- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 7, 2001

A river flows through the life of every American in every generation, and in Norm Bomers case, it was the Elkhorn River in northeast Nebraska. In "Sons of the River," his new memoir about growing up in Ewing, Neb., population 720, Mr. Bomer details how landscape is destiny. Decades after he left the state, its beautiful prairies haunt him still.
"Few signs of modern America were apparent in the venerable Ewing, Neb., of the early 50s," he writes. "Anomalies of geography and circumstance had kept this very old and very small window open to the past. Travelers on the state highway never saw the still-living American frontier as they went speeding by."
Mr. Bomer is part of a cadre of American writers who are giving glowing biographies to some of the countrys most forbidding territory. The latest wave in this genre may have started in 1981, when Osage Indian writer William Least Heat-Moon wrote "Blue Highways," about the countrys back roads. Suddenly, the mundanities of American existence — Kentucky bluegrass, ground squirrels in North Dakota, and Utah snowstorms — were getting a second look.
Next came Kathleen Norris 1993 best seller "Dakota," which set out to prove that the unexamined country, like the unexamined life, is not worth living in.
"Nebraska had an emotional impact on my life," says Mr. Bomer, who has lived in several other states and now works in Asheville, N.C., as senior editor of Gods World Publications. "Its been a mythical land to me. Ive tried to get the essence of the place, where I was a 6- or 7-year-old kid with total freedom. I could take my bike out to the river and I was free.
"It was a place where modernity had not struck. It was isolated in a good sense of the word. Commerce was microcosmic and some of the old pioneers were still around there. It was the land that time forgot."
Kermit Moyer, an American literature professor at American University, sees the late-20th-century love for Americas hidden places as part of its continuing search for freedom.
"I think there is an American attraction to open space," he says. "The American ethos depends on having a wilderness to the west people could go to." He cites a famous line out of "Huckleberry Finn," where the hero says, "I reckon that I got to light out for the territory ahead of the rest" to escape the civilizing tendencies of Aunt Sally.
But America lost its frontier by the end of World War I, he says, with the Southwestern states and the Rockies as the last holdouts. Since then, exploration has curled back on itself, causing a reverse migration to the countrys sparsely settled interior.
In recent years, states in Americas empty quarter, which straddles the Central and Mountain time zones, have attracted a host of romantic interpretations. Titles include Annie Proulxs 1999 book "Close Range" about Wyoming; David McCumbers 1999 book "The Cowboy Way: Seasons of a Montana Ranch," and Norman MacLeans "A River Runs Through It," a paean to western Montana that spawned a movie of the same name.
Even Fords Theatre got into the act this spring, by staging "Songs From the Tall Grass," a romanticized rendition of westward migration to the Plains in the early 1860s. In an effort to promote settlement west of the Mississippi, the federal government passed the Homestead Act of 1862, giving 160 acres free to anyone who lived on and cultivated the land for at least five years.
These homesteaders were the people who inspired Laura Ingalls Wilders "Little House on the Prairie" books about the blazing summers, bitter cold winters and omnipresent insects in the region. The plains became Americas breadbasket, its home to vast herds of livestock, and the "flyover country" that overwhelmingly voted for George W. Bush in November.
But that part of the country is being drained of its white inhabitants. More than 60 percent of the counties in the Great Plains lost population in the past 10 years, according to the Census Bureau. Ten states — Montana, North and South Dakota, Kansas, Wyoming, New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma and Nebraska, as well as eastern Colorado — have vast areas that support six or fewer people per square mile.
However, American Indians are returning to many of these states, according to a May 27 article in the New York Times. And buffalo, once at 60 million but culled down to about 1,500 at one point, are coming back. Some 300,000 roam the country, many of them on Ted Turners vast Western ranches.
"In America: True Stories of Life on the Road," a 1999 book, begins with an introduction by editor Fred Setterberg revealing that "Most of our nations 280 million citizens now live in cities and suburbs, yet coast to coast air travel reveals the continental belly to be astonishingly empty.
"Travelers now crisscross America for what theyll never find at home: days worth of plains passing by, the Rockies and Sierras pitched to dizzying heights, two great oceans and three dissimilar coasts, the painted desert, the Mississippi River, the ancient Redwoods."
Nebraska, he said, had gotten some good press, thanks to early-20th-century author Willa Cathers novel "My Antonia" about the southeastern part of the state. When Mr. Setterberg first encountered the 600-mile-long state, "I had envisioned a big, staid hay bale of a place," he writes, "composed largely of perfect right angles with one edge flagging the corn belt."
Some states fare better than others in the popular imagination, says Myron Gutman, a University of Texas professor who is an authority on Plains population trends. He cites rural Texas literature, which "is hardscrabble rather than romantic."
"It has to do with the specialness of Texas, because it was a country first. Theres a lot of swashbuckling Steven F. Austin stuff about settling the semi-arid regions of the state.
"But people are not always comfortable with emptiness. Weve done some work in rural eastern Colorado and the places doing best are where there is water to irrigate farms and there are highways. In those rural areas, it doesnt take a lot of people to make things work."
Realities aside, there is no scarcity of people who, like the Simon and Garfunkel song, "have all gone to look for America." After the success of "Blue Highways," Mr. Least Heat-Moon wrote "PrairyErth," about the Kansas Plains in 1991. The Chicago Sun-Times termed the book "a modern Walden." In 1999, he produced the third book in his trilogy, "River Horse: Across America by Boat."
The author wrote: "I aimed to write about a most spare landscape, seemingly poor for a reporter to poke into, one appearing thin and minimal in history and texture, a stark region American life had mostly gone past."
He was talking about Chase County, Kan.
In the end, Mr. Bomer says, its not so much the land itself that haunts a soul, but its reminder of greater spiritual realities. When he dies, he hopes to find himself in a "perfect Nebraska valley with a crystal river flowing from Gods throne and eternally out through flowered pastures and cottonwoods."
"The reality of life is you cannot pin your hopes here," he says. "The past is important, but we must learn life is short and we cannot place our hopes here on earth."

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