. . . seeing daily a geological dirt and stone formation the mystery of which is that it exists at all . . .

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Scotts Bluff from the east, as migrants on the Oregon Trail would first have seen it.

Between August 18 and August 25, 2016, my sister, my brother, my sister-in-law, and I made a small pilgrimage to the cities in Nebraska where we lived from 1950 to 1969 – Kearney, Scottsbluff, and Omaha. Scottsbluff, 21 miles from the Wyoming border, is where we have the most memories in common. Scotts Bluff National Monument dominates the horizon from Scottsbluff the city, as it does all of the small cities in the area, Gering, Mitchell, Bayard, and others. The bluff is to this day a constant in my memory. I wrote the following shortly after our trip to try to explain the significance of Scotts Bluff to me.

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From the southwest, approaching from Gering.

As geological formations go, Scotts Bluff National Monument in far Western Nebraska is not overly impressive. Its elevation above sea level is only 4,659 feet, and it rises only 800 feet above the North Platte River at its base. The Riverside Park in the City of Scottsbluff, is on the other side of the river.

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From the south. A quintessential Nebraska view.

As a kid I discovered in the Encyclopedia Britannica that if the Empire State Building were in Riverside Park in the city of Scottsbluff, it would be almost half again as tall as the Bluff. I used to try to imagine how that would look, but I could never in my mind’s eye get the New York building even as tall as the Bluff.

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The South Butte of the Bluff.

My birthplace is Douglas, WY, at the base of Laramie Peak. I have memories of the Big Horn Mountains in Wyoming from the first five years of my life. I went to college at the University of Redlands, nestled at the base of Mt. San Gorgonio in Southern California. I lived in Upland, CA, for several years at the base of Mt. San Antonio. I know mountains. I know Scotts Bluff is not a mountain.

However, the Bluff dominates the lives and thinking―the consciousness―of the people of Scottsbluff (2013 population, 15,023), Gering (2013 population 8,084), Mitchell (2013 population 1,685), and several other small towns in its shadow.

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From the top of the Bluff looking southeast.

Scotts Bluff still, 56 years after our family moved from Scottsbluff to Omaha, in some way I cannot explain, dominates my consciousness. This past week I was in Scottsbluff for only the fifth time in those 56 years. Driving across the plains of Nebraska and seeing the Bluff come into view brings me to a place of peace and self-knowledge that I have achieved nowhere else I have ever been.

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From the top of the Bluff looking east toward Gering.

The Bluff apparently gave many of the settlers 150 years ago crossing the country on the Oregon Trail a sense of peace and understanding, or at least hope and courage.

Many times in my life I have wondered how I would be different if I had spent the 10 most formative years of my life in the shadow of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, or the Library of Congress in Washington, or Mount Vesuvius, or the Thomaskirche in Leipzig, or the Great Wall of China, or La Scala Opera House in Milan.

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Looking northeast toward Scottsbluff the city.

If I had read Proust or Heidegger instead of Mari Sandoz and Willa Cather.

It is, of course, pointless to speculate how my life might have been. I know only that my consciousness was shaped in part―a very large part―by seeing daily a geological dirt and stone formation the mystery of which is that it exists at all. The processes of the gathering and demise of the great North American inland sea, and the uplift and erosion of mountains are fairly obvious here. The geological history spans 33 to 22 million years.

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Looking west toward Laramie Peak (128 miles away and visible on a clear day).

The history for me began in 1950. It is the history of knowing day after day the power of the natural world to create itself, to build structures that show us―me, at any rate―how little power or control we have over anything.  The Empire State Building may be taller than the bluff, and we could build another one exactly like it. But we could not―cannot― build another Scotts Bluff. It is not spectacular like Yosemite or the Grand Canyon. It simply is. The bluff is the farthest extension of a reality stretched across the horizon of my life, the edges of my mind, reminding me that we, all of us humans together, cannot, did not, and could not create anything remotely like it. It is the embodiment of the mystery of my life.

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Sunset from the base of the Bluff looking toward Laramie Peak.

3 Responses to . . . seeing daily a geological dirt and stone formation the mystery of which is that it exists at all . . .

  1. Mary Kalen Romjue, Ph. D. says:

    Your photos and comments warm my heart. Many memories are flooding my mind about you, Richard, Bonnie, and your folks. Please extend my warm regards to your siblings. I think of the Bluff almost everyday. I too grew up under this phenomenon on the Great American Plains. In June I too made the journey home. I got to visit Louise Renzelmann (now 104 years old) and she still is pretty sharp. The last day I was there I asked my Aunt Dorothy and Uncle Bill if they would like to go with me to the top of the Bluff. They agreed and told me that they cannot remember the last time that they had gone to the top. Uncle Bill is in his late 80’s and Aunt Dorothy is around 90. They live in Gering, directly under the Bluff and see it daily from their kitchen table. I called them tonight to let them know that I had made it through Hurricane Matthew fine. Had minor damage to my backyard fence and lost some limbs of trees. Due to the fact that our neighborhood is about 4 blocks from the Fire Dept., we never lost power.

    Thanks again for the reminder of my birthplace and the great memories of those early years.

    Mary Kalen

    >

  2. Mary Kalen Romjue says:

    I am ready, do you remember those curly french fries at that same drive-in. I have fond memories of our “philosophical discussions” as we enjoyed those tasty, if not healthy, goodies. That same restaurant is now called “Taco de Oro”. It is one of the most popular, and consistently good restaurants in Scottsbluff.

    One of your comments during those days has always stayed with me. It boiled down to the idea that the lowest form of intellectual discourse was centered on things like gossip and talking about people. Then the higher level of that intellectual discourse was centered on ideas, philosophy, etc. Do you remember that discussion? It was a long time ago but even though I cannot quote it exactly, I have thought about it often over the last 50 years as I listened to other people talking, always reflecting where on that scale those conversations might fall. I even think about it when I am talking to others. Funny isn’t it that even small things a person says can be remembered by others if they are really listening, and remember it for years. I treasure your friendship.

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