Red Cloud, Nebraska, and Cather Country: Prairie Road Trip Day One
Surrounded by miles and miles of windy prairie, the town of Red Cloud, Nebraska, is storybook sweet, with one main street through town where commerce clusters. The tree-shaded residential streets are lined with Victorian homes fronted by neat lawns, American flags flapping from the porches. But of course, all small towns have their drama and secrets.
Author Willa Cather, who lived in Red Cloud just a few childhood years, drew enough material from her short time here to pen one of the prairie's defining canons of literature. Novels such as The Song of the Lark, O Pioneers! and My Antonia are fictionalized portraits of Red Cloud and the people she knew, affectionate but clear-eyed portraits of a solid people on a dominating landscape.
Cather was famous in her lifetime and generous to the town, and Red Cloud has fastidiously preserved key places in Cather's history and fiction. All of Red Cloud and surroundings are a museum, from the 1885 Red Cloud Opera House, headquarters of the Willa Cather Foundation, to the Willa Cather Memorial Prairie, 608 acres of never-plowed prairie, 5 miles south of town.
Buy a self-guided tour map of the significant sights at the Willa Cather Foundation headquarters or sign up for one of the tours, walking and driving, offered by the foundation. Tours ($5 and up) provide access to house interiors; otherwise, you'll only be able to view many buildings from the outside.
If you want to spend the night in town, sleep at Cather Second Home, which has been converted into an inviting six-room inn. Willa's family moved here long after she left Red Cloud, but the author did sleep here when she returned on frequent visits. Guest rooms have names drawn from Cather novels -- Black Hawk and Sweet Water, for instance -- as well as a communal kitchen, comfortable living room decorated with photos of Cather and expansive porch.
From Red Cloud, roads cut straight lines through the prairie, which undulates gently for miles, to the distant horizon. Scattered stands of trees cluster around creeks and springs; lone farmhouses, barns and clapboard churches stand sturdily against the infinite sky. This is Cather Country -- signs mark locations relevant to Cather's closely woven life and fiction.
Prairie Road Trip Day Two: Cottonwood Falls, Kansas >>
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The beautiful great plains have a dark side -- this part of the country is also known as Tornado Alley. Storm chasing, to witness the grandeur of nature's power, is actually a tourist activity 'round these parts, but the massive twister that recently ravaged Moore, Oklahoma -- about 100 miles south of Ponca City -- was a disaster of unimaginable scale. Take tornado watches and warnings seriously, and follow National Weather Service safety tips. And if you would like to help Moore rebuild, here are some ways to help.