The Toast’s previous literary pilgrimages can be found here.
Growing up in the heart of New York City, I hardly believed places like Nebraska and Kansas were real; they sounded as foreign to me as Madagascar and Timbuktu. I took my first cross-country drive at age 19 and was immediately and irreversibly enchanted by the cows and cornfields, enormous sky and straight, hypnotic highways of America’s heartland.
So naturally I signed up for the “Literature of the Midwest” class in college, where I first read O Pioneers! by Willa Cather, whose most famous works—O Pioneers!, My Antonia, and The Song of the Lark—are some of literature’s most evocative portraits of life on the prairie. (For grownups, that is. Little House on the Prairie these ain’t.)
Cather’s father moved the family moved to Red Cloud, Nebraska in 1884, when Willa was 10 years old. The town was only a few years older than she, “a few seasons from raw prairie” she wrote. She didn’t take to the prairie right away, thought it, “naked as the back of your hand.” But long after she left Red Cloud to attend college, returning only for visits after that, she realized, “That shaggy country has gripped me with a passion I have never been able to shake.”
Yeah, me too. I’ve made the pilgrimage to Red Cloud twice and probably will again. From my home in Dallas, I drive six hours to Wichita, Kansas where I spend the night, then another three-and-a-half hours north through a landscape like an alpha wave: gently rolling prairie and farmland punctuated by picture-book barns and farmhouses. (You could also fly into Omaha and drive three hours from there.) Red Cloud is very much a pilgrimage; it is not on the way to anything and there’s nothing nearby but prairie and cornfields, so if you are going to go there, you go there.
Just past the “Nebraska…the good life” sign at Kansas/Nebraska border on Highway 281, another sign proclaims that you are entering Cather Country. Across the two-lane highway is the Willa Cather Memorial Prairie, more than 600 acres of virgin prairie, just as Cather saw it (if you keep your back to the highway). When you visit Red Cloud, five miles from here, this is where you must end each day, watching the sun set over the sweet-smelling grasses while crickets clear their throats for their full evening chorus.
A visit to Cather Country is full-immersion pilgrimage. The town, its people, and the surrounding landscape provided prototypes for six of Cather’s novels, and The Willa Cather Foundation owns eleven structures, from Cather’s childhood home to the old opera house, now also the foundation’s headquarters. Here Cather gave the valedictory speech to her graduating class of three. (The foundation is also in fundraising mode for a National Willa Cather Research Center, with Ken Burns as honorary national chair.)
You can book a room in the Cather Second Home, where Willa’s family lived after she moved away, and where she stayed during her many visits. The foundation has turned the two-story Victorian into a comfortable guest house. I stayed in her brother Douglas’s room, now called Haverford, after the town in the novel Lucy Gayheart. When I wasn’t exploring, I was parked on the front porch, watching the quintessential small town Willa might have seen, only with more cars. Although unlike in many remote small towns, where strangers tend to get the hairy eyeball, people here are blasé about strangers, since so many Cather fans make the pilgrimage.
The foundation also has an annual Cather conference, and visiting scholars for that may stay on the second floor of the Harling House, a home that belonged to the Miner family—barely disguised as the Harling family in My Antonia—which has been converted into an apartment. If you take a tour (book it at the foundation gift shop, it’s the only way to see most building interiors) you will visit the first floor of the Harling House, which still contains some of the Miners’ possessions, included a couple of Bohemian landscapes that were a gift from Cather to Irene Miner.
Cather was famous in her lifetime, which is helpful for creating a house museum, since people hung on to stuff related to her. Hence, her childhood home, a block from the Harling House, contains (among other things) Willa’s high chair, her parents’ bedroom furniture, their brown-and-blue teapot, alarm clock, coffee grinder, and canned fruit. The high point of the house tour is a high point: the little attic room where Cather lived as a teenager and which fans will recognize as Thea’s room in The Song of the Lark. The wallpaper that Cather bartered for by working at Dr. Cook’s drug store (the exterior of which is on the tour) remains, although it’s under Plexiglass because people kept tearing off bits for souvenirs. Even highbrow literary people can be boors.
At the gift shop you can buy a map of the surrounding countryside and visit other Cather Country sites, including Cloverton Cemetery, where Anna/Antonia is buried; the one-time site of Anna’s father’s grave after he committed suicide (also fictionalized in My Antonia); and the Pavelka farm, where Anna lived out the last of her life and which stands, surrounded by cornfields and as yet unrestored, just as described in the end of My Antonia, when Antonia’s children came tumbling out of cellar: “…they all came running up the steps together, tow heads and gold heads and brown, and flashing little naked legs, a veritable explosion of life out of the dark cave into the sunlight.” The cellar doors are right there, in the backyard of the white two-story farmhouse, and you can easily picture the scene.
And that’s what makes Red Cloud such a satisfying literary pilgrimage: Little imagination is necessary to put yourself into Willa’s world because so much of it is still right there, in the middle of nowhere, on the prairie.
Sophia Dembling is a writer in Dallas, even though she's originally from New York City and everyone can tell, which is why her first book is titled The Yankee Chick's Survival Guide to Texas. She is also author of The Introvert's Way: Living a Quiet Life in a Noisy World and the forthcoming Introverts in Love: The Quiet Way to Happily Ever After (coming January 2015). Her most recent book is 100 Places in the USA Every Woman Should Go, and she thinks every woman should buy a copy.