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A Valentine Gift: Three Nebraska Surprises

When I left Sioux Falls and started driving across the broad, khaki-colored prairies, I assumed my book tour was over. I had emailed the owner of the Valentine, NE, bookstore, The Plains Trading Company, a few months ago, but I had never heard back from him. I figured that if the store had survived the past few challenging months, I’d get a cool reception at best. I even considered checking into my motel on the highway and getting an early start on a long night’s sleep without even stopping downtown.

But I bucked it up, took a copy of the book, the audio CD, and the last of the book lights my publisher had given me to hand out, and walked in. Here in this tiny town with more boarded up store fronts than open ones, I was surprised at how vibrant and prosperous the bookstore appeared. I was apprehensive when I asked Teena Krueger, the saleswoman at the counter, if Duane Gudgel was in. He’d never responded to my emails. Would he snub me in person?

But Duane came out of his back office, his impressive, well-over-six-foot frame loping toward me with a cowboy-booted, John Wayne-like gait. He greeted me with a generous, warm handshake and cautious smile.

The Rebel Nun isn’t the kind of book that The Plains Trading Company carries (think Westerns and Nebraska-specific books), so I didn’t expect to convince Duane to order and market it. And I’m sure he didn’t. But that wasn’t the point. We talked about mutual acquaintances, the difficulty of marketing books released by small publishers, and the challenges of keeping a small-town indie bookstore open for three decades, as Duane has. Every bookstore friend you make in this business is a treasure, as there are only so many small, independent bookstores left. Our conversation was all about supporting each other in any way we can.

After a nice talk and a couple of photo-ops with Teena and Duane, I walked up and down the small downtown district and took in the display window decorations created for the Valentine Badgers’ upcoming homecoming game. I noticed a striking resemblance of the local high-school’s mascot to the badger of the University of Wisconsin, where I got my first master’s degree. I snapped some pictures for my husband, the Badger’s biggest fan in Palm Springs. See the photo below and tell me it that doesn’t look like Bucky.

The next day, I set out with a bit of trepidation about my plan to visit two of the most celebrated golf courses in the country, both located in northcentral Nebraska. The sandhill prairie courses are rated among the best in the world, even though they are fairly new additions to the golf pantheon. I didn’t know if I would be welcomed or snubbed at these venues, but they both figure prominently in my next contemporary novel, What I’d Do to Save Her, a three-generation story about the ways mothers and daughters can disappoint each other, and I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to do a little research.

The twenty-mile, rutted and wash-boarded gravel road (actually, it was only two miles; it just seemed like twenty) that led from the highway to The Prairie Club just south of Valentine was almost enough to discourage me and my cargo van from continuing, but we persevered and arrived at the clubhouse amidst the busy mid-morning rush of golfers unloading their clubs and heading out on their rounds. I

I looked around, admiring the expansive spread of fairways (left) over the rolling sand hills and checking out the stately dining hall and clubhouse (below right). I tentatively approached the front desk, expecting that, without a hard-to-get tee time, I’d be sent packing. But instead, my questions about the club were warmly welcomed by the membership director, Mandi Loughran. I left with a feel for how the club will fit into my novel and how to describe the course, the facility, and the staff, and with a warm respect for The Prairie Club.

I bounced my way back out to the highway and headed south toward tiny Mullen, NE, and the even-more-exclusive Sand Hills Golf course (below) where the chances of a non-member like me getting a tee time are a little lower than winning a hundred-million-dollar Powerball. The club’s 200 members are spread all over the world, each paying a reported five-figure annual fee to play there on their rare visits to the middle of “flyover country.” (And that’s after an initiation fee that would make a private jet owner blush and living long enough to outlast the lengthy waiting list.) Non-members are limited in the number of rounds they can play there in a lifetime. This isn’t a place where you wake up on Saturday morning, see the bright sunshine, and decide to go out for a quick round. Getting here from airports in Denver or Omaha can take all day.

The road back to the course in the hills was a little longer than The Prairie Club’s, but its basic blacktop was a bit smoother. Arriving in my Hertz-emblazoned cargo van at the understated clubhouse, I anticipated a gruff reception. As soon as I stepped down from my humble perch, a young woman drove up to me in a golf cart, and I believed my expectations were about to be met. Would I be shunted on down the road before I even got a feel for the place?

“Hi!” she greeted me. “Can I help you?”

I explained that I was just passing through, figured I’d never get this way again, and just wanted to see the course I’d read so much about. I muttered some easily dismissible claims about writing a novel and asked if I could look around.

“I’ll check with the pro,” she said with Nebraska cheerfulness. “Perhaps he’ll let you take a cart and go out to the course.”

Surprised, I said I’d visit the pro shop while she talked with the pro. I bought my husband the only $40 tee shirt I’ve ever purchased and a visor for myself, and walked back out to receive the verdict.

“He said, ‘sure,’” she said, pointing to the half-dozen carts lined up by the clubhouse. The “porch” (above right) where golfers start their rounds was a mile down a dirt path, she said. “Head up over that hill, and take a left at the t-intersection,” was her only admonition, “and you’ll find it on top of the hill.” Off I went.

A warm wind blew my hair back from my grinning face as I tooled out over the fescue-festooned sandy hills toward the porch. I took one wrong turn and watched some old gents hit some practice shot off the top of a little plateau before getting new directions, and eventually arrived at the starter’s cabin. From the balcony of the porch, I surveyed stripes of green fairways and patches of close-mown putting surfaces that stretched off into the treeless distance. I had read about Sand Hills’ merciless bunkers and defeating prairie winds, but from my vantage point, it looked like heaven for even a poor golfer like me.

I couldn’t believe my luck. I had wandered into two of the most iconic golf locations in the world, was welcomed like a long-lost cousin, and given the freedom to roam, unaccompanied and unquestioned. Maybe it’s Midwest innocence. Maybe it’s just how golfers are. But I felt blessed by the kindness of strangers who didn’t question my presence or doubt my sincere interest. I hit the road that afternoon for Cheyenne, WY, a mind-numbing drive that I’ll write about in my next blog. But these three surprises—The Plains Trading Company, The Prairie Club, and Sand Hills—put a decidedly pleasant and unexpected end cap on my book tour. I never thought I’d be so lucky.

Next: The long road home

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