January 16, 2011

Higley's prairie still out there

SMITH COUNTY — Not since 1888 has a person slept in Brewster Higley's cabin. It remains so even today.


Not since 1888 has a person slept in Brewster Higley's cabin.

It remains so even today.

On the morning of the winter solstice, I packed my bags, left Wichita and — having previously obtained permission from the caretakers of the cabin — ventured forth.

I wanted to see how much of Brewster Higley's prairie remained intact, 140 years after he penned the poem "Home on the Range."

I wanted to time travel.

To do this I set out to spend the night in the home of a man who made living on the prairie sound so idyllic.

Higley's cabin in Smith County, almost to the Nebraska state line, is roughly a three hour drive northwest of Wichita.

That part of the state is farmland, mixed with rolling, grassland prairie. It is the geographical center of the contiguous United States. A small park a mile north of Lebanon proclaims that fact.

The cabin is also within a half hour's drive of Red Cloud, Neb., —Pulitzer Prize-winning author Willa Cather's hometown.

I arrived at the cabin at 3:30 on the afternoon Dec. 21.

El Dean Holthus, the caretaker of the cabin, offered me these words of caution:

"If for some reason, you believe you can't make it through the night, my wife and I have a spare bedroom where you could sleep."

I assured him I wouldn't need it.

It was 43 degrees inside the cabin, 37 outside.

I could see my breath.

I set up camp — a greenhorn in every sense of the word, carrying with me:

A cot, a portable propane heater, a flashlight, two lanterns, three sleeping bags, a battery operated air bag, pillow, food for the night — beans and cornbread, warmed over a portable stove. (I figured it was what Brewster would have eaten).

In eagerness, I had even purchased two dozen of those pocket heater packs I planned to place all over my body to keep warm. (Over the course of the night, they were not nearly as effective as I had hoped).

By 5:45 it was pitch black outside. Inside the cabin, it is just as dark — save for the light of the lantern.

It is sparsely decorated.

The dirt floor is cold and uninviting.

A weathered rifle stained with bird droppings hangs on the wall, along with nearly a half dozen sets of deer antlers and skulls.

A shelf hangs on the west wall along with a scythe, a sword, a saddle, and boot. A coffee grinder sits on top of a bookshelf. On the north wall is the shell of a fireplace mantel. Other decorations include a vintage coffee pot, a couple of sad irons and an ash shovel in what is to replicate a wood-burning stove.

But there is no heat.

In my defense, Brewster Higley most likely would have had a fire going in a wood-burning stove. My Mr. Buddy Portable Propane Heater heats only the side of my body closest to it, leaving the rest frozen.

I while away time writing cards to friends and relatives, noting that with each card, the message's tone gets more intense, desperate; the handwriting shakier.

In the back of my mind is that scene from Lonesome Dove where Augustus "Gus" McCrae is dying and writing letters to the loves of his life.

I think this must be what it is to die like a pioneer.

The thing that strikes me is the silence. There are no sounds from the 21st century.

I hear coyotes howling and owls hooting.

I hear the wind in the trees and listen as it continuously bangs a buzz saw blade that's been left hanging on the outside wall of the cabin boasting: "Home on the Range Cabin 1872."

I go to the cabin door and look out at a full moon.

I watch as clouds dance across the night sky, temporarily hiding stars on their rotation.

At 8:10, I try sleeping.

In hindsight, I believe the critical moment when life started careening out of control was when I first arrived and established "camp."

I should have zipped the sleeping bags then. It was light enough. I thought I could do it later. But by the time I got to it — it was so dark, I couldn't see what I was doing. The flashlight and lantern only created shadows.

The floor is not level and my cot teeters like a rocking chair.

I look at the beams in the ceiling — just logs, branches, really.

The inside temperature of the cabin is 37 degrees.

Outside it is 30. In the light of the lantern, I continue to see my frozen breath.

I get up and try stuffing the outside covers of sleeping bags in the chinks of the cabin door to keep out the wind.

It is a three-inch gap between the bottom of the door and floor.

At 9 o'clock, my body is shaking and I have to admit to myself, I'm no pioneer.

I look at my cell phone. No reception.

The propane bottle on my Mr. Buddy is about to go. I think — if I had that much trouble trying to zip the sleeping bag, could I change the bottle if everything goes dark?

The temperatures are forecast to plunge to 20. Common sense seeps into body cells.

I gather my belongings, load them in the company car and drive to the top of a nearby hill and call El Dean Holthus.

He and his wife graciously agree to take me in. I drive to their house, about 8 miles away, talking to them on the phone, letting their voices guide me in the dark across the maze of county roads, as the car's heater blasts on the highest setting.

Kathy Holthus hands me a cup of hot chocolate.

I begin to thaw.

I sleep warm and snug in a queen size bed — in a room with central heat — where there are lights as bright as day with accompanying switches that when flipped, make night come and go.

In my brief journey into the wilds, I discover I am a fair-weather pioneer — not at all as hale and hearty as my ancestors.

For a brief moment on that longest night of the year, I discovered Brewster Higley's prairie is still out there.

Related content