Travel Feed

Clogher Head

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The Dingle Peninsula possesses a rugged, spare beauty.  These are not lush valleys with quaint farms.  Instead there are stone buildings on steep hillsides overlooking the ocean and remote islands.  At lunch we overheard a woman, an Irish literature teacher telling a friend visiting from another country about the people who had lived on Great Blasket Island, just off the tip of the peninsula, "They didn't teach kids to swim, because better to die immediately than swim for a few hours or days in the rugged ocean and not be discovered."

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Halfway or so along the Slea Head Drive, we stopped at a turn out at Clogher Head to enjoy the view.  A cloudburst kept us in our cars, but we determined to wait it out, as all day the rains, even when heavy, had been short-lived.  We lay back in our seat until the rain stopped and then Kelli and I hopped out to take the 15 minute walk through the mud up to the rocky point.  The wind-beaten rocks were covered with flowering plants, many still in bloom in mid-October, leaving me to wonder how lovely they must have been even a few weeks before.  The view from the point was one of the most beautiful of the trip--cliffs and island and villages and ocean and hills and farms.  And yet . . .

To farm the rough land the Irish had to remove the rocks, which they used to create the walls of the fields.  Then they had carried seaweed up onto the land to let it decompose and create farmable topsoil.  Sitting there I couldn't imagine the work required, but you can see the evidence in the line where green field gives way to rocky, brown hillside.

But from this particular spot you can see the remains of fields that are once again brown and not green.  Walled fields that aren't farmed anymore.  The guidebook said those fields were last planted during the potato famine and never again, as the population declined so precipitously that the people living there, pushed to the remote barren edge of their own island by the colonizers, never recovered sufficiently to require them to plant the highest fields.

So, here in this place of beauty, stark reminders of ethnic cleansing.

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Wild Atlantic Way

As we left our beloved Doolin, we headed south along the Wild Atlantic Way, the road that parallels the western coast of Ireland with often stunning views of the sea.  Our first destination was Loop Head, encouraged by Sean the owner of our Doolin B&B.  A lighthouse adorns the head (or what we would call a point), and Mom was eager to visit a lighthouse.

South of Lahinch we entered the small town of Quilty.  Our cabbie a few days before had suggested visiting the church there, dedicated to the victims of a shipwreck.  The region draws attention to shipwrecks, particularly those of the Spanish Armada along its shores.

As we parked to enter the church, the cold wind blew off the ocean.  The small sanctuary dedicated to Mary, Star of the Sea was decorated with simple, but poignant stained glass.

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We continued our drive along this peninsula jutting out into the north Atlantic, with the landscape becoming increasing more spare and the villages taking on a more remote feeling.  However, there was a Trump International golf course.

As we neared Loop Head a sign directed us to another scenic spot, the Bridges of Ross.  We stopped in the car park and watched massive waves pounding the dark, jagged rocks.

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Loop Head Lighthouse

We pulled up to the lighthouse only to learn that it was unexpectedly closed.  We weren't the only potential visitors to be disappointed, as cars continued to pull in, empty their passengers who took time to wrap up in coats and scarves before walking to the gate, only to walk disappointingly back to their cars.  However, Kelli and I decided to look around.  

The point sits atop tall cliffs, a barren point surrounded by the cold, violent ocean.  I stood a while alone on this almost westernmost point of Europe, listening to the waves and the wind.

Loop Head Rocks

From Loop Head we drove along the Shannon River estuary to the ferry, a twenty-minute passage across the wide river, passing from County Clare into County Kerry, where the landscape changed dramatically to a multitude of rich greens and quaint cottages adorning picturesque farms.  We drove to Tralee for lunch, walking through their rose garden.

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Tralee Rose Garden

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And then we drove again along the Wild Atlantic Way as we entered the Dingle Peninsula.  We elected not to take the narrow and winding Connor Pass in the slowing fading light (my mom and sister both have histories of motion sickness).  Early evening we arrived in Dingle, in time for only a little browsing and shopping, as the stores were closing.  The next day we'd see more of the wild Atlantic as we drove round the Dingle Peninsula.

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Wind & Clouds

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Enriched, but tired, from our hike along the coast to the Cliffs, we rested and refreshed at our B&B before heading out to Gus O'Connor's Pub for dinner, libations, and live music.  Our B&B owner, Sean was a rich and delightful source of information and stories.  I asked what I should eat and he suggested two things--the mussels, because they were in their best season, and the beef, because beef from Western Ireland is the best in the world.  Saturday night I at the mussels and Sunday the steak.  Neither disappointed.

Doolin was our favourite stop of the trip, largely because of the pub, which was just a short walk from our B&B.  Each night we got a front row seat for the live music, something Mom was really looking forward to.  We chatted with other customers and enjoyed the people watching.  One night a young woman handed my sister a picture she had drawn of her.  I enjoyed trying local whiskeys.

Sunday we had planned as a rest day.  Fortuitously, this was the only day of our trip with continuously bad weather.  Throughout the morning and midday the skies were overcast and the rain came and went.  After a slow start and long breakfast, we decided to drive around to some of the nearby towns and villages and do some sweater shopping.

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Near the Cliffs of Moher, we stopped at the Well of St. Brigit, where the grotto was filled with items signifying people's prayers, and the trees were covered in ribbons.

In Lahinch we saw people golfing, walking the beach, and surfing, despite the weather.  

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Late in the afternoon we returned to Doolin just as a real Atlantic storm came ashore.  We drove down to the pier and watched the waves pounding the rocks and saw the last ferry from the Aran Islands tossing about like a toy boat.  That night the winds howled, whistling through the house.  The next morning, I lingered outside, enjoying the cloud formations over the hills.

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To the Cliffs

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Four pubs, a few sweater and souvenir shops, and a handful of beds and breakfast are all the buildings that make up the tiny village of Doolin, which didn't even appear on all the maps of Ireland we saw.  The draw is that she sits along the Atlantic coast opposite the Aran Islands and a three hour walk (or 15 minute drive) from the Cliffs of Moher.  This was our favourite stop on the trip, and coming early in the vacation, colored everything else we experienced.

We descended from the Burren and arrived in Doolin in the early afternoon on Saturday determined to walk the trail along the coast to the cliffs.  A marvelous afternoon greeted us, with clear blue skies and visibility for miles.  Locals told us there are only a handful of days each year like this one.

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From the town one walks up a steep street to the entrance to a pasture that begins the official trail.  Funny signs warned of the danger of falling off the cliffs. Mom, who doesn't do a lot of hiking, was determined to walk with us, and I'm so proud of her for the four hours of walking, sometimes on difficult trails.

Wild blackberries lined the hedgerows.  Cattle and horses grazed in the pastures, some of which we walked through, not just alongside of.

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The trail slowly rose, and with every turn there was another panoramic view of the islands, cliffs, the castle tower behind us, the Connemara across the bay.  We had dressed for a chilly wind off the ocean, but soon were shedding our layers as the afternoon warmed.  We paused often for pictures.  

A little stream wound its way through the green grass and then a little trickle as it ran over the rocks near the cliff edge before disappearing below me.  Any sound the falling water might have made was drowned out by the crashing surf below.  A strange mix of sounds--babbling brook and crashing waves.

The first hour and a half was most pleasant and brought us to our first really stunning view of cliffs, though not yet the famous ones.  Then the trail turned and the steep ascents began.  We took our time, rested often.  But the ascents were not the most difficult part of the trail.

Not far from the final ascent to view the famous cliffs, the trail turned inland, apparently some property owner didn't want the trail over his land?  The trail then dead-ended at a cow pasture with a sign saying to walk through the pasture to the other side where the trail would pick up again.  The pasture was a muddy, boggy mess and took us a very long time to traverse.  At one point we decided to walk around some cows to go further into the pasture, as the ground along the fence was so muddy, when we realized one of the cows was a bull.  "That's a bull," Mom said.  "Be careful."  "Here, let me get between you and the bull," I said.  He grazed on, thankfully ignoring us.  Only when we finally reached the other side of the pasture, where the trail began again, was there a sign "Beware of Bull."

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Soon we were making the final ascent up a steep set of steps.  We watched teenagers above us cavorting at the very point of the cliffs.  Then the panorama opened up before us.  The evening light glowed upon the cliffs.  We walked on to the visitor's center.  At one point, Kelli slipped and fell, in a spot much less difficult than earlier in the day.  A man who helped her up said, "You survived a fall at the Cliffs of Moher."

Cliffs

From the visitor's center we looked along the rest of the trail that led from their to Hag's Head, but we were done, after four hours.  At the center, a well-designed building, buried in the side of a hill, the receptionist called for a cab to take us back to Doolin.  He admired that Mom had make the hike uphill instead of the other way.  He gave us stories about the area and stopped to take our picture.

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Clints & Grikes

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Kinvara lies on the southeastern shore of Galway Bay.  Our second day out from Dublin, after an enjoyable breakfast and plenty of hot tea, we drove along the coast stopping often to admire the beautiful scenery spread out before us.  Barren hills rose to our south, marking the beginning of the Burren, while green pastures sloped down to the shore.

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In the village of Ballyvaughn we stopped just as the farmer's market was opening up.  I grabbed a wedge of one of the local cheeses, garlic and nettles flavored, and purchased a bundle of carrots.  The farmer selling the carrots was also selling parsnips that I thought looked wonderfully tasty. Commenting on the appearance of his produce, he responded, "Vegetables from the Burren are the best." I munched on those carrots every day the rest of the trip, each time remarking how tasty they were, so I have no cause to disagree with the carrot farmer of Ballyvaughn.

The Burren is an area of exposed limestone left over from the last glacial age.  The glaciers deposited both Mediterranean and Arctic plants on the Burren, and they grow side-by-side.  From Ballyvaughn we turned south, into the hills, approaching the Burren proper, but before we reached the rugged hilltops, we stopped at the remains of a ring fort, this one overgrown with grass and trees, such that I felt like I was in a fairy circle.  Maybe we were?

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Then the road rose up through barren limestone.  Atop the hills are some prehistoric ruins, including a prominent passage tomb, the Poulnabrone Dolmen.  To reach it you walk across the strange rock formations of clints and grikes.  Clints are the surfaces and grikes the fissures.

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But the land was not completely barren.  Flowers and other plants we abundant.  Cattle were grazing throughout the area.  Later we were told that beef grazing on the Burren were the best in the world.  Having tasted a local steak, I think I agree.

One interesting feature of the trip to Ireland was the abundance of livestock.  One saw sheep, cattle, and horses constantly.  Trails led through pastures. Animals walked over to fences to exchange a greeting with you. Almost every major scenic view included grazing animals.  I realized how little we now see and interact with livestock in the US.  Once a drive through the country was filled with sites of animals.  An Irishman explained to us that they do not use feedlots and other forms of industrial agriculture, preferring to graze their animals the traditional way, leading to better quality food.

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The Burren was a magically strange place and well worth another visit some day.  In the village of Kilfenora we admired their Celtic High Crosses in the ruined churchyard and ate a warm and hearty lunch.  Kilfenora's bishop is the pope.  During the potato famine the town suffered so much that the pope took over the diocese in the intention to try and help the local population.  The irony of stuffing ourselves in a city that suffered misery during the famine did not escape us.

Early afternoon, we drove through the resort town of Lisdoonvarna and on to little Doolin, on the coast.  From there we had a most spectacular adventure.


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We departed Dublin in a heavy rain with a cabbie who ended up being a jerk.  He dropped us, in the rain, at the wrong place, knowingly.

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Kelli then drove us to Newgrange, the premier Neolithic site sitting along the beautifully pastoral River Boyne. Green fields, cows, and sheep!  When we arrived the mist was hanging low over the river and pastures, but soon the sun came out and the skies were a most brilliant blue by the time we arrived at the tomb for our tour.

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The building is 5,000 years old.  And the roof has never leaked.  Despite the large size of the exterior, inside is quite small.  A long passage to a small chamber with three smaller chambers attached.  Geometrical carvings, particularly the swirl, decorate some of the interior rocks.

We drove on to the Hill of Tara. The GPS seemed to prefer sheep paths to highways in getting us there--brave Kelli. Tara, legendary seat of the High Kings, is a chilly, wind-swept rise from which you can see far in every direction. At the phallic stone in the center we watched a woman trying to have a "spiritual" experience as she rubbed against the stone.  

At both Newgrange and Tara the sky will filled with cawing crows.  Ominous.  I felt like I was in a Game of Thrones episode and something awful was about to happen to me.  In Dublin there had been gulls everywhere. 

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A enjoyed a lovely lunch at the café at the base of the hill, recommended to us earlier in the morning by a local. At the table next to us sat a host of elderly characters seemingly from a British television series, generating our entertainment.

Then more driving along narrow roads--brave, brave Kelli--to the main highway where I fulfilled my lifelong non-desire of driving on the wrong side of the road. When I asked for prayer that I not kill us all, Mom and Kelli were not comforted.  I drove across Ireland in a few hours.

That night we spent in Kinevara where we dined at a castle with entertainment of song and poetry.

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In the beginning were the words

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Walk around Dublin and you very quickly notice all the attention to writers and the Irish literary tradition.  And not only James Joyce.  In fact, walk around most towns and you'll notice lots of independent bookshops.  I counted three in two blocks in Kilkenny.  And many of the tourist sites promote the literary heritage of a particular region or locale.  Even the touristy Medieval dinner in a castle we attended in Kinvara made homage to the writers who had stayed in the castle, include Yeats and Synge, but also local authors whose names, stories, and poems I did not know.  Maybe one reason I felt at home in Ireland was the deep respect for literature.

In Dublin we participated in the Literary Pub Crawl.  Two actors lead a group to four pubs and stops in between while acting out scenes from Beckett, sharing Wilde stories, reciting Heaney poems, etc.  Each pub was associated with the literary heritage of the country, frequented in the past and often present by its writers.  We were warned, though, that Dublin pubs are full of "writers" who are actually just alcoholics.

The literary pub crawl included a quiz at the end.  Guess who won?

***

I arrived around 5 a.m., and as the cabbie said, there's not much to do at that time.  I would come to realize that the Irish don't get going till around 9.  Breakfast in most places we stayed wasn't served until 8:30 and the one time we needed to leave a place at six, the day we were returning to the airport, it was an effort to get someone to unlock the carpark, check us out, etc.  I mentioned that in the states everything is hopping by 6 and was given a disdainful grunt in return like we Americans are stupid. "Not in Ireland," he said.

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So, that first day, I napped.  Then Mom, Kelli, and I went on a historical walking tour of Dublin.  The tour is provided by history students from Trinity College.  Ours was informative and fun and very interested in asking about the American election, which happened almost every time we talked to an Irish person for any length of time.

It was while listening to his tour that I was first struck by how an experience of Ireland is coloured by the history of colonization and revolution.  Dublin is currently celebrating the centennial of the 1916 Easter uprising and notices were all over the country and Dublin was dotted with historical markers of where various battles occurred. 

After a late lunch of seafood chowder at the Stag's Head we walked through St. Stephen's Green and did some shopping before the pub crawl that evening, one of the highlights of the trip.

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On day two we visited Trinity College to see the Book of Kells and the Long Room of the library.  Walking into the library I had a spiritual experience akin to the one I had five years ago standing before the telescope of Galileo, overwhelmed with admiration for the power of the human intellect.

That evening Kelli and I attended choral evensong at St. Patrick's Cathedral.  I like hearing the good, old words of the liturgy.

That day I also bought five books to read.


Brandon's Creek

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We followed the signs down the narrow, walled country lanes to the wide spot in the road where we parked and got out.  Across from us was a field of sheep, with Mount Brandon rising into the clouds behind.  In front of us was the Atlantic Ocean through a rocky break in the land.  We had arrived at the spot where Brandon's Creek flowed through pastures and into a small bay before the crashing of the Atlantic waves.  Goats were grazing on the steep cliffs above the creek.  We sat on a stacked stone wall and listened to the creek and the surf and the wind.

"Can you imagine setting off in a tiny boat from this spot, looking out on that ocean?"  "No," Mom replied.

For this is the spot where in the sixth century St. Brendan the Navigator set sail on his seven year voyage that, according to legend, took him to North America and back.  Over the following days I often thought of this moment on the edge of land and ocean and the sense of mission that would drive someone to risk everything. 

My trip to Ireland was rich with holy moments and revelations, of these I hope to write in the coming days.

One revelation was that I have never felt less like a foreigner in a foreign land.  I felt very at home.  I may be more Irish than I realized.  Some of this is my gift for gab and my sense of humour.  The Irish are among the friendliest people I've ever encountered.  Moments after greeting someone you could be in the full swing of conversation, way beyond surface pleasantries.  Politics came up a lot.

One of my favourite moments came in a shop in Killarney, County Kerry.  The clerk asked where we were from.  Oklahoma, my sister said.  "You get bad winters there," she said.  I responded, "Not too bad, but I live in Nebraska where they are significantly more."  The clerk said, "But you're used to that, right?  Being 'significantly more'?"  Ouch, sassy.

A strange aspect of the travel is hearing the dark sides of Irish history, the colonization and attempts by the British to ethnically cleanse the island of its native population, particularly the many reminders of the famine.  Mom wanted to visit the Cobh Heritage Center which narrates the story of Irish emigration.  While the center celebrates the strength of the emigrants and their lasting impact upon the development of other nations like the US, Canada, and Australia, I left the exhibit with a sense of grief and horror.  Underlying all the joy, the beauty, the music, and the friendliness is this dark history.

And so I work to understand what I experienced and learned from this vacation, so let's tell the story, beginning with my arrival in Dublin at 5 a.m. on Wednesday, October 12 when my cabbie said, "Not much to do this early."


Catherland

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We leaned on the fence overlooking the old barnlot and the dry, scruffy landscape of what Willa Cather called "The Divide"--the high land between the Republican and Little Blue Rivers.  And as the hot wind blew in our faces, we understood in rich new ways the difficult struggles of the pioneers in Cather's stories.  Why would anyone try to farm this landscape, we pondered?

We were at the Pavelka farm, the inspiration for the final scenes of My Antonia, the place where Annie Pavelka (who inspired the character of Antonia) raised her ten children.  Fred and I had traveled to "Catherland," as the local signs identify it, hoping for experiences such as this.  Our hopes were more than satisfied.

As I prepared for this sabbatical I had written publicly about wanting to see some parts of Nebraska I hadn't yet visited in our six years living here.  Fred Nielsen, who lectures in the history department at UNO and is a church member, asked what those might be.  When I mentioned Red Cloud and the Willa Cather State Historical Site, Fred said he had never visited there, despite living in Nebraska for decades and reading much of Cather's oeuvre but that he planned to visit this summer.  So we discussed sharing the costs and company and going together.  This being my final week of sabbatical we almost ran out of time before finding two days that fit our schedules.

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Our journey began early Wednesday morning as we drove due west from Omaha toward the small town of St. Paul and the Nebraska Major League Baseball Museum which Fred wanted to visit as "an antidote to the political season."

We diverted (through much road construction) to drive through the village of Wolbach where Fred had lived as a child when his father was the local Lutheran pastor. The town has seen better times, though the house he lived in was well maintained.

In St. Paul we first lunched at a main street café filled with hundreds and maybe thousands of cookie jars. I ate from the fried chicken buffet.

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The museum was a labor of love and a very well done presentation of Nebraska's major league ball players and Nebraska baseball history with a focus on the hall of famers. Grover Cleveland Alexander, the first such Nebraskan so honored, was from St. Paul.

We also walked among the (locked) buildings of the Howard County Historical Museum—the standard old church, one room school house, general store, blacksmith shop, and railroad depot. These were attractively laid out and very well maintained. They were adjacent to the very republican county courthouse and a tasteful (unlike, say, Saunders County) war memorial with a puzzling inaccurate start date for the Persian Gulf War, which they also contend (maybe correctly) has never ceased.

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We arrived in Red Cloud shortly before the Cather Foundation (located in the old Opera House) was to close for the day. "We worried about you," said the receptionist, as she gave us our keys for the Cather Second House Bed and Breakfast where we were scheduled to stay. This is the home Willa Cather's parents purchased when she was an adult, so she never lived there, though she visited in the summers and for holidays and was known by locals to use the upper porch for reading and writing.

Local volunteer Cheryl oriented us to the house. "I was born here," she surprised us. This was a maternity hospital after the Cather's sold it. "I also had my tonsils taken out here. The living room was the recovery room. I remember waking up and seeing that window," she said as she indicated the front picture window.

We told Cheryl we planned to walk the Cather Prairie that evening. She said that was good and that the prairie was south of town, past the Republican River. "If you come to Kansas, go back 100 yards." Humorous advice that was actually helpful later when we had to do exactly that.

She offered dining recommendations. "There are three options, and one I've never eaten at." We agreed to eliminate that one. "For breakfast, there's the bowling alley."

The next morning we stayed in and enjoyed the breakfast provided at the house—homemade granola and pumpkin bread with special Willa Cather brand peach butter which was so delicious I bought a jar despite the anticipated mocking from my husband that I had bought yet another jar of jelly or jam (which did occur when I returned home). We breakfasted on the wrap-around front porch with two other guests, one of whom is an American who is an English literature professor living in France who was preparing to teach My Antonia this coming school year.

Wednesday night we enjoyed our walk at the Willa Cather Memorial Prairie, identifying wildflowers using the handy flyer available at the trailhead and watching the sun set.

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Thursday morning, after breakfast, we walked over to the Opera House for our tour of the Cather-related sites. "Which tour do you want? We've got the 7 building, 3 building, or 1 building tour?" We took the seven. It was $15 and why drive all this way and be cheap?

Living room--smaller

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The tour included the childhood home filled with Cather family possessions and the attic room in which Willa lived, reading books late at night and looking out her window to imagine a wider world. Also included were homes and buildings that inspired various settings in the novels. We even saw some items specifically described in various novels. We were surprised to learn how many of the characters and places had direct connections to real life people and places. After the guided tour we drove around town and out into the country to see even more locations, and there were dozens more on the map that we could have seen. We enjoyed our stay in the home and our sight-seeing so much that we both intend to return and bring family. I hope to make a writing retreat there some time during a future project.

We were impressed by the Willa Cather Foundation. They have restored many buildings in town and are currently remodeling a large stretch of the main street to become the National Willa Cather Center with a museum. Knowing how sites like the Mark Twain House have struggled in the last decade, this burst of money and energy around Cather is all the more impressive.

Our experiences in Red Cloud and Catherland complete, we drove east on the minor highway 4 through very small towns, villages, and hamlets, paralleling the Oregon Trail. At one crossroads in the middle of nowhere we stopped at a tiny 19th century cemetery and marveled at how many infants and children were buried there without their parents in adjacent graves, maybe a sign that the families later moved on someplace else.

Our last stop was Homestead National Monument, which I had last visited six years ago. Fred had been there as well and toured the inside exhibits but hadn't walked the trails through the prairie and along the creek bottom. So, we did that.

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I made it home in time for a delicious dinner of leftover beans and cornbread, a walk to our community garden plot with my son to pick fresh tomatoes and cucumbers, and sitting on the couch with my husband to watch Hillary Clinton's acceptance speech.