice had been a flight to Denver or Omaha, followed by a three or four-hour drive in an expensive rental car.
The landscape near Denver was crowded with new buildings, but the Front Range of the Rockies still rose up in the west, as always. Little by little, the mountains faded on the horizon, first masquerading as clouds before disappearing completely. Then the highway was bordered by range land and farms stretching for miles on either side as Anna slowly descended from the Mile High City to the foot hills and the High Plains. Her friends often dismissed the landscape as boring and flat, but Anna saw it as beautiful and dramatic, dominated by sky and clouds.The hills rolled very slowly, rising and falling gently, almost imperceptibly. Then, after an unusually long incline, Anna crested a hill and saw the plains in the distance, looking like a golden ocean. She gasped aloud, as tears filled her eyes. So beautiful! How had she forgotten?
Far from being impatient with the drive, Anna, wanted to savor it. She stopped at every rest stop to use the facilities (the gift of old age) and to take pictures. At one spot, she opened to car door to the unmistakable sweet odor of cow manure. How could anyone find it unpleasant, she laughed to herself. That and alfalfa, the sure signs of cattle country.
Soon enough, she was speeding east on Highway 80, past the exits for Ogallala and Hershey, and then coming up on North Platte. Her excitement grew as she pulled off the interstate and turned north on Jeffers Street. She knew that the old decorative archway proclaiming North Platte as the Home of Buffalo Bill Cody was long gone, but hadn’t expected the visual confusion that had replaced it. Chain hotels and restaurants on every side, a shopping mall, and — to her horror — a Starbucks. The Walmart she had expected; hadn't every town in America succumbed to the Walton family”s seductive wares? She stayed on Jeffers, knowing exactly where to stop first. It was too early to check into her room, and not time for dinner. She passed the library where she and her brother had played with Legos, but the sign said “Children’s Museum”, so that was changed. Before she knew it, she was on the viaduct that carried Jeffers over the Union Pacific tracks, and she glanced to the east to see the grand old train station. It was gone. Instead, there was a strip mall and a huge parking lot. Ok, so there were no more cross country passengers, but couldn’t they have kept the station and turned into — something?
She drove on, barely glancing at the buildings on either side on the street. Most were new; the old ones were unfamiliar. Wasn’t there a movie theater on this side of the tracks? What else was there? She suddenly felt that the trip had been a horrible mistake. She was going to spend a month as a stranger in a strange town, in the middle of nowhere. But then she saw it — a swimming pool. THE swimming pool! Closed for the season, but still there, and a few yards past the pool as the entrance to Cody Park. She’d never driven there, of course, so the winding road could not be familiar. but there were the kiddie rides, and the carousel — closed for the winter, but obviously still in use. Then the small “zoo” — actually just pens with antelope and other local species. Wait, was that a llama? Well, that was new. The road curved around and she saw the North Platte River. The water was high — the sandy banks where she once had played were flooded. But the smell was the same. Proust can have his madeleines, she thought. I’ll take alfalfa, manure, and the silty waters of the Great Plains.
Walking along the river, Anna once more felt her eyes fill with tears. Good thing she was wearing sunglasses, she thought with embarrassment. A heavy set man, dressed in work clothes, saw her and was strolling over. It made her a little nervous; she’d acquired an easterner’s aversion to strangers in those 59 years.
“Beautiful day,” he said.
“Too bad the nature trail got burned,” he continued, nodding towards a blacked patch of vegetation. “Just kids, I guess.”
Anna looked at the grassy spot where they stood, “There used to be swings here, I think.”
He chucked. “That IS a long time ago. Well, enjoy the day,” and he turned and walked back to the road.
She closed her eyes and saw the swings. They were the big, old-fashioned kind with a flat seat that you could stand on and pump your legs until you almost went all the way up and over and around. The hard kind of seat, of wood covered in rubber, that really hurt if you walked into their path. She remembered coming here after church and Daddy pushing them on the swings, standing behind and between them and pushing one swing with each hand. Fifty-nine years. He was long dead, and so was Mom. Her brother would be seventy in a few months. They had five grandchildren between them.
What if they hadn’t moved? What if she had grown up here with her friends and her brother? Would their parents have stayed married? Would she have gone to college? There would have been no Steve, of course, and their children and grandchildren would have never existed. But would that have been a tragedy, if no one knew they had even been a possibility?
Shaking off the thought, Anna returned to her car. Time to find the motel and check in.