Al Batt: When I was thrown for a wonderful Loup

Published 9:35 pm Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Tales from Exit 22 by Al Batt


If nobody knows the trouble you’ve seen.

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You don’t live in a small town. I like small towns. I tried to move to one once, but the residents started a petition.

I’m the luckiest man in the world. That’s for many reasons, one of which is because of the places I go. Dr. Seuss is my travel agent. In “Oh, The Places You’ll Go!” he wrote, “Congratulations! Today is your day. You’re off to Great Places! You’re off and away!”

There is no shortage of great places. Nebraska’s tourism slogan is, “Nebraska: Honestly, it’s not for everyone.”

That’s a great slogan. Nothing is for everyone, other than oxygen.

I love visiting the Sandhills. There are days I spend driving in traffic that looks like zebras and wildebeests on a veldt. Too much traffic can hamper a mind’s nimbleness. The traffic in the Sandhills is calming.

The Sandhills make up one-quarter of Nebraska, about 19,300 square miles. It’s the largest sand dune area in the Western Hemisphere. I took up short-term residence at the Switzer Ranch, a 12,000-acre cattle ranch near the Calamus Reservoir in Loup County. Loup County was named after the Loup River, which got its name from the Loup Pawnees. The county has 571 square miles and a population of 609. It does have cattle galore. I can be as dumb as a post. With all the fences reminding a cow of its proper place, there were enough posts to make me feel at home.

Some might wonder how anyone can live where the population is so small. I love empty places even though I don’t believe there are such things as empty places. There is always a there there.

Acclimation isn’t difficult. When I go for a walk with someone, I adjust my pace to match theirs. Besides, small numbers have power. There are but three primary colors — red, yellow and blue, from which all other colors can be obtained by mixing allowing Matisse to create the most colorful of paintings. John Steinbeck used only 26 letters to write, “The Grapes of Wrath.” A sundial has only 12 hours. I know because I wear a wrist sundial. Just think of all you accomplish in 12 hours. At the very least, you have scratched yourself and made a list of things to do. It’s difficult, no matter how hard one tries, to completely waste 12 hours.

I was in Loup County to speak at the Nebraska Prairie-Chicken Festival. The wheels on the bus went round and round. There was no first-class section on the old school bus that took me to a stationary school bus parked on Switzer Ranch. The nonmoving bus had the windows removed on one side so I and others like me (shudder) could use it as a blind to watch without bothering greater prairie-chickens and sharp-tailed grouse dancing on leks. A lek is a place where males assemble during the mating season and engage in competitive displays to attract females. It’s like a junior high dance. The sustainable grazing practices of Switzer Ranch make leks possible. The prairie-chickens boom (can be heard a mile away), cackle, whine and whoop. The grouse coo, pop, snap, whine, hoot, cluck and whoop. They dance and do synchronized stops, as if playing musical chairs.

It’s not the chicken dance that we’ve done at wedding dances. You know the routine. Form a chicken beak with your hands, open and close them four times with the first four beats of the music. Make chicken wings with your arms, flap them four times during the next four beats. Bend your knees and shake your hips in sync with the music. Straighten up and clap four times during the next four beats of the music.

Taylor, population 190, is the Loup County seat because it’s the only incorporated city in the county. It has no big box stores. It has few little stores. Yet, people seem to be as happy as they set out to be. It has a county sheriff and a county fair. They’ve kept their school going. A school is the pilot light of a community. Its school has 66 students and three graduates this year.

“It must be like Mayberry,” you might be thinking. I love Mayberry, even though I’ve never been there. It was a TV show. It still is. It was wonderful, but it was make believe. And Mayberry was a big city with a population of 5,360.

The festival, Switzer Ranch and Loup County were like finding three Mickey Mantle rookie cards in mint condition.

Al Batt’s columns appear every Wednesday and Saturday.