A Cather Country Pilgrimage

Cather Country, Nebraska

The inscription inside my beloved copy of Willa Cather’s My Antonia reads:

To Mary on your 12th birthday- a book you cannot read. This is a fine book, one of the finest ever written. Someday you will want to read it, but you cannot read it now. Each year as your birthday approaches read the introduction. When you realize how beautifully written this passage is, when Antonia interests you, then read the rest of the story. Enjoy it. Appreciate it. Then My Antonia will be a birthday gift from me. With love, Dad 1994.

Dad was right. That was my twelfth birthday and I didn’t read Antonia for many years until a burning day on a sweltering train from Berlin to Prague and in those hours I became a better person for it. Appreciating Antonia was a milestone for me; it’s now one of my favorite books.

A couple of years ago, on the way from New Mexico to Michigan, I stopped in Red Cloud, Nebraska, Willa Cather’s childhood hometown. The Cather family moved to Nebraska from Virginia when Willa was 9 years old. After a hard, hungry 18 months at a sod house homestead, the family of nine moved to a small house in the tiny town of Red Cloud, an experience which later inspired My Antonia,.

Willa Cather's Childhood Home

My Flying Machine on Maine Street in Red Cloud

Red Cloud is a pretty typical Midwest town, with a beautifully historic red brick Main Street that’s all but vacant. One of the only active buildings is the Willa Cather Foundation, a bookstore, and a small museum that shows a video about Willa Cather’s life and work on a loop. I believe they also give tours of her childhood home, but not on the day I was there.

To see the land that inspired Willa, I headed south of town to the Willa Cather Memorial Prairie, a tract of Native prairie near where her family spent 18 months trying to scratch a living from the land.

Willa Cather's Prairie

I visited on a gusty, blustery, windy day and so I did what I always do when I hike in the wind: I run! The dogs and I ran across Willa’s prairie until we were out of sight of the road, then I lay in the grass for a long time and listened to it singing in the wind.

Red Grass on Willa's Prairie

Bowie's Nebraska Treasure

Eventually, I got up, ran back to the car and drove a few miles south, over the Kansas state line to the Geographic Center of the Contiguous United States.

I love that's there's nothing here. Not even a souvenir stand!

Geographic Center of the United States. Erected in 1940.

I’ve been to the southernmost point in the U.S. (Key West, Florida) the easternmost point (Quoddy Head, Maine) northwesternmost point (Cape Flattery, Washington) and now, the absolute dead center. I’m glad it’s in Cather Country.

About theblondecoyote

Mary Caperton Morton is a freelance science and travel writer with degrees in biology and geology and a master’s in science writing. A regular contributor to EARTH magazine, where her favorite beat is the Travels in Geology column, she has also written for the anthologies Best Women's Travel Writing 2010 and Best Travel Writing 2011. Mary is currently based in western Colorado. When she’s not at the computer she can usually be found outside -- hiking, skiing, climbing mountains and taking photographs. Visit her website at www.marycapertonmorton.com.
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12 Responses to A Cather Country Pilgrimage

  1. sandy says:

    I read My Antonia the first time when I was 15. Thanks for showing her home town.
    BTW, this past winter I read Death Comes for the Archbishop, set in New Mexico.

  2. I do a bit of a bone to pick with this issue of a historic treasure and no one to show you the home. Small towns are like this, you’ve got to do some foot work and ask around to see if someone has a key to the house. Often, the person with the key is over at the in-law’s house for a bar-be-que or they ran to the next largest town (70 miles away) to pick something up at Walmart. Alternate plans should have been made, and you should have been able to see inside Willa Cather’s home. What a lost opportunity for some small town exposure. At least you were able to experience the Tall Grass Prairie. I hope you heard the Meadowlark’s song, it’s beautiful.

    • Yes, I could have made it my mission to find somebody with a key, but I was more interested in going out to the prairie anyway. Maybe next time I roll through I’ll see the house, but my connection to Willa is through the land. 🙂

  3. sixmilepress says:

    Most of the basic material a writer works with is acquired before the age of fifteen.

    Willa Cather

  4. Oh! Her house looks exactly as I pictured it. What a treat to lie in the grass on her family’s homestead and listen to the wind.

  5. Oh! Her house looks exactly as I pictured it. What a treat to lie in the grass on her family’s homestead and listen to the wind. And the dogs with you? Sounds like a dream to me.

    • Juli says:

      I never knew she had a prairie named after her. That seems pterty huge. As I looked about me I felt that the grass was the country, as the water is the sea. The red of the grass made all the great prairie the colour of wine-stains, or of certain seaweeds when they are first washed up. And there was so much motion in it; the whole country seemed, somehow, to be running. Willa Cather My Antonia (shared on the Prairie’s website).

  6. I have been making a conscious effort to read some classic literature. I’m on my way to the library – to borrow “My Antonia”. Thanks much.

  7. Great post…I’m looking forward to reading My Antonia now. I do so love the small forgotten main street towns off the beaten path. Good for you for soaking it all in while the grass sang to you it’s whispering song out on the wide open prairie.

    Tijeras, NM

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